This TIME essay by Ruha Benjamin, internationally recognized writer, speaker, and professor of African American Studies at Princeton University paints a picture of how swiftly her younger brother, a black young man with schizophrenia, was criminalized instead of being connected with the mental health resources he needed. Benjamin didn’t get access to mental health care until after he was traumatized and stigmatized by the Las Angeles County criminal justice system. Below is her description of “Viral Justice,” and you can read the full piece here.
“The concept of “viral justice” offers a fresh orientation, a way of looking at (or looking again) at all the ways people are working, little by little, day by day, to combat unjust systems and build alternatives to the oppressive status quo. It invites us to witness how an idea or action that sprouts in one place may be adopted, adapted, and diffused elsewhere. Rather than a strict focus on macro processes and “structural change,” viral justice reminds us how individual volition maintains or transforms the status quo. Social systems, after all, rely on each of us playing along or questioning the rules of the game.
Transforming the rules in this context is not about police reform. Instead, it refers to the upending of an entire system—the gradual abolition of an institution born of slave patrols, one that protects property over people, and is kept alive by the myths of virtuosity and necessity. But those larger goals take shape in the small print of city, state, and federal budgets where individuals, groups, and coalitions—like the Seattle Solidarity Budget—are calling for investment in social goods like housing, education, work, and community.
Viral justice is also about creating communities of care—articulating the kind of world we want out there in our relationships and interactions with strangers and friends right here. It requires that we answer educator and abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s vital question: “What else can we grow instead of punishment and suffering?”