“It’s a Revolutionary Moment”
As an advocate for social justice, Roy Martin sees promise in the recent wave of public protests and media attention focused on the issue of racism in the criminal justice system.
But as an African American man who grew up in public housing in Boston, he is a realist about the long road to systemic change.
“I don’t need to see another graph. I don’t need to see another stat” about the racial bias in law enforcement, said Martin, who now works for the Boston Public Health Commission. “I have to survive, in spite of [that].” Racial disparities in the rates of shootings by police, incarceration, and the broader issue of life expectancy are “like bogeyman data,” he said.
“When you look at the data, I’m going to die before everyone else.”
Martin was among the speakers at a School of Public Health symposium on the Medical Campus Wednesday titled, “Beyond Ferguson: Social Injustice and the Health of the Public.” A dozen speakers, including Cornell William Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15), president and CEO of the NAACP, addressed the intersection of race, criminal justice, and public health at the first of a series of Dean’s Symposia on contemporary issues in health. More than 300 people attended.
The speakers agreed that a string of police shootings of unarmed black men—including the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer—has elevated the issue of police racial bias and served as a lightening rod for social activism. But how and when that movement might translate into meaningful change was a subject of debate.
Brooks said the country is at a “revolutionary moment” in terms of criminal sentencing and policing reforms.
“When an African American young man is 21 times more likely to lose his life in the hands of police than his white counterparts, something is profoundly wrong,” he said. “It’s time for a different model and modality of policing.”
Brooks said he was heartened that “all across this country, local advocates, state-level advocates, [are] bringing about incredible progress within state legislatures. It’s not enough—more needs to be done—but certainly more than our glacially moving Congress has managed to do.”
Two speakers at the forum—Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to reducing the prison population, and Ronald Simpson-Bey, an alumni associate of Martin’s organization—spoke first-hand about the lasting trauma and stigma of incarceration.
Martin, who served six years in New York State prisons on a 1995 armed robbery conviction, recalled walking to the White House last June for a policy meeting with other social justice advocates. The other advocates were handed green admission cards; he was given a red card that said “needs escort,” he recounted.
“Incarceration follows you,” Martin said. “It’s a label . . . that people live with forever.”
He and Simpson-Bey, who spent 27 years in Michigan prisons on an assault charge until his conviction was reversed in 2012 because of prosecutorial misconduct, called for more attention to the underlying social and economic disparities that fuel incarceration. Martin spoke of the effects of “multi-generational exposure” to violence and trauma.
“I didn’t learn how to pull a gun on someone until someone pulled a gun on me,” Martin said. “Hurt people hurt people.”
Simpson-Bey told a story about waiting for his children to come to visit him in prison on Father’s Day 2001, only to get a call that his only son, Ronald Jr., 21, had been shot dead by a 14-year-old boy. Despite his anger and grief, he argued for the boy to be tried as a juvenile, not an adult.
“I would not wish prison on my worst enemy,” Simpson-Bey said.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst for The Sentencing Project, which advocates for criminal justice reforms, said that while the numbers of youths incarcerated has declined in recent years, the proportion of youths of color in that population has increased. The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment in the US is 1 in 17 for white men, compared to 1 in 3 for black men and 1 in 6 for Latinos, she said.
Mary Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that racial bias and socioeconomic differences underlie the disparities in the criminal justice system. Neighborhoods in New York City with high rates of premature mortality also have high incarceration rates, she said.
She and the NAACP’s Brooks called for public health practitioners to partner in the effort to reform the criminal justice system. Brooks encouraged research that connects criminal justice policies to health outcomes, saying many people of color live in a “cauldron of stress,” with elevated levels of hypertension and chronic disease.
Bassett said that one promising sign is that “we are beginning to name racism as a fundamental cause of health inequity.” She also pushed for treating fatal police shootings as reportable public health statistics.
Andrea Cabral, former secretary of public safety for Massachusetts, said that criminal justice policies need to be more “evidence-based” and “trauma-informed,” and that bias training for law enforcement is needed. She called for an honest dialogue about why police are “quicker to shoot” if a suspect is black.
“That’s a hard conversation to have,” she acknowledged, “because you’re actually asking people to identify their bias. . . . The notion that a black life is worth less is deeply ingrained in this country.”
Two other speakers—the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, founder of the group Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace, and retired Suffolk County Juvenile Court Judge Leslie Harris—spoke of the deep distrust and fear of police in minority communities.
“How do you begin to build the trust?” Brown asked. “And how long is it going to take?” He said community protests should be balanced with “positive prescriptions” for changing police–community relations.
Denise McWilliams, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, suggested that investigations of police shootings should be handled by outside agencies, not local or state officials, who are too entrenched.
“It’s been very, very clear throughout our conversations that issues of social justice and health equity are at the core of our mission,” Galea said.