At annual Lynch Lecture, Georgetown Law professor challenges a system of racial injustice

By Audrey Williams

“My name is Paul Butler, and I represent the people.”

It is with these words that Professor Paul Butler, who began his career as a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., would begin his opening statements when representing the U.S. government in criminal court. 

Delivering the 29th Annual Lynch Lecture on September 26, Butler told the audience that as a Black man, he had once hoped to be able to use his role as a prosecutor to “create change from the inside.”

However, his experience taught him that “our system is too broke to fix.”  

It’s a system that targets Black men—and other communities, including Black women, Latinx and trans individuals, and immigrants—for arrest, incarceration, and police violence. This is the thesis that Butler sets out in his new book, Chokehold: Policing Black Men, and that he discussed in his Lynch Lecture, which was organized by the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s fifth Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair, Susan Hirsch.

The public Lynch Lecture series, which was established in 1987 through the support of Edwin and Helen Lynch, “was intended by them to highlight a major figure in the field and to report on research progress and practice to a wide and diverse audience beyond the reaches of academia,” S-CAR dean Kevin Avruch said in his opening remarks.

Hirsch, who is in her second year as the Lynch Chair, has dedicated the first five years of her tenure in the Chair to themes of justice. Last year’s Lynch Lecture brought the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, to George Mason University to make the case for “confronting the patriarchy” and bringing more women into high-level government and business positions.

“Lapses and travesties of justice in the United States confront us with an urgency that prompted my choice of Professor Paul Butler as this year’s speaker,” Hirsch said while introducing Butler.

“Police and prosecutors set up Black men, and they target us to fail,” Butler told the audience. “As a prosecutor, I was enforcing a racial kind of law and order, and as a student of African American history, I should have known better.”

It’s a realization that Butler documented in his first book, Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.

Now the Albert Brick Professor in Law at Georgetown University, Butler has dedicated his research to a different kind of public service: advocating for changes to this “racial kind of law and order.”

During his remarks, Butler presented research and examples demonstrating that the criminal legal process in the United States has been designed to systematically target African American men.

“There are now more Black people in the criminal legal process today than there were slaves in 1850,” he said.

He underlined that key Supreme Court cases have delivered “super powers” to the police that enable the current system of injustice; for example, according to Butler, Scott v. Harris gives police the power to use deadly force, while U.S. v. Whren and U.S. v. Martinez Fuerte give the police the power to racially profile individuals. 

“These cases make it perfectly constitutional for Black lives not to matter to the police,” Butler said.

To better understand this system, he encouraged the audience to read the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report, calling it “one of the defining cultural artifacts of our time.” He noted that the report includes several telling data points—such as the finding that every time a police dog was used by the Ferguson police, it was used against a Black individual.

For Butler, justice for Black men and others victimized by the existing criminal legal process will not and cannot be achieved without changing the system, one that perpetuates a “new Jim Crow” based on “White supremacy.” He recalled that the history of African American liberation is “a struggle of resistance to the law. Not the idea of it, but the practice of it in the United States.”

According to Butler, the Movement for Black Lives is a continuation of this tradition, one that sees focusing solely on police reform and incarceration as treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

“If you just treat the symptom, then the disease is going to mutate, just like it did from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration,” Butler said. 

In order to cure the disease, he posed a “radical” idea to the audience. Just as resistance to the law has defined African American liberation, so has the concept of abolition: abolition of slavery; abolition of Jim Crow. During his Lynch Lecture, Butler made the case for the abolition of prison, challenging the audience to consider how the purposes of prison—keeping us “safe” and holding “people who cause harm accountable”— might be achieved in ways “that don’t involve locking human beings in cages.” 

Butler closed his lecture by relating to the audience that when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a judge in D.C., he would sometimes see Black men being led into criminal court in chains, and he would think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

“My friends, the determination of who goes to criminal court in chains should not be so fortuitous. It should not depend so much on race and class,” Butler told the audience. “As long as it does, we need to resist until that system is transformed.”