News: 9 Black Women Who Went Hard For Criminal Justice Reform Before Kim Kardashian
CNN commentator Van Jones famously credited Kim Kardashian West and her celebrity status with helping to pass the First Step Act, which is expected to bring about sweeping criminal justice reform.
Kardashian West met President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, where she asked for clemency for Cyntoia Brown, who was convicted of killing a man when she was 16 and forced into sex work. Brown would not have been eligible for parole for 51 years.
“If Kim Kardashian had not gone to the White House and talked to Donald Trump, we would not have passed this bill,” Jones told TMZ in December.
Kardashian West has strategically used her platform to help other incarcerated people including Alice Marie Johnson and Mathew Charles.
Jamarlin talks to Kai Bond, managing partner at Comcast Ventures Catalyst Fund. They discuss the Fyre Festival being flagged during due diligence and Kai’s observation that most African-American entrepreneurs are under-negotiating. They also discuss a Washington Post article suggesting Facebook is psychopathic.
After Brown’s clemency was announced on Jan. 7, 2019, Kardashian West received thousands of notes and letters from prisoners asking for help. She got the title “The Princess Of Prison Reform” by prison staffers and inmates, MSN reported. “Both hilarious and filled with admiration, the name is a questionable moniker for the reality star,” wrote Zoey Johnson for MSN.
This praise raised questions about the women working in the trenches — the community organizers and lawyers and activists who, without the money and voice and visibility of Kardashian West, laid the groundwork for the passage of the First Step Act.
As Selena Hill wrote in Black Enterprise, “Even though Kardashian West has used her platform to amplify injustices and has been a helpful resource, it’s (others) who have made waves in exposing inequity and pushing for change in the criminal justice system.”
Here are 9 women who worked extensively on prison and criminal justice reform in the U.S.
St. Louis circuit attorney Kim Gardner
Kim Gardner got personal experience with the end game of violent crime while working in her family’s funeral home. There she realized the desperate need for more safety, according to The St. Louis American. Gardner became St. Louis’ first African-American circuit attorney, working with the Urban League, Better Family Life, the federal government and other social service organizations to create programs that address the root causes of violence instead of just locking people up and hoping things change. Gardner is working to build trust between communities, the police, and her office — a thankless job. Her reforms have both been cheered and criticized on the right and the left.
Hope House co-founder Topeka K. Sam
Topeka K. Sam was behind bars on a three-and-a-half year drug trafficking charge when she dreamed up a facility that could meet the need of women recently out of prison with no place to go but back into abusive relationships or other terrible options. Those dreams became Hope House, a transitional group home in rented apartments on a quiet street in the Bronx. Sam received seed money from fellow formerly incarcerated activist Susan Burton, who developed similar projects in Los Angeles, according to Vogue. The neighbors — mostly people of color — were not happy to have Hope House in their back yard. Some showed up at community board meetings with signs that read “No Hope for Hope House.” Sam’s response?
“Why don’t we have a right to live in a safe community just like everyone else?” Sam also founded The Ladies of Hope Ministries to help disenfranchised and marginalized women and girls transition back into society from prison through spiritual empowerment, education, entrepreneurship, and advocacy, Black Enterprise reported.
Essie founder Gina Clayton
Gina Clayton was a first-year Harvard Law School student when someone close to her was sentenced to 20 years in prison. She was secretive with classmates about what was going on at home and felt very alone. Such secrecy is common among people trying to deal with the stigma of incarceration, Voguereported. Clayton went to work in a public defender’s office in Harlem, representing women in housing court whose family members who were trapped in the criminal justice system. She founded Essie Justice Group, a network of women with incarcerated loved ones — about a third of them, formerly incarcerated.
Essie is a support system and advocacy lobby that has campaigned to end the money bail system in California. The bigger goal, Clayton said, is to “help others understand the full impact that American addiction to incarceration has had.”
Architect Deanna Van Buren
Deanna Van Buren designs alternatives to prisons and jails. You can see examples of her work here. Her inspiration includes Angela Davis and Davis’ sister, Fania, who led the international campaign to secure Angela’s release from prison. Van Buren has made it her business to break the cycle of trying to rethink the criminal justice system without abandoning the system. “You have to abandon the system because the system hasn’t changed its root values. It still wants to do the same thing over and over again,” Van Buren said, according to Vogue: “If the values of our justice system are punitive, security-oriented and structurally racist, even a completely reimagined prison building will affirm and embody those ideas.”
Patrisse Khan-Cullors helped co-found and launch one of the most powerful social movements of the century — Black Lives Matter. The movement originated as a social media hashtag after Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 and George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 for shooting the unarmed teen, Black Enterprise reported. It has since become a global grassroots movement with hundreds of local chapters of Black Lives Matter.
Khan-Cullors published a memoir, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” in which she has a conversation about the criminalization of black people, and the fact that more people were killed in 2017 by law enforcement than any other year recorded.
Khan-Cullors also founded Dignity and Power Now, an organization that advocates for the rights of incarcerated people and supports resources for their families.
Angela Davis, an activist, scholar, and “global hero of the left” became
a recognized progressive leader nearly 50 years ago when she supported three California inmates of Soledad Prison accused and wrongfully convicted of murdering a white prison guard. Davis spent 16 months in prison after guns she had purchased were used in an attack that was aimed at freeing the inmates–John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Lester Jacksor. Four people died.
“Free Angela” become a rallying cry while she was incarcerated. Davis became a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She taught history of consciousness and spoke at many events on the criminal justice system and women’s rights. In 2017 Davis spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. after Trump’s inauguration.
Marian Wright Edelman
One of the best-known children’s rights advocates, Marian Wright Edelman has advocated for African Americans since the Civil Rights era. She graduated from Spelman College and Yale Law School, and was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Miss.
In 1968, she moved to Washington, D.C., as counsel to the Poor People’s Campaign organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. before his death. That year, Wright Edelman founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children’s Defense Fund. In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund and its mission: No Child Left Behind.
In 2011, CeCe McDonald and two friends were walking past a Minneapolis bar when a drunken group began taunting them with racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs. McDonald was attacked with a shattered drinking glass that cut her face and salivary gland. She defended herself against a second assailant with fabric shears, and the assailant died. Sentenced to 41 months in prison for manslaughter, McDonald began speaking out against the criminal justice system. A transgender female in a men’s prison, she spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. Her case helped bring attention to the violence and discrimination transgender women of color face.
While in prison, McDonald’s name trended on social media with the hashtag #FreeCeCe. She was released after 19 months for good behavior.
In 2016, actress and LGBTQ rights activist Laverne Cox co-produced the documentary “Free CeCe!”, empowering others to join the movement. Since her release, McDonald kept up her activism to end the prison-industrial complex.
Black Lives Matter L.A. Co-Founder Melina Abdullah
Melina Abdullah, talks during a Black Lives Matter rally in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. Family, friends and community activists held the rally and a march for the recent deaths of a few homeless Black men, according to Black Lives Matter. They were also gathering for the death of another man killed in a shooting earlier in the year. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Melina Abdullah, a Cal State professor, activist and critic of Los Angeles police brutality, demanded justice for Wakiesha Wilson, 36, who was found dead in LAPD custody in March 2016. Wilson committed suicide, according to law enforcement. Her family claims she would not have taken her own life. Abdullah was charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, disturbing a public meeting and unlawful assembly during the city’s civilian Police Commission meetings in 2017 and 2018.
What seemed to be the tipping point for the LAPD was when Abdullah allegedly grabbed an officer’s arm, the L.A. Times reported. Abdullah was arrested and charged with eight counts of something.
“These charges seek to criminalize Black protests and attempt to silence a loud, often angry, voice,” Abdullah’s attorney, Carl E. Douglas, wrote in a court filing. In February 2019, all eight criminal charges were dropped after sympathizers filled courtrooms, led rallies and filed petitions accusing the city of trying to silence its critics.
Written by Dana Sanchez