Black North Carolina justice system leaders speak in support of protesters’ calls for change

Black North Carolina justice system leaders speak in support of protesters’ calls for change

Protesters in downtown Raleigh spray painted messages this week demanding justice for George Floyd and others. (Photo by Clayton Henkel)
Powerful Black leaders across North Carolina in charge of administering justice are speaking out to support protesters calling for change in the aftermath of the homicide of George Floyd.

Floyd’s story is all too familiar to Black Americans: He was killed on camera by a police officer, and Floyd’s name has become another hashtag. Nationwide, the deaths of Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police have sparked the call for whites to dismantle the systemic racism that enables violence and injustice.

Some elected leaders chose this week to focus on vandalism, broken glass and fires in the cities where protests have escalated with police violence. Cheri Beasley, North Carolina’s first Black Supreme Court Chief Justice, and Satana Deberry, Durham’s District Attorney, who is also Black, along with other Black law enforcement members across the state, chose to draw attention to a message they said was more important.

“As we watch protests across the country play out on the news and social media, it is critical that we not lose sight of the history underlying the grief and anger people are expressing,” said Deberry in a statement released Tuesday. “These protests are urgently and rightfully about the murder of George Floyd and they are about so much more. They are about Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Kalief Browder, Korryn Gaines, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee and so many others. They are about 400 years of racism, systematic oppression, and trauma – including decades of mass incarceration and a pandemic that is disproportionately killing black people.”

Beasley held a short press conference earlier in the day and expressed a similar sentiment, noting that she felt compelled to speak about the pain and grief the nation was experiencing over the deaths of so many.

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley

“It is essential to understand the root cause of the pain that has plagued African-Americans and the complexities of race relations in America,” she said. “These protests highlight the disparities and injustice that continue to plague Black communities. Disparities that exist as the result of policies and institutions; racism and prejudice have remained stubbornly fixed and resistant to change. These protests are a resounding, national chorus of voices whose lived experiences reinforce the notion that Black people are ostracized, cast out, and dehumanized. Communities are crying out for justice and demanding real, meaningful change.”

She said while it may be shocking to see workplaces, businesses and community spaces damaged, it is imperative to recognize the legitimate pain and weight of years of disparate treatment that fuels the demonstrations.

“We must be willing to hear that message, even when we are saddened by the way it is delivered,” she said. “We must decry the failures of justice and equity just as forcefully as we decry violence. It is not enough to say to protesters ‘go home and follow the rules.’ It’s not that simple. We must hear each other.”

Beasley was emotional when she talked about being the mother of twin sons who are young Black men. The calls for change must be heeded, she said. She also took ownership for how the North Carolina courts administer justice and said they must do better.

Deberry has also spoken openly in the past several days about what it is like to be the mother of three Black teenage daughters. Two of her children participated Saturday in peaceful protests in Raleigh, where police tear-gassed her youngest daughter, age 14.

She wrote about what happened on Facebook over the weekend and posted a picture of her daughter. “I wrote about it because I am perhaps as privileged as you can be as a Black person in the United States,” she said during a radio interview Tuesday with Policy Watch. “I may be as privileged as anyone can be in the United States. I’ve got an Ivy League education; I went to a Top 10 law school; I am the elected District Attorney in one of the larger jurisdictions in North Carolina, and still my children aren’t safe. What hoops do I have to jump through to make my children safe? And even me, if I am outside of Durham County, I am also fair game.”

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry

In that interview, Deberry spoke about her own past experiences of being pulled over by police. During one incident, she said she was so nervous that she got out of the car and threw up. Even now, Deberry said, she is fearful around police outside of Durham because of the potential for a negative interaction based on the color of her skin. “It is very much about the perception of physical threat, but it’s not in actually how I look,” she said. “It is about how society, this particular culture, has created us as Black people. It has created every Black body as a threat irrespective of the size of that Black body, of the age, the gender, the circumstances. That is what people, I think, are trying to say. You shouldn’t have to know me as an actual person to respect my life.”

There have been protests in Durham the past several days, but all have remained peaceful. Deberry said in her Tuesday statement this is because the city has managed to avoid police violence against protesters – made possible by decades of organizing, activism and struggle.

“I welcome the conversation residents have called for about policing and poverty in Durham’s Black community,” she wrote. “Police Chief C.J. Davis has spoken loudly and critically about Floyd’s murder and other acts of police brutality. She deserves to be commended for the courage and leadership she has shown. Our local law enforcement agencies are acting in a way that is consistent with public safety, rather than engaging in the violence and aggression other agencies across the country have employed so brazenly against members of their own communities and the press. The answer to state-sanctioned violence is not more state-sanctioned violence. When black people say, ‘You are killing us,’ it is immoral and unjust to inflict more pain and agony with ‘law and order’ language and the threat of militarized violence.”

Beasley noted that many Black people believe there are “two kinds of justice,” because they’ve seen and felt the difference in their own lives. “The data also overwhelmingly bears out the truth of those lived experiences,” she said. “In our courts, African-Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished and more likely to be presumed guilty. There are many ways to create change in the world, but one thing is apparent: the young people who are protesting every day have made clear that they do not intend to live in a world in which they are denied justice and equality like the generations before them.”

She spoke about the need to develop a plan for accountability in the courts. Judges work hard and are committed to serving the public, she added, but even the best judges must be trained to “recognize our own biases.”

“We have to be experts not just in the law, but in equity, equity that recognizes the difficult truths about our shared past,” Beasley said. “We must openly acknowledge the disparities that exist and are too often perpetuated by our justice system.”

She highlighted court programs that are helping to improve justice, including School Justice Partnerships, bail policy pilot programs and a new Faith & Justice Alliance, but said the work is practice and never truly done. During her speech, Beasley didn’t mention that the glass doors of the Supreme Court were broken just two nights prior during the Raleigh protests.

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead

“We must come together to firmly and loudly commit to the declaration that all people are created equal, and we must do more than just speak that truth,” Beasley said. “We must live it every day in our courtrooms. My pledge to you today is that we will.”

The Durham Police Chief and Sheriff, both of whom are Black, have also spoken out against police brutality and in support of protesters to make their voices heard. “I am proud of these men and women from all races and backgrounds and how they came together to peacefully let their voices be heard regarding needed change in the criminal justice system,” said Sheriff Clarence Birkhead in a statement over the weekend. “The system is not perfect, it is not equitable for all, and it is in need of reform.”

Across the state, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden plans to participate in a discussion tonight about the many ways Black Americans suffer from  COVID-19 at a disproportionately higher rate than whites, and about other threats to Black lives, including police brutality.

“Although the reasons have social, economical and historical contexts, they are all sourced from the same foundation: racism and white-supremacy,” says a news release from his office. “Recent events, as expounded on by various social and news media platforms, have shown that Black lives today are threatened by much more than a potentially deadly virus.”

The virtual event will also feature the following speakers: U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams, Former South Carolina State Representative and current CNN political commentator Bakari Sellers, Image Activist Alvin C. Jacobs and Q City Metro’s Glenn Burkins.

The event, titled “Unmasked: We Can’t Breathe” will stream at 6 p.m. today via the Gantt Center’s official YouTube channel.