Resist, Restore, Rejuvenate (Table of Contents)

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Resist, Restore, Rejuvenate (Introduction)

By Jess Clarke

 Resist, Restore, Rejuvenate cover artWith a planet and a political system ever more out of balance, communities in resistance are called ever more urgently to the critical work of restoration. In this volume, organizers for sanctuary, restorative justice and social housing share their stories, strategies, and visions, and we continue to explore the rejuvenating power of the beauty, complexity and abundance prevalent within ‘Black Life’ in San Francisco.
Immigrants, inmates and tenants are imprisoned in an economic and social system that has long denied our full human rights. The election of Trump, the elevation of right-wing Republicans in Congress, and an ever-growing corporate plutocracy in the courts mean that the palliative of progressive action at the federal level is evaporating. But even as the national political landscape becomes more racist, more tilted toward the super-rich and more xenophobic, we are finding powerful means of  challenging neoliberal capitalism and at the same time deepening our connections to one another.

Using coordinated creative trans-local actions for renters rights, Right to the City Alliance is building a decentralized nationwide network led by low-income residents and people of color that reimagines housing as a human right and rejects corporate ownership of our homes. (Clarke p. 8, 18; Torrejón Chu p. 14.) The movement aims to win power using organizing methods and political objectives that resist cooptation and promote class solidarity in arenas beyond the workplace.

The sanctuary movement is organizing, city by city and state by state to defend migrants from deportation while at the same time moving toward alignment with African Americans confronting police violence and murder and with local struggles for economic justice. (Muñiz-Pagán p. 22; Sarmiento p. 28.) Grassroots feminists are challenging the entwining of domestic violence and state violence when women are doubly victimized, first by a domestic partner and then by ICE or the court system. Valiant resistance and community support in the cases of Yasmin Elias (Elias p. 34; Vazquez p. 36.) and Marissa Alexander (Law p. 40.) spring from different communities, but both demonstrate the power of bringing together individual resistance with collective action. Their steadfast refusal to allow the courts and the media to blame the women themselves for their incarceration is part of building a feminist analysis of patriarchy that links systemic violence and personal violence.

More broadly, the system of mass incarceration is being challenged by a growing paradigm of reconciliation that offers opportunities for peace inside and outside of prison walls. In Jo Bauen’s first person narratives set we get a glimpse of how new forms of relating without violence are being learned and taught by men, acknowledging harm while recovering their own integrity. (Bauen, p. 58, 62.) In excerpts from a panel interview by Lisa Dettmer we can see glimmers of how this reflective and reparative process is being applied to restorative justice in the neighborhood, and even the economy. (Dettmer p. 46.)Policy initiatives to open employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated people—banning the box— are also part of this movement to restore dignity and opportunity for those impacted by interpersonal violence and by the carceral state. (Myres & Jones p. 55.)

On the streets and in the jails—a new generation of truthtellers are moving toward practices that integrate healing and rejuvenation with resistance and class struggle. In doing so many of us are also looking to our ancestors and origins for the keys to generational resistance. We close out this issue with another installment of I Am San Francisco, Black Past and Presence, examples of resilience from the African diaspora. (Phillips, p. 71.)

Jarrel Phillips starts close to home in an interview with his grandfather Tommy LaGrone who in 1955 moved from a sharecropper family in Texas to eventually become a prosperous property owner in San Francisco.(p. 71.) We also include numerous other excerpts from Phillips’ growing collection in-depth interviews with Black residents of San Francisco. In one, Dr. Toye Moses (p. 78.) reminds us “We need to start having our young folk hear our stories, We’re not going to be around too much longer. We must tell our stories...”

Reimagine! has taken this imperative to heart and for the past year have been experimenting with new forms of collaboration using storytelling, theater and movement arts. Working with the support of our sister publisher Freedom Voices, we have started the Collaborative Liberations Arts Workshop Series (CLAWS). We are organizing workshops using theater of the oppressed and other movement practices to better tell stories of our own race, class and gender oppression— and to embody ways those forces can be resisted and transformed.
We are striving to energize and liberate the creativity in our community through publishing, performance and action. Please see our invitation on page 3 to join us in this practice and read about our new publication model. Let’s work together to follow the advice from Dr. Joseph Marshall (p. 71.) “Honor your ancestors and honor yourself. And, most importantly, do not collude in your own oppression... “

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Organizers for sanctuary, restorative justice and social housing share their stories, strategies, and visions,

News from Reimagine!

Participants in a Collaborative Liberation Arts Workshop.  ©2017 Malia ValentinBeginning with this Volume (22 No. 1 & 2), Race, Poverty & the Environment (RP&E) articles will be published online first and print editions will be released as a single volume. We will publish additional timely articles online as they are produced throughout the year. Print subscribers will receive a single annual volume and special editions and compilations of articles.

With this issue, we offer our heartfelt gratitude and respect to our compañera Merula Furtado, who has copyedited RP&E since 2005. Throughout this time she has pushed us to attain high professional standards and she helped transition RP&E to its new home as a project of Reimagine! Merula is now working full time with so we need new members. Interested copyeditors and proofreaders are invited to apply ( Thank you Merula!

Thanks also go to past contributing editors Marcy Rein, Eric K. Arnold, and J. Douglas Allen-Taylor; and special thanks to Margi Clarke who stepped into copyediting duties above and beyond her new role as Contributing Editor. With this issue we also welcome Karina Muñiz-Pagán who coordinated our Sanctuary section and offer special appreciation to Christine Joy Ferrer whose design sense and artistic vision continue to make RP&E beautiful.

A new installation of the I Am San Francisco (IAMSF) exhibit by our correspondent Jarrel Phillips will be showing December 2017 – February 2018 at San Francisco State ( In 2018 we are looking forward to releasing a special issue of RP&E compiling dozens of stories and interviews that have been collected for IAMSF. Donors of more than $45 will receive a complimentary copy! Please visit

In the fall of 2017 the Collaborative Liberations Arts Workshop Series (CLAWS) sponsored an expanded schedule of workshops and performances, and Project Director Jess Clarke was awarded a residency at the Finnish Hall in Berkeley to support the development of this work. We will present our first work-in-progress performance in December 2017 with more to come in 2018. For upcoming events and workshops see


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Renter Nation Rises

Housing Justice Groups Align as National Movement Grows

By Jess Clarke

Selected Images Renter Week of Action and Assemblies 2017
Slide show of dozens of cities in action. <Use arrows to advance to next image.>

Renters across the US are rising up against the housing affordability crisis that is hitting cities, towns, suburbs and even rural regions of the country. Since the mass evictions brought on by the foreclosure crisis, the number of renters has grown. Six million were added when they were pushed out of home ownership by the banks and millions more began to rent as young workers entered the labor market to face a decade of recession. Renters are now more than 50% of the population in the top 100 US cities, and high rents coupled with stagnant wages mean that over 50% of these renter households now pay unaffordable rents.[1] These two tipping points mean renters are poised to emerge as a powerful block in local and national politics.

In September of 2017, this rising tide of discontent was mobilized. Over one hundred organizations in two dozen cities and towns staged fifty coordinated demonstrations during a national Renter Week of Action and Assemblies (RWAA) organized by the Homes For All Campaign. They demanded universal rent control and eviction protections, full funding for the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), an end to subsidies for corporate landlords, the right of all tenants to organize and bargain collectively, and long-term community control of land and housing.

Renters Rise, Cities Thrive

A new analysis of housing affordability, released in support of the RWAA “When Renters Rise, Cities Thrive” backs this up with hard numbers.

“The data is abundantly clear,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink. “Renters are the lifeblood of cities. If rents were affordable, renters could meet their basic needs like transportation, food, and child care and contribute even more to thriving communities."

  • If renters paid only what they could afford on housing they would have an extra $124 billion to spend in the community each year.
  • Women of color continue to face the steepest rental burden. 61% of women of color-headed households are rent burdened compared to 41% of white male headed households.

To download fact sheets on over 50 cities and national data visit: National Equity Atlas.

“Our communities are under constant attack. From policies of mass deportation and incarceration to gentrification and mass evictions, we are facing displacement in many forms. Renters have had enough.” said Right To The City Boston organizer Darnell L. Johnson. “We’re organized, we’re powerful and we won’t back down.” After nearly a year of “Trump Resistance” many activists are looking to dig in on issues that go deeper than the latest twitter storm and to impact policy at local and federal levels. An impressive array of local organizations with renters as their base are joining forces to advance a positive agenda for renter rights. National research and advocacy institutions are also aligning with this emerging movement to help mobilize the class power of renters to effectively challenge corporate governance.

Week of Mobilizations
Rrenters actions wee diverse: They challenged corporate landlords directly—taking their protests to their landlords homes in Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle. They tackled them in the legislative arena, with demonstrations for rent control and eviction protections in cities and states including Oregon, California, Newark, Providence RI, and Detroit. They faced them down politically with protests against HUD secretary Ben Carson in Philadelphia; street protests and theater at the New York City Housing Authority; and a three-day march in Nashville along the Mayor’s proposed route for a new transit line. Here are some details.

Lynn MA: 140 Residents rallied at city-hall before marching to the site of a new luxury development project on the Lynn Waterfront where they staged a 24-hour sleep-in occupation.

Miami: Section 8 residents evicted in the wake of Hurricane Irma set up a tent city in Civic Towers in Allapattah neighborhood of Miami forcing FEMA and HUD to provide immediate shelter and calling attention to the historic and immediate housing crisis in Miami’s communities of color.

NashvilleNashville: Migrant rights, transit, labor and housing justice organizations came together to form the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing and Employment (PATHE). Together they led a 3-day caravan along the track of a $6 billion transit development project to demand equitable development with affordable housing, good wages and full accessibility for all.

Minneapolis/St.Paul: Education, housing, racial justice and labor groups launched a week of actions and assemblies during which they confronting landlords at their homes and offices, held political education assemblies on the intersection of gentrification, schools and parks, and confronted police and legislators in a rally for rent control at city hall.

Oregon: renters led a week of actions across the state, including in Portland, where they joined with climate justice organizers and workers from the Burgerville fast food restaurant to demand a living wage and rent control.

Nationally: Homes For All was joined by CarsonWatch[2] —a new national coalition of legal, research, policy and grassroots organizations formed to combat the Trump administrations attacks on housing funding and civil rights protections and to hold federal, local and state governments accountable. Among other support, CarsonWatch partners provided additional capacity to produce sound and specific policy demands backed up by demographic and economic research.

“The Renter Nation is waking up to its plight and to its power,” said Guillermo Mayer, CEO of the law firm Public Advocates and spokesperson for Carson Watch. “The move to slash funding to housing by Trump /Carson is going to be defeated, just like the repeal of Obamacare. What we need to do now is chart a course toward a society that provides quality homes for all.”

Renters in California, New York City as well as Minneapolis, Spokane, Newark and Portland are doing just that— convening popular assemblies to develop solidarity support networks, political unity, and collective power for tenants’ rights and housing justice movements. The range of targets and demands in every single community are worthy of a full profile. What follows are representative but not at all exhaustive.

Universal Rent Control

California California AssemblySlide show of California Assembly <Use arrows to advance to next image.>

At the California Renter Power assembly Sept 23-24, in a huge high school in Alameda, over 400 participants from dozens of cities representing 20 different local organizations came together. Tenants shared organizing skills and strategies to build on a string of rent control and eviction protection measures won in Richmond, Oakland, Mountain View, Alameda, San Jose, Union City, San Jose, Union City, and San Mateo. Now they are gearing up for a campaign to overturn their state’s restrictions on stronger rent control, a law known as “Costa-Hawkins.”

While nineteen cities in California have some form of rent control or just cause or eviction protection[[,]] Costa-Hawkins prohibits rent control on vacant units, on single family homes, and on new construction. The Renter Power Assembly brought State Senator David Chiu and Assembly Representatives  Richard Bloom and Rob Bonta into an accountability session with gymnasium full of renters. Advocates asked the legislators for escalated commitments in the face of the urgency of the crisis. Three different statewide organizing groups Tenants Together, Homes For All, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment heard the trio explain the uphill battle they face against the real estate lobby in Sacramento. “Make Them Vote!” chanted the crowd backing up a question from the audience about when and how the bill would move out of Chiu’s Housing Committee.

“The new tenant movement seeks... to transform renters into a political class that advocates for its own interests, passes policies with real benefits, influences local elections and eventually take seats of local power,“ says Tony Samara in City Rising - a multi-media documentary that aired on LA’s public TV station KCET. “Though often as corrupt as state and national level politics, local politics is an arena where people can get organized and win.” In 2018 - cities across California and states across the country are gearing up for ballot initiatives to win Rent Control or repeal bans on rent regulations.  

Corporate Landlords

Boston Boston 9-16-17 Slide show of Boston action. <Use arrows to advance to next image.>

Boston renters kicked off the week of action with a march on notorious landlord and real estate tycoon John McGrail’s home to protest predatory rent increases, evictions and mass displacement. They delivered a petition demanding he recognize and negotiate with the tenants associations in his properties. “This is our community. We’ve been living there 37 years. We have nowhere else to go,” says Eddy Nicaisse, a senior citizen who lives with his disabled wife in one of McGrail’s Mayo Group buildings. “I will fight with my whole life’s breath. Not just for me and my family, but for my community.”

Currently, a web of overlapping corporations – in which McGrail has substantial or controlling interests – is targeting a largely immigrant neighborhood in East Boston with threats of deportation, refusal to maintain conditions and hundreds of dollars in rent increases. McGrail’s notoriety as a landlord with a cavalier disregard for the health of his tenants, workers and neighbors hit a high point when he was convicted in 2011 by the Massachusetts Environmental Crimes Strike Force of illegal removal and disposal of asbestos. After ordering his off-the-books construction workers to rip the asbestos out with no recorded protections against dispersal, he then had them toss the asbestos into dumpsters behind his numerous properties around town.

His investment companies were also found at the heart of the real estate foreclosure crisis, stacking up $187 million in loans from the Anglo Irish Bank which itself went bankrupt. When his buy-and-flip empire of properties in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire and Texas crashed, Wells Fargo Bank, the city of Dallas and several other jurisdiction sued him for failure to maintain the properties.

Since the real estate upturn McGrail’s financial position, like the other developers receiving huge subsidies from local and federal government, has vastly improved. Nicaisse points out that “A lot of the improvements that increased the value of Mayo buildings were done with tax money,” and that tenants themselves are the reason the neighborhood has become desirable. “A lot of Mayo tenants, including me, did a clean-up of a vacant lot next door. I’m not going to work hard to improve it and then give it away to somebody else.”

Community Control of Land

Minneapolis MinneapolisSlide show of Minneapolis week of actions and assemblies. <Use arrows to advance to next image.>

Tenants in Minneapolis have also been organized around keeping their own building and neighborhoods safe and welcoming spaces. “At our building, we organized a Resident Council to address the property, the cleanliness, the upkeep and to have one voice, to come together as a group to address these issues together,” said Lee Lucas, a St. Paul renter and member of the board at Community Stabilization Project. “The number one issue is for the community to be stable. We stabilize the community by empowering renters so they aren’t being evicted and can live in a clean, safe home. Then they can raise a child in a healthy environment, rather than kids being moved from school to school to school.”

Minneapolis groups are also looking at how to build power to keep parks accessible to ”low wealth” residents. The HOPE Community organized a forum with Park Commisioner candidates wth that in mind. "Minneapolis Parks are crucial resources for working families,” said Jake Virden, a community organizer at the meeting. “After winning new investment into inner city parks, we want a Park Board that is active and vocal in its support of Rent Control so that communities of color and working families are not displaced from enjoying the fruits of the investment they fought so hard to secure."

“This should be done through recreation funding, programming, and staffing decisions.” Said David Gilbert-Pederson, a tenant from Minneapolis. “The park board and its elected members must also use their role as a public institution and largest landholder in the city to push for policies that keep the city affordable and development responsible.” Minneapolis renters are fighting on all fronts. For their week of action they staged demonstrations at landlords homes and offices, held assemblies and political education events and took their fight to city hall with a militaint demand for rent control legislation.

“That’s why I’m here today asking for rent control, because we can’t put up with more,” said Irasema Perez, a tenant in the Minneapolis Lyndale neighborhood. “This has very serious impacts for families in our city. I spend half of my income on rent, and the other half I have to divide between bills, food for my family, and necessities for my growing children.”

Monique Carrillo, a tenant organizer in Minneapolis pointed out, “My people are the most impacted. Two out of every three women of color in Minneapolis are cost-burdened.”

Full Funding for HUD


Newark Slide show of Newark action at City Hall. <Use arrows to advance to next image.>

"I’m passionate about my community. I work with children. The children are my life. If they push us out of our homes where will these kids go?" said Jade White who has been organizing with her neighbors for over a year to stop the proposed demolition of Terrell Homes. She lives in public housing in Newark NJ where gentrification and a new wave of “public-private” investments are washing into the waterfront areas of the town, threatening to flush the long-term residents who built the community out to sea—or homelessness.

The Newark Housing Authority, that administers 44 buildings was the target of the RWWA protest on September 21. The NHA has neglected its buildings for years and has been trying to use their poor condition as justification for demolishing them. White has plenty of practical suggestions for how to improve the community without driving out the residents. “They say it can’t be fixed, but we can fix it. We demand different routes for all these dirty trucks that are coming through our streets and ruining our air."

Earlier this year residents of Terrell Homes, one of the NHA properties, successfully turned back efforts to tear down the complex, and won some city council support for keeping the buildings open, but now the city itself is planning to zone the area for up to 40 story high rise buildings and just as the renter week of action was coming to a close The Newark Housing Authority voted to seek a permit from HUD to demolish the building completely "They city has money. But they want to use it to build skyscrapers not housing." said White.

Sadly, this too is a trend seen in cities around the country as local public housing authorities are putting their older properties on to the market, turning them over to private entities for rehabilitation or simply demolishing them, selling the land and allowing market rate housing in its place.

“The resurgent housing movement must bring together public housing residents with private market renters, mobile home residents and low-income homeowners to fiercely defend and expand public housing and fight for a world where our communities have control over land, housing & resources,” says Trenise Bryant a member of Homes For All and the Miami Workers Center.

In Miami, an entire building of Section 8 tenants whose building was raked by Hurricane Irma have been made homeless. After organizing a tent city with the help of the Miami Worker Center, the city gave the residents hotel vouchers and sued the owners to allow tenants to go back in the building to retrieve their possessions, but their long term fate remains grim.

The Miami case shows how ubiquitous the privatization of profit from so called public housing programs has become. According to trade journal reports, an Evangelical church Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) paid $15.6 million for one of the twin towers building in 2011 and sold it in for $25 million. The dilapidated building on which the previous owners netted almost $10 million in profit, was purchased by a California LLC Redwood Housing Partners that has obtained $87.5 million in revenue bonds from the Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority and $42.9 million in tax credits to fund renovations. But the mostly Section 8 tenants have all been forced out.

Organize Locally, Act Nationally

“Think Globally, Act Locally” was a catch phrase of the early environmental movement and inspired a generation of activists intent on tackling a problem to monumental to be solved by any one political or social entity to start somewhere even if one can’t be everywhere. The housing crisis and the complex political and class struggles that need to be won to advance the renter nation into true political power can perhaps best be addressed by a similar slogan “Organize Locally, Act Nationally.” Community control of land and housing won’t come by virtue of an act of congress or executive order. It has to be won on the very land where the community seeks control and is in that respect always a local struggle.

Groups involved in the Renter Week of Action have won a number of victories recently, all aimed at easing the impacts of the crisis and transitioning to a more equitable housing system. In Newark, NJ, the city yielded to renters’ threat of a ballot measure and strengthened the city's rent control and vacancy ordinances. Tenants won a $1.65 million fund to support community land trusts from New York City. In Nashville, Latino renters formed a tenants union and won major repairs in their housing complex in July. But the political constraints the defeat local tenants’ struggles such as restrictive state and federal laws do have to be changed for those communities to have real power over their lives. Local organizations retain their autonomy when joining these national mobilizations, their reach is amplified, and their horizontal alliances are strengthened.

Tony Samara says that “Many Bay Area communities... are using their experience and networks to respond to the racist immigration policies of the new administration, which often target the very same communities that predatory landlords and speculative property investors target,” says Samara. "The emerging tenant movement has the potential to radically alter the national political landscape.“

At the national level, a new coalition of grassroots organizations are coming together with hard-hitting policy demands, backed by research, strategic communications and a unified vision. While no single sector has sufficient scale to seize power—locally much less nationally—there is a growing recognition that a class-based resistance to Trump, led by and centered on the people most impacted by the issues—is the only basis for long-term change.

Dawn Phillips, Executive Director of Right to the City and Co-Director of the SF Bay Area Causa Just::Just Cause has been organizing with RTC for over a decade. Speaking to the fired up crowd at the California Renter Power Assembly Phillips delivered a challenge to activists across the state, and the nation. “Most importantly we are here because we know that our true goal, our most important task-- is transformation. Our work does not stop when we repeal Costa Hawkins. Our work does not stop when we win rent control is California. Our work does not stop when we win rent control nationally. Our task is to do all that and more.

“Our task is to imagine a whole new housing system. A system that guarantees housing for all. A system that recognizes housing as a human need and a human right. A system where development decisions are made by residents for residents. A system where land is a community resource to be shared collectively. “

On both the local and national level, housing, transit, labor rights, sanctuary, climate justice, police accountability and restorative justice groups are beginning to find common cause as each in turn finds that numerical majorities don’t necessarily result in electoral power. There is a general recognition that we need multiple strategies and targets, but that we need to be able to act in solidarity across the issues to win power.

Jess Clarke is an editor at Race, Poverty & the Environment and project director for Reimagine! which provided communications support to the Renter Week of Action.


CarsonWatch partners include Public Advocates, PolicyLink, Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Right To The City Alliance

Other cities in Action: SANTA ANA Santa Ana

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“We’re organized, we’re powerful and we won’t back down.” Darnell L. Johnson, Right To The City Boston organizer

Boston Corporate Landlords

Of course, the principal reason that housing is unaffordable is that its treated as a commodity not a right.  In Boston, where residents organized with City Life/ Vida Urbana have been fighting for renters rights for over 40 years, one can see the longer arc of disinvestment and investment in a the life of a single organization.  The groups was founded in the 1970s when US cities were literally being burned to the ground by landlords who could collect rom their insurance policies and move their capital out of the cities.

During the financial collapse  CLVU fought to keep hundreds of Bostonians in their homes as Fannie Mae  backed banks swooped in to turn the properties over to the Wall Street backed investors. [see Blackstone article]  Today, CLVU continues to fight unscrupulous landlords. While they aren’t  setting fire to whole neighborhoods as was done in the Bronx in the 70s they are innovating new tactics  such as building clear outs” to drive working class and low-income renters out of their homes to extract exorbitant profits through gentrification.

Boston renters kicked off the week of action with a march on notorious landlord and real estate tycoon John McGrail’s home to protest predatory rent increases, evictions and mass displacement. McGrail controls numerous real estate firms—from speculative capital funds to property remodeling and management groups. They delivered a petition demanding he recognize and negotiate with the tenants associations in his properties.

“This is our community. We’ve been living there 37 years. We have nowhere else to go,” says Eddy Nicaisse, a senior citizen who lives with his disabled wife in one of McGrail’s Mayo Group buildings. “I will fight with my whole life’s breath. Not just for me and my family, but for my community.”

Currently, a web of overlapping corporations – in which McGrail has substantial or controlling interests – is targeting a largely immigrant neighborhood in East Boston with threats of deportation, refusal to maintain conditions and hundreds of dollars in rent increases. 

McGrail’s notoriety as a landlord with a cavalier disregard for the health of his tenants, workers and neighbors hit a high point when he was convicted in 2011 by the Massachusetts Environmental Crimes Strike Force of illegal removal and disposal of asbestos. After ordering his off-the-books construction workers to rip the asbestos out with no recorded protections against dispersal, he then had them toss the asbestos into dumpsters behind his numerous properties around town. His investment companies were also found at the heart of the real estate foreclosure crisis, stacking up $187 million in loans from the Anglo Irish Bank which itself went bankrupt. When his buy-and-flip empire of properties in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire and Texas crashed, Wells Fargo Bank, the city of Dallas and several other jurisdiction sued him for failure to maintain the properties.

Since the real estate upturn McGrail’s financial position, like the other developers receiving huge subsidies from local and federal government, has vastly improved. Nicaisse points out that “A lot of the improvements that increased the value of Mayo buildings were done with tax money,” and that tenants themselves are the reason the neighborhood has become desirable. “A lot of Mayo tenants, including me, did a clean-up of a vacant lot next door. I’m not going to work hard to improve it and then give it away to somebody else.”

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Corporate Landlords Consolidate — Renters Fight Back

Blackstone’s Invitation Homes merger with Starwood Waypoint paves way for higher rents, more evictions and slumlord management — renters are organizing a national week of protests September 18-24.

Image: Credit: Blackstone Evicts Courtesy of Tenants Together Source/ link to pdf

By Jess Clarke

On August 10, 2017, Blackstone group announced that is merging its Invitation Homes subsidiary with another huge corporate landlord, Starwood Waypoint. The combined corporation, will own over 82,000 single family homes. Added to the  114,000 multi-unit apartments it already holds,  Blackstone will become far and away the largest US corporate landlord.

This is bad news for low-and middle income renters for three main reasons:. Big corporate landlords rely on eviction to obtain and to manage their properties, complaints of shoddy remodeling, non-existent maintenance and botched repairs of both Blackstone and Starwood Waypoint owned properties are ubiquitous.  and rent increases in the corporate-owned real estate market are consistently higher than in comparable units in the same market .

Tenant and consumer groups have decried the merger. In California, where corporate ownership has reach epidemic proportions Tenants Together and Alliance of Californians  for Community Empowerment  (ACCE) point to Starwood’s terrible track record of rent increases and shoddy maintenance.  In a press release from the group, ACCE member Vanessa Buines says “Not only is Starwood Waypoint forcing us to live in inhumane housing conditions its displacing families in droves.”

Homes For All, a national network with tenant groups in over 30 cities has repeatedly warned that if left unchecked, Wall Street-backed corporate landlords could spark another real estate crisis as in 2008. (See for example the Right to the City Report The Rise of the Corporate Landlord).

Stephen Schwarzman (cc)  By Copyright World Economic Forum (, by Remy Steinegger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia CommonsNot surprisingly, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman is a Trump administration business buddy whose real estate empire was given a boost in the first week of the Trump Administration when Fannie Mae loaned it  $1 billion and HUD reversed an Obama administration regulation that would have made it easier for first time home-buyers to get Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance and harder for corporate landlords to convert the houses to rentals.

(Schwarzman was in the news again when as chairman of the business advisors group from which other CEOs resigned in protest, he defended Trumps claim that violence in Charlottesville came from many sides.)

The loan from Fannie Mae gave Invitation Homes a capital infusion at a crucial moment.  The corporation went public with an initial public offering (IPO) underwritten by Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase  less than a week later, raising over $1.5 billion. According to industry analysts, backing by a Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) like Fannie Mae not only strengthened Blackstone’s IPO position, but sent a signal to the entire single family home sector that the resources and regulations of the federal government will be lowering the risk of investing in this new speculative arena.

In a morning-after interview on CNBC, Barry Sternlicht, Starwood Capital Group chairman & CEO,  bragged that he expects to pull in  65% gross margins,  and make $50 million in cost savings as a result of the merger

The complex financial transactions behind the unprecedented rise of corporate single family home ownership involves an initial bulk purchase of heavily discounted mortgages on hundreds or thousand of homes using hedge fund cash. These homes are then rehabbed, rented and then re-mortgaged. The mortgages are then sold on as securitized bonds, now at a much higher valuation, where the bonds are paid off using tenants monthly rental checks rather than mortgage payments. The similarity to the sub-prime mortgage debacle isn’t coincidental. These are many of the same players who brought about the sub-prime crisis in 2008.

Credit: Rise of  the Corporate Landlord. Courtesy of Right to the City.Government Agencies Work for the Regulated Corporations not the Public
Fannie Mae was originally conceived as a way of helping homeowners get credit during the great depression, but now in one of the more brutal instances of industry capture, Fannie Mae is providing the deep pockets for Wall Street corporations to take over yet another ingredient in the basic building blocks of US civil society, the single family home.  Once upon a time, profits from Fannie Mae were supposed to go to the HUD and the proceeds from all these market investments were supposed to provide funds for things like affordable housing.  The Trump-Carson budget cuts will no doubt make an already bad situation worse.

During the great recession an estimated seven million homes went from being owned by their occupants into some form of non-tenant ownership. The big GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac refused to write down the principal of individual homeowners, instead they offered steep discounts to Wall Street speculators, who then foreclosed on the homeowners.  According to an American Prospect report in 2015, “Fannie and Freddie impose few conditions on the bulk buyers. They neither require them to consider principal reduction in the modification process nor to consider the affordability needs of communities when putting homes on the rental market.”

Elizabeth_Warren_2016_DNC_cropped.jpgBy A. Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia CommonsAs Senator Elizabeth Warren said when she joined a national protest against the HUD giveaways of these properties  “Many of these banks and funds were responsible for fueling the housing bubble in the first place—leading to the crash that hit these families like a punch to the gut. Now these same banks and funds are turning around and scooping up these loans at bargain-basement rates so they can profit from them a second time.”

The fact that Fannie Mae sold these houses to the banks at sometimes pennies on the dollar (under Obama) and they are now backing Blackstone to turn them into securitized bonds and cash cows shows just how far the regulatory capture of US housing agencies has progressed.  The Federal Finance Housing Agency (FHFA), the supposed regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac explains on their own website “FHFA 's funding is non-appropriated, which means our budget resources are not provided by Congress. Instead, our funding comes from the entities we regulate.”

Several industry reports point out the Freddie Mac is also about to jump in on backing corporate single family home rentals (aiming for a smaller regional market)  which is a pretty big shift of policy away from the home ownership for two agencies that were established to enable people to buy homes.  For the most part this shift is happening  behind the screen of  the “Trump effect”.  Decisions that  previously were subject to public scrutiny are now being made below the radar. With the mainstream media i swept up in manufactured maelstroms, the normal feedback mechanisms that guide policy change are defeated.

Higher Rents, More Evictions, Slumlord Management Practices
In most of the US rent control doesn’t apply to single family homes so even in areas where tenants have won some local control, big capital can continue to play the boom and bust cycle by turning homes and communities into chips in a casino where the rules are rigged so that the banks and Wall Street win. They reaped billions in the irrational exuberance of the mortgage-backed securities bubble and now they plan to do the same on the backs of the renters and at the expense of our communities.

Beyond the obvious incentive to constantly increase rents to service the bonds, a recent series by Reveal a program of the Center for Investigative Reporting  exposed dozens of cases  of cost cutting on the expense side of the ledger. From dangerous conditions such as lead contamination and fire hazards to mundane problems of bad plumbing and leaky roofs Waypoint properties from California and Florida are awash in complaints of  shoddy rehabs, missed maintenance, and more. A 2015 study by Tenants Together of what were then three separate companies showed that over 40% of tenants had experienced such problems.

Even the Better Business Bureau has open investigations into innumerable instances of stolen security deposits, illegal fees, and false representations to prospective tenants.

And while Blackstone tenants live in homes lacking basics like hot water and toxin-free yards billionaire Schwarzman  owns a 35-room 13-bath Manhattan apartment , as well as mansions in Palm Beach, The Hamptons and St Tropez - and a winter villa in Jamaica.

Starwood Waypoint renter Vanessa Buines managed to hold on to her home thanks to a united community organizing effort and is now a renter’s rights leader helping others to mobilize. In July 2017 tenants organized with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment  (ACCE ) occupied a Starwood Capital Group office in San Francisco to deliver a petition with over 1400 signatures to Barry Sternlicht demanding an end to rent increases, which have shot up as much as 13.3% this year.[1]  Anya Svanoe the ACCE communications coordinator says that tenants of Invitation Homes/Starwood in LA,  Oakland and Sacramento are continuing to organize.   She says that the tenants will collectively decide where they will be organizing actions in September to defend “whoever is being screwed at the moment.”

Next month, tenant groups in in California, Atlanta and Boston are organizing actions against corporate landlords in a coordinated week of action across the country.  You can see the growing list of planned actions or sign up to host an event at:

Jess Clarke is an editor at Race, Poverty and the Environment and Project Director of Reimagine! Movements Making Media.

Additional resources on Wall Street-backed landlords

Blackstone: Atlanta’s Newest Landlord,” by Occupy Our Homes;
The New Single-Family Home Renters of California,” by Tenants Together;
The Rise of the Corporate Landlord,” by the Right to the City Alliance;
Renting from Wall Street: Blackstone’s Invitation Homes in Los Angeles and Riverside,” by Strategic Actions for a Just Economy;
REO to Rental in California: Wall Street Investments, Big Bank Financing, and Neighborhood Displacement,” by the California Reinvestment Coalition; and
When Wall Street Buys Main Street,” by the Center for American Progress.

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may reprint or repost this article so long as it is attributed as above.



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Blackstone’s merger with Starwood Waypoint means higher rents, more evictions and slumlord management — renters are organizing a national week of protests September 18-24.

Expanding Sanctuary

Expand sanctuary convening in Philadelphia. ©2017 Steve Pavey
By Karina Muñiz-Pagán

The word sanctuary means a sacred place of refuge and protection where predators are controlled and hunting is illegal.1 What does sanctuary mean today when the Federal government’s renewed calls for “law and order” are euphemisms for predatory attacks on communities of color?

If you’re an undocumented immigrant, living in a sanctuary city or state, your chances of being deported may be decreased.

IF the police adhere to the policy and give you your right to due process; IF the sheriffs don’t assist federal immigration officials by holding you in custody beyond your release date; IF your record isn’t too tainted; or IF ICE doesn’t raid your home, a retail business you frequent, your place of employment or worship.

To the millions who watch Fox News and submit to the fear mongering spin, sanctuary is fertile ground for high crime rates. Fueled by racist notions and deceptive anomalies converted into blanket statements, age-old scapegoat tactics reign: control the narrative, fabricate, distort the truth, and infuse it with fear.

Hate-crimes against Arabs and Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and queer and trans folks are not crimes at all according to this racist frame. It presents the issue as good vs. bad immigrant, while actually providing a cover story for policies that strip away safety and protection for the majority of US residents.

In fact, research shows the opposite of the right wing narrative: crime is statistically lower in sanctuary counties compared to non-sanctuary counties.2 Research has also shown that counties who protect their residents by keeping federal immigration enforcement out see significant economic gains. When households remain intact and individuals can continue contributing, local economies become stronger.3

But facts and research are not pillars of the master narrative and single-story propaganda that deny the undeniable historical link between whiteness and citizenship.4 We know these tactics. They are not new and yet, as Ananya Roy argues in her article Divesting From Whiteness: The University in the Age of Trumpism, we must not normalize this. The Trump-GOP regime threatens to significantly expand state-sponsored violence against people of color and the poor, and implement a systemic doctrine of racial separation.5

Community Defense Zones

Chart from “Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties & Their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations,” by the Immigrant Legal Resource CenterWe are at a pivotal moment where the expansion of the sanctuary movement is necessary. Simply defending refugees and migrants from deportation is not enough. Organizations from Santa Ana, California, to NYC are creating a new inclusive vision of what a Sanctuary City can be. One of these groups, Mijente, a Latinx organizing platform founded in 2015, has been a leader in defining a more comprehensive vision of sanctuary for all.

In their recent report “Expanding Sanctuary, What Makes a City a Sanctuary Now?” Mijente argues that under a “law and order” administration, cities must confront criminalization of Black people, transgender women and other people of color as part of the minimum standard in defining a city as a “sanctuary” today.6

Mijente notes that the new sanctuary movement must reflect and reinforce efforts by Black-led groups to challenge state violence and racist policing. When you’re Black, immigrant or not, and the police approach you, a sanctuary policy will not stop your life being taken in seconds, with your children as witnesses, or while loosies scatter the ground as you take your last breath. In most major cities, more than half of municipal budgets are dedicated to policing and jails, and one in three people are arrested at least once by the time they are 23 years old.7

Police, whether or not they actively collaborate with federal deportation agents, are often the primary funnel into immigration removal proceedings.8 This was the case for Yazmin Elias when a grassroots campaign rose up to fight for her release. Supporters of the campaign believed that, prior convictions or not, Yazmin had the right to be with her family, her children and her community and not deemed “dangerous” or “undeserving” based on a DUI. (See Elias p. 34; Vasquez p.36)

Groups like East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition, who supported Yazmin, are calling for an expansion of the sanctuary city to recognize that law enforcement and over-policing are already too embedded in our communities. For true safety and protection to be achieved, we must upend both policy and practice.

From “Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties & Their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations,” by the Immigrant Legal Resource CenterCommunity Defense Zones are community-based sanctuaries for people targeted by the Trump Administration, specifically immigrants and refugees, Muslims, LGBTQ and Black communities.9 Building a community-based sanctuary based on true protection for all must acknowledge the ongoing issues of mass incarceration and criminalization that have devastated communities across the country.

“Our objective with sanctuary,” leaders within community defense zones argue, “is not to arrive at the status quo, but to expand its meaning and impact.” And to resist, town by town, city by city, county by county, connecting the shared fate of black and brown communities, acting from our most precious values, and sparking action to build power and make a meaningful difference in local communities.10

And in sanctuary cities where the ordinances are not upheld by the authorities we need to take action ensure that hard won sanctuary ordinances are not violated.

Take the case of Pedro Figueroa-Zarceno, who filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department when they violated the sanctuary ordinance by unlawfully detaining him due to an ICE request. Figueroa-Zarceno visited the city’s police station to retrieve a police report about his stolen car. Instead of receiving support from the police in getting his car back, he was arrested as he exited the station, and sent to a detention center in Martinez, where he was illegally held for two months.11

Free SF is a local coalition of 21 organizations from the Immigrant Rights Defense Committee and the San Francisco Progressive Criminal Justice Network, who advocate for community safety, transformative justice, immigrant rights, and self-determination. They heard about Pedro’s case and decided to take action.12 Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, a member group of Free SF, filed a lawsuit on his behalf and won. This too is part of the resistance and vigilance necessary to ensure policies are being upheld.

As Jon Rodney, member of FREE SF and Communications Director with the California Immigrant Policy Center, “Sanctuary is a process and a verb. It’s something that is always developing and not limited to one particular policy. It’s about how are we developing relationships in and among communities. How are we always expanding this concept and moving it in new directions to extend our values?”

State Level Resistance and Threats

From “Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties & Their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations,” by the Immigrant Legal Resource CenterThere is an urgent need not only to expand the objectives of sanctuary cities and towns, but to mount multi-faceted responses when places of resistance are targeted. We have already seen ICE’s retaliation against sanctuary cities with targeted raids,13 and the Trump regime’s threat to take away federal funding from cities and states.14 As California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León said in a statement, “It has become abundantly clear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy—not American values…Their constant and systematic targeting of diverse cities and states goes beyond constitutional norms and will be challenged at every level.”15

State challenges to federal pressure are important and must show up not only in words but in actions like state legislation such as the California Values Act (SB54) recently signed into law. The new law is aimed at preventing the use of state and local resources to fuel mass deportations, separate families, and ultimately hurt California’s economy.16

This type of pro-immigrant policy is in stark contrast to state policy in Texas SB4, a high stakes crackdown on sanctuary cities. This law attempts to eradicate sanctuary cities in the state by making local officials criminally liable if they refuse to accommodate the federal government’s requests to enforce immigration law; they could even be removed from office. SB 4 also blocks local agencies from adopting any policy that might stand in the way of the enforcement of federal immigration laws.17

History of the Sanctuary Movement

As the sanctuary movement evolves, it’s important to understand the history. Sanctuary cities came out of an urgency to respond to a transnational crisis. In the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, members of various faith groups in the United States decided to take solidarity action to welcome Salvadoran and Guatemalan war-refugees entering the US, to resettle their families in places of sanctuary.18 The congregants did this in direct defiance of US immigration authorities who were denying over 90 per cent of political asylum requests from Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing the violence of US-supported military regimes.19 Sanctuary activists throughout the country argued that the US federal government was breaking international and domestic refugee law by denying asylum claims and ignoring the massacres for political reasons. People throughout the country set up safe houses and highlighted refugee testimonies to a national audience. The sanctuary movement pressured the US State Department and Pentagon to end active involvement in the Central American civil wars, and worked to force the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to stop deporting Central American refugees fleeing the violence.20 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was one such success that has protected hundreds of thousands of Central Americans for over two decades, but is now under attack by the Trump-GOP regime.

Sanctuary movement activists fought against the hypocrisy of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and took great risks in such anti-war defiance, risks that were often met with serious consequences or death. Yet, many felt the faith-based movement was too paternalistic, not centering the leadership and voices of those directly impacted enough and often ‘white savior’ in its framing. This critique existed alongside a solidarity movement where exiled political leaders from the FMLN, Sandinista and Guatemalan resistance (as well as US activists) advocated for strong international solidarity strategies that were anti-imperialist and anti-war.

According to Margi Clarke, then a member of New El Salvador Today (now called Share Foundation), “We were trying to stop US weapons, shipped through places like Concord, CA, where activists blocked freight trains filled with arms. And we were actively supporting the liberation movements inside Central America based on a common struggle.” Clarke notes that today there is still an active El Salvador – U.S. solidarity movement, of labor unions, universities and grassroots Salvadoran American associations, and the original sanctuary churches, with some of the same leaders of the earlier movement at the helm. “Sanctuary and solidarity are still needed as the US supports the death-squad party ARENA’s strategy to paralyze the first FMLN presidency, and Ann Coulter calls for death squads to deal with immigrants.”

There is much to learn from the past on whose shoulders we stand. Joseph Nevins notes in an article titled Pursuing ‘A Radical Faith’ in the Trump Era, how the federal administration is masking cruelty under the guise of the supposed sanctity of the law.21 The US in fact remains a country that provides little to no meaningful legal channels for those fleeing the insecurity and violence of everyday life and is also a country, “whose government has violated all sorts of laws in carrying out its policies abroad, not least in El Salvador, that have made life miserable for many.”22


As we have seen before, the scapegoating of immigrants has dire consequences. For example, between 1929 and 1932 under President Hoover, a surge of unconstitutional and illegal raids and deportations forced 1.8 million people—US citizens and non-citizens of Mexican descent—to Mexico, uprooting their lives with devastating impacts. In percentage terms that would be the equivalent of 5 million deportations today. The perpetrators described this cruelty as an act of “repatriation.”23

The time to prevent another such crime is now.

Immigration and terrorism rank as the most important issues for an overwhelming majority of people who voted for Trump.24 Robin Kelley argues in After Trump “immigration and terrorism are both about race—Mexicans and Muslims.”

When we understand US dominance abroad, neoliberal economic trade policies that force people to migrate, and upheaval that result from violence, political corruption, and now climate change, it is clear that many millions fall into this category.

And while immigrants come from all over the world to the US, anti-immigrant movements target those who can be racially profiled and ignore the fact that white nationalist movements are responsible for the majority of violent terrorist attacks on US soil.25

Today those who control the single-story propaganda that fuels racist policies such as SB4 in Texas and the proposed federal “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” prefer revisionist histories and narratives that obscure the root causes of migration or why certain laws exist to begin with. Because the law, as Nevin states, “often serves as a tool of the oppressor, as a convenient instrument to justify the unjust—in this case, the denial of the right to mobility in the face of oppression and deprivation.” The law maintains a US apparatus of exclusion, other wise known as border security, to keep the global poor in their place and preserve a world of gross socioeconomic inequities.26

The expansion of the sanctuary movement is imperative in today’s context and crisis if we want to see long-lasting transformation. We must organize across communities and build places of safety, protection and freedom for all, while learning from and understanding the past. n


Karina Muñiz-Pagán works at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Previously she was the political director at Mujeres Unidas y Activas where she also led bilingual writing workshops as the Community Engagement Fellow in Creative Writing at Mills College.


1     According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary
2     Center for American Progress, The Effects of Sanctuary Policies on Crime and the Economy.
3     ibid
4     Kelley, Robin G. “After Trump, Forum Response.”
5     Roy, Ananya. Divesting From Whiteness: The University in the Age of Trumpism.
6     Mijente, Expanding Sanctuary: What Makes a City a Sanctuary Now? January 2017
7     ibid
8     ibid
9     Community Defense Zone Starter Kit. Created by Puente, Gerorgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), Mijente and drawn from the work of Not One More Deportation campaign and Southerners on New Ground (SONG)
10     ibid
15     ibid
18     Mancina, Peter. In the Spirit of Sanctuary: Sanctuary-City Policy Advocacy and the Production of Sanctuary-Power in San Francisco, California. 2016. Vanderbilt U. PhD Dissertation
19     ibid
20     ibid
22     ibid
24     ibid
25     ibid


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We are at a pivotal moment where the expansion of the sanctuary movement is necessary.

Santa Ana’s Sanctuary Struggle - We Will Not Leave Anyone Behind

By Carolina S. Sarmiento

“Permanecer  y Prosperar” Remain and Flourish,  (cc) 2017 Equity for All.

On January 18th, 2017, three days before Donald Trump assumed the presidency, Santa Ana, California enacted a law making it a sanctuary city. Santa Ana is Orange County’s second largest city, but stands in sharp contrast to the white affluent and conservative portrait that is most often represented in the media. Unlike larger cities like Los Angeles and New York that are also at the forefront of the sanctuary movement, Santa Ana is a mid-sized city with approximately 350,000 people, of which over 85 percent identified as Latino in the US Census. It stands out as one of the largest Mexican and immigrant cities and despite the county’s Republican political history, Santa Ana has an all-Latino all-Democratic Party city council.

“Santa Ana’s policy is amongst the best in the country, and should serve as an example for the state sanctuary bill, ” said Salvador Sarmiento, Legislative Policy Director at NDLON.

The ordinance requires the city to implement policies that include prohibiting the use of city resources for immigration enforcement, protecting sensitive information, preventing biased-based policing and directing law enforcement officials to exercise discretion to cite and release individuals instead of detaining them at a local facility or county jail based on the nature of the alleged crime and removed exceptions allowing the use of city resources in the cases of criminal defendants. It also calls for the city to provide more training for affected employees and establish a task force made up of community members to advise the City Council on policies related to the ordinance.

As Seth Kaper-Dale an activist pastor from New Jersey has observed, “When it comes to sanctuary, offering a bed is only the beginning.” The Sanctuary movement has come to represent much more than the actual “sanctuary” where people would go find a physical location when fleeing or looking for protection

It has grown into a broad movement and network, defending people from deportations while also building power in different ways. But much of the strength of the sanctuary movements comes from the grassroots residents and community based organizations—who are responding and participating in building communities safe for immigrants and their families. This includes families and organizations working to once again provide a physical sanctuary in churches and homes; and families committing themselves to provide the support necessary for refuge. This also includes a rapid response mobilization and network to stop raids by using innovative and alternative communications mechanisms, hotline numbers, and direct actions by allies to stop ICE raids and deportations. Others are developing different ways to support impacted communities, like fundraising for families who have suffered a deportation, and supporting children and families left behind.

 Why Santa Ana?“Vivienda el Sueño de Todos,” Housing is Everyone’s Dream.   2017 Equity for All.

As an immigrant city, Santa Ana is facing similar challenges as cities across the nation with 22 percent of its population living in poverty. These conditions are exacerbated by gentrification and displacement processes that have lead to overcrowding rates that are some of the highest in the nation. The city has prioritized development for middle to upper classes and touts ethnic spaces only as places of leisure and consumption. In effect, the city has used its immigrant communities as a branding strategy, while in reality Santa Ana’s governance and planning decisions reflect this failure to prioritize immigrant needs.

The lack of community participation, transparency and accountability is evident time and again in development and planning decisions which fail to invest in immigrant-based economies, culture, and neighborhoods. As a response, community organizations and residents have come together and made significant wins. Santa Ana’s sanctuary fight builds on years of community based struggles fighting for political, economic, and cultural rights for immigrant communities.

Like many other cities across the US, more than half of the Santa Ana city budget is invested in the police department. The City had been in the business of jailing immigrants with a contract with ICE. The $24.3 million jail facility had incurred a large debt that ICE dollars were being used to pay off. In 2016, the Santa Ana Jail had 182 ICE detainees, including 26 who were gay or bisexual and 31 housed in the nation’s first detention module dedicated to jailing transgender people.

The #NotOneMore campaign and May Day Coalition worked to expose the consequences of having ICE in the jail. The May Day Coalition was made up of organizations including Chicanos Unidos, Raiz, El Centro Cultural and Colectivo Tonantzin who had worked with day laborers for decades and brought the contract with the jail to light. These overlaps between development processes, the budget, the jail, and deportations, exposed the failure to prioritize the growing needs of low income families in Santa Ana and inversely, profit from their criminalization. At the same time, this historic movement shed light on the growing grassroots force that was building in Santa Ana.

On December 6th, 2016 the city council passed a simple sanctuary resolution with no enforcement mechanism. The act was largely symbolic but it was a highly visible act of defiance against the incoming Trump presidency.

“It is a risk but at the end of the day, the greater risk is to remain silent. We have the opportunity to be leaders. To stand up for what is right” said city council person, David Benavides to the packed room at the meeting.

The large turnout at the meeting included representatives from many community organizations, but also a base of local residents who responded to the call and pushed the resolution to be more than symbolic. The city council agreed to push for a full-fledged sanctuary ordinance. Council member Angelica Amezcua stated “We need a timeline. This is just a symbolic gesture. We need to move forward an ordinance as well.”

The council voted 5-0 to reduce the number of ICE detainees to a maximum of 128, resulting in the closure of one jail module and according to then City Manager David Cavazos, also resulting in a $663,743 annual net revenue loss. A full contract termination would create a $2 million hole annually.

In response to the changes in the contract, ICE pre-empted the city from ending the contract, explaining: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) values its longstanding relationship with the City of Santa Ana, but recent actions by the city to drastically curtail the number of beds available at the city’s jail to house immigration detainees meant the existing detention contract was no longer viable or cost effective.”

“Symbolic words have never been sufficient,” said Salvador G. Sarmiento, Legislative Affairs Director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, at a rally outside city hall before council. “A city with an [ICE] contract is not a sanctuary city!”

In this respect, the Santa Ana law has now moved clearly beyond the symbolic. However, not every city with an immigrant population has the same growing grassroots movements or can pass a sanctuary ordinance. “Passing a sanctuary bill in some places/cities would be close to impossible, and so the sanctuary bill at the state level is urgent where ICE is still in the jail and doing ICE holds,” said Sarmiento.

Scaling Up and Down to the Everyday

This push at different scales is necessary, but the most critical front continues to be local and requires grassroots organizations and residents to respond and push for accountability and transparency regarding policies that impact how and where immigrant communities work, live, organize, and build.

Immigrants rights are organically interconnected to issues of displacement and gentrification and to the disinvestment of our schools, neighborhoods and communities.

Locally, the immigrant community is criminalized and marginalized in a range of ways and places that include housing discrimination, working conditions, and even street art and cultural expression. In these cases, organizations require not just “their base” but that an entire community respond to these issues. Grassroots activists must demand not only a strong sanctuary policy, but also demand housing rights, fair wages, and other community benefits.

One example of a successful broad coalition, was the Sunshine Ordinance that won increased budget and strategic public outreach, site review, open calendars, request for proposals, and meeting notices in 2012. The battle for the Sunshine Ordinance included health, cultural, and housing organizations, immigrant rights groups, and youth who pushed the city council to sign on to one of the strongest sunshine ordinances in California.

According to Sarmiento from NDLON, “In the Trump era, our best of defense are going to be local, and Santa Ana is one of the best examples of building local grassroots groups that are combatant and fiercely independent.”

An important piece of the current immigrant rights movement is both broadening the movement to include the most vulnerable—those deemed criminal for example.

 Roberto Herrera from OC Resilience one of the leading organizations in the immigrant rights movement in Santa Ana, stated, “Trump is asking to deport the most vulnerable. For us, Santa Ana will stand strong and be there for us, for the most vulnerable.”

At the city council meeting, a youth organizer stated, “With Trump... there’s no middle ground. We have to be bolder. Here in our local communities, we have to be bolder than Trump.”

Carlos Perea, another organizer with OC Resilience stated “we will not leave anyone behind” as a lesson learned from previous immigrant rights struggles including the Dream Act movement. Recognizing the interdependency of our community, and that those “criminals” are family members, working people, and a part of our community is central to the Sanctuary movement. Shifting the narrative of not leaving others behind, surfaces the interconnectedness of different places and issues.

It’s All Connected“Vivienda el Sueño de Todos,” Housing is Everyone’s Dream.   2017 Equity for All.

The interconnectedness of our issues is exemplified in the struggle over the city budget. Because of the size of Santa Ana, one city council meeting will have several important issues during a single meeting. For example, affordable housing, community land trusts, and immigrant rights issues may all be heard at the same meeting, bringing a range of demands to one night.

Recently residents of Lacy, a historic barrio facing some of the highest overcrowding rates of Santa Ana began organizing around housing issues and named themselves the Vecinos de Lacy en Acción—VeLA. The group is mostly immigrant women with children. At a recent budget meeting they decided to speak up in favor of legal representation for immigrant facing deportation. OnJuly 5, 2017, the City council members approved the city’s fiscal budget for 2017-18 and included the allocation of $65,000 toward a legal defense fund for immigration resources.

Residents working on housing in Santa Ana recognize the intersections with housing and immigrant rights and respond and vice versa. The issues that individuals face everyday are intersections that can foundations to building intersectional movements that are built from the ground up.

Issues of criminalization and racialized policing in our communities do not require a new frame and narrative that expands the sanctuary movement. Rather, the moment demands that we work effectively at these intersections—in local communities—in a way that can be scaled up to challenge the way the whole system works.

As a result of the loss of the ICE contract, the city is in the process of interviewing finalists in a request for qualifications for a jail reuse study and will be recommending a consultant soon. When and if the city sells public land, the participation of community organizations and residents who can push for community benefits ordinances and land trusts is crucial. Re-envisioning what the jail could look like and be used for can’t be left to a narrow group of experts. Fighting against the criminalization of our communities, and for our space and economies, requires an active base of residents at the local level.

When one considers the sanctuary movement in the context of a larger neoliberal restructuring process, where cities are increasingly investing in amenities for a gentrified class that is accompanied by increased privatization and disinvestment in working class needs and public services, the importance of uniting the fights is even clearer.

 Communities are fighting anti-immigrant policies while also having to respond to increased gentrification pressures and worsening housing conditions. Santa Ana provides an example of how movements can be based on building where issues, already interconnected at the everyday scale, can support strong sanctuary policy and more.

The broad grassroots efforts in Santa Ana that led to the ordinance included organizing, trainings, community based media, as well as civil disobedience and direct action, legal defense, grassroots fundraising to stop deportations. The history of movement building including the MayDayCoalition, the NotOneMore Deportation work, the youth organizing from OC Dream Team, Orange County Immigrant Youth United, Raiz, OC Resilience to Collectivo Tonantzin and their organizing of day laborers—all of whom have helped solidify these community networks that responded, from dance teachers to activists.

The sanctuary movement in Santa Ana is about much more than the ordinance. It has a broad goal of making Santa Ana a place and city where immigrant lives are not criminalized; immigrants can have safe and just work; immigrants can live in safe and livable housing conditions; and immigrants can thrive and build the city that they work so hard for.

Carolina S. Sarmiento is a member of El Centro Cultural de Mexico.

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"Immigrants rights are organically interconnected to issues of displacement and gentrification and to the disinvestment of our schools, neighborhoods and communities."

Sanctuary for All

Community Power and Devotion Win Yazmin’s Freedom
By Mimi Elias

April 2017 demonstration outside federal court in San Francisco. ©2017 Pangea Legal Service

Although mass incarceration is a major issue in the Land of the Free, the criminal justice system has a unique impact on Latina immigrant women who have experienced gender-based violence. Yazmin Liliana Elias, my sister, is an undocumented woman who is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. She was recently released on bond despite staunch opposition by immigration courts in San Francisco and amidst the extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric disseminated by our current presidential administration. Her story shows that community organizing can be one of the most effective ways to mobilize around the unjust policies that result in the detention of undocumented people.

To be an unauthorized immigrant is to be a criminal in the eyes of the media, a human without any right to due process—despite the fact that residing within the confines of the United States without proper documentation is not an issue of criminal law, but one of civil law. In Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that, “Removal is a civil, not criminal, matter.”1 Nonetheless, undocumented immigrants in the United States can be deported if they commit a crime for which a legal citizen would be penalized with only a fine or brief detention.
Female survivors of intimate partner violence often see their hardships ignored by the courts and find themselves reduced to nothing but their rap sheets. Little compassion is shown to incarcerated women who stray from the roles they are expected to embody.

The American and Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) have noted that, “Many incarcerated women—nearly 60 percent of female state prisoners nationwide and as many as 94 percent of certain female prison populations—have a history of physical or sexual abuse.”
All of these factors come together in Yazmin’s story. She was born in Mexico in 1982, and brought to the United States without documents four years later. She grew up witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by her father on her mother, and embarked upon volatile relationships with men beginning at the tender age of 14.. Out of her first relationship, Yazmin became the mother to three boys, all of whom were born in the United States. For 20 years, Yazmin endured severe gender-based violence at the hands of aggressive partners who trafficked her, caused her to have a miscarriage, and left her bedridden for over a week due to a brutal beating. She self-medicated to cope with her harsh reality, and was caught driving under the influence of alcohol three times. One of Yazmin’s convictions was possession of a controlled substance. She had been forced to take methamphetamine by her partner in order to go into early labor and have a miscarriage.

Being a mother in prison is also an identity that is not given adequate weight by the criminal justice system. The 2007 report released by BJS also found, “52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates—reported having minor children, an estimated total of 1,706,600 children with parents in prison, accounting for 2.3 percent of the U.S. resident population under age 18.”2 One could deduce that incarcerated mothers are highly likely to have experienced violence and the emotional trauma that accompanies it.3 Several studies have pointed out that being the child of an incarcerated parent often leads to severe mental health issues stemming from the inability to connect with a stable caregiver who is not locked away.
“Since my mom got detained, I have been feeling sad and it’s hard for me to focus on school. I really need for my mom to come back,” said Yazmin’s youngest son, age 12. “Adults think I need medicine, counselors, social workers, but all I need right now is my mom,” he said.

Tie in being undocumented in a country that denies health care to those who are not in the US legally, and the result is someone like Yazmin: a survivor of intimate partner violence who had no means of accessing adequate and appropriate help because she was subject to legal and political maneuverings based on her place of birth.

Yazmin Considers Self-Deporting
In early August, I paid Yazmin a visit at West County Detention Facility in Richmond, California, where she informed me that she was veering toward self-deporting if her first bond hearing did not go according to plan. At this point Yazmin had been detained for six months and she was having a difficult time adjusting to being locked inside a room 22 – 23 hours a day. During our 30-minute interaction, she disclosed to me that immigration officials harassed her and other women on her block on a daily basis. If a detainee did not speak English, she would face being ridiculed or have toilet paper rolls thrown at her in an attempt to humiliate her.
“I hate being here, it’s dirty as hell in here. They’re very rude,” Yazmin said. “They throw the toilet paper rolls at us. Sometimes we can’t brush our teeth because they don’t give us a chance. A guard asked why we’re fighting our case, says we should go back to Mexico and not all of us are from Mexico. The food looks like they have maggots in there,” she said.

Yazmin’s testimonial highlights the blatant power disparities between the detainee and the law enforcers, and immigration officials’ insistence on presenting as legal actors. But they are not lawyers with sound legal advice to give. Yazmin, as a potential asylee, should not return to Mexico, due to an imminent threat against her life by the father of her children, who blames her for his deportation.

On November 10, 2016, just two days after Donald J. Trump had been elected president, and 257 days since Yazmin had been detained by ICE, several community members and I attended Yazmin’s second hearing in two months. At the first hearing her previous attorney had poorly represented her and this resulted in a deportation order. That attorney said in front of an immigration judge, “She should just deport herself and come back illegally—it’ll be easier that way.”

At this second hearing, the Department of Homeland Security attorney said to the judge, “Yazmin needs to stop blaming other people for her problems,” and the judge decided that Yazmin was a danger to society and a flight risk. He informed Yazmin’s attorney that whether he continued her hearing on the same day or several weeks in the future, he would rule for continued detention.

On April 3, 2017, federal district Judge William Orrick III heard a habeas petition for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in the case (Yazmin Liliana Elias vs. Jefferson Sessions, et al.) to relieve Yazmin of her continued detention because the immigration judge, Scott Simpson, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attorney, Erin Lopez, failed to prove she was a continued threat to the community. Although the motion to grant a TRO was denied, Judge Orrick ordered Yazmin’s next hearing to be continued from her previous hearing and take place before May 15, 2017. This push to have Yazmin’s last hearing continued at her next proceeding was a direct result of the community’s rallying behind the resilient mother of three.4

Community Support Turns the Tide
For roughly over a year various members of the community had been packing every court hearing, including the one that occurred at the San Francisco Courthouse. In Judge Orrick’s order released on April 20, 2017, he wrote, “Case law demonstrates that establishing dangerousness by ‘clear and convincing evidence’ is a high burden and must be demonstrated in fact, not ‘in theory.’” This was a direct response to the immigration judge’s refusal to let Yazmin go because she posed an immediate danger based on her past, despite the fact that she had been on the road to recovery by participating in a rehabilitation program tailored for survivors of domestic violence and breaking the cycle of abuse by remaining with a partner that did not exploit her.
Judge Orrick also stated that “it is extremely doubtful that any Magistrate Judge on this court would have remanded her to custody based on this record.” Toward the end of the hearing, prior to his decision, while gazing at the nearly 60 people seated in court to stand by Yazmin, Judge Orrick emphatically told the courtroom, “I can see all the support that is here for the respondent. Community presence will certainly be taken into consideration for my decision.”

Between May 1 and May 11, East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition (EBIYC) began to wrap up a nearly eight-month campaign in hopes that Yazmin Elias would be liberated from immigration detention. Every day for an entire week organizers held actions that included testifying in front of thousands on May Day, being interviewed extensively by media, selling #FreeYaz shirts to raise money for possible bond, and an intensive online photo campaign to build up for Yazmin’s final hearing on Thursday, May 11.

May 11 turned out to be an incredibly powerful day, as more than 60 supporters of Yazmin came to pack the courtroom and chant outside the ICE building in San Francisco for more than four hours. At first Judge Simpson, the immigration judge, seemed skeptical at the idea of releasing Yazmin; at one point he compared her to “pressing a red button and releasing a missile that could land on the sidewalk and hurt a small child or in the middle of the ocean and cause no harm,” because of her past DUI convictions. But four hours of non-stop chanting and a court that never saw an empty seat, as well as Yazmin’s determination to show him that she was not a beast unworthy of rehabilitation, convinced the judge to grant her bond. Still, he showed his reluctance to release her by the exorbitant cost he set for her freedom: $25,000. According to the ICE officials that take bonds and the bank at which we retrieved an anonymous donor’s $25,000 check, this was the highest amount of bond that a judge had ever ordered under his name.

Family and community reunited outside of West County Detention Facility that afternoon after a long day of chanting and riding an emotional roller coaster, only to be taken for another ride. At around 6 p.m., more than 20 supporters found out that Yazmin would not be released after all, since she had a few warrants out for her arrest directly related to her inability to attend because she had been detained by ICE since February 2016. Her family and community rallied outside for an additional two hours, chanting “Free Yazmin!” and “Not one more deportation!” Unfortunately, Yazmin was not released that night, but the media managed to capture the incredible resilience strangers and family alike embodied for the incarcerated mother.

An Emotional Roller Coaster to the End
The next day, on Friday at around 2 p.m., organizers and family members received the news that Yazmin would be liberated, as she was transferred to Sonoma County Main Adult Jail in Santa Rosa and cleared of all warrants because her “failure to appears” were a direct result of miscommunication between DHS and the Sonoma County courts. Around 15 of Yazmin’s friends and family drove for two hours to reunite with her, only to be let down once again after two hours of deliberation by the Sonoma County night clerk. Media was present to be the courier of the government’s deeds, and more chanting ensued as the pressure mounted.
Mother’s Day passed on Sunday, May 14, as well as my own graduation from UC Berkeley on Saturday, May 13, Yazmin was still not scheduled to be released until Tuesday after she appeared to her criminal court hearing for missing her probation while she was detained. But on Monday her family received a call stating that she was on her way out and needed a ride home. A few hours later, Yazmin and her family were reunited. A few news outlets were present to broadcast the event nationwide in order to highlight the difficulties that are encountered by detained mothers all around the United States. As of May 15, 2017, Yazmin Liliana Elias is with her family in Santa Rosa, California.

Without community devotion, it is certain that Yazmin would not have been released into the loving arms of her family and I would have not been able to see my sister triumph in the face of adversity. This is evident by the court’s sudden flip on Yazmin’s and a judge who did not fully see her as a person capable of change; as someone not worthy of mercy. Courts are often impervious to trauma with an average of 75% of asylum seekers being rendered deportable in the city of San Francisco alone.5

It took three hearings, 15 months, a competent attorney and thousands of community members to free Yazmin. She still has a pending deportation order that was stopped by an intervention from her attorney, but the remarkable amount of community power and her own decision to not self-deport have kept her here. Increased community support and organizing tactics proved to be significant legal actors up against one of the toughest immigration judges in San Francisco. My sister Yazmin’s case is just one example that can be replicated throughout the country to fight the deportation apparatus that dismantles families everywhere. n

Mimi Elias is the sister of Yazmin Elias.

3    Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates,
4    Numerous nightly news programs featured Yasmin’s case. J

‘Our Communities are Our Own Sanctuaries’
By Blanca Vazquez

What does sanctuary mean for those of us who have fallen into the criminal legal system and been labeled as “criminals”? Do we not deserve sanctuary?
I ask this as an undocumented woman with a DUI conviction that denied me the opportunity to benefit from DACA. Being the “bad” politicized brown woman that I am, I already know the answer. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five years as an organizer joining local efforts to stop deportations, it’s that we are our own saviors. Our communities are our own sanctuaries. This could not be more true after the victorious campaign we at the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition (EBIYC) led to reunite Yazmin Elias with her family after 15 months in ICE custody at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, California.
Yazmin’s story is very common among the immigrants we see who are incarcerated facing deportation: a community member facing systematic oppression is explicitly criminalized instead of being provided with community-based transformative resources. Yazmin is a single mother who endured two decades of physical abuse and trauma from an early age and fell into the criminal and immigration legal systems while desperately trying to survive with her children. While she is a resilient woman who survived abuse and addiction and deserved a chance at happiness, she was further traumatized when she was incarcerated and faced possible deportation. As advocates against deportation, we knew that Yazmin’s case was not an easy one due to her extensive criminal record: three DUIs and drug convictions that had tagged her a threat to public safety. Nonetheless, our team at EBIYC did not shy away from this case. This time around, one of our own fellow organizers was being impacted, and we knew very well this case would set a strong precedent.
In the world of deportation defense, you come across a wide range of detention stories, from people who were arrested for minute insignificant offenses, such as driving with a busted headlight, to people with DUIs or other criminal convictions. In our experience it’s those difficult cases that truly push the national narrative on immigration to the far radical left.
From a restorative justice standpoint we believe that systematic oppression and white supremacy are the true factors to blame for the criminalization of immigrant people in the U.S., and not the “crime” for which they are being wrongfully disposed of. At the core of deportation defense campaigns is a direct challenge to the social and legal arguments validating someone’s crimes as rightful reasons for their expulsion from the country. When we challenge these arguments two things are happening simultaneously: 1) We are exposing the community to the harsh reality of the immigration court system while starting to humanize the defendant in the orange jumpsuit facing a judge via a screen monitor. (Yes, defendants are almost never physically present for their own court hearings!) 2) We are pushing a detainees family out of victimization and uplifting them into their own power and integrity as they spearhead our campaign activities.
These two components were imperative for challenging the immigration legal system in the courtroom and in the street to secure Yazmin’s freedom—especially when faced with an immigration judge notorious for deporting immigrants, Judge Scott Simpson. The court procedures exist to isolate, dehumanize and demoralize defendants forced to endure the bureaucratic cynicism that decides not only their fate but the fate of their families. Throughout the course of our campaign, Yazmin did not once go before Judge Simpson without a courtroom filled with members of her family and her community diligently observing. The judge forced Yazmin to relive traumatic abusive experiences that served as evidence, used derogatory language and multiple times denied Yazmin her freedom. Having community presence, and yes, specifically white people, in the courtroom dramatically shifted the power dynamic of those court hearings by shifting power from the judge to our base.
After we arduously advocated for Yazmin’s freedom for eight months, she was finally released on bond and reunited with her three US citizen children on May 15, 2017. Achieving Yazmin’s freedom in the era of Trump is a notable achievement for our movement, but more important is the transformation of Yazmin and her family.
Yazmin’s mother, who numerous times confronted her fear of entering the ICE field office to support her daughter during her court hearing. Having never been so close to la migra, she was skeptical of our strategies, but by the time Yazmin was released she was ready for the next campaign to get the next person released. That relinquishing of fear is our vision for our community; that is the reality we’re striving for. n

 Blanca Vasquez is the co founder and lead organizer of the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition (EBIYC).


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"Our communities are our own sanctuaries." - Blanca Vasquez

After Seven Long Years, Freedom

Profile of Marissa Alexander by Victoria Law

Wearing an ankle monitor at all times was one of the many restrictions placed on Marissa Alexander during her two years of home confinement. Courtesy of Marissa Alexander

As the clock struck midnight on January 26, Marissa Alexander was finally able to pull off her ankle monitor. The Florida mother of three was officially done with her two-year sentence of home confinement and electronic monitoring.1 Despite the late hour, she drove to her sister’s house where she, her mother and her sister had a toast to her freedom. The next morning, she took her youngest daughter to breakfast before dropping her off at school; something that she’d never before been able to do with her six-year-old. That night, she took her 16-year-old twins to dinner. That weekend, family and friends threw a party in her honor. And finally, on Sunday, Alexander put a baseball cap on and headed to a local bar to watch the football game in anonymity. It was the first time the Jacksonville mother had been able to do so since her legal ordeal began in 2010.

No Justice When Black Women Fight Back

As reported previously on Truthout,2 in July 2010, Marissa Alexander gave birth to her baby girl. The previous year, she had separated from and obtained a restraining order against her then-husband Rico Gray, who had been violent toward her on more than one occasion. But when she learned that she was pregnant, she amended the order to remove the ban on contact. The two still lived in separate houses.

Nine days after the baby’s birth, Gray was in Alexander’s house and attacked her. “He assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave,” Alexander recounted in an open letter.3 She escaped into the garage, but realized she had forgotten the keys to her truck. The garage door opener refused to work. She grabbed her gun, which was legally registered, and reentered her home to either leave another way or grab her phone to call for help. When Gray charged at her, she fired a warning shot. Gray left, then called the police and reported that Alexander had shot at him and his sons. She was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In court, Alexander tried to argue self-defense under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. But the pretrial judge ruled that Alexander could have left her own home through the front or back doors. In a 66-page deposition,4 Gray admitted to abusing not only Alexander, but also the other four women with whom he had children. At trial, several witnesses, including several family members, testified that they had seen injuries5 that Gray had inflicted on Alexander; Gray’s sisters-in-law also testified that he had a reputation for violence in the community. Nonetheless, the judge instructed the jury that, when considering whether Alexander had acted in self-defense, she had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gray was committing aggravated battery when she fired. After 12 minutes, the jury returned with a guilty verdict.

In Florida, the prosecutor has the discretion to add a 10-20-Life sentencing enhancement6, which requires a 20-year minimum sentence when a firearm is discharged. The Florida Department of Corrections has noted that Black people are more than twice as likely as white or Latino people7 to have the enhancement added to their sentence. Alexander was no exception; prosecutor Angela Corey decided to add that enhancement, and Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Three months before Alexander was sentenced, stand your ground was interpreted very differently in Sanford, Florida. On February 26, 2012, police initially refused to arrest George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed Black teenager.8 The following year, Zimmerman successfully invoked Stand Your Ground as a defense, with the judge instructing the jury that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat. He was fully acquitted. The comparison thrust Alexander’s case into the national spotlight, garnering her support from around the country.9 Her story became a symbol of how domestic violence survivors,10 particularly women of color, are criminalized when they defend themselves.11

In 2013, an appeals court overturned her conviction, remanding her for a new trial. The court also stated that, if convicted, Alexander’s sentences must be served consecutively rather than concurrently. The prosecutor once again charged Alexander with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. If convicted, Alexander faced 20 years for each count, totaling 60 years in prison. However, the following year, Alexander agreed to a plea bargain12 that included time served for the 1,030 days she had already spent behind bars, another 65 days in jail and two years of house arrest.

The Cost of “Freedom”

On January 27, 2015, after 1,095 days behind bars, Alexander walked out of jail13. An ankle monitor was clamped to her left leg and she began her two years of home confinement.

Alexander told us there was no doubt that after prison, house arrest provided some relief. “Being at home and being able to be in the privacy of your own home and turn on a light and sit on a toilet by yourself with the door shut, you just cannot compare that to prison,” she said.

Under house arrest, no one told her to sit up and recite her prison ID number, and no one regulated her schedule or her meals. “I can go to the fridge and get what I want when I want,” she said.

Still, those small freedoms came with a price tag. In Alexander’s case, it was a fairly hefty one. She had to pay not only for the ankle device and cost of monitoring14, but also a monthly drug test, even though she only took one drug test during the entire 24 months. Alexander estimates that she paid slightly over $10,000 for those two years.

This number does not include the cost of electronic monitoring between November 2013, when she was released on bond awaiting her new trial, and November 2014, when she returned to jail to complete her 65-day sentence. During those 12 months, Alexander was responsible for paying $105 biweekly for electronic monitoring. Supporters raised the money covering those fees plus her living and legal expenses.

Art by Dignidad Rebelde

If Alexander fell behind on paying, or failed to pay the entire amount before her sentence expired, it would be a technical violation of her sentence15. “It wouldn’t be a new charge,” explained Alexander. But had that happened, Alexander would have ended up back in court where a judge could decide to either extend the length of probation or end it and issue a judgment. The judge could also decide to send Alexander back to jail for violating the terms of her probation. Fortunately, Alexander’s supporters had raised enough money to cover these costs. 

There were other, non-monetary costs as well. For the first six months, Alexander was granted permission to leave her house only to take her children to and from school, look for employment and attend church services. “All the other things you’re able to do, like grocery shopping or upkeep and things like that, I wasn’t able to do,” she told us. Fortunately, family and friends stepped in and were able to help keep her kitchen stocked and run any other errands that Alexander and her children might need.

Six months later, Alexander filed a motion to have the terms of her confinement relaxed. The judge agreed and so, each week, Alexander turned in a schedule specifying where she planned to be at any given hour. “The idea is that you don’t deviate from your schedule,” she explained. The monitor worked via GPS, allowing the company to track her every location. The strict scheduling meant that, if the line at the grocery store was moving slowly, she would worry about getting home on time or risk getting a violation. “There’s been many a time that I’ve been cutting it close at getting home for whatever reason and I needed gas and my truck was on E [empty] and I was just like, ‘I’m going to have to have somebody else get the gas for me or wait for the next day to go back out and get the gas,’” she recalled.

Sometimes, her schedule was not entered into the company’s system correctly. “It’s human error, it happens,” acknowledged Alexander. She remembered several occasions in which she had specified on her schedule that she would be attending church, but when she walked out of her door and began making her way there her monitor began sounding an alert. On these occasions, her cell phone would promptly ring. “Hey, you’re not scheduled to be out. Why are you out?” the voice on the other line would ask. Alexander recalled, “In those instances, I’ll go back home. I wouldn’t go and do what I needed to do.”

But even when her schedule was entered correctly, the restrictions still prevented Alexander from fully participating in her children’s and family’s lives. After the first six months, she was allowed to attend parent-teacher conferences for her children, but not allowed to be at their extracurricular activities. “I missed my daughter’s entire basketball season,” Alexander said. Other family members would attend the games, but Alexander was not allowed to do so. At times, she arrived in time to see the last two or three minutes, but she was never able to sit on the bleachers and cheer for her daughter. She also missed her youngest daughter’s elementary school award ceremony. And there were many sunny days when she couldn’t take her children to the park or out for a bike ride. “Those things are always really difficult,” she recalled.

In addition to the monitor strapped to her leg, Alexander was required to carry this GPS handheld device with her at all times. Courtesy of Marissa Alexander.

Electronic Monitoring Can Lead Back to Jail

“In the grand scheme of things, you cannot compare home confinement to prisons,” Alexander told us five days after her sentence was finished. But, she continues, the ways in which home confinement and electronic monitoring are structured are more likely to lead people back to prison than allow them to succeed. “Think of the people who didn’t make the news and don’t have that kind of support,” she said in a video to supporters one year into her house arrest16.

“I feel like it’s money-making. Period,” she told us. For electronic monitoring to be an actual alternative to incarceration, there would need to be “some type of pathway for people to really and truly get back on their feet and have resources available to them and some type of support system.” While Alexander had family and friends who supported her throughout those two years, most people lack that kind of support.

“You are putting people in the position that they are trying to pay for something that is difficult for them to pay for,” she said of the fees that most people on monitors are required to pay. Those that can’t keep up with the fees are sent back to jail. “Whatever money you paid to the system, they got, but you’re back in jail so now the taxpayers are paying for you. It’s a mess.”

In addition, she noted that having a felony conviction is frequently a barrier to employment and failure to find work is considered a violation of probation. Nationwide, over 150 cities and counties have “banned the box17,” or eliminated the question of conviction history on an initial job application. Florida’s Duval County is not one of them. Alexander, who has a bachelor’s degree in information technology and a master’s degree in business, was able to circumvent the degrading experience of checking the box and explaining her record by launching her own consulting business. Of course, she understands that not everyone has that option, and that for many people, securing a job while on home confinement is a formidable task.

 “If you don’t have the support you need and the resources to get employment and somewhere to stay, then you are not going to be successful on it,” she said.

Looking to the Future

When we spoke, five days after shedding her ankle monitor and its accompanying restrictions, Alexander was still feeling the effects of the past two years. “I find myself wanting to stay in my house just like I was doing before,” she said, noting that she hasn’t become fully accustomed to the fact that she is free to go to the store or simply step outside her house when she wishes, without repercussions. She need not miss the next award ceremony or basketball game. 

Alexander is also now free to advocate for changes in the system that punished her for defending herself. In February, she spoke before the Senate Rule Committee18 in favor of Senate Bill 128, which would shift the burden of proof from the defendant to the state in Stand Your Ground hearings. “I’m just going to give you three numbers,” she stated before the committee19. “Number one. Number 12. And number 20. For me, one shot, a 12-minute verdict got me 20 years. I did go through a Stand Your Ground hearing. And in that hearing, you could tell the court and the prosecution struggled with that because it was difficult. With that said, putting a defendant in the position where they have to bear the burden of proof, in my opinion, removes your Constitutional right, the Fifth Amendment.” In early March, she flew to New York City to speak on a panel examining women, violence and incarceration20 at the Beyond the Bars conference at Columbia University.

During her two years of home confinement, Alexander wrote a book manuscript about her experiences. She also started the Marissa Alexander Justice Project21, an organization that will work to end domestic violence, the criminalization of abuse survivors, mandatory sentencing, sentencing disparities, the school-to-prison pipeline and the adjudication of teenagers as adults22, for which Florida has the highest rate in the country.

Alexander already has connections with social justice advocates and groups that have supported her through her legal ordeal. She’s planning to utilize these connections to see how the Project can fit in with and bolster existing efforts.

“I’m going to be part of what’s already out there and use my experiences and my name to bring more to it,” Alexander said. “I’m not separate from anybody. This will be my contribution in solidarity.” n


Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Her first book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, examines organizing in women’s jails and prisons across the country. © 2017 Truthout. Reprinted with permission.







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Radical Power of Restorative Justice

Excerpts from a panel discussion with Jodie Geddes, Rose Elizondo and Garry “Malachi” Scott, moderated by Lisa Dettmer.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth © Lane Hartwell

Contemporary restorative justice practices, which arose in the early 1980s, focus on healing and transforming the wounds of victims, offenders, and the community caused or revealed by the wrongdoing. It is frequently based on a process of truth telling, apology, making amends, reparation, and reconciliation. Even some conservatives have come to realize that punishing the offender creates more conflict than peace and deepens societal wounds instead of healing them. Restorative justice seeks greater self-reliance in the community by involving all those with a stake in a specific offense to come together in order to heal and repair the harm as much as possible. Ultimately, it allows all parties, but especially the person harmed, to begin the process of healing.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) was founded in 2005 to interrupt cycles of violence and to focus on reducing racial disparities and public costs associated with incarceration, suspension, and expulsion. RJOY provides educational training and technical assistance, and works with Oakland schools in the community and the juvenile justice system. Jodie Geddes is the Community Organizing Coordinator at RJOY.

A Way of Living
Excerpt from an interview with Jodie Geddes by Lisa Dettmer

Lisa Dettmer: Can you tell us a little bit of how restorative justice came about, and how Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth got started here in Oakland?

Jodie Geddes: Restorative justice comes from indigenous practices about how we are in relationship with each other, community, and also the world around us. It comes from these indigenous practices of health, thriving, and healing communities, but today what we find ourselves dealing with is a system that oftentimes is perpetuating cycles of violence, and trauma, and harm.

When I say “indigenous,” I talk about native people to this land of the Americas, but also all across the world. When we look at places like South Africa and Rwanda, they’ve used their own indigenous practices of healing to deal with deep harm and conflict within community. And, when we look at Oakland, one of the things that many people were examining on a large scale were these disproportionate rates of expulsion and suspension [from schools], particularly among black and brown youth. And, when we think about our educational system, it’s supposed to educate our young people, right, so that they can go out into the world and live deeper into their gifts. The more we suspend and expel young people, what we’re doing is filtering them into the school to prison pipeline.

In 2007, we started this pilot project working in three different schools to really look at the relationship between restorative justice and building a whole school’s approach. It is very successfully decreasing suspension rates and eliminating expulsion. So, that called the question to the city to say, “How do we continue to do more restorative justice?” We find ourselves having right now over 40 coordinators within schools throughout Oakland.

When we talk about restorative justice, it’s not just doing a circle process to deal with that particular conflict and harm, but how do young people be in a relationship with each other, as well. What we find are relationship-building circles happening in schools where young people can talk about the things that they’re experiencing within their home and also within their community so that they can bring their whole selves into the school. And, so I think, honestly, this started out of community members raising a need for other practices of healing, to better serve their young people, to better serve their communities, right, and just different voices coming together from judges, to teachers, to just vocal community members and young people saying that there’s a need for this. And, that led to the foundation of our organization that does work within schools, the juvenile justice systems, as well as the community.

Dettmer: Is restorative justice also a way of living?

Geddes: One of the things to keep in mind: that restorative justice isn’t just about the circle process where people are sitting and sharing stories, but it’s also a way of living. How are we calling people in and nurturing them? I mean, also hold them accountable, to what their values and what they say their values are.

One of the easiest ways to understand restorative justice is imagine your family members sitting in a circle with each other, and you have something called a talking piece, a significant object. So, let’s say there’s a picture of your grandparents, right, and your grandparents were the pillars of your family, right. And, while that picture is in the frame, you’re going around answering questions. So, one of the questions could be, you know, “What was something that happened this weekend that was really significant for you?” and you go around and you just share with each other. Most times, in this system that we live today, people are so busy that we don’t take time and space to be in community and be in a relationship, even people that are connected and related by blood. And, then one of the other questions could say, “How can we build deeper relationships with each other as family members?” and then another question you can go deeper and ask, “What is something that people are struggling with right now?” So, restorative justice isn’t something that we only do in schools and we only do in a juvenile justice system, but also within our lives and how we connect with each other.

When we are talking about restorative justice in relationship to conflict, let’s keep in mind that this is a victim-centered process, right, because what happens within our traditional criminal justice system, people who are harmed do not have space to speak up. We have something called a victim impact statement, but that’s not something that’s always read, and what we know about trauma is that it has lingering effects on people. It’s like a residue that stays behind years, and years, and years. People who have been harmed, want to know, “Why me?” In this space, they’re oftentimes sitting in the circle with the person that committed the harm. The person who causes the harm explains why they did it, what happened, how it made them feel, and whether or not they recognize how it affected those afflicted and the community. The person who was harmed has the opportunity to express what they felt, what came up for them, and how they’re still wrestling with it. The essential question is, “How do we make this right?” Not how we punish people, not how we exclude people from our community, not how we hurt people, but how do we make this right? How do we heal people from the harm that they face?

And, what we begin to recognize throughout this process is that ‘hurt people hurt people’: so we need to stop these cycles of violence and harm. One of the things that we’re challenged with in the field right now is, how do you transform and shift systems? In schools, we ask young people to hold each other accountable, but we don’t hold the systems accountable that created the circumstances for harm to take place in the first place.

I think when we look at school systems, I think that teachers and administrators need to see themselves as youth advocates first and foremost. And, if we put the young people at the center of our work and schools, we begin to challenge the other structures of school systems that can oftentimes lead to an unhealthy school culture, which is why when we talk about restorative justice in the schools, we’re talking about a whole system shift.


Courtesy of Insight Prison Project

Truth and Reconciliation Framework

Dettmer: Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the truth and reconciliation aspect. I was just reading that Fania Davis was talking about bringing truth and reconciliation practices into places like Ferguson, where there’s police terror.

Geddes: Historically, there have been different kinds of truth and reconciliation processes that have happened on smaller levels. A lot of people know about South Africa and, in some ways, Rwanda and their Gacaca process. That was a combination of the International Court as well as their own homegrown native process. One of the things we’ve seen, though, is there are a lot of people doing truth-telling and action work, but it’s really about them being in a relationship with each other for us to say if we can do a smaller process, such as a Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation process. What would it mean to have that on a larger level, looking at the history of violence, particularly against African Americans, in the United States with the restorative justice lens and framework? That is not fully defined. We are still developing and understanding what that means.

For me, it’s about calling people in instead of calling people out. If I push people out that I have different opinions with or who have perpetuated systems of whiteness and oppression, in some ways I’m only replicating the dehumanization that the system has done to me and that I’ve seen the system do to other people that look like me, right, black and brown folks, women, and queer folks. And, so I think, on many levels, it’s really about decolonizing these processes that we’ve seen, to hold people accountable and nurture people at the same time.

There are a lot of components of healing. It’s really thinking about how do we not just look at reparations in terms of money, but also in terms of land, in terms of economic growth. And, this is something that Malachi often talks about when we talk about restorative economics, right. The dignity that comes along with people being able to afford and be offered fresh food to eat, right, a place to live that is dignified. And, so I think all of those things are part of a truth and reconciliation process, but, also, we would have restorative cities, right. We would have people that are in harmonious relations that are healthy, and in harmony doesn’t mean conflict doesn’t exist. Conflict is natural, but not conflict to the point where we’re committing violence and harm against each other because the state has shown us what that looks like. The state has created the structures in place that allow for us to function in relationship with each other that way. n

-Jodie Geddes is the Community Organizing Coordinator at Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY).

Putting the Neighbor Back in the Neighborhood
Excerpt from an interview with Rose Elizondo by Lisa Dettmer

In 2013, there was a young woman, Donitra Henderson, who was murdered in front of her four-year-old son right in Dover Park. The community was very disturbed and became really afraid. They wanted to do something.

Donitra’s family had trouble with funeral expenses and couldn’t afford a memorial service. We went to Max Cadji, who works with the Phat Beets program and asked if they could support a memorial service. (Phat Beets was using Dover Park and creating an edible community garden there for anyone in the neighborhood.) So we had this service, and also a memorial tree planting with Growing Together and Mallika Nair.

The memorial was in the park. A lot of people in the community came out. Donitra’s family was there. Her minister came and spoke. It was beautiful to have a ceremony, plant a tree, pour African libations. It was important to combine different practices that are culturally relevant to the community.

I was asked to do a restorative circle process. People in the neighborhood had never participated in something like that.  About 150 people showed up for the memorial service, and then there was a potluck. And about  60 or 70 people stayed for the circle. It was quite profound because we talked about the homicide and how it made us feel.

The restorative justice belief is that when a crime happens, the community is harmed. It’s a break in relationships. Fear causes distrust, which means the neighbors are going to be distrustful of each other, especially if there are differences, which there are in North Oakland. Because of gentrification, there are a lot of racial, social, financial and economic differences. This memorial service brought people across differences together. We sat in circle. We talked about these deep topics. As Malachi says, there’s a strength in being vulnerable, and so people were vulnerable and they shared a lot. (See Malachi Scott interview on p 52.)

I knew Malachi from my restorative justice work in San Quentin with a grassroots group that the men in San Quentin themselves started in 2005, the San Quentin Restorative Justice Interfaith Roundtable. He was there and he just spoke so beautifully about taking a life and how he wanted to give life.

So, that event was a catalyst. The neighbors kept asking for more. They wanted trainings and restorative justice.  One of our goals is to put the neighbor back in neighborhood because, as you create relationship, there’s less crime. Violence happens when we forget that we are neighbors, that we are all brothers and sisters to each other. In restorative justice, there’s the value that everyone is connected, that we are all interconnected, too. What happens to one happens to other. We’re bringing these values, and, hopefully, it will make change in the neighborhood. I think it already has.

-Rose Elizondo cofounded the San Quentin Restorative Justice Interfaith group and the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council.


Restorative Economics

Excerpt from an interview with Rose Elizondo by Lisa Dettmer

Lisa Dettmer: What is restorative economics about?

Rose Elizondo: Restorative economics is the belief that you can’t just talk about equal opportunity but have to do something. Restorative economics creates opportunities, especially for those who have been incarcerated or those who face barriers in employment. Oftentimes, people who are victims of crime have barriers to employment, too, because of the trauma that’s created.

In North Oakland, we’re working to try to create restorative economics, for example, through Phat Beets Produce which works with people of color farmers; and the Youth Pickle Company that hires youth. Foster youth, who oftentimes end up in the juvenile justice system, get hired. Neighborhood youth learn about cooking and catering skills through the Phat Beets Youth Pickle Company.

I’ve done circles with the youths, and I love it because they love it. It’s really nice because it’s not just giving someone a job, it’s also how can we listen? How can we talk to someone? If someone shows up late because they have a difficult life situation, should we just fire them or kick them out? Not in the restorative justice way of living. If they have trauma in their life, it’s talking about that and talking about ‘are your needs being met’, especially for foster youth. And, that’s really beautiful. So that piece of restorative economics also empowers the community, people in the neighborhood.

There’s a kitchen incubator program, and through the kitchen incubator program there’s a woman. She’s Venezuelan and she identifies as queer, and she wanted to start a restaurant business but didn’t have the startup funds, and you need the insurance, and the permits, and all of that. We can help her start her own restaurant or food service business, and she can get a start with that and see if she likes it. We’re doing the same with other projects.

Father Greg Boyle from Homeboy Industries says, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” so how can we reinvest in our communities? And, Zachary Norris from the Ella Baker Center, he talks about truth and reinvestment. Can our state, and county, and city reinvest in communities, especially communities that are harmed by the systemic violence?

Dettmer: Well, when you say “we,” who’s we? Because, from my understanding, North Oakland Restorative Justice Council is a grassroots organization. I mean, this is something the city should be doing, is trying to figure out how to create restorative economics. I’m just wondering what kind of support you’re getting from organizations, from the city. You said you’re having a good turnout from neighbors. I’m guessing this is still in the beginning process.

Elizondo: So, we invite the city, the county, the state, and national government to reinvest, to re-examine how money is allocated or spent, in the communities they’re working in. There’s a lot of money in city governments, especially for police departments. How that money is allocated or spent is up to the city and elected officials to decide.

Another one of our initiatives is Restorative Justice Food Truck—everybody loves food trucks. I love them. So, with this food truck, Children’s Hospital donated a food truck to us—it’s used—we bought it for a dollar. But, it needed repairs. We’ve raised maybe $16,000, but it needs almost $30,000 to make it viable. And, what’s beautiful about the concept of this food truck is that we want to have the food truck be for different purposes. For people who’ve lost somebody to homicide, and maybe have difficulty keeping jobs because of the trauma, they would love to use the food truck.

We also work with Beyond Emancipation, and the foster youth use the food truck. [It’s part of] the kitchen incubator program. There is an Ethiopian family that wants to use the food truck one day a week, and a Colombian family. So, it’s a beautiful way to revitalize the economics of the community. We source locally… almost everything is organic and fresh and from farmers rooted in communities of color.  You know, some people talk about the triple bottom line, and this is even more than that. You can find out more from the video on our website.  As organizer Bryant Terry’s says “You can’t talk about bringing food into communities without bringing jobs into communities”.  n

Reference: North Oakland Restorative Justice Council’s website


Inside Incarceration

Excerpts from an interview with Garry “Malachi” Scott by Lisa Dettmer

 Malachi Scott © 2015 Bay Area News Group

Lisa Dettmer: Malachi, talk a little bit about how restorative justice, how you came to it and what was healing about it for you? What do you find important for restorative justice in you, in your life, and now in your work.

Malachi Scott: I came to restorative justice 10 years into my incarceration. I was incarcerated for a homicide that I take full responsibility for. I was 15 years old. I was tried as an adult, and I was facing over 60 years to life in prison. I took a plea bargain for 15 years to life. So I would just say this: during the first part of my incarceration, all I could think about was how am I going to make it in this new world where there is no way out? I had to figure myself out, how I’m going to survive, how I’m going to make it each day. It was very complex. It was difficult. I was alone in the sense that, you know, I’m a teenager, and I’m so dependent on my mom. Now, my mom can’t do nothing for me. I am there alone, and I have to focus on survival. So, at the time, like, I really couldn’t think about the actual harm that I did to the degree that I should have, and so it took years. Basically, I don’t know if I ever would’ve got to the point where I could actually face what I’d done without restorative justice because, in the process, I gained so much insight into myself and who I was as a person and how I got the point where I can do the worse thing that I could ever do to another human being.

The process was transformative. I got to look at the guilt that I carried, the shame, the domestic violence in my household and how that impacted me, and the way I think that it impacted my family, and, so to really be compassionate and be empathetic towards myself. You know, we was talking about empathy earlier, and I had to see myself in that light, you know, where I could actually start caring about myself instead of beating myself up so much, to be able to go into the process of actually looking at the harm that I caused. To make the long story short, it was called the Victim Offender Education Group, and it was through the Insight Prison Project. It was a restorative justice based curriculum that was meant to be probably for about a year. It was so transformative in my life that I ended up being in it for almost five years. I was in there with a majority of the men who were in for homicide at that time. That was the part of my circle, at least. We really, really shared deeply and exposed ourselves, became vulnerable, and then thought about the actual impact that we caused on the family and the community in such a way that I knew that I could not live the way that I used to. I just couldn’t do it.

At the end of the process we had surrogates come in, people who have lost loved ones to homicide, people who have been robbed, etc., come in and share their stories, and we shared our stories with them. Seeing the tears and their actual pain, and to hear what they think about…like, I never thought about anniversaries in that way, you know. Anniversaries come up and the pain that they go through, and maybe they become paralyzed, many different things that I never thought out. With all of it, I was able to get to point where I could be kind to myself, be empathetic towards others, and also honor the lives that I impacted. And, to this day, I still honor all the people that I impacted with my choices and my decisions.

You know, I do this work because it fills this void in my heart, and without it I don’t know where I would be, emotionally, mentally. This is the reason why I show up the way that I show up, because it’s for me. I see all the love coming towards formerly incarcerated people, people really accepting us. Not everybody. I know we have a long way to go, a long way to go. Being in Oakland, being around the community that I’m around, I see so much love and compassion that they don’t see me as sometimes I tend to see myself.

Just recently, I shared at a training about a dream I had a couple of days ago, that I’m probably not going to express too much on air, but I pretty much, at the end of the dream, I was hearing my own voice saying that I forgive myself, I forgive myself, and I woke up. I mean, it was kind of scary on one end, but it was a revelation. Am I really coming to the point to where I’m moving forward in a way that I never have before?  I just feel like that is happening right now, and I just want to carry that and just be in it.

Dettmer: I’m wondering, Malachi, how do you feel toxic masculinity, patriarchy, or misogyny molded your identity, and also how gender played into how you have been able to deal with your life or your feelings?

Malachi: You know, growing up I never really thought about masculinity and what that was. I didn’t know it was a thing. I didn’t think about social construction and oddities of the things. I was just in it. I would just live in it. And, so, you know, again, to the point where I actually can think about it, I definitely understand a combination of things. I definitely believe in choices. I’m really coming to terms with what it meant for me to grow up without a father. We talk about it a lot, you know, being in the circles where that question is asked. “How many of you have been raised without a father?” Like 90 percent, 95 percent of people raise their hands, so this is a conversation that’s been going on for a while before me. Personally, what did that mean to me, not to have a father? And watch my brother have his father partly in his life? Not necessarily as much, but at least he knew him and know that side of the family, and I have no clue?

I believe that I really battled with identity as a growing young man, and what were my needs at the time? I mean, my needs weren’t met. What is the immediate access that I had to meet those things? And, that was right outside my house. I spent so much time as a teenager outside of my house in the streets just running the neighborhood, not coming back for three days, sometimes a week would pass. I wasn’t happy at home. And, even though I didn’t know what love looked like in the household, I’m out looking for love not knowing what love looks like. We’re trying to create what it looks like, but ultimately it’s not necessarily a healthy sense of what love is and the kinds of decisions that we made.

I definitely battled with identity, and it took time for me to grow. I think I came to a point where I exercised strength when I was around 20 years old, when I just started to make a change in my life. I was affiliated with a street gang in LA. At 20 years old, I gave it up, and I had stress by going on the level four prison yard, maximum security yard, and telling that specific gang about the path that I’m choosing. I did that, and I think at that time when I made that decision I was afraid because I didn’t know how else was I going to live in this prison setting. A couple of weeks into it I felt like I made a huge mistake, like I should not have done that. It took some time for me to really feel that freedom that I had, feel the joy of being who I am and standing up as a man. I gave myself permission to live and to be free, and to pursue whatever it was that I could pursue in prison. If I would’ve stayed in it, I really believe that I would still be incarcerated to this day. I possibly would’ve died in prison, and the decision I made allowed me to take off  to the point to where I’m not getting into trouble, so then I made it to San Quentin State Prison where there is restorative justice, right. And, now, look at me today. It’s been a process. It’s been a journey.

- Garry “Malachi” Scott,is the Re-entry and Community Justice Coordinator at RJOY



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Excerpts from a panel discussion with Jodie Geddes, Rose Elizondo and Garry “Malachi” Scott, moderated by Lisa Dettmer.

Ban the Box

By Jahmese Myres with John Jones III

In the writing of this piece, we gained a new appreciation for the essential leadership role that Black women play in pushing for Ban the Box and other criminal justice policy reform. As the fastest growing prison population, and the ones supporting incarcerated folks from the outside, we acknowledge the impact the system has on women’s lives and are grateful for their advocacy. Both John and I are committed to following the leadership of formerly incarcerated people, and believe policy change will take the work of both directly impacted folks and supportive advocates.

Prince White, Jahmese Myres and John Jones. Courtesy of Jahmese Myers.

When John and I first met in 2014, I was working with Lift Up Oakland, a coalition of community and labor organizations leading a ballot initiative that would raise Oakland’s minimum wage to one of the highest in the country and provide sick time to all workers. John was working as a security guard at a fast food restaurant downtown and had recently been released after spending one-third of his life in prison. He was committed to creating a stable home for his son, and we bonded over a shared belief that obtaining a good job is a critical component of realizing this commitment.

It didn’t take long for John to become a key leader the minimum wage campaign. He was making $10/hour with no sick time or benefits in one of the most expensive regions in the country. This job didn’t provide John with the means to care for his family, but it was the only job he could get as a convicted felon. It didn’t matter that he was an FAA licensed aircraft mechanic; employers saw John’s record and immediately moved his resume to the “no” pile. We knew that raising wages was one important solution, but it wouldn’t be enough. We must put an end to discrimination against formerly incarcerated people when they look for a job.

Studies show that one of the most important factors for success after incarceration is good paying, stable employment. Yet, formerly incarcerated people are regularly discriminated against in the hiring process once they check the box on the job application asking about criminal history. A recent study concluded that only 5% of African American applicants with a criminal record get a call back from the employer after submitting the application. Subsequently, formerly incarcerated people are left with only losing choices: chronic unemployment, low wages they can’t survive on, or returning to the street economy. No wonder recidivism rates are so high at 45 to 61 percent.

With the criminal justice system’s disproportional impact on people of color—1 in 3 Black men is likely to be incarcerated in his lifetime and 95% of all prosecutors are White—barriers to job access post-incarceration also becomes a serious racial justice issue. Even without criminal history as a factor, people of color are over-represented in lower-wage industries like hospitality, food service, retail, security, and warehousing and transportation. Formerly incarcerated people experience the double barrier of hiring discrimination based on their past and occupational racial segregation that concentrates them into low wage work and limits their earning potential.

While a person is incarcerated, research shows that their family members-—especially Black women—suffer significantly by paying the price of fees, fines, visits, costly phone calls, and commissary support. When the incarcerated member returns home, household income also has to stretch further to make up for lack of job access, which leads to stress, strained relationships with partners and children, and loss of quality family time.

Because of the profit-driven system of mass incarceration, 70 million people in the United States have a criminal record. In Alameda County, 375,000 (1 in 4 residents) have an arrest record. Positive sentencing reforms, like Prop 47 in California, will also increase the number of returning citizens who are ready to work. Our best chance at real public safety, community stability, and a thriving economy is to ensure those 70 million with a criminal record receive a fair chance at a good job.

There is a growing movement to “Ban the Box” which removes questions of criminal history from employment applications. Twenty-four states have adopted a Ban the Box policy, and 9 states and 14 jurisdictions have a Ban the Box policy that applies to private sector employers. In California, Assembly Bill 1008, which requires private sector employers to ban the box statewide was signed by Governor Brown’s in October 2017.

From Ban the Box History Report 2016

Locally, John and I are working with Revive Oakland, a coalition of community organizations, clergy and labor unions, to ensure that the Port of Oakland’s new state-of-the-art logistics and warehouse complex has a strong Ban the Box policy that not only removes questions about criminal record from the job application, but also limits employers to conduct background checks only when absolutely necessary to the position. Revive Oakland’s proposal also requires the employer to consider the context and circumstances of the conviction; including the person’s age at the time of the offense, how much time has passed since the conviction, efforts to rehabilitate, and whether or not the conviction even relates to the job requirements or is indicative of future behavior on the job.

We’ve been thinking a lot about why some employers see a criminal record as an excluding factor. While there may be some legitimate concerns related to particularly sensitive positions, in general, there are no valid reasons why formerly incarcerated people would make worse employees. As John points out, he was steadily employed in prison for a private employer, making pennies per hour. Working under those conditions makes his work ethic and drive stronger than most. Because many private corporations use exploited prison labor, inmates are already handling sensitive information and doing the jobs they might apply for once released. Ironically, some companies are using prison labor, but discriminate against formerly incarcerated people. For example, AT&T has used inmates to staff call centers, yet one of the formerly incarcerated community members John and I work with was fired from the company for being on parole.

Under the Trump Administration, we live with the constant rhetoric that Black and Brown people are criminals; that we must be jailed, deported or even banned all together. As part of our resistance work, we must not only fight Trump’s detrimental policies that implement this narrative, but continue to advance our own progressive policies that take steps forward in dismantling cycles and systems of injustice. In addition to Ban the Box for employment, we must Ban the Box on housing so that returning citizens are not excluded from an affordable place to live. And perhaps our most meaningful work is to put an end to costly, ineffective punitive punishment all together, and move toward more restorative justice practices.

If formerly incarcerated community members may have made mistakes in their past, they’ve certainly served their time. To prevent them from working is to continue to punish them—and their families—in the present. Ban the Box is a critical tool we can use right away to open up access and reduce discrimination while we continue to fight for an end to state sanctioned violence and mass incarceration. The scarlet letter of past incarceration not only denies us employment, housing and civic participation, but perhaps most detrimental, it denies us our full humanity and dignity.


Jahmese Myres is a deputy director with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and a planning commissioner for the City of Oakland. John Jones III is an Oakland native and a life coach with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. We want to express our gratitude for organizations led by formerly incarcerated people including Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice  and All of Us of None; and legal advocates National Employment Law Project  and East Bay Community Law Center.


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Restorative Justice for Families

By Jo Bauen, Ed.D.

I work for Oakland’s Community Works West, a non-profit aimed at mitigating the impact of incarceration on individuals by using principles of Restorative Justice. Between 2013 and 2016 I taught a parenting class called Parenting Inside-Out to men in Solano Prison in Vacaville, California. The incarcerated fathers and I are now collaborating on what we call “Restorative Justice for Families.” Here’s our story.

Restorative Justice Circle at Solano Prison in Vacaville, CA. Courtesy of Jo Bauen

By fall of 2016, over 270 men had competed Parenting Inside-Out, reconnecting with their families and coming to a new concept of fatherhood. Building on this work, in early 2017 I invited colleagues from Community Works West to speak about Restorative Justice. The fathers were extremely receptive to the concept of mending relationships and giving back what they have taken from society. I clearly recall one student, when he learned about Restorative Justice as an alternative to juvenile detention, stated, “I want to be you! I need to do this work so that young people do not make the mistakes I made.”

Given this response, a team of inmate leaders and I strategized ways to bring the tool of Restorative Justice into the wider prison population. Five men volunteered to be Restorative Justice Circle Keepers, so each could hold circles with other inmates. Community Works West’s Yejide Ankobia agreed to lead a monthly Restorative Justice Circle Keeper Training at Solano prison.

At our first session, Ankobia led us in slowing down to examine our values, demonstrating how to be fully present in the circle. She held space for the stories of each participant, so that we discovered the common bonds: centuries of oppression, racial injustice, systemic corruption and greed. Ankobia talked about the web of relationships in any family or community, and how important it is to mend relationships when they are damaged. And how every person in a community, classroom, or family system is completely necessary to the interconnected whole. We may only notice this when we lose someone to incarceration, death or illness, but if we value the web and each of our relationships, we can try to repair ruptured relationships and by doing so, strengthen our communities and ourselves.

Following the principles of Restorative Justice, Ankobia explained the steps for leading a Restorative Justice Circle—how to balance the acts of leading while also engaging as a participant—and demonstrated the skill of reading the circle and adapting in mid-stream. At the close of the workshop, the room was on fire, with participants ready to apply the principles to building a new society right there in prison.

Centerpiece cloth and artwork depicting ‘the moment of my crime’.  Courtesy of Jo Bauen

Inmates as Leaders: Our Process

For our next session, we asked participants to be prepared to lead the Restorative Justice Circles and they arrived ready to do it, each having practiced in his housing unit. Our first leader, Jose, astonished us with his acronym “OICGDCC” for memorizing the seven steps: Opening, Introduction of the Talking Piece, Check-in, Guidelines/Values, Discussion rounds, Check-out and Closing. Jose explained that he had memorized the steps in order to use them with his family during their weekly visits.

Jose opened with a brief meditation, then introduced the talking piece—a rock from the prison yard. He spoke of the meaning of the earth within the context of prison and led the check-in with the question: “What is one skill or talent you have?” We learned about proud cooks, sportsmen, coaches, teachers, change agents; some shared their gift of words and poetry; David shared his dry wit.

Jose asked: “What is the hardest part about being at Solano for you?” We heard about what it meant to give up an early, naive definition of self and move to a more authentic one; the suffering of pretending to be strong and fearless, then having to watch that identity be destroyed. Carlos said he had changed so much that his family no longer understood him, so he had “learned to detach, with love.”

David was clouded by emotion and cried because he felt he had lost contact with his daughter and was appreciative of the group’s willingness to let him emote.

Abraham said he regrets that he spent 27 years separated from his purpose, unable to give what he was born to give. “Parenting Inside Out is an opportunity that was a long time coming. This is our future; our legitimacy, our redemption, our hope. I guess this is the reason why I didn’t give up.”

Circle Keeper Jose encourages a fellow inmate in talking circle. Courtesy of Jo Bauen

Widening Circles

Six months into their training, the men fully recognized that they held a powerful tool they did not want to keep to themselves. They wanted to bring their expertise in Restorative Justice Circles to all of the prison’s four yards. They proposed a monthly “traverse” from the lower-level offender housing to the higher-level offender population. While I wanted to support the men’s well-intended proposal, I knew that due to the perceived security challenges of movement by inmates, it was highly uncommon for them to be allowed such access. After days of strategizing and drafting memos to the wardens and ranking officers on all the yards, somewhat to my amazement, we got our monthly traverse across the prison grounds approved.

On the day of the first traverse, the five Circle Keepers: Abraham, Silas, Carlos, David and Jose were ready. Prior to the traverse, we discussed our hopes and dreams, along with our fears. I learned that most of the men had spent time in the higher-level offender area and so, by walking to that area, they were revisiting the fears they faced when they were held there. They described the primitive, violent culture they remembered on Level III. David said he was revisiting his earlier self, a decade before he had committed to the changes he has now made. I learned that almost everyone was nervous about the responsibility of Circle Keeping, and few had slept well the night before.

Each Circle Keeper had a talking piece, and a memorized plan for his circle. I had five cloths to lay on the floor for ‘centerpieces’, and multiple copies of the memo authorizing the traverse, and the list of passes for the 50 higher level offenders. I had committed to memory the names of the Associate Warden, the Captains, Lieutenants and Sergeants on each yard and rehearsed the steps I’d have to take to get inmates from two yards into the Visiting Room. We made it into the Visiting Room with very little resistance. Miraculously I had help from several unexpected Solano staff and nearly 50 men were admitted to the Visiting Room. I opened the event with welcomes, our intentions, and introductions of the five Restorative Justice Circle Keepers. I asked each of the five Circle Keepers to offer his own understanding of Restorative Justice.

Next, we broke into five circles. With the Circle Keepers’ masterful facilitation, the groups warmed and opened up and went to the heart of the topics each had planned. The Restorative Justice Circle method proved itself. All around me I could tell that the men connected to each other and experienced the hope of Restorative Justice. When it was time to close the program, we heard reports back from each team: “I met a new friend.” “Thanks for looking me in the eye.” “Thanks for bringing hope.” “I want more training like this.”

At the debrief, everyone was ecstatic: “It showed me I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” “I knew it was all or nothing, so I gave all.” “We all won!” The men exchanged notes on what they had used for their opener, check-in, their values and guidelines, and their first rounds. Everyone agreed: we have built a means of sharing power, hope and strength through the Restorative Justice Circle Keeper process.

Someone said, “Our baby is walking. She is growing to meet the needs of hundreds of inmates at Solano.”

The five Circle Keepers have now completed a full year of hosting monthly Restorative Justice Circles for nearly 100 incarcerated men. The Circle Keepers and I are now training a new round of Circle Keepers on both Level II and III. I’ve recruited volunteers from the community to join the circles as witnesses and participants, with the hope that they will see the strengths I’ve seen, and rethink the role our society blindly imposes on incarcerated people. Meanwhile due to recent changes in state legislature, many of the men I work with will soon be released from prison. I see a new team of colleagues ready to lead circles on the streets.

“Restorative Justice takes into account the victim, the offender, the community, what led to the crime, and the “ripple effect” that resulted from the crime.  Restorative Justice works from a belief that the path to justice lies in problem-solving and reparation rather than punishment and isolation."


This Has Never Been Done Before In Jail

Last November I was assigned to lead a Restorative Justice Circle training at San Francisco County Jail #5, in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP), one of Community Works West’s in-custody programs. RSVP takes place in a residential ‘pod’ that holds 48 men, all of whom have agreed to participate in a full-time program aimed at violence prevention. My Restorative Justice Circle training would be a voluntary complement to the existing programming. I was introduced to the community, and circulated a sign-up sheet for my weekly two-hour RJ circle. Twenty men signed up.

I began by ‘holding circle’, or demonstrating the seven-step Restorative Justice circle process. Participants quickly stepped up to share their values, their stories, their vulnerabilities and their growth. After several weeks, I polled to see if some of the men wished to become Circle Keepers, to lead the process themselves. Seven of the 20 men raised their hands. The self-selected Circle Keepers turned out to be quick learners, who needed little coaching in the principles and practices of Restorative Justice. After just a few training sessions, they were ready to hold weekly circles with the remaining participants. Six months in, the RJ Circle program was running smoothly, with positive feedback from both staff and inmate participants.

Then, in early May, two inmates in the RSVP pod had a serious argument that ended up in physical violence. Both were removed from the pod to separate sections of the jail. I learned of the fight from our staff, and as soon as I arrived at jail, from the Circle Keepers. “We want to handle this in a circle” they urged, and staff mostly agreed. But we needed to arrange a time and secure a space, plus we needed approval from the Captain to allow inmates to engage in addressing the conflict, as well as to let inmates move through the jail to accomplish an RJ circle. I had just attended a 3-day RJ Harm Circle training. I was eager to see the Circle Keepers test their wings in addressing a real, pressing conflict. But the weeks went by dealing with administrative details, and in some frustration I left for a two-week vacation. I came back to work, and was approached by glowing colleagues. “Your Circle Keepers held the Harm Circle, and they broke through the conflict and resolved it,” I was told. I was shocked that the inmates had held a Harm Circle without me when I had just barely learned to do the Harm Circle myself, and I was not even authorized to do it. But given the frustration I faced before I left town, I was glad to learn that something went right.

Once back in Jail, I asked the men how it went, and how they felt about it. I learned they had held three  circles over three days. They told me, “We kept true to your method.” The staff wanted to intervene with suggestions, but the Circle Keepers said ‘no’, and steered the process according to the 7 steps. After beginning the circle process with an opening, check in, and values round, they invited the two opponents to read their accountability letters. The letters were sincere, which let everyone know the men were ready to work.

Lamar said, “When a circle works the way it should, no one has any personal agenda. Then everyone is authentic. And then everyone heals.”

“It was deep,” added Rob. “I wasn’t going to be able to share, but you kicked it off Corwyn, and that let me know I could go deep too. Everybody fused, like we shared one emotion.”

Rodney offered, “So then Rob, when you told about your father, I couldn’t hold it back any longer, because it made me think about my own children. I was choked up. And I know others were too.”

“What made it work?” I probed further.

Sam said, “We had a positive attitude. We believed we could help the men in conflict, and we did help them.”

Manu said, “This circle helped everyone, not just the two in conflict. It works if you let it.”

Rodney said, “It is about the power in the circle. Nothing is forced. Doors just kept opening.”

Lamar said, “You told us this practice comes from indigenous roots. I think we tapped into something.”

James recalled, “Everyone’s vulnerability helped me notice things. Then I could share my story.”

Lamar affirmed, “It is about establishing trust, and knowing you will not be judged.”

“It’s when you start with values, then everybody opens up,” said Rob. Then he added, “I’m kind of  an airhead, but I’m also an intellectual. So I’m good at going along with the flow, and also holding people to the process.” This prompted the men to go back and forth about how they riffed off each other’s leadership skills, stepping forward and back to support the group through the circle process.

Eli said, “I feel that the whole vibe in the pod changed as a result of that circle.”

“This could be the ‘no violence pod’. We could cut it at the door,” Lamar added.

The conversation shifted:

 “So, can we move through the jail like this?” Rob asked. He proposed that this team could be called on to address fights throughout the jail.

 “This should be documented,” said Elliott, “They always report the negative stuff, and here is a positive story.”

“And can we get credit for what we’ve done? Because this has never been done before in jail,” said Eli. 


Jo Bauen, Ed.D. is a popular educator, artist and restorative justice practitioner with Community Works West, based in Oakland, CA.


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December 16, 7-9:30 pm: Smoothies • Snacks • Socializing • Storytelling • Movement • Dance

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