Home News Center This Moment and Our Movement: Message from NJJN Executive Director K. Ricky Watson, Jr.

This Moment and Our Movement: Message from NJJN Executive Director K. Ricky Watson, Jr.

June 17, 2020



A Message For This Moment & Our Movement


A few weeks ago, I was writing an op-ed about the life of Cornelius Fredrick, a 16-year-old black boy who died while a resident at a youth behavioral facility run by a for-profit management company with an atrocious track record of abuse and incompetence. Egregious force was used to restrain Cornelius because he threw a sandwich. While being restrained, he uttered the haunting words we’ve become all too familiar with: “I can’t breathe.” In the midst of working with our member, Michigan Center for Youth Justice, on a campaign to seek justice for Cornelius, the world erupted when a video circulated of George Floyd being pinned down by a police officer’s knee on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. During that time he repeated the plea “I can’t breathe” 16 times...the same phrase that Cornelius and countless others struggled to say with their last waking breath.  

I, like you, have been trying to process the events of the last several weeks. My emotions have run the course of crippling rage and utter disappointment. There is no refuge. Even in the midst of an international pandemic that’s disproportionately taking the lives of black and brown people, a far deadlier and more sinister virus continues to terrorize my people, racism. While the deaths of Cornelius Fredrick, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, are some of the most recent, we can never forget Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, Cameron Tillman, Emmett Till, Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson, and the countless others we’ve been naming for years, decades, and beyond. Every killing has taken its toll on my spirit. One’s consciousness can only take but so much. I found myself asking: When will it end? What makes this time any different?

But I find solace in seeing the streets filled with people demanding change, many led by youth activists like our own NJJN member young justice leader Aissa Dearing in Durham. I’m encouraged by so many people asking questions and having long-overdue uncomfortable conversations with family members and friends. I’m uplifted by knowing I am part of a network of advocates committed to anti-racism and who have been for many years. In 2017, NJJN made the emphatic decision to move towards anti-racist youth justice transformation. What much of the world is finally waking up to, we have known: white supremacy created our law enforcement and legal systems, it informs the manner in which people view the world, and it continues to drain life from black and brown communities by brutalizing and incarcerating our children. 

If we are to ever see true freedom for black and brown youth in this country, we must dismantle the racist foundation of our nation’s institutions and build up a new vision of justice where young people truly have the hope and resources needed to realize their full human potential. While I find myself asking why now and what’s different this time, perhaps this is the watershed moment that we will identify as the turning point in our fight towards freedom. I truly don’t know. But one thing I absolutely know is that the only way that vision ever becomes a reality is if we continue to push for a bold, transformative re-imagining of youth justice that is rooted in anti-racist principles.

These times are both unprecedented and unpredictable and we may not have seen the apex just yet. Remember we have each other to lean on and we welcome new allies to join us in fighting for the lives of young black and brown youth. This has been our path, and so we will continue together. 

K. Ricky Watson, Jr., Esq.
Executive Director, National Juvenile Justice Network

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