“We cannot live without our lives.”

Over the past week, I kept thinking about the 1974 line by author Barbara Deming as the killers of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted and the family of Charleena Lyles settled a wrongful-death civil suit with the city of Seattle for $3.5 million.

Some readers wrote to me after the Arbery convictions to say, “See? The system works.” 

But we cannot live without our lives. I don’t know any person who would choose to have a loved one killed and their killers convicted over having their loved ones stay alive. I don’t know any person who would want that for themselves.

One reader wrote after the Arbery verdict, “I’ll look forward to your piece praising the judicial system for functioning as it should.” 

Functioning as it should? You mean not charging the men for two months until a video was made public? Functioning as it should, as in the former prosecutor being indicted on charges of allegedly shielding the men from charges after the shooting?

Sorry, but that piece praising the judicial system for the Arbery verdict will not be forthcoming.


The killing of Lyles in 2017 sparked an outpouring of community grief, rage and activism. It was a tragedy that exposed gaps in not just policing but also our system of care for people struggling with mental illness. Lyles herself called 911 to report a burglary, and had documented mental health issues. She was a 100-pound mother of four who was pregnant at the time that two officers came to her home and shot her seven times after they said she attacked them with one or two knives. One of the officers involved in the shooting was required to carry a Taser but had left it in his locker that day. The Seattle Police Department ultimately determined the officers acted reasonably.

Attorneys representing the Lyles estate presented opinions from three experts that took a different view than the police: “The first said the officers’ use of firearms was unreasonable and contrary to the Seattle Police Department’s de-escalation policies; the second said Lyles’ death could have been prevented had [Jason] Anderson been carrying his Taser; and the third said Lyles was in a psychotic state and was therefore unable to form the intent to assault the officers,” according to reporting by Seattle Times reporter Sara Jean Green.

In the same story, Lyles’ 15-year-old son, identified only by his first initial, Q, said, “No amount of money will bring my mom back.”

We cannot live without our lives.

A number of readers who wrote me angry and often unprintable anti-Black and racist emails (including one saying the world would be better if I were dead), after my column on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict a couple of weeks ago, pointed to the criminal histories of the Rittenhouse victims and Ahmaud Arbery. In their estimation, because of their past, they got what they deserved.

Sure, Arbery’s killers and Rittenhouse had no way of knowing the criminal histories of their victims, or anything about their backgrounds at all when they pulled their triggers. But this endorsement of vigilantism, or preemptive death sentences based on the unilateral judgment of usually white men, has a long history in our country. 

As author Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her transformative and foundational book, “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents” — which I highly recommend for anyone who is interested in understanding how we got to this moment — “This casual disregard for black life and the deputizing of any citizen to take that life would become a harbinger of the low value accorded African-Americans in the police and vigilante shootings of unarmed black citizens that continued into the early decades of the twenty-first century.”


Any time I write about race or the criminal legal system, I get lots of letters from readers saying that I am perpetuating racism by bringing up race. They tell me the playing field is now level, everyone has access to the same resources and opportunities. We had a Black president, Oprah is rich, and slavery was 400 years ago. Why can’t I just get over it?

I can’t get over it because as Wilkerson frames it, the “tentacles” of our racial caste system still exist in every part of our society. It’s in our staggering racial wealth gap, it’s in our persistent educational disparities and gulfs in resources for racially segregated schools, it’s in environmental racism and, of course, our system of mass incarceration and policing, which has deep roots in our most “peculiar institution” of slavery. 

Instead of angry denials and dismissals, maybe instead we could examine how those systems continue to give a leg up and a head start to some, at the expense of others. Instead of asking people to be grateful that killers are convicted, maybe we could work for a world where people are not killed in the first place.