Jose Armendariz, an incarcerated student and writer in Orange County, California, shares his opinion on the injustice black people and people of color face in the criminal justice system due to racism...
“The elephant in the room” is a saying that is commonly used when referring to a huge issue that two or more people are aware of, but feel uncomfortable addressing. Hence, they simply choose to ignore it. One thing that our nation today seems to have finally realized is that the elephant in the room was never really an elephant, but a Confederate! The elephant, as we all know, is a metaphor. The Confederate is not. Although addressing the presence of this dark entity in our lives is not easy, it is time to finally face it and call it by its name. It is time for this Confederate to pack his bags and go.
After the tragic murder of George Floyd, a black man, on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, widespread protests broke out worldwide. He died at the hands and knees of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck as he lay on the ground handcuffed and pleading for air. His last words were: “I can’t breathe.” Afterwards, the nation rose with indignation, flooded the streets of cities large and small, against police brutality and murderer cops. Soon, people in countries all across the world rose in solidarity demanding justice for George Floyd and for some of their own victims who have also died at the hands of killer cops.
As our country still battles the coronavirus pandemic, that has claimed more than half a million lives world-wide, no quarantine or virus has been strong enough to quell the rage that people feel against a police system that was created to oppress and persecute black people and people of color.
In 1945, when World War II ended, Japan and Germany surrendered under unconditional terms. Unfortunately, in 1865 when the Civil War here in the U.S. came to an end, this was not the case. In all reality, the Union may have won the war, but the Confederacy won the fight. Confederates were allowed to surrender under conditional terms. Members of the confederacy were never punished for their treason; they were allowed to return home as “heroes.” Later, we would see monuments erected in their honor and U.S. military bases named after them.
Though today we see many of these monuments toppled or removed, the influence of the Confederacy across the nation, particularly in the southern states, has not entirely lost its momentum. After the Civil War ended, the dominion and sway of the Confederacy over the people of their home states remained unabated. They continued to join our three branches of government, further infesting and embedding our institutions, structures, and society with white supremacy.
Although slavery was abolished, white supremacy lived on, and the era of modern mass segregation, persecution, mass incarceration, and extreme policing tactics against black people and people of color began. What may have seemed like progress under the administration of President Abraham Lincoln was soon stalled as ex-Confederates were allowed to lose the war, but continue in positions of extraordinary power. The Union was certainly not without fault. In their silence and unwillingness to put an end to the hatred and bigotry that Confederates openly exhibited, they, too, were complicit in the racism that was deeply embedded in our nation’s core.
Slavery in the U.S. was a hate crime on a massive scale. Confederates who got away with treason and crimes of hate are no different than the cops today who receive shield immunity after killing black people or people of color. The black experience in America is the most notable one in all regards, for no other people in America have been disproportionately targeted more than black people, the very people whose blood, sweat, and toil built the nation we all call home today.
Life as a brown kid growing up in Los Angeles was tough. And that’s putting things lightly. I can still vividly recall my miles long walks to school and back. My mother and father both worked. School buses didn’t pass through my neighborhood; it was considered too dangerous. My parents had to make the difficult choice between walking me to school every day or going to work on time so that they could provide for our family. My mother’s advice to my ten-year-old self was, “son, if you see a parent walking their kids to school, try to walk close to them.”
At the time, I didn’t understand why she wanted me to do that, but it didn’t take me long to figure it out on my own. My most harrowing experience during one of my long and lonely walks to school came from a most unexpected source. I was strolling down the street, happily whistling a tune and enjoying my newfound freedom, when suddenly a car came flying over the curb onto the sidewalk, where I halted in terror. It missed by only by a few inches and I stood paralyzed with fear. My eyes darted from place to place in search for a mother with kids who I could call out to and claim as my own.
There were two men in the vehicle, one in the driver’s seat and the other in the passenger’s seat. The man in the passenger’s side pointed a gun out of the car’s window and aimed it directly at me. He said, “Where are you from, ese?,” with an Anglo accent making the word ‘ese’ sound like ‘essay’. This question is one that gang members commonly pose to one another to determine whether the party being questioned is from a rival gang or not. I remember being scared and confused. I didn’t know how to respond. In my terror I thought about running but didn’t.
The men laughed and eventually drove off. The rest of my walk to school was full of unease as I grappled with the question of what might have happened to the poor cops whose uniforms and squad car these men had stolen. But as I later came to realize, these men were, indeed, real cops. And to my good fortune, they were considered the “nicer ones in town.”
In the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, gangs in low-income communities nationwide became widely popular amongst the misguided and unrepresented youth of that time. Police brutality against black youth and youth of color was rampant. In the 80s, California’s Latinx community became the fastest growing population in the state. Police scrutiny, racial profiling and abuse rose to an all-time high. Being black or brown has never meant that people of color have a higher propensity for violence or crime. It was decades of economic oppression and abuse that led the voiceless down a path of poor decision-making. It is fair to say that even the most docile can become aggressive when repeatedly abused.
Gangs and crews in poor communities are undoubtedly the direct consequences of law enforcement’s systemic way of racially profiling and, then, targeting black people and people of color. The way law enforcement treat and police people from white neighborhoods is drastically different from the way they treat and police people from black communities and communities of color. This can also be said about our justice system, [which] disproportionately sentences black people and people of color to extreme sentences while people who are white receive much less time for the same exact same crimes.
Systemic racism within police and sheriff’s departments is not something that is exclusively reserved to cops who are white only. Black officers and officers of color are also trained to target their own people. Cops that are black or of color that are not repulsed by the behavior of racist white cops, who believe themselves above the law are like the kids who, after excruciating efforts, finally make it into the “cool kids club”. Sadly, what they do not see or realize is that, in the grand scheme of things, they are nothing more than butlers who feed their own people to the machine that lives on the blood of black and brown children. No matter how hard they try, they will never be accepted or considered a fundamental part of it. They are pawns without a king or a queen, for they will never belong to that realm and nor will they belong to their people.
Though the black youth and youth of color of 2020 still face struggles and obstacles that their white counterparts don’t, it is encouraging to see this generation’s youth become empowered by the growth of their platform around the world. In recent years, gangs have become less prolific. The youth are no longer as captivated by the negative influence that gangs bestow. Although gangs have always been a poor choice of investment, many youths once felt an attraction towards them due to their defiant stance against an oppressive system that would rather see them die on the streets than help them get into college. The youth of today are no longer as fascinated by gang culture. Gangs are losing their sway over the minds of the youth who no longer feel voiceless as they are finding new ways of making their voices be heard.
With more black kids and kids of color making it into college—though still not enough—and the social media boom that has created a way for people all over the world to connect, the youth are now at the forefront, taking on some of the most daunting issues affecting our nation today. All it takes is one song, one letter, or one speech from a young person to create a movement that can touch and reach every corner of the world and that can bring about a change within political institutions that, for centuries, have refused to correct their wrongs. The youth are now leading the way.
So how do you fix a system with a problem that stretches so far and deep? One that has completely poisoned the branching vessels that keep the heart of our nation pumping? Unfortunately, you don’t. Simply put, you can’t.
For real change to occur, we must completely eradicate the system that is currently in existence. We must create a completely new and equitable system that allows a diverse group of people to be at the helm, a group that is inclusive of people of every race and of every identity group who can provide a broad slate of ideas that are comprehensive and sensitive to the individual needs of every community.
It is also time for the motto, “To Protect and Serve,” to actually mean something. Currently, the guiding rule of conduct we see by the police in our streets is: kill or lock-up. If black people or people of color don’t die during their arrest, they are thrown—alive—into concrete coffins, where they are left to die while serving an extreme and disproportionate prison sentence, praying for a release date that will just never come.
These injustices can simply not continue to exist. But first, as a nation, we must stop overlooking them. Racism in our nation can no longer be tolerated. We must no longer be complicit in our silence. Cops who kill must be stopped; they must not only be prosecuted but convicted and proportionately sentenced as well. Black lives matter. Chant it in song so that you can grow. Speak about it once you have taken the time to learn about it. But most importantly feel it, show it, and act on it.
This article was translated into Spanish by Margaret O’Hara.
Jose Armendariz is an incarcerated student, writer and organizer. His story and work has been covered in Cal Matters, La Opinion and Voice of OC.
Suggested citation: Jose Armendariz, The Confederate in the Room Must Go, JURIST – Student Commentary, September 9, 2020 https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/09/jose-armendariz-confederates-racism-incarceration/.
This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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