It’s 1961, and the Civil Rights Movement is still short of ending by another 6 years.  President John F. Kennedy hadn’t pushed for new civil rights legislation acts yet (1963), the march from Birmingham to Washington hadn’t happened where MLK addressed the nation with his infamous “I Have A Dream” speech, exasperating and calling out the many discriminatory judicial policies meant to separate and dehumanize those black and brown people of the times.  King’s speech leading to great feats, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be brought to pass, outlawing segregation and racial discrimination in public facilities, employment and in education, benefiting not only the minority races, but women too.  The Alabama protests hadn’t yet ensued in 1965 leading to new voting rights statutes.

From there, minority nationalists groups like the Black Panther Party did not yet form in 1966, with intent to oversee and patrol the treatment of which blacks were often mishandled & brutalized by law enforcement, starting in Oakland, California and later opening other chapters throughout the country.  Malcolm X and other figures had not yet risen from the shadows in desperate pursuit to create change for their communities.

Years later, the US government led campaign known as the War On Drugs would not yet happen in the early 1970s, to be used as an alternative method to strip minorities of their rights with a 500 percent increase in US incarceration rates, disproportionately affecting the poor and minorities.  A scheme, a plan that was quite successful at removing blacks and browns from their birth rights to then becoming a ‘demise and destruct’ adding to a long-taught rhetoric that of minorities being more violent and dangerous than any other.

And because its only 1961, the internet and technology have not yet taken over the world to where information and knowledge would become way too accessible that the Parental Control button would then be forced more than ever in order to mask realities that weather.  And while masking certain realities is proper, there are some that would still be encouraged.

Looking back, if you were a martian who knew the history of earthlings, their past, knowing the change and conversations that were had, seeing where the future might go, you would think those humps would be long over.  But while gasping at the stats, it would seem as if the clock has gone backwards. Discussing history and the evils of it has not done much of anything.  The US having the highest percentage of incarcerations in the world right now, more than half of incarcerations are held by blacks and browns.

According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, “tough-on-crime” laws adopted since the 1980s, have filled U.S. prisons with mostly nonviolent offenders.[15] This policy failed to rehabilitate prisoners and many were worse on release than before incarceration. Rehabilitation programs for offenders can be more cost effective than prison.

 

This all being said, today marks the first day of a very special journey – the AFJ’s March For Justice.  Not unlike any other march for justice in America’s dark past, but another one to add to the list, as the fight still exists.

According to a 2016 analysis of federal data by the U.S. Education Department, state and local spending on incarceration has grown three times as much as spending on public education since 1980.

The Alliance of Families For Justice (AFJ) is a private, independent, non-profit organization that is volunteer driven; whose mission is to support, empower and mobilize families of incarcerated people, and people with criminal records.  Founder and Executive Director Soffiyah Elijah resigned from her position as a Criminal Defense Attorney of 35 years to take a leap of faith and started her not-for-profit organization in September 2016.

I’m a criminal defense lawyer by training, and throughout my career I’ve always heard about and witnessed the pain that families experience when their loved-ones were sent to prison.  And I also would hear about the horrors, the trauma that people suffered while they were incarcerated.  And there was nothing that existed in the criminal justice system to address those that came to assist families, and to bring an end to the kind of horrific treatment that people were subjected to while they were incarcerated.

There was a calling bigger than her position in the courtroom, bigger than her studies and training.

Out of all ethnic groups, native Black AmericansPuerto Rican Americans, and American Indians have some of the highest rates of incarceration.

This system that we are taught is for the greater good of society, locking the bad people away, while saving the righteous isn’t very righteous at all as it in fact induces for more pain and turmoil into the lives of those put behind the bars; more times causing greater strife and harm than what could have ever been done before incarceration.  Families on the outside, left incomplete and broken, leading to more atrocities and learned corruption.

So after realizing her true calling and leaving her position, Soffiyah explained all the chips falling effortlessly into place; with the right people coming on board, the Alliance of Families For Justice was the aim.  “There was a calling to do something about the things that I knew were literally destroying families and destroying communities; particularly, poor black and brown communities throughout this country; and specifically in New York.”

The AFJ’s first major initiative, its March For Justice kicks off today in Harlem heading all the way to the New York capital, Albany with different stops in towns and villages, staying at churches and community centers of different denominations all along the way.  As the organization and those who have opted to join in on the conversation and march go, Soffiyah shared, “We will go from Harlem to the Bronx, and then from the Bronx to Yonkers, Yonkers to White Plains, White Plains to Tarrytown, then over to Newburgh, Nyack…Kingston, Catskills, Hudson…Albany.  All in 19 days.”

While on the voyage, during each stop, they will be conducting teachings, and forums, film screenings; discussing different topics that are related to the criminal justice system, or the prison system, and youth justice systems; engaging local people and anybody who wants to be involved.

We’ve invited various organizations to co-host various teachings and forums with us along the way.  I think we sold about 2/3’s of those slots, and we are still getting requests from organizations to co-host. Groups are volunteering food, feeding us breakfast, lunch, and dinner along the route.  And then we will have a huge culmination rally in Albany on Wednesday, Sept 13th.

September 13th being a significant ending date, the 46th anniversary of the Attica Uprising & Massacre.   Calling attention to the horrors that happened at Attica Correctional Facility those years ago, and still happening today.  The riot was one of the most well-known and significant uprisings of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement, based upon prisoners’ demands for better living conditions and political rights; leaving 43 people dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees, and 33 inmates.

The treatment of inmates in today’s prisons are a bigger detriment to the well-being of those incarcerated as well as their families; staining the psyche of all those involved.  It is a real issue in this world when we find more value in things instead of people.

At every stretch, every turn, we always prioritize things over people.  We devalue people of color, we devalue black and brown people, especially.  They are considered, still, less than 100% human beings.  So all of policies, the practices, written and unwritten, understood, all feed off of that lack of respect for black and brown people.  Every way you turn.  And at the core of it, we have a society that feeds off of looking down on somebody.

With that, the AFJ plans on providing a safe space, a focus, a place for engagement with common essentials, a place to transform pain into power.

“It’s important for us to empower people so that when they have the opportunity to be in the public light, they have the tools to carry the message forward in a way that they’re proud and we’re proud so they can be ambassadors and spokes-people for their issues that are most important to them.”

Some of the distinct ways of reaching this type of empowerment that ASJ plans to execute are:

  • Advocating for quality medical and mental health care support
  • Hosting periodic family dinners for volunteers and family members to come and enjoy a meal together so that they can get to know other like-minded people
  • Administering training programs, communication skills training, advocacy skills training
  • Teaching organizing skills so that they can mobilize people and be about the kind of change that they want to see in their own lives

For those still on the inside, ASJ is adamant in:

  • Helping people with parole letters, medical care that they need
  • Follow up who have been mistreated inside,
  • Facilitating connections to family
  • If someone is being abused inside – using the AFJ access to policy makers-decision makers, they help to try to
    • 1. Get the abuse to stop
    • 2. Investigations to whats happening to them
  • Assisting with obtaining lawyers to people on the inside who have legal issues with the prison system

Research indicates that inmates who maintain contact with family and friends in the outside world are less likely to be convicted of further crimes and usually have an easier reintegration period back into society.

No matter your place of origin or current state, everyone can attest to knowing someone who was or is affected by the US prison systems in some form or fashion, whether directly or indirectly.  You may live in a neighborhood that was torn apart by the War On Drugs, cases of blatant discrimination, mistaken identity like i.e. the Kalief Browder conversation where he served time due to a clearly broken system leading to his eventual suicide, and other forms of brokenness that may have transpired leading to certain states of minds.  With the black population being the largest portion of those incarcerated in US prisons and jails, the help has to start with us.

It’s never too late to switch gears towards change.

With over 280 organizations that have been contacted and are participating in one way or the other, whether its pushing it out on social media, to going out and marching with the AFJ; whether providing meals, providing lodging, media, financial donations, there’s something for everybody to do.

Now underway, to take part in the cause, this particular March For Justice is a matter either getting over to Harlem or hopping on your social media, doing some research, or literally just talking about it more, spreading the word.

There will be sign ups for those who want to march each morning of the journy at 9AM before takeoff begins at 10AM.  Go to the Alliance of Families For Justice website HERE to find out more details.

There is a lot that can come from working together to bring forth change.  It’s not all of us who have the luxury of being a dope rapper or producer, singer, performer of some type; and for many of us, while maybe having one or two of those skills, the opportunities don’t always come depending on the circumstance, the undeserving conditions of which we might be inhabitants of.

It’s up to us to be our brother’s & sister’s keeper.

March Schedule
Day 1, Sat. August 26: Harlem→Bronx
National Black Theatre, Harlem, NY.
Day 2, Sun., August 27: Bronx→Yonkers
Day 3, Mon., August 28: Yonkers→White Plains
Day 4, Tues., August 29: White Plains→Tarrytown
Day 5, Weds., August 30: Tarrytown→Ossining
Day 6, Thurs., August 31: Ossining→Peekskill.
Day 7, Fri., Sept. 1: Peekskill→Cold Spring
Day 8, Sat., Sept. 2: Cold Spring→Newburgh
Day 9, Sun., Sept. 3: Newburgh→Poughkeepsie
Day 10, Mon., Sept. 4: Poughkeepsie→New Paltz*
Day 11, Tues., Sept. 5: New Paltz*→Kingston
Day 12, Weds., Sept. 6: Kingston→Saugerties
Day 13, Thurs., Sept. 7: Saugerties→Catskill
Day 14, Fri., Sept. 8: Catskill→Hudson
Day 15, Sat., Sept. 9: Hudson→Kinderhook*
Day 16, Sun., Sept. 10: Kinderhook*→Old Chatham*
Day 17, Mon., Sept. 11: Old Chatham*→ Castleton*
Day 18, Tues., Sept. 12: Castleton*→Albany
Day 19, Weds., Sept. 13: Albany.

Get involved!