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President Obama Takes on Criminal Justice

at the NAACP 106th Annual Convention In Philadelphia, PA – PART 1

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by Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All!

Because this is such an epoch-making address, from the greatest President the US has ever had, I have decided, as much as possible, to include all of the Presidents comments, with some minor commentaries from my self. Also, because of the historical nature of his moves, I am presenting this blog post in two parts – as you know, I am no fan of sound bytes – especially when it comes to issues that directly concern us as a people. So this is the first part of a two-part post on President Barack Obama’s address to the 106th NAACP National Convention:

Whenever President Barack Obama addresses the NAACP, it’s pretty much like a mutual admiration society. They love him and he loves them. And Tuesday night, at the 106th National Convention in Philadelphia, PA was no different. It was amazing to watch the nearly 5,000 seat capacity empty Hall A fill with admirers in less than 10 minutes. The audience poured in like human liquid, flooding the seats, the floor until it was wall to wall people as far as the eye could see. And even when it was evident that there were no more seats up front, nearly 100 people still crowded together in the aisles as though they thought a way would be made, or seats would miraculously appear. Such is the love that we have for our president (yes, I said “we” – I am, after all, a member of the partisan press – and reserve the right to be counted as an ardent and loyal admirer of President Barack Obama).

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The President’s address, which was scheduled to begin at 3:00 PM, didn’t kick off until approximately 4:15; but, no matter – it gave opportunities for those workshop leaders, whose time was pre-empted for this event, to give an overview of what the workshop discussions would have entailed.

The audience listened politely, patiently waiting for the man of the hour to materialize.

Roslyn M. Brock’s introduction of the President of the US: “Over the past month we have watched the unerring decisiveness of the president of the United States; and we have shared his compassion as he delivered the eulogy of Beau Biden and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Mr. President, the NAACP also believes in amazing grace. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 44th President of the United States of America….” the last few words were drowned out as this crowd of dignified, sophisticated, accomplished, professional, degreed and credentialed, mostly college educated Black men and women literally went wild in cheers and enthusiasm. The most accomplished athlete, the most popular singing artist can only envy President Obama’s reception, and the evident love that was poured out on him that evening. In the background you could hear the ceremonial “Hail to the Chief” being played as he approached the podium.

Congenial, smiling from ear to ear with that wonderful face-breaking smile of his, you could barely hear him above the cheers, “Hey!: Hello NAACP! It’s good to be back! How y’all doing to day? Doing fine? You look fine! Alright everybody have a seat. I’ve got some stuff to say. I’ve got some stuff to say!”

The crowd, almost in one voice cried out, “We love you Mr. President.” To which he responded, “I love you back, you know that!” And it was clear to all that this was home, family, friends – a love fest for the President.

“So, you know, y’all make a great picture. And I like that picture of me” – referring to a portrait/caricature that had been drawn of him at the convention, where thousands of NAACP members had written their names and their greetings to him. “Let’s get something out of the way, up front, I am not singing today. Although I will say, your board sang to me as I came in for the photograph. … Let me also say what everybody knows but doesn’t want to say out loud – y’all would rather have Michelle here. I understand. I don’t blame you! But I will do my best to fill her shoes. And she sends everybody her love – Sasha and Malia say hi as well.”

President Obama then acknowledged Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe, for whom he campaigned last year when Wolfe was running for governor to defeat incumbent Repuglycon Tom Corbett. He thanked the “Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, whose been a great friend of ours;” and Governor Ryan of Connecticut who was in the audience. As he thanked the NAACP members who are doing work on a daily basis throughout the country, the crowd began to calm down and prepare to shift gears into a much more serious focus.

“It’s not always received with a lot of fanfare, sometimes it lonely work, sometimes it’s hard work, sometimes it’s frustrating work; but it’s necessary work and built on a tradition of this organization that we shape the debate. For 106 years, the NAACP has worked to close the gaps between the words of our founders – that we all were created equal, endowed by our creators with certain unalienable rights. Those words we try to match with the reality that we live each and every day. In your first century, this organization stood up against lynchings, jim crow, segregation; helped to shepherd the Civil Rights Act; The Voting Rights Act. I would not be here and so many others would not without the NAACP. In your second century you’ve worked together to give more of our children a shot at a college education; to help our families rise up out of poverty; to protect future generations from environmental damage; to create fair housing; to help more workers find the purpose of a good job. Together we’ve made real progress, including a “My Brother’s Keeper” program to give more people a fair shot in life; including the passage of a law that made health care not a privilege for the few, but right for all Americans. We’ve made progress, but our work is not done. ”

He went on to detail some of the issues and concerns: Blacks and Hispanics lag behind those of their white peers. “Our kids, America’s children, so often are isolated, without hope; less likely to graduate from high school; less likely to earn a college degree; less likely to be employed; less likely to have health insurance; less likely to own a home. Part of this is a legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, compounded over the generations. It did not happen by accident – but by continuing, sometimes more subtle bigotry – whether it’s who gets called back for a job interview, or who gets suspended from school; or what neighborhood you’re able to rent an apartment in. Which, by the way, is why I initiated legislation to strengthen the awareness and effectiveness of fair housing laws. So we can’t be satisfied – I’m not satisfied! Not until the opportunity gap is closed for everybody in America.”

“But today I want to focus on one aspect of American life, that remains particularly skewed by race, and by wealth. A source of inequity that has ripple affects on families and our communities, and ultimately on our nation. And that is our criminal justice system. And this is not a new topic – I know sometimes folks discover these things like they just happened. There’s a long history of inequities in the criminal justice system in America.”

The President recounted how, during his tenure as state senator in Illinois, they had passed legislation to have video taping of interrogations; set up racial profiling laws because of problems at traffic stops that many were experiencing at the time. Since becoming the President, he has talked about how the criminal justice system has become a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. Because of incidents that have occurred in recent months, “we can’t close our eyes anymore.”

“And the good news – and this is truly good news – is that good people of all political persuasions – have started to do something about this.” Statistically the US is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisons. The US incarceration rate is 4 times higher than China’s. The US keeps more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. Incarceration rates have quadrupled since the 1980’s, from 500,000 to 2.2 million – and has doubled in the last decade.

“We need to be honest – there are a lot of folks who belong in prison. If we’re going to deal with this problem and the inequities involved, we also have to speak honestly – there are some folks who need to be in jail! They may have had terrible things happen to them in their lives. We hold out the hope for redemption, but murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug dealers – we need some of those folks behind bars. Our communities are safer because of brave police officers and hardworking prosecutors who put those violent criminals in jail.” This has contributed to the reduction of violent crime over the last few decades. But, as the President stated, there is a point of diminishing returns. Violence in our communities is serious, with the African American communities being “under policed.” Per the President, “folks have been interested in containing the African American community so that they are segregated areas, but, within those areas there wasn’t enough police presence.”

Over the past few decades more and more offenders “have been locked up for nonviolent crimes than every before, for longer than ever before,” which is the reason that the prison population is off the charts. As the President stated: “IN FAR TOO MANY CASES, THE PUNISHMENT SIMPLY DOES NOT FIT THE CRIME!”

A low level drug dealer should not be sentenced to 20 years for dealing small amounts of marijuana. The President attacked the disproportionate sentencing to the level and seriousness of the crime. Not only are the tax payers picking up the tab for these egregiously long sentences, the private prison owners are getting rich off of this new form of slavery (I said that, not President Obama).

“Every year we spend $80 billion dollars to keep folks incarcerated. $80 Billion. Let’s put that in perspective. For $80 Billion dollars, we could have universal pre-school for every 3 and 4 year old in America. For $80 Billion dollars we could double the salary of every high school teacher in America. For $80 Billion dollars we could finance new roads, bridges, airports, job training programs. I’m about to get into a big budget debate in Washington and what I could do with $80 Billion dollars. It’s a lot of money. But what we spend to keep every one locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our colleges and universities (the youth – and their parents – let out a roar of appreciation). Roughly 1/3 of the Justice Department’s budget goes towards incarceration. And there are outstanding folks in our Justice department, starting with our outstanding attorney general, Loretta Lynch. Every dollar they have to spend keeping nonviolent, drug offenders in prison is a dollar they can’t going after drug defense, or tracking down terrorists, or hiring more police and giving them resources that would allow them to do an effective job in community policing. The statistics of who is incarcerated by wide margin disproportionately impacts communities of color. African Americans and Latinos make up 30% of our population, and make up 60% of our prisons. 1 in every 35 African American men; 1 in every 88 Latino men and 1 in 214 white men are serving prison time right now. In too many places and too many instances Black boys and Black men, Latino Boys and and Latino men experience different treatments under the law.”

“And I want to be clear: this is not just anecdote; this is not just barber shop talk. A large body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. Africa; then Americans are more likely to be arrested; and more likely to be sentenced twice as long for the same crime. Around one million fathers are behind bars. Around 1 in 9 African American kids have a parent in prison. What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children? Our nation’s being deprived of men and women who could be workers and tax payers! Could be more actively involved in their children’s lives. Could be role models, could be community leaders. But right now they’re locked up in a non-violent offense. So the criminal justice department isn’t as smart as it should be. It’s not keeping us as safe as it should be. It is not as fair as it should be! As a nation we are worse off, and we should do something about it!!

Part Two will appear in Gloria’s Blog (http://gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com/). In the interim, focus on what we could do in the Black community with $80 billion dollars.

Stay Blessed &
ECLECTICALLY BLACK

bullet Columnist Gloria Dulan-Wilson Is a veteran New York City Journalist. Her experiences, perspective & sense of history are an invaluable combination. “check out my blog:” www.gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com

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