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Nina Turner, Cornel West, Danny Glover, Cynthia Nixon and Gus Newport on the roots of and solutions to America’s addiction to mass incarceration at the Sanders Institute Gathering

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JAISAL NOOR: I’m Jaisal Noor, reporting from the Sanders Institute Gathering in Burlington, Vermont.

One of the main panels today discussed criminal injustice. The panel was hosted by former Ohio state senator and current Our Revolution President Nina Turner.

NINA TURNER: My son is a millennial. And so I understand, as a black mother in America, the pain and the hurt, knowing that your child, in the words of the urban poet Ice Cube, “My skin is my sin,” I understand from that perspective what it means to have a black son in America. But on the other side, I know what it is to have a black son in America who wears a badge and a gun and who is taking the oath to protect and serve. When he doesn’t have his badge and his gun, he is in danger just by his very existence in this world.

JAISAL NOOR: Opening the panel was actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. Earlier this year she primaried New York Governor Andrew Cuomo from the left.

CYNTHIA NIXON: What we have is–the prison population has quadrupled in the last 40 years. It’s not only–proportionally, it’s four times the size. And that has to do with the war on drugs, and targeting of people for minor drug offenses, and largely people of color. And so there are so many things that we need to do, particularly in New York, but across the country. I would say there are four main ones. Ending cash bail. Ensuring the right to a speedy trial. Ensuring right to discovery. And legalizing marijuana.

JAISAL NOOR: Nixon highlighted the case of Kalief Browder.

CYNTHIA NIXON: A young black man named Kalief Browder, who was arrested. Who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was incarcerated at Rikers for three years because he couldn’t afford bail, and he wouldn’t take a plea bargain. And he was incarcerated for three years, and he was in solitary for more than 800 days. And he would not take a plea. I mean, this is a really important thing to understand, that in New York, 98 percent of the convictions that we see are of people who have taken a plea bargain.

JAISAL NOOR: Nixon also highlighted the high costs of mass incarceration.

CYNTHIA NIXON: You know, one of the themes that we’ve heard again and again this weekend, and I’m sure we’ll continue to hear, is it’s a matter of what you’re spending your money on, right? So we spend $22,000 a year per student in New York, but we spend $70,000 to incarcerate people, right, in New York State. We spend $118,000 to incarcerate people in New York City. And we need to, we need to invest in schools, not jails.

JAISAL NOOR: Actor and activist Danny Glover also highlighted the high costs of mass incarceration.

DANNY GLOVER: My brother, one of my brothers had been arrested, and arrested as a juvenile. When he became 18 years old he had a choice to do one of two things: go back to prison, and go to jail, or join the Army. And consequently, ended up in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam at 19 years old. And never was the same after that.

JAISAL NOOR: Glover talked about recent successes, including a ballot measure in Florida that allows 1.5 million ex-felons the right to vote.

DANNY GLOVER: We would be remiss if we didn’t mention what happened in Florida this last election, with the re-enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated citizens.

JAISAL NOOR: Also on the panel was former Berkeley, California Mayor Gus Newport, who served from 1979-1986.

GUS NEWPORT: I reorganized the police department when I became the mayor of Berkeley because I had had some experience nationally. And we called in an organization, POST, that trains police. And we found that we had too many of administrators for the number of people on the street. And as soon as we put together all that, we hired 12 guys from the Black Panthers. We checked them out and whatever else, because we wanted people who knew how to deal with street people.

When Ronald Reagan was governor, he closed the mental health institutions in California. And all those people came to Berkeley, and San Francisco, and Oakland. And so immediately what we did, we hired mental health workers to work the streets with police.

JAISAL NOOR: Newport argued that mass incarceration is a continuation of slavery.

GUS NEWPORT: Incarceration, as we know it in this country, is a continuation of slavery. Because when you think about it, we’ve got new jails on the stock market. You remember, it’s the convicts who make the license plates and all that, and gets paid 70 cents an hour. We’ve got more unemployment and poverty ever in the history of this country. And naturally that’s going to cause people to get tripped up and going to jail as such, or whatever else. So love is what it’s all about. And as Martin Luther King said, we still are aspiring to be the America that was supposed to be.

JAISAL NOOR: Dr. Cornel West also talked about the roots of America’s criminal injustice system.

DR. CORNEL WEST: An imperial meltdown. We’re living in American empire. Forty-eight hundred fifty-five military units; 857 around the world; 128 countries special operations. Pentagon gets 47 cents of every dollar. We’ve got an empire. We got precious democratic practices in the middle of it. That’s why when we founded this nation, it was an imperial democracy. Just ask our precious Indigenous brothers and sister. It was a patriarchal democracy. Ask our sisters, who are not a minority, but the majority of humanity.

JAISAL NOOR: West noted that despite mass incarceration, elites often escape accountability.

DR. CORNEL WEST: As a revolutionary Christian, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. I began at the top. Why are the criminals at the top hardly talked about All that market manipulation, insider trading, predatory lending, fraudulent activity by Wall Street. How [inaudible]. Not at all. Not at all. Massive corruption in government.

JAISAL NOOR: West also argued that criminal justice must also be paired with economic justice.

DR. CORNEL WEST: But when we talk about criminality then we have to put it in the right context. If we had all the prison reform in the world and still had high levels of poverty, still had decrepit school systems, still had inadequate housing, still had dominant images of corporate media in which you deal with conflict by killing other people, we still have a problem. My beloved is from Canada. Canada has roughly the same population as California. More Californians kill each other with knives than Canadians kill each other with anything. That’s a cultural, spiritual issue.

JAISAL NOOR: For all of our coverage from the first Sanders Institute Gathering, go to From Burlington, Vermont, this is Jaisal Noor.

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Nina Turner is the president of Our Revolution. She is a former Ohio State Senator, college professor, public speaker, frequent media commentator and author, and was a national surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary. She has been the host of the Nina Turner Show on the Real News Network.

Danny Glover combines his acting career with a dedication to the common good. He is well-known for his film and television works, including the Lethal Weapon series, Beloved, To Sleep with Anger, and Freedom Song. He serves as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, works on behalf of AIDS victims in the U.S. and Africa, and helps a wide range of organizations advance the causes of civil rights and economic justice.