Grassroots Organizers Continue To Move The Needle For Change Despite Little Fanfare
Activists like Cameron Miles, Vonya Quarles, Erica Smith, and Amber Rose-Howard discuss organizing tactics that work in the continued fight for social justice and prison abolition.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Student Audienc…: I will survive.
Speaker 2: I am a king.
Student Audienc…: I am a king.
Speaker 2: I have self worth.
Student Audienc…: I have self worth.
Speaker 2: If it is to be.
Student Audienc…: If it is be.
Speaker 2: It is up to me.
Student Audienc…: It is up to me.
Speaker 2: Can we welcome Mr. Conway with a hand clap?
Speaker 3: Okay. How you all doing?
Student Audienc…: Good.
Speaker 3: Okay. What I would rather do is answer any questions you might have.
Student Audienc…: Was the Black Panther Party in your family?
Speaker 3: Was the Black Panther my family? It became a family, yes.
Student Audienc…: Have you ever been in a war?
Speaker 3: Yes. I’ve been in a war, but I was in the army for three years. But no, the war I’ve been in has been here in the United States as being a member of the Black Panther Party, the government actually launched the war against us. So I was in that particular war.
Speaker 4: Hundreds of grassroots organizations are working on every level to prevent incarceration in black and brown communities. When you hear about their efforts, the media’s focus is never on the solution. A number of organizations are taking action that have led to real change. Groups like Californians United for a Responsible Budget known as CURB, operate as a coalition of 70 grassroots groups, California spends 80,000 per year per person in prison. Los Angeles County has the largest jail system in the world.
Speaker 5: California decided decades ago, around the seventies, that they were going to answer what they identified as social problems with prison. Our treatment centers and resources and communities were yanked up and destroyed, really, and then they were all replaced with prisons. In a matter of 20 years, California went from 12 prisons to 34 prisons. They just decided the prisons was going to be the answer, and of course, targeting specifically black and brown communities.
CURB: No more stolen lives.
No more stolen lives.
No more stolen lives.
No more stolen lives.
Speaker 4: CURB has been successful in many areas, stopping 140,000 new prison and jail beds proposed since 2004.
CURB Speaker: CURB was founded in 2003 when a bunch of organizers, sandpipers and organizers, were getting together because there was an opportunity to close one of the prisons here in Southern California. It’s called California Correctional Center. It’s in Norco, California. And so in 2003, there was an opportunity to close it. The opportunity fell through, but those organizers decided that it was important to continue to build anti-prison work, so they formed Californians United for Responsible Budget, which is CURB, helping folks realize that the budget is really what determines what the state is going to do socially. So pulling in folks from environmental justice, union organizers, climate justice folks, racial justice, gender justice, and helping folks realize that incarceration was sort of the intersection for all of the oppressive issues that we face.
Speaker 4: Members include men and women that are currently incarcerated, whom they consult on their actions, and they are working on several new campaigns, including a racial justice act for people who are able to clearly identify racial discrimination and sentencing.
CURB Speaker: There’s this enhancement, you can get an extra year for every prior felony conviction that you’ve had, and that’s wide range of felonies from nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual to serious, violent, and sexual crimes. And so, realizing that some folks had 10 extra years on their sentence because of this one year enhancement. Right now in California prisons, there is an extra 15,000 years being served on this one year enhancement. That’s informed by people inside, that’s them telling us their stories and that’s them telling us what the real problems are. And so, we were able to successfully repeal that enhancement last year, but they definitely inform all of our policies. We include them in our media. When we’re doing press releases, we’re giving quotes from folks inside. We are trying to help move them into these organizing spaces with us from the inside.
One very important campaign that we have going on right now statewide is DROP LWOP. We’re looking at a time right now where governor Gavin Newsom has said, you know what? I’m going to put a moratorium on the death penalty. No more deaths in California by prison. But what we fear is because we know life without parole was created as an alternative to the death penalty, we fear that life without parole is going to be set as, it’s going to be etched in stone and we’ll never be able to reverse it if we don’t fight to reverse it now. So we have a campaign called DROP LWOP. We’re trying to get the governor to commute all 5,000 plus sentences of folks who have life without parole in the state of California and we want it removed from the penal code.
Speaker 4: Coalitions with other grassroots organizations are also key to their success aligning for instance, with environmental justice activists around poor conditions inside of prisons and the communities around them.
No new jails, New York City, and name and movement are keeping it to the point. Galvanized by Kalief Browder’s brutal treatment in Rikers and eventual death. The group has been fighting to shut down Rikers and prevent new billion dollar jails being built in New York.
Speaker 8: Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “Hey, I’m going to close Rikers Island and I’m going to build four new jails in replacement, but the catch is there is no legal binding agreement to close Rikers Island, but there is a legal binding agreement through this [inaudible 00:05:50] process, that’s happening to build four new jails.
Speaker 9: In fact, community members in all these boroughs have been asking for improvements to NYCHA for public transportation or childcare for decades, and there’s always an excuse of, oh, we don’t have that money, but here we have $11 billion for these jails and it’s good for your community, like this is what you wanted, right? And so, there’s a call to action with activists, organizers, community members to say, is this really what you want? It’s not what we want, and we’re just trying to get city council to hear us. And they are funding a lot of criminal justice organizations that are advocating for new jails, but also calling themselves abolitionists and co-opting the abolition movement.
Speaker 4: As the proposal for a $14 million new jail plan is being pushed in Baltimore, Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood run by Cameron Miles works on keeping young people out of the system by providing them with positive role models, engaging them in debates, and taking them on trips to places around the country. Miles’ was mentoring program is taking steps towards engaging young minds.
Eddie Conway: I’m Eddie Conway. I’m excited to be here in Matthew Henson’s elementary school. I’m meeting with the grassroots organization today to talk about the work that he does. It’s clear that this school is encouraging young people to look at college. That’s a good sign. That from the elementary school, people should be learning to go into college. Cameron Miles, you have been working as a mentor for young men and teenagers for a long time. What was your situation early on?
Cameron Miles: So I had a hard head.
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Cameron Miles: Been locked up.
Eddie Conway: Okay. How long?
Cameron Miles: I don’t like to listen. Too long.
Eddie Conway: Too long. Okay, any amount of time is too long.
Cameron Miles: Yes, sir.
Eddie Conway: Okay, and so what happened as a result of that?
Cameron Miles: I begun to get some positive people around me and I began to listen to what many of them were saying to me about getting my life together. And once you start to listen, you begin to focus and realize that it’s not just about you, but it’s about helping others. I got a job in the department of social services in East Baltimore. I wrote up a proposal asking to use their cafeteria on Saturdays. They allowed me to do that. We started with five young men and we’ve grown. We’ve served over 3000 since that time, trying to help young men stay out of the criminal justice system and ultimately stay out of the cemetery. Each June, we take a trip out of state. We’ve gone to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Morehouse, Hampton, Delaware State, Columbia, Syracuse, and on and on.
Eddie Conway: Do you encounter any of these young guys, like five, six, seven, ten years later?
Cameron Miles: Absolutely.
Eddie Conway: That’s out there, and do they show some appreciation?
Cameron Miles: Absolutely, absolutely. They come to me, Mr. Miles, thank you for having me in the mentoring program. Thank you for the trips that you took me on. Thank you for believing in me. All of them are not stellar candidates today, but they’re free. They’re not locked up. We’ve lost several to gun violence. They’ve lost their lives, but we continue to pour in and we want the older young brothers to come back, Mr. Conway, so that the young people can see, he was in the program, and then they talk to the group and it helps them to realize this is a good program. I need to continue to come. If they don’t already know that.
Student Audienc…: When you said that you was trying to show them that you can understand and control your problem, were you trying to get the government to [inaudible 00:09:48] you?
Eddie Conway: No, we were trying to build a better community without the help of the government. We were trying to show people that we could control what happens in our community and we could make the community work better for everybody there. I got to leave you all. I’ll come back.
Student Audienc…: Yes sir.
Eddie Conway: All right.
Speaker 2: Can we thank Mr. Conway for coming?
Student Audienc…: Thank you, Mr. Conway.
Speaker 4: Hundreds of grassroots organizations are working on every level to prevent incarceration in black and brown communities. They are not alone. As the prison industrial complex continues to grow, people on the ground will continue to fight.