In 1981, Susan Burton’s 5-year-old son, her baby, ran into the street outside their home in South Los Angeles and was killed when a Los Angeles police officer struck him with his car.
And he kept going.
“The policeman never even stayed around,” Burton, 64, told The Root. “It was almost like it was a hit-and-run. And all I knew is when I was sitting in the hospital, a whole army of police officers descended into the hospital.
“They never ever ever even said, ‘Ms. Burton, I’m sorry,’” Burton said, hurt and anger still evident in her voice. “And that just added, you know, another layer of pain and feeling like ... like, worthless that these people didn’t even acknowledge me.”
Burton could not escape her grief, so she sought refuge in crack cocaine, the only relief she could find from an all-encompassing, debilitating pain that no mother should ever have to bear. And for nearly 20 years, she spiraled in addiction as she cycled in and out of prison on nonviolent drug charges.
In 1997, as Burton exited prison for the sixth time, a prison guard said, “I’ll see you back in a little while.”
She would not return, but neither would her road be easy.
Burton could not find a job because of her criminal record. She could not access food stamps or housing assistance. Determined to stay drug-free despite the immense hardships she faced, she entered into a rehabilitation facility and upon her release, a friend helped her find a job caring for an elderly woman.
And a vision was born.
Burton knew there were other women like her in need of assistance, love and support to navigate a world slowly killing them from the inside. So, she began inviting women she knew who had been recently released from prison to stay at her home in South Los Angeles.
She transformed her home into a refuge, a warm place to heal and start over. In 2000, she incorporated her growing efforts into A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which currently assists 32 women and about four children re-enter society with the support system they need. Since 1998, the organization has helped more than 1,000 women discover a new way of life, serving about 60 women per year.
Black women, in particular, have to fight to be mothers in a white supremacist society we were not meant to survive free. We have to fight to raise our children in relative safety, to provide for them, to feed them and clothe them, to educate them, to love them in a society that threatens to snatch their lives away from us while we reach for them with desperate hands.
So, what happens when you compound these conditions with the carceral state and the drug war in which black women are primary targets, not simply adjacent to the criminalization of black men? What happens when we are pathologized as bad mothers, unstable mothers, unworthy mothers?
What happens when our lives become fathomless pits of institutionalized cruelty, grief and despair, and drugs offer the only fleeting relief available?
“Every time I was released, I swore I wasn’t going back,” said Burton in a 2010 CNN interview. “But I know now that without the resources and support, it’s next to impossible. ... If you don’t have a new door to walk through, the only thing is the old door.”
In the conversation below, Burton talks about the stigma placed on black mothers, the institutional barriers black women face trying to access freedom for themselves and, if they have them, for their children, and how whiteness functions with deliberate cruelty.
The Root: Addiction and poverty are symptoms of the malignancy of white supremacy, but society, especially when it comes to black women, never wants to treat the disease, it wants to criminalize the people suffering from it. Speak to those issues that black women face on an intimate level.
Susan Burton: What I see overall is poverty in this country treated as a weakness and people who are impoverished are used by other people to enhance their wealth. For instance, in my community, there are places with payday loans on every corner. There is over-policing and excessive use of force and just excessive police presence and lack of services, trauma services, services to address violence. So everything is always met with a gun or handcuffs by law enforcement. And I mean there’s just better ways to address the poverty, which is a symptom of everything else. Poverty produces symptoms of other things like drug use and violence. People want to escape through drug use. And instead of treating and supporting people to divert them from drug use or understanding that this is their body—and what they put in their body you should not be able to control it or demonize it or criminalize it—they are punished. Punishment on top of suffering.
Susan Burton and Georgia (Courtesy of Susan Burton)
TR: I completely respect and understand that this may be difficult for you to discuss, and I don’t want to place an emotional burden on you at all. So, if we can, I’d like to talk about your son. You began to self-medicate, and that path led you into the criminal-justice system?
SB: When I was suffering the grief and loss of my son, you know, I medicated that. It felt like there was a, just a ball of nothing, nothingness, painful nothingness, in my center, and see, it was a policeman that killed my son. It was an LAPD detective that killed my son. I felt so angry and hurt that they never even acknowledged it, never even acknowledged me and what they took from me. My son.
TR: I’m thinking right now about reproductive justice. You had an LAPD officer take your son from you, steal your son’s life from you, from him, and then, you have them killing us, gunning down our children in the streets, and then you have them criminalizing parents in these conditions that this white supremacist society—that hates women, hates blackness, hates poverty—creates in the first place. And then you have police officers with a license to kill.
SB: Yes, and then, speaking on reproductive justice, they are locking us up in our reproductive years. So many men and women are locked up through their reproductive years. It’s genocidal what they’re doing. And out here in California, 6 percent of the overall population is black women, but black women make up 29 percent of the prison population. It is genocidal.
(Editor’s note: From fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, the state of California sterilized women without proper consent, a state audit found. At least 35 black women were sterilized during this time period, but the number is potentially much higher. Most of the women who were coerced into undergoing tubal ligation had low education levels and had been pregnant multiple times. California banned forced sterilization in 1979.)
TR: Also, the system is so quick to label black women as “bad mothers.”
SB: Exactly. I have a woman here, Ingrid, who just got out of prison. She ran into the store to grab milk and Pampers for her baby, and came back out and got arrested for child endangerment. She was sent to prison for three years. Still in the midst, I believe that what she was suffering from was postpartum depression. The way black women with mental-health issues are treated in this country is just horrible.
TR: Some years ago, I reported on a black mother, Frankea Dabbs, who was clearly suffering from mental illness after experiencing immense trauma in her life. She left her 10-month-old daughter on a subway platform and was instantly vilified. But we have white women who kill their children and empathy is widespread. And, according to a 2009 study conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health study:
The rates of mental-health problems are higher than average for black women because of psychological factors that result directly from their experience as black Americans. These experiences include racism, cultural alienation, and violence and sexual exploitation. ... African Americans in low-income, urban communities are at high risk for exposure to traumatic events, including having relatives murdered and their own experience with physical and sexual assaults, all of which are associated with the onset of post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.
SB: And that depression, that grief, often leads to drug abuse, right? And you know, those drugs just didn’t pop up in our community. They were sent to our community. I’m really clear that, that the amount of drugs that came into our community didn’t come in there by our community members. You know, this was a deliberate tearing apart of our black community. And everything they’ve done to us has been deliberate.
K.K., Susan Burton’s son. (Courtesy of Susan Burton)
When I was suffering the grief and loss of my son, you know, I medicated that. It felt like there was a, just a ball of nothing, nothingness, painful nothingness, in my center.
And I’m watching now, the opiate use by other folks and, all of a sudden, it’s, “Oh, we have a health problem here.” But with the cocaine use, we had a criminal problem. So, I’m watching that and saying you know, this is what they do. This is what white folks do, you know, they criminalize black people, they offer support to other people. I’ve watched the breaking down of our family structures through incarceration and separation and criminalization of our communities.
I remember in a movie I saw, it may have been Roots, and I remember the woman saying, “Master, master please don’t sell my baby. Master, master please, I’ll do anything, don’t take my baby.” And I watch black women go through the court system and they say, “Judge, judge, please let me have my baby back, I’ll do anything. Judge, judge please let me have my baby back.” And because a woman is criminalized doesn’t mean she is unfit or she’s not a good mom. But I watch that judge, regardless of what that woman tries to do in dire, dire circumstances, not give that woman back custody of her child. And it’s heart-wrenching and it’s heartbreaking.
So many men and women are locked up through their reproductive years. It’s genocidal what they’re doing.
TR: And that’s another way the criminal injustice system robs black women of motherhood.
SB: So, what do you do? Where do you run to? That woman is pretty much powerless to do anything but curl up in a ball or self-medicate, right? So, you know, I know what it feels like to lose a child. But sometimes, it’s that that child gets put in the foster care system and, many times, they end up feeling abandoned, no love, and they self-medicate that pain, too. I see the breaking, the criminalization, the hurt and the pain through these systems that is just, oh, it’s unconscionable.
TR: And that leverage is also used to assault black women, right? Sexual assault is the second-highest reported form of police brutality after excessive force, and women of color are more likely to be attacked. So, you look at someone like [former Oklahoma City Police Officer] Daniel Holtzclaw, who targeted women like you, with prior charges. He targeted black women that he knew were vulnerable, black women (and one black girl) who were fearful of the criminal-justice system, and he raped them.
SB: This goes on, and I know that you know that to law enforcement, black women are criminal. At every level, they abuse women, whether it’s rape, you know, whether it’s strip searches, whether it’s dehumanizing them. I walk into a jail now to visit women and the women are trained to turn from me and look at the wall. And I just want to cry for them. So all of these are forms of violence and dehumanization. All of them.
TR: You said something earlier about how society should not police what people put into their bodies, and that’s such an important point. We talk about the shame and the stigma attached to what is put into our bodies. They will criminalize the body; they will shackle the body, and they will do all these things to control us as opposed to looking at this system that really needs to be broken, because it’s functioning exactly as it’s supposed to. They won’t address poverty, but they’ll police those living in poverty. They won’t address public schools that are intentionally allowed to fail in the service of privatization, but they will keep the school-to-prison pipeline running smoothly.
SB: That’s exactly it. It is a system that needs to be interrupted. When I, when my son died, the grief, the pain that I was in, you know, I needed something to help me cope with that. I’ve seen people in physical pain, and I’ve seen people in dire mental distress. The level of grief I was in, I needed something to deal with that pain, that rage. I don’t know what I’d have done to get through that. So I used drugs; I used until I found another solution.
I was never offered help when I stood in front of the judge and told them what had happened in my life. They hit the gavel and sent me to prison, had me stripped down and inspected like a slave. Handcuffed and sent me to work for 8 cents an hour. I know that given my circumstances, there could have been services and trauma centers available to help me through such a difficult time, but there was not. So what I do now is free women up from that same system. If I can, I help them get their baby back; I do that. I take them to court. I write letters. I stand in front of that judge. I help them meet that court requirement.
Recovery Convention 2016 (Courtesy of Susan Burton)
Because what I know is I can’t get my baby back but I can help another woman get hers. I can’t take back the years, the time stolen from me, but I can stop another woman from giving all of her years. And that’s what I do.
There once lived a woman with deep brown skin and black hair who freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety. She welcomed them to safe homes and offered food, shelter, and help reuniting with family and loved ones. She met them wherever they could be found and organized countless others to provide support and aid in various forms so they would not be recaptured and sent back to captivity. This courageous soul knew well the fear and desperation of each one who came to her, seeing in their eyes all the pain she felt years ago when she had been abused and shackled and finally began her own journey to freedom.
* * *
Deep in the night she cried out to God begging for strength, and when she woke she began her work all over again, opening doors, planning escape routes, and holding hands with mothers as they wept for children they hoped to see again. A relentless advocate for justice, this woman was a proud abolitionist and freedom fighter. She told the unadorned truth to whomever would listen and spent countless hours training and organizing others, determined to grow the movement. She served not only as a profound inspiration to those who knew her, but as a literal gateway to freedom for hundreds whose lives were changed forever by her heroism.
Some people know this woman by the name Harriet Tubman. I know her as Susan. —Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, from Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women (May 2017)
Kirsten West Savali is a journalist with TheRoot.com.
This piece originally appeared on TheRoot.com.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.