Street-name changes and monument removals are tokens, not real change

It’s systems and behavior that matter

Many of Rob’s blog posts from the D.C. jail start with a conversation between Rob and Pam, his editor/collaborator. This one began with a question about Confederate monuments and Black Lives Matter murals:

Pam: You know, I’m not sure how to feel about the sudden rush to embrace Black Lives Matter by governments and all kinds of businesses. Like Confederate monuments coming down and cities replicating (D.C. Mayor Muriel) Bowser’s “Black Lives Matter” street mural. Does this really mean change is coming?

I can’t help but think of what happened to the annual gay Pride events. An opinion piece in The Washington Post noted this: “Pride has evolved into a party-focused, heavily branded affair; the celebration sometimes seems more retail than riot. Rainbow merchandise abounds, and companies often boast the splashiest floats in the parade. For some in the community, that’s a sign of mainstream acceptance. For others, it’s a betrayal of the movement’s radical roots.”

Which is it for Black Lives Matter?

Rob: These statues, street names and other glorifications of conquerors are reflections of a history told through the eyes of colonizers and occupiers. They marginalize or deny the role of Black people and mask the blatant human rights violations of these so-called heroes. As such, getting rid of them is a good starting point. But in practice, I don’t think these acts actually accomplish much.

This type of thing erodes my dignity and identity if I let them. But what really affects Black people in this country are the dynamics of a racist system that keep us from progressing. Like underfunded schools. Or the redlining of neighborhoods, which has deprived families of the equity needed for intergenerational wealth. Or a lack of investment in our communities, like what we see in southeast D.C., where we have only one hospital in the entire quadrant. Like not having access to fresh food because only convenience stores will open in our communities.

Pam: I totally agree. When I get emails from almost every business I’ve ever bought something from, all proclaiming “Black Lives Matter to us too,” I find myself thinking, “Yeah, yeah, prove it.” And I’m afraid implicit-bias training is turning into a kind of “check-the-box-done!” kind of thing. I did a Google search and it seems like it’s becoming the latest fad. I’ve done that training myself at one of my past jobs and it’s not enough.

Charlotte, NC

But I sort of see the BLM street and building murals differently, although I know they can be used as a PR ploy by mayors, etc., who then turn around and up the funding for police. Art can be such a powerful symbol.

Rob: Art definitely has a place. And so do streets named for Black people or movements. It’s sort of like Barack Obama being president. Seeing someone who looks like them in the White House gives Black children hope that progress is happening and that they can achieve big things too.

But there’s sort of both a gift and curse in things like that. If they aren’t followed by real, concrete changes that impact lives, then those same children will take away a different lesson. I’ve witnessed children be told they can do and achieve anything. But then they look around their community and all they see is poverty and drugs.

So, my question is, where are the jobs, the affordable home loans, the scholarships? The inequities are still so stark. The Washington Post just reported that in the first quarter of this year, 44% of Black families owned their home, compared to 74% of whites. In fact, the homeownership gap between Blacks and whites is larger today than it was in 1934!

Pam: Are there any incremental changes that are worthwhile? Some communities have banned chokeholds, or passed laws requiring police officers to intervene or report when wrongs are committed by their peers. But others dismiss those changes, saying another technique of repression will just replace chokeholds, or that reporting illegality should be expected of police officers — without a new law — no matter who commits the wrong. But is anything more than one increment at a time possible in our system?

Rob: More than any specific law, what’s important is the type of people we are hiring. Like, why does someone stand by and watch when you know a person is damn near dying from a chokehold and not intervene? I mean, really, why should anyone have to tell you that?

Like you said, there’s all this implicit-bias training and laws requiring body cams, but none of those things are enough, because the same things keep going on. What we need is accountability. We have to start holding officers accountable for their actions.

Pam: One of the reforms that’s always mentioned is to hire more Blacks into local forces. And I read a report documenting that it does help: An economist at Texas A&M University analyzed more than 2 million 911 calls and found that white officers dispatched to Black neighborhoods fired their guns five times more often than Black officers. But then again, one of the officers who failed to intervene when George Floyd was killed is black. And a 2016 Justice Department investigation into the Baltimore Police Department found obvious racial bias in a force in which more than 40% of the cops were African American. So, something must happen during training.

Alexander Keung, the black officer who stood by while Floyd was killed, was a trainee — under the supervision of none other than Derek Chauvin, the officer now charged with murder. The lawyer representing the other officer at the scene, a trainee too, said, “What was my client supposed to do but follow what his training officer said?”

How important do you think that dynamic is? Does the culture of police forces trump even race and community?

Rob: Well, look, (D.C. Mayor) Muriel Bowser’s Black. And her first reaction after a crime is committed is to push for more police. Maybe it does help to a certain extent [for police officers to come from the neighborhoods they patrol), but the culture overrides that. Again, it’s like Obama in the White House. What did he actually accomplish for the average African American? Most of us would say nothing. The culture, the system has to change.

Pam: The other problem is that it seems like it takes something egregious to happen before you get attention. It took George Floyd being murdered on camera to inspire national action, yet there’s so much dehumanization happening every day. That’s true in prison too. COVID-19 has exposed the conditions in prisons and jails that make them hotbeds of contagion: overcrowding, poor hygiene, inadequate health care. So, laws have been passed requiring cities and states to release some of the inmates. But those conditions should never be okay. Why are we only concerned now?

Rob: The system is designed to keep those conditions from public exposure. Who comes in is strictly controlled, they read and censor your mail going out, they control your calls and monitor what is said. With COVID, they’re afraid of officers and others taking the virus into the community, or of having to explain a large number of deaths inside. But once that danger subsides, no one will be watching anymore.

The steps taken now are just releasing those who would have gotten out soon anyway; like the monuments and street names, they are good first steps, but not near enough. Meanwhile, conditions that would not be considered livable for anyone else continue to fester. Out of sight, out of mind.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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