Federal Public Defender, Central District of California Statement on The Death of George Floyd

The killing of George Floyd has brought the plight of Black Americans into public consciousness and galvanized a worldwide movement for criminal justice reform. The brutal and public nature of that killing, combined with the officers’ expressions of cold indifference as Mr. Floyd struggled for breath was reality, reminder, and metaphor for the fate of Black life in America. Our office’s initial silence in response to Mr. Floyd’s death only added to the pain and outrage felt by many of our colleagues and the community. For that, we are sorry. As painful as this moment is, we hope it can be an opportunity for introspection, healing, and transformational change.

Our country is a paradox. It was founded on the ideals of liberty and justice, yet these very concepts grew out of the rich and bloody soil of slavery and injustice. In order for these contradictory realities to coexist in our national psyche, it became necessary, from the beginning, to devalue Black life. The myth that Black people are not fully human and thus not entitled to the fruits of liberty and justice enjoyed by white people is deeply rooted and integrally connected to our country’s creation. The original devaluation of Black life still deeply shapes our collective consciousness. This false belief system permeates policy decisions in every major American institution and leads to racial disparities across every measure of well-being. The vertical integration of disparate outcomes in education, health care, housing, and wealth can be drawn predictably along racial lines.

Of course, nowhere are racial disparities more apparent than in the criminal justice system. As federal public defenders we have been eye- witnesses to the rise of the modern carceral state. We fight on the front lines in the battle against laws and policies that have given birth to modern mass incarceration. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our clients in a system that time after time conflates cruelty with justice and normalizes disenfranchisement of entire swaths of diverse communities under the guise of retribution and the forgotten promise of rehabilitation.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen the routine imposition of mandatory minimum sentences that shifted power from learned judges to young prosecutors. Despite recent calls for reform and piecemeal reductions of hyper-inflated sentences, the damage has already been done — an entire generation of Black and brown men and women has been lost to prison. We have experienced the promulgation of sentencing guidelines that claim mathematical precision and empirical objectivity, but are based on deeply flawed, racialized assumptions embedded in their calculus, which exacerbate fundamental inequities at sentencing. We have also witnessed the criminalization of the immigration system that imposes harsh federal prison sentences for mostly Latinx people who return to the United States after being separated from their families. We advocate for clients seeking post-conviction relief, who are already serving draconian sentences or are facing the death penalty in state and federal prisons, and fight against the erosion of the writ of habeas corpus—a constitutional safeguard of freedom— by laws designed to silence the wrongfully convicted, who would expose the injustices of over- policing and unscrupulous prosecutions. Daily, we confront a system that, by happenstance or design, dehumanizes and disenfranchises people from all ethnic backgrounds, but disproportionately people of color.

Though it seems self-evident, the times require us to reaffirm the value of Black life. Black lives matter because life is sacred. And what is life but memory, awareness, experience, hope, and dreams? Only in a false construct can we differentiate between Black humanity and our collective humanity. Black memory is all memory. Black dreams are all dreams. Black suffering is all suffering. Black breath is all breath. George Floyd’s death was not just the death of another Black man, his death was Ours. In order to reconcile the paradox, we must be consciously aware that Black lives matter because Liberty and Justice for Black people, means Liberty and Justice for All.