For many years before becoming the Executive Director at the Ella Baker Center, I worked with our Books Not Bars campaign which transforms our juvenile justice system to invest in young people, their families, and our communities. Since its inception, the campaign has helped close four of the notoriously abusive California Youth prisons and organized thousands of family members of incarcerated youth and our allies to demand change in the system.
After all those years of working with incarcerated youth and their family members, one thing is extremely clear. A prison does very little to help people behinds bars. In fact, it often makes things worse. Forced to experience outrageous levels of violence, abuse, and neglect, young people often leave California's youth prisons damaged and unprepared -- over 70% are rearrested within two years.
Not only is a prison sentence ineffective at providing those locked up any form of rehabilitation or opportunity for healing, a sentence does little to end the suffering of the victims of a crime. One of the mothers from the Families for Books Not Bars network remains seared into my memory. This woman, was the mother of three kid- her oldest son and her daughter were both serving time in California's youth prisons. Her younger son was killed in a case of mistaken identity. The understandable devastation she felt at her son's murder was not so different then the extreme devastation she felt from having two of her children locked up for their own mistakes.
Violence inflicts trauma. Healing from that trauma is a long path. When tragedy strikes, we yearn for justice. However, I've said it before, and I'll say it again- sentencing one man is not justice.
On Friday, November 5th, a sentence is expected in the trial of Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant. And Mehserle is guilty of murder, even if the jury decided it was merely 'involuntary manslaughter,' and should be held accountable for his actions. But I don't want any of us to kid ourselves that a longer sentence for Mehserle will equal justice for Oscar Grant.
I am reminded of DeAndre Lewis, a young man from Books Not Bars who has finally gotten his life back on track. For 10 years of his life, DeAndre was in an out of the California youth prisons. He is very clear that the system did little to help him. He also saw that both his mistakes and his serving time inflicted trauma on his family. Lastly, DeAndre is clear that all that time did nothing to undo the harm caused by his mistakes.
Justice for Oscar Grant and for the thousands of other victims of police brutality is not about one man nor one sentence. To me, justice for Oscar Grant and his family can only be brought through the fundamental transformation of the systems that aren't just for all. There must be transformation of the system that hired, trained, and armed Mehserle. Almost none of the other officers involved in the murder incident where reprimanded. Even Mehserle's supervisor was not held accountable.
When the judge hands down the sentence, it will one again be important for our communities to come together. The New Year's Day Movement and other grassroots groups are planning gatherings in response to the sentence. I hope you will support their efforts and let us work to make sure that these gatherings will be welcoming for everyone who wants to stand for justice.
I also hope you will re-double the pressure on Eric Holder to make sure the Department of Justice thoroughly investigates the death of Oscar Grant.
While these short term actions are important, what matters as much or more, is what we do in the long term to challenge systemic oppression and bring peace, justice and opportunity to our communities. As Miss Ella Jo Baker once shared, "In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed... It means facing a system that does not lend its self to your needs and devising means by which you change that system."
I invite all of us to come together to support community organizing, to take action that leads to systemic change, and to recommit ourselves to achieving Miss Baker's vision of far-reaching change.