August 22, 2016
It’s Friday at the People’s Justice Project (PJP) office, and the walls are covered in giant note pads for battle plans. On butcher paper the team has written the names of the candidates in the Franklin County prosecutor’s race and the positions each one takes on mass incarceration and policing—PJP’s main issue areas in Columbus, Ohio.
The incumbent, Ron O’Brien, has gotten a reputation among PJP’s constituency—mostly formerly incarcerated individuals and people in highly policed communities of color—as a brutal, tough-on-crime prosecutor who dismisses movements for police reform. The challenger, Zach Klein, has presented himself as a “smart on crime” candidate.
Klein reached out to them after learning about their work to build a political block of working class people and people of color to fight mass incarceration. Presumably he’s also interested in the numbers written in orange on one of the sheets of butcher paper: 10,000. That’s how many people PJP and their allies at the Ohio Student Association (OSA) registered in 2015. Next to that: 20,000—the number of people registered by the Columbus People’s Partnership (CPP), a coalition of OSA, PJP, and other labor, faith, and racial-justice groups. Many of those people also signed CPP’s BLOC Cards—commitments to get involved in organizing around community safety and prison reform. That number is PJP’s bargaining chip with Klein.
They’re planning to take issue with Klein on the Summer Safety Initiative. “That’s the mayor’s initiative to go into communities and increase policing,” says Amber Evans, an organizer with PJP, pulling up the arrest rates from last year. “It’s a lot of plain-clothes police officers jumping out of unmarked vehicles like they did to Henry Green,” referring to a 23-year-old black man who was killed by police in July of 2016.
“Looking at the results from the Summer Safety Initiative 2015, there were 453 felony arrests, so if Klein is going to be overseeing those prosecutions, we should tie that into the meeting.”
The team agrees that this means his goal will be to increase arrests over his term, and that even if he pretends to be on their side, they’ll have to push him to get him thinking about anything close to community policing.
“We need to have him define safety and justice,” says Evans. “Because if we just lay out our positions, he’ll just say, ‘yeah, I support that!’ We need to have him say these things first so we can get him to commit.”
Though they’re getting involved in this election, PJP doesn’t operate like a political party. As of now, they don’t run candidates; they figure out what issues their constituents care about, and then try to build political power with them to make changes on those issues.
If you ask Evans what she does, she might say, “I’m a community organizer,” but that description leaves much to the imagination. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 and celebrated his experience as a community organizer in Chicago, Sarah Palin scornfully, but accurately, captured most of America’s reaction: “What is that?”
Obama spent his two years at the Developing Communities Project in Chicago organizing residents to take on issues like water contamination and asbestos. He organized town halls and prepared community members to confront power holders. With help from other organizers and residents, that work led to small concessions at the neighborhood level.
Having a former organizer in the White House hasn’t made it any easier to form words to explain the profession, but for most, it comes down to building power. Sometimes that power takes shape as a voting block of people that is big enough to sway an election or get a ballot initiative passed. Sometimes it takes the form of noncooperation and protest, the ability to move people to the streets and shut the system down.
In going after Prosecutor O’Brien, the PJP team is using a similar strategy as allied groups in Cleveland. Last year, Black Lives Matter Cleveland, OSA, and other groups built up enough political power to help unseat Timothy McGinty, the four-year veteran prosecutor who acquitted the police officer who shot Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old. McGinty lost his election by 15,000 votes, many of them new voters registered by community organizing groups.
“We’re not focused on the national Clinton-Trump madness,” says Molly Shack, who helped start OSA and the Columbus People’s Partnership. For her, building power means giving people agency to take on the forces that oppress them in their daily lives. “We’re trying to connect with folks as we register them, and help them see that we have elections on the local level that have a way bigger impact on what our communities look like day-to-day. Your rec center lost its funding? Your cousin got sentenced for a minor drug offense? Electoral power is one of the ways we can fight these issues.”
Service: The First Point of Contact
After the PJP research meeting ends, Evans heads outside the office, where Impact Community Action has set up its annual Beat the Heat Fair. At PJP’s booth, they meet up with Tammy Alsaada, a veteran organizer who helped found PJP.
Alsaada knows so many people at the Impact Community Action fair that she barely has a minute to sit down and eat the basket of fish and fries that the voter registration team brought over to her booth. A steady stream of friends and coworkers—from PJP, Juvenile Justice Coalition, the Youth Violence Prevention Advisory Board, or Ceasefire Columbus—come up to her and exchange hugs and updates. A young woman in nurse’s scrubs comes up to register to vote, and Tammy gives her a rundown of the upcoming prosecutor’s race and how PJP hopes to influence it. At the end, she hugs the young woman and sends her off with literature on civil rights when dealing with the police.
Most of the booths at the Impact “Beat the Heat” kick-off provide social services for the 200,000 people who live in poverty in Columbus. Among organizers, the role of this kind of direct service in the mission of structural change is up for debate.
To Alsaada, organizers must meet the basic needs in the communities while mobilizing for social change, and direct-service projects create pipelines to get low-income people involved in advocating for themselves. The next project on her plate is a “listening campaign,” where PJP will send dozens of organizers into neighborhoods to ask residents what they think would make their communities safer.
Earlier that morning, Evans had gone to court with a young man she is supporting through Voices of the Unheard, an independent group that works with PJP and the Juvenile Justice Coalition to provide guidance for youth and families going through the criminal justice system.
“We’re there through the whole process. After court date, we check in to see how things went and provide services,” says Evans. “We’re actually trying to build a village, a home away from home for families in hard situations. From there we transition from need-based advocacy to self-advocacy. They’re able to actually engage and take ownership over the process and take that power back.”
Toward Building Power
Aramis Sundiata is surrounded by fifteen college students who have signed on as summer Service Leader Interns (SLIs) for the Columbus Freedom School, a literacy program for students from grades K through 12. They’re in the Freedom Hub, a small chapel in the Summit Methodist Church where much of this work began. The Freedom School was born in 1964, in the height of the civil rights movement, and became one of the movement’s best tools for bringing families into the fight for voting rights and desegregation. It’s a natural partnership for PJP, especially as Sundiata and Shack met while working as SLIs five years ago.
Today Sundiata, PJP’s statewide organizer, trains the SLIs to work with their students on the Day of Social Action, a Freedom School tradition where the students organize around a social injustice.
“The difference between direct service and direct organizing is in how they treat power relations,” says Sundiata, sweeping his arm across a PowerPoint slide. “Direct service fills the gaps created by unjust power relations, but does not directly challenge those power relations. Direct organizing challenges existing power relationships and tries to create a world where those inequalities don’t exist.” Sundiata pounds his fist on a desk. “Direct organizing builds power.”
Often the work of community organizing goes unreported because the process doesn’t provide the same media spectacle as mobilizing around sudden crises. Though PJP protests and rallies in response to police killings, especially since the killing of Henry Green in Columbus, the actual community organizing happens by talking with people, finding out what issues they care about, and giving them tools to take action.
The work comes in peaks and valleys; high profile actions in the streets fill the peaks, and during the valleys they reach out to new constituents, train new leaders, and strategize their next move. Their main tool is the strategic one-to-one, a conversation where the organizer tries to figure out an individual’s self-interest and move toward working together. One-to-ones are the soul of community organizing.
The pace of grassroots change can feel glacial, but the people on the ground with PJP can feel motion. More people are coming to their doorstep looking for something to do.
“In Columbus a culture is growing of young people hitting the streets through movement,” says Sundiata. “It’s shifted how far people are willing to go. A whole bunch of activist groups popped up after Alton Sterling. Before that, during the Trayvon Martin and Occupy moments, and we got sophisticated. We practiced our craft.”
On the wall in the Hub is a mural of a young man, MarShawn McCarrel, in a snapback looking to the sky. McCarrel worked alongside the PJP and OSA teams to build programs across the city, including the Columbus Freedom School. Just as he was gaining national recognition for organizing around racial justice, he committed suicide at age 23. (For more about McCarrel, read Part 1 of this series).
His mural stays in the Hub as a reminder of the stakes for young people organizing for justice. Many of the students in Freedom School remember marching with McCarrel in 2015 against Zero Tolerance policies.
“So much has changed in the last three years,” says Alsaada. “I remember in 2011 wondering, where are all the young people at? Now they’re throwing themselves into the work and running these movements. This is only the beginning.”