Struggle Against Racism in Justice System at ‘Inflection Point,’ Conference Told

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Protest in Washington DC. Photo by Victoria Pickering via Flickr

The nation is at a “deep inflection point” in the struggle against systemic racism in the justice system, participants in the 2020 John Jay Innovations Conference were told Tuesday.

“Inflection points are those moments where we could go radically forward, or potentially go backwards,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.

Rashad Robinson

Rashad Robinson

Speaking at the opening session of the three-day webinar event, organized around the theme of “Shrink the System,” Robinson said it was too late for “reform around the edges.”

A successful outcome of the movement for change depended on transforming the widespread protests spurred by the deaths of unarmed African Americans in police custody into genuine political change, he said.

“As a nation, we need to build the power for change at the local, state and federal levels to redefine public safety,” Robinson said.

Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told participants that “frank conversations” about changing policing in America needed to go beyond slogans like “defund the police.”

“We cannot let this moment in history pass us by without making significant changes in our policies and practices,” she said. “We cannot look away from our country’s deeply entrenched inequities.”

Karol Mason

She said the challenge facing all justice reformers was not about reforming a policy piecemeal, , but about “changing how the system works from the bottom up,” she said.

Ed Chung of the Center on American Progress, a co-sponsor of the event, said the fourth annual Justice Innovations conference was taking place at an “historic moment to call for the lasting transformation of the justice system, from policing to pretrial to sentencing to reentry.”

Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights agreed.

“Defining of public safety has typically been a top-down process,” she said, noting that reforms to all of the elements of the criminal justice system must start at the grassroots community level.

“We have to contend with the multi-layers of how mass incarceration has been built up” over the decades, she said, adding that the death of George Floyd last month at the hands of a Minnesota police officer is “having an impact far beyond policing.”

The protests over the Floyd incident and other incidents of police use of force reflect widespread anger about “a system built on faulty ground,” she said.

“We have to work on ending the culture of criminalization and creating a culture of humanity,”she continued.

“We are never going to be able to end mass incarceration without dealing with our culture of addiction to incarceration (and) addiction to a dehumanization of black people and people of color.”

Racism is embedded in every institution in this country, Gupta noted, adding that the ultimate aim of reform was to redefine how policing was conducted in the U.S.

Instead of focusing on “fixing” communities affected by systemic racism, it was critical to involve community residents themselves in the change, said actor and activist Michael K. Williams.

“The people closest to the problem are usually the ones closest to the solution,” he added, noting that change was needed to address the economic inequality that underlined the lack of political power in many communities most affected by aggressive police tactics.

Vanita Gupta

“It’s going to take a lot of work and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Gupta said.

But she noted that protests must be followed by organizing and “power-building.”

People need to see themselves as agents of change, she added.

Carter Stewart of Draper Richards Kaplan, one of the sponsors of the event, said that despite the anger and frustration, there were encouraging signs.

“It’s both the best of times and the worst of times,” he said. “The worst of times because of the pain being expressed; but the best of times because there seems to be an opportunity to really make a difference today.”

The conference continued today with discussions on innovative approaches to public health during the pandemic, changing strategy for the “War on Drugs,” and prosecution reforms.

Registration for the webinar sessions is available here.

Tayler Green is a TCR news reporting intern.

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