ROCHESTER — On the surface, Maurice Miller seemed headed in the right direction: He liked reading books, graduated from East High School and had a father in his life.
But the San Diego native ended up in Monroe County Jail after being arrested on burglary and attempted possession of a weapon charges and was released a year ago after serving a two-year sentence. Now he is headed to Monroe Community College this month, thanks to a compassionate judge, the support of community members and his involvement in the youth organization Teen Empowerment, he said.
And he works to pay it forward by counseling other teens from falling into the same traps of street life, Miller remarked.
"We need people who speak our language … and eliminate the mixed messages that mess up our psyche," he said.
Miller is like millions of young African-American, Latino and poor white men who are caught in the cycle of mass incarceration that keeps them from reaching the American dream by stripping them of their rights and leaving them distrustful and fearful of law enforcement, said several speakers during a Human Rights Day presentation Dec. 10.
"Any kind of offense and they will send me back for 10 years," Miller said during the event
The event, which was organized by the human-rights committee of the Rochester Committee on Latin America, was held at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church. The focus of the discussion was Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, because of Deacon George Dardess’ experience with a book club, explained Gail Mott, a member of ROCLA’s human-rights committee.
Deacon Dardess, also part of the ROCLA human-rights committee, was not able to attend because of health issues, she said.
"He knew something had to be done" to call for an end to mass incarceration, Mott noted.
And a call to action was the first item on the agenda as Ream Kidane, a local community activist, asked the more than 250 audience members to join lobby efforts to change New York state’s laws for nonviolent, drug-related offenses as well as ending racially based frisk policies. The campaign will begin this month.
"There is a place in this movement for anybody who believes we can do better, who believes we can wear a hoodie without being harassed and not be stereotyped and marginalized," he added. "Without justice, there can be no peace."
That marginalization has a long history in the nation, the Rev. Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Crozer Divinity School who served as the keynote speaker, explained in reflecting on Alexander’s book.
Her book points out that there also is a reason why this nation places so many penalties and restrictions on those people trying to rebuild their lives after incarceration, the Rev. McMickle said.
"Alexander offers proof that the high rate of involvement with imprisonment and parole is the continuation of a two-century-long practice in the United States of keeping black people in a state of political and economic powerlessness," he said.
The statistics on incarcerations alone are staggering, he remarked. The United States imprisons one-fifth the number of people than the entire European Union, he said. In the 27 nations of the European Union with a population of 505 million, there are approximately 433,000 people incarcerated in prison. While in the United States, with a population of 315 million, there are 1.6 million people confined in prisons, with an additional 723,000 held in local and county jails. African-American males represent 35 percent of the prison population even though the entire African-American population makes up 15 percent of the total U.S. population, he noted.
New York state alone incarcerates more people than does France, England, Germany or Japan, he said.
Those numbers also represent an evolution from slavery to the Jim Crow laws that "were designed to employ legal and sometimes lethal force of keeping black people in their place," the Rev. McMickle said.
His own family experienced the tragic consequences of those laws: He recounted the story of a relative who in 1930 tried to register to vote in Kentucky and was told three times — using a derogatory word for African-Americans — that it was not possible.
His relative, for having the determination to stand up for his rights, was shot dead by the registrar, who subsequently was found to have acted in "self-defense against an unarmed man" and returned to his job, the Rev. McMickle said.
"That is how Jim Crow worked for 150 years, through poverty, powerlessness and … terror," he remarked.
And because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supposed to be the "death knell" for the Jim Crow era, the racism of those laws took on a new, sinister form of incarceration framed as "the war on drugs," according to Alexander’s book.
"Instead of locking people up for slavery or for share cropping, we lock black people up in as many prisons as possible," the Rev. McMickle said.
Prison sentences continue the practices of economic and social stagnation through the many restrictions ex-offenders face such as being ineligible for student loans, voting or jury service, as well as job and housing discrimination, he added.
"Even in the age of Obama, the power of Jim Crow is not dead after all," the Rev. McMickle remarked.
Ricardo Adams lives in fear every day, having served several prison sentences. Adams served as a panelist along with Miller and Rosemary Rivera, a director for Citizen Action of New York.
"If I see police, I’m not only worried about moving my hands," and how any movement could be misinterpreted, Adams said. "I’m worried about breathing."
But the issue goes beyond the color of one’s skin, Adams noted.
"We talk that it’s a black issue, but it’s a human issue. Humans shouldn’t be treated this way," Adams said to loud applause.
"As criminals, we have scarcely more rights … than a black male being in Alabama (during) Jim Crow," she said.
Rivera was introduced to heroin at the age of 11 and endured addiction and homelessness and served lengthy prison sentences.
Because of her experiences, Rivera said that she also agrees with Alexander’s assertions and urged communities to unite to end the pattern of mass incarceration that plagues communities of color.
"We have not eliminated racism," she said. "We have redesigned it."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Look in February’s issue of El Mensajero Católico for coverage of the "Facing Race, Embracing Equity" initiative being launched this month in Rochester.