It’s Black August, a time to commit to Black lives and rebellion, to defunding police, and to investing in Black communities. Black August started in California in the 1970s. In August 1971, incarcerated people started a rebellion at San Quentin Prison. Among the ranks was George Jackson: an imprisoned Black Panther and revolutionary. During this rebellion, prison guards killed him and several other political prisoners.
Black incarcerated people in California started Black August to commemorate these freedom fighters, and to further the legacy of Black rebellion against policing and cages. This tradition—this month-long period of reverence—has spread throughout the Black diaspora in the years since.
Racism and anti-Blackness are threats to a healthy democracy. Voter restrictions, voter disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering are tactics to suppress the civic power of Black and other communities. Black people are disproportionately policed, surveilled, assaulted, and imprisoned. As long as violent policing and prisons exist, Black people won’t be able to fully participate in democracy, making a healthy democracy impossible.
This Black August, let’s study and renew our commitment to Black lives. Let’s support the M4BL Policy Platform to end the war on Black people. Let’s work to end the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of Black communities.
Here are 5 reasons why we need to defund the police, invest in Black communities, and end criminalization in order for Black people to be able to participate fully in our democracy.
1. The disenfranchisement of currently and formerly incarcerated people dilutes Black political power.
The U.S. disproportionately polices and cages Black people. The U.S. is one of the only countries to take away voting rights from incarcerated populations. Taking away voting rights from people with felony convictions has roots in Jim Crow laws.
Six million people in the U.S. cannot vote due to a felony conviction. Restoring voting rights was one of the ten demands in the 2018 National Prison Strike led by organizations like Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. This demand has yet to be fully realized.
2. Policing aids in segregation and gerrymandering. This makes it easy for people to target Black neighborhoods with restrictive voting laws and practices.
Police are segregation’s primary enforcers. Police use profiling and violence to enforce where Black people can be, and when. Some of the first police units in the U.S. originating out of slave patrols.
Segregation ultimately makes gerrymandering easier. Gerrymandering is when redistricting maps are drawn in a way to consolidate political power for some, and diffuse political power for others. This is easy when you know groups of people are consolidated in what neighborhoods.
We often see the drawing of majority Black districts and then the creation of restrictive voting laws that focus on those districts.
3. Another form of gerrymandering—prison gerrymandering—limits Black political power and the funding Black communities receive.
The Census counts incarcerated people as residents in the areas they are imprisoned, instead of their homes. Many prisons are in white rural areas, and many people in prison are Black.
This results in larger counts in white areas and smaller counts in Black areas, negatively impacting political apportionment, redistricting, and funding for Black communities.
Census counts are used to determine political apportionment, redistricting, and funding. Prison gerrymandering shortchanges the communities that incarcerated people are taken away from.
4. Policing and criminalization breeds distrust with the state. This deters people from engaging with the democratic process.
Some Black communities main interaction with the state is through police, surveillance, and prisons. This leads to many feeling disillusioned by or fearful of all state institutions.
Civic participation requires interacting with the state. For many, especially Black migrants threatened by police departments and ICE, interacting with the state through civic participation is increasingly hard.
Marginalized communities including Black, migrant, and disabled people must navigate an increasingly threatening field in order to cast their ballot, complete the census, or otherwise engage in the democratic process.
5. Policing restricts access to basic needs and survival, which creates obstacles to civic participation.
Because of systematic oppression, many Black communities are both criminalized and in poverty, expounding the barriers to engage civically.
This relationship is illustrated clearly with the warrants, fines, and fees in Louisiana, an issue that the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice fights against. The state suspends the licenses of people who cannot pay fines and fees issued to them. Not having a license makes it difficult for people to find employment, transportation, or be able to vote.
Because Black people are disproportionately fined and also disproportionately impoverished, this fines and fees system has a disproportionate impact on Black people.
What other reasons do you know of that aren’t on this list? Share them with us on social media using the hashtag #ProBlackDemocracy.
Black August calls us to envision a world without cages. A world where political prisoners are free. A world where Black people can thrive and live in their full dignity.
It also calls us to study. Make sure to check out Black August campaigns from collectives like In the Belly Zine, Jailhouse Lawyer’s Speak, Black Trans Media, and BYP100 to study the tradition of Black August.
To close, we’d like to share a grounding quote from the revolutionary Assata Shakur: “In the long run, the people are our only appeal. The only ones who can free us are ourselves.”
Jordan DeLoach (she/her) and Allison Young (they/them)
Director of Communications and Digital Communications Manager