Formerly Incarcerated People Lead Movement to Confront Oppressive “Justice” System

2014 716 incar 1Incarcerated men filing next to fence (Photo: Lloyd DeGrane)

This radio documentary is the fourth and final segment in Truthout’s serialization of Chris Moore-Backman’s Bringing Down the New Jim Crow. Episodes have been posted here.

A half-century since the apex of the Civil Rights Movement, the quest for racial and economic justice continues unabated in the United States. Arguably the most powerful expression of that struggle today is the growing movement to end the racialized system of mass incarceration. At the forefront of leadership in the struggle to dismantle the US prison-industrial complex and to alleviate its negative consequences, stands the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM). The FICPM is a nationwide coalition of formerly incarcerated men and women who are holding forth a radical vision for justice and transformation and who are putting that vision to work in towns and cities across the nation. This 29-minute radio documentary highlights the voices of nine members of the FICPM steering committee, men and women who have experienced the workings of the US criminal justice system from the inside out and who have dedicated themselves to the work of building a new and better future, not only for presently and formerly incarcerated people, but for the entire nation.

Just as the movement for justice and equality drew vision and leadership from key organizations during the 1950s and ’60s, such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, today, the movement to end mass incarceration finds the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement at the vanguard of the struggle. These are men and women of legacy re-enunciating a powerful message of freedom and equality during this newest phase of the continuing struggle to bring the United States’ practices into alignment with its core principles.

“You know when we remain quiet, I don’t care who you are, when you remain quiet in your own oppression then you become a coconspirator of your own oppression.”

The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement: The Struggle for Freedom and Transformation Continues” is the newest installment of the radio documentary series titled Bringing Down the New Jim Crow. Inspired by Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this series explores the intersection of the drug war, mass incarceration, and race in the contemporary US It is produced by Chris Moore-Backman and features the music of Stray Theories.

TRANSCRIPT:

Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice: I cannot begin to tell you the deep joy that comes to my heart as I participate with you in what I consider the largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States . . . “

Chris Moore-Backman: One half century later, the struggle continues.

During the civil rights era, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a grassroots organization known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee represented the vanguard of the movement for freedom and equality. Today, in the era of mass incarceration and the failed War on Drugs, a national coalition, the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement, has emerged to pick up the baton.

Kenneth Glasgow: You know when we remain quiet, I don’t care who you are, when you remain quiet in your own oppression then you become a coconspirator of your own oppression. So what we’re saying is: It’s not time for us to sit back and be quiet anymore.

Steve Huerta: It’s a struggle that’s far beyond culture, it’s far beyond economics. It’s a struggle for our humanity, for our dignity.

Susan Burton: The Prison Industrial Complex functions on pain and punishment, instead of forgiveness and rehabilitation. It’s driven on punishment and the exploitation of poor people.

Daryl Atkinson: We respond to the issues that our communities deem that are important, and then the priorities of the movement have defined themselves, because the people have defined them. Because we work on what the people want us to work on, right? For their liberation and upliftment.

Tina Reynolds: We are the first formerly incarcerated coalition. This has never been done before. We are breaking ground. We are making history.

Chris Moore-Backman: I’m Chris Moore-Backman and you’re listening to “The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement: The Struggle for Freedom and Transformation Continues.”

Daryl Atkinson: My name is Daryl Atkinson. I was incarcerated from 1996 to 2000. I live and work in Durham, North Carolina. I’m a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People’s Movement.

Yusef Shakur: My name is Yusef Bunchy Shakur. I was incarcerated from March of 1992 to July of 2001. I live and work in the city of Detroit, Michigan. I am a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

Bruce Reilly: My name is Bruce Reilly. I was incarcerated from 1993 to 2005. I live and work in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

Steve Huerta: My name is Steve Huerta. I was incarcerated from 1999 to 2001, and I live and work in San Antonio, Texas. I am a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

“Effective movements are led by the people most intimately affected by the oppressive regime.”

Chris Moore-Backman: As a student of social movements and of movement-building, it was a rare opportunity for me to be a fly on the wall for two days of planning sessions for the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement. In the context of a United States that imprisons more human beings than any society in human history and which does so along horrifically disproportionate racial lines, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the historical significance of what I was witnessing. From the outset I was eager to better understand and explore that significance. During a break early on, I asked Daryl Atkinson to help me out with a brief description of his understanding of the FICPM’s central purpose.

Daryl Atkinson: Effective movements are led by the people most intimately affected by the oppressive regime, and formerly incarcerated and convicted people – their voices, the voices of their families – have been left out of the policy-making and strategic decisions when it comes to eliminating mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. Very often we have surrogates, service providers, advocacy folks who, generally are of goodwill, who act as buffers between us and decision-makers. And many times they’re making trade-offs that they don’t necessarily have the right or any skin in the game, if you will, to be able to make those decisions and trade-offs. So we looked at and studied other movements.

Whether you’re talking about, you know, the traditional civil rights movement, whether you’re talking about the current LGBTQ movement, whether you’re talking about the Dreamers and the movement towards immigrant rights. And when you look at each of those movements, they were led by the people who were affected by the oppression – not for photo ops or to hold signs at the lobby day, but these were the folks who were leading and devising the strategy on how to eliminate those oppressive regimes. And we in the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People’s Movement feel that we should do the same, and this is our attempt to develop a cohesive national campaign to do just that.

Chris Moore-Backman: The FICPM functions on a coalition model, with representatives of organizations throughout the United States that are led by formerly incarcerated men and women. Members of the FICPM share a common vision of liberation and transformation. And they share a common analysis, the essence of which was captured in 2010 by legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I asked Daryl Atkinson to place The New Jim Crow analysis in a nutshell.

Daryl Atkinson: Alexander basically laid out the thesis that the old Jim Crow was a system predicated on second-class citizenship. That second class citizenship was defined by race or national origin. As a result, you were denied a litany of benefits, rights, and privileges. The new Jim Crow is a system predicated on second-class citizenship. That second-class citizenship is now defined by criminal record status, and as a result of people’s criminal record status you’re denied a litany of benefits, rights and privileges. What’s nefarious about both regimes is that they’re largely capturing the same group of folks because of America’s tortured racial history. And, these different tools to control black, brown, and poor white folks have morphed and changed over time.

“If we end black oppression, we end mass incarceration.”

So at one point it was slavery, then it was sharecropping, then it was peonage, then it was Jim Crow segregation, now it’s mass incarceration and mass criminalization, and the criminalization of space that controls black, brown and poor white people. So, yeah, we want to eliminate mass incarceration, but mass incarceration is really just a tool for the larger social control and the structural oppression and structural racism that we really want to get at.

Yusef Shakur: I know it’s hip right now – the terms of mass incarceration, Prison Industrial Complex, all these fancy words that we describe black oppression. But those things did not give birth to black oppression. Black oppression gave birth to mass incarceration.

Chris Moore-Backman: The New Jim Crow brought the human rights crisis of mass incarceration to the attention of the US public as nothing else had before. But the women and men of the FICPM recognized and understood it better than anyone. They had lived it and continue to live it.

Yusef Shakur: And so we have to be clear on that, in particular, if we’re talking to white folks, middle class black folks – across the board – to be . . . to help them to come in to our world. Many of us come from addicted families. Many of us come from gang-bang families from suffering communities. That’s black oppression at its lowest and realest form. To be able to educate and empower, we have to be authentic in our approach, in what we do, and how we say it. We’re fighting black oppression. If we end black oppression, we end mass incarceration.

Bruce Reilly: I don’t view myself as a white ally; I view myself as someone who is directly impacted by the issue. I’m also somebody who formed who I am side by side with people of color. And I don’t mean like I was working with them in an organization. I mean I was living in a 5-by-8-foot cell with a black man or a Latino man who, you know, became my brother.

You know, I always say, who created the policies? Who’s the one dictating where these police officers go? Who’s the one who says the drug sentencing scheme will be such and such? It’s not these poor folks in the trailer parks and the projects.

Steve Huerta: I was born on July 19th, 1968, but it wasn’t until later on as a young adult that I began to realize that that was the first day I committed my first felony, because I was born into an era and a social culture that had already planned for me to be someone who is incarcerated. That is our birthright. We have the right to go to jail. That’s the first right they give us.

Dorsey Nunn: My name is Dorsey Nunn. I was incarcerated from 1971 to 1981. I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People’s Movement.

Tina Reynolds: My name is Tina Reynolds. I was incarcerated in New York City from 1989 to 1994, and I live and work in New York. I am a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

~

“I considered the image of a newborn child coming into the world with his or her mother in shackles. An image that epitomizes the dehumanization of the entire system.”

We’ve established a national initiative called Birthing Behind Bars, and that’s to end shackling of pregnant women during labor and delivery. Currently, there are 36 states that continue to shackle women. Our main goal is to bring about an opportunity for women to become visible, to expand from this experience to a broader education, a political analysis around incarceration and mass criminalization of women, and the impact on our children and our families.

Chris Moore-Backman: I listened as the steering committee members of the FICPM reported back to each other on the work of their respective organizations. They spoke of re-entry, family reunification and housing programs for newly released prisoners, they spoke of voter registration efforts, criminal conviction expungement clinics, the national Ban the Box campaign to open up employment opportunities for people with past convictions. They spoke of drug treatment and drug decriminalization initiatives. They spoke of campaigns to end stop and frisk, and police and prison guard brutality. And they often spoke of face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounters with the individuals and families they work with who have been wounded by the criminal justice system in one way or another.

Of all the powerful and necessary efforts that I heard described, none struck me so deeply as the Birthing Behind Bars initiative described by Tina Reynolds. I considered the image of a newborn child coming into the world with his or her mother in shackles. An image that epitomizes the dehumanization of the entire system – a dehumanization so extreme, I’ve come to believe, that it touches all of us, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

“I haven’t figured out what that message is, because I keep bleeding well-meaning white folks along the way. You know they be with me for a minute, then suddenly – bam! – they’re gone.”

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander cautions racial justice advocates to not be satisfied with piecemeal policy reforms when it comes to the human rights crisis of mass incarceration. To undo the cycle of caste in the United States, she argues, a much deeper transformation is required – a transformation that cannot happen unless the nation takes the risk of deep, meaningful dialog about race, racism and structural inequality. Such dialog is alive and well among the leaders of the multiracial FICPM. And woven into their conversation is the question of how they can help facilitate that larger, much needed society-wide conversation within a reluctant United States.

Daryl Atkinson: This strategic communications discussion – I struggle and am uncomfortable with it because the framing of these issues in a frame of colorblindness in many ways is counterproductive in of itself – even if it allows you to win some short-term gains – because it doesn’t get to the crux of the matter. And the crux of the matter is structural racism, is white supremacy. And until we can begin to move mainstream society . . . and I don’t, I don’t have the answer on how we . . . maybe put some cut on it until we can serve it raw. And I’m looking for you all to help me figure that out, but at some point we have to take them there. Otherwise we’re just shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. And the current tool that’s being used by white supremacy to maintain its power – mass incarceration/mass criminalization – we can end that and then we’re gonna be fighting 40 years from now trying to dismantle something else. But the crux of it will still be the same.

Dorsey Nunn: If y’all didn’t watch, what immediately followed Trayvon’s murder was our exclusion from the conversation. We didn’t get a say so. All the traditional civil rights leaders got a say so. And when they threw ’em the curve ball – which is “What about black on black crime?” Right? None of them had the answer that I would have had, which was – what are you talking about? You locked up 2 million. What they did was went silent during a real critical period of time, allowed the Prison Industrial Complex to be constructed and the practice of mass incarceration to be practiced. How many of us have to go to the joint for us to have a recognition that something peculiar had happened?

What I struggle with is that black folks and brown folks is not the only people going to prison. How do we bring the other parts of the community to the party in such a way that we don’t have to abandon the question of supremacy and wrongdoing, where they feel included in this conversation? And I haven’t figured out what that message is, because I keep bleeding well-meaning white folks along the way. You know they be with me for a minute, then suddenly – bam! – they’re gone. And I got to figure out, in my struggle, how do I keep losing the most well-intentioned folks?

Bruce Reilly: I mean I wanted to speak directly to what Dorsey’s getting at, and obviously I’ve been there. And I probably hear more of the complaints of white activists than y’all do. Because I . . . You know what I’m saying? [group laughter]

Daryl Atkinson: Because they’re more comfortable . . .

Bruce Reilly: Yeah, you know, I hear, I get it all. So . . . And they don’t know, you know . . . And I hear them. And I’m always trying to like help white activists understand, and come to the table and stay at the table. And sometimes it’s also saying you know you gotta respect people’s need to get fired up sometimes, and you gotta understand that, you know, when they’re talking about the man, they’re not talking about you. But people don’t always catch that, right? So, the trust level that we don’t quite have between black, brown and white people in our corner is one of the issues of not really being able to launch this language full power.

“Latinos are a diverse population. We’re Puerto Ricans, we’re Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, you name it. You know, Nicaraguan, Hondurans. And we all don’t actually share the same Latino/Hispanic approach to things”.

And the thing that I try to use – even if it’s a two-minute conversation – spend 10 seconds building trust. If it’s a two-hour conversation, spend a little bit more – you know what I’m saying? Build that thing where it’s like I’m trying to inform you about a systemic thing. And if you can give examples . . . Don’t overwhelm them right off the rip. You know, but when you get someone who’s on your team, spend some time. A lot of our organizations, we treat the white people as just – you stay on the back of the bus, hang on tight. [group laughter] You’re really not that important except to keep the bus full and throw in money for gas. And . . .now, it’s one thing to say, “Okay you’re not gonna lead, we’re not going to put . . .” – and then for them to understand. But it’s another thing to say, “You are vital, here’s . . . here’s why we need you.”

Steve Huerta: I just wanted to say that ever since I’ve been involved in this movement, I’ve been really nervous. I represent a reality to this movement, and that is that we need to engage a lot more other people of color, especially Latinos. But Latinos are a diverse population. We’re Puerto Ricans, we’re Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, you name it. You know, Nicaraguan, Hondurans. And we all don’t actually share the same Latino/Hispanic approach to things. And, so bear with me a lot of times, because I try to make sure that I have a broad cultural perspective of what the Latino population would perceive in this movement, and how to actually get this message to them so that we can find out that we’re actually all in the same boat.

Chris Moore-Backman: You’re listening to the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement: The Struggle for Freedom and Transformation Continues.

Kenneth Glasgow: My name is Kenneth Glasgow. I was incarcerated from 1988 to 2001. I live and work in Alabama. I am a member of the steering committee for the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

“If we’re fighting oppression that’s in a criminal justice system, and yet we have organizations that go by the same top-down systematic principles, then that oppression still exists.”

Chris Moore-Backman: During their sessions, I noticed time and again that the FICPM steering committee experienced a shared frustration that their community-based work was often co-opted by larger national organizations. I could tell that there was more to this frustration than a self-centered wish for credit, but I wasn’t sure what was at the root of it. I asked Kenneth Glasgow to fill in the picture for me.

Kenneth Glasgow: Okay, let’s get it raw from the heart. Come on.

Chris Moore-Backman: Alright.

Kenneth Glasgow: I’m gonna give it to you raw now, you’re gonna have to do some edits. [laughs]

Chris Moore-Backman: That’s my job.

Kenneth Glasgow: What we’re concerned about when we speak about national groups that get credit or take credit for work that we have done, or capitalize, I should say, off work that we have done, it’s not a credit issue. Our work is done on a grassroots level for everybody. But what it is – is it diminishes us. Because one of the things that we have been trying to do is get formerly incarcerated people to the table. Not just to sit at the table and be a poster child, but to sit at the table and be decision-makers on who’s really doing the work, who’s doing work that’s programmatic, who’s doing work that’s sustainable, who’s doing work that is really really helping others and not just looking good on paper. So that’s what we’re talking about. Because if we’re fighting oppression that’s in a criminal justice system, and yet we have organizations that go by the same top-down systematic principles then that oppression still exists.

We work good with every group. We love what the national groups are doing. But there should be a spot for us at the table. If they’re doing work for us, let us speak in our own voice. If they’re doing work to get us to a point that we’re becoming more mature and productive citizens, now that we’re here and have arrived, let us be there at the table.

And the other side to that, is that when you have these national groups that overshadow or capitalize off work that we have done as grassroots, the funding goes to them. It never makes it to the hard-down person that just got out of prison, that can’t get a job, can’t get a house, can’t get a business license, and out there struggling and passing out fliers, and looking for a stipend, but we can’t give him a stipend because the grant money done went somewhere else. That is the systemic reasons of why we say that. You know? Because it’s really a principle and a moral thing. If you’re helping me, and you’re doing this so I can be better, then how come when I get better you don’t allow me to sit at the table and eat with you?

Susan Burton: My name is Susan Burton. I was incarcerated multiple times from 1982 to 1997. I live and work in South Los Angeles. I’m a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

Khalid Raheem: My name is Khalid Raheem. I was incarcerated from 1971 until 1981. I live and I work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I serve as a member of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement.

~

“We’ve all faced the sting of being rejected by society even after we had paid our debt for breaking the social contract.”

Even though we represent formerly incarcerated and convicted people, we’re not exempt from that type of critical race/class analysis. There are a lot of formerly incarcerated and convicted people who have very conservative political views. We have FICP folks who are racist. We have FICP folks who are staunch conservatives. Some will be progressive Democrats, some will be moderate Republicans. Okay. We represent…within the FICP movement, we represent the radical, revolutionary wing. Really. Read the platform if you don’t think that is so.

Susan Burton: Our platform:

• We demand an end to mass incarceration.

• We demand equality and opportunity for all people.

• We demand the right to vote.

• We demand proper medical treatment.

• We demand respect and dignity for our children.

• We demand community development, not prison profit.

• End immigration detention and deportation.

• End racial profiling inside prisons and in our communities.

• End extortion and slavery in prisons.

• End sexual harassment of people in prisons.

• End cruel and unusual punishment: Human contact is a human right.

• End incarceration of our children.

• Free our political prisoners.

Chris Moore-Backman: In the face of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, the 14 points of the FICPM platform highlight the deeply important difference between policy reform and fundamental structural transformation. While the FICPM would never deny that incremental reform has its place, they know that the only United States that can actually realize their vision will be a transformed United States.

Listening in as they discussed the inner workings of the movement they’re helping to build, as they envisioned together what success would look like, as they debated, as they argued and made up, I knew that I was witnessing key leadership of a great human rights struggle defining and refining itself. Coming away from the experience, I was especially struck by the way this group had treated one another in the process of their work. Their respect, their humor, their patience and integrity with each other captured the heart of the larger struggle they’re engaged in – the struggle to restore a sense of dignity and possibility to currently and formerly incarcerated people, not to mention everybody else.

Bruce Reilly: I would love to just go draw portraits in Times Square or, you know, go fishing, or have a garden. You know, I would love to leave all this stuff behind. But, as Susan said at another gathering, we don’t have any place to go but here. We’re organizing with people, and we’re trying to develop people to control their own destinies, control their own neighborhoods and their communities, you know, and let the wisdom flourish rather than have it suppressed. And so I’m right where I need to be with these folks in this room.

Daryl Atkinson: You know, I feel them in there. And they feel me, you know, because we’ve all been in a cage, and we’ve all faced the sting of being rejected by society even after we had paid our debt for breaking the social contract. So we relate not just in the mind, but in the heart as well.

Kenneth Glasgow: I’m in the room with the most prominent advocates and experts when it comes to formerly incarcerated issues, and I sense a different respect about each other. I think people done had time to see each other’s work and respect it. And I see now that we can have these real real hard debates, with me sitting right next to Khalid and him challenging us and all that. And you know, Khalid… [laughs] You know experience is the best teacher. Khalid used to get on my nerves talking about the Black Panther movement and all that – now, I’m listening to Khalid. [group laughter]

Khalid Raheem: Well, the only thing I can say about all this is that in the state of Pennsylvania all this here with y’all would have definitely violated my parole. [group laughter] That’s all I got to say.

Chris Moore-Backman: You’ve been listening to “The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement: The Struggle for Freedom and Transformation Continues,” This show is part of the “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow” radio documentary series, a project of the Chico Peace and Justice Center in collaboration with KZFR Community Radio in Chico, California. This show features the music of Stray Theories, written and recorded by Micah Templeton-Wolfe. I’m Chris Moore-Backman, thank you for listening.