THEORIA CASON: We are glad you are here to join us for the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. Your presence is a testament to our speaker of the hour and the forthcoming topic of discussion. So thank you for your attendance at this event. I'm Theoria Cason, an Assistant Director in Residential and New Student Programs and a member of the King Commemoration Committee.
This activity is a cross-campus between Cornell University and Ithaca College and a community collaboration. Its mission is to make Dr. King's life and legacy relevant to contemporary times. Dawn Porter's topic, "Defending America in the Age of Mass Incarceration", implicates the unfinished social justice agenda of Dr. King, who often said and wrote that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. With that said, I'd like to acknowledge that today is also the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. Malcolm and Martin symbolize the two dominant streams of black struggle in the 20th century.
At the end of their lives, Malcolm and Martin sought to transition the black freedom struggle in the United States from a civil rights to a human rights movement. More recently, Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow of the dismantling of the prison industrial complex as a human rights issue. She said her "view is that this has got to be a human rights Issue. It's got to be a movement for education, not incarceration-- for jobs, not jails. A movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or what you have done.
Dawn Porter is a part of this movement. She spent almost four years making a film about three remarkable public defenders on the front lines of a culture of mass incarceration. She shares her insights into the criminal justice system from that of the accused and those who represent them. Today's program honoring Dr. King was planned by a hardworking committee. And I'm now going to ask the King Commemoration Committee members to stand so we may acknowledge you. And they should be down front here.
THEORIA CASON: I would also like to acknowledge the support of our co-sponsors, The Multicultural Resource Center, The New Jim Crow community book read, Cornell United Religious Work, and an honorable mention to Brigid Hubberman.
So following Dawn's presentation, a brief discussion will be moderated by Dr. Paula Ioanide, an Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. Her teaching and research focuses on the negative effects of present-day inequalities and injustices. Specifically, Ioanide examines the social and spiritual wounds caused by mass incarceration and militarized policing, anti-immigration, discrimination, and increased poverty resulting from neoliberal policy shifts. But, before we transition into the discussion, we will hear from Amiri Banks, a biology major who's also a member of the Cornell Class of 2017.
AMIRI BANKS: Good evening, everyone. So this past weekend, I recently attended my third viewing of a documentary called I Am Not Your Negro, which centers on the words of my idol, a writer named James Baldwin.
My white friend accompanied me and after the show, he said that he had never seen or at least could not remember seeing most of the imagery and certainly none of the words that were used by the film to depict, in stark, unflinching terms, what racism was, is, and always has been really about. His education had failed him, he said. On another day, I was having a rare and extremely difficult conversation about race and the prison industrial complex with a white friend of mine. And I ended up suggesting that she consider watching the documentary, 13th, if she wanted to learn more.
Later, I received a text that said, in short, I read the summary of the documentary on Netflix and it made me sad. Thus, she decided she wasn't going to watch it. I have another white friend to whom I suggested that he watch the documentary created by our illustrious and esteemed speaker, Ms. Dawn Porter called Gideon's Army. He did watch the documentary and exclaimed that he was so proud and happy to see the work that those three public defenders had done to reform the criminal justice system in the South. But their work did not end with the film, I thought.
And the root of their work did not begin with his viewing of the film. All three of these friends are the kinds of friends who have given me the brightest and happiest of looks, like rubbing salt into a wound, warmly embracing me and even hinting at wanting to do something, sort of. These are the friends who say many words and offer many kind, promising gestures without ever really actually saying much of anything or manifesting these propositions into anything. They hand out pleasantries easily and quickly. And I, too, find that this cloak of nauseating niceness fades away in my darkest and most vulnerable moments, leaving behind shrivel husks and silver whisps-- useless and dead remains, shed like the dust of human skin.
And yet, underneath that dust, I find that my blackness-- this beautiful, bold condition-- still clings to my skin and adheres to my life-- perhaps even more tightly now in the absence of their concern. And that nothing has really changed about the illusions that were hoisted upon me as a result of this blackness. I still have wells of melanin from which to draw pride, joy, resilience, love, and support. But to these wells of happiness and joy, my friends have contributed close to nothing.
We are here today to commemorate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., among other things. But this word commemorate has many meanings, therefore the outcome of today's events must have many potential meanings as well. Commemorate can mean to honor, to remember, to celebrate, to observe, or to venerate. Now, if we are here simply to honor and celebrate MLK, then today presents the kind of dangerous and myopic optimism which so frequently overtakes this nation. For honoring and celebrating King's legacy can oftentimes become an affair rife with self-indulgent, relativistic olds to a journey that is nearly over or perhaps even over.
And if we are here to remember or observe MLK, than we are in grave trouble, because I have seen far too many people dilute and soften his mission and his words and his image in ways that are sanitary and revisionist, presenting him as a docile, calm, passive, and passionless role model for the discontented black masses of the 21st century. A model who made himself palatable for society and for white audiences in order to gain his humanity, which he should never have lost. Along the same vein, if we are here to venerate MLK, then I am still worried. So often I've seen such attempts at veneration devolve into reluctant, half-hearted gestures that really fail to acknowledge the extent to which the true MLK was not venerated while alive, but rather beaten, brutalized, incarcerated, and despised by the vast majority of the American population. They fail to admit that he has not been properly venerated in death and, in fact, continues to this day to be co-opted and redesigned for the comfort and peace of America and, in particular, of American white people.
The true MLK comprehended the gravity of his work and the necessity of sustained mobilization. He knew that these actions of resistance cannot be bogged down in the malaise of false comfort or the inertia of tenuous peace. That piece has been shattered many times, like on June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and executed nine black people. In doing so, he also walked into a long line of white men killing people or plotting to kill people, only for their actions to be met with some combination of brief mourning, inexplicable bafflement, tepid outrage, and the repulsive, dismissive amnesia. But people will pull off all manner of acrobatic maneuvers to convince themselves that Roof was just a psychotic aberrance and not a symptom of our society.
And our institutions, with their apathy and neglect, make this easy. I often wonder why we do this and I've come to suspect that it is because if you attempt to take away a human being's humanity, then invariably, once you discover or realize via the imposition of will, morality, or time, that that human being that you have owned, renamed, manipulated, sabotaged, and, in every essence of the word, destroyed, then that human being is, in fact, as human as you-- well, you and all of your descendants have cursed yourselves into becoming the bearers of this knowledge. And thus, for the sake of your own sanity, doing everything in your power to convince yourselves that you are not what you thought you were, that you are not a reflection of the monsters you claim not to be-- when you see me, when you look into my eyes, that you are not responsible for my anguish-- so long as you refuse to face the whole story and to swallow the bitter pill and to weep and to shake with rage as I do at what has been done to my people, then that human being will continue to be transformed against their will for millennia to come into new creations more subtle and less explicit as time goes by. To create a kind of moral distance or space which you can fill with false equivalencies, selective vision, incomplete narratives, logical fallacies, and double standards until you feel safe.
But you will never feel safe, because this seemingly dense padding of defense mechanisms is actually quite fibrous and brittle. The truth of my blackness will, without fail, always seep through the cracks. At times, I feel that many of my black and brown peers on this campus-- and by this campus, I mean Cornell-- exhibit a silent and sinister wariness of their own blackness and of their sovereign right to express their blackness in full. This trepidation becomes apparent in the form of inexplicable risks within my community, which pose a risk if we are not careful as black students, of serving to destroy that community and to destabilize the might of our collective consciousness as black students. I do believe that the truth and the strength and the solidarity intrinsic to our shared identity is not safe from the disintegrating power of manipulation.
"Whiteness is a metaphor for power." And by the way, those are the quotes of James Baldwin. I love him so much. At Cornell, I wonder if black people are perhaps too entrenched in the bastion of our own powers and our own privileges. Too assured of our own ostensibly bright futures, because we hail from the Ivy League, to be concerned about the soul, the heart, and the health of this nation that is ebbing away from its spirit and soul.
And so I charge the student body and I charge everyone, but in particular my black peers, to be more unapologetic, more alive, more vocal, fiercer, louder, blacker, more angry, more radical than they have ever been before. To seize with this listless nonchalance because the danger is on our doorstep whether you want to believe it or not. And it saddens me to see so many of my peers not here, though they claim to care, showing me just how much they really do care.
And to my white peers and to my non-black peers of color, I must say that this is not a matter of politics or debate. It's not a matter of right or wrong-- well it is, but it's not a matter of you being right and me being wrong. This is not an argument. It is a matter of me being me and you being you.
Now, what I mean by that is that you know who I am, you know where I come from, and you know what has happened to me. You know your relationship to this legacy. And worse still, you know because 1,000 people before me have surely already insisted what I'm saying right now in way more eloquent words than I could ever come up with. And if you do not know of what I speak, then you surely have heard the whispers, for it is impossible or at least impermissible that anyone can draw air on this Earth in the year 2017 without so much as an inkling of exposure to our attempts at conveying our suffering and pain.
The old adage that history is cyclical does not exist for no reason. Tomorrow at 2:00 PM, a tempest of militarized law enforcement will descend upon a camp of Native American protesters, mostly women, at the Standing Rock Reservation, who have been striving to protect their sacred lands and precious water supplies from the most recent iteration of colonialism. Entire school systems and neighborhoods and cities and regions don't re-segregate as a result of random chance. I cannot even describe to you the sobering despair I felt when I picked up Baldwin's 1963 novel The Fire Next Time and discovered that his words illustrated the experience of so many black people in 2017 with such striking clarity and precision. The deliberate and elaborate constructions erected and fortified to constrain the oppressed have continued to take ever more imaginative and deceptive and subtle forms, but they devastate all the same.
The inner selves towards which we aspire will remain unattainable, so long as we refuse to recognize and reconcile ourselves with this devastation in which we so passively participate. If there is something else terrible happening elsewhere in the world, certainly I am not powerless. But at least I can pretend that I am powerless because it's happening elsewhere. But if there is something happening right here, right now, before my very eyes, in my country, and I continue to look backwards into the abyss, then I am really fooling only other fools. And I am confirming my own lack of moral acuity.
So why are we presented with an accurate picture that seeks to impart clarity, do we engineer these alternative realities? For, if I am talking about human beings and you are talking about a creation manufactured by white supremacy, then we're not really communicating at all, because you have yet to sever yourself from a most treacherous and debilitating lie. You have yet to really hear me and see me as the human being that I am. And moreover, I am incensed and enraged and livid that the person who has invalidated and trivialized and assaulted the existence of so many, including the first and only president to ever reflect my heritage, has now ascended into the highest office of the land and assumed that very same position so that the state can now sanction violence with even more brazen recklessness.
And when I hear the language being used to describe the people being affected by this man's administration, I am reminded of just how symbolic he is of our country's love affair with hatred and lies. For when we speak of deporting illegal aliens, we are speaking of destroying human lives. And when we speak of bans for the protection of our country, we are speaking of protecting our country's whiteness, our country's Christian-ness, and allowing the overriding sovereignty of that whiteness and that Christian-ness to exist unperturbed.
I will end by reminding all of us that as we remember heroes, we must also critique and challenge them. When it comes to MLK, like anyone else with a beating heart, he was an imperfect human being. The most striking example of this to me is how James Baldwin-- who is, again, my greatest idol-- found himself the victim of all kinds of vitriol as a result of his homosexuality. Derogatory monomers assigned him by his contemporaries, like Martin Luther Queen, conveyed as much-- to say nothing of what they revealed about the way our purported proponents of freedom and equality thought of and talked about women. And we know that this continues to this day.
Yet Dr. King's ethical flaws in this regard did nothing to soften the loathing he endured. After all, the FBI dossier on MLK was as thick with viscous contempt as Baldwin's. Because, you see, the government's gavel of cowardice and conceives criminality, strikes upon black bodies with indiscriminate cruelty, ferocity, and swiftness, sweeping them up into prison cells, extracting their blood and sweat for money, depositing them into cemeteries. And because the oligarchy is not concerned with the who or the how or the why of its maintenance, it seems to me that we will not ever really be free of racism so long as these things like homophobia and sexism and misogyny and transphobia and ableism continue to proliferate with such reckless abandon.
But I am not saying anything you all have not heard before. You've been told these things about our society. Or at least, I hope dearly that you have. And I am merely serving as the exhausted and admittedly cynical conduit of a message that our species continues to ignore from far more talented orators than me.
There's not a day that goes by that I will not be reminded of my blackness-- myself, my humanity, my identity. And to see the world through this lens is to see a terrifying, brutal, and incomparable world. So this has been my brief, humble plea to you-- that we might eliminate this and all the lenses of the oppressed and forge a better, more beautiful, and more just world for us all. Thank you.
And now we will have a performance. It is a stage adaptation of a larger project, entitled Loving Black And Loving Back, which is a new media project that seeks to explore the performance of blackness, while questioning sustainability and wellness in the present politically-heightened moment. This piece was conceived, directed, and choreographed by J. Michael Kinsey, a very good friend of mine. A brilliant, third year doctoral student in the Performing and Media Arts Department at Cornell. And he is a long-time member of the Actors' Equity Association.
And for 25 years, he has performed nationally and internationally, including a featured performance in the national tour of Miss Saigon. He's a two-time [INAUDIBLE] Award nominee for Best Actor and a member of the collaborating team of the 2014 Bessie Award winning piece, [INAUDIBLE]. And he is in the final stages of completing his solo performance, entitled The Kids. So without hesitation, please welcome to the stage, J. Michael Kinsey, Britney Atkinson McPharlane, Sharron Brown, Brianna Campbell, [? Jolexia ?] Clark, [? Alezay ?] Hill, [? Markwan ?] Jones, [? Imani ?] [? Majid ?], Allen [INAUDIBLE], [? Camery ?] Stables, Bridget Williams, with production support by Matt [? Ayarn ?] and piano company accompaniment by Matthew Reichel. Enjoy.
[MUSIC - "I LOVE THE NAME JESUS"]
There is a name I love to hear, sounds so sweet and sounds so clear. Sounds like music to my ear. It is the sweetest thing I know, yeah. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
There is a name I love to hear, soothes my doubts and calms my fears. When I'm sad, he makes me glad. He's the best friend I ever had. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
You ready to take the Lord today?
In the name of Jesus. Listen, the next time you get in trouble, all you've got to do is call on the name of Jesus. Somebody shout Jesus. No, come on, do it. Somebody shout Jesus. Jesus. I want you all to help me call him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Call him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
SPEAKER 1: Praise the Lord.
SPEAKER 1: Thank you all. Thank the Lord. Yes, Lord. Happy Sunday.
SPEAKER 2: Happy Sunday, pastor.
SPEAKER 1: God is good, is he not?
SPEAKER 2: All the time.
SPEAKER 1: And other times?
SPEAKER 2: God is good. Yes, he is. Well, happy Sunday, brothers and sisters. And welcome to the Church of the Living God, tabernacle and ground of rock for which he shed his blood on Calvary, Incorporated. Good morning, let's grab hands and have a word of prayer. Yes, today's lesson is going to be on whose bed did you wake up in this morning?
SPEAKER 1: All righty, let's get ready for a word of prayer. As you know, this is our one-year anniversary of Sister Brown's son's death. Brother Jimmy. Let's go ahead and get ready for prayer. Dear God, we come to you today humbly, asking you for your forgiveness, Lord. We thank you for your continuous watching over our lives. You are always working-- how you doing, brother? Join us, grab somebody's hand.
SPEAKER 2: That guy has a gun.
SPEAKER 1: This is a place of love. We love you.
SPEAKER 3: The revolution starts now, all power to the people.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE] is bullshit. [INAUDIBLE] and shelter. [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 5: [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 6: Break the chains, break the chains now.
SPEAKER 7: I am not an alien. And being an immigrant should not really--
SPEAKER 6: Break the chains now. Stop, stop.
Because I always feel like running. Not away, because there's no such place. Because, if there was, I would have found it by now. Because it's easier to run, easier than staying and [INAUDIBLE].
Because running would be the way your life and mine would be [INAUDIBLE], as in the long run or as in having given someone a run for his money, or as in running the town. Because running makes me look like everyone else who [INAUDIBLE]. Because I would be running in the other direction, not running [INAUDIBLE].
Because if I knew where cover was, I would stay there and never have to run. Not running from my life, because I have to be running from something or [INAUDIBLE] running and not from fear. Because the thing I fear cannot be escaped, illuminated, avoided, hidden from, protected from, gotten away from.
[INAUDIBLE] fears as I see it now. Because closer, clearer-- no, sir, nearer. Because of you and because of the nights that you quietly, quickly [INAUDIBLE]. And because you're going to see me run soon. And because you're going to know why I'm running then. You'll know then, because I'm not going to tell you now.
SPEAKER 3: Jimmy? Jimmy.
SPEAKER 4: Mommy, come home.
SPEAKER 6: I'm a woman.
SPEAKER 5: Don't touch me.
SPEAKER 4: Mommy, come home.
SPEAKER 5: Don't touch me.
SPEAKER 6: I'm a woman.
SPEAKER 3: Jimmy.
SPEAKER 6: Oh, hey, officer. License and registration, no problem. I have it right-- there you go. Stephanie Shantell.
No, no. This is my mom's car. I would not be caught dead driving something like this. You know, I'm waiting for my new 2018. Yeah, I know it's 2017, but-- speeding?
75 miles per hour? Yo, I think your mirror's broken. There was no way I was speeding.
No, I-- get out the car? Get out the car for what? I wasn't speeding-- no, don't touch me. Don't touch me, I'm a woman.
SPEAKER 4: Mommy, come home.
SPEAKER 5: Momma, open the door. I lost my keys. It's cold as-- okay, I swear to God I live here. I swear, I swear, I swear. But you gonna get a belt.
[INAUDIBLE]. I'm way too big and way too [INAUDIBLE] to [INAUDIBLE]
Oh, let's go, officer. [INAUDIBLE] shake my hand, [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 3: Jimmy.
SPEAKER 5: I done told you, my momma's on her way down here right now. Don't touch me. [INAUDIBLE]. Don't touch me.
SPEAKER 6: I'm a woman.
SPEAKER 3: Jimmy, is that you? Jimmy? I'm losing my mind. I can't keep doing this. [INAUDIBLE] my son? [INAUDIBLE]. I can't [INAUDIBLE]. He was 19. A baby. My baby. And I keep seeing it over and over and over. I wanted to scream. [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 4: Mommy, where are you? Listen, Mommy, you don't understand. You need to come home. Mommy, listen, come home. [INAUDIBLE]. Yes, Mom. No, Mom, listen. No, you can't stay at work, Mom. They have your work address. They won't listen, Mommy.
SPEAKER 6: All right. [INAUDIBLE]. Don't do this. [INAUDIBLE]. I'm a woman, I have rights. You know what you're doing. You know.
SPEAKER 5: [INAUDIBLE]. Mommy. Don't shoot me.
SPEAKER 3: [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 3: Jimmy.
SPEAKER 4: Mom, listen. You can't stay there. Hello?
[INAUDIBLE]. Sean [INAUDIBLE]. [INAUDIBLE]. Jonathan [? Farrell. ?] Shantell Davis.
[INAUDIBLE]. Tamir Rice. [INAUDIBLE]. [INAUDIBLE]. [? Kendrick ?] [? McDade. ?]
I am. Jordan Davis. Wendell Allen. Ronald Madison.
I am. Yvette [INAUDIBLE]. [? Ranisha ?] McBride. [INAUDIBLE] Grey. I am.
I really enjoy that we're all different people that are really special. I feel proud to be brown every day. I enjoy being brown, especially if my skin rips, I am thinking about brown. And I'm thinking about what color I am, but I have to be myself. You have to be happy of who you are.
Tired. No. Scared. No. Tired. No. Scared. No. Hope. Scared. No. Scared. Scared. No. Enough. Rage.
SPEAKER 1: Rage. Rage. It's all right to be angry, to be upset, to be mad, y'all. It's all right, long as you stand in it and don't die. Because silence is the gateway to oppression. Sister, it was Zora who said that if you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it. Don't let nobody take your players away from you. Pray harder. You a man? You a man? Malcolm said, nobody can give you freedom, nobody can give you justice or equality or anything. If you are a man, you take it. You deserve all that's good in the world. Take it.
[INAUDIBLE] said, scared cows make very poor gladiators. You are indeed a woman. You were built with an insurmountable strength. Leave the cows with the pigs. And Jimmy-- Jimmy said, if you are a Negro in this country and relatively conscious, you are always in rage. And those words are truer than they have ever been. It ain't about black, red, yellow, or white. Right now, it's about what's right.
[SINGING] Lord have mercy on this land of mine. Lord have-- Lord have mercy on this land of mine.
[MUSIC - "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM"]
SPEAKER 1: Alabama's got me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn. Everybody's got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn.
Can't you see it? Can't you feel it? It's all in the air. I can't stand the pressure much longer. Somebody say a prayer.
Alabama's got me so upset Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn.
Hound dog on my trail. School children sitting in jail. Black cat cross my path. I think every day's gonna be my last.
Lord have mercy on this land of mine, we're all gonna get it in due time. I don't belong here, I don't belong there. I've even stopped believing in prayer.
Don't tell me, I tell you. Me and my people just about due. I've been there and so I know. They keep on saying, go slow. But that's just the trouble.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Washing the windows.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Picking the cotton.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: You're just plain rotten.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: You're too damn lazy.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Bring more tragedy.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]. Where am I going? What am I doing? I don't know, I don't know.
[INAUDIBLE] be the best, then you'll be counted with all the rest. Because everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn. Picket lines, school boy cots. They try to say it's a communist plot. All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people, and me.
Yes, you lied to me all these years. You told me to wash and clean my ears. And talk real fine like a man. You'd stop calling me Brother [? Davey. ?]
But this whole country is full of lies. You're all gonna die and die like flies. I don't trust you anymore. You keep on saying, go slow. Go slow. But that's just the trouble.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Immigration.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Mass participation.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Reunification.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: You do things gradually.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Bring more tragedy.
ENSEMBLE: Do it slow.
SPEAKER 1: Why don't you see it? Why don't you feel it? I don't know. I don't know.
You don't have to live next to me, just give me my equality. Cause everybody knows about Mississippi, everybody knows Alabama, everybody knows about Donald Trump, goddamn.
THEORIA CASON: Wow. That was fantastic. All right, that was a wonderful theatrical production that should set the tone for our conversation. But before we bring our guest of the hour out, I would like to tell you a little bit about her. So, Dawn Porter-- 12 million people are arrested in the United States each year. And millions of those cases will proceed through the criminal justice system. It is not uncommon for lawyers to handle hundreds of cases at a time.
What does this mean for a system of justice? Lawyer turned filmmaker Dawn Porter wanted answers to these very questions. As the founder of Trilogy Films, she became the director and producer of Gideon's Army, which follows three young public defenders in the deep South during their daily mission to counsel hundreds of defendants through the strained criminal justice system. Porter is also the director of Sundance winner, Trapped, PBS film, Spies of Mississippi, and a film about President Obama's mentoring program, Promise of My Brother's Keeper.
Before becoming a filmmaker, , she was the Director of New Standards and Practices at ABC News and Vice President of Standards and Practices at A&E Networks. Dawn is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Georgetown University's Law Center. She's a practicing attorney at Becker & Hollister and ABC Television Networks before beginning her television career. Please join me in welcoming Dawn Porter.
DAWN PORTER: Thank you. Well, aren't you all nice? I'm absolutely thrilled to be here. I have a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old-- I have two boys. And I just texted my husband-- I'm like, Ithaca is so black.
This place is incredible. There's Nina Simone and James Baldwin and I guess that's not everybody's experience here. But it's mine and I'm just going to go with that. Can we take a moment to thank the incredible performers and the speaker?
DAWN PORTER: I was just really deeply moved by both performances. And I think knowing that there is talent and thoughtfulness and art that is coming through into this generation really is encouraging to me. No matter how difficult the message, I am so proud-- it's going to make me cry. But I am so proud of those young people and to see that beautiful form of expression. So I just wanted to thank them. I can't believe I'm the main event, because that was the main event for me.
When I read I was coming here-- and this hard working committee, I want to thank you for bringing me here. But we planned this event for a long time and it was before the election. And as I was thinking about what to say to you, particularly in Black History Month, and to celebrate Dr. King and to celebrate the message of Malcolm and James Baldwin, I thought I would do something slightly different. I thought I would expand on what I was going to say.
And the reason I wanted to do that is because, like many people, this election really kind of rocked me to my core. And the reason it did that was probably like many of you, I am an optimistic person. Despite the amount of suffering I've seen, I've also seen so many inspirational people whose stories are not that well-known. Whose lives are not celebrated as much as some of the more famous people.
And so I was thinking about all of those people as I was thinking about coming here. And I was thinking that we are in a time where, if there is a-- I wouldn't call it a silver lining, but I would call it an unintended blessing-- I think it's good that we are active, that we are going to town halls, that we are expressing support for our neighbors and friends.
I had the pleasure of taking my younger son to a march. I said, oh good, I'm flying out. But before, we're going to go early so that we can protest at the airport. Because that's my idea of fun.
And he was kind of hemming and hawing a little bit and he said, I support what you're trying to do. I support your message, but I'm not really one for riots. And I said, I'm not taking you to a riot. I am taking you to see what real democracy is.
And so we went to the airport and it was just packed with people. And they were all races and ages. And there were babies there, so he didn't think we were going to riot. And they were just saying, basically, not in my country. And I keep thinking about that.
And I think sometimes our anger can overwhelm us. But it's my country too. And like these young people, I'm not hiding or tamping down the message. And I think, if anything, our message has been too slow. And so now is the time for us to speed that up.
So what I want to do this evening is to-- I've had just the joy of traveling around the country. And my job right now is to find people who I admire and I get to tell you about them. And I thought I would start-- before we get to the criminal justice part-- I would show you some of the things I've seen. And show you why-- I'm not going to be dishonest-- I was pretty rocked to my core after this election.
But as I've reflected on my work, I think that there's a theme that runs through it. And it's a theme of resilience. And I am just astounded at the talent and tenacity that actually, I think, is the hallmark of our country. Oh, I have the clicker. I can do this myself. Let's see what happens.
So, this is Nicole. She is a nurse in Port Arthur, Texas. So I did a piece for The New Yorker magazine. It's on Amazon and you can go see the full thing.
But Nicole, she works with first-time mothers who are teen mothers. And she grew up in the South. And Nicole is a person with just the biggest heart I've ever encountered. So I spent a week with her as she travels and she goes to the homes of first-time young mothers who have no experience with children. They don't have a lot of experience with life.
And she works with them for two years, with them and their babies. And she provides traditional nursing. But she also becomes their friend. Staying with her for just a little bit was really heartwarming. Nicole doesn't make a lot of money, but her clients have even less. And she shares whatever she has with them.
This is one of her clients, Catalina. And her daughter, Kylie. So Catalina was 14 when she became pregnant. She was 15 when she had her baby.
She dropped out of school. Her mother was incarcerated. Her father was not always around. And you look at this beautiful mother-daughter pairing and I think a lot of that was because of Nicole coming into her life and refusing to give up on her and just believing in her.
And so Nicole has worked with her for the last year and a half. And she sent me a text recently that said, Catalina's back in school. And so these are the types of-- she's really not just a nurse.
And this is a person who does this with 25 young girls each year. She has a caseload of 25-a-year girls. And she spends a lot of time in that car going around and helping them. So I'm going to show you a little bit of about Nicole and another one of her clients.
So Nicole is one of those people that makes me have faith in human beings. When she first met this young woman, she noticed that she had no food in her refrigerator. And she broke protocol and bought her food for the weekend. And there's so many people like Nicole out there.
But the thing that I love the most about their interaction is when she's on her knees in front of her and she says, I am proud of you. Because telling other people that we believe in them is something that I think is more inspirational and effective than we can even think. I'm going to tell you about a different story.
This is Donita Judge. Donita Judge is on the left there. I've just started a short film for The Center for Investigative Reporting about voting rights. And I'm sure you've all heard about allegations of voter fraud. And heard that there isn't any voter fraud. But what there is a lot of voter suppression. And I wanted to see for myself. That's one of the great things about being a documentary filmmaker, is you're driven by your curiosity to see for yourself.
So I found my team and we found Donita Judge. She's a lawyer for something called The Advancement Project. And The Advancement Project is a nonpartisan group that litigates a number of issues. Recently, Donita and her team won one of the most important cases against voter suppression. And that was the case in North Carolina with the Reverend Barber and the Moral Mondays group.
So what Donita does is she spends her time documenting how people are suppressed. How the vote is suppressed. So we went with her to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio on election day. And this is what is so great about my job. So the right to vote is guaranteed by the 15th amendment.
But it was actually not until 1965 until that really interesting era when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that the franchise really spread to include most people. But in 2013, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts writing the majority opinion struck down a key component of the Voting Rights Law that essentially allowed states to start implementing their own rules that couldn't be challenged by the Voting Rights Act. Immediately-- I mean the day of the decision-- states like Texas and 33 other states implemented laws that make it harder to vote in this country. In 12 of those states, they're called very strict laws.
There is an article in The Atlantic that I will suggest to you all that is the first study to actually analyze the implications of all of this voting rights suppression activity. And it estimated that the Latino vote was suppressed about half this past general election. And the black vote almost half. The other group that's suppressed-- students. You all are too liberal.
So when you're thinking about this past election, I want you to think about that. And that's the film I'm currently making with Donita. It's really hard to show voter suppression. And we got some really astounding footage that I'm going to be really excited to share with you. So I hope you'll have me back.
This woman-- so, the first day we got there, we went and saw people waiting in line. But this woman was one of 50 volunteers-- almost all of them African-American-- and they came on their second shift. And Donita and her colleagues train them for what to look out at the voting booth at the polls. And these people who were waitresses and school crossing guards and janitors and truck drivers, they sat for two hours being trained in how to observe and make sure that the polls were being monitored accurately. And that, too, made me so happy to see these people so volunteering their time.
These are people who are shift workers who are really tired. And they've taken a day off from work without pay to make sure that you and I could vote safely. They were working in 20 high-risk districts. These are districts where there had been a lot of voter suppression activity in Ohio.
So what does that activity look like? Ohio shortened the amount of time for early voting without a lot of notice. We were there as-- this is the day before election day in Columbus, Ohio. The last day of early voting. A lot of people had not been told that the early voting time would end at 2:00 o'clock.
You can't really see it here, but this line goes around the block and down the end. And if you were not in line at 2 o'clock, you couldn't vote early. So for people who were trying to vote and get that done-- there was a huge line, a really festive atmosphere. Signs for Republicans and Democrats, it was not a partisan crowd.
But just the fact of participation was really exciting for people. One thing that we saw that was not reported a lot were there were a number of Somali families who were recent immigrants who had become citizens. And we talked to a Somali man who was bringing his three and four-year-old daughters with him.
And he said, I want them to see me. I want my girls to see what democracy is like in action. So it was a really moving time. And so it made it more devastating when we saw, the next day, all kinds of activity happening. But Donita, her poll watchers, and actually all of these people here, just exercising the franchise are people that have also really inspired me.
So, like I said, 33 states have voter ID laws. Tends to impact minorities and students. A number of these laws are being struck down. But the law is an imprecise tool and it's slow. And it cannot keep up with the number of efforts in order to slow the franchise. And that's where you all come in. It's really important to be vigilant about that and to understand what the laws are that would stop people from voting.
So my most recent film is Trapped. And I followed Dr. Willie Parker, who's an African-American physician who's worked in the South. He's an abortion provider. And he was living in Chicago when I first met him. And he would fly south to Alabama, Mississippi, and other states to provide abortions because there were no doctors.
At the time that I met him, there was one abortion clinic left in Mississippi, servicing the whole state. There are six states in America with one abortion clinic left. That makes them a really big target for anti-choice groups. In Alabama, the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court, Roy Moore, who's also famous for refusing to abide by gay marriage laws, invited the group that succeeded Operation Rescue to target the clinics in Montgomery, Alabama.
So this is not just a random exercise, but it's also violent. But this woman, Stephanie [? Todi, ?] is 36 years old and she argued before the Supreme Court the case, Whole Woman's Health, which is the most important reproductive rights case in the last 25 years. And that case decided that the Texas laws putting barriers in place in front of clinics were unconstitutional. So I love seeing this young woman who's not even 40 years old arguing and making some of the most important law for women's rights and for reproductive rights.
June grew up in Alabama. Her father is a state trooper. And she is another one of those people who you wouldn't think by looking at her that she is a tough warrior reproductive rights freedom fighter. And yet she has kept her clinic open-- the last clinic in Montgomery. When she was younger, she taught her daughter to look under the car for bombs.
And I asked her, why do you keep going? What makes you stay in the face of personal danger? And the first thing she said is, I'm southern too and I get to stay here. And the second thing she said is, I'm not leaving my ladies. And so Stephanie, a young woman, got to argue for the rights of June and all of her patients. And Dr. Parker was there along with them. And Donita is fighting for voting rights and for all of those unspoken folks.
As I go around in my work-- and my mother keeps saying, what's your latest film? And I'm like, it's abortion providers in the South. And you know, I had made a film about mass incarcerations. My mother says, oh, another comedy.
And you would think that these topics are really, really grim. And yet, what I keep finding over and over is how just incredibly giving and warm and relentless these folks are. And I'm going to show you a clip from another relentless warrior, Marva, who also works in an abortion clinic in Texas, which was ground zero for all the anti-choice laws.
These folks really spend their days-- it's something that's really of interest to me, because they all say the same thing. They love their work. They love it. And you wonder what it is about such difficult and controversial work that makes people love it.
And the thing that keeps coming back to me is it's this contact with people. It's this feeling of helping other people actually provides a great amount of joy. So when I look at the young people here this evening who began. And I'm so proud of them and I am so proud of their message. You know, the one thing I would say to them is let your anger motivate you, let it enrage you, but don't let it overtake you.
Because we all need to be able to stand and fight this fight for a long time. And there are so many people who are in this fight with you. And they may be invisible, but they are here and they support you. And we all support you. And I think that that message is really important to continue to tell all of ourselves, particularly when we're concerned.
So what got me into a documentary film and to the love of my life, besides my husband and my children is when I met these young public defenders in the deep South. I was a lawyer for Baker & Hostettler. I worked at a firm. I was not a public defender.
I would, at the most, work on four matters. And I was working really hard. And I thought, oh my goodness, I cannot manage all of these clients at once. And then when I started making films, I was invited to Alabama to observe the training ground of these young lawyers.
And the training program invites lawyers who are just out of school. So they're not that much older than the students here. They're 24, 25, 26 years old. And they go for two weeks. And they have some of the best criminal defense minds in the country.
And I got there and they were talking about justice. And they again were talking about helping people. And they were talking about how much need there was. And I just burst into tears and I thought, this is what lawyers should do.
This is what the legal profession was for. This is what Thurgood Marshall meant. But I also thought, I went into making Gideon's Army with the same kind of preconceived notions about public defenders that most people have.
And you all know them, right? What do you think about public defenders? Those of you who haven't seen my incredibly engaging and entertaining film. But for the rest of you who are too busy, somehow.
What do you think about public defenders? What have you heard from other people not as enlightened as yourselves? What have you heard about public defenders? Just yell it out, because we don't have house lights. They're overworked, that's exactly-- what else have you heard about them?
Goodness, get the airy, fairy people away. What have you really heard about public defenders? There aren't enough of them. Yeah, come on. Somebody's brave.
They're underpaid. They'll plead you out. Finally, an honest citizen here. They are pleading you out.
What else? Are they good? No, they're not good. They're terrible.
They're unprepared. The sloppy guy in the disheveled suit. Do you want one? No, you don't want one.
So how many of you here have had public defenders? I can't see you, so we're going to keep your anonymity. He's happy up there, good.
SPEAKER 8: Myself and my service dog were sold out by a public defender.
DAWN PORTER: I'm sorry to hear that. The ones I've met-- and there are bad public defenders. I do not mean to suggest that they're all good. The public defenders I met were really working hard.
And what I thought was, what is it like if you're trying to do a good job? If you're coming into this, trying to do a good job. So that's how I got into this film. And I learned so much in the course of making it. So I'm going to show you perhaps-- it's hard to say, but perhaps the most inspiring person I've ever met.
Now, I made that film a few years ago. And I thought so much about the lawyers I followed. But also about how prescient they were to point out that it's also the process that we need to be concerned about. And the reason we began the film with a line that always just gets me is, if you're going to take my liberty, you've got to do it right.
That is supposedly what is one of the great things about our country, is that we give people due process. We give them this opportunity to be heard. But how effective can right be with some of the facts that I'm about to tell you. So for those of you, unlike the unfortunate gentleman-- I'm glad to see you're here with us today and not in some other bad place.
But where are you getting your information about public defenders? None of the rest of you had one. So where are you getting your information?
Law and Order. Right? Never met somebody they didn't want to send to jail. Where else are you getting?
The Good Wife, yes. Yes, a great example of defense ethics. That was a joke. Television. Television and film.
And so how many of you watched Law and Order like 10 times? No, of course. You've watched it more than that. How many of you sick at home-- dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-- you've streamed Law and Order over and over and over.
The next time you watch classic Law and Order-- not seasons two, three, four, five, or Special Victims Unit 19. The next time you watch the classic Law and Orders, listen to the beginning. It says, our system of justice is concerned with two groups-- the prosecution and the police. Who's missing from that? They don't even mention the defense.
I can guarantee you, if you're arrested, you're going to be really concerned with who's defending you. And so the constant steady diet that we get into our culture says the steady drumbeat-- defense is bad. They're crooked, they're not to believed.
Any of this sound familiar? They're liars. They're fake lawyers. Any of this rhetoric sound familiar? That's what we're taught to believe about defense lawyers.
And yet defense lawyers that I've met were like Travis, who was like nervous about his clients-- a late charge, but a felony nonetheless. And a felony conviction in this country does a lot of things. One of the big things it does is it can disenfranchise you for life. And so when you start to think about the racial implications of a felony conviction, think also about how that works to disenfranchise a huge portion of our population.
So I want you to think about that disenfranchisement. Van Jones recently wrote an article-- it's really recent-- where he said, think about Florida, where the overwhelming number of people who have felony convictions are black and brown. If those people can vote, Florida's blue right away. Those people are overwhelmingly voting Democratic. Whose interest is it to disenfranchise felons? And what does having a felony conviction have to do with your ability to choose among candidates who might help you get back on your feet?
So, some statistics that cannot be spoken to enough. America, China-- that bastion of civil rights-- has far fewer people-- even though it has four times our population-- and then our good friends, the Russians. Even the Russians have-- we're number one here. We incarcerate more people in this country. This doesn't include juvenile statistics. And the way that we treat juveniles is absolutely abhorrent. How we imprison young people and charge them as adults.
So the United States has 5% of the population. I'm always shocked by that. Don't you think we're half the world? It turns out we're only 5%. It's like another inflated sense we have of ourselves-- American exceptionalism. But we have 25% of the world's prison population. That is not something to be proud of-- how many people are being locked up. And when you see what people are being locked up for, it's even more shocking.
And I'm positive if I come back here next year, I'm really sad to say that this number-- "immigration offenses"-- is going to climb exponentially. And that's something that really concerns me. So this is in the federal courts. The federal prisons are much smaller. Most of the prisons are state. But I thought it was really interesting to see that more than 50% of federal offenders are there for drug violations. So as we're legalizing drugs in Colorado and people are making a lot of money, there are still people serving really long sentences for drug offenses.
This is something people don't realize. Half of black men will be arrested by the time they're 23. So I have a son who's 15, a son who's 13. Long personal story that I might bore you with-- but he twisted our arms and somehow he's at a boarding school, which we were not excited about. But after this election, I hate to say, I was so thankful that he was in a small town.
Because my son has a big mouth. I don't know where he gets that from. And I thought, he's probably not going to be arrested. And he's not going to be shot.
I overheard my older son telling my younger son, who was 12 at the time-- he said, if the police come to you, you just stay alive till dad gets there. That's my 14-year-old without parents around, talking to his little brother. That broke my heart.
And I see where the anger and rage comes from. And the fear is real. I feel it myself. My husband and I have been pulled over. So it's a very real experience for too many people.
This is something-- if you take away nothing from this evening, I really want you to think of this. What do you have to be to get a public defender? What's the qualification? You have to be poor. It's the only thing you need to be.
So if 80% of defendants are relying on public defenders, what are 80% of people being charged in our criminal justice system? They're poor. So then, when you add that-- we're going to show you one other thing first-- to this statistic. So when you're brought into the criminal justice system, 95% of people-- it's actually slightly higher in the federal courts, believe it or not-- are pleading guilty. They're not getting trials.
So I don't know who all those people are on Law and Order who are getting a trial every 10 minutes with competent defense counsel who seem to have unlimited time and resources to defend them. Only 3% to 5%. Something that we all grow up with is you are innocent until proven guilty. But if you're brought into the criminal justice system and you can't afford bail, you sit and you sit and you sit.
Your employer is not required to keep your job. Your landlord is not required to keep your house open for you. So the pressures on you to plead guilty, whether or not you committed the crime, are insanely powerful. And that's what's really happening in this country. And that is why my brilliant friend, Michelle Alexander-- this is part of the reason I think Ithaca is so black-- I understand that there is a community read happening of her book, The New Jim Crow.
And it's a dense book and it's full of facts. And I commend you all for making your way through it. Take your time, it's worth it. Do some underlining. That's what I do.
But what Michelle has given us, because she is such a brilliant scholar as well as an author and storyteller is she's given us this well-documented description of what has happened over time. And I think in this era when we're just not sure what to believe or whom to believe, that is a real gift of scholarship that she has given to folks. So knowing that the odds feel very stacked against anybody who's brought into the criminal justice system. That if you're brought in, it's really unlikely that you're going to come out with a good outcome, I wanted to show you one of the young people who was represented by a public defender that we portrayed in Gideon's Army.
Demonte's charge was stealing $250 from a pizza parlor in Georgia. But he was accused of committing that robbery with a gun, which automatically made it an enhanced crime. In Georgia, armed robbery is, as she said, a minimum of 10 years, no parole. He had never been in trouble. He had no prior convictions.
It's a maximum of life, no parole. So a judge has a lot of discretion. So the stakes were really high for him. If he was convicted, he actually was going to get 14 years, because you automatically get an additional four years for commission of a crime with a gun. So there are about 12 and 1/2 million people arrested every year.
All of that's now going to be outdated, because I think immigration issues are going to raise that number. And I'm very concerned about this Justice Department's approach to policing, which seems to be to adopt the Giuliani broken windows method-- which we know does not work. But each of these cases has a person and a family behind them. And that's really what I sought to do with this film, is to show you that the numbers can get so big, they're numbing.
And I think it's really important for us to the extent that we can to not become numb. To think about, what if that was your child? What if that was your partner? What if that was you?
So we're not asking for people to be wholesale released from prison or not charged. But we are asking for fairness. And I think if we want to continue to love our country, that's something that's worth fighting for. I was really hoping there would be more students. A lot of you-- no offense, you don't look like students.
But I can tell you my little thing anyway. So anybody here a student? Hello, students. Look at you, not going home and coming to a lecture on race and criminal justice reform. Extra credit, love that.
And do not answer this next question. Just think it silent to yourself. Anybody here familiar with marijuana? Or something else?
I'm just wondering how many of you have seen drug raids in your-- any drugs on campus? Don't tell me. Don't tell me, just think it to yourselves. There's professors here. There's deans here.
Any drug raids in the Cornell halls? Not a lot, right? Are there drug raids every day? Every month?
But there's drugs here. So why aren't there drug raids here? Is it less illegal when you do it than when some kid does it?
So that's the distinction that's happening. Some behavior is criminalized depending on who does it. It turns out that actually, if you wanted to study it by race, white Americans are more likely to have used illegal drugs. But blacks are three times as likely to be arrested for the same behavior. I'm not talking about selling-- these are not drug kingpins. I'm talking about use and possession.
So there's a clear difference. There's also a difference when you look at who's incarcerated for what crimes Latino males-- 57% incarcerated for drug offenses, 27% for immigration offenses. So this is what we talked about, that there are very few trials. So the democracy and the safeguards that we had are actually not being imposed often enough. And I think that that's frightening. I think that that's something that we take for granted as happening but it's actually not.
What I want to end with is, as I spent 3 and 1/2 years with these public defenders, I noticed something, which is when you want to do a good job, the emotional burden of knowing that you literally have somebody's life in your hands can really take a toll. And yet they come to work and they do this job over and over.
And I would suggest to you that the reason that these remarkable young people are doing this work-- and this is what they told me over and over is the same reason that Donita Judge is fighting for voting rights or Nicole is helping young mothers or any of the other remarkable people that I see are showing up every day. So you don't always have to do something as big as these people, but you're showing up every day and staying engaged and being the kind of person in the kind of world that you want to live in-- I do think that that matters. And I do think it's not always easy for us to do.
But I think about these people as I think. And I think that that is a really fitting way to remark upon Dr. King's legacy. Because if anything, I think what he was saying to us is be brave, be consistent, even as you are being loud.
So that is a scene that is not played out enough, which is a person actually testing the criminal justice system and testing our system of democracy and the court system. So I, for one, am very thankful for the public defenders who are representing so many people. I'm thankful for their resilience and time and attention. And for those of you who have not seen the film, you're welcome to see it now. As my 13-year-old says, it's like a real movie.
And I am really, really thrilled. I was really looking forward to this and I didn't even know what extra treats were going to be here. So, thank you so much for coming and sharing your evening.
And thank you for being so engaged. I can just tell looking at you all that you are really engaged. And that is so important. So I appreciate it. And with thanks for bringing me.
ERIC ACREE: Hello, everybody. Well, we've got to relax a little bit. We're setting the stage a little different. We're a little bit over, but that is OK.
You can have a seat. House lights can go on as well. Hi again. My name is Eric Acree. I am the director of the Africana Library of Cornell University.
And I'm a member of The Steering Committee that actually put this together. I need to take a pause, because we really, as a Steering Committee, have to acknowledge our leader, Kenneth Clarke, who wasn't able to be here tonight because he struck ill.
And I think the world of Ken. I love Ken so much. Our meetings are so embedded with the ideal of Ken. We start off our meetings-- Ken always-- he's a King scholar.
And he will bring us a quote from King with a little water mark with King's image on it. It's really cool. And as a group, we'll read the quote and then we'll have a maybe 15, 20-minute conversation around the quote. This is how we start our meetings. So we're really involved with this.
Before I set up the event that you're going to have here in the next 15 minutes or so is I want to thank you all for coming to tonight's program. As a member of the committee, one of the things I'm proud of-- we were actually able to emerge people from the hill into the community and bring it into the community. We really feel strongly about that. This next session is aimed at engaging Ms. Porter in a conversation among many of the issues she raised during her discussion.
In the film clips that you saw of Gideon's Army-- and actually, we had a screening of it this past Saturday at [INAUDIBLE]. And at least 75 to 80 people came. And we had a really great discussion after it. And I was talking to Roberta Wallach, who's the leader of the community read that you mentioned earlier. And we're going to show that film again. OK, so we're figuring out how that's going to happen, because we really want to get more people engaged in it.
To help with the conversation, Paula Ioanide-- she's a professor at Ithaca College and her students affectionately call her Professor Paula. We're going to allot, like I said, about 20 minutes of this. Let me first tell you a little bit more about Paula. I first met Paula-- I believe it was when Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, started.
And I did a couple of programs around it. And then I got Paula involved with it. When she told me she studied under Angela Davis and she did a lot of things about the prison industrial complex, I said, wow. And she was right on target with a lot of it. She is a mother-educator-organizer who seeks to build communities that values people's dignities and spiritual sanctity over profits.
She is what you would call a prison abolitionist-- let me say that again, a prison abolitionist-- who fights against the unjust suffering created by today's criminal justice system. And it mirrors the scale of American slavery. She organized, right now, with something called [INAUDIBLE] County, a grassroots coalition. And there might be some people around tonight that might hand out some leaflets about that.
But in essence, it's to stop any proposed jail expansion locally and strengthen the infrastructure of mass incarceration through community-based alternatives to incarcerations. Paula has taught at [? Alban-- ?]
ERIC ACREE: I didn't know I was going to get applause. Paula has taught at [? Alban ?] and [INAUDIBLE] Correctional Facilities through the Cornell prison education program. She teaches in Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies at Ithaca College. Her book, The Emotional Politics of Racism-- How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness examines the role of the emotions in police brutality, militarism, and anti-immigration movements that are neopolicies for the deep in poverty.
And she is also currently working on a new book, titled, White People's Secrets and co-author of a forthcoming anthology called Antiracist Incorporated. I remember Paula invited me and other people to attend her party when she got tenured at Ithaca College. And one of the things that she talked about-- you could be a scholar and an activist and still do the right thing. And Paula is that.
And so we want Paula to come out and engage in a conversation with you, Dawn. And then I'm going to play the, I guess, Monty Williams. What's that guy's name? Bald head, TV show. Montel, yeah. And so we're going to bring up Paula right now so we can engage.
PAULA IOANIDE: I'm sorry for that long introduction-- awkward. Thank you so much for such an amazing presentation and for the work that you do. My job is really here to get us going, get us thinking, and then to take questions from the audience.
And in looking at the breadth of your work and the types of projects that you take on, my first thought was, how does she manage being a mother and doing all this work? But I think, myself as a recent mother, the types of subjects that you engage are so deeply moving, but also testifying to so much suffering and so much injustice. How do you navigate that as a mother? In terms of balancing your professional and your intimate role.
DAWN PORTER: It's a great question. Not always very well, to tell you the truth. When I left, as my husband says, a direct deposit job with benefits to become a documentary filmmaker, a lot of the reason was I wasn't seeing stories like these out in the world enough. But the other thing was, I was like, if I'm going to be away from my children for work, I want to do something I'm proud of. It was really important to me to model how I want them to be, which is compassionate.
I think it's also really important they saw me make a lot of mistakes and not know what I was doing and cry. And be broke, trying to raise money for these films. And I hope that teaches them resilience, that it's worth fighting for things that you believe in. But I won't sugarcoat it. There were some really rough times.
And one of the hardest things is to see something that is so unjust and seems so unnecessary and feel powerless. In one of the first shoots we did with Brandy, the 16-year-old had been arrested. He was walking by a gas station with a broken window. The cops pulled him over, said you robbed it. He said, I didn't.
There was no physical evidence-- no footprints, nothing. He was in 10th grade at the time. They put him in jail and his mother couldn't bail him out. So after he missed all of his sophomore year in high school, now he was charged as an adult. And he still was in prison.
This was a kid who wanted to be an engineer. And we thought that he could get bailed out. And Brandy got him this great deal. He'd been in prison for 11 months. And we called his mother and she didn't have the money to bail him out.
And I was literally red with blind rage about this. And I said to her, which you don't see in the film-- I said, I'm going to bail him out. I cannot stand to watch this child's life ruined. And she said to me, you cannot bail him out. You are responsible for his entire life to the Georgia courts if you do that.
And you can't come-- he pled guilty to get out. He couldn't take it anymore. And then he's a felon and he lost his scholarship.
So I go home and my little one was seven then. And he's like, can I have PlayStation 19? And I was like, no. Are you in jail? And he's like-- my husband's like, you have got to-- so I got a therapist. Because you feel guilty.
Why should my kids have two parents and options? It's hard seeing these things. But I think it's harder not to see them.
PAULA IOANIDE: I watched Gideon's Army on Saturday with a big audience and was so, so moved by so many of the stories. At the end of it, though, I wondered if you felt after that long of working on this project, if the system isn't doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing, which is criminalizing people of color, poor people of color, poor whites. And I thought that specifically because the public defenders were so underpaid and so overworked and because of the incentive to constantly plead guilty.
And I couldn't walk away from it thinking, how do they keep this resilience to almost-- it felt like a flood and then here is these few individuals trying to swim upstream against this flood. How did you walk away from the project thinking about the criminal justice system writ large? And tactics to fly upstream?
DAWN PORTER: I walked away from it thinking it was the criminal injustice system. I mean, I walked away thinking, how have I been so unaware? And really saying to myself, promising myself that I would never take anything at face value again. But within that, I do see efforts and people who just refuse to give up. And it's almost insanity that they do.
There's a very recent-- like, within this last week-- discussion about-- in Louisiana, they pay for public defenders in part through the use of parking tickets. In one session, the government didn't issue the parking tickets so they couldn't get the revenue from the parking tickets, because the cops didn't have the tickets to give out. So the public defender's office shut down.
So now, think about 80% of people are being represented. They're not going anywhere. They're just sitting in jail. So recently, there's a study that said you'd need about 1400 public defenders to do the bare minimum in Louisiana. And there's 200.
In Florida, the public defender office sued and said, we can't represent all these people. They were representing 500 felony cases at a time and over 1,000 misdemeanors. I mean, that's insane. So we shouldn't kid ourselves that we are actually providing justice and due process. And if we care about those things, if we care about the meaning behind those flags, that's what we should be focusing on.
So on the one hand, I'm so grateful to have met people who are trying to do something. On the other hand, it can be excruciating to think, we could do more if we wanted to. We can find apparently $11.5 million to send the president to golf every weekend.
And I don't care if you golf, I really don't. But I do care if there are priorities for our budgets when we have people really suffering. That we're not even giving people basic help. Basic help-- this is not asking-- I'm not saying send everybody who's arrested to go play golf.
PAULA IOANIDE: So this is my last question and we'll open it up to the audience. But there's this beautiful-- as you all know-- synergy going on in this community in that there's this community read of The New Jim Crow. And at the same time, we are facing locally the prospects of an expanded jail. It hasn't been decided. There's a jail study going on.
I'm both an educator, but I'm also an organizer. And I always wonder, what moves people from the process of just being aware about something, knowing that there's a problem of mass incarceration, et cetera, to becoming an organizer or somebody who actionably is working to stop that? What, in your experience, has been that catalyst to move people from awareness to action?
DAWN PORTER: You know, I think that we can all get overwhelmed. The number of problems-- I mean, for the week after the election, I just was like with the covers over my head. And I have seen this a lot-- it's really important to focus on your community. And to participate in the way that you want it to be.
And I count myself in this. I make films. You know, my other son said, if you really wanted to be change, you would be a public defender. I was like, oh man. Those children know how to get you. And he's right, right?
But I mean, using myself as an example-- when I was younger, I lived in Capitol Hill. I lived in Washington D.C. and I felt like we went to protests every month. There was a march on the Mall. And that's what we did for fun.
But I hadn't been to a protest for a pretty long time. And I just could not sit home and watch people from other countries denied entry. It just so fundamentally violates what I think we're about. And I think there is a point for most people, the tipping point, where they think-- there's so much happening, what can I do at home?
To learn-- you shouldn't be a reactionary protester. But you should get an opinion and then express it. And we are seeing that our legislators are not used to hearing from us. And they are not doing so well when they hear from us. And I think that that's a good thing.
I think sometimes people are robo-voting by party affiliation rather than thinking through. And our system of government depends on them thinking it through. So if they're not going to, then we have to make them. And we can't all do everything. I'm a big proponent of rest, actually.
And that's also how I balance family is we take a long rest in the summer. But I think you will feel better. I certainly started sleeping better once I started writing and going out. And also it's really fun. You're out there with people who are nice to you and they're strangers.
If you're home and you're just on Twitter, you could want to jump off of that famous bridge here. But if you're out with people, people are good. There's a lot of good people, there really are. And I'd rather be with those people than home in the dark, afraid. So we'll open it up-- yeah, exactly.
PAULA IOANIDE: We'll open it up to questions. I think that there's some floating mics, maybe. Or if not, you can just shout. Or I'll give you this one.
SPEAKER 9: Hi. I'm just sitting here wondering, is there any chance that kind of like the system that we have with Teach For America, where you can get rid of some of your student loans, where we do that with lawyers? A program where you have to be a public defender for a year or something, like a residency in medical school. Some kind of a program where it's like everybody's got to go out and do it and see what it's like and spend some time and get justice done.
DAWN PORTER: I wish that there was a program like that. There were some efforts that Eric Holder started, particularly in the latter half of his time as Attorney General. And I'm also really, really proud-- the Justice Department gave some of its discretionary funding to the program that trains these lawyers. They gave them a grant of a few million dollars to provide for this training.
I'm a lawyer, so I'm kind of a geeky person. And there was this footnote eight in the brief that he wrote about. And he said, criminal justice system is overburdened. And he wrote, see Gideon's Army. And I was, like, yes, see Gideon's Army.
So there's not enough. There are some student loan forgiveness programs. The problem with most of them is you have to do it for 10 years. It's almost impossible to stay in that relentless-- it's really, really hard on them. I've seen a lot of alcoholism, a lot of devastating personal relationships.
So many people can't practice for long enough to get to loan forgiveness. So that is one thing that, should you get the ear of your elected representative-- we forgive loans for all kinds of-- it's a public service. If most people being arrested are represented by these people, that's a public service.
What do you got against justice? Wouldn't you want somebody to have a lawyer? Like, what's it to you? I do hope that that's something we can advocate for.
ERIC ACREE: I'm sorry. We just have time for one more question, because we're over time. Here we go.
SPEAKER 10: Thanks. I guess I'm a lucky winner. Dawn, thank you for being here and doing what you do and Brenda, likewise. So Ithaca College continued faculty just, after 18 months, got to a vote in unsuccessful negotiations to authorize their union to take action, up to and including a strike. In Detroit, public school teachers organize and advertise sickouts, where 95% pick a day and call in sick and shut down the system.
What do you think might happen as an outcome if a grassroots effort was organized, like in the spirit of Martin and Malcolm, radical protest, and somehow, some way-- even though it would absolutely suck for them, you get everybody who's arrested to plead not guilty? And just dig in and plead not guilty. What might happen as a result of that?
DAWN PORTER: Michelle Alexander actually posited that in an op-ed in The New York Times. And she wrote exactly what you're suggesting. So we all know what would happen-- the system would grind to a crushing halt.
There's not enough jail space. There's not enough lawyers. There aren't enough courtrooms. We arrest 12 million people each year. And about 5 million of those cases go through our court system. It is not built for that.
The fear is, we're asking a lot of people who are charged. And so I couldn't ask that of them. But intellectually, if it wouldn't harm some of the most vulnerable people in our society, I would actually love to see that happen. Because it's a travesty-- if you think about it, it's the entire force of the state against like a public defender and a person who's probably living below the poverty level. And it just doesn't seem right that they don't even get to assert and to get their day in court.
Before this election, we were making some progress on criminal justice. In some ways, because it was untenable to keep going the way we're going. We just can't lock everybody up. We have to have a sensible policy. So I think it remains to be seen.
It appears that the Congress is, in some ways, still looking for things that they can agree on. And they do seem to agree that criminal justice reform is something that's needed and can get some kind of bipartisan help. So there's not much to be hopeful with in this Congress, but that might be an area where there's a little bit of movement. There's been a lot of work that's been happening. And if any of you have seen the beautiful movie, The 13th-- Newt Gingrich is pro-- at least, he was last week.
Your work is incredible. I thought for sure you were going to come out in like dreadlocks. I'm like, she's done all that and she's so young.
There's people who just are not being quiet. And I know we all have a lot that is asked of us. I hope we can keep criminal justice reform in our hearts and as top of mind as needed. Because it really is fundamental. You judge a nation by how they treat their most vulnerable.
ERIC ACREE: I think we're coming to-- and I want to thank you, Dawn. And also, I want to thank Doug Levine, the state theatre and his staff are also providing us the space and expertise to pull this off. And we look forward to your next film and inviting you back. And I want to thank you. Give yourself round of applause. And thanks again.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Criminal justice reformer, attorney and filmmaker Dawn Porter was the featured speaker for Cornell’s 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, Feb. 21 at the State Theatre. The event was sponsored by Cornell United Religious Work (CURW) in collaboration with campus and community partners.