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Jasmyne Cannick and Patrisse Cullors (photo courtesy of Skandia Shafer)

Jasmyne Cannick and Patrisse Cullors (photo courtesy of Skandia Shafer)

The people of the County of Los Angeles and beyond need to understand that spending $3.5 billion on new jails instead of focusing on local services that could prevent mostly black and brown people from ending up behind bars in the first place is in the best interest of all of us—and not just black and brown people.

According to historian and UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, L.A. County isn’t just the biggest jailer in the United States—it is the biggest jailer in the world. Hernandez has studied incarceration in Los Angeles for more than a decade, her recent book, "City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Justice, Power, and Politics)" explains how Los Angeles became the world’s leading incarcerator.

In chronicling the evolution of the incarceral nature of this city Hernandez unveils the racist motivations that drove and continue to perpetuate a dependence on incarceration as a panacea for solving its social ills. City of Inmates is a must read for anyone trying to understand why we lock up so many black and brown people or why certain communities are now called Million Dollar Hoods.

Mass incarceration, overpolicing, money-bail discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, for-profit detention all find a place in the telling of Hernandez’s story, but she also manages to weave a constant thread of resilience throughout the work.

But one such story of resilience not included her book is the story of Reform L.A. County Jails. I learned about this effort a couple of months ago when one of its leaders, Jasmyne Cannick, presented the idea that Reform LA Jails was attempting to gather 100,000 signatures over a few short months. It sounded impossible.

The vision is to equip the Civilian Oversight Commission with the power to subpoena records and to compel the testimony of deputies and their superiors accused of wrongdoing—hence the initiative.

For those unfamiliar with the initiative, here’s a little background: A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to implement a Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to improve public transparency and accountability for the Sheriff’s Department. Two years after the establishment of the commission, incidents of misconduct continue unabated, including reports of deputies trafficking drugs and inmate mistreatment leading to widespread “suicides” of inmates. The problem is that the commission, as it was originally created, lacked the power to subpoena. The vision of Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter and a leader of the Reform LA Jails Coalition, is to equip the Civilian Oversight Commission with the power to subpoena records and to compel the testimony of deputies and their superiors accused of wrongdoing—hence the initiative.

When Jasmyne came to my group to share the vision, we supported it even though we thought it was a little too ambitious: How could they get 100,000 signatures in such a short period of time? Well, yesterday I stumbled upon this message on Facebook written by Megan Dobkin. Her message is republished with her permission.

Yesterday the Reform LA Jails Coalition turned in a U Haul full of 246,000 petition signatures supporting The Reform Jails & Community Reinvestment Initiative – 100,000 signatures OVER the amount needed to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Times that by ten and you get the doors knocked on and the conversations had in communities all over LA County. I think I will be processing my experience working on this campaign for quite awhile. Truth is, I have never been so fully committed from the ground up on any one campaign and the experience as a whole has affected me deeply. The more I join the conversation about jails and prisons, the more I understand my personal stake in seeing it change, as well as the collateral damage done in the name of keeping me and mine “safe.”

Photo courtesy Skandia Shafer

Photo courtesy Skandia Shafer

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But what I really am most stirred by, in this moment, is the power of whom we all have been following. I’ll let campaign director Jasmyne Cannick say it for me: “Today we are making history and herstory. I say herstory because we are gathered based on the vision of women in our community – Black women who said ‘we’ve got a problem and this is what we are going to do about it’ and we got it done.

Patrisse Cullors, Jasmyne Cannick, Jayda Rasberry, Dr. Melina Abdullah, Nana Gyamfi – I know there are countless others but I was only one small spoke on this wheel and these were the women I heard speak and got to know a bit better during this process. These are voices we need to follow.

I am also incredibly proud of White People For Black Lives (one of the many orgs at the Reform LA Jails and Justice LA tables), how we mobilized and grew leadership so that we could sustain our efforts and live out a collective vision that we can be proud of.

So to my fellow white feminists who are marching, reading, organizing, funding – I ask that you look around to clock who you are following. Are they voices from communities that are most impacted and connected to the policies and injustices you are fighting? If not, how do you know you are working in solidarity? How do you know if you are, in fact, acting as the ally you want to be? You have such precious sacred energy and talents to channel – we can’t waste a drop of it. We all have a job to do TOGETHER.

Two years ago I found White People 4 Black Lives / SURJ Affiliate Los Angeles and AWARE-LA – orgs that mobilize white people with organizational/activist energy and train them to try not to recreate elements of white supremacy culture within activist spaces. If we don’t actively study and combat this patterning, it will show up in multi-racial spaces and counteract our good intentions. The shit doesn’t just go away on its own. These orgs work in solidarity with Black Lives Matter-LA as well as other organizations run by people of color. This collective was the bridge to plug me into this campaign and has countless others awaiting you.

Our next general meeting is on Sunday August 12th.

Megan’s expression of solidarity is one that all progressives must understand and incorporate into their organizing if they ever hope to have success. This Quartz Magazine headline says it all, "The overwhelming whiteness of US environmentalism is hobbling the fight against climate change". None of us can fight these battles alone. Our success as a movement is tied to our ability to face our racial/ethnic divides with intention, courage, honesty and a determination to do the hard work of moving forward as Megan says, TOGETHER.

The success of this small group of determined folks was deeply tied to their willingness to do just that. Watching them win is a story that needs to be shared. Please share it and join them if you can on August 12th.

And one final reminder, The Left Coast Forum will be held Aug 24th -26th at the LA Trade Tech. Two of our keynote speakers will be Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Dr. Melina Abdullah. Please join us. You can find out all about it by clicking here.

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Sharon Kyle
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