“We stand on mighty shoulders,” Barbara Major, the founder of Citizens United for Economic Equity said during the opening plenary of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC)’s 12th annual Fit For a King Fair Housing Summit last week. “You don’t do this kind of work by yourself.”
The collective and intersectional nature of the fair housing movement in New Orleans became clear throughout the day, as attendees--including VOTE staff--heard from civil rights legends and local community activists.
“This is what a movement is,” Major continued. “It’s about hearing everyone’s voice at the table.”
GNOFHAC is a organization working to eradicate housing discrimination. Much like VOTE’s, their strategy includes education and outreach, policy work, litigation, and homeowner protection programs. The Fit For a King conference serves as a space to take stock of the movement today while honoring its connection to Dr. King Jr.’s struggle for justice.
To couch this movement in its deep historical roots, the opening panel included three powerful women changemakers: Dodie Smith-Simmons, Barbara Major, and Angela Kinlaw.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about the civil rights movement.
Smith-Simmons got her start in the 1950s. She was a member of the NAACP youth council and later part of New Orleans’ CORE chapter. Through CORE, Smith-Simmons joined the Freedom Riders in the ’60s.
“At a lot of rallies we would sing ‘May Be the Last Time,’” she recalled, singing a few lines. “We sang that song because we didn’t know if we were coming back.” Smith-Simmons, at 75 years old, keeps coming back to show up as a role model for younger activists. “I’m still dancing,” she assured the audience.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about food justice.
Major began organizing while living in the Desire housing projects. When her mother found her doing her first action--protesting at a grocery store nearby--she forced her to come home. “My mama said to me, ‘you keep taking care of the people.’,” she said. “She understood, she was just scared.”
Since then, Major has been involved in fighting for hunger and food security, health equity and housing issues. She trains new leaders with love and compassion, so that they can pick up the work where she leaves off.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about economic revolution.
Kinlaw advocates for issues like relocating Gordon Plaza residents, ending police brutality and removing Confederate monuments, along with the racism they represent. “I see myself as an organizer for the wellbeing of humanity,” Kinlaw explained. That means understanding the interconnection of all forms of injustice, and tackling the underlying systemic oppression instead of putting bandaids on individual issues.
Kinlaw was an educator for many years before becoming a community activist outside school walls. When people tell her she’s too radical, Kinlaw contends that “it takes a creative mind to imagine a world we have not yet seen.” She believes deeply that the fair housing and workers’ rights movements must be aligned.
Even though we had not yet met you, we loved you.
Breakout sessions spanned the topics of eviction, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in housing, and displacement and climate justice.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about climate change.
Colette Pichon Battle of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy led the session on displacement and climate change--a topic close to home for all Louisianans. The Center was founded in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina, when there was a growing need for disaster relief legal services. Since then, the organization has expanded to address equitable disaster recovery, sustainable economies and energy, water equity, and land labor.
Despite the political games that stifle progress on the issue, it is clear that extractive industries, and extravagant consumption practices, are the root causes of climate change.
“We’re talking about what you consume and what I consume,” Battle explained. “If we don’t have leadership that will change, then the people have to change.”
Battle showed the shocking rate of land loss in Southern Louisiana, a result of both global warming, (i.e. sea levels rising), and extractive oil and gas industries, (which are causing land to sink). Estimates tell us that by 2050, 250 million people will be displaced by climate change--a group that includes all residents of southern Louisiana. “It’s not just land," she said. "This is people. This is culture.”
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about agapic energy.
The keynote speaker, Diane Nash, brought us full circle to the civil rights leaders who started this work. Nash joined the civil rights movement as a college student in Nashville. Born and raised in Chicago, Nash had not experienced outright segregation until she moved to the South. It shocked her and called her to action. She became the chairperson of the student sit-in movement in Nashville, and later organized the Freedom Ride from Birmingham to Jackson.
Nash explained that her activism grows out of love. “What Ghandi developed,” she pointed out, “was a way to wage war without violence...waging war with an energy produced by love.”
With Ghandi’s influence in mind, Nash coined the term ‘agapic energy’. It comes from the Greek word ‘agape’, meaning love for humankind. Agapic energy is energy produced by the love of humankind.
The basic principles of agapic energy are that people are never the enemy--ideas, systems, and attitudes are--and that oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. She argued that as soon as oppressed people withdraw their support from the oppressive system, it falls apart. This process happens in six steps: investigation of the system that needs to change, education of constituents, negotiation with the opponent (always with love and respect), demonstration, resistance, and, finally, resolution, to ensure the oppression doesn’t repeat itself in a different form.
Nash spoke with a quiet, confident conviction. “I want you to know that my contemporaries had you in mind when we acted,” she said. “Even though we had not yet met you, we loved you. We wanted to build a better world for you to be born into, and younger generations will look to you to do the same.”
We can’t talk about fair housing without taking action.
The summit ended with a call to action. It is not enough to honor Dr. King Jr.’s legacy, we must do the work.
To participate in this movement, you can join Jane’s Place courtwatch program to ensure evicted tenants get their security deposits back. You can sign up for GNOFHAC’s email list to stay informed on policy initiatives. You can support the Smart Housing Mix by calling your city council member. You can become a member of VOTE’s fair housing coalition.
“Citizens must take the future of this country into their own hands,” Nash concluded. “We need to realize that there is no one to solve the problems but you and me.”
The Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law recently published "To Purify the Ballot": the Racial History of Felon Disenfranchisement in Louisiana by VOTE's own Deputy Director Bruce Reilly. Reilly started writing this article in 2011 as a VOTE member who was new to New Orleans and in his first year at Tulane Law School. During orientation week, he realized that because he was a formerly incarcerated person, he had lost his voting rights. He worked on the paper for nearly three years and, in 2015, VOTE used an expanded version of it to get our all-volunteer legal team on the same page. Thanks to last year's passage of Act 636, Reilly and thousands of other Louisiana citizens on probation or parole will get their voting rights back. We are so proud of our staff and all of their amazing accomplishments!
Click the link above for the full publication text.
As we ring in 2019, we're ready to have our most successful year yet. To do this, though, we first need to look back at how far we've come. Our office was recently graced with Naomi Farve (center), an integral player in VOTE's early roots. In the fall of 1987, our Executive Director Norris Henderson (right) and Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy (left) were incarcerated at Angola. They were both serving life sentences, which made them eligible to attend the Lifers Banquet, an annual event where people with life sentences could shares their wants, needs and visions with folks on the outside.
That night, as Henderson was giving a presentation about penal reforms that he and other members of the Angola Special Civics Project compiled, he was interrupted by a woman in the audience: Farve. She took the mic from him and vowed to use her position as the newly-elected Representative for House District 101 to carry their demands for reform forth. From there, she introduced House Bill 1709, which made everyone eligible for parole. Though the legislation didn't pass that year, she reintroduced a version of it every year until, in 1990, it passed and became Act 790. Sadly, by then the bill had been modified to make everyone but lifers eligible for parole. On the other hand, the passage of this Act became the foundation that later allowed Henderson, Yancy and other early members of the ASCP--which later became VOTE--to overturn their life sentence convictions and go home free.
We owe an immense amount of gratitude, respect and humility to Farve and other champions like her. Theirs are the shoulders we stand on as we plan for major wins in the years, decades and centuries ahead.
We thank you, too, for being part of this movement. If you'd like to help us start the year off strong, please make a new year donation to our work.
“How is your heart today?” George asked me gently, looking into my eyes with an eager openness that I imagine comes only from having a lot of practice asking people that question. I definitely didn’t extend equivalent grace when, a few minutes prior, I awkwardly asked him the very same thing, my eyes darting between his own and the white wall behind him. “My heart is full of joy and gratitude,” he had replied.
George is a middle-aged Black man who has been incarcerated for the past 12 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary--better known as Angola--the largest maximum security prison in the United States. He spends much of his time mentoring younger men, playing piano in a band, and preaching at his church--all of which are inside the prison walls. “This day is going to be a little weird, a little different,” he warned me playfully when I sat down at Table #5.
Indeed, a prison cafeteria full of incarcerated men and visitors from outside meditating and discussing compassion together was a little different.
In my mind, prisons have always been dark, ugly, claustrophobic places, filled to the brim with injustice. When I got to Angola, I saw parts of that truth up close. Injustice is evident in the remnants of the Angola Rodeo arena on prison grounds. It’s evident in the rows of homes inside the prison gates known as “the City of Angola.” These homes, complete with basketball nets and ‘children playing’ signs, house the prison’s staff and ooze nostalgia for small-town America in the eeriest of ways. Of course, the most striking evidence of injustice are the acres upon acres of crop fields that surround the prison buildings. As Angola is a former plantation, these fields are the site of both age-old and modern-day slavery.
What I could not have imagined, though, until I found myself at Table #5 across from George, is the light that this group of men radiate in the face of blatantly racist and discriminatory realities.
Laura Naughton is the brains behind the Day of Compassion event. She runs an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training course at the prison. Its goal is “to build a culture of compassion at Angola through mindfulness and the daily practice of compassion. By recognizing common humanity, free and incarcerated people will cultivate and nurture the value of self, others, and togetherness.”
Throughout the day, men who had been through the course taught us visiting folks about compassion and its necessary place in justice work. From this, I learned that if suffering isn’t present, compassion will not arise. I also learned that compassion is activated in four stages. First, we must notice suffering. After that, we must care and then wish for that suffering to be relieved. Finally, we must be willing to act to relieve that suffering. The action is the key, and that compassionate action is boundless. The more it is given, the more it is created. Compassion begets compassion.
In this political age, there is undoubtedly plenty of suffering to go around. Newspaper headlines overflow with corruption and cruelty. Our planet is burning, flooding, sinking. Our people are beaten, stolen, shot. Our political and social systems appear to be broken at every seam. We all see suffering. Many of us who are engaged in movements for social justice care deeply and wish for this suffering to be relieved. And luckily, we have ample opportunity to act.
Towards the end of the day, one incarcerated man took the mic and explained that “compassionate justice is to understand the person who is sitting across from you.”
Maybe that is a good place to start.
Sarah Gordon is VOTE's newest staff member. She is serving a one-year fellowship through Avodah, a Jewish service-based organization.
Today marks 5 days until the end of our first-ever grassroots fundraising campaign. It is sunny and clear in New Orleans today--the opposite of the storm we've been in the last year.
When I say 'we', I mean you. I mean me. I mean anyone who's ever put on that blue VOTE t-shirt, jumped on a 5am bus to Baton Rouge, stormed the Capitol and let them know whose house it really is.
But I also mean the people who have no choice but to wear worn-out grays because they're locked behind bars.
Those are the people we fight for. They're the reason I get up every day at 5am--or earlier. On so many days, I don't want to be up that early, but I do it for them.
As someone who was once voiceless and now runs an organization named Voice of the Experienced, I have a commitment to uphold, a commitment to being a voice of the voiceless. I can't speak alone, though. I need your voice, too.
Will you donate just $20 to our campaign today? We have to raise $30,000 by Friday, and are 20% of the way there.
I often tell my friends, staff and allies that we don't want to be a group to be recognized, we want to be the group to be reckoned with. Every day we become that group more and more, and if we make our goal by the time this campaign ends, that will be truer than ever before.
Please help however you can. Donate now.
Founder and Executive Director,
Voice of the Experienced (VOTE)
It is easy to list the root causes of incarceration, but our society clearly struggles to form the collective will to address them. Poverty leads to poor educational opportunities, hunger, and homelessness. These conditions, in turn, motivate children and young adults to start their own businesses, regardless of their legality. The unresolved trauma from abusive homes, serving in combat, or surviving a hurricane creates sadness, anger and various forms of spiritual damage that often lead to self-medication or erratic behavior. Addiction can be a downward spiral, and the barriers facing formerly incarcerated people make it worse. More often than not, these barriers lock them out of ever rejoining society.
In Baton Rouge, voters have an opportunity on December 8th to address these root causes by Voting “Yes” on the mental health tax proposal. If the ballot question passes, the average homeowner would be taxed $1.50/month to fund a mental health crisis stabilization center. The center would be a small antidote to the state’s billion-dollar prison system.
Many residents and police officers can clearly identify when someone “needs help,” but they have no idea what to do. Just ask the friends and family of Lamar Johnson, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in 2015. Soon thereafter, guards at the East Baton Rouge Prison beat him. Within four days he was found dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind his 3-year old son.
Many people both in and out of custody, in Baton Rouge and beyond, are seeking treatment. In Johnson’s case, the police officer was compelled to arrest him on an old warrant. The officer told Johnson that “everything happens for a reason, and I believe sincerely in my heart that you’re trying to do right.” Surely, someone in the jail felt similarly about Lamar Johnson, but had nowhere to refer him.
While the proposed treatment facility, known as The Bridge Center, is a step in the right direction, the current proposal is not without concerns. The Center needs transparency and oversight that includes the perspective of impacted community members. Public oversight of our institutions is crucial, especially for vulnerable populations such as those accused of criminal behavior. The Bridge Center’s current board should also do away with its vice chairman, Dr. Raman Singh, who had multiple marks on his record before and during his tenure as state prison medical director, which came to an end due to allegations of sexual harassment.
No single solution will be the magic salve for all that ails us, especially in a city as large as Baton Rouge. On the other hand, we can’t have an effective, multifaceted response to societal issues without putting the first brick down. It is time to stop using jails and prisons as a stow-away for what we think we can’t collectively deal with. It is time to create alternatives, and give our neighbors, police, district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges a chance to actually help our community.
Early Voting is open now through December 1st, from 8am - 6pm at:
Yesterday, Louisiana voters cast their ballots in favor of Amendment 2, passing a law that will require a unanimous jury on all felony convictions. As a result of this historic win, which puts to rest a 138-year-old law, Louisiana will join 48 other states in requiring a unanimous jury.
“This is a huge moment for criminal justice reform in the South,” says VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson. “From community conversations, to the Legislature, and finally to the ballot, we’ve put all our efforts into passing this law, and I couldn’t be prouder.” After a split 10-2 jury wrongfully found him guilty, Henderson himself spent almost 28 years at Angola State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.
Since the summer, Henderson has led the Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC), an unlikely group of bipartisan supporters of the unanimous jury law. The UJC collectively represents more than 30 organizations, including Innocence Project New Orleans, the Promise of Justice Initiative, and Southern Poverty Law Center. It also includes individuals such as Ed Tarpley, former District Attorney of Grant Parish, and Robert Jones, who was exonerated in 2017 for four separate crimes.
Louisiana currently leads the country in wrongful convictions. More than 40 percent of all of those who have been recently exonerated were mistakenly found guilty by non-unanimous juries. Though today’s victory is one of many steps necessary to achieve total criminal justice reform in the state and nation, it is a big one. The presence of a unanimous jury law will reduce the rate of wrongful convictions statewide, and send a strong message that the time for criminal justice reform is now. Though the UJC will disband now that Election Day has passed, the political energy generated through its work will continue.
"This work is far from over," says Henderson, "especially considering this year we also won voting rights for the majority of Louisiana citizens on probation and parole.”
VOTE, the Power Coalition and other key criminal justice reform organizations are hosting a candidate forum on November 14th, when questions about Act 636, effective March 1st, 2019, will surely be a hot topic. Kyle Ardoin (R) and "Gwen" Collins-Greenup (D) are in a run-off election for Secretary of State, which will be on Dec. 8th. Early Voting begins November 24th.
“Who this new Secretary of State will be, and how they decide to support or obstruct the new law, will have a lot to say about our democracy moving forward," says Henderson.
The forum will be held at 2022 St. Bernard Ave. from 6 - 8pm. To attend, RSVP at: bit.ly/votecanforum.
VOTE is also raising funds to propel this work forward. Our goal is to raise $30,000 in the next 30 days. Please make a donation today--every dollar counts!
While much of our focus has been on encouraging voters to #VoteYeson2 and #VoteNo1, it is also crucial that we highlight the importance of the Secretary of State race. Among the responsibilities that the incoming Secretary of State will be in charge of is the implementation of Act 636, which will restore voting rights to over 40,000 Louisiana citizens. Currently, people must complete their probation or parole sentences before they can regain voting rights. Act 636 changes this in four months, specifically allowing voting rights to people who have been incarceration-free while on probation, and people on parole for over five years. The law goes into effect on March 1, 2019, and its implementation is central to the Secretary of State’s job.
As of now, only two candidates have released statements about how they will follow the law, and how they will ensure that voting rights are protected.
During a candidate forum hosted by Justice and Beyond, Democratic candidate Renee Fontenot Free stated “it is not good enough for me to wait for somebody that’s on probation or parole to want to vote. It’s incumbent upon me to go to DOC and say ‘give me your records, tell me who is going to be eligible to vote…let me reach out to them.’”
“It is not good enough for me to wait for somebody that’s on probation or parole to want to vote. It’s incumbent upon me to go to DOC and say ‘give me your records, tell me who is going to be eligible to vote…let me reach out to them.’”
She is committed to engagement and education that will make all citizens of Louisiana excited to vote, especially people who were merely given probation by the judge and required to be upstanding citizens. Ms. Free worked in two previous Secretary of State administrations and is the only candidate to fill out the Know Your Vote candidate survey that covers this issue.
At the same forum, Democratic candidate Gwen Collins-Greenup expressed her support for Act 636. She emphasized the importance of voter education, noting that many formerly incarcerated people do not know if they can or cannot vote, once they are released. Collins-Greenup believes that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to actively educate all citizens, including illiterate and disabled voters. She also believes it is within the Secretary of State’s duties to work with the Department of Corrections (DOC) and various local organizations to register people to vote under Act 636.
The acting Secretary of State, Republican Kyle Ardoin, testified about the challenges of implementing Act 636 before it was signed into law, when it was still House Bill 265, as he had about variations on the bill during previous legislative sessions. However, now that the restoration of voting rights outlined in Act 636 is mandated, he said it will not be a problem for the Secretary of State to work with the DOC on implementation. There are no indications as to whether he has done any preparation for February or March. If people are going to have voting rights on March 1st, they will need to have a registration system similar to 17-year-olds who turn 18 on Election Day.
Republican candidates Julie Stokes and Rick Edmonds both voted against HB 265, while they were state legislators. Neither candidate has released a statement or opinion about how they plan to implement the new law, if elected. The window to adjust the registration system, train the parish officials, create a better data exchange with the Department of Corrections, outreach eligible voters, and print new materials will close in fast after the election, which certainly will go to a December 8th run-off.
The window to adjust the registration system, train the parish officials, create a better data exchange with the Department of Corrections, outreach eligible voters, and print new materials will close in fast after the election, which certainly will go to a December 8th run-off.
The remaining four candidates, Republicans Heather Cloud, A.G. Crowe, and Thomas J. Kennedy, and Independent Matthew Paul Moreau have also not publicly spoken about their plans to implement Act 636.
In the next few days leading up to the primary election on November 6, and during the time between the primary and the runoff, it is crucial to pay attention to what these candidates are saying about their plans to implement Act 636. It is a very important law that will positively impact thousands of people throughout Louisiana. It is our top priority that we elect a Secretary of State who will ensure that each and every eligible individual is able to easily and quickly regain their voting rights.
Stay tuned for a candidate forum, November 14th, following the primary.
Four members of VOTE’s staff, all working hard to encourage civic engagement of people throughout the community, will continue to be denied the right to vote along with thousands of members and constituents living on probation or parole across the state. The named plaintiffs include college graduates, veterans and faith leaders. The good news, however, is that Act 636, effective March 1st 2019, will solve half the problem, and even the NFL is hailing VOTE’s work to create voting rights and equal opportunities.
One reason the case may have been dismissed is because the legislature changed the laws and, as the Secretary of State wrote in opposition to the writ, Act 636 will end the suspension of voting rights for roughly 40,000 people on probation- unless they commit a probation violation and go to prison. This leaves roughly 30,000 people on parole, barred from voting, as they have been out for less than 5 years.
The Court’s decision is a reminder of the many barriers built and defended to, ironically, keep people from 'doing the right thing.' In a state that struggles to get more than 20% of people to vote, denying participation to so many people contributes to the demise of democracy and legitimacy of elections. For people recovering from a criminal conviction, attempts to assimilate into society can be futile. One might think such hurdles were enacted to prevent crimes, yet most barriers prevent housing, impede education, block employment, and bar voting.
“We weren’t even making a moral argument, which we could have,” says Bruce Reilly, VOTE deputy director, member of the legal team, and himself disenfranchised. “Our case is built on the reality that the voters were played by a bait-and-switch back in 1974. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the Court didn’t want to go there. Galileo faced the same problem back in the 16th century, trying to get the court to look into the telescope, to prove the earth rotated around the sun. Instead, they placed him under house arrest.”
This case turned on the interpretation of a phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” where lower courts agreed that the definition (to include people in prison, on parole, and on probation) was correct, despite being crafted several years after the constitution was ratified. Yet the lower courts refused to follow established legal standards to reach their rulings. It is hard to trust the process when the process is ignored. The legal standards call for courts to consider what the voters believed they were voting for, particularly when a word of phrase does not a hold a common everyday plain meaning. Rather than conduct an inquiry, six members of the Louisiana Supreme Court remain silent.
Chief Justice Johnson has been an attorney for 50 years, and a judge for 34 years. While she saw the merits of the case clearly to be on the side of VOTE, it is disappointing that the other justices did not even see the controversy as worthy of consideration. Such a move begs critics to see courts as an extension of political theatre, rather than a place of reasonable minds and rigorous inquiry. The Chief Justice's own research unearthed what may be the origin of the phrase “under order of imprisonment,” which is not a part of the Louisiana criminal code. Back in 1876, when an incarcerated person wanted courts to correct his deficient "order of imprisonment," he filed for “habeas relief” to be released from incarceration. Today, however, an order of imprisonment is equated to the “threat of” imprisonment, which everyone in America actually faces. The path to tyranny is a slippery slope.
Furthermore, even if the denial of a fundamental right were clearly written into law, the legality of it would require a “legitimate state interest” for why this right were being denied, and whether this was the least intrusive way to deny the right. This judicial review serves as a check on legislatures or mob rule run amok, and is one of the basic “checks and balances” under American democracy. In this case, the Court did not even want to weigh the matter- thus relegating “voting rights” to a whimsical privilege. Yet as Chief Justice Johnson writes, “There is no legitimate reason for disenfranchising these citizens.”
Although this chapter of the story concludes, VOTE v. Louisiana will be remembered as a lawsuit that united the brilliance of so many people and organizations, all of which contributed to our overall cultural shift. This historic litigation owes special thanks to Professor Bill Quigley (lead counsel), Advancement Project (appellate counsel team, particularly Denise Lieberman and Jennifer Lai-Peterson), League of Women Voters, American Probation and Parole Association, The Sentencing Project, Professors Andrea Armstrong, Davida Finger, and Lawrence Powell, and NAACP-Legal Defense Fund. Additional thank you to those attorneys who joined the fight before there was even a light at the end of the tunnel: Ron Wilson, Rob McDuff, Anna Lellelid, Vanessa Carroll, Ilona Prieto, Alexis Erkert, Patrick Murphree, and Megan French-Marcelin.
This case would be nothing without the courage of our plaintiffs: Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston, Bruce Reilly, Checo Yancy, Randy Tucker, Bill Vo, Huy Tran, and Ashanti Witherspoon. VOTE v. Louisiana was a model of 'movement-based lawyering' just that, a testament to self-empowerment, and an example of unity between jailhouse lawyers and allies. Regarding future legal filings... join VOTE's email list and stay tuned!
“No Surrender, No Retreat!” - Checo Yancy
In the current world of criminal justice, the story we are told is that there is a person who causes harm, and a person who is harmed. A perpetrator and a victim. An abuser and an abused. And, more often than not, in a given instance, or in a particular situation, that may indeed be true. One person--the harmer--feels hurt, gets triggered, and becomes violent. The other--the harmed--receives that pain and then carries it with them. Sometimes, the one who harms gets locked in a cell. Sometimes, the one who is harmed does. Oftentimes, neither ever see a day inside prison. And almost never do both the harmer and harmed feel healed.
There is another story. It’s the one we try to tell at VOTE, but, like many of our peers, have trouble with. It’s complicated, and, in many ways, unfinished.
This story also begins with a person who harms and another who is harmed. Together, their story are two links in a long line of pain. Zoom out, and the chain starts to form: the person who harms was harmed by someone else, earlier. The person who was harmed then goes on to harm someone else, later--a sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious cycle of retaliation. And so it continues. The chain binds us all.
In other words, hurt people hurt people. At VOTE, we know and live this phrase in our bones. We are an organization that includes people who have hurt others and spent years in prison because of it. We are an organization that includes people who have been hurt by others and have spent years in prison in spite of it. We are an organization that includes people who have both hurt people and been hurt by people and have never spent time in prison. We are all of that, and more, oftentimes in the same person.
By existing as we are, we’re complicating the story, whether we like it or not.
And why does that matter?
It matters because there are 2.3 million people sitting in prisons across the United States. This reality, known as mass incarceration, was built on the single story, the same one we started with, the one with the perpetrator and the victim. That story freezes time and assigns individuals indefinitely to one of those two roles. Individuals are incarcerated accordingly, and no one gets an opportunity to heal. Much the opposite, the trauma of incarceration adds more hurt to the pain that is already there. Instead of breaking the cycle of “hurt people hurt people,” prison makes it worse.
Since we’re halfway through Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let’s use domestic--or intimate partner--violence (IPV) as a case study.
At present, under the current story, only a small handful of people who cause harm to their intimate partners go to prison. Traditional Batterer Intervention Programs (BIPs), which the court system usually requires abusive partners to attend, focus on punishment rather than histories of trauma, and, in turn, are not effective in getting attendees to stop abusing others.
Meanwhile, at home, the children of incarcerated abusive partners are without a parent, and the abused partners are left to raise those children alone. In these cases, closure, accountability, and true healing are rarely seen. In other words, the ‘solutions’ to DV/IPV are not solutions at all.
Several years ago, our Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) Coordinator Ariel Jeanjacques called the police, trying to find safety from her abusive partner. When they arrived on the scene, her abuser lied and told them Ariel broke his nose. Even though she had bruises and scrapes on her body, the police didn’t hear anything she was saying. Because of a previous charge on her record that she was still on probation for, they arrested her. Right after she arrived at the local jail, she was turned back around and sent to the hospital--where she should have gone in the first place--for a CT scan. After waiting for 16 hours, she was finally seen by medical professionals, and then ultimately sent back to jail.
Not long after, she was told she could go because someone had bonded her out. She walked outside to find her abuser, who had a stay away order, waiting at his car. She tried to refuse a ride, but he was not having it. He told authorities that they lived together and were both listed on the lease, even though only her and her son's names were. She tried to ask him to leave numerous times, but he would threaten her and tell her he'd only leave if the police made him. He knew, however, that based on previous experiences with the police, she was too afraid to call them and ultimately be arrested again.
Eventually, with the diligent help of friends and various social services, Ariel was able to leave her partner for good. Her story is an example of why that typical narrative of ‘victim-perpetrator' is not only unhelpful, but dangerous as a driver of mass incarceration. She was the ‘victim’, but was treated as the ‘perpetrator.’ She tried to use the justice system as it is allegedly intended--to get help--and wound up being further harmed by that very system. That system enabled, rather than restructured, her partner’s abusive patterns.
Ariel knew why her ex-partner hurt her the way he did. He had been beaten throughout his childhood. He confused love with control. He was never given the tools to learn how to heal himself.
She also never wanted anyone--herself or her partner--to go to jail. All she wanted was for him to stop hurting her, and in that moment when she called the police, that was her last resort.
Ariel, like all of us at VOTE, knows there is another way. As a team of people who have been on every side of violence, we know that creating a world of safety, justice and healing without relying on mass incarceration is extremely challenging work. Oftentimes it feels impossible. Many times, it feels like building the plane as we’re flying it. Once in a while, it works, and that becomes the ground zero for the future.
Making new worlds starts with asking new questions such as “how can we build accountable communities for the purpose of healing and repair without exiling or disposing of those who cause harm?” Next Friday, October 26, at 3pm CST, anti-violence activists Kiyomi Fujikawa, Shannon Perez-Darby, and Mariame Kaba will be hosting an online discussion on this topic. Register here, and let us know if you’re interested in watching it together! If enough people are interested, we can host a viewing at our office and discuss the content afterwards.