On Nov. 7, 2020, the first Saturday after Election Day, the presidential race was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I live in Northern California, in the East Bay where Harris was born and raised. Everywhere I went the public mood seemed celebratory, with strangers nodding and smiling at one another behind their masks. It was a gorgeous day, finally free of the smoke and ash of a horrific wildfire season, and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT” boomed from car stereos, including the one in my Subaru.
I was thinking about another pop culture commentary on American politics, a viral video I had seen on social media the day before. The video was made by a Cambodian American content creator who goes by @TeriInNewYork on Twitter and TikTok; it opens with candidate Biden on a campaign podium behind a sign that declares “Todos con Biden Harris.” Biden says, “I just have one thing to say, hang on here,” while he holds up a smartphone and taps the screen. A woman sings, “You about to lose yo’ job!” over a dance track, and Biden grins that toothy old-guy grin, bobs his head and gently rocks side to side, almost on the beat. The video jumps to President Barack Obama, seated at an event but rising with ineffable cool and starting to dance. The audio soars as “You about to lose yo’ job!” repeats again and again, and we hear the woman on the track call out, “Get this dance!” The image cuts to the late Congressman John Lewis, dancing. Then candidate Harris, dancing with a group of schoolchildren. Michelle Obama, dancing. Bernie Sanders, dancing and smiling! While we watch Marianne Williamson dancing with a dreadlocked cowboy, we hear the woman’s voice add: “ ’Cause you are detaining me — for nothin’!”
The 40-second video remix of Democrats dancing, uploaded on Nov. 6, 2020, was shared millions of times across the Internet. Meena Harris, the vice president’s niece with a large social media following, posted it to TikTok to 3.8 million likes, 699,700 shares and 84,000 comments. It was reenacted during a “Saturday Night Live” cold open, with Jim Carrey as Biden and Maya Rudolph as Harris frenetically dancing to the woman’s voice singing, “You about to lose yo’ job!”
Watching the viral video, I felt gleeful that Trump, and all he stands for during these frightening and difficult times, had been vanquished from the White House. But I also felt distinctly unsettled, because I recognized the woman’s voice instantly. I’d heard it in another video that had gone viral months before. And it was hard to reconcile the jubilation of the Democratic victory dance with what I had seen earlier.
On Feb. 5, 2020, a South Carolina man uploaded a video. It was shot in a parking lot, at night. It shows a uniformed man with a badge on his vest holding a handcuffed Black woman by the upper arm. She is not feeling cooperative.
“Yes, when someone’s trying to detain me when I don’t want to be detained! For no g--d---ed reason! Yeah, that’s how the f--- I act! Naturally. Ask anybody who know me,” she says. The woman tosses her head, her long braids pulled back to show the sides of her head shaved, and her white dangly earrings bounce emphatically. She throws her head back and bellows: “WHY are you detaining me?”
And then she starts to dance, and sing: “You about to lose yo’ job, you about to lose yo’ job.” It’s an ungainly dance, because of the handcuffs and the man’s grip on her right arm. Her camisole is knotted high above her leggings, and her body shimmies and jiggles. She looks straight at the camera recording her humiliating experience. “Get this dance,” she commands the cameraman, refusing to be humbled.
She continues her song: “You about to lose yo’ job, ’cause you are detaining me, for nothin’! ... You ain’t even got no job, ’cause you triflin’! You ’bout to lose yo’ job. You ’bout to lose yo’ job. You ’bout to lose. Yo’. Job!” At this point the uniformed man is looking over his shoulder, muttering and agitated — possibly trying to hide a smile? She stops dancing, seemingly unafraid. “Is this s--- worth you losing your job? ’Cause you ’bout to! ’Cause you ain’t got no reason! I can pass any sobriety test.” There the video ends.
I saw the video when it first went viral, just days before the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman was filmed by a teenager, Darnella Frazier, one of several children who witnessed the police violence. As I watched the woman in handcuffs protest, I admired her defiance. Not the first time she’s dealt with a cop, I thought. I was puzzled and impressed by her fearlessness, knowing the frequency with which civilians, and disproportionately Black people, are harmed by police in the United States.
That original video spread quickly on social media, where it was seen by DJ iMarkkeyz, a Brooklyn native who is a nephew of Eric Garner, the unarmed street vendor who was killed on camera by the NYPD in Staten Island while he gasped “I can’t breathe” 11 times. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, but no police officers were ever charged. iMarkkeyz, whose name is Brandon Markell Davidson, does remixes, including a super viral and very funny one from March 2020 that features rapper Cardi B telling her followers, “Coronavirus! S--- is real! S--- is getting real!”
iMarkkeyz quickly took the audio from the woman’s experience in the parking lot and remixed it into a song called “Lose Yo Job,” throwing up an accompanying video on June 4 that showed the mug shots of the fired Minneapolis officers with “CHARGED” above their faces. “Lose Yo Job” became an anthem for many of the people who took to the streets across the country to protest Floyd’s murder and police brutality more broadly. In June 2020 alone, many people, mostly Black, posted their own versions of “Lose Yo Job” to TikTok and other social media platforms. Celebrities like Niecy Nash of “Reno 911!” and “Claws” participated in the meme, reenacting the fateful encounter or reinterpreting it based on their own experiences.
When “Lose Yo Job” had another viral surge in the days after the 2020 election, I understood why it was so appealing to so many; I too was relieved by the victory of Biden and Harris. And yet I couldn’t help but feel how painfully ironic it was for a criminalized Black woman’s defiant song to be the celebratory soundtrack to the ascendancy of a longtime architect of mass incarceration policies and an enthusiastic prosecutor of same. Mass incarceration had been a central debate point throughout the election, with Democrats arguing over who was best equipped to end the policies that make America the most incarcerated nation in the world. Accomplishing that would mean dramatic reforms: reducing the number of police, limiting the power of prosecutors, closing prisons.
During the campaign, both Biden and Harris had walked back their previous enthusiasm for caging Americans. But now that they were in power, would they take any of the politically difficult steps to make real change? Was “Lose Yo Job” a call that would be heeded, or simply the meme of a passing moment?
Johnniqua Charles meets me in Marion, S.C., on a beautiful spring day at a near-empty park. She’s 28 and nine months pregnant and serene in a marigold-yellow off-the-shoulder blouse. She has a bright, easy smile with gleaming white teeth. I meet Johnniqua’s son, nicknamed Juju and shyly charming and playful, while her fiance, Dexter, keeps a watchful distance, hanging out protectively nearby with one of his friends.
We are in the part of South Carolina known as the Low Country, where the piedmont drops down to sea level and the trees often seem to grow out of sun-dappled water. Marion is a sleepy small town with a recently rejuvenated Main Street complete with a fancy Christian coffee shop; a sign proclaims it “The Swamp Fox City.”
It wasn’t hard to track Johnniqua down in the wake of the Biden victory, as a quick Internet search revealed the human interest story in People magazine and other news outlets. After iMarkkeyz posted “Lose Yo Job,” he was quickly contacted by her family members in South Carolina, who told him that she had been homeless, was recently released from county jail on a charge unrelated to the night of the video, and needed help after years of drug use. A GoFundMe appeal eventually raised $55,000 for Johnniqua. “I am fully involved in my son’s life, I’m no longer in the streets in prostitution, and I’m recovering from my addiction with the support of family and professionals,” she had told People in mid-June 2020. “I do plan to use the exposure to motivate all women, start a business, and eventually write a book,” she added then. “I can’t stop now.”
She still radiates optimism, which is impressive given the difficult years she’s survived. She grew up sheltered, “in the church,” she says. Her mother, Wanda, is a hairdresser, and her stepfather was a high school football coach in Florence, S.C. “My mom was very strict, like no overnights or going to teen parties.” (“I know how teenage parties were; I never let them go to those things,” Wanda told me.)
When Johnniqua left for a Baptist historically black college an hour’s drive away in 2011, she began to struggle with depression, overwhelmed at being away from home for the first time. An older student who worked as a dancer at strip clubs befriended Johnniqua, and she was persuaded to dance in the clubs. “To make myself feel comfortable with doing the dancing, I would take a drink or two,” she says. She was living in the dorm and dancing at strip clubs when she began using cocaine. “So once that got involved, it was this lifestyle times five.” Her first arrest was on campus, for public intoxication. She left college shortly after.
Whatever traumas she might have experienced earlier, she encountered some terrifying moments after leaving college and moving out of her mother’s house. On her 21st birthday she was attacked by a stranger with a gun, trying to coerce her into the sex trade. “That was a trigger,” she says. “That’s when I started going full force with the drugs.”
Sex work kept her moving around the coastal South, exploited and endangered by men she describes as “just vicious.” She would have calmer periods, notably for the year after her son was born, but cycles of depression resulted in deeper and deeper addiction, with multiple arrests for disorderly conduct and two short stays in jail for low-level felonies, once for burglary and once for third-degree assault.
One of the places she has been locked up is the Florence County Detention Center in Effingham, which has been plagued by misconduct allegations. The longtime sheriff, Kenney Boone, a former president of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, was convicted of misconduct in office and campaign finance violations in 2020. While in the jail in April 2020, Johnniqua says, she was strapped to a restraint chair and Tasered twice. “For a long time the marks were still there,” she says, touching her arm. She says she saw sheriff’s deputies do it to another woman. “It’s in a glass room, so everybody in the pod can see it.” (In response to queries, the Florence County Detention Center emailed its restraint and Taser policies. Its policies do not prohibit Tasering people who have been restrained.)
She had just been released from that jail when the parking lot video first went viral. The man detaining her, Julius Locklear, worked as a security guard at Diamonds Gentlemen’s Club, and the video was filmed by another security guard and later posted to social media by Locklear. While visiting the club, where a friend was a DJ, Johnniqua left her purse behind the DJ booth, and when she tried to retrieve it as the club closed, she got into a belligerent dispute with Locklear, which she says ended up with her tackled to the ground and forcibly handcuffed.
Locklear, 22, did not respond to inquiries. In June 2020, he spoke to YouTube channel the World of POE (Power Over Everything) about that night. “I asked her a few times to leave ... and to calm down,” said Locklear, who also noted he’d always wanted to work in law enforcement, because, as a child, he witnessed domestic violence against his mother. “I actually detained her for trespassing ... and I contacted the local sheriff’s office to come out there and handle it or whatever. In that time of them getting there, she decided to do her little dance and rap.”
After the police arrived, they told Locklear to release Johnniqua and give her purse back, and sent her on her way. After the parking lot incident, “the drugs hit an all-time low,” Johnniqua says. “I kept falling into depression, and it was like I never recovered from it. I would just Band-Aid over it, and the Band-Aid was slowly starting to rip off. And you know you keep using the same Band-Aid, it’s never going to really stay on.”
Throughout her years of trauma and addiction, Johnniqua’s family tried to persuade her to come home and out of danger. When Johnniqua’s mother saw the security guard’s video in May 2020 and the tidal wave of response on social media, she leaped into action to mobilize her family. “I always looked for her,” Wanda told me. “But we knew that if this person that was pimping her saw that video … honestly, if he would have got hold of that video first, he would have made sure that we never found her because that would have been a gold mine for him.” The family spent days searching motels near a NASCAR racetrack at Darlington, about 40 miles from Dillon, where they thought Johnniqua might be. When they found her, she had no idea the video had gone viral. “My sister said, ‘Just know that your whole life is about to change.’”
Her sister showed a confused Johnniqua the video and an Instagram post with “like, 50,000 comments,” Johnniqua says, from people in places as far-flung as China, Jamaica and Brazil. “ ‘You don’t know how inspiring this is.’ ‘You’re bringing joy to me.’ It’s just all positive. And these people don’t even know me. How can you love somebody that you don’t know? And sometimes it takes for the love to come from somebody who you may not know, so that you appreciate the love that you are getting from those that do know you.”
Reuniting with her family was a first step toward detoxing and starting to regain her sense of self, which now included tens of thousands of faraway strangers who follow her on Instagram (@GetThisDance). “To me, especially the ‘Day Ones,’ the ones that have been here since the video first went viral, it almost feels as though we are kind of like family. Even when I post and I might not be having a good day, they give me words of encouragement. They always keep in touch. They always want to know what’s going on. ‘Are you okay today? Is everything good?’ Like, yeah, everything’s good.”
When I ask her how it felt to watch Jim Carrey and Maya Rudolph portray Biden and Harris singing her song — a protest having turned into a political taunt — she says, “I was amazed because, for one, wow, those are people that I’ve been watching ever since I was a little girl. … At first I was excited, and then it turned into a little bit of, ‘Dang, a shout-out or something would’ve been nice.’ ” Millions of people know her words, but most of them don’t know her story. The night before we spoke, while she watched Jamie Foxx’s Netflix comedy “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!” there it was again, in the script: “You about to lose yo’ job!”
Our criminal legal system didn’t keep Johnniqua Charles safe. It didn’t help her with the underlying causes of her contact with law enforcement: depression, substance use disorder, gendered violence. Her arrests and incarceration then exposed her to more violence at the hands of law enforcement.
Johnniqua’s experience with police and jails is not unique. For decades, women have been the fastest-growing segment of America’s incarcerated millions. Female incarceration rates have increased by more than 700 percent since 1980, compared to an increase of about 400 percent among men. Incarceration rates for men have now begun to drop; for women, they continue to climb. The biggest growth of women’s incarceration is in city and county jails, like the one in Florence where Johnniqua was held. From 2009 to 2018, the number of U.S. women in jail increased by 23 percent, while the number of men declined by 7.5 percent.
For Black women, mass incarceration has represented an expansion of police practices and behaviors that never protected them in the first place and weren’t ever designed to do so. BIPOC women are more likely to be policed, arrested and punished than White women, with Black women most overrepresented. As scholar Sarah Haley reveals in her award-winning history “No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity,” law enforcement has held a significant role in controlling Black women’s economic, family and sexual lives ever since the controls of slavery were ended by Emancipation. Black women’s very existence was framed in terms of “waywardness” from the social norms established for White women, no matter their behaviors and conduct. And Black women who were actually “wayward” — inebriated, sexually active, resistant to or even defiant to a White authority figure — have been harshly punished.
Very little has changed over the years in terms of the quality of Black women’s interactions with police; even astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to fly in space (in 1992 on the shuttle Endeavour), was slammed to the ground by a Texas police officer in 1996 at a routine traffic stop, and then jailed for an outstanding speeding ticket — with no serious consequences to the officer who roughed her up. Since 2015, police have shot and killed 50 Black women, and of the 100 officers involved in those killings, nine were fired, five were charged with a crime and none was convicted.
When it comes to women’s lives, and especially “wayward” women, it is wise to be skeptical of prevailing, official narratives. We need to hear directly from women. This is even more true of Black women, whose perspectives have too often been left out of public discourse, even when their lives are the ones at stake. What does it say about our system that the voice of a woman like Johnniqua Charles — and the hundreds of thousands in similarly tough situations — is most likely to be heard only by the random chance of a well-scored video remix on social media?
With her many arrests for “disorderly conduct” and her low-level felonies, Johnniqua has been criminalized for waywardness, without consideration of the possibility that, for many people, to be wayward is a necessity of survival. In Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals,” her landmark historical study of the lives of young Black American women at the start of the 20th century, she writes: “Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed … it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.”
The skyrocketing numbers of women, especially BIPOC women, caught up in the criminal legal system points to an obvious failure of policymaking. Two-thirds of those incarcerated women are convicted of a drug or property crime, and often a very low-level one. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 60 percent of incarcerated women suffer from substance use disorder or mental health problems, and often both. More than 80 percent are survivors of sexual violence or other physical violence before incarceration; they are then subjected to the inherent violence of confinement in prison or jail. Harsh policing and punishment will make their situations worse, not better, with consequences that ripple out through their families and communities. As Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative testified at a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee hearing in July 2019, “Women’s experiences in the criminal justice system serve to highlight the faults of the entire system.”
These numbers cry out for significant changes in the criminal legal system — in the form of redirecting billions of dollars and millions of working hours away from police stations, courts and prisons and into hospitals and community health centers, supportive housing, and care for children and families. Responding to the echoing call of “Lose Yo Job” means not only ending police brutality, but also shrinking the criminal legal system. Often these consequential decisions dwell at the county and state level, not with the federal government, but there has never before been a presidential duo with such significant experience with the criminal legal system — and opportunity to bring about reforms.
In the Biden-Harris campaign platform, most proposals that might help shrink the system depend on new legislation: expanded federal funding for schools, mental health and substance abuse; $20 billion in incentives for states to reduce incarceration; ending the federal crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, retroactively; decriminalizing cannabis; elimination of federal mandatory minimums; and more goals that require Congress to do something. But there are things Biden and Harris championed as candidates that they can now do, independent of Congress. These include mass clemency for federal prisoners, transformation of the abysmal conditions for people incarcerated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, fair housing directives for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention committed to having no children in prison.
The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, led by formerly incarcerated Black women, called for Biden to grant clemency to 100 women in federal prison in the first 100 days of his administration, with suggestions of women who were particularly deserving candidates. Biden did not respond to the call, although women — and especially Black women — in the federal legal system represent some of the most obvious low-hanging fruit, as many were convicted of drug offenses and are serving exceptionally harsh sentences. Instead, in his first days in office, Biden directed the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prison companies (leaving the far more extensive Department of Homeland Security contracts intact), an act that liberated no one from incarceration and prevented no one from experiencing it. Since then, the White House and the Justice Department have been mostly quiet on issues of mass incarceration, other than enacting a moratorium on the federal death penalty. They put forward a variety of priorities in their 2022 budget request, including $200 million for new funding for violence prevention outside the criminal legal system via both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Justice Department, and almost $4 billion in police funding via Justice and Homeland Security, which would be an increase above any year of the previous administration.
“President Biden must make good on his campaign promises to help reform the criminal legal system,” says Andrea James, the founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. “Solely relying on prison reform and reentry, without significant decarceration, is not meaningful reform. Clemency is racial justice, a tool that can and should be used immediately to address the racial and economic inequities caused by the criminal legal system.”
The president “is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people to reenter society," says Andrew Bates, deputy White House press secretary. “As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated, and too many are Black and brown. His administration is focused on reforming our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy and give people a chance at a better future.”
While the White House held a “listening session” with formerly incarcerated advocates including James on April 30, it’s unclear whether directly affected people will hold sway with West Wing strategies. Both Biden and Harris have recently acknowledged the many harms of mass incarceration — but it was a policy status quo that has served both of them well. Biden long enjoyed partnership with and political support from police and prosecutors, although that came to an abrupt end when law enforcement overwhelmingly threw in with Donald Trump in 2020. Harris’s claims to have been a progressive prosecutor are widely regarded as weak; her choices as California’s attorney general include her defense of the death penalty, attempts to stymie investigations into cases of possible wrongful conviction, and efforts to avoid compliance with a federal order to reduce the state prison population.
Notoriously, Harris crafted policies to criminally prosecute parents of truant children while district attorney of San Francisco, and then expanded the practice throughout the state when she was elected attorney general. This truancy campaign is important to keep in mind. It’s a cautionary tale of a policy that harms families of color and especially Black women. Her introduction of a criminal penalty against parents, including fines starting at $2,500 and up to a year in jail, was even harsher than existing state truancy laws.
These are heavy penalties for families that, overwhelmingly, are already struggling. But the law had another effect that should be a red flag for future policymaking: It expanded the reach of the prosecutors’ office into the school system. In practice, parents were rarely jailed, but they were hauled into court and sometimes, in places like Orange County, were arrested at home in front of television news crews. This kind of humiliation was visited upon parents like Cheree Peoples, a Black mother whose daughter suffers from the serious chronic illness sickle cell anemia, which often lands her in the hospital. After being perp-walked in front of her neighbors and on the evening news, Peoples spent years fighting the truancy charges in court, refusing to plead guilty.
It’s unlikely that Harris intended for her law to be wielded against parents like Peoples, but representatives of the status quo almost always envision justice reform or innovation in terms of expansion of an already powerful, costly system of punishment; the White House’s 2022 budget suggests the same. It’s impossible to say whether California’s criminal-penalty approach to truancy resulted in better attendance — there simply are no records that show this — but experts on truancy say there’s no evidence that punitive measures are effective.
A huge percentage of people caught up in the American criminal legal system are not career criminals in any organized sense, but rather may be involved in a spiral of dysfunction, often in the midst of poverty. They need help, and sometimes a lot of it, to get better. That help, whether directed toward a parent like Peoples or a person struggling with addiction like Johnniqua Charles, should come without the coercion of police and courts.
Despite mass incarceration’s reach into our education, health-care and housing systems, few crimes of violence are addressed; around 22 percent of reported serious crimes result in an arrest, and 4 percent conclude with a conviction. And only 43 percent of victimizations by violence are ever reported to police, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey. It appears that 57 percent of people who are harmed by rape, robbery or assault in the United States trust law enforcement so little that they do not seek its help, despite the fact that the country spends more than $100 billion a year on policing, as well as $80 billion on prisons and jails.
According to Andrea Ritchie, the author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color” and co-founder of the In Our Names Network & Interrupting Criminalization project: “We need to build something very different in order to generate genuine and lasting safety, that will prevent the things that lead us towards fear, mitigate them, and allow us to heal from them. It’s really a pivotal moment. And I think people just continue to default to what we know, even though it’s been proven to not be helpful.”
Black people, especially Black women like Johnniqua’s mom, revived Biden’s moribund presidential campaign in South Carolina’s Democratic primary in February 2020. In the general election, an unexpected victory in Georgia — masterminded by Stacey Abrams (whose brother Walter has been incarcerated) and other Black women organizers who changed the face of voting in the state — helped put Biden and Harris over the top. Some of the first moves of the administration, notably the coronavirus relief package, sent federal resources to address concerns for working women, with measures to help lift millions of children out of poverty, which disproportionately affects Black families. And yet when it comes to criminal justice, there has so far been no movement toward the substantial changes that women like Johnniqua Charles, Stacey Abrams and their families deserve.
If Biden and Harris have the political will to make the changes outlined in their campaign platform, they may have the empirical knowledge to accomplish something redemptive. Like Johnniqua, Hunter Biden has struggled with cocaine addiction, and the president has spoken emotionally and protectively of his son’s troubles. But neither Biden nor Harris has experience informed by surviving criminalization — which is why, if they want to set priorities and strategies that will actually create progress, they need to include people who have been incarcerated in policy design. The newly created White House Gender Policy Council and the Department of Justice grants programs are just a few of the initiatives that could benefit from these perspectives.
When I ask Johnniqua what she thinks of Kamala Harris, she smiles like the Mona Lisa. “She seems like a systematic type of person. She does not do something for nothing. Everything she does has a reason behind it.” She seems pleased that a Black woman is vice president.
When we talk about Biden, Johnniqua speaks from the heart. “To know that his son actually went through the same struggles as I, that just makes me feel as though he might have some kind of compassion for people,” she says. Right now in America, however, only some people seem to get compassion. Johnniqua is one of the millions of Americans for whom problems or traumas are met by police — not someone who can help them or heal them. She continues: “Remember we’re talking about people that may be going through some type of drug struggle or mental health issue. Instead of throwing them in jail, get them to some other type of place. Somewhere they could get help, instead of being punished. Punishing them and then jailing them and then releasing them back to the streets — it is going to be a circle.”
Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.”
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.