We were thrilled for Jaden Smith to profile activist Janaya Future Khan for this week's FRONTPAGE. On the day of their discussion, however, the world received the news of a Kentucky grand jury's indictment of the police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor for the sole charge of "wanton endangerment in the first degree." Khan's interview instead became an important discussion on what avenues for justice remain in an ethically broken state apparatus.
As the long struggle for equal human rights that has characterized the United States since its founding swelled this summer, Janaya Future Khan has emerged as one of the most vital voices in activism. The Toronto-born organizer is a revered figure in the Black Lives Matter movement (co-founding the Toronto chapter, and now serving as an international ambassador), a champion of intersectionality and transfeminism, and one of the foremost (and most formidable) speakers in today’s discourse for racial justice.
Khan’s journey into activism began as a teenager in Toronto, where they were subjected to humiliation by the police force and their “carding” policy — a tactic that allows police officers to stop and question anyone without relating to a specific offense. Growing up in an under-resourced area, and without the knowledge to proclaim otherwise, made Khan realize the drastic extent to which such a heavy law enforcement presence had been normalized and accepted — in lieu of any other form of solution in neighborhoods which were predominantly populated by people of color. A lifetime of accumulating similar experiences would galvanize them towards the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.
Khan — whose eponym “Future” derives from their awe-inducing forward-thinking — has become a uniquely captivating voice in part due to their incredibly holistic view of political reality that cuts fluidly across the personal and the political. “To assimilate into a system that we didn’t design […] is to forfeit a part of yourself,” they told Vogue in a September 2020 interview. “And I don’t think that people really understand that that’s the trade-off. You can’t fully know who you are if you assimilate and disappear yourself into a set of conditions that you didn’t design.”
On September 23, the day we had scheduled an interview between Khan and musician Jaden Smith, a Kentucky grand jury announced its indictments in the killing of Louisville medical worker Breonna Taylor. After a sustained worldwide call to arrest the cops who killed her, only one of the three officers involved in the shooting was indicted (on three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree). No officer involved in the case was charged for directly causing Taylor’s death, although she was shot and killed by police bullets during a botched raid of her apartment.
On the day the world received this news, what was meant to be a profile interview of Khan became an important discussion on what avenues for justice remain in an ethically broken state apparatus.
Jaden Smith: I don't know how to feel today, because of what has just come out of the decision that's been made on the Breonna Taylor case. It makes absolutely no sense to me. I'm baffled at what I'm reading. I want to know how you feel about this. How can we move forward in a way where people are actually getting the justice that [they] deserve for these horrible crimes?
Janaya Khan: This is a very difficult moment for anyone who is Black in America. It’s a difficult moment for anyone who believes in justice in America. I myself have been involved in this movement for justice in America for more than a decade, and I can tell you it doesn’t hurt less — to know that a Black woman’s life in this country can mean so little.
The circumstances in this country make it so that it’s literally almost impossible to convict a police officer of murder. If there was a way to reform the police, it would have been done. It’s my job as an organizer to help people understand what needs to be done to ensure that there isn’t another Breonna Taylor, that there isn’t another George Floyd. And at this point, that means to defund the police.
What do we mean when we say “defund”? We actually know the term already, Jaden, because the public education system has been defunded for years. So let's put that word on ice. What we're actually talking about is decency. Is it decent that a woman resting at home is murdered for absolutely no reason? No. Is it decent that we live in communities that have fewer resources, and the response is that there are more police in them? No. Is it decent that children in schools from particular zip codes get a second-tier education because they have less money, and the response is to throw police at them? No. Is it decent that people in this country who are going through a mental health crisis have police thrown at them, instead of the help that they need? No.
So when we hear “defund,” what we're actually talking about is decency. We need decency so that people can live long and dignified lives. If we really want to fight for Breonna Taylor right now, we need to fight to radically transform what's possible in this country. That is how we keep her legacy alive. That is how we make the life that she had lead [bring about] real tangible change. So this hurts, and we have to take that hurt. Oh, Jaden, we have to take that hurt. Let’s take that pain, and use that towards power and possibility.
Is there a role in society that can [achieve] the good sides of what police are supposed to do? Everything that they say, to protect and serve... I’m not saying that they do that — they’re actually out here killing us and getting away with it.
It’s a difficult question, and I want to break it down to the sum of its parts for a moment. If you are in a mental health crisis in America, you're 16 times more likely to be executed by police. So, imagine if you needed someone to talk to, [and] instead of calling a police officer, you could call someone who has a background in social work and is also a medical expert in all these things. These practices and programs actually exist. And the truth is that people take care of people.
The question you’re asking, Jaden, is: What do the police do well? And if you’re looking at the data, there’s not much. They primarily respond to noise complaints. They don't help women or people who have been harmed in sexualized violence. They do not solve most robberies — the insurance companies settle that. These are not my opinions, this is actual data. So then, the question becomes: Do people deserve to die from noise complaints? Can we send someone else to resolve disputes? Someone who has some kind of authority, but not necessarily the authority to kill? In this country, the response for any kind of issue has been to throw police at it. As of two years ago, there are more police shows than any other kind of show. Why is that? What is our obsession with these particular things?
When I think about where I see the police, I don't see them in wealthy neighborhoods. We don't see them in white neighborhoods, because they're well-resourced. And just because there aren't police in those communities, has anarchy been on the streets? No. Simply because people can exist really well without constant police presence. So why do we feel that police need to be constantly present in communities that are under-resourced, and primarily Black and Brown? It's because there’s a fear that people who look like you and I are going to leave their ghettos and their projects — we're gonna leave our spaces where we belong — and we're going to go up to those neighbors and take what's theirs.
The best way to ensure that people are secure is to ensure that enough people have what they need. Because people know how to take care of people. Everywhere in the country, our data is telling us that crime is going down in the middle of a pandemic, where millions of people are facing eviction and millions more are hungry. Our response is to throw more police at them and bail out billionaires, while the people who have been paying into the system are receiving nothing. There is no kind of safety net, no kind of care from our government. Instead, we're protecting police. That doesn't make any sense.
I think we can create new pathways and new groups of people whose jobs it is to keep people safe. But we don't need police. It matters that mass shootings are a reality in America — and I’ll tell you what, Jaden, I’m not trying to put on a vest and go deal with that myself. But why can’t there be a designated taskforce to do that? Why do they have to be police? We have been sold a myth that we need police to maintain control and protect people's property. Now people are waking up, and they're demanding more. Why shouldn't our children get the education that they deserve? Why shouldn't people who are in a mental health crisis get care? Why shouldn't people have free healthcare in this country? Why shouldn't education be free? And part of the reason why we are unable to achieve those goals is that, in major cities, half of the city budget is going into police resources instead of going into communities’ education and health care.
That is so impactful. We need to pay attention to that more — the fact that the reason that these problems are happening in various communities is that those resources aren’t there. And then that piles up and people are pushed to their limits. When we talk about defunding the police, it's important to also mention that the money we no longer give to the police needs to go back into the communities that the police were brutalizing. The communities that don't have enough, that have been red-lined, that have been designed specifically to be put into the situations that they're put in. That money needs to go back to those communities, so people have enough just to live a life and thrive.
What's going to happen to the other people that were involved in the murder of Breonna Taylor? Are we going to get justice, or are they going to continue to ignore us, and say that Black lives essentially don't matter? That’s what they're saying by not charging the people who killed Breonna Taylor. And that's why it makes me so upset. Do you think that we are going to be able to get justice from the other killers who were involved?
The simplest answer is no. Even a fired police officer can get hired in another department or another state. There are no restrictions on that. And that is why there are so many police officers across the country who have actually killed multiple times. It is very difficult to charge a police officer, from a legal perspective. This ruling of “wanton endangerment in the first degree” for one out of three officers charged — which obviously is not enough, right? — is actually a win from a legal perspective. That is how flawed our system is. So, while we can say we understand completely that it is an absolute miscarriage of justice, from an American criminal justice perspective, that is a win, because it is so difficult to get any kind of accountability from police officers.
We have to move away from the model that something is going to be done around these particular police officers, because you cannot achieve that within our legal system, the way it is set up.
It's time we put that to rest and look at transformation instead of reform. That happens in part by removing the teeth of this beast immediately. We need to slash police budgets. We have to look at who our mayors are and what our city budget breakdowns actually are. We have to start to look at who DAs are in particular states. People are so afraid of police and police unions — politicians and DAs are terrified of police and police unions. That's how powerful they’ve become.
We now have to look beyond just holding single police officers accountable. Do we need to fight alongside families for the demands that they have? Yes, we absolutely do. Our job is to elevate those asks as we elevate that family. We cannot turn this into a singular incident when we know that it's happening across the country. We know that it is impossible to hold a police officer accountable. We know that the laws are set up that way. We know that politicians and prosecutors are terrified of police and police unions.
One could argue that, although small, I am mighty. I get up on the stage, and I’ve read everything there is to read, and I give people all kinds of fire and hope and everything else. But Jaden, I was walking my dog last night, and a police cruiser came around the corner, and I ducked behind a car. Because I know what I look like — if it’s a bit chilly, and I throw on a hoodie... I was wearing a durag, and I knew exactly what I looked like. I just knew that I couldn't take the risk. So I ducked behind a car, and waited for the cruiser to pass by. And I have not felt right within myself since then.
That's the kind of world that we live in — one where there are literal agents of the state who terrorize people who look like me, who look like you. And the only way to stop it is to have the most bold and audacious and ethical asks that we can. That means letting go of this idea of reform. We have to transform if we want to stop these murders from happening. We have to change the system itself. So our asks have to be huge, because we are strong enough to carry them. My God, we've been carrying the burden of injustice and bigotry in this country since we got here. So we can manage the bold and audacious newness of the kinds of asks and the kinds of justice that we deserve.
Every time I talk with you, I learn so much. And I'm so honored to be able to speak with you. Because you're right. It's about these events that have happened — that have touched all of us — but it's also about the bigger picture, because these events happen all the time. We just don't see it.
We need to change this for generations to come. We need to change this now. We've been dealing with this for over 400 years, which is way too long. It's not going to work like this. We have to change this, because we can’t continue to have this life where we’re scared to live or even be alive. So I’m sad today, but I also feel like the world is seeing how unfair this system is once and for all. It's right in front of all of us, so if you look and pay attention, you can see how flawed this is.
At the end of the day, I still have hope, and I know that we can really make a change.
For all the people who are reading this article right now, do you have anything to say to them about how they can move forward into the future and make a difference? How we can really make a change?
I feel very strongly that people who get out on the streets and protest, and people who feel a sense of injustice, they know pain. We know pain, and we feel it very deeply. And the depth of how deep we can go into our pain gives a glimpse into the possibility of power we have within us. So we can be sad, but we must be steadfast.
In this time that we're in, I think about how stories, myths, and beliefs have really shaped this entire society around us. We forget we have to write ourselves into existence — we have to fight ourselves into existence. We are in the great battle of beliefs, and now we are being called to the fields. We're being called into a higher purpose. We are the shields and the stones. We are the sentinels. And that requires a deep kind of love. Because pain may have brought us all together, but love brings us back. We don’t fight because we hate a system. It is because we love ourselves, and we love each other.
So our job, in this time of the great battle of beliefs, is to figure out who we are and who we want to be. It's a reminder that it is not yet too late to be the person you always thought that you could be. There's risk in fighting for justice, but you learn something. The risk of losing myself by doing nothing is greater to me than the risk of anything that I can experience out there — any kind of bigotry, or any kind of hatred. The risk of losing myself is greater than the risk that they represent to me, and to all of us. Because we lose a part of ourselves if we disappear into a system that we know we don't believe in.