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From Pain to Power

I’ve spent the last 15 years researching and writing about the impact of punishment on various aspects of American politics.

I’ve written about the concept of civil death and how the collateral consequences of a conviction limit opportunities for the formerly incarcerated to engage as full citizens.

I’ve written about the impact of hyperincarceration and punishment on children and families confronted with the generational effects of living on the periphery of inclusion.

I’ve worked with organizations and programs designed to elevate the voices of the formerly incarcerated within policymaking spaces.

I’ve even studied the relationship between punishment and gerrymandering.

Over time, we’ve witnessed a concerted effort to denounce the undeniable racial disparities resulting from America’s addiction to punishment.

As the junior senator from Illinois seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama called for a new criminal justice system based on transparency, fairness, justice and equity. Central to that push was denouncing a failed war on drugs that led the U.S. to lock up more people, per incident, than any other country in the world.

Organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative emerged to protect human rights and end excessive punishment. Ava DuVernay’s gripping documentary, 13th, exposed the depths of mass incarceration in a way that “Orange is the New Black” never could. And now, Black women and Latinas comprise the fastest-growing prison population in this country. Certainly those stats should give us pause and motivate action.

What often is missing from that focus, however, is an emphasis on the voices and experiences of victims and their families, particularly victims of color whose needs become marginalized in multiple policy spaces. And families who often are stigmatized and overlooked within mainstream society and within their home community.

I look back on my scholarship and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that so little of that work has focused on those most affected by the criminal justice system. Even among those of us who think we get it – who think that we are aware of and sensitive to how oppression and privilege work, who can trace the lineage of the Combahee River Collective’s focus on intersectionality or who now realize that referring to yourself as “woke” usually means you aren’t – there is always more to learn and explore.

Too often, our scholarship surrounding the criminal justice system focuses only on those accused or convicted of a crime. We study how the collateral consequences of a conviction hamper re-entry. We debate whether taxpayer dollars should go toward providing access to education and vocational training programs for the incarcerated. We collect data on changing demographic trends and analyze its relationship to political representation.

All of that has its place. But the myopic focus, solely on what offenders need, fails to address what victims deserve.

How do we begin to reestablish normalcy for people who have lost everything? How do we create programs that address the loss of income, innocence and faith that many families face? How do we craft public policies and laws that don’t revictimize those who have been harmed?

And as the recent public outbursts by Stephon Clark’s brother Stevante illustrate, we need to address the impact of perpetual traumatic stress for community members constantly exposed to loss and grief.

Quite simply, there is no “how to” best-practices primer for families attempting to navigate private loss amid public scrutiny, a scrutiny that places greater emphasis on expressions of grief rather than what motivates it.

To fully understand the dynamics of community, power and privilege, our research must address how certain lives are deemed more valuable than others. The arbitrary way in which we decide which lives are more important leaves us with a system that is far from just.

Too often, victims are treated as defendants whose backgrounds are dissected to prove that they are worthy of our collective outrage. It’s imperative that political movements address the notion that certain families are less worthy of justice because of the circumstances of their loved one’s death. As scholars from various fields deepen their research interests in the policy implications of gun violence, it’s necessary to address the everyday banal losses of life that don’t go viral or capture national headlines.

To families like my own, whose innocence has been shattered in an instant, every loss is heinous. None is less painful than another, regardless of the circumstances.

As academics, we are trained to approach these topics from a detached, objective and often quantitative perspective. But on February 20, 2011, that boundary was erased when my 21-year-old cousin, Brian Anthony Patterson, was murdered at a party in Virginia.

A 19-year-old stood over Brian and fired 9 shots into his body. Brian was a son. A brother. And a beloved cousin. His life was significant. Amid the feelings of hurt, anger, confusion and yes, shame, our family was left feeling as if his loss was dismissed by others as just another “urban narrative.”

In states across the U.S., victims and their families are organizing political campaigns to change the narrative and eliminate bias in every aspect of the criminal justice system. They are forming interest groups and lobbying legislators to enact policy changes that will protect access to physical and mental health services for victims.

One such measure is the Crime Victims Fund, also called the VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) Fund, which collects criminal fines and uses the money to provide medical care, compensation for property damage and trauma treatment for crime victims, including survivors of domestic violence, family members of murder victims and child victims of abuse. Victims and their families are pushing through their pain to move toward power.

My colleague Ben Jones and I explore the political engagement of victims and families in an article published by the Politics, Groups, and Identities journal called “Building Authentic Power: A Study of the Campaign to Repeal Connecticut’s Death Penalty.” In it, we offer a concept we called authentic power to capture the extent that a group harmed by a policy can get policymakers and other government officials to acknowledge this harm and, ultimately, change the policy to the group’s benefit.

Death is inevitable. For many families, however, that inevitability seems premature. Let’s commit to scholarship and activism that empowers rather than shames.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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