Social justice doula Justice Gatson guides us through the labor of liberation; becoming our own caretakers
On May 29, 2020, Kansas City protesters took to the streets in response to the police killing of George Floyd, and in the weeks since, activists continue to gather demanding racial justice and an end to police brutality. Their voices are being heard. Since the protests began, Mayor Quinton Lucas has announced a series of police reforms, proposed eliminating municipal marijuana offenses and bringing the question of local control of the Kansas City Police Department to the ballot in November. The Kansas, City Missouri, Department of Parks and Recreation Board unanimously voted to remove J.C. Nichols’ name from the fountain at Mill Creek Park and the bordering street, which has been a physical dividing line between police and activists at a number of protests. These actions are in direct response to recent protests, but these steps toward justice come from years of community activism and organizing.
To get a sense of the moment from someone with a deep history in social justice work in Kansas City, we reached out to Justice Gatson through email. For Gatson, a self-declared social justice doula, activist, organizer, and founder of the Reale Justice Network in Kansas City, it is important to listen to the folks who have been engaged in the work prior to the recent protests.
“There is a lot of noise. Some people are working to take advantage of the momentum that the George Floyd video brought and its truly unfortunate that media has elevated the voices of those who have changed the language of the movement to appease white moderates and others,” Gatson says.
Kansas City does not have an official Black Lives Matter chapter and Gatson says the unofficial chapter here is out of sync with the national Black Lives Matter organization and the Movement for Black Lives.
“This is really important for people understand. The so called “BLM” meeting at the Governor’s Mansion was a farce at best and a slap in the face to Black, Brown, and Indigenous womxn and our brothers whose collective labor has carried this work on our backs,” Gatson says. “It is important to support those of us who have dedicated our lives to this work. There is wisdom and a deep richness in our history, skill, organization, strategic thought, insight, passion, love, and honor that must be upheld … it is the way of sun-kissed peoples and the path to liberation. Our liberation is uniquely bound to each other.”
Gatson brings years of experience and work to the movement, including working with National Bailout, “a dynamic group of Black and Queer leaders across the country,” and launching The Reale Justice Community Bail Fund, the first Black-led bail fund in Missouri and Kansas in 2017. She also previously worked as a core organizer with One Struggle KC, the second Black-led bail fund that launched in 2019.
“This particular piece of the work is personal and deeply rooted in the historical struggle for Black liberation,” Justice says. Referencing the words and work of Mary Hooks, Gatson says the bail funds come from Black ancestors buying each other’s freedom. “There have been well-meaning white people who have asked me about helping them start a bail fund, and I explain how this can be a saviorist approach rooted in white supremacist culture by those who lack a deep analysis or true respect for the labor of Black womxn organizer. People should support Black-led bail funds if they are interested in uplifting and advancing the movement to defend Black lives.”
Money bail requires arrested persons to pay bail in order to be released from jail, a practice that disproportionately hurts low-income, BIPOC communities. A 2017 report from Color of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), found that “the for-profit bail industry has reinforced and profited from the racially biased nature of our criminal justice system, which routinely targets low-income people, Black people, and other people of color for reasons that have nothing to do with their guilt or innocence.” Additionally, it showed that money bail has created a multi-billion-dollar bail industry. In 2017, 70 percent of all people held in jails remain there because of their inability to pay bail, even though “they remain innocent in the eyes of the law.”
In Gatson’s work organizing bail funds, the organizations have bailed people out of jail who have been charged with a wide range of offenses, including having tall weeds in the yard, unpaid traffic tickets, protest-related charges, and dog tickets.
“It is a cruel cycle that doesn’t have to exist,” Gatson says. “When someone is arrested, jailed, and given bond, if they are unable to pay their bail amount, they will be held in jail until they can, or until they have their day in court whichever comes first. A night or two in jail can have a detrimental impact on a family. If a person cannot make their shift at work and they are unable to inform their employer that they cannot come in, they may be fired from their job. Typically a person who cannot pay their bail doesn’t have access to other resources or other means. Things can really spiral out of control if there are children who depend on the arrested person for care. Social services may take custody of these children if no one is available to care for them. When a person is finally released, if they do not have a job and cannot pay their rent, they may end up shelterless. It takes a long time to dig out of this type of hole if you’re a low wage worker and supporting children.”
For Gatson, reform would mean an end to cash bail.
“It would mean that most offenses would only require a signature to acknowledge the court date,” Gatson says. “It also calls for an overhaul on how courts contribute to racial inequities in the way that it carries out its operations.”
Money bail, in part due to large amounts of protesters being arrested and the dangers of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, has been a focus of reformers. Another, which has gained enormous traction, is to defund the police.
“Yes, defund the police. Cut police budgets. The purpose of police is widely misunderstood. Police don’t have a legal duty to protect any one person with the exception of someone in their custody, and we’ve seen how that can go,” Gatson saidsays “The phrase ‘serve and protect’ is propaganda and doesn’t mean that police have this legal duty because in reality, they don’t.”
Gatson would like to see money shifted from police budgets to go to COVID-19 testing and mental health services, Black maternal and infant health community education, educational programs for youth in Black communities, economic support for Black-owned small businesses, and BIPOC organizations that address poverty crime and racism, with leaders committed to anti-racist polices. These are all ways in which money can be shifted from institutions of harm to institutions of care.
Mayor Lucas is not in favor of defunding the police and has recently spoken out about state GOP leaders connecting his proposal for local control to defunding the police department, saying “nobody in Kansas City government, and certainly not this mayor, has ever suggested local control is some move to defund or dismantle the Kansas City Police Department.” Local control would allow Kansas City taxpayers, who fund the police department, to have oversight over the department, rather than a board appointed by the governor, as is the current situation.
“There has been a push for local control from grassroots organizations and individuals in Kansas City for quite some time. I believe that it failed on the ballot because there wasn’t enough public education around local control and what it really means. When I was a core organizer with One Struggle KC, we raised this as a key issue that I carried over to my work at the ACLU of Missouri. We built a coalition of partners a couple of years ago who have been meeting and planning for our local control effort,” Gatson says. “In February of this year, the KC Equity and Justice brought in [police accountability advocate] John Chasnoff from St. Louis to talk to our community about how they fought for and won local control. We plan to have him back soon to discuss the mayor’s proposal and to outline the paths KC can take to get local control of the police department. We’ve also met with City Council Members about this issue and have attended and testified at the hearings in regard to Councilwoman Melissa Robinson’s proposal to study local control. We plan to see this through until the end and take the necessary steps to bring police accountability to Kansas City.”
In response to what the mayor has proposed in the past two months, Gatson is cautiously optimistic.
“I think that the mayor is feeling pressure from the community to do something that’s going to make a difference. I’m in favor of removing marijuana as an offense in the city code. It has definitely proven to be a pretext for police encounters with Black people,” Gatson says.
To Gatson, this is the first step in addressing how marijuana laws disproportionately affect Black communities, including economic opportunities that come from legalizing medicinal marijuana.
“It is extremely hypocritical for rich white people to profit from the marijuana business when scores of Black and Brown people remain in jails and prisons for doing the same thing. In Missouri, there are very few Black people with growers’ licenses due to barriers placed on the application process,” Gatson says. “This needs to change in order to establish an equitable process whereby formerly incarcerated individuals who are skilled in this area may have the opportunity to pursue economic stability. This is definitely something that Reale Justice Network is deeply committed to seeing through.”
These proposals have been getting national attention, but locally, families and activists working for justice are still waiting for a substantial response to demands for police accountability.
“This is all great, however it does not address the most prevalent questions from the community. I think that the mayor should focus on the police murders that have occurred and help the family members of Ryan Stokes, Cameron Gray, Donnie Sanders, and Brianna Hill get the answers and justice they deserve,” Gatson says.
Gatson also wants to see Kansas City Police Department Chief Rick Smith held accountable for police killings and the indiscriminate use of pepper spray and rubber bullets during the early protests.
“The police traumatized protesters and the mayor should be holding Chief Smith and the KCPD responsible. The mayor cannot both kneel with protesters one day and then send a congratulatory letter to police another. It feels disingenuous, and I hope that he understands why the community is upset,” Gatson says. “As far as what the mayor introduced, until he acts in accordance with our state motto, ‘Show Me,’ I will remain hopeful, yet skeptical.”
Chief Smith has defended KCPD’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and has promised reform, highlighting recent donations that will provide police body cameras.
“Body cameras are important for documentation; however, they have not proven to be effective at stopping the police from killing people,” Gatson says. “We have seen a number of people killed on camera by cops who have not been punished for doing so. There are also some constitutional concerns in regard to the privacy of individuals.”
For many activists and organizers, municipal actions have been largely symbolic. Removing J.C. Nichols’ name from a fountain and a street acknowledges his racist legacy, but that does not directly undo years of economic harm his legacy leaves in place.
“The removal of statues will only matter if we also remove the policies, laws and behaviors that oppress and kill Black and Brown people in this country with little consequence,” Gatson says. “What we’re demanding is equity, which is a bit different than equality. J.C. Nichols created a system of economic and racial discrimination in Kansas City that is embedded in Kansas City culture. The disparities are glaring, and the Plaza protests highlight the significance of that for many people.”
The protests are amplifying conversations and bringing the work of Gatson and others in the community to the forefront. The protests have extended to all parts of the metro area and Gatson believes that this moment feels different.
“People are simply unwilling to continue on business as usual while Black people are murdered indiscriminately by law enforcement. It has become a sickening replay, like a bad scene in a movie, except for Black people, this is no movie, this is our real lives,” Gatson says. “We have had enough. Black people are leading mass movements all across the country in defense of our lives and white people are stepping up in ways that we’ve never seen before and ALL people of color are raising their voices with us as well. I think that when all of us are unified there is nothing that can stop us and that’s exactly what this moment feels like right now.”
Justice Gatson recently appeared on the Streetwise podcast from The Pitch.