Demanding Our Right to Justice

Around 9 p.m. last Thursday, I was already in bed, mentally, emotionally and physically drained from the events of the week. Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, shot dead by police. Two more black men killed, two more lives taken from their families in a country with a long history of racialized violence.

And then my phone rang.

It was my colleague from the Dallas office of my organization, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), telling me there was an active shooter at the demonstration where several of our members and staff were protesting, a demonstration to mourn the violent deaths of two black men, interrupted by more violence.  

It wasn’t until the next morning when my coworkers began sharing stories of the shooting that I got the full picture. Hearing shots and not knowing where to run. Seeing officers crouched behind their patrol cars for protection, fear on their faces.

I watched the shaky cellphone footage of the shooting online, just as I’d watched the videos of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling. Each time a shot was fired on film, all I could see were my two brothers, both killed by gun violence.  

On that Friday, the day after the shooting in Dallas, the week of the senseless police killing of two black men, I felt a reopening of those wounds from my past—wounds that had never really healed to begin with.

At this moment, I could have easily shut down, allowing those wounds to fester and poison my psyche. Likewise years earlier, when my 10-year-old son was arrested for a classroom disruption and imprisoned in a juvenile jail for five years, I could have let such pain swallow me whole.

As a country, watching violence compounded by more violence and injustices pile up one on top of the other, it would be easy to throw our hands up in disgust, to say the world has gone mad and walk the other way.

“I understand how Americans are feeling,” President Obama said at Tuesday’s memorial service for the fallen officers. “But Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”

Bridging the divide between communities of color and police is a monumental task, but I believe if any city can tackle this challenge, it’s Houston. Here at TOP, we’re beginning that process by focusing on building trust between police and communities—trust that’s never existed because of a long history of policies that criminalize poverty and incarcerate people for low-level offenses; that single out black and brown folks because of the color of their skin; that administer unjust sentences to our children and fail to hold police to the same standards of justice they’re meant to enforce.

As TOP’s Harris County director, I am working with our community partners to lead our latest campaign, Right to Justice, with the goal of overhauling policies just like these. After unveiling the campaign’s policy agenda, we will grade and issue report cards on each candidate running for sheriff, judge and district attorney here in Houston based on their position on our platform. The goal is to build a list of 5,000 Right to Justice voters to support candidates that stand with the community on these issues.

By holding these candidates accountable, this campaign will allow us to begin to ease the tension and repair the fractured trust between police and communities of color.

We need time to grieve, to tend to our wounds, to heal, but I know that my despair won’t bring my brothers back, and my anger won’t restore those lost years of my son’s childhood.

My motivation to continue the fight is the hope that no one else will have to face what I have faced, what the mothers and families of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, and the five slain police officers are going through.

The nation is watching. This is our moment to hold those in office to a higher standard and create a system that is truly just for all of us.

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