When a young woman from Arizona asked how she could get her voting rights restored, she heard a blunt reply: “We don’t need you to get your rights restored. We need you to get together with other folks and work towards getting everybody’s rights restored. That is systemic change. That is a Movement.”
Last week, over 300 people at The Watts Labor Action Center in Los Angeles ratified a national platform for the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement. The unique element was the qualifications for voting this platform into existence: having been convicted of a crime. It should not be unique for the people affected by an issue to take a leadership role, but unfortunately criminal justice advocacy has gone nearly as off-course as the system itself. As Steering Committee member Dorsey Nunn put it, “That would be like breast cancer advocacy being run by a bunch of men.”
The FICPM gathering culminated a commitment made at the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit, to hold “our own” conference in the next two years. Done. Two dozen affected activists hammered out differences in language and priority over the past six months, birthing the national platform. Several hundred ratification participants may have been weighted to the West Coast due to the location of the gathering, yet twenty states (and Washington, D.C.) were represented at the gathering. A strong East Coast contingent was represented by Pennsylvania, New York, and others. With a Mission, Vision, Platform, and structure, the Movement is situated to cast a wider net than the criminal justice system itself.
Youth organized their own workshop for movement building against the oppressive policies that lead to racial profiling, gang labeling, inhumane sentencing, and trauma inflicted upon boys and girls in prison environments. Organizers Jazz Hayden (NYC), Wayne Jacobs (Penn.), and Norris Henderson (New Orleans) led a discussion on the current voter disenfranchisement policies (and how to fight back). Tactics to reverse hiring discrimination were presented by Daryl Atkinson, Esq. (N.C.), Linda Evans (SF), Patty Katz (Oregon), and Wayne Jacobs (Philly). The last session involved the impacts of mass incarceration on the entire community, as it is a common misconception that only the “perpetrator” is punished. But if an entire community is suffering the affects of criminal convictions, the unemployment and inability to raise families; it needs to be questioned which is worse on society at large: Crime? Or the punishments?
Drug Policy Alliance followed the FICPM gathering with their bi-annual International Reform Conference in Los Angeles. Over 1200 people filled the Bonaventure hotel for nearly 50 panels, gatherings, and plenaries. The presence of FICPM members could be felt throughout the three-day event. Nearly a dozen panels included people who have stepped out of prison to become valuable assets in bringing the War on People, known as the “War on Drugs,” to an end. Tina Reynolds (Women On the Rise Telling Her Story, NYC) spoke on the opening plenary, while Daryl Atkinson (NC Second Chance Alliance) spoke in the closing plenary.
Dorsey Nunn (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, San Francisco) received The Robert C. Randall Award for Achievement in the Field of Citizen Action, which honors citizens who make democracy work in the difficult area of drug law and policy reform. Considering the long list of achievements on Dorsey Nunn’s resume, there may not be any space on the bookshelf for another award. He is never one to shy away from the controversial, and the Oakland native closed his speech out with a timely remark regarding prison reform efforts being tied to budget constrictions: “Some say that for my people to go free, this country has to go broke. If that’s the case, then go broke.”
A panel at both events focused on employment discrimination of those with convictions (“Ban the Box”). It was the only DPA event where every panelist had been incarcerated, and the concentrated expertise could not be found elsewhere. Linda Evans (All of Us or None) is considered the godmother of an organizing wave across the nation, as Ban The Box brings attention to the broader issue of how convictions serve to banish people from society: access to employment and housing are affected by convictions. Atkinson, LaResse Harvey (CT), and myself brought a range of experiences in the technical aspects of the laws, the organizing strategies, and the messaging required to cultivate a belief in fundamental fairness.
Just as Pastor Kenny Glasgow and The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS) showed in Alabama, the Los Angeles host organizations displayed strong local leadership and hospitality. Led by Susan Burton (A New Way of Life) and Fanya Baruti (All of Us or None), Southern California proved to be a true anchor for building a movement. The ability for such a diverse group of people to coalesce should be obvious, but is not easily understood by the average observer. Most, if not all, spent a substantial time in a steel cage. Participants included Alex Sanchez (Homies Unidos), Eddy Zheng, Miss Major (TGJIP), Benny Lee (Chicago), Tony Papa (Drug Policy Alliance), Wayne Kramer (Jail Guitar Doors-USA) and many others. Regardless of geography, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or political ideology: the ability to transcend differences and arrive at a unity of purpose is an amazing testament to democracy and brotherhood.
Among the many insightful comments raised over the week, at both FICPM and DPA gatherings, was by my New Orleans colleague Norris Henderson. When discussing the rationale for supporting the grassroots efforts, he remarked, “It depends on how you measure success.” Some will want a very concise measurement, such as policy victories or services delivered. But a movement and a culture is much more fluid. As a former organizer, my Executive Director wanted me to tabulate all the people I had helped over the year. We did so by creating groups, such as how many came to a meeting; to a rally; spoke in public; testified in City Hall or the legislature; came to a skill-building session; requested assistance regarding police, or criminal actions; wrote to us from prison; and the like. How do you measure success when the ultimate goal is cultural change rather than a policy victory? It is by developing leaders, activating people, building role models, and getting a message out that connects with others. It is through the crucible of overt struggle that these things can emerge.
I am confident the FICPM will marshal a million voters to acknowledge mass incarceration as their primary issue. It is just over 2,000 voters per congressional district, and it is an issue affecting nearly two million children and three million parents of current prisoners. Mass incarceration has impacted tens of millions of Americans, many who are still suffering the collateral discrimination of a conviction in their past. Over one million current probationers have their full right to vote, and as the FICPM says: “Organize. Organize. Organize.”
Materials will be available on the FICPM website: www.FICPMovement.Wordpress.com
Those wishing to reach FICPM should email FICPMovement@gmail.com
Read the full National Platform HERE, the Section titles are as follows:
I. We Demand an End to Mass Incarceration;
II. We Demand Equality and Opportunity for All People;
III. We Demand the Right to Vote;
IV. We Demand Respect and Dignity for Our Children;
V. We Demand Community Development, Not Prison Profit;
VI. End Immigration Detention and Deportation;
VII. End Racial Profiling Inside Prison and In Our Communities;
VIII. End Extortion and Slavery In Prisons;
IX. End Sexual Harassment of People In Prisons;
X. Human Contact is a Human Right;
XI. End Cruel and Unusual Punishment;
XII. We Demand Proper Medical Treatment;
XIII. End the Incarceration of Children;
XIV. Free Our Political Prisoners.