Last night, when Grace Bauer, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, a tiny wisp of a woman, reluctantly stepped forward to speak, you already knew that what she would say would break your heart.
In a very soft voice, she told the roomful of very quiet people assembled at the midtown headquarters of the
North Star Fund that, six years ago, her then 12 year old son was picked up by the police for stealing a pack of cigarettes and, instead of getting the kind of help a child might need, was thrown into jail. Apparently, this version of "criminal justice" happens over and over again, on a daily basis, in and around New Orleans. A mother who clearly loves her son, her pain obvious, she continued to speak about her frantic attempts to get help for her son and for her family, to no avail. She finally found help through
Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children.
According to FFLIC, "every year, hundreds of children are abused and neglected in Louisiana's youth prisons, only to be returned to their communities with few skills, poor education and broken spirits. The organization unites community, parents and concerned citizens to demand that the systems that are supposed to help and care for children, do their job and stop being a force of oppression against our families and our communities."
Grace, who is now a community organizer for FFLIC, was joined last night by the co-founders of FFLIC, Xochitl Bervera, Esq. and Gina Womack, who also spoke about the sad state of the criminal justice system in New Orleans, made even worse by the Katrina disaster. The media has reported on the up tick in crime in New Orleans, but Grace has actually lived the dysfunction that led to her son's incarceration for a non-violent crime. Academy award nominees David Strathairn - a longtime supporter of the North Star Fund -- and Patricia Clarkson (Clarkson is a New Orleans native) also attended the event, and both are throwing their support behind FFLIC and another grassroots organization, Safe Streets/Strong Communities.
Clarkson, whose own mother was once a member of New Orleans' City Council, said that grassroots organizations - community by community - hold the best hope for real recovery in New Orleans and that the supposed massive amount of aid sent by the Red Cross, FEMA and other large groups won't do it. She'll be the queen of the Orpheus parade during this year's Mardi Gras, and she says she intends to use that as a "bully pulpit" for just these kinds of issues.
Norris Henderson who heads up Safe Streets/Strong Communities struck at least one hopeful note: the disintegration of the criminal justice system in NOLA actually opens the door for re-tooling the system from the bottom up and instituting "best practices" from other cities with more successful systems. He said that there's been more willingness to seek help from "outsiders" with the kind of expertise needed in NOLA, and he's feeling optimistic about that.
Documentary filmmaker Lauren Thompson also showed a short clip from a movie still in production about the criminal justice system in NOLA.
Hugh Hogan, North Star's Executive Director, stepped forward at some point to make the "hard pitch" for money for the groups. North Star is one of the few foundations in the US that gives money directly to grassroots organizations.
As many people took out their checkbooks and others had their pictures taken with the stars, I walked over to Grace to ask how her son is doing now. She smiled and said that he had just come home a few days before, after having spent time in prison again for another non-violent act - taking money from a vending machine while having a joint in his pocket, apparently a triple felony in NOLA. By the way, Grace does not think what her son did was right; but the punishment only compounded the problem and didn't help him, her or the community. While in prison, he was beaten by guards and developed posttraumatic stress disorder, among other things. Despite all this, she feels more optimistic about his chances now - now that she has found some help, and now that she has decided to turn her pain into action.
I told her that I didn't think I could stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk about my troubles like that, and I told her that I think that she's very brave. She said that if her story helps just one other mom, one other family, or causes one more person to write a check, it's worth it.
As I left the event, I was wondering why these groups have to come to New York, hat in hand, to re-invent a collapsed criminal justice system that, truly, should be funded by my tax dollars and with government assistance. And then I remembered - oh, right, lots of my tax dollars are going to fund an immoral war in Iraq. Besides, the occupant of the White House, whose own children seem to spend a lot of time partying hearty without fear of retribution or of being hauled in for, say, smoking pot, or getting shot while on patrol in Baghdad, could care less about anyone else's kids.