Last Tuesday, more than 16,000 communities throughout the nation participated in the 35th annual Night Out Against Crime. Historically, this annual event has been an opportunity for local neighborhoods and law enforcement to come together in the name of crime prevention. VOTE and our sister organization, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), both know that we cannot prevent crime without also addressing its root causes including, but not limited to: a lack of financial stability, a lack of resources for mental health care, over-policing in communities of color, and mass incarceration. That’s why this year we partnered to put on a celebration that was not only anti-crime, but pro-healing. VOTE members, CSSJ members, and passers by all came together in Central City, New Orleans, to break bread, enjoy music and entertainment, and talk about what healing really looks like.
“To me, healing looks like people coming together and forgiving,” says CSSJ member Dominique Jones. “We have to move forward and lean on God.” Many others at the event echoed Jones’ sentiments about forgiveness, too. Angela Thompson lost her son to gun violence more than three years ago. Almost immediately, she asked to speak to the young man who killed her son. Having seen the horrendous impacts of mass incarceration many times before, she just wanted to talk to him to understand why he did what he did, not to punish him or get him locked up.
“It’s not always easy to break the vicious cycles of retaliation,” she says. “But I’m doing it. When it gets really hard, I just breathe and pray, breathe and pray.”
Both Angela and New Orleans’ CSSJ Chapter Organizer Ariel Jeanjacques have met resistance for trying to approach harm differently. The criminal legal system can’t understand why survivors of crime don’t want the people who harmed them to sit behind bars for the rest of their lives.
“The system is using survivors as puppets to do what they want,” says Ariel. “But they’re not the ones who have really been affected--they haven't been through it. They're persuading survivors to lock people up instead of putting in real efforts to end the cycle of abuse and harm.”
Proponents of mass incarceration aren’t the only ones who don’t fully understand the work of CSSJ, though. Other survivors in their communities who are still angry and bitter can’t see how people like Angela and Ariel have compassion in their hearts.
One of the many ways Ariel tries to bring survivors into her network and help them see things differently is by sharing her own story. Several years ago, she called the police, thinking they would help protect her from her ex-partner, who was abusive. Instead, they fell in line with the history of law enforcement not taking survivors seriously at best, or blaming and criminalizing them at worst. She was arrested and later imprisoned. She tells younger people that they could face this kind of systemic violence, too, but also that they can be a voice against it.
“I just meet people where they’re at,” she says. “At CSSJ we say ‘from healing to action,’ because losing a child is something you never fully get over, but also it’s not healthy or helpful to sit and drown in your sorrows when you can start to heal and turn that into action.”
That phrase--from healing to action--really resonated for a new CSSJ member, Sophie, who also lost her son to gun violence. Tuesday’s event was a first for her. For many years, she was sad and resentful. Because of that, Sophie didn’t get involved. She and Ariel lived in the same housing development for many years, though, so they stayed in touch and checked in from time to time. Now Sophie is ready to do anything she can to prevent the cycle of crime and hurt.
Similarly, Felicia, a Florida resident, was shot 13 times while sleeping at her childhood friend’s house. Her friend and his 12-year-old son were both killed. For a long time, she only had hate in her heart because the person who shot her was someone she grew up with, and she hadn’t done anything except try to sleep. Aswald Thomas, the Managing Director for CSSJ, counseled Felicia for almost four years. One day, she called him and said “hating the man who shot me isn’t making me feel any better. I need to cross over. I could’ve died that day, too, but I didn’t. I have a purpose. I’m here to make a difference.” She’s now a CSSJ Chapter Organizer in Florida.
Addressing and preventing harm without relying on mass incarceration is a slow process. But as Felicia’s story shows us, it’s worth it, and it works.
“Loving is the answer to ending cycles of harm [in the system and with each other],” says Ariel with total confidence. “We just need more love in the world, and resources that really help the people most impacted.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. More than 5,000 women in Louisiana experience domestic violence every year, and last year the New Orleans Police Department received more than 40,000 domestic violence-related calls. But as we’ve seen countless times before, the police don’t always keep survivors safe, especially women of color. If you or someone you know is in a domestic violence-related crisis, call the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence at 1-888-411-1333. If you know someone experiencing a mental health crisis in the greater New Orleans area, call the Metropolitan Human Services District at 504-826-2675. They have a 24/7 trained crisis team that is not affiliated with the police.