On the one-year anniversary of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) introducing the People’s Justice Guarantee, a sweeping criminal-legal reform resolution created to dismantle a racist system that disproportionately targets, incarcerates, and kills members of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, Pressley sat down with Kirsten West Savali, ESSENCE executive producer of News and Politics, to discuss her vision for the nation, the Black Lives Matter’s mandate for the incoming Biden-Harris administration, and why The People’s Justice Guarantee will fundamentally redefine what justice looks like in America.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” — Ella Baker
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) is a woman on a mission—a mission to serve, to lead, and to radically reimagine a new world in which justice for all is more than just an echo of a reality that never was. And she has remained focused on that mission with laser sharp precision since being elected to serve the people of Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District in 2018.
Her commitment to justice, freedom, liberation, and healing for Black people and other marginalized communities that have been oppressed since this nation’s inception is evident in every line of The People’s Justice Guarantee, a resolution she introduced in 2019 that is rooted in five guiding principals: shared power, freedom, equality, safety, and human dignity.
“The criminal legal system is racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed beyond reform,” Pressley said when she unveiled the resolution. “It must be dismantled and radically transformed through a large-scale decarceration effort.”
Since that time, she has demanded that this nation, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “be true to what it said on paper.” From partnering with local advocates in Massachusetts to call for COVID-related decarceration at state prisons, to fighting to ensure incarcerated individuals are able to access the stimulus payments, to introducing a bill in 2019 to abolish the death penalty and calling for the repeal of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pressley is not just a disruptor, she is a builder who understands that it’s not just important to “get things done” in Congress.
What gets done matters.
“The People’s Justice Guarantee, which I introduced one year ago, is a radical re-imagining of our criminal legal system, one which centers the humanity and dignity of people and one which decriminalizes low level offenses and substance use and homelessness and mental health,” Pressley tells ESSENCE. “These are not abstract things for me. I’m just like one out of four children in my district that I represent—and one out of 28 children in our country—who have an incarcerated parent, loved one or caregiver.”
Pressley shares that her father, who struggled with problematic drug use, can be counted among the number of people who was criminalized and incarcerated when he should have been treated with dignity and care.
“My father cycled in and out of the criminal legal system for some 14 years, so I know intimately the destabilization of that on a household, the stigma of that,” Pressley said. “He should have been met with on-demand culturally competent treatment, not incarceration.”
“So much of what we have criminalized in society is born out of people doing things for their mere survival—and we have to tell the truth about that,” Pressley teaches with conviction. “We have a legacy in this country of treating trauma with trauma, but I do believe that another world is possible.”
The congresswoman knows that the country is on fire with righteous rage sparked in large part by the state-sanctioned and orchestrated killing of Black people, but also because of the U.S. government’s decision to divest from and under-resource Black communities.
We have a legacy in this country of treating trauma with trauma, but I do believe that another world is possible.Rep. Ayanna Pressley
“One of the bills that I introduced to support the tenets of the People’s Justice Guarantee is called the Counseling not Criminalization in Schools Act and another bill is called Ending PUSHOUT [Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma] Act,” Pressley said. “Both of those speak about the need for us to not invest in growing our school police force. We have under-resourced and over-surveilled and over-policed our communities. Over the past two decades, we’ve invested $1 billion to grow our school police to 46,000 people strong when our children do not even have equitable access to a school nurse, a social worker, or a psychotherapist. And we know those things works; we just haven’t funded it.”
“That harm has been blunt, and it has been precise,” Pressley continued. “The inequities and disparities we see in our communities are not naturally occurring. Four out of five of those sitting on death row, who are on pace to be executed before the inauguration, are Black men. Police brutality is the sixth leading cause of death for Black men. That is not naturally occurring.”
[Brandon Bernard, 40, was executed by the federal government on December 10, 2020, after serving 20 years on death row. His execution is the first to be carried out by a lame duck president in 130 years.]
While Pressley is keenly aware that freedom is a constant struggle, she is more committed than ever to being in community with and working alongside other freedom fighters to hold President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris accountable to the people who elected them. In a recent op-ed for The Nation, she urged the incoming administration to adopt The People’s Justice Guarantee.
“I believe that the Biden-Harris administration has a mandate,” Pressley tells ESSENCE. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the president and vice-president of the United States because the most marginalized mobilize in a big movement of Black, Brown, Indigenous, AAPI, young, and disabled people delivered that victory.
“The movement met the moment and now we have to meet the needs of the movement,” she continued. “That means advancing bold, progressive policies that will truly be transformative. The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power driving and informing policymaking. That’s the reckoning.”
Though the United States is a white settler colonial project rooted in genocide, slavery, land theft, Pressley believes whole-heartedly that this nation is on the precipice of a third reconstruction.
“That’s the opportunity before us, but it is also the responsibility before us,” Pressley said thoughtfully. “My vision for the nation is that we replace oppression with liberation and that we replace trauma with healing. And I’m going to continue to fight for, and legislate and organize and mobilize to accomplish those two very things.
“This is the reckoning, and this is the time.”
Watch the full conversation with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley below: