Black Lives Matter groups around the country are learning from each other about how to address a range of issues within the criminal justice system. Beyond calling for the prosecution of police officers who harm and kill unarmed citizens, activists are demanding that state and district attorneys are accountable to the citizens they represent. Activists in Chicago raised alarm after it took State Attorney Anita Alvarez over a year to indict officer Jason Van Dyke for the fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald. Thanks largely to their efforts, Alvarez lost the Democratic nomination to Kim Foxx in March and will not be up for re-election come November. The social media hashtag that activists used to call for the end of Alvarez’s term was #ByeAnita.
Now activists in the Houston area are rallying under their own hashtag: #ByeDevon. Members of Houston Black Lives Matter and National Black United Front are calling for the removal of Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, citing her handling of police brutality cases and her comments after the killing of Deputy Darren Goforth.
— Ashton P. Woods (@AshtonPWoods) March 24, 2016
“What you saw in Chicago and Cleveland showed the power of the Black Lives Matter movement and grassroots movement when we mobilize and organize,” Houston Black Lives Matter activist Jerry Ford told the Houston Chronicle.
He added that the campaign against Anderson will move beyond social media to encourage voters to turn out and vote for Anderson’s Democratic challenger, Kim Ogg, in November. Ogg, who certainly seems thrilled by this campaign, told the Chronicle:
“I’m glad they’re doing it,” she said. “I want them to be involved and we’ve seen that the public – at least in Chicago and Cleveland – recognized that it’s the district attorney’s responsibility to ensure that corrupt police or overly aggressive police or lying police are brought to justice and are held accountable to the public. I think it’s positive that young people are trying to raise their own community’s awareness and I think this is bigger than the African American community. I think the #ByeDevon hashtag could be the beginning of a movement for reform in the criminal justice system.”
Even though the Black Lives Matter movement varies slightly around the country to reflect specific community concerns, its biggest rallying point has always been police brutality and the criminal justice system as a whole. And as election season gears up, that has meant more involvement in the efforts to make citizens feel empowered to demand changes. The significance of this kind of scrutiny and involvement becomes even clearer when we look at another current issue involving yet another Texas district attorney. In Wharton County, Texas Assistant District Attorney Nathan Wood claims that his boss, District Attorney Ross Kurtz, suggested that he strike black people off juries in order to up their chances of winning a case against a black woman.
Wood attempted to clarify his statements recently: “I was not ‘instructed’ to strike black jurors so much as I was advised or encouraged to do so as a matter of trial strategy,” Wood told a judge. He added, “Whatever the true intentions behind the statements made in our office, they made me feel uncomfortable and I shared that discomfort with a friend.”
Wood said that he’d since discussed the matter with Kurtz and described it as a sort of misunderstanding. He believes the comments reflected “gallows humor” and “callous sarcasm.” He also explained that he and another prosecutor have “never struck a juror in any case based on race.”
For District Attorney Kurtz’s part, he wrote in an email to the Chronicle that his “instructions and guidance has always been and will always be that prosecutors should not take race into account in exercising the choices allowed by law on which potential jurors to strike.”
Whether it’s “gallows humor” or “callous sarcasm” gone wrong, the act of striking black jurors based primarily or solely on race is very real. They’re concerns that were raised during the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer who targeted and sexually assaulted thirteen black women while on duty. After his conviction, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater claimed that Holtzclaw’s defense attorneys struck every potential black juror during selection, resulting in an all-white jury.
The complaints against Devon Anderson aren’t the same as the allegations made against Kurtz, but they both reflect the importance of analyzing the criminal justice system as a whole, even down to the district attorneys. If there are comments, practices, or strategies that only perpetuate the disenfranchisement of black people and other underserved minorities in the criminal justice system, they all need to be addressed. Reform doesn’t include just examining and addressing how police officers are trained, it also involves holding district attorneys—and all public officials—accountable for their own practices.