A Q&A with Solomon Jones
In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, acclaimed commentator Solomon Jones posits that, as a nation, we could eradicate the domestic terror threat of white supremacy for a fraction of the cost of the Afghan war, but it would require “refocusing our hearts, taking a long look in the mirror, and mustering the courage to change our collective will.” In Ten Lives, Ten Demands: Life-and-Death Stories, and a Black Activist’s Blueprint for Racial Justice, he offers a blueprint for where we can start.
Told through his perspective as an activist, Jones tells the stories of real people—George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Hassan Bennett, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Deborah Danner—whose lives and deaths pushed the Black Lives Matter movement forward. He explains how each act of violence was incited by specific instances of structural racism, and details concrete and actionable strategies to address crimes committed by our “justice” system. Our senior publicist, Bev Rivero, caught up with Jones to chat with him about his book.
Bev Rivero: Do you feel that this book is a natural extension of your work as an organizer?
Solomon Jones: Yes. One of the things I realized in working against racism in policing is that Frederick Douglass was right when he said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” You simply can’t have an effective movement without very specific demands. If you don’t know exactly what you want and you can’t articulate it clearly, the power structure decides for itself what it is willing to give, and that often turns out to be nothing. Organizing should start with deciding on a list of demands, and the actions should be centered on making them happen.
BR: The Demands at the conclusion of each chapter are rooted in systemic change. What would be some of your advice for individuals to uplift these demands and reach lawmakers and others?
SJ: I would encourage people to list these demands on their social media—to use them as a starting point for action. Next, I would advise them to get involved in their own communities. Learn how the local systems work and learn the names of local leaders. Challenge them to make change locally, and if they don’t make change, replace them. Run for office yourself if you must, and when you do, lift up these demands. Then make the demands the center piece of every campaign on the state and federal level. Force candidates to take positions, and then force them to act on those positions or lose their seats.
BR: In your chapter on Alton Sterling, you discuss how the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would have made a big difference in gaining justice for Sterling. In March of 2021, the bill passed in the House, but it has not yet advanced to the Senate, although President Biden called upon Congress to send him the bill by the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. Can you summarize what passing this bill would mean?
SJ: The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would do three main things. First, it would make it easier to convict a law enforcement officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution. Right now, prosecutors have to do the impossible—they must prove that an officer “willfully” violated the victim’s rights. Under this law, they’d simply have to prove that the officer knowingly or recklessly did so. Second, this law would limit qualified immunity so that police officers can be sued for their on-duty actions. That means officers who are sued for on-duty actions would pay damages out of their own pockets rather than having the taxpayers do so. Third, this law would authorize the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas in pattern-and-practice investigations, which would make it easier to gather evidence against departments that routinely engage in abusive behavior.
BR: As you weave your own story of survival throughout the book, what are some of the connections you’d like to see readers make?
SJ: I’d like readers to know that Black people have worth. We spend our lives navigating through racist systems that magnify and monetize our mistakes. Some of us come out the other side to tell the story, and some of us don’t. By the grace of God, I’ve been blessed to be able to tell the story. Unfortunately, too many of us are left to let others tell the tale. I want readers to know that there is a connection between the negative portrayals of Black people in media and the justification of police brutality. I want readers to understand that unjust outcomes are sometimes driven by personal connections between police and prosecutors. I want readers to understand that the systems that enable police brutality and corruption within our criminal justice system are connected to laws that protect the guilty and victimize the innocent. We have the ability to make change, but in order to do so, we must make one final connection. We must connect our protests to demands.
BR: In the epilogue you share how deeply emotional the process of narrating these stories and lives was for you and how the “triumph of this book” is that it opens the full spectrum of feelings. In revealing how emotion is a catalyst for action, how might this prompt organizing and demanding change?
SJ: This book allowed me to explore the grief I felt for these families who lost so much to police brutality and injustice. It also helped me to craft an action plan that would allow my community to do something constructive with our emotions. When each of these stories happened, people protested because they refused to sit still and allow the anger, sadness, and grief to overwhelm them. Instead, they used their emotions as tools to build a movement. It’s my hope that this book will give us the demands we need to transform our movement into real and tangible change. I’m still angry and hurt, but more than that, I’m determined to see justice for my people. That must be our ultimate demand.
About Solomon Jones
Solomon Jones is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and morning host for WURD radio in Philadelphia. He is also a host for Classix 107.9 and a blogger for NPR affiliate WHYY. Jones is an Essence best-selling author who has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, Nightline, and CNN. In 2019, Jones formed the Rally for Justice Coalition with a multitude of civil rights organizations. The coalition’s efforts resulted in the firing of over a dozen Philadelphia police officers who espoused racist rhetoric online. Connect with him on Twitter @solomonjones1 or at solomonjones.com.