I started to ask a simple question of experts who provide and organize legal defense for condemned prisoners: How many people on death row are disabled? The answer came back unanimously: pretty much all of them.
The status quo is shifting: Just last week, the state of Washington abolished the death penalty after a compelling statistical analysis demonstrated that juries were four times more likely to condemn black defendants than white defendants. Eventually, either wholesale abolition or at least expanded exemptions will come to the remaining death penalty states, including Texas, but likely not in time for Kwame Rockwell.
Whiteness is law, legitimacy, citizenship, the benefit of the doubt. Not-white is doubt. Not-white has to prove, not just once but over and over: 52 traffic stops. Can a white person even imagine? For 52 times Philando Castile had to stop and show his papers, keep his cool, say yes sir, no sir. Had to check the fury that surely rose in him with every stop, every new harassment and humiliation. This remarkable record of self-control should properly be called superhuman. A certain kind of gasbag politician loves to yatter at minorities for their alleged dearths of “personal responsibility,” yet these pols remain blind to a form of strenuous personal responsibility that’s enacted in some fashion several million times a day by people of color in America.
Tolokonnikova spoke of a recent visit to the city jail at Rikers Island and her horror at the conditions at what she described as a penal colony in the middle of “supposedly progressive” New York. She found them, to her shock, worse that those in Putin’s jails.
She went to the local paper with an investigation into “who is responsible for making black snow,” and was told by the editors — who she said she’d written for before — that the story was good, but “you understand, we can’t publish it.” The company that was responsible was too powerful to challenge.
“‘You understand’ — that’s the keyword in Russia. ‘You understand,’” Tolokonnikova said.
Here is an image of a 13-year-old idealist being enlisted to participate in her own oppression. “You understand” is a phrase used to inure us to our own oppression, and make us complicit in the oppression of others. It draws us into the system that oppresses; tells us that we are already part of it; suggests that to reject it is simply to not get it. The implication is that to not understand is to somehow be lacking, to be not as smart as we would be if we understood. The young don’t understand, by their very nature. That is part of their power. They are not yet indoctrinated into the performance of the system; their powers of perception and inclination to question has not yet been eroded by years of bumping up against oppression both subtle and overt.
And I remembered Tolokonnikova’s anecdote this week amid now-regular calls from conservatives and liberals alike for liberals to be nicer to bigots, to be more “civil.” When people – including Julia Ioffe, who later apologized – questioned why news outlets were following around a lawyer who threatened to call immigration on two women speaking Spanish, I thought of how these calls for “civility” seem to be veiled calls for complacency, or even complicity. For silence. I heard “you understand” in these calls. You understand why it’s better to be polite, to be quiet, to be “civil.” Stop resisting. You understand.