Baltimore activist groups discuss legislative session

By CLAIRE GOUDREAU | February 14, 2019

The Baltimore chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) held its annual Legislative Day on Saturday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to educate voters on initiatives and bills related to racial justice. The event featured speakers from five different Baltimore activist groups including: the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC); CASA de Maryland; and Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs (CJSJ). 

SURJ’s mission is to organize white communities in Baltimore to help promote intersectional movements and minimize the prevalence of white supremacist ideas. Organizers emphasized in a flyer they handed out to attendees that they oppose the Senate Bill 793 that would both create a Hopkins private police force and would appropriate funds to Baltimore City youth programs.

“As a private entity, this force wouldn’t be accountable to Baltimore residents or subject to the ongoing Consent Decree process under the Department of Justice,” the flyer read. “Examples from other university-based private police forces show histories of racial profiling and violence against individuals in mental health crisis.”

During the event, the first group to speak was BTEC, represented by Coalition President Samuel Jordan. This legislative session, BTEC is campaigning for the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 630 and House Bill (HB) 771, which will initiate a study on the feasibility of a regional transit authority in Maryland.

Jordan explained that the BTEC initiative to create more equitable public transit policies in Baltimore has been stalled since Maryland Governor Larry Hogan denied funding for the Red Line project in 2015. If completed, the Red Line would have given Baltimore a light rail line directly connecting eastern and western Baltimore neighborhoods.

“[Hogan] meant to follow through with campaign promises from very conservative areas of the state... which were anti-urban and not necessarily pro-black,” Jordan said. “We don’t need another fast bus. We need the massive, equitable, community-enhancing economic development that comes with transit.”

Next, Abraham Tema spoke on behalf of CASA de Maryland, an organization which advocates for LatinX and immigrant populations. His speech was translated from Spanish to English by CASA Lead Organizer Lydia Walther-Rodriguez.

Tema explained how SB 817 and HB 913, the “Trust Act,” would help undocumented immigrant populations in Maryland by making the state a sanctuary state. This would mean that under certain circumstances, information about a person’s citizenship status would not be available to federal immigration authorities.

“Our immigrant community can’t continue to be threatened by their immigration status when we’re helping to build this economy. Not only do we pay taxes daily, but we also file income taxes annually. The heart of all of these many Trust bills is really to ensure that the police is not collaborating with ICE,” Tema said.

Tema recounted his personal struggles as an undocumented immigrant, which included being denied wages by his employer for hours he had already worked. Tema described how in another instance, he was the victim of a dispute and the police questioned him about his immigration status.

“Instead of questioning me as a victim, they questioned me as an assailant. The first thing that the police officer asked me was, ‘Are you a resident or a citizen of the U.S.? Because you know, if you’re not, this could cause you your deportation,’” Tema said. “What in consequence happens is that we become a vulnerable community, and we’re open to folks committing crimes against us, knowing that we won’t report those crimes.”

Donna Brown, representing the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs (CJSJ), spoke next. CJSJ is a coalition of over 30 Baltimore organizations that was founded in April 2015 after Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, died from a severe spinal cord injury sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).

This year, the CJSJ’s goal is to return the control of the BPD to Baltimore City as opposed to the state of Maryland, as outlined in HB 278. Brown argued that this would give the city the ability to modify BPD policies and better manage the Department. 

The Campaign also called for the rejection of HB 236 and SB 166, which call for an increase in the mandatory minimum penalty a judge must impose for any firearm-related crime, regardless of the circumstances. 

Brown believes that focusing on mandatory minimums instead of the root causes of crime will fail to improve Baltimore’s crime rates.

“To not address poverty, to not address racial justice issues, to not address other issues that are impacting our communities and to only deal with them through incarceration is not the answer because it does not work,” she said.

Next, Lawrence Grandpre spoke on behalf of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots think tank that aims to serve black interests in public policy. Grandpre emphasized that LBS opposes mandatory minimums and supports the passage of SB 843, which would expand the authority and funding of the Civilian Review Board. The Civilian Review Board is an independent Baltimore City agency through which community members can issue complaints against law enforcement officers.

The event’s last speaker was Nicole Hanson of Out For Justice (OFJ), an organization led by formerly incarcerated people and their families. The organization pushes for policies that help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Hanson explained that OFJ has been helping many pre-trial detainees access the materials and information needed to vote, a right that many pre-trial individuals do not know they have. HB 252 would require the State Board of Elections to establish a program that educates eligible detainees on how to vote while in correctional facilities.

“At the end of the day it is [the Board of Elections’] job to do it,” Hanson said. “The onus should not be on the small organization that makes under $80,000 a year to provide access to the ballot for all of Maryland’s directly impacted people behind the walls. That’s just not fair.”

OFJ is also campaigning for SB 419, which would open a prerelease unit for women at the end of their sentences.

According to Hanson, while men have several prerelease units across the state to help them integrate back into society, the only facility like this for women belongs to Montgomery County. Consequently, only Montgomery County residents can attend it.

Hanson believes that it is unjust and unreasonable to expect female ex-offenders to readjust as well as their male counterparts if they are not given the same resources.

“Women have become an afterthought in the criminal justice system,” Hanson said.

After the speakers finished their presentations and answered questions from the audience, the attendees were split into groups based on voting district to discuss concerns and possible actions.

Maura Dwyer, a leader of SURJ, commented on why SURJ chose to support or oppose the bills they discussed at the event.

“We follow our accountability partners and campaigns led by people of color doing social justice,” she said. “We have relationships with organizations, and they communicate their legislative priorities to us based on what gets drafted in Annapolis.”

SURJ member David Cramer added that he was pleased with the turnout of the event.

“More people than we thought came out, which is really good,” he said. “It’s important that our accountability partners speak directly to everyone that’s a part of our organization. This is the once a year opportunity that they get to do that... We welcome anyone that wants to do something about racial inequity issues.”

Jocelyn Providence is a member of Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE) which is the social justice caucus of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union. Along with members of the steering committee of BMORE, she came to represent the organization’s support of SURJ. Providence expressed her respect for SURJ.

“BMORE is supporting this event because we really believe in SURJ’s mission and working with them. SURJ is really great at bringing people of color to the front, and that is one of the things that BMORE cares strongly about,” she said. “More of these meetings need to happen. More teachers need to be involved and more community members need to be involved.”

Rachel Juieng contributed reporting.

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