Kim Kardashian's 'prison reform' efforts reveal the potential problems with celebrity activism

We should all celebrate the fact that people who deserved to be free are out of prison. But we can’t make the mistake of thinking the fight is over.
Image: Today - Season 67
Kim Kardashian West and Alice Johnson on June 13, 2018. Kardashian worked to commute Johnson's life sentence on a nonviolent drug offense by meeting with President Donald Trump.Nathan Congleton / TODAY
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By George Johnson

Kim Kardashian West is no stranger to the headlines. But the Kardashian sister has been getting a distinctly different kind of press after it was reported that she and lawyers Brittany Barnett and MiAngel Cody had freed 17 people from prison — people who have been serving long-term sentences for low-level crimes like first-time drug offenses.

Kardashian's decision to help fund the 90 Days of Freedom Campaign is amazing and should be applauded. But we also need to beware the promises and publicity of celebrity activism, which sparks short-term enthusiasm but can make the hard, long work of undoing systemic injustice less visible and even more difficult. Activism of this kind too often focuses on a symptom, allowing the system to stay in place while media portrays isolated stories as “proof” of change.

We need to beware the promises of celebrity activism, which sparks short-term enthusiasm but can make the hard, long work of undoing systemic injustice even more difficult.

In these moments, the Black community is forced to live on hope. Hope that we aren’t being used as the means to another capitalistic end and hope that the freeing of these inmates is the first step on a much longer journey, instead of tokenism. For some, this hope dimmed with the news that Kardashian would be doing a TV documentary on (her) “efforts to secure freedom for Americans she believes have been wronged by the justice system.”

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Such a series could continue to raise awareness of this important issue. But it also makes the whole endeavor feel a lot more self-serving. Was PR motivating her altruism? Kardashian has plenty of defenders as well; and like so much of the Kardashian family business, the personal and political are deeply intertwined in ways that aren’t necessarily harmful. But it’s worth taking a look at Kardashian’s work — the good and the bad — in order to analyze how to best push for actual progress.

Black Americans know in particular what happens when you make a symbolic act but don’t follow through. The way the U.S. abolished slavery is a perfect example of this: President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation was followed by a more than a century of brutality, indentured servitude and inequality. What Kardashian does next is what matters more than the initial rush of positive headlines.

Because getting 17 people released from prison is great news. But it is not "prison reform."

Prison reform is not simply releasing inmates one by one or overturning convictions — two things that are important but don’t stop recidivism. In its strongest, most idealistic format, prison reform would mean abolishing our current system of incarceration and using models of prison abolition to create a new system run by the people, not the state. At a minimum, prison reform means the undoing of decades of policies and prejudice that have targeted minorities while pushing for a renewed focus on rehabilitation. We would still have prisons, but there would be far fewer people in them. Either way we need to make sure under the current system that those who do pay their debt to society don’t become outcasts for the rest of their (free) lives.

Media calling the work of Kardashian prison reform ignores the depth of the problem while also erasing the decades of work Black activists have been doing in this space.

Media calling the work of Kardashian prison reform ignores the depth of the problem while also erasing the decades of work Black activists have been doing in this space. These organizations need our attention, whether or not they are invited into Kardashian’s limelight. What they don’t necessarily need is for a celebrity to make a lot of waves very quickly and then leave, allowing society and the media to feel like the issue has been solved and no longer requires further support.

Just ask Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement who is now seen as “one of” the faces of a movement she technically started a decade ago. A movement she was almost left out of. And although we are seeing a reckoning for some elite men at the top of the power pyramid, #MeToo must continue to work hard to make sure those women who have long suffered at the bottom of the pyramid also see meaningful change. The problem has not been solved, even if/when celebrities stop talking about it.

Celebrities have power, influence and of course money, which means they are able to make small changes happen relatively easily. Just look at how quickly Kardashian was able to help secure the high-profile release of Alice Johnson in 2018. Most grassroots organizations struggle to get time with the mayor, let alone the U.S. president.

So let’s use this moment. Whatever you may think of Kardashian’s intentions, she has created a real opportunity to highlight the work of organizations that never get the media attention they could use to generate funding. For example, there is a Black Mama’s bailout being led by the National Bail Out Committee slated for Sunday — Mother’s Day. It is the third-annual bailout effort fighting against America’s unjust cash bail system. Meanwhile, apps like Appolition take your spare change and put it towards bail funds operated by several different organizations. Again, you can support these efforts and also support Kardashian — support everyone! But it’s important to recognize the organizations that are working to free folks while simultaneously doing the work to end mass incarceration. Supporting the ongoing work of the two lawyers who came up with the 90 Days of Freedom campaign would be a good start.

Maybe Kardashian’s documentary will be used to shed light on these cases, focus on the victims and discuss policy and future action steps. Or maybe it really will turn into a PR stunt. Ultimately, we should all celebrate the fact that 17 people who deserved to be free are now out of prison. But we can’t make the mistake of thinking the fight is over. And don’t call it prison reform.