Black People Showed Up for Biden; Now we Need an Attorney General that Will Show Up for Us
By Jodi Risper, Citizen Action of New York’s Movement Politics Director
President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have both struggled to answer for their history of tough on crime policies that have harmed Black and brown communities across the country. Who they appoint as the Attorney General will be vital in setting a national precedent on what justice means in this country during their term. The opportunity to re-imagine what a justice system looks like at this moment of racial reckoning will be a defining moment on how bold our President elect will be in dealing with the social challenge presented by our criminal-legal system.
My dad was a victim of the “tough on crime” justice system that President-Elect Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris once pushed for. He raised himself from the age of 12 in Brooklyn and Seaford, Delaware during the height of the crack epidemic. My father fell victim to it, sold drugs in order to eat, and then ended up incarcerated as a child. There was no restorative justice approach to help a parentless child — the answer was punishment. Instead of supporting young Black boys like my dad and investing in their communities, President-Elect Biden (my dad’s Senator at the time) and other Democrats pushed a “tough on crime” justice system that viewed children as dangerous and needing to be “taken off the street”. My dad never was, nor is, dangerous. He worked, raised six kids, coached every single sports team, went back to school, and devoted himself to supporting children who struggled like him. Even after my dad turned his life around, the criminal-legal system found ways to ensnare him. My dad finally was freed from the “tough on crime” system thanks to a prosecutor who realized he served more of a purpose in the community, not in prison.
The Attorney General position is vital in the fight for racial equity. Our criminal-legal system has disproportionately attacked Black Americans since its creation, with very few efforts made to fix it. Black activists and Black-led organizations carried this election over the finish line in key states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and are still leading the work in Georgia. It’s time that President-Elect Biden follow their lead in selecting an Attorney General who reflects what restorative justice looks like in the Black Lives Matter era.
Thankfully, the incoming Attorney General can learn from real life examples of restorative justice in practice. Across the country, progressive county prosecutors — some elected as a result of People’s Action member groups’ electoral work — such as Larry Krasner (Philadelphia, PA), Kim Foxx (Chicago, IL), and George Gascon (Los Angeles, LA) — have offered examples of what a restorative justice approach could look like by leading with policies centered around police accountability, decarceration, and harm reduction. Their tenures have been marked by progressive policies and rooted in transformational change.
We need more prosecutors that serve as the People’s attorney and our Attorney General should encompass these characteristics. Now is not the time for corporate lawyers or aggressive prosecutors, but a change leader who envisions transforming today’s criminal-legal system into a true Justice Department that will embed equity and fairness in their policies and begin to repair the harms of the past. Individuals who have a record of fighting police accountability efforts, bail reform, strict law and order policies, and stealing community funds to bloat police budgets should be disqualified for this position.
My dad’s beginning is not unique, but his ending is. With the current injustice system we have in place, he should not be the man he is today — a college student, a grandfather, raising four foster children, and a volunteer for local democratic efforts. My dad is lucky. He met a prosecutor with grace and compassion who could see that my dad played a significant role in his community as a leader. This summer, Black activists and community leaders took to the streets demanding that our state prosecutors and elected officials recognize us as the valuable community members that we are — -rather than treat us as criminals. Twenty years later, we are still fighting the same system that did my father wrong. We need an Attorney General to put an end to a criminal legal system that prefers to invest in the destruction of communities, the murder of innocent black men and women, and creates an unequal system, one for the rich and one for the rest of us.
We need an Attorney General who will lead in a way that shows that Black lives matter. We need someone who understands the racialized history of our criminal-legal system and is serious about changing its course. We need an Attorney General who understands the importance of these demands and their role in bringing change. We need an Attorney General who will boldly set a course toward justice.
Jodi Risper is the Movement Politics Director of Citizen Action New York, a member group of People’s Action. Jodi is also a part of People’s Action’s Federal Strategy Council / Brain Trust, helping to orient the network towards its relationship with the new Administration, the transition, and first 100 days. As an African-American woman who grew up with her father incarcerated for a period, the Biden-Harris “tough on crime” policies of the past are personal.