Juneteenth 2020: We Have Work to Do

Juneteenth 2020: We Have Work to Do

Almost one hundred years after bombs burst over the “land of the free” on July 4, 1776, Union Major General Gordon Granger rode into Texas where 250,000 Africans were still enslaved and gave the order above. That day, June 19, 1865, went down in history as the moment that finally, and officially, ended slavery and became affectionately known and commemorated as Juneteenth (June + nineteenth), the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States today.

Although Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it only ended slavery on paper in territories still controlled by the Confederacy. Enslaved people in border states and already-occupied territories were excluded. As news slowly traveled westward, slave owners migrated to Texas, a border state the Union had yet to claim. By the time Granger arrived in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there were several developments to report: the Confederate capital had fallen, Lincoln was assassinated, and the 13th Amendment had already passed and was on its way to being ratified–the Civil War was over.

Even once the order was given, though, how and when to announce the news to slaves was up to plantation owners, who often chose to wait for the harvest to end–or for Union soldiers to intervene. Slaves who took a chance at freedom and tried to leave risked intimidation and lynchings. Still, they persisted in what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called “one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period.”

So each year on this day, Black Americans pause to reflect on a painful history and celebrate the determination and resilience of the Black community with cookouts, cultural events, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, as Black people are overrepresented in the nation’s incarcerated population, COVID-19 kills Black people at dramatically disproportionate rates, and a recent string of police killings of Black people dominates the news cycle, this year’s celebration is undermined by an unfortunate truth: Black people in America still are not truly free.

Credit: Laurie Shaull/Flickr

It seemed like we had just released our statement denouncing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in broad daylight by neighborhood vigilantes when we began writing another about George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring his cries that he couldn’t breathe. We’re sharing the statements again now, but this time we encourage you to substitute the names with that of Rayshard Brooks.

Brooks was fatally shot in the back Friday night as he fled from police who had responded to reports of a man asleep in his car and blocking the drive-thru at a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta. In response, the police officer was fired, the Atlanta Police Chief resigned, and there are protests in the streets of Atlanta. And again, our hearts are broken. If not Rayshard Brooks or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray, you could replace those names with any of the 1,296 Black people killed by police in the last five years. What would it reveal?

We at Georgia Innocence Project, like people across the country and the world, are asking what these recent deaths, and so many others, reveal about the value of Black lives in the United States? What do they reveal about the history and purpose of policing in America, where Black people are killed by police at twice the rate of White people? Or about the impact of intentional policies of mass incarceration following centuries of slavery and Jim Crow?

Although comprising only 13% of the population, Black people are six times more likely than their White counterparts to be incarcerated and make up about 60% of wrongful convictions proven through post-conviction DNA testing. 77% of GIP’s clients are Black men. 89% of GIP’s exonerated and freed clients are Black men. In the face of recent tragic events and national outrage, our position is that we cannot effectively advocate on behalf of our wrongfully convicted clients if we do not also work to address the systemic racism and racial bias that breeds unreliable convictions, unjust and unequal treatment, government indifference, and lack of accountability.

Though Georgia Innocence Project’s supporters span the entire political spectrum, we all have some fundamental unifying beliefs. They include a moral compass that insists that innocent people should not be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, and a belief that our criminal legal system should be guided by principles of integrity, fairness, accuracy, accountability, and justice.

With those guiding principles in mind, it is time to strive for better. We invite you to join us as we recommit to this work with a new determination to delve deeper into these issues. Together we will contextualize our wrongful conviction work within a shared history and the overarching systemic challenges our nation has been facing for centuries, in order to try and shape a brighter future for our clients and us all.

Please stay tuned, and in the meantime, learn more here:

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