“No Indictment,” Black Citizenship, and Justice in the United States

US-PROTEST-POLICE-GARNERA criminal in badge and blue, a victim who’s Black, and a grand jury: these are the mechanisms of White domination and imperialism in the modern United States.

Recent events have increasingly underscored a culture wherein Black citizenship is contingent upon White approval rather than legal merit. In this way, it exists as a subjective artifact of time and space. And, it is never a given.

Birth and naturalization – guaranteed formal, codified citizenship by the 14th amendment to the US Constitution – have never really governed the status and treatment of Black Americans. But now, the term “no indictment” seems to be one of the most catalyzing elements in the ongoing denial of rights in this dear country.

Last week, a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown, fatally shot while jaywalking in Ferguson, MO in August. Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict Officer Daniel Panteleo, 29, who performed an illegal choke hold maneuver on Eric Garner, 43, causing his death. A grand jury in Ohio also decided not to indict officers who shot John Crawford III, 22, while he was standing in a Wal-Mart holding a toy gun and chatting on a cell phone this past August.

All three men were unarmed. All three men were assumed to be threatening or dangerous or criminal or something … anything. Anything to make them less human or superhuman or suprahuman or anti-human. Cops, passersby, witnesses, concerned citizens watched as these men were stripped of, denied, and refused citizenship in their own country. They all watched the state-sanctioned, extra-judicial murder of formal – not substantive – citizens of the United States of America.

While we await the findings in the investigation of the cops who killed Tamir Rice, 12, just last month, it seems we have come to a low point in a centuries long struggle for rights, respect, and equity for Black Americans. After we witnessed trials for Renisha McBride‘s killer, Trayvon Martin‘s killer, and Jordan Russell Davis‘ killer, we mistakenly assumed we were on the downward stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr’s long “arc of moral history” and it’s projected bend “towards justice.” Civil discourse regarding interpersonal violence between Whites and Blacks seemed to be leveling out in measurably positive ways. Pontificating from the Capitol and the White House acted as the rosy color in our glasses while we moved forward. The morality of the United States judicial system seemed to be flattening, stretching, and allowing for the equal citizenship of all rather than a few.

But then, “no indictment.”

There is something to be said for the hope we’ve maintained all these years. Something honorable about the songs we’ve sung, the banners we’ve held, the lives we’ve lost, the promises we’ve forgotten, the things we’ve lost in the fire. But none of it translates to citizenship. Not one bit of it has given us eternal glory. None has led us to the Promised Land. To the rhetoric: “no indictment.” To the faith: “no indictment.” To the fight: “no indictment.” In heart and mind, we have achieved. But in truth, we have not.

I was one of the naive individuals who expected a video, a blatant illegality, a dead body, and a grand jury to make a moral declaration. I expected that no matter what the criminal wore on this chest, it wouldn’t outweigh the victim’s flesh. I thought humanity would win. I mistook this grand jury. I assumed they’d be just. I assumed they’d be fair. I assumed they’d be…legal. I placed them on the moral arc and expected them to bend toward justice. I hoped we’d score big this time. But, “no indictment.”

Truth is, had they returned with a decision to indict Officer Panteleo, nothing about my citizenship would have changed anyway. The citizenship of my Black husband, Black sons, and Black daughter would remain as contingent as it has always been. The untenable nature of Black citizenship cannot be cured by a grand jury. Nor can it be assuaged by a sentencing, or trial, or resignation, or whatever. Black citizenship’s piecemeal codependency on White supremacy cannot be fixed on a case by case basis. We can’t win ownership of ourselves in courts. We can’t access our humanity in media escapades. We won’t find our consciousness in federal investigations. We won’t and we can’t live and die by the “no indictment”s.

As long as we measure our citizenship using the very yard stick manufactured, reproduced, maintained, and disseminated to deny it, WE WILL STAY LOSING. As long as we assimilate, contort, and coexist in a system where our right to life and liberty is predicated on the whims of criminals in badge and blue and grand juries of their peers, we will never know true justice.

I will no longer place my hopes in the moral arc of history and it’s unrealized bending. That arc was not made for me. That arc will not free me. That arc bends in ways that are damaging, harmful, and fatal to Black Americans. That arc has led us down paths of racial hatred, isolation, legal segregation, rape, murder, and treachery. That moral arc is unjust.

Until that moral arc – dripping with White hetereopatriarchal supremacy – is dismantled, justice will be nothing more than a deep, prepared, empty grave. Freedom will exist only when allowed. Liberty will come and go as Whites please. Death will be doled out as punishment for Blackness. Life won’t be in the living but the yearning.

I don’t want that justice.

That’s no way to live. That’s how we die. It’s time we dismantle our notion of justice because what we are seeking now is killing us, daily. For me, justice means I get to live and die on my own terms. Justice is living and dying as a Black American citizen. Existing not in a place of contingency but of totality. To me, that’s true justice. I won’t get there as long as I wait on “no indictment” to change. I have to do the changing, the redefining of what citizenship looks like to me.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.