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.

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