This April former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three counts stemming from last year’s murder of George Floyd in police custody. A police department press release at the time merely noted that Floyd “appeared to be suffering medical distress.” We know what really happened only because Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old passerby, took out her phone and videoed the gruesome eight-plus minutes that Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck.
George Floyd’s death is just one of many high-profile killings of African American men in recent years. In 2013 Black Lives Matter became a hashtag and a movement after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. Many of the later deaths that have flashed out in headlines have been at the hands of the police. Many of the incidents started with minor, nonviolent allegations (Floyd was said to have tried to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill).
Closely tied to policing is the U.S. prison system, by far the world’s largest. Over 2.1 million people are being held in captivity in U.S. jails and prisons. Sentencing disparities in the system have disproportionately targeted People of Color. A 2013 Poynter Institute fact check confirmed there are more African American men in prison, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.
Quakers have a complicated relationship with much of this. As Lucy Duncan pointed out in April’s “A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation,” the model for the modern prison arose out of Quaker reformer’s attempts to alleviate overcrowding and abuses in jails in the 1790s. These idealists thought solitary confinement would be a proper Quaker way to foster penitence.
It was another Quaker, president Richard Nixon, who coined “the war on drugs” 50 years ago this summer in a 1971 news conference. Many people have gone into the prison system over nonviolent offenses since then, a majority of them People of Color. A January 2020 article in Friends Journal by Eric E. Sterling wondered whether “Friends’ historic association with the temperance and anti-drug movements” meant we were “too slow to confront the social, cultural, medical, and legal catastrophes of drug prohibition.”
What are Friends doing today? What should we be doing? We’d like to hear about everything from the one-on-one work in prisons (worship groups and visitations) to advocacy for police and prison reform.