8 Ways to Support Protests Against the Criminal Punishment System, if You Can’t Get Out on the Street
These days, it seems like everyone with a stake in racial justice is out on the streets. Students in high schools across the country, including my daughter, responded to the call for #HandsUpWalkOut at her high school on December 1. My Twitter feed is filled with pictures and articles about people protesting wherever they are, including rabbis and their congregants blocking the streets on the Upper West Side and St. Louis football players entering the stadium with their hands up, to protesters blocking moving traffic on Staten Island’s Verrazano Bridge and people in Delhi taking the streets in solidarity.
But the other day, I received a short message from a friend saying that, although she’s sick of the world’s injustices, she doesn’t feel like protesting is safe or effective. Her message reminded me that not everyone is able to get out onto the streets and risk arrest or police violence. This particular friend is a single parent, which means that if she gets arrested, her children risk disappearing into the foster care system. And she’s not the only one who has had to weigh the dangers and realized that she couldn’t take the chance. People with primary caregiving responsibilities, people on parole or probation, people who are undocumented or in the country on student or work visas, may be just as outraged as the people staging die-ins at intersections and blocking bridges and tunnels, but know that they can’t afford arrest.
Her message reminds me that, while the stream of images of protests are exciting, we can’t forget that there are other, less visible ways to fight injustice and support those most directly impacted. Here are eight actions you can take that will not place you at greater risk for arrest and a lengthy battle in the criminal punishment system.
1) There is, of course, a need for people to volunteer for the not-exciting task of answering calls for legal help, especially during mass protests. I can’t tell you how many times the number for the National Lawyers Guild, and a reminder to write it on an arm, came through my Twitter feed as people took to the streets to protest the non-indictments of Darren Wilson in Ferguson and Daniel Pantaleo in New York City. But someone has to answer the phone and keep track of who has been arrested, and when and where they are in the system.
2) If you can’t volunteer to spend an evening working the phones, be a person who calls the precinct and the local powers-that-be to demand that protesters be released without charges. Be persistent even if the police lie, are rude or hang up on you. It’s something you can do to help pressure the city into letting people go without putting them through the legal wringer.
3) As anyone who has ever been arrested and held by the police can tell you, it’s always good to see friendly faces in the courtroom once you’re finally dragged to arraignment. Court support entails finding out when arraignment day is and showing up. Most courtrooms have metal detectors and x-ray machines, so leave anything that you don’t want a courtroom guard or police officer to find at home. If you can bring food for those getting out, do it! Just remember that it may take hours for the person you’re waiting for to finally appear before the judge, so don’t bring anything that needs to stay either frozen or hot.
4) Raising bail money is a hugely important and under-appreciated task. People who are arrested in New York City face being sent to Rikers Island, a sprawling jail complex that occupies an entire island, if they or their loved ones cannot come up with bail money. People have been arrested in other cities as well and are facing time in jail while they await their day in court — a day that could take months to arrive. Coordinating bail money — whether through donations or loans from friends — is a vastly important task and can mean the difference between the person getting out quickly or having to spend weeks or months behind bars.
While we protest or support others protesting the needless deaths and the lack of accountability for those responsible, let’s also not forget about those who the criminal punishment system has consigned to living deaths: people currently in prison. If you can’t get out onto the streets, can’t make it to court and can’t run around collecting fives, tens and twenties from your community, there are other ways to help support people directly impacted.
5) Since it’s December, let’s start with a couple of season-specific ways. Just Detention International, formerly called Stop Prisoner Rape, is an organization that works to end sexual assault and abuse in jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers. To break the isolation felt by many people in prison, especially during the holiday season, its Words of Hope campaign asks people to send a compassionate message to survivors behind bars. Don’t worry if you don’t have a card on hand — the campaign has a site in which you can type in your message and Just Detention International, or JDI, sends it on your behalf. Juvencia, who was sexually abused by prison staff in Colorado, received one of these messages last year and wrote back, saying, “Just knowing that there are so many people who care about how inmates are being treated makes all the difference.” Another survivor, now out of prison, wrote, “When I was in prison, JDI’s Words of Hope gave me strength. Now that I’m out, I’m writing my own cards to other survivors. I want to encourage them to be strong, too.”
6) Over two-thirds of people in women’s prisons are parents. Children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system than children of incarcerated fathers. In addition to not being able to spend the holidays together, the majority of mothers in prison are unable to afford presents for their children. But this year, Moms United and Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Moms have launched a drive to enable mothers in Illinois prisons to send gifts to their children. Supporters on the outside can buy and donate gifts from this list. Mothers behind bars then choose which of these gifts is the most appropriate for their child(ren) and send them. As of the first Sunday in December, people on the outside have ensured that parents in Illinois’ two women’s prisons, Chicago’s Cook County Jail, and several transitional centers can send gifts to their kids.
7) People behind bars need support all year round, not just during the winter holidays. Black and Pink connects people on the outside with LGBTQ people locked behind bars. Their pen pal program helps break through the isolation of incarceration and, for some, the isolation they may have had from their families and communities even before their arrest and imprisonment.
8) And, whether you choose to do all, some or none of the above, keep talking about the issues of race, policing and the criminal punishment system. If you are a white or a white-passing person, talk to other white people! It’s not the responsibility of people of color to educate others about race. Take time to educate yourself. The Internet holds many resources. Look at the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag if you need a starting point and then go from there. Then go out and talk with other parents on the playground, co-workers, people in line at the supermarket or in waiting rooms, and family members. Challenge them to reexamine their ideas about race, policing, punishment and justice. And keep doing so.
These are just a few ways for people to make an immediate and perceptible difference for someone immediately impacted by our policing and prison system. But we also need to organize collectively if we are going to see these systems changed, if not abolished altogether. That won’t come from voting (although we should remember that district attorneys are elected officials and are supposed to be accountable to their constituents). That won’t come solely from street protests. Organizing is a longer-term commitment that isn’t always visible, glamorous or fun. But it needs to be done and we can’t just sit back and think that someone else is going to do it.