Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Cause for Action

On a Sunday afternoon in July of this year, Rosana Cruz, then a representative of Voice of the Ex-Offender (V.O.T.E.) in New Orleans, spoke to a group of people gathered at the Northshore Unitarian Universalist church in Lacombe, Louisiana. The main purpose of V.O.T.E., she told the group, was to support formerly-incorporated persons (FIPs) and their families, to help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate in society and to regain their civil rights, the primary one being the right to vote.The prison system, especially in the South, she said, is deeply dysfunctional, and she provided a lot of information to support that claim.

One of the most disturbing details she mentioned, however, was that over 60% of the people incarcerated in Orleans parish are jailed for low level offenses, such as public urination, obstructing the sidewalk, loitering, and such like. It doesn't take too much of an imagination to see how such policing can be abused, with the same people in the same areas being arrested over and over, accumulating rap sheets that make them look like serious criminals unless one examines the details.

One store owner in Miami Gardens, Florida, set out to demonstrate just how police can abuse their right to arrest. Observing over and over how his store, a Quickstop in a poor and predominantly black neighborhood, was the center of police harassment, Alex Saleh installed video cameras--not to catch criminals, but to catch images of local police harassing his customers and workers. In a year, he had collected a couple of dozen tapes, many of which, according to the Miami Herald:
show, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and arresting them for trespassing when they have permission to be on the premises; officers conducting searches of Saleh’s business without search warrants or permission; using what appears to be excessive force on subjects who are clearly not resisting arrest and filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.
One 28-year-old man, Earl Sampson, has been stopped and questioned by police 258 times in four years, "searched more than 100 times . . . [a]nd arrested and jailed 56 times."  He has been arrested 62 times for trespassing at the Quickstop owned by Alex Saleh, where Sampson works as a clerk. One of Saleh's videos shows police arresting Sampson for trespassing when he was stocking coolers on the job!

It's these kinds of stories, the stories of over-zealous policing of predominantly poor, black, urban neighborhoods; the statistics illustrating the high percentage of African-Americans in our federal, state, and local jails; the reports that  demonstrate how the War on Drugs has failed abysmally; the  unequally distributed justice of our criminal justice system that prompted the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to offer as the Common Read for 2012-2013, Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalist (GNOUU), under the leadership of Leslie Runnels of First Unitarian Universalist, opted to offer this book and related discussions to area congregations.

Leslie Runnels, along with co-facilitators Bonnie Schmidt and Terry Vanbrunt, both of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Society, planned scheduled meetings with church members and the public to discuss Michelle Alexander's book, to view several related documentaries, and to listen to speakers involved in the movement to reform the criminal justice system.

Over the next eight months, this group coelesced into the Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force, which meets on a monthly basis. The goal of the group is to educate ourselves and our community about the need to change a system that destroys people's lives, their families, and their communities. A mission statement setting out these goals was drafted and approved by the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Board of Trustees in October, 2013.

We may read news reports of people like Earl Sampson and tell ourselves that these abuses happen in other states, in other cities, to other people, but Rosana Cruz's report reminds us that we are all part of the system, that what happens in Miami Gardens, Florida, affects us here in Orleans parish, in Jefferson parish, in St. Tammany parish. The burgeoning criminal industrial complex, the targeting of poor communities, and the over-zealous arrests and incarceration of people who offer little or no threat to society should concern us all.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The House We Live In: The Beginnings of the Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force

"Louisiana is the world's prison capital," writes Cindy Chang in an in-depth investigation of Louisiana's prison-industrial complex in 2012.  The statistics are somber: "One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation."

It was statistics such as these that prompted the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Lacombe, Louisiana, to host a filming of the documentary The House I Live In, in January of this year, and to invite the public to attend. This film--directed, written, and produced by award-winning filmmaker Eugene Jarecki in 2012--won the Sundance Grand Jury prize for documentary. The film provides viewers with an up-close and personal investigation into the War on Drugs and its devastating effects on individuals, communities, and our nation's collective soul.

Right away we are introduced to individuals caught up in the complex net of this failed war on drugs: small-time drug dealers, prisoners, former prisoners, police, investigative reporters, former reporters turned film makers, physicians, advocates, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers--all part of the larger family, our country, the house we all live in.

The film juxtaposes interviews with experts and the stories of individuals with startling statistics such as these: "Since 1971, the War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion and resulted in more than 45 million arrests. During that time, illegal drug use has remained unchanged."

And tragedies of the War on Drugs are made manifest by Jarecki's comparison of his white privileged life (although overshadowed by his family's history in the Holocaust) with that of the African-American woman who worked for years for his family, Nannie Jeter (her real name). The trajectory of Jarecki's life compared with that of the Jeter children, play mates from childhood, serves as a pointed reminder throughout the film of race and class differences that profoundly affect the experiences of individuals and communities in our country.

The House I Live In served as an introduction to a longer discussion on the war on drugs and its consequences and inspired the formation of the Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force. Over the next few months, members of nearby communities met to discuss Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; to listen to speakers such as Rosana Cruz, representative for VOTE (Voice of the Ex-Offender), describe how civil rights are denied those who have been incarcerated and returned to society; to hear the stories of individuals caught up in the legal morass of the War on Drugs; to watch films such as The Long Shadow of Incarceration's Stigma, which provides a stark picture of the struggles ex-offenders have to live successfully in a society that throws up legal roadblocks to successful reintegration.

Of the over 40 people who attended the January showing of The House I Live In, only a handful remain to carry the flame of the Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force, but we hope to gain more and more active members as the team continues to explore ways to illuminate the dark corners of our justice system--locally and nationally--and to work toward the dream of uniting in love and concern all the members of this house we live in.

Our mission can be found on the About page of this blog.

And, please, watch The House I Live In (available on Netflix and on demand through other media outlets) and explore some of the links we have provided and will continue to provide on our other pages.