15 Years of People-Power: Memories that Spark Hope
The author rallying at the Federal Building in Oakland
This blog is part of our series celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. You can celebrate with us at the 2011 Ellas: 15 Years of People-Powered Change, or submit your own anniversary memory or wish to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I remember one particularly long trip to the Central Valley with Laura Brady (one of the founders of Families for Books Not Bars) to support her as she went to pick up her son David. Youth prison officials told Laura her son would be released from the CYA (now called the Division of Juvenile Justice, aka the DJJ). He had been there for some years. Laura was devastated when she arrived only to find out that he would be held over the weekend (the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend).
I recently saw Laura at a national conference of families fighting to transform juvenile injustice systems. Laura’s son David is out now and doing well and she is just as determined as ever and now linking up with other families from Baton Rouge to the Bronx, thanks to Ella Baker Center and the work of organizations like the Campaign for Youth Justice, the Community Justice Network for Youth and Justice for Families.
Even though people told her she should, Laura didn’t give up, she kept fighting the disrespect and abuse and kept fighting for her son. And even though people have told us we should give up, EBC staff and members like Laura have been a persistent stubborn force for good for 15 years.
I have great memories of trying to add my little grain of sand to those efforts.
I remember an exhausting night in jail after a civil disobedience where we disrupted the Alameda county board of supervisors meeting to stop them from voting for the Superjail for Youth. We got out at like 5 in the morning only to find out that they had moved forward and voted for the Superjail in closed session anyhow.
As a first year law school student intern at Ella Baker Center, I did my first spoken word in public at an Alameda County Supervisor meeting to stop the superjail. It was pretty terrible. I have never again done spoken word but I did continue to contribute in other ways.
One time, Rachel Jackson and I went to a late night Hayward Democratic Club meeting to get them to oppose the superjail. The district supervisor who supported the superjail was alerted mid-meeting and actually came to the meeting in her house slippers and robe to explain her position. They voted to oppose the superjail despite her house-shoes and protests. We laughed and celebrated all the way home!
I remember Bernadette Armand and I being incredibly nervous as we scoped out an evening fundraiser for another one of the superjail supporting supervisors. The supervisor was up for reelection. Without saying a word we walked into the restaurant in Jack London Square and passed out our flyers, leaving as quickly as we had gotten there. The flyers told the supervisor to ‘come home,’ that the superjail would be too far, too big and too racist. After more such actions and letters of concern, she eventually changed her vote.
We kept going to those supervisor meetings and kept up our offerings of both good poetry and bad, and eventually, thanks to organizations like Ella Baker Center, Youth Force Coalition and AYPAL, we won the votes necessary to derail the superjail.
I remember all the times we went to the State Capitol and got snickers and sneers as we wore our Close CYA Youth Prison t-shirts. I remember being incredibly disheartened that we couldn't get a closure bill through the assembly even though yet another youth had died inside. We were told we would never see the closure of a single youth prison. But with allies like the Youth Justice Coalition we kept going back to the Capitol and kept up the protests at the youth prisons.
On one particularly extremely hot summer day in Stockton, we were kicked off the prison grounds as we normally did when we held such protests. But this time we didn’t care. We were celebrating the closure of not one, but two youth prisons. They were the first two of more to come. And Books Not Bars continues to fight for closure and an end to abuses in the CA Youth Prisons... and we will win.
Ten years ago, on 9-11, I remember gathering at the Youth Empowerment Center (also then the West Oakland home of Ella Baker Center’s Let’s Get Free). We discussed what had just happened, and tried and process it. Our community of activists fashioned a response rooted in racial justice and human rights.
As I reflect on all of these memories, I can’t imagine where we would be in this country without the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and organizations like it. Though I’m not always optimistic, when I think about how far the Ella Baker Center has come and about the next fifteen years of stubborn victories for human rights and racial justice, I am hopeful.
Zachary Norris was a part of the Ella Baker Center staff for 7 years. He left to move with his family to New York where he now coordinates the national Justice for Families project.
Feb 22, 2013
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Jan 30, 2013
Jan 25, 2013