In this episode, Risha discusses systemic racism in criminal justice with D’Marria Monday, founder of Block Builderz and Richard Baxter, founder of Racism Stinks in Tulsa, OK.
All of this and more in this episode of Risha Talks.
[MUSIC PLAYING] Criminal justice reform is at the core of creating equity. Not only are we incarcerating Black folks and people of color at disproportionate rates, we are keeping them criminals long after they paid their debt to society. Join me in talking to a couple of folks who can help us understand how to overcome the challenges of systemic racism and criminal justice. Today, we’re continuing the conversation on systemic racism throughout the United States, and we are focusing on criminal justice in this episode. I would love for both of you to introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about you.
Hi, my name is D’marria Monday. I am the founder of Blockbuilders. And what that is is people who are directly impacted by the system, that we are the ones who are the architects of change. We are challenging the system through legislation, and also just by using our voices to share our story to change the stigma– remove the stigma of who people are who were impacted by the criminal justice system.
Great, great. Baxter.
Yes, my name is Baxter. I’m the founder of nonprofit organization Racism Stinks, as you see back here behind me. I am a freelance paralegal. I became interested in the law during my time in incarceration. I’m a formerly incarcerated person. I had 121 years in prison for drug offenses. And I had to study in the law library and find the codes and the loopholes in the law to get to my freedom. And so that’s what garnered my interest in the law and furthered my education after coming home to become a paralegal and work on criminal justice.
How does criminal justice intersect with systemic racism?
Systemic racism and criminal justice. Well, when you see the disproportionate amounts of Black and Brown people incarcerated, you can tell. I like to give real life examples, and so I can utilize other people’s stories, as well as my own. And I’ll tell you one quick story about me being incarcerated.
I was doing wrong. I was selling drugs. I shouldn’t have been doing that, but I was. It was a drug deal gone bad. It was me and a white guy, a Caucasian guy. The police pull up on the scene after everything goes wrong, and he tells the police officer he was the middle man in a drug deal. And at that moment, you would think that everybody involved would be arrested for conspiracy to purchase narcotics.
He just admitted he was involved in a drug deal, that he intended to be in a drug deal, and he was let go, got set free. Only one person was arrested that night, and it was the Black guy. And you’re looking at him.
Got you. D’marria.
And I would like to add to that. I myself, I’m formerly incarcerated also. And when I look at the intersection of criminal justice and also systemic racism, in order to understand where we are today, you’ve got to understand the history of systemic racism. So say, for example– well, look at Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the most incarcerated state, and It has the highest incarceration rate for women for over 30 years.
And so, with that, look at the history of Oklahoma. At one point in time, Oklahoma was built– the economy was built by Black and Brown people. And Oklahoma was a state that we were thriving. And so when the land rush came, when that happened– and white people came and they saw that we were thriving without permission. We just did it.
Then you had different structures. The white supremacy ran rampant. And also different structures, different policies were put into place to cripple our communities. So where you have– after the destruction of Black Wall Street, after that, then different policies were put into place. And once you cripple a community’s economics, then you set the conditions that make the conditions ripe for incarceration. When you remove vocational training from schools, when you don’t give as many advances to the community for everybody to thrive, then the poverty is one of the root causes of incarceration.
We are hearing a lot about the term justice involved, and I think there are new terms coming at us all the time, especially in this space, when we talk about systemic racism and stuff surrounding diversity, inclusion, all of that. Tell me more about what the term means, justice involved? And how should people perceive that? Because I think people are– and we have this conversation a lot, that there is a new term for everything. How do I keep up? So please tell me a little bit more about justice involved?
I like to use the term justice involved, because what it does is it doesn’t put a box on somebody who is formerly incarcerated. Because what it is is it’s people first language. Because when we say the word felon, or this person is a felon, and that’s putting a box on a person. And also, it’s placing a stigma on that person. And everybody who is justice involved has not been to prison. Some people have had interaction with law enforcement and they’re on probation. And so it’s not always somebody that’s been in prison, but it’s people first language.
So what are some of the offensive ways to refer to justice involved individuals?
I’m sorry. Could you repeat that again?
Yeah, what are some of the offensive ways to refer to justice involved individuals?
The offensive ways?
Like convict, felon–
–even inmate, or prisoner. Because those are terms that puts a box on that person, and it’s like saying– that defines who that person is.
How do we get people to embrace that term, especially for those who are guilty of other crimes? How do we get them to embrace that? Because I know, again, there are just so many terms coming at people, and some people are going to– and don’t get me wrong. Everybody is not going to change. We know that. But how do we make this where it’s something that we can begin to change that language?
I’d like to take this. Risha, I had eye-opening moment. I was working for The Bail Project, which is undergoing for bail reform– national bail reform. And during our trainings, when we really were already working in the jails, we were getting women released and still doing training at the same time. And during our training, we were speaking with our supervisor.
And I said to him– excuse me. I said to him, I’m like, OK, so when I go speak to the inmate, should I– he’s like, don’t say inmate. I said, when I go speak to the offender, and I’m interviewing them– don’t say offender. When I go speak to the accuser– he was like don’t say offender. Don’t say– I was like, what do you want– what should I say? I mean, I’ve been in that same position. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I was an inmate. I was offender. He was like, how about you call them people?
I’m like, whoa, I’m a person? All I’ve been told ever since I was 19 years old, I got in trouble, was that you’re a felon. You’re a felon. You’re an inmate. Oh, you’re a convict. Oh, you’re an inmate.
And so that was an eye-opening experience. It’s going to be difficult for people to change that language. And even somebody as myself who is a justice involved person, who is an ex-criminal offender, somebody– to change that language, it’s going to take some work and some eye-opening experiences to learn, hey, we are all human beings. People make mistakes all the time. Whether they’re to the level that you get arrested for or not, you are a human being and you may make a mistake.
So I had a client in my diversity communications firm, and I knew that she had gone to prison for quite a while, but I didn’t know a whole lot about her. She came to town from Denver. And as we start meeting, she wanted to just kind of redo her image. She wanted to start speaking and all of these things.
And we’re sitting there talking. And I said, OK, I know that a big part of your story is that you spent 25 plus years in prison. Let’s just get this out of the way. What happened? And long story short, she said murder. And nobody in the office was expecting her to say that. And honestly, we’re all like, OK, we need to shift. OK, what happened? We’re going through all of this.
And honestly, a lot of it probably had to do with bias and worry about then who she was as a person. So how do we begin to lay these myths to rest about people that are justice involved and what happened? Because in that case, she really did commit murder. And so it was something that I personally had to deal with. But I know that, in getting to know her, she was a cool person, and it was about circumstance. So what myths do we need to lay to rest?
I think one of the biggest myths laying to rest is that our past does not define us. We are bigger than our past. So whatever mistakes we made in our past, we serve the time for it. So after serving time, then coming back– it’s additional sentence to come home and to be judged even furthermore. And so just understanding that people are bigger, they’re better than their worst mistake.
I love that. Thank you.
I’d like to add to that. Just because– I want to take it is just a little step further, dealing with a lot of the police interactions that we see on the news, and with the killing of unarmed Black people especially. We see a lot of people arguing, saying, well, they committed this act or this crime. They did this. They did that. He had drugs on him, or she did something.
Everybody is innocent until proven otherwise. That’s what the law states. So if you’re innocent until proven otherwise, you should not receive a death penalty sentence in the streets. And so that’s a myth that we need to lay to rest, that they committed this crime, so the police officer was just or right for taking their life, especially resisting arrest. That’s a misdemeanor here in Oklahoma. And in most states it’s a misdemeanor. That’s not something that you will get more than two years in jail for.
Now, when it comes to somebody formerly incarcerated, coming home– and these other myths we need to lay to rest, we need to understand that the criminal justice system is not perfect, and it doesn’t get it right all the time. Majority of people sign a deal so that they can just get it over with. They are afraid that their whole life will be taken away. They don’t understand the legal process, and they don’t understand their rights. And they offer them a deal.
In the upper 90s, 97%, 98% of most cases are found to be convictions because somebody signed their life away. They didn’t go to trial and get convicted by a jury of 12. Majority of the time, they sign their life away. They signed away their right to a trial. And that stigma of just because somebody was convicted doesn’t mean that they actually committed the offense. That’s something that we also have to take into account.
So how is it that the average viewer can help to combat systemic racism in criminal justice? What can they do?
The average viewer has to get educated more. The average viewer has to get educated more on what’s going on in the courtrooms, what’s going on in the courtrooms, how they can voice their concerns. Who can they take their concerns to make a difference? And I think D’marria can give some direction and some positive action steps that people can take to who to direct those concerns to.
Thank you. And I think it’s also very important to understand that, when we talk about systemic racism, even before we get into the courtroom, look at how Black and Brown communities are perceived. Our communities are often criminalized. And therefore, it’s easier to justify wrong behavior or our communities– people of color being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate because of the language of our communities being criminalized, or over-criminalized.
And so with that– and even in understanding that, when we talk about people who are in jail, who are just sitting there, a lot of people in jail are sitting there because they can’t afford bail. The cash money bail system is a way to trap people there that are in poverty. And so, therefore, when you’re there, and you’re sitting there, and you’re wondering about how are you going to be able to take care of your kids, who’s going to watch after your kids, how are you going to have somewhere for you lay your head, then you’re under pressure to take a plea deal.
And so understanding the root causes, I think– for the average viewer, first and foremost, I think it’s important to be intentional about being intentional. Gain a deeper understanding. Talk to people who are directly impacted. View people who are justice involved or who people– view them as people first to understand what the problem is. And then go on a step farther.
When we’re talking about bail, at the moment, we currently– Blockbuilders has been raising money to– we have a community bail out fund. And in that, what we do is– people who are unable to afford bail, then we help them. We just bailed somebody out yesterday. And it was an awesome experience just to be able to give somebody their freedom or to help somebody gain their freedom.
So understanding that, and also legislation. Most people think they’re far removed from politics, but these policies are what cripple our communities. So at the moment, we currently have legislation pending for– it’s called the primary caretaker. And what it is it’s saying, when somebody is a primary caretaker– because 85% of women in Oklahoma are primary caretakers. It’s saying that the judge has– at that moment, he only has a limited amount of time to identify them as primary caretakers and not require cash bail, that they can go on their own personal recognizance.
So getting involved in the politics, the people action, because it’s the people who shape the policy. And so to learn more about legislation or to find out ways to get involved, then we can be found at blockbuilders.org and Blockbuilders 100. We’re on Facebook. You can also email us at blockbuilderz– Blockbuilderz with a Z– email@example.com. And there’s always ways to get involved and to learn more.
Yes, so we’re good. Where can we find your work? Where can people learn more about you?
You can find me on Negro Spiritual 121 on everything– that’s on Facebook, Instagram, [INAUDIBLE] platform. If you want to email me, you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org, or Baxter@racismstinks.org.
Thank both of you so much for spending a few minutes with us this morning on such an important topic. I appreciate it, and we will let you know when this will run. You just heard a lot of really simple ways that you can get involved. The main thing is just educate yourself, even if it’s changing the language. You can make a difference. This is Risha Grant. Two works for you.