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Community Efforts Urged to Curb Mass Incarceration

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The Black community should take a larger role in curbing mass incarceration and be less reliant on public officials to slow prison growth, says Rev. Hebert Brown III, community organizer and leader of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore.

“In addition to banging on the system and going to the White House and moving on legislation to ban the box, et cetera, et cetera, I think it is a mistake for those who are most directly affected to wait for the experts to come do it,” Brown said.

He made his remarks during a panel sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive policy think-tank in Washington. The panel was part of an event titled, “Toward a More Perfect Union: Bringing Criminal Justice Reform to Our Communities.”

Brown said, “[During the Baltimore uprising] we started to create the systems that we needed. We’re not calling 911 for everything. Let us move into spaces where we develop the training, skills, and whatever else is necessary, and just be neighbors and sisters and brothers again so that we can help to engage some of the issues that might lead to interpersonal violence.”

Justice system professionals, activists, and community organizers all agree that empowering ex-offenders is one of the best ways to rebuild communities and keep people from re-offending. But more than 5.8 million Americans – 1 in 13 Black Americans – are disenfranchised because of their criminal offenses, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group for criminal justice reform. In effect, the people most affected by criminal justice policies are excluded from shaping policy decisions.

Though having a criminal record is no longer rare – 1 in 3 Americans has one – employers are generally unwilling to hire ex-offenders.

For decades, formerly incarcerated people have pushed to “ban the box” on job applications that require applicants to disclose past convictions. It’s often used to disqualify otherwise qualified candidates. The “ban the box” effort is gaining official traction, largely through state laws and updated guidelines from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But unless an applicant launches and wins a lawsuit, there are few repercussions for employers who dismiss applicants on this basis.

“What happens is, you have all of these folks who come home and they feel alienated from society, and they don’t feel like there’s any place for them,” said Pastor Darren A. Ferguson at the CAP event. Ferguson leads Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, N.Y. and works to provide reentry support. The community organizer is also an ex-offender who spent nearly nine years in the New York corrections system.

“They can’t get jobs because they’re afraid to go to a job interview, because they’re going to ask them that magic question that frightens anybody who’s been incarcerated: ‘have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ And there’s a feeling across the board – there’s no place for me, there’s no hope for me, so what else can I do?”

The laws that created mass incarceration have not only failed to make provisions for mass reentry, but have also devastated Black families and communities. Department of Justice data from 2007 found that 6.7 percent of Black children had at least one incarcerated parent, compared to less than 1 percent of White children and 2.3 percent of Latino children.

Among today’s Black twenty-somethings, 1 in 4 had a parent incarcerated during their childhood, according to CAP research. Another study from The Sentencing Project finds that nearly half of all Black women have a currently incarcerated family member, compared to just 11 percent of White women.

Alicia Garza, award-winning community organizer and co-founder of the national Black Lives Matter organization says that part of empowering ex-offenders is to find ways to restore their voice.

“Part of that is having those folks shape what the policies, practices, and systems look like. Because nobody knows better how to shift the trend of criminalization than those who have been criminalized,” she said at the same CAP event. “Not only do we need to center those voices, but we need to put those who have been directly impacted by the systems we’re facing in positions of power. Folks actually need to be able to make decisions that impact their lives.”

Voting is not the only way to raise one’s political voice. Pastor Michael McBride, a San Francisco-based community organizer and a program director within the PICO Network, an organization of religious leaders working for social justice, who was also part of the CAP event. He points out that elected officials are often bending to the whims of private entities.

“Many of these things happen under the cover of night. A lot of our Fortune 500 companies are actually profiting off of private prison labor, and other forms of legalized slavery. And I think we can shame them publicly in a way that at least creates some form of accountability, and we need to do the same thing with elected officials,” he explained. “We have the responsibility to make it known, and then we have another opportunity to hold them accountable through our voting, through where we shop, through our support, et cetera.”

The tide is slowly turning against mass incarceration and unfair sentencing polices. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law, which gives tax perks to employers that hire ex-offenders. In 2010 President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which significantly reduced the sentencing disparity between crack-cocaine and powder cocaine. And last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to raise the mandatory minimum threshold for drug-related offenses, and allow appeals for reduced sentences under the new guidelines.

Still, Black communities do not have to wait to have these disparities corrected by authorities.

“I am thankful for those working at the federal level trying to move things forward there, but…. It takes so long before my day-to-day reality is impacted by something whoever is in the White House signs,” Rev. Brown said.

“We have to continue to build for power socially, economically, politically so that we can … say, no more will we rely on the benevolence of a system that has an appetite for our destruction to decide our destiny. No more.”

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Events

Ella Baker Center Turns 25

Community members will have the opportunity to join the celebration virtually or in person at Restore Oakland at 1419 34th Ave, Oakland, CA 94601.

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Michelle Alexander/Photo via pbs.org

Alicia Garza

Co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Alicia Garza and Michelle Alexander, acclaimed author of “The New Jim Crow,” will join youth justice leader Xochtil Larios to discuss a collective vision for liberation at the Ella Baker Center’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 27.

After 25 years of working to empower Black and Brown communities and fighting for a world without prisons and policing, the event will seek to inspire organizers, community members and changemakers to reflect on past victories in the movement for social justice and imagine how to continue moving toward a world based on justice.

The event will include entertainment by musicians, poets as well as comments by founders of the Ella Baker Center, Dianna Frappier and Van Jones. Community members will have the opportunity to join the celebration virtually or in person at Restore Oakland at 1419 34th Ave, Oakland, CA 94601.

The in-person event will be held outdoors and available to vaccinated guests only. 

To RSVP for the virtual event, please email ashley@ellabakercenter.org by Oct. 14 

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Black History

Ambassador Ruth A. Davis Pioneered Diversity in Foreign Service

UC Berkeley Grad Continues to Bring International Economic Empowerment for Women

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Ambassador Ruth A. Davis (left) is meeting with Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Ambassador Ruth A. Davis was recently named as a distinguished alumna by the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. 

She also has been honored by the U.S. State Department when a conference room at the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia was named in honor of her service as director of the Institute. She was the first African American to serve in that position.

Davis, a graduate of Spelman College received a master’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1968.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, also a graduate of the School of Social Welfare, now chairs the House Appropriations Committee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. She praised Ambassador Davis as “a trailblazing leader and one of the great American diplomats of our time. Over her 40-year career, she had so many ‘firsts’ on her resume: the first Black director of the Foreign Service Institute, the first Black woman Director General of the Foreign Service, and the first Black woman to be named a Career Ambassador, to name just a few.

“She served all over the world, from Kinshasa to Tokyo to Barcelona, where she was consul general, and to Benin, where she served as ambassador,” Lee continued. “ I am so proud of her many accomplishments. She has represented the best of America around the world, and our world is a better place because of her service.”

During Davis’ 40-year career in the Foreign Service, she also served as chief of staff in the Africa Bureau, and as distinguished advisor for international affairs at Howard University. She retired in 2009 as a Career Ambassador, the highest-level rank in Foreign Service.

Since her retirement, Ambassador Davis has served as the chair (and a founding member) of the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC), an organization devoted to promoting women’s economic empowerment by creating an international network of businesswomen.

She also chairs the selection committee for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship at Howard University’s Ralph Bunche International Affairs Center, where she helps to oversee the annual selection process. Finally, as vice president of the Association of Black American Ambassadors, she participates in activities involving the recruitment, preparation, hiring, retention, mentoring and promotion of minority Foreign Service employees.

Gay Plair Cobb, former Regional Administrator of the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor in the Atlanta, and San Francisco offices, was Ambassador Davis’ roommate at UC Berkeley. Cobb said, “Ruth always exhibited outstanding leadership and a determined commitment to fairness, equal opportunity and activism, which we engaged in on a regular basis.”

Davis has received the Department of State’s Superior Honor Award, Arnold L. Raphel Memorial Award and Equal Employment Opportunity Award; the Secretary of State’s Achievement Award (including from Gen. Colin Powell); the Director General’s Foreign Service Cup; two Presidential Distinguished Service Awards; and Honorary Doctor of Laws from Middlebury and Spelman Colleges.

A native of Atlanta, Davis was recently named to the Economist’s 2015 Global Diversity List as one of the Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life and is the recipient of the American Foreign Service Association’s Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award.

 

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Community

Local Governments Can Lead in Public Safety Movement

Negotiations on a federal police reform bill have collapsed because Congressional Republicans are willing to stand in the way of lifesaving changes to policing.

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Police Car/iStock

Negotiations on a have collapsed because Congressional Republicans are willing to stand in the way of lifesaving changes to policing. It is time for state and local governments to take the lead in reimagining public safety. And it is time for all of us to support local leaders who are willing to show leadership and take risks to make it happen.

Change is not going to come from Congress, at least for now. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act earlier this year. It would have been a good first step. Like other good legislation, though, the bill was stopped by Republican obstruction in the Senate.

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has spent months negotiating with Republican Sen. Tim Scott on a reform bill. As recently as August, Scott said they were getting close to an agreement. But talks fell apart in September, and Scott dishonestly blamed Democrats for the failure to reach agreement, accusing them of wanting to “defund the police.”

Scott’s claim is shameful. New York Magazine recently noted that just last year Scott himself proposed that police departments lose some federal funding if they do not ban deadly practices like choke holds or no-knock warrants. But now he is telling the media that requiring police departments to meet such federal standards in order to receive federal money is the same as “defunding the police.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, if you’re Sen. Scott, I guess you can. Even two major police groups rejected Scott’s claims, saying in a statement that “at no point did any legislative draft propose ‘defunding the police.’”

I don’t know what political calculations led to Sen. Scott’s change of heart or his dishonest spin. And I don’t really care. What I do care about is saving lives by making policing safer and more accountable.

Fortunately, there are local leaders who are willing to think creatively and work collaboratively to reimagine public safety.

In Ithaca, New York, Mayor Svante Myrick worked with Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino on a plan designed to deliver accountability, transparency, and excellence in public safety. They came up with a plan that would replace the current police department with a new department of public safety.

The new department would be civilian-led, and it would employ both armed officers and unarmed community solution workers trained to respond to situations that do not require an armed response. The proposal won unanimous approval from the Ithaca City Council, which created a task force to develop a plan for implementing it.

Ithaca’s plan is meeting resistance from some state Republican leaders. They’re trying to convince the public that you can’t have accountability and safety. That’s a false tradeoff. Making policing more just and accountable will make communities safer for everyone.

I believe there is a critical mass of elected officials who are ready and willing to begin the process of transforming policing in this country from the bottom up. Last year, 100 young progressive candidates ran for office as part of a slate committed to ending police killings of unarmed civilians. There are mayors and city council members around the country looking at Ithaca’s plan and making their own.

Reimagining public safety has become a movement. Congress can’t stop us.

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