For this week's Creative Corner, we're doing something a little different! Above is a two-page spread from the latest issue of The Beat Within, a bi-weekly, 60-page publication of creative writing and art from incarcerated people all across California. In 1996, the magazine was founded in San Francisco when David Inocencio, former assistant director of the Detention Diversion Advocacy Program, teamed up with Pacific News Service, a non-profit media/communications organization, to offer writing workshops to youth detained in San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. When rapper Tupac Shakur was murdered, The Beat Within published its first issue as an outlet for young people to express their intense feelings of loss. For some, it was the first positive recognition they ever received that they had a voice worthy of an audience. Today, The Beat Within staff and volunteers serve more than 5,000 youth annually through workshops operated across California, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, DC. The publication makes a great holiday gift at $12 for an issue or $225 for an annual subscription. Learn more and get a subscription here!
This weekend’s election results prove that the people are powerful. Candidates who believe in our rights as people with convictions won seats all over Louisiana. Here in New Orleans, we passed an amendment to form a city Human Rights Commission. Statewide elections were close, but thanks to the efforts of so many of our canvassers and partners, there were wins for justice reform there, too. To boot, this election isn’t the only success of the season. From the local to the national levels, we’ve seen leaders come into the spotlight who together prove that we are an undying movement. In other words, at every juncture, we are regaining our rights, strengthening our voices, and mobilizing our communities. Let’s take a closer look.
In 1964, the first Civil Rights Act passed thanks to the dedication of some formidable leaders from the South. From this Act, protected classes were established, which means groups of people that cannot be legally discriminated against on the basis of identity. Since the original passage, more groups have been added, but people with convictions are not one of them. On Saturday, 73% of registered voters in New Orleans passed a ballot initiative to create a citywide Human Rights Commission (HRC). The HRC will investigate, report on, and order people to testify about violations of human rights in the city, including those against formerly incarcerated people (FIP), according to The Advocate. This commission will also support and protect other unprotected classes. Fifteen New Orleanians will serve on the board, seven of which will be appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council, the rest nominated by a councilmember. We look forward to not only the implementation of the HRC starting January 1, but also holding it accountable to the promises of justice it makes.
This kind of change isn’t limited to New Orleans. We see the potential for justice reform all over the state. On March 1, Act 636 went into effect, restoring voting rights to anyone currently on probation, off papers, or on parole for five or more years. From then until the Oct. 26 deadline, our team worked around the clock to register as many newly eligible voters as possible. We relied on the train-the-trainer model, teaching groups of people at a time how to register someone. New Orleans member Nziki Wiltz led a training on the West Bank. “Nziki [has] such an amazing way of reaching out and connecting [with people],” says one trainee who then went on to register people at her local Probation and Parole Office. “We all left with the feeling that we had accomplished the start of something.” At the same time that we were getting people with convictions registered, our canvassers started knocking doors, making phone calls, and sending texts all across the state. They followed the direction of the Power Coalition, of which we are a key member. The canvassers operated specifically on principles of equity and justice, and because of that, we saw a significantly higher Black voter turnout than other racial groups.
Our canvassers signed up to work with us because they’ve found strength in our movement, and now they’re here to stay. More people waking up and joining our fight all across Louisiana, and from this we will continue to see the fruits of our collective labor. “I feel like I’m part of the change,” says Wiltz.
Directly impacted people like our canvassers and recent voters aren’t just taking charge across the state, though. They’re coming into leadership roles all over the U.S., capturing a national spotlight and leaving waves of change in their paths. You may have heard about San Francisco’s newest District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, whose parents have been incarcerated since he was a baby. Because of the impact this has had on his life, he’s already planning to make progressive strides in his new position. In Chicago last month, FIP Sarah Gad announced that she’s running for U.S. Congress, District 1. If elected, she’d be the U.S.’ first formerly incarcerated woman federal legislator. These public figures’ openness about the impact mass incarceration has had on them is one more step towards destigmatizing conversations about it. FICPFM--a national coalition of directly impacted leaders--is right there with Boudin and Gad. Collectively, we are paving the way towards a transformative healing system that recognizes the needs of both those who cause and those who experience harm. And people are listening to us. Last month we witnessed candidates running for president of the U.S. show up for Justice Votes, a forum about justice reform that was led by formerly incarcerated leaders. Their ears are open, and we can see before our very eyes how together we are changing the way that our nation thinks about and votes on justice reform.
While our movement will continue no matter who is in office, we’re excited to work with new and old faces who are committed to changing the status quo of our criminal (in)justice system. And for the other wins that we weren’t able to snag this weekend, as our fearless leader Norris Henderson always says, “we fight one day longer than our opponent.”
Want to take a close-up look at the election results? Check out this blog from our partner, Voters Organized to Educate.
If God blessed America from the start,
He blessed a diverse art--
Of racism, bigotry, and slavery to boot.
Are all men's lives precious, or what the hoot?
Keeping racist laws, to keep up a cause.
To embrace big-o-try, to boast about the hist-o-ry.
Thinking slavery was for economic gain,
with supremacist patriotism, righteousness was slain.
We want this land to be for freedom,
but the history shows,
it only applies to some.
For everyone to make a patriotic pledge,
we must smash hatred with a sledge.
Then maybe we can all be proud,
and pray together out loud,
that we hold no man as a slave,
because we are the home of the brave.
And together we stand,
so the whole world can understand,
that we are one nation;
brothers and sisters,
all races from one creation.
If God is the reason that we stand strong,
then let us right any wrong.
By keeping God's word on our minds;
not falling back to segregated times.
"I and my Father are one;
If anyone serves Me,
let him follow Me,
and where I am,
there my servant will be also."
One nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Michael A. Videau is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
If every Louisianan with a criminal record lived in the same place, it would be the largest city in our state. In fact, it would be about double the size of Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans and Shreveport combined, as 1.7 million Louisianans have a record, according to 2016 data. In other words, since the dawn of modern mass incarceration in the 1980s, millions of people have been carrying the discrimination of convictions on their backs. That number is exponentially higher when we add in the families of people with convictions, as we know well that they are doing time alongside their loved ones.
As a massive group of people with a common experience, we have the power to vote together on the issues that affect our daily lives.
This means that we are, in essence, a voting bloc, which is a group of voters who are strongly motivated by a specific common concern. Usually, the bloc votes in unison based on that concern.
Despite being a powerful voting bloc, we are not politically popular. Yet. But last Monday offered a window into how much that is changing. Three presidential candidates joined a room full of formerly incarcerated leaders to talk about what they plan to do for justice reform. History will be the judge of what that day meant, and it is up to impacted people like us to make that history meaningful.
If the recent past is any indication, however, we’re on the right path.
In 2018, it was the leadership of people with records that ended the non-unanimous jury system in Louisiana. In our neighboring state of Florida, the same type of leaders ended the nation’s most egregious disenfranchisement scheme.
We have the opportunity to continue this trend for the remainder of this year and in 2020. We must show up in our polling stations at increasing rates, and do this while America fades deeper into the jaded cynicism of fake news and false promises. It is up to us--whether we care about a political party or not--to ensure our households are represented when politicians only react to who they consider to be their voters instead of all of the residents to whom they are accountable.
People with convictions live in every district. We are representative of every party. We care about many issues, particularly those that put people in cages and leave them there until so-called ‘justice’ destroys entire families and hollows out our neighborhoods.
When laws create two classes of citizenship, it is an apartheid state. One class receives equal protection and constitutional rights that cannot be infringed, while the other--including the 1.7 million of us mentioned above--experiences added barriers, hurdles, and exclusions. There is neither equal protection nor any truly guaranteed rights, because if it can happen to one part of the people, it will eventually happen to all of us. The next decade will determine if Louisiana, and the United States, continues to build an apartheid state. We will see if the ever-expanding number of people who are shut out becomes the majority, as it was in South Africa, and as the projections predict.
Early voting for the Nov. 16 run-off election is underway, and continues through Nov. 9. This is our chance to be heard and counted as newly-registered voters.
We have a chance to vote for people who support our voting rights and participation in the process. We can support candidates who would hold accountable the real drug-pushers--the Big Pharma employees and shareholders who have been flooding our streets with drugs. Through our votes, we can support the people who have been victimized by their predatory profiting schemes. We can vote for people who create a transparent government, rather than a kickback scheme that uses people as pawns for their enrichment.
The governor, secretary of state, twenty-nine state legislators, a Supreme Court justice, as well as dozens of city and parish officials throughout the state are up for election on Nov. 16. There are also important initiatives on some ballots, such as the one in New Orleans, where we have a chance to vote for and create a long-needed Human Rights Commission, while also raise funds to invest in our local infrastructure. Learn more here.
When we vote, we make it harder for them to ignore us. When we speak up, we make it harder not to hear us. We vote because we matter. And whether it is this group of politicians or the next, they will ultimately have to agree with us.