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Law professor Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow," spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people at the Women’s Civic Improvement Center in Oak Park on Wednesday. The event was sponsored by a variety of local organizations, including the local chapter of All of Us or None, A Project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
The crowd was virtually mesmerized by the fascinating statistics about the devastating effects of the “War on Drugs,” along with the explanations of important details from relevant rulings from U.S. Supreme Court cases that drove home nearly every point made by Alexander’s seemingly encyclopedic recitation from memory.
Although Alexander read brief excerpts from her book, her presentation — which was made mostly without notes and delivered from the heart — mirrored the thesis of her newly published work. Namely, that the nation’s criminal justice system is designed to create a new caste system, akin to former Jim Crow laws, that is on its face colorblind but in reality disproportionately affects poor people and people of color, especially young black males.
Alexander postulates convincingly that felony convictions for relatively minor drug offenses are now used against so-called “ex-offenders” to label them as criminals. That label carries with it the stigma of a lifetime badge of shame and dishonor. The result is that there is now in existence a virtual explosion of the numbers in the burgeoning permanent underclass of mostly men of color who are excluded from most opportunities for education, employment, housing and public assistance that are required to even have a glimmer of hope to escape a revolving-door prison system.
Former Sacramento City Attorney Sam Jackson had the honor of introducing Alexander to the audience. Alexander’s message was met with an enthusiastic response from the crowd, which was sprinkled with grassroots organizers, religious leaders and a variety of well known community activists.
“Michelle Alexander’s book and speech here tonight has clearly and concisely articulated the genesis of the next human rights movement,” said Keith J. Staten, a local criminal defense attorney.
Alexander’s message was far more than what might be expected from an author conducting a typical book-signing tour. She contends that the current crisis in the criminal justice system was not the result of fortuitous events, but it was instead created from a calculated design and perpetuated from the highest levels of policy-making in this country, including both major political parties and the U.S. Supreme Court.
She articulated her reasons for researching and writing the book as the next logical step once she came to realize what was occurring in this county during her years working in the field of civil rights litigation and advocacy.
Alexander indicated that she was especially happy to be back in Northern California during the week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prison system was unconstitutionally overcrowded and its population must be reduced by some 37,000 prisoners.
She continued that the election of President Barack Obama proves that even if a nice guy is elected to lead the country, no one person can change a system that is fundamentally flawed.
Dr. Vaja Watson, who serves as the director of research and policy for equity for the Cress Center at the UC Davis School of Education couldn’t have agree more.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “Now that we have the facts in front of us, we need to shut the system down. We are living in a new slave state.”
Alexander currently holds a joint professorship at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Alexander earned a law degree from Stanford University and held a prestigious clerkship with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. Her prior accomplishments include extensive experience in the field of civil rights advocacy and litigation, including a term of service as the director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California.
“(Alexander’s book and tour) is a wake-up call for communities across the county to work to ensure that those coming home from prison will have a reasonable opportunity to heal and become productive members of society, especially in light of the current difficult economic times,” community activist Tim Boyd said.
The evening concluded with a brief but lively question-and-answer session whereby Alexander demonstrated her command of a wide range of subjects, from concerns about zero-tolerance policies practiced at local school districts to articulating how to begin implementing the call to action she communicated to the audience and that is described in detail in the final chapter of her book.
Judging by the number of individuals who lined up to have their newly purchased copy of the book signed, Alexander is much more than a newly minted successful author. She is a force to be reckoned with as legal scholar and an accomplished visionary who is an articulate and powerful voice for change.