DISTRICT HEIGHTS — Progressive Maryland hosted “When They See Us: An Organizing Conversation” to bring together the community to discuss problems within the justice system in Prince George’s County on Sept. 7.
Topics discussed included changes needed in the justice system and how residents of the county can make those changes and hold law enforcement accountable. The event brought together members of Progressive Maryland, Color of Change and other residents of the D.C. Metro Area for discussion guided by the Netflix series “When They See Us.” The show detailed the story of the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino boys of a crime in New York in 1989.
Although they were eventually released, they collectively lost more than 35 years of their lives and were publically vilified for a crime they did not commit.
The series brought to light flaws in the legal system which are still present in the U.S. today, Lead Prince George’s County Organizer for Progressive Maryland Angum Check said.
“Long-standing structural and policy forces have manufactured the system that destroys the capabilities of individuals and renders certain lives as disposable,” Check said. “We see how these systems have adapted, shifted and evolved over time to become more covert and elusive. But we are not easily deceived and we see the problem that mass incarceration very clearly.”
Since the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated has increased by 500%, she said. While people of color who make up 37% of the U.S. population, they disproportionately makeup 67% of the incarcerated population, Check added.
For the first half of the event, the audience heard from speakers who detailed some of the factors that contribute to the high incarceration rate of black and brown people including the school-to-prison pipeline, the relationship between the police and the community and the impact of the state’s attorney’s office.
Progressive Maryland members called the education system a major factor in how imprisonment for young minorities starts. Part of that stems from the presence of biased school resource officers who have a poor relationship with students diminishing the trust between students, teachers and the officers.
Another factor is the relationship police officers have with the residents they serve. Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) Captain Joe Perez gave an inside perspective of how discrimination and dysfunction is a major issue within the department.
Perez used to work in the internal affairs department of the PGPD until he decided it was time to speak up about the wrongdoing he had seen against county citizens. According to Perez, a small group of the same people was always the cause of the disruption on the force. If a minority officer were to step out of line, they would face the consequences.
Adamant about making changes, 15 police officers within the PGPD filed a lawsuit against their department for discrimination and filed and civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice, which is now investigating the PGPD, Perez said.
“We tried to get things fixed from the inside by pointing it out but what happened is the department chose to defend racist officers as opposed to just correcting the problem,” said Perez.
The community must hold the police accountable for their actions, Perez said. Part of that will come from getting mandatory body cameras on police officers, a solution that most of the room voiced support.
Other Progressive Maryland members detailed how essential the state’s attorney is in fairly prosecuting cases as a “chief advocate” for victims.
Some of the responsibilities for a progressive state’s attorney’s office they listed were creating a fair and just system, charging with restraint, encouraging treatment for substance abusers, minimizing misdemeanors and being mindful when prosecuting, as well as holding police accountable.
Following the presentations, members of the audience were encouraged to take part into group sessions. People discussed the problems and solutions for the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a progressive state’s attorney’s office, police relations and reentry.
After the sessions, the main draw of the event was keynote speaker, former NAACP president and former Maryland governor candidate Ben Jealous.
He began by telling stories of members of his family who had been victims of violence. However, Jealous pointed out that those family members were not the only victims of violence as those who committed the crime had previously dealt with trauma.
“The circle of violence is incessant,” he said. “The people in this room have the courage to recognize the whole truth.”
Mass incarceration affects everyone in America, Jealous said. Americans are massively incarcerated over any other country in the world. Although black people remain massively detained over anyone else, even the incarceration of white men has skyrocketed, jumping 50% between 2000 and 2010, Jealous added.
He emphasized that the problem of mass incarceration and injustice is not specific to one group and that everyone must come together to end it.
“We are progressives ultimately because we believe we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper,” Jealous said.
Progressive Maryland members encouraged those in the audience to become involved in making change, not just sitting in on the meeting and forgetting everything when they leave. They urged people to call their elected officials, do volunteer work and attend events.
Their overarching call to action was for people to keep their police officers and law enforcement accountable.
“Why is police accountability so important? Because if your motto and if your theory of protect and serve isn’t being put into practice, and instead of protecting and serving you are harassing and assaulting, then you are not a police officer in the theory of what it should be and you are causing trauma to a whole community,” said Progressive Maryland speaker Janna Parker.
The perception in previous years was that incidents of police brutality were isolated. However, with the expansion of technology recording such incidents, more people are beginning to realize that such events occur every day. The police will not serve and protect if they are not held accountable, Parker said.
“Let us have hope, let us be our sister’s keeper, our brother’s keeper,” Jealous said. “Let us recognize that each of us has a self-interest in this.”