More Than Just Statistics: On the Victims of Criminal Injustice

October 27, 2017 | 8 3 min read

So often, black victims of the criminal justice system are fast moving statistics, hashtags, or headlines that fade in and out of view, instead of fully-formed humans we come to understand as failed by our many systems. A combination of new books—I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Rolling Stone contributor and New York Times bestselling author Matt Taibbi; Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Harvard University professor Danielle Allen; and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith—works in ways overt and subtle to correct this damaging oversight. Individually, they own an aspect of the journey of one who has been killed: Taibbi writes an empathetic, journalistic overview; Allen writes with the intimacy of a loved one; and Smith transforms anticipated elegy into a defiant, lovely celebration.

coverIn I Can’t Breathe, Taibbi offers the closest thing to a comprehensive, mature look back at a single example of how these stories play out that I’ve read. It is a clear-sighted account of exactly how the criminal justice system renders invisible the bodies of black victims and their families, as told through the life and death of Eric Garner. Garner was killed by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in July 2014, when Pantaleo placed Garner in a fatal chokehold for illegally selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. The book is written in Taibbi’s vivid, precise language, like a literary version of the HBO show The Night Of. No life or pattern is left unexamined in the mosaic of problems that led to the end of Garner’s life, including the history of “Broken Windows” policing in New York, a pattern of unjustified and often fatal violence against black men throughout the city at the hands of police that crushes them in a bureaucratic criminal justice system. We know, because we live in America in the 21st century, that this is true for so many others.

Instead of simply being a symbol, Taibbi asserts that Garner “was a flesh-and-blood person—interesting, imperfect, funny, ambitious, and alive—who just happened to stumble into the thresher of America’s reactionary racist insanity at exactly the wrong time. But his story—about how ethnic resentments can be manipulated politically to leave us vulnerable to the lawless violence of our own government—is not his alone. His bad luck has now become ours.”

coverDanielle Allen’s Cuz is a both a close and distant look at the life of her cousin, Michael, for whom she was a primary financial and emotional support. Michael was devoured by the prison industrial complex by the Three Strikes law right after its inception in California. He spent the entirety of his formative years incarcerated. He fell in love with an inmate, Bree, and that love led to his death at 29. Cuz draws us close to Michael—his heart, his brain, his pride. It is not human to be caged, her book reminds us on every page. But prison not only impacts the prisoner, but everyone around him. They can never leave, nor can those who love them.

I wondered what the value would be, honestly, in Allen’s book. From a distance, learning the premise and her stature compared to her cousin’s, and reading The New Yorker excerpt, I wasn’t sure I trusted her as a narrator. In the end, I learned that her story is probably more common than not, just not unearthed as often—a concerned relative with more questions than answers.

coverThere is, though, hope in the midst of this mostly bleak aggregation of black mourning. While the facts and statistics about police brutality and violence and black mortality and incarceration in America are all damning and depressing as hell, what is also true is that black people do not abide a perpetual mournfulness. This is why we hold homegoing services, better known to most as funerals. You can bury us, but, as Danez Smith’s incredible poetry collection asserts, don’t call us dead. Smith has written an incredible array of meditations on what it means to survive. There are homages to some of the lost: Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice; addressing them with simple, rigorous, lovely lines like these in, “summer, somewhere”: “we say our own names when we pray./we go out for sweets & come back.” Or, “O, the imagination of a new reborn boy/but most of us settle on alive.”

I do not want to cannibalize the gorgeous, whole, soaring loveliness that Smith has compiled here to well-deserved fanfare, on topics that certainly include a kind of healing resurrection for slain black people. The collection is also full of refreshing honesty and vulnerability about hooking up on dating apps and being HIV positive and the many betrayals of life that have nothing to do with other people, but can live right within the flesh, the bloodstream. What I loved most, though, about Smith’s poems, as with Taibbi’s book and Allen’s, is that they did not let numbers tell tales. Instead, they give us flesh and blood, beating hearts you’ll still be able to hear long after the books are closed. I can’t say it will be easy reading, but I can promise it will be worthwhile.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

has written four books and has published book features and reviews for Bitch Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, BuzzFeed, and Salon. Her essays have been published and anthologized widely; her fiction has been published in the Bellevue Literary Review and Huizache. She blogs sometimes at but tweets more often at @JoshundaSanders.


  1. I have worked for police in Canada since 1989 from coast to coast. I have seen racism and corruption, but mostly i see police just trying to get home safe. I feel he need to reiterate that Trayvon was not killed by police. He was killed by a man who deemed himself some kind of lone rogue neighbourhood watch, and because of Florida gun laws was allowed to carry. The police dispatchers told the asshole to back off, he refused. The suspect in the murder was a chronic caller to 911 for following people in his neighbourhood, and well known to police as a nuisance. The death of Trayvon may be even more of a tragedy because of this, but truly police had nothing to do with the teenager’s death. Sadly, and inexplicably there was no justice for Trayvon’s death. So America – get on your gun laws and your justice system. Fight against incarceration of the mentally ill and addicted, and get on that barbaric practice of the death penalty which murders mostly black men. You know your government doesn’t care, so you need to step up. Literature does a great job, but hard core racists don’t read.

  2. Can anyone tell me who coined the phrase “black bodies,” or “bodies” in general? Its from 70s or 80s academia, right? It always sounds…. awkward to me. Is its root in Our Bodies, Ourselves?? I’m serious.

    The cop who murdered Eric Garner should be in prison for life, at best. George Zimmerman, too.

  3. Devil re “body” i can only speak anecdotally. In my work it has always been police vernacular for an arrest. When one is arrested and in custody he or she might (not always) say to the dispatcher “i am bringing a body in”. Really distances the person under arrest from being human doesn’t it? Personally I have never heard the term “black body” in policing up here in Canada.

  4. Oh and Devil, I have never heard it used to describe a dead person, from homicide to suicide or death from illness.

  5. H.A.
    “Black bodies” is a term art for black people and their physical presence generally, AAs, persons of color, in academia in the US. Its sometimes (I wouldn’t say often or regularly) used by black academics, but based on raw numbers its used much more often by white academics who are trying to drop class-markers into their online and twitter conversation. At least, I suspect that’s whats being done when I see it, because it is not a feature of spoken American English, among either black people or white people, although you will hear it said during discussion panels, which are basically a kind of very boring performance art. Anyway, I was wondering when the term entered academia; I’ve seen it in essays and papers back into the 1980s, used mostly (then) by African American academics, but I was wondering if it went back to the feminist movement in the 1970s.

  6. Ah. As usual i was way off with regard to your meaning. Well devil, I am one of the commenters who reads a shit ton, but who never entered academia, ergo i guess i am ill suited to reply, other than to say it is kind of weird and offensive. I will step out and let someone with greater knowledge reply to the history of this terminology.. (Walks out blushing)…

  7. Don’t apologize, you’re better off.
    As an assistant professor at Vassar I have to deal with this shit a LOT.

  8. Devil,

    I don’t know the provenance of “black bodies,” but yeah, it does occupy a peculiar place in the lexicon, though not useless, I don’t think. I think of it as referring to the aestheticization of the black form as something to either receive abuse (a la Django Unchained, etc) or provide pleasure (a la athletics, entertainment, etc). It does capture something about the tendency white culture has had to depersonalize black people, and it has some relevance to cases like Trayvon’s, in which a young black man is wholly figurative and lacking humanity to someone like Zimmerman.

    But that said, yeah, it’s also used annoyingly in a lot of academic-ese as a marker of right on-ness.

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