Meet Our Local Organizer: Darris Young (Part 1)
2014 has already seen some strong transitions at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Orienting its work now entirely behind a mission to “end mass incarceration” is no small task, and EBC has brought on some powerful staff to move that work forward locally and nationally.
Darris Young has dealt with the effects of the criminal legal system from various sides – from being encouraged into police work to being a third-strike lifer who is still on parole. He is EBC’s new local organizer, and just as soon as he had a chance to dive into his new job, I had the opportunity to sit down with him to learn about his work and how his experiences position him in this new role. Here’s what he had to say:
JS: What has your experience been like in your first month at EBC?
DY: Our one centralized goal, which is to end mass incarceration and to curb the epidemic of youth incarceration, is something that gives me goosebumps. I love the agenda. It’s what I’m about because I’m a formerly incarcerated individual. As a matter of fact, I’m still on parole. I did 17 years, 2 days, 4 hours and 20 minutes on a 20-year sentence as a third striker. I did 17 years, but it renewed my efforts and I saw a lot of things that were wrong with the system. Especially, as I started to see the years go by, the people that were coming in were getting younger and younger, and I was like: there’s something wrong with this. Why are we sending kids to prison for things that maybe they should have gotten corrected in their lives? And then I saw a pattern that most of them had started out in the juvenile justice system, which let me know that somewhere down the line, it was failing.
When I got out, one of my things was I needed to work in an area where I can directly affect people’s lives for the positive, so I got into substance abuse counseling. I [also] became a domestic violence counselor when I got out because I saw a connection between youth and domestic violence, and then also became active in the missionary field, because I worked for a short while for City Team International as one of their field missionaries… All of those things go hand in hand, because when we’re talking about Mass Incarceration, we’re talking about societal things that lead young people into a dangerous ditch, and those things they’re really not focused on. We can spend more of our money on creating more avenues for young people, like getting back parks and recreation, good mentors, people that will influence their lives to the positive instead of making them see that there is no hope. What I see for young people these days as opposed to when I was growing up is that they live in a state of fatalism. In other words, they say everything is messed up and can never get better, but they don’t understand that they’re the agents of change and each generation has to have something to look forward to, to change momentum.
JS: You are both a formerly imprisoned person and you have gone through a police academy. Can you describe how that happened?
DY: That was a great turning point of my life. It actually shaped the direction of my life. After I graduated from high school I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was an athlete, I played football. I went from El Cerrito High and from there to Diablo Valley College and then to Washington State. My major was Criminal Justice and people pointed me in that direction. I felt that as a young Black man coming up I was always told: “If we just had more Black cops it would make a difference.” Put it like this here: It’s a misconception now. Back then, you didn’t see a lot of Black police officers. You still don’t see a lot in comparison to the demographics of the cities – the racial makeup – but I would say that really, it does not make a difference. If you don’t model yourself toward your training then you’re not going to make it in policing. The mindset is that it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, if you’re white. Anybody out there committing a crime is no good, or anybody who looks like they’re committing a crime, or anybody that looks different [is no good].
In 1985 I was hired by the Richmond Police Department, and that was right after they had gotten sued in one of the biggest lawsuits in the history of policing at that time. They had a really Southern style police department at that time. I applied, got the job. I think they hired ten of us, and out of the ten I think there were eight Blacks, one Hispanic and one white. After graduating from the police academy I went into the field training process, and six weeks into field training I was terminated. It sullied my whole attitude toward law enforcement because I started to see so many things that were wrong with the justice department. Being a young man I was still not too stable inside, so I misplaced my emotions – I misdirected my thoughts, and consequently it led to some poor decisions down the line. Drug addiction kept me going back and forth to prison. It made me who I am. There’s something that we talk about, that bad situations create good situations because it sometimes helps to shape you. I guess a power higher than me saw that I didn’t need to be on that side. I needed to be on this side because this is where I want to be. Instead of putting people in prison I want to keep people out of prison.
[Check back for Part 2 of this interview to learn about the work Darris is doing as one of our local organizers.]
Jesse Strauss is an organizer and musician. Born and raised in Oakland, he has studied global decolonization struggles, social and economic development in Latin America and reported for Al Jazeera in Qatar. Now back home, he makes music, fights the prison industrial complex as a member of Critical Resistance and nurses a coffee addiction and an incessant sweet tooth.