Today, we proudly celebrate Juneteenth, the commemoration of the June 19, 1865 emancipation of the last people held in bondage in the United States. Texas slaveholders stubbornly refused to free the enslaved people or even to acknowledge the Confederacy’s defeat nearly two months after the war ended and a full two and a half years after the enslaved people of the Confederacy were declared free by President Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation. The Government was left with no choice but to send U.S. troops into Texas to enforce the new reality. On June 19, 1865, Army Major General Gordon Granger delivered the following proclamation from the front steps of a house that still stands at 2328 Broadway Avenue J in Galveston, Texas:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
Although we are proud to celebrate Juneteenth, the painful truth is that one hundred and sixty-five years after those words were spoken, in 2020, the “absolute equality” proclaimed by General Granger is far from reality for the 37 million descendants of enslaved people living in the United States today.
On February 23, 2020, three white men in Brunswick, Georgia, chased down a 25-year-old black man who was jogging in their neighborhood. They struck him with a pickup truck, blocked his path, and ordered him to the ground. When the young black jogger refused to submit and instead fought back, he was shot in the street where he bled and died. His name was Ahmaud Arbery. Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, police officers wearing plain clothes violently broke into the apartment of a young black woman living in a predominantly black neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. When her boyfriend answered the armed intrusion by firing a single shot, officers responded with a hail of gunfire which struck the woman eight times before she was pronounced dead where she lay on her own living room floor. Her name was Breonna Taylor. On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis police officer callously forced his knee into the neck of a black man who lay handcuffed on the street, gasping for breath, and begging for his life. Fellow officers looked on for eight minutes and forty-six seconds in front of dozens of witnesses while Officer Derek Chauvin choked the life from this man. His name was George Floyd.
To watch videos of these killings is to come face-to-face with the reality that these atrocities would never happen to people, with names, who matter. Ahmaud Arbery was a thoughtful, talented, and athletic young man who dreamed of becoming an electrician and who was beloved by his community. Breonna Taylor was an emergency medical technician with a bubbly personality whose dream it was to save lives. George Floyd was a father, brother, and son who was the apple of his mother’s eye. Their lives mattered. We mourn for the families of those killed and their communities. We rage at lives cut short and humanity disregarded. We hurt for and with all who see sons, husbands, brothers, sisters, and daughters in the body of George Floyd as he lay dying under the weight of that officer’s knee.
George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gianna cannot fully comprehend what happened to her father. She only knows that people around the world are saying his name and declaring that his life mattered. She has been told that her father’s death changed the world. How we long for that pronouncement to replace the present reality.
Extraordinary numbers of protesters have taken to the streets in cities and towns across our country and beyond; in places that have never before seen protest; attended by those who are too young to have ever marched before; sparked by an outrage that has been seething just below the surface of life, waiting to explode. This response has led to the beginnings of swift action in ways that feel unprecedented.
Of course, defenders are all too familiar with the systemic and persistent devaluation and degradation of black lives within the criminal legal system. Defenders of all hues experience the effects of racial injustice daily through absorbing clients’ stories, documenting the impact of police violence, and speaking up and calling out injustices. Yet, black and brown defenders experience this systemic racism more acutely: it is painful, it is visceral, it is personal. And it is the collective responsibility of white defenders to acknowledge this truth. White defenders must see it, do what is possible to understand it, and then hold it – with respect, acceptance, and love as we all stand together with fists raised in protest, calling out to the world that this is a moment for true change.
We emphatically add our own voices to those who defiantly declare that “Black Lives Matter!” Black lives must matter to all of us. For our sake, for our children’s sake, for Gianna’s sake, there must be change. Policing must change; laws must change; the world must change. None of that can happen unless people change. Real and sustained change requires us all to reckon with the legacy of slavery and white supremacy which infects every aspect of life in America. And we must honestly admit just how far we are from General Granger’s declaration of absolute equality.
While these truths and the relentless list of black lives lost to senseless killings has left us breathless, the world’s reaction to this moment provides us with the courage to dare to believe that something closer to General Granger’s message of absolute equality will become a reality. It is long overdue.
Happy Juneteenth to all!
Natasha Perdew Silas and Karen Smolar
Deans of the National Criminal Defense College
The National Criminal Defense College is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation in Macon, Georgia that conducts seminars and training sessions for Criminal Defense Lawyers. We do not perform legal services.