1/19/15 Letter from a Bloomington Jail (Metaphorically Speaking)

January 19, 2015

Letter from a Bloomington Jail (Metaphorically Speaking) and honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by: Nekima Levy-Pounds

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Minneapolis, MN – I have been reminded repeatedly over the last several months in watching the tragic events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and all across this country—laws without justice are meaningless. Throughout our history, we have experienced the debilitating effects of laws being written to lock us out of access to opportunity; the ability to be paid for our labor; and to criminalize our blackness.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

We are tired of our black boys and men, and even our women and girls, being slain at the hands of police officers, security guards, or vigilantes, with little accountability to boot. This sense of fatigue and exasperation with the status quo is reminiscent of the seeds that sparked the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and after much marching, protesting, and bloodshed, prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King’s prophetic letter was written in response to 8 white clergymen who implored the protesters to stop demonstrating and disrupting “business as usual.” King responded by saying, we cannot and we will not wait for justice and freedom and rights we are entitled to under the Constitution.

We are Not Satisified with the Status Quo

That same spirit of discontent with the status quo and the unequal treatment of African- Americans under the law is what has birthed the national movement known as #BlackLivesMatter. This movement resulted from young people of color deciding that they could no longer tolerate the gross injustices within our systems and the high tolerance for police abuse and misconduct happening throughout the country. Much like protesters during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, participants of #BlackLivesMatter, have stood on the front lines braving arrests, police violence, surveillance, chemical weapons, and hostility from those who are comfortable with the status quo. Yet, even in the face of such adversity, the young people have demonstrated remarkable courage to continue standing, marching, and fighting for our freedom. They are standing on the right side of history.

Here in Minnesota, young people came together under the banner of #BlackLivesMpls and began organizing events in solidarity with protesters around the country. In spite of Minnesota’s reputation as being “liberal and progressive,” our state has some of the worst racial disparities in the country across health, wealth, education, employment, infant mortality rates, home ownership, and criminal justice. And we are not immune from problems between police and communities of color, with some of our most racially diverse areas experiencing high rates of racial profiling, unjust arrests, and excessive force, with little political will to address these issues. It is a national embarrassment. Yet, rather than act with fierce urgency to reverse course; we remain in a state of “donothingness” as things grow worse for our most vulnerable populations.

Photo of Taye taken at Mall of America Demonstration

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In light of these concerns, #BlackLivesMpls organized a nonviolent, peaceful demonstration at the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington, one of the most visible locations in the country. On December 20, 2014, 3,000 people from all walks of life descended upon MOA to sing, chant, and to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter. Rather than welcome the demonstrators into MOA, we were met by police in riot gear. In spite of the demonstration being peaceful, roughly two dozen people were arrested, stores were shut down by mall security and police, and exits were sealed. What started as a demonstration of Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community,” became a reminder of what Dr. King warned could destroy our nation: The triple giants of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. All three of those giants were present that day at MOA and they set out to crush the spirits of “the little guy.”

Political Prosecutions as Retaliation

In the aftermath of the demonstration, the Bloomington City Attorney, Sandra Johnson, spoke to the media about wanting to “make an example” out of the protest organizers, and that she would not only bring criminal charges, but would seek “reparations” for the cost of overtime police and security. To the average person, Sandra Johnson’s misuse of prosecutorial discretion to “punish” protest organizers is disturbing, to say the least. Two days ago, she decided to charge ten “leaders” of the demonstration with misdemeanor counts ranging from disorderly conduct, to trespass, to public nuisance, and she is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in “reparations.” Much to my surprise, I was one of the ten people who were charged. Not only was I charged, despite being a civil rights lawyer, I was one of two people with the most charges, eight misdemeanor counts in fact. I can’t help but think that my outspokenness on issues such as police accountability and calls for reform played a role in Ms. Johnson’s decision to bring charges against me in an attempt to publicly humiliate me, to silence my voice, and to curb my advocacy for justice. Even my home address was included in the complaint, with no regard for the safety of my children and family in making such a public disclosure. This amounts to political persecution and is a gross misuse of prosecutorial discretion and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Thankfully, these intimidation tactics will not be effective in shutting down our movement. Our voices will only grow stronger in the process.

We are in a Metaphorical Jail

Although neither of the ten of us were charged physically went to jail for our alleged “crimes”, in many ways, it feels as though we are locked in a metaphorical jail for our willingness to stand up for justice and equality. I posit, the metaphorical ‘Bloomington Jail’ to which we have been sentenced is a microcosm of the condition of confinement in which African Americans are subjected to in the state of Minnesota and in many places around the country due to barriers at the intersections of race, criminal justice, and socio-economic status. We can’t breathe because of the persistence of racial inequality and oppression. We can’t breathe because of the constant denial of our basic human rights and human dignity. We can’t breathe when we are being told to just sit back and tolerate these deplorable conditions. We must decide that it is time to break free from our metaphorical Bloomington jail cells and demand equal justice and equal treatment under the law, just as Dr. King and others did during the Civil Rights Movement.

Keep Going

I applaud the young people across the country and in Minnesota who remain steadfast in declaring that #BlackLivesMatter and who refuse to give up. I urge them to continue the fight until our change comes. And the rest of us must join them. That’s what Dr. King would have wanted and that’s how we can really honor his legacy. All else is but a shallow, anemic celebration of his life.

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 Nekima Levy-Pounds is an award-winning professor of law, civil rights attorney, and a nationally recognized expert on a range of civil rights and social justice issues at the intersections of race, public policy, economic justice, public education, juvenile justice and the criminal justice system and host of Real Talk with Nekima Levy-Pounds. Recently honored by MN Lawyer Magazine on its 2014 Minnesota Lawyer of the Year list, Lawyers of Color Magazine List of 50 under 50 Most Influential Law Professors of Color in the U.S., 2014 Faculty Member of the Year by the Black Law Students Association.

Join Real Talk LIVE . . . Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edition Town Hall “Live Stream”  today at 6pm from the iHeartRadio Performance Theater in St. Louis Park, MN, honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sign up to get “Live Stream” updates and notifications.

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Born to Be Free

“Born to be Free” is dedicated to all my people in the struggle.

by Nekima Levy-Pounds, Esq.

Most wanted; gangster; thug; drug dealer;
Crack slanger; gang banger; they think I’m a killer
Not because I have a weapon in my hand
They see me this way, as a young black man

Every night, when I turn on the news
They’re flashing my picture and I’m wearing County Blues
Old Ladies cross the street when I walk by
They’re clutching their purses, instead of saying hi
The message they’re sending is far from subliminal
Cause of the color of my skin, I’m made to feel like a criminal

Tell me what did I do to deserve this plight?
No matter how I look at it, it just doesn’t seem right
Our ancestors were whipped and beaten down as slaves
Wearing shackles and working ‘til they went to their graves

Our families were broken, separated and sold
Treated like property and left out in the cold
Once slavery ended, we still weren’t free
We were denied jobs, the right to vote and equal opportunity

We faced threats, intimidation and constant attack
Separate water fountains and schools, because we were black
Then God raised up Dr. King with a dream in his heart
And he helped lead a movement to give us a new start
People gave up their lives so that we could be free
And have a chance to fulfill our purpose and destiny

We can’t waste the time we have
And believe the lies that have been told
We have to fight; we have to press, even ‘til we get old

As a young black man, I’m proud to be me
I was made in God’s image and born to be free
Born to be free
Born to be free.

This photo was taken at the Solidarity Rally for Mike Brown and all Victims of Police Brutality on August 28, 2014, in Minneapolis at the Government Center. Photo credit: LaDonna Sanders Redmond

 

Our Silence on the War on Drugs & Mass Incarceration Led to the Insanity in #Ferguson

Studio portrait of Nekima Levy-Pounds with award

by Nekima Levy-Pounds, Esq.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It seems like only yesterday that Richard Nixon in the 1970’s and then Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s declared a war on drugs in the United States. Such a powerful declaration by two U.S. Presidents ushered in the start of an era of excess use of police forces, the criminal justice system, and technology to control the behavior of American citizens and even undocumented immigrants caught on U.S. soil. The three laws which comprised the war on drugs were hastily enacted by Congress following the untimely death of promising NBA recruit, Len Bias, from a cocaine overdose in the mid-1980’s. The legal framework of the war on drugs called for lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and harsh sentencing guidelines for those implicated in selling, possessing, or using illicit drugs. The sudden hyperbolic focus on drug-related crime resulted in a swelling of state and federal law enforcement and corrections budgets, an increase in criminal justice personnel, and the purchasing of equipment such as guns, vehicles, and advanced technological software to aid in the capture of the newest targets of the so-called war. What followed was in essence a replication by local police of the conduct that U.S. military characteristically engages in on foreign soil; but on a domestic level against its own citizens, often targeting inner-city communities mainly populated by Blacks and Latinos.

police occupy the ‘hood

As such, it became a routine occurrence in America’s most marginalized communities to see a plethora of police officers on patrol, arresting low level drug sellers and users, and raiding the homes of those suspected of engaging in drug-related activities. Law enforcement began occupying the ‘hood in droves, arguably treating neighborhoods as battlegrounds, residents as casualties of war, and seizing the property of ‘suspects.’ Sadly, there was little recourse for those who felt victimized by the sudden military-style occupation within their communities, as affordable legal representation was extremely limited for indigent persons and there was very little empathy, if any from the American public. The outcry from advocates lambasting the fact that constitutional violations and mass imprisonment of low-level, non-violent persons were occurring at unprecedented rates seemed to fall on deaf ears. In fact, the silence by the American public was deafening and some would argue signaled acquiescence in what was occurring.

In essence, tens of thousands of poor men of color, poor white men, and an increasing number of women and mothers became entangled in the complex and inescapable web of the criminal justice system. When the dust began to settle in the new millennium, it became clear that America’s self-proclaimed reputation as the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ had shifted to one that became known as the ‘incarceration capital of the world.’ Indeed, America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, with nearly 2.4 million people currently incarcerated, more than 7.3 million under some form of correctional supervision or control, and at a cost of over $60 billion annually. The heavy reliance on the use of law enforcement, racial stereotyping, and a hyper-focus on drug-related crime, has resulted in an over-saturation of police presence in our poorest communities of color, subjecting residents to constant surveillance, often unwarranted scrutiny, illegal searches of person and property, low level arrests, and increased chances of imprisonment (similar to what the world is now seeing in Ferguson). Even with the militarization of our police forces and unprecedented spending on criminal justice, drugs continue to flow freely through the United States – so what was the point of the war on drugs?

criminalization of black men continues

Of all the groups that have been ensnared within the criminal justice system, arguably no group has been impacted more dramatically than young African American men, who comprise roughly 40% of our correctional population. As though from a scene in D.W. Griffith’s infamous film, “Birth of a Nation,” African American men have been demonized, caricatured, stereotyped, and profiled as the face of crime in America. These men are often looked upon with suspicion, feared, labeled as being “up to no good,” and pushed further to the margins of society. The criminalization of black men has been an ongoing phenomenon since the abolition of chattel slavery in this country and has resulted in low-income black men being constant targets within society and subjected to a heightened level of scrutiny and interference by police and security personnel.

our silence is to blame

Rather than asking the deeper questions concerning the root level causes of the over-representation of black men within the criminal justice system, we have become conditioned to sit back and watch the dehumanization of this segment of the population, while remaining silent to their plight. It was our silence that allowed police forces to occupy our poorest communities since the start of the so-called war on drugs. It was our silence that opened the door to the militarization of our police forces. It was our silence that allowed them to purchase military grade equipment and to increase surveillance on citizens in the name of the war on drugs. It was our silence that allowed our prisons to swell beyond capacity and our criminal justice budgets to take priority over spending in other key areas, such as education and healthcare. And it was our silence that allowed and continues to allow for the targeting, profiling, and execution of unarmed young black men in our communities, as we saw with Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ezell Ford, and most recently, Mike Brown of #Ferguson. As Dr. King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” #OurLivesMatter