From the March-April 2019 issue of News & Letters
by Robert Taliaferro
In Madison, Wisc., during the 1980s, a solitary Black woman roamed the hallways of the Dane County Courthouse for the purpose of attending trials of Black defendants. Her goal was to ensure that every Black woman, man, and child—subjected to the will of the predominantly white attorneys, judges and juries of the county—would see at least one Black face in the courtroom other than their own.
This community advocate, long since deceased, knew the power of one person when it came to providing community support for people who found themselves on the ass end of the Criminal (In)justice System (CIS). More than one Black defendant in Dane County thought that her dignified solitary face in the courtroom forced all of the participants to act with a bit more restraint, dignity and respect.
Her advocacy was a singular resistance to the unconscionable treatment of Black defendants in Wisconsin’s courts. Her efforts showed the importance of community support and advocacy, at all levels, in the fight against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).
People in the community are essential to battles being waged. The community has control of the votes which define the political processes that create laws which enable (or deter) mass incarceration.
As many prisoners will attest, when the community is visible in the criminal justice process, equity and fairness is a bit more pronounced. There is a variety of ways that support can be expressed to supplement political and social reforms.
In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers created an Advisory Council for Criminal Justice Reform after he was elected, although many of its members had a hand in exacerbating the problems Wisconsin has in the first place.
THE NEED FOR ADVOCACY CONSENSUS
Numerous websites act as a forum for families and friends of prisoners, which allow them to share experiences with the various facets of the PIC. These sites exist with little universal coordination, and therein lies a flaw when it comes to prison advocacy.
When political activism is inconsistent in addressing the issues, discussions tend to be competitive, especially when it comes to a common cause. Issues in California may not seem relevant to New York; problems in Wisconsin may seem minor as they relate to Florida, even when they are essentially the same problem. The result is that advocacy becomes a mishmash of ideas with very few solutions.
Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, “There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from those same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of differences.”
The general consensus in this era of hashtag idealism is that all lives need to matter, regardless of who we are and regardless of our social standing.
If states like Florida and Louisiana see the need for judicial reform and prisoner advocacy, then it seems about time for such concepts to be accepted as a universal construct to apply to “the sum of our differences,” everywhere in the country for a true and lasting change.