Paul Butler, author of the acclaimed book Chokehold, worked as a criminal prosecutor. Then he himself was arrested
This article titled “‘I worked as a prosecutor. Then I was arrested. The experience made a man out of me. It made a black man out of me'” was written by Oliver Laughland, for theguardian.com on Friday 11th August 2017 11.00 UTC
Paul Butler, author of the new book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, argues the US criminal justice system is institutionally constructed to control African American men. But, he says, that is merely one facet of a pervasive “chokehold” over black men that can be observed in numerous social and political arenas.
The work has been described by the New York Times as “the most readable and provocative account of the war on drugs since Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow”.
Here, Butler answers questions on some of the book’s main arguments and grapples with how its series of radical solutions stands in stark contrast to the agenda of Donald Trump.
If you mention the use of a chokehold in the context of modern American policing, the first thing that springs to mind is the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York. How does that case encapsulate the extended chokehold metaphor you use throughout the book?
The chokehold is a literal mechanism for police use of force. But in the Garner case, it was evocative of so many ills in the criminal justice system: the fact he was arrested for simply selling a tobacco cigarette in the street, the fact he had been harassed by police many times before, the fact the police interpreted his polite conduct as resisting arrest, and the chokehold itself, which was against NYPD regulations. Then, of course, the officer who did it has not been charged with a crime and remains a sworn officer, despite the fact his actions went against NYPD regulations.
So the case, and the chokehold itself, seemed a metaphor for not only how the law fails black people but is also a form of oppression itself.
As a lawyer who went to law school with a goal of helping black people and using my legal skills to make things better, the realization that the law itself was a mechanism to keep African American people down was frightening.
Your prior experience as a criminal prosecutor in Washington DC informs much of your critique of the criminal justice system in the book, and yet you write that you once enjoyed the process of sending other black men to jail. How did you reconcile that on the job?
I had a number of unpleasant experiences with the police as a black kid growing up in Chicago and I was the last person my friends from law school thought would be a prosecutor. But I heard that prosecutors had all this power and so I went to try to change the system from the inside. But I was overwhelmed with the workplace culture, so rather than change the system, the system changed me. I became a hardcore prosecutor in part because the incentives in the prosecutor’s office are to lock people up for as long as you can.
Lawyers are competitive and ambitious, and the way that manifests itself in a prosecutor’s office is you want to get tough sentences. I got caught up in that world. You feel like you’re doing the Lord’s work – you tell yourselves that you’re helping the community.
So how did your perspective change?
There were a few experiences that changed me.
I remember a trial I had in the 1990s where the defendant basically had no defense. He was found with drugs and said he simply didn’t know how they had got in his pocket. The majority-black jury found him not guilty. After verdict, I went running after them to find out why. None would talk to me except for the lone white woman, and she said: “We knew he was guilty, but he was just so young.”
Right there I was forced to reconcile this enormous respect that I gained for the jurors of the district of Columbia with this reality that in some cases they were saying not guilty when they knew otherwise.
You never saw this in cases of violent crime, or even large-scale drug selling, but in drug possession and in low-level sales it was commonplace. And it made me start to think: maybe what they’re doing is right, keeping nonviolent kids out of prison.
Later that decade, I myself was arrested and went to trial over false allegations of [a] misdemeanour assault. A neighbour of mine accused me of pushing her during an argument about a parking space. I was taken to a courthouse with around 150 other black men that day. I thought: ‘Oh my God, what if the judge recognises me?’ But I don’t even think she looked at me. I was just another anonymous, African American man on the lockup list that day.
During the trial, I experienced for myself a lot of things that defendants I’d prosecuted said were evidence of how unfair the system was: police lied, witnesses who knew what happened didn’t come forward. Now I was forced to confront them myself.
But things were dealt well for me at the trial because I could afford the best lawyer in the city, had legal skills and social standing, and because I was innocent.
The jury took less than 10 minutes to acquit me. But the experience made a man out of me. It made a black man out of me.
The book seems to point to black men’s fatal encounters with police as the apex of this chokehold metaphor, but deadly police violence cuts across so many other issues in American society, including mental illness and gun ownership – do you think it’s possible to reconcile them?
I think they’re related in a couple of ways. But first you have to try to ask: how did [the] American criminal justice become so draconian and so inhumane? The answer is, as a way of controlling African American men. So if we think about why we have harsh sentences, why we have a surveillance state, why we have violent policing, why we have 95% of cases settled by plea bargain due to the extraordinary power of prosecutors – those were all designed with the idea of controlling black men.
This control has two steps. The first step is the legal construction of every black man as a thug. And the second part is the legal and social response to put down the thug. The supreme court gives the police all this power to control, and of course it doesn’t say this power was designed specifically for black men, although it’s understood that’s who the power will be wielded against. But the point about this power is that it is not only used against black men – it can be used against others. So all of these practices end up impacting other people, too.
Like many on the left, you’re critical of the Obama administration’s record on racial justice issues. But do you think, given who has assumed the presidency, that history could look relatively favourably on Obama – given his administration’s moves to abandon federal private prisons, record number of sentence commutations and consent decrees with major police departments?
Compared to who came next, I think Obama will be remembered extremely favourably by history on almost every front. But I think sometimes Obama himself seemed to suffer from racial fatigue. He didn’t have that same swag and confidence when he talked about race as when he talked about other issues of national importance, like healthcare and LGBT equality.
His signature racial justice program, My Brother’s Keeper [a public-private mentoring initiative aimed at young men of colour], just missed the mark. He says that he got the idea after Trayvon Martin was killed. You know, Trayvon Martin was killed by a racist neighbourhood watchman, he was basically racially profiled and then hunted down and shot. One wonders how a program about black male achievement is responsive to what happened to Trayvon Martin.
The book devotes a lot of energy to criticising stop-and-frisk policing, a practice that was eventually reformed in New York due evidence of racial bias. But it’s a policy that Donald Trump has advocated for nationally – why you think Trump has been such a vocal proponent?
The point of stop-and-frisk is to humiliate black and brown men. Humiliate them in a way that allows the police to dominate them. And I think that’s consistent with Trump’s views on the purpose of law and order.
With the Russia collusion investigation, we see Trump and his cronies bemoaning heavy-handed investigations, how much power law enforcement has, how much power prosecutors have, and Trump being very concerned when prosecutors focus on one select group of people. He gets these concerns when they apply to rich white dudes, but he’s all for that police power and prosecutor power when it comes to policing black men.
Part of the way that white supremacists like Steve Bannon have championed Trump is because he’s always been prejudiced against black people, from the way he operated his real estate business and was accused of not renting to black folks, to his calling for the execution of the Central Park Five [the wrongfully convicted teenagers in an infamous New York City rape case] – he’s always had this white supremacist baggage that he used as part of his platform.
That said, the book calls for a radical overhaul of the entire criminal justice system, including the abolition of prisons and more direct action protest. Do you think any of that is practically realisable under Trump?
When we think about racial justice for people in America, it’s always been about abolition: abolition of slavery, then the abolition of formal segregation, the old Jim Crow, and now we need abolition of the new Jim Crow.
The prison experiment has been a failure. We need to start being creative about other ways to do what we think prison does. What we hope prison does is to keep us safe and make people accountable for the harm they’ve caused. But those of us who have experience working in the system know that prison doesn’t do either one of those well.
I wrote the final chapter in October 2016 thinking Hillary Clinton would be president. Obviously, she lost, and I rewrote the chapter based on Trump. But in some ways, I think his victory motivated activists because it shows the importance of resisting and how much we have to resist. If Clinton had won, people would have been more patient, wanting to give reform a chance. I think Trump has inspired a productive apocalypse. Things are extraordinarily bad, and they’re not going to get better without major agitation.
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