The film, When They See Us, tells the story of five teenagers falsely arrested in New York City for a brutal rape – only to have their innocence confirmed after years in prison that took away their youth. The four-part series takes viewers through their initial detention and forced confessions on through to their trial, incarceration, and re-entry in a manner that depicts the implacable heartlessness of each phase of that process. Underpinning the system, as the film makes clear, is both the casual and overt racism that perpetuate the injustices of our criminal justice system as a whole. Thus it was appropriate that a conference to build organizing capacity to address the prison-industrial complex in Prince George’s County sponsored by Progressive Maryland, Color of Change and CASA would be held under the name “When They See US”
Held on September 7 at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 hall in District Heights, the conference heard speakers talk about the school to prison pipeline and about how private contractors profit from the seemingly endless flow of people into our jails and prisons. Others spoke of their direct experience of police violence which is protected and perpetuated by laws and a culture of impunity. Victims told of their frustration at the lack of answers to questions posed to authorities, at their inability to get redress for themselves or loved ones. African American and Latino officers who have tried to reform the system from within described the hostile response they received from the top of the chain of command to their efforts. Speakers from the Latino community explained the exposed position of undocumented immigrants (and, by extension, their family and friends even if they have papers) who are particularly vulnerable to abusive policing – which also makes them vulnerable to crime or abuse they experience at work, at home or in the community. So too, returning citizens spoke about the particular challenges they faced after being released from prison because of the County’s lack of transitional housing, lack of job opportunities or social services.
But the meeting was not about listing the injustices that too many experience and then going home -- it was about organizing to make our neighborhoods and our state a better place to live. Progressive Prince George’s has formed a working committee on reentry which decided to prioritize an initiative to expand “Ban-the-Box” (the box on applications asking whether one has been convicted of a crime) from job applications to housing applications. Those of us involved in this effort decided to push for funding for a Reentry Advisory Board. Recently approved for a second time by the Prince George’s County Council, the Board remains without funding and there is no evident plan to put it into operation and create a Reentry-specific position within the County Executive office. These measures are proposed as steps along a road that will enable those who come home from confinement to return to jobs, housing, the restoration of rights and a life lived with dignity.
This working group is part of a larger Justice task force initiated by Progressive Prince George’s that seeks to address the whole school-to-prison pipeline and its many manifestations from police misconduct to unnecessary/excessive sentencing. Particular demands include ending cash bail (a recent announcement by the county State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy indicated her intent to do so, but the devil is always in the details) and diversion programs for juveniles, sex workers, drug offenders and others as an alternative to jail time
Programs and policing changes such as these are needed everywhere in our nation and region, but particularly so in our county. Prince George’s County has a too-long history of criminal injustice masquerading as justice. The quick propensity to lock people up on one side, and to fail to provide adequate service or opportunities when they come home on the other side, has undermined the quality of life. The reforms being advocated are steps that are meant to serve as ladders to bring about long-lasting and fundamental change. Ensuring that justice is central to our criminal justice system cannot be separated from our need to offer jobs at a living wage, provide affordable housing, improve public education at all levels and expand and protect voting rights. By doing this, we could restore democratic norms and help move power away from the wealthy. These are measures that would address racial inequities, and therefore are measures that would benefit all.
A critical need too, is ending the virtual immunity given to police officers for excessive force resulting in injury or death. To that end, residents of Prince George’s County are not being silent about continued instances of police violence in our community – as was again made clear by the brutal beating by officers of Oxon Hill resident Demonte Ward Blake, leaving him partially paralyzed. Participants at a Town Hall at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale made clear their anger at that and similar instances and the need for police transparency and accountability for their actions. Progressive Prince George’s in coalition with a broad array of organization has put forth the demand that Police Chief Henry Stawinski – who has been unwilling to discipline, fire or charge officers found to have used excessive force – be fired (See Action Alert #2 below).
Another theme of the conference that became a political priority was passage of Trust Act legislation – which is on the verge of victory. The County Council has unanimously passed legislation which will prevent cooperation between Prince George’s County Departments and ICE for the purposes of civil immigration enforcement. This means that members of immigrant communities can engage with County departments, including public safety departments, with assurance that such engagement will not be used to assist any civil immigration enforcement or lead to deportation because of referral to federal authorities. This success of this CASA-initiated measure was due to the broad coalition brought together around the principle that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. The victory, however, is not yet complete; County Executive Angela Alsobrooks still needs to sign the bill, CB CB-62.
The When They See Us conference ended with a talk by 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous. He began by talking about how his family has suffered from the violence within the community, violence that reflects a lack of hope and direction experienced by too many young people who feel that they have no future. He noted that this is directly connected to the racism in our society and that the manner in which our courts and police departments function perpetuate the problem. Jealous then added that though African Americans and Latinos suffer far more than anyone else by this system, it is also true that too many poor and working-class whites in parts of Maryland also face a life with few hopes or prospects, find themselves caught up in the grips of drug culture, violence and prison – and that when a loved one in anyone’s family suffers, that suffering is real in a way that statistics can never capture. Thus what is needed is a political strategy that brings together all those throughout the state who suffer from insecurity in the present, fear of the future – for that is the pathway to bring about substantive change in the state as a whole.
Organizing is the answer to all these injustices, organizing to bring about a change in social structure, public policy and culture so that for future generations the phrase “when they see us” can mean that they see us – that we see each other – as we truly are, that each and every person is enabled to enjoy those inalienable rights that stand as our society’s promise to all.