With the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the acquittal of the man who murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2013, Millennial activists have brought issues of race, racial disparities, state-sanctioned violence, racial equality and income and wealth disparities into the national conversation.

#BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza said Black Lives Matter was “a call to action for Black people after Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements.”

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Panelists for the “Decriminalizing the Black Community” session included (left) The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, CEO and President of the National Newspapers Publishers Association; (center) former Peterburg, Virginia Police Chief John I. Dixon III; and (right) Major (retired) Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. (Courtesy Photos)

Social media was a game changer in transforming the anguish Garza and others like her around the country and other parts of the world felt about the injustices that allowed Trayvon’s killer to walk. And social media is also the vehicle that connected activists, allowing them to strategize and plan, becoming the mirror that enabled people, outside of Black communities, to see the often deadly results of police-community interactions.

“I’m committed to turning this around. This is one of the most important issues in the country right now. Folks are dying because we’re over-policing. Police officers need better training,” said former Peterburg, Virginia Police Chief John I. Dixon III. “Since the 1980s, we’ve incarcerated more men than in the whole history of this country. Only 14 percent of the people are African American, but African Americans represent 1 million of the 2.2 million people in prisons.”

Dixon admitted that he’s locked up his share of people because he was following the law and the policies that created them, but he said he woke up to the consequences of what he was doing.

“I’m guilty … but I grew up and realized that I was locking people who looked like me. The War on Drugs is a war on Black men,” Dixon said. “It destroyed men, their families and opportunities to provide for their families or go to college. We need good policymakers to develop good laws and we have to be sitting at the table.”

Dixon was joined by three panelists at a Decriminalizing the Black Community session at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 46th Annual Legislative Conference on Sept. 16. Panelists included The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, CEO and President of the National Newspapers Publishers Association; Major (retired) Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition; and Christopher Alexander, a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. Guided by former congressman Kendrick Meeks, the group discussed how schools, politicians, policymakers and others have criminalized the Black community.

Currently, the federal government spends $80 billion a year to hold 2.3 million people behind bars. One million of that total are Black men and the arrest and incarceration of Black women is reaching record levels. Several speakers on panels discussing this issue cited the statistic that although the U.S. constitutes one-fifth of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in its prisons and jails, more than China, India and Mexico. And for Black men, one of every 52 is either in jail, on parole or on probation.

During the three-day conference, attendees were constantly reminded of the precarious nature of the lives of Black and brown people. In Ohio, police shot and killed 13-year-old Tyree King; on the night of Sept. 16, officers gunned down 40-year-old unarmed Terrance Crutcher, who officers said repeatedly ignored their demands to put up his hands.

Meanwhile, one of the NYPD officers who shot Amadou Diallo 41 times as he reached for his wallet in 1999 was named “Sergeant of the Year” and Daniel Panteleo, the NYPD officer who’s chokehold of Eric Garner immediately preceded to his death, just received a hefty bump in pay — $116,996, including $23,000 in overtime since being put on modified duty. None of the officers directly involved in Garner’s death have been charged and a civil rights probe into the incident has been dragging on for more than two years.   

The panel used efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit the use of menthol in tobacco products as just the latest example of policymakers advocating what could become a law used to wrongly label Black people as criminals.

“When we talk about policies going forward, what are the consequences? What happens after?” asked Franklin, who worked for 34 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department. “The already growing illicit underground market in the Black community will grow and the banning of menthol will lead to more arrests.”

Alexander offered data and perspective on New York’s Stop and Frisk law which in 10 years  resulted in officers locking up 700,000 people – 88 percent who were young Black and Latino males. The American Civil Liberties Union substantiates Alexander’s observation that the NYPD stopped, questioned and searched more Black and brown men than are living in New York, meaning a number of them were stopped multiple times, yet nine out of every 10 men stopped were completely innocent.”

“I’m here because I’m the affected population,” said Alexander. “Marijuana has been hyper-criminalized … we can legalize substances but not legalize the people. In Colorado, there is a disparity between those being arrested.”

Chavis exhorted audience members to get involved.

“You need to go back to your member of Congress, legislator and those in public policy,” he said. “The NNPA will write about this. We want people to be informed. There are people who are well-intentioned who don’t consider the unintended consequences. We have to mobilize to prevent injury and more harm. We should oppose any act or legislation that would put our brothers and sisters at risk.”