By Herron Keyon Gaston, Graduate student, Yale University
I am taking the lead among students at Yale to create space to talk about race and to meet the needs of those who have been subject to the prison industrial complex. This phrase refers to the rapid expansion of the US inmate population, which has quintupled to from 300,000 to well over 2 million in the last three decades.
In 2010, I was directly confronted by this reality when I was wrongly accused of a felony in a case in Florida that I am unequivocally convinced was racially and politically motivated. At the time of my arrest, I was entering my first semester at Yale Divinity School. I was arrested by five U.S. Marshalls and physically removed from the classroom. I was taken into custody over a mere allegation without sufficient evidence to warrant an arrest in the first place. In other words, they arrested me first and then decided to ask questions later. By this time, they had already smeared my reputation and gravely attempted to undermine my credibility and character. To add insult to injury, the University dismissed me immediately and hand delivered me the dismissal letter in the local New Haven Jail where I was being held until extradition to Florida. Even after the courts made the decision to allow me to return to campus to finish my studies, the University still refused to allow me to come back until the final disposition of the case was rendered.
In other cases where students had been accused of a criminal infraction, policy and procedure seemed to have gone out of the window and “special” accommodations were made. Although my case was later dismissed and the charges were unfounded, I still faced and continue to face discrimination on a number of fronts from employment to other opportunities that were once afforded to me before my arrest. This is the sad reality for most people of color in this country, especially African-American males. We are guilty until proven lucky. Not even guilty until proven innocent. And very rarely are we even given the benefit of the doubt.
As an African American from the Deep South, I have good reason to believe this. The fact that blacks make up less than 13 percent of the national population but constitute approximately 44 percent of prison population makes it clear that racial prejudice is alive and rampant in the criminal justice system — from arrests, to prosecutions, to incarcerations.
I have not only experienced the penal system from the side of the accused, but also served the Florida Department of Corrections as a legislative analyst and Gubernatorial Fellow working in the area of re-entry. There I sought to reduce recidivism and assist released prisoners in realizing their own potential. Increasingly aware that a disproportionate amount of those incarcerated are African Americans, and convinced that I needed to respond to the dilemma in more local and direct way than the Department was capable of, I combined my skills in community organization with deep involvement in black religious life to create Churches United Against Incarceration. Made up of variety of churches — from mainline to non-denominational — this Tallahassee organization helped released prisoners integrate back into society.
Similarly here in New Haven, Conn. I am working with other faith leaders in continuing to address and have conversations around issues of police brutality and the issue of hyper-incarceration of black and brown people. While what happened in Ferguson is certainly painstaking (and painstaking, perhaps is a gross understatement), we must realize that incidents of this sort happens all too often throughout our country. There is a Ferguson in every city’s backyard. And, likewise, there are way too many frivolous arrests of black and brown people in this country, which further adds to the growing stigma that black men are criminals.
Since this is the unfortunate reality, and given that we are caught in this incomprehensible web of injustice, I think that it is important to work within the system in order to change the system. The way forward in addressing these set of issues, in my estimation, is to first start at the local and municipal level. We must begin to hold our local, state, and federal politicians and leadership accountable. Politics has always been the process by which we chose our elected officials and hold them accountable to the constituents they represent — and those constituents include black people. Therefore, politicians are put in office to protect the interest of all people regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation, or religious preference. Here are few practical things I think we can do as Americans to better address the disparities that leads to sometimes false arrests, incarceration, and police brutality.
1) The Creation of a Citizens Review Board in Every Community and Municipality
The Citizen Review Board should be comprised of regular civilians from the community, who has a stake in the life of the community. The job of the Citizens Review Board is to serve as a liaison between the actual community and its members and the local police department. The Citizens Review Board should appoint a leader, or a set of leaders, and these community appointed leaders, should directly present the police leadership with pressing concerns from the community, and after the police department has been presented with the issues from the community, they should be responsible for presenting ways in which they intend to address the concerns of the community; and if they fail to do so in a time sensitive manner, the community should ban together and call for the resignation of that leadership.
Next, the Citizen Review Board should also (frequently) publicly request information regarding police arrest, police-involved shoots, homicides, and police-stops. Engaging in this type of process, in my opinion, would serve as a community-based accountability arm of the police department. If impropriates are found, the citizens of that community should collectively call for an outside investigation to look deeper into the issue; and/or publicly expose the issue by any means necessary. I understand that this approach is only one of many approaches and I also recognize that each community is set up differently, and has its own set of unique challenges where this approach might not be the most effective. When dealing with human beings, no one methodological approach will be entirely perfect but, perhaps, this might be one good place to start.
2) Body Cameras
In the Eric Gardner case we see where clear surveillance of the actual altercation still did not result in an indictment. Nevertheless, most people including the police are less inclined to act unruly when they know they are being watched. If regulated properly, this approach will cut down on some of the negative citizen-police, police-citizen interactions. This approach also would help the judicial system better understand what actions were taken between the police and the citizen. The cameras should be worn at all times and should be required to be on at all times, especially during times of police/citizen interactions.
3) Requiring Police to Justify Every Police Encounter
Every police department in the country should require officers to justify and explain every traffic stop or civilian interaction they have, including arrests. There should be a supervisor and regular citizen from the community who is hired by the police department to review the information. This in my estimation creates a better system of checks and balances.