“People”, “People”, “People”

One of the interesting innovations which came during this period was a result of an intention to elevate the significant role which every person plays in the struggle for racial justice. We wanted to say clearly that the work of the struggle was not only for people in positions of influence, but it was for everyone. We began to have gatherings which we called “People Meetings”, with no designated leader/s or speaker/s. The process sought statements from people that they would be coming to the meeting. Then we published the list, inviting others to come to the “People Meeting” to meet, greet, and join purpose with the others. These meetings were successful in bringing a hundred or more people together, for the several times that we held them. In the “”People Meetings” was the seed-bed of our later Drylongso Awards.

The work with people in places of employment led to a need to find some way of identifying how the employing institutions themselves might be places where racism was actually implemented through policies, procedures, and practices. Building on an “Inventory of Racism” which had been published earlier by Knowles & Prewitt, we developed a process of engaging people in what we called an “Audit” of institutional racism. One of the difficulties in getting organizations to engage in the “Audit”, was an inherent perceived assumption that there was or might be a verdict that there were institutional practices which needed to change. Only in organizations where leadership was willing to accept that possibility, was it likely that we would be invited to work. With that limitation built-in, we were successful in engaging a number of private and public agencies in the “Audit” process, including several church denominations. The learnings about how institutions function, which had been growing in previous years, were expanded during the “Audits”.

The agenda of society also needed to be addressed, and the presence of racism in the criminal justice system became blatant with the case surrounding the arrest of Willie Sanders. After a series of rapes in the Brighton section of Boston, under extreme public pressure, and while a large public meeting was in process, the Boston police arrested Willie, a black man who was a painter in a building of the area, and he became the accused.

Friend Max Stern defended Willie, and CCI became an active component of a coalition convinced of his innocence. Four cases brought against Willie ended in two acquittals, one in which the D.A. dropped the charges, and one in which the case was dismissed by the court. The one case dropped by the D.A. was clearly no case at all; the one dismissed by the court was the one in which the tape of the lineup in which a rape victim identified Willie, included the words of a police officer pointing to Willie, and saying to the viewer, “that’s the painter”! Watching those trials closely was an education in how corrupt a system can become even though it is created to administer justice. Never again could I sit “at ease” when confronting “justice”.

One result of the Sanders case was to propel us into the work of the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty, the oldest single-issue, anti-death penalty organization in the nation, with roots in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Active on the Board of MCADP for over twenty years, now I want to give more and more time to local anti-death penalty organizing. Death is the ultimate penalty, and the administration of the death penalty is the place to see how the disparate discriminatory treatment of people of color is the ultimate instance of systemic racism.

What I sometimes call the “criminal system of justice” has been a major focus of the work of Community Change. One lesson from that work is worth citing. During a period in Massachusetts when John Boone, a black man, was Commissioner of Corrections, there was strong resistance to his administration among prison guards, overwhelmingly white. Tensions within the prison at Walpole were close to a breaking point. Ash Eames and I, from CCI, joined a group of Citizen Observers, allowed to be in the prison to watch and write reports on what was happening, those reports going to the Commissioner’s office. Because my work days were filled, I went to the prison for several all-night shifts. It was there that I heard an important lesson from a uniformed guardsman.

The guard was known to me only as “Big Jim”; his physical presence was a testimony to the name. Most of the guards did not appreciate our presence, and made that very clear. “Big Jim” seemed ready to talk. One night I was in conversation with him , as we walked the cold, bleak halls of the prison. “Big Jim” spoke about the prisoners. He said that there were about ten percent of the men in that prison who probably should be isolated from society. The others, he said, need help which he could not give them. They need doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and “Big Jim” knew he had no skills in any of those fields. The plea from “Big Jim” was really for an approach to incarceration which would emphasize “corrections” rather than punishment. That was truth, out of the heart of an experienced prison guard!

One of the efforts to improve the “justice” system came as we joined with the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, and other community groups. That group was concerned with how released prisoners were received once they returned to the community. As they try to build new lives the needs are immense, and the receiving communities are poorly equipped to serve those needs. We organized a couple of community meetings in the Roxbury area, but found ourselves facing a major obstacle.
Outside of the few who were eager to work with us, the concern of the greater part of the population was simply for “safe streets”, too often translated into “get ‘em off the streets!” Since those early efforts, much wiser, and more community-based efforts have shown at least modest success, still in the face of a system which is too much committed to punishment.

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