Mourning Becomes Justice

Guest post by Michelle Brown

This is the irony or paradox. Political resistance could kill you, well actually the state could in response to your resistance, but the beloved community could save you. Not from physical death. Nothing would do that, not even god. But from meaningless death and despair. One does not negotiate with the state’s use of terror, violent and premature death (actual physical death or disappearance through incarceration). One opposes it and in that opposition finds meaning in black suffering.

– Joy James, “Black Suffering in Search of the ‘Beloved Community’”

Criminal justice in the United States is a project that intersects with race and mortality at every intersection. In laying out this claim, of course, I have the killing of Michael Brown in mind and recent events and actions in Ferguson, Missouri. I also situate this present moment within the growing historical record of patterned, racialized state killing. I mean to point to a kind of disturbance that is foundational, ordinary, routine: Mass incarceration and capital punishment are produced through a host of everyday discretionary decision-making and institutional practices that make up criminal justice, creating the conditions for premature death, like that of Michael Brown. To name only a few of these (and to engage them superficially at best), consider the following:

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Why Does Michelle Brown Support This Initiative?

Dr. Michelle Brown is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  She is the author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (2009), Empathy and Punishment (2012) as well as other books and articles in the field of critical criminology.

Dr. Brown writes:

As a criminologist, I have spent a lot of time examining the inescapable problems of capital punishment, ranging from its failure to deter crime to problems of racial disparity and inadequate due process.  One of the more powerful emotional claims for capital punishment has been that executions are necessary for victims and their loved ones to achieve closure.  In fact, an emergent wave of social science research on the families of victims in capital cases points instead to their long-term social, psychological, and spiritual needs.  As it turns out, experiences of isolation, alienation, invisibility, grief, and powerlessness are shared among families of the victim and the condemned.  In the world of capital punishment, victims, perpetrators, and their loved ones bleed together.

Such work encourages us to move beyond the myth of closure often presented in the media and law, one where criminal justice procedure – prosecution, conviction, and punishment – results in “closure” with victims then expected to “move on.”  Rather, families talk instead of closure as a life-long, ongoing process – a work of memory – with complex needs, a process that capital punishment often exacerbates in its one-off assumptions of finality. Often overlooked in capital punishment debates yet central to the acknowledgment of victims is the role of the community in responding to these needs, an obligation central to restorative and transformative justice. Communities can do a better job of addressing the pain, grief, and life-long needs of others than simply pursuing death.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.