Social Justice and the Politics of Retribution
On what comes next
In the most recent issue of New York Magazine is a fascinating first-person piece by X. González, the prominent gun control advocate. González, now 23, is best-known as one of the survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Along with fellow student David Hogg, González became the face of a national movement that has tried, with some success, to change America’s absurdly lax gun control laws. González reflects on her rapid rise to fame and the personal pressures that came with traveling across America to speak in front of large, grief-stricken audiences. The March for Our Lives movement felt, in its time, like a pivot point: millions were fed up with the carnage and wanted elected leaders to act. Donald Trump was president and Republicans held the Senate, severely limiting the horizons of gun control advocacy, and this inevitably fed despair. González writes well on these currents, as well as the personal dimension of activism—its promises and perils.
González, naturally, falls on the left spectrum when it comes to questions of politics and policy. Republicans come in for a drubbing. A Twitter bio calls for abolishing the police and prisons. “unfollow me if you don’t wanna hear me cursing out Nazis and the White Supremacist Powers that Be,” González warns. In New York, González describes a collegiate awakening: “I took classes about postcolonial theory, modern authoritarianism, Black social and political thought, manifestos throughout history, gender theory, comic books. It was a shock to my system to learn from the past, to study how society can function and find solutions outside the bottleneck of Congress.” Soon, there’s the realization that gun violence cannot be discussed without also acknowledging America’s long history of police brutality. “The same white liberals who were against gun violence in schools thought criticizing police brutality went too far.”
Inherent in the advocacy for police and prison abolition is the belief, in theory at least, that forgiveness is necessary and redemption is always possible. A human being is not the summation of their sins. Armed police officers are the state’s monopolization of violence, González and their allies may argue, and they too often ruin the lives of Black Americans through a racist application of this violence. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and prisons disproportionately lock away people of color. If there is going to be a true racial justice reckoning in this country, the prison population will have to shrink dramatically. Americans will need to grow comfortable with shorter sentences for violent offenses. Simply decriminalizing marijuana nationwide or setting free all drug offenders will not be enough. Those accused of violent offenses will have to be shown mercy too.
González, who is fighting for a world without police officers and prisons, desperately wanted the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter to receive the death penalty. It is a natural plea, one that almost any human being would feel if the people closest to them were murdered. It is also one rife with conflict and contradiction; González, inadvertently perhaps, lays bare a central tension of the new social justice politics.