LA Activists Count the Costs of a Domestic Terror System

Domestic Terror System

I‘m grateful that three colleagues I admire deeply were able to help me create an insight-filled panel presentation at the first-ever Left Coast Forum taking place at LA Trade Tech this past weekend. We called our session “Mass Incarceration: Counting the Costs,” and we began by measuring the damage across different measures: the economic toll, the psychological and spiritual toll, the grave horrors inflicted on individuals, families, neighborhoods, and whole communities. Each panelist linked the devastation to the wider system of violence that also animates U.S.-style capitalism and U.S. efforts to maintain imperial dominance.

Geri Silva of the Fair Chance Project talked about the death-in-life existence of inmates held under Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentences: the large LWOP population languishing in California prisons. Pastor Cue Jn-Marie of TheRowLA and the Black-Jewish Justice Alliance connected the dots between gentrification and abusive policing; he also pointed to the huge difference in this country’s response to an opioid epidemic affecting mostly white people and the massive roundup of Black bodies associated with the crack surge in urban communities back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lynne Lyman of A New Way of Life Reentry Project focused on how America’s harsh CJ system is unique in all the world in how it punishes children, with 1 in 15 Black children having an incarcerated parent and with the appalling and recent upsurge in incarceration levels among the mothers of young children.

We called our session “Mass Incarceration: Counting the Costs,” and we began by measuring the damage across different measures: the economic toll, the psychological and spiritual toll, the grave horrors inflicted on individuals, families, neighborhoods, and whole communities.

Lyman also got the crowd’s attention when she ran the numbers on where the money goes: how California corrections spending at the state level continues to skyrocket (to an actual total of $14 billion annually) despite very significant reductions in the total number of people held in state prisons and county jails. She reminded us that here in LA County the Sheriff’s Dept. continues to swallow up the lion’s share of $350 million/year that comes from Sacramento under Public Safety Realignment (AB 109) and that these are monies that could and should be used for community-based rehabilitation and treatment rather than standard law enforcement. Her point was clear: it’s not enough to pass reforms and pat ourselves on the back; we need to stay alert and demand that funds be reinvested in ways that start to heal the damage and that don’t add to the hurt.

When the discussion turned to alternative visions for public safety, Geri emphasized the importance of keeping returned and returning citizens (and their family members) at the very center of the reform movement. Cue pointed to the opportunity for a massive investment in youth development. Lynne said that securing a humane long-term future means cutting off the pipeline into the system, fixing the prisons we already have with an emphasis on rehabilitation, and making the reentry process work by (for example) making a massive effort to expunge the records of some eight million Californians who are held back on account of their records.

peter laarmanAs the session came to a close, the openly grieving mother of a young man who was effectively executed by the racist system here in California stood and spoke her own tear-filled and rage-filled testimony on what the system’s devastation really means. As eloquent as the panelists had been, her personal testimony said more than any words of ours could express.

Peter Laarman

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.

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