By Toni Walker
Out of the 4.7 million Americans on probation, 69% are African American and 29% are Hispanic. This information comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and was one of the many disheartening statistics shared during REFORM: Bringing Injustice to Light, a forum which took place this past Tuesday here at Penn.
The words “#FREEMEEKMILL” appeared on the backdrop of the stage in Irvine Auditorium as thousands gathered to support Meek Mill and shed light on the corruption within the American criminal justice system. The event was organized by a number of supporters including Roc Nation, Penn’s Political Science Department, many local and non local advocacy groups as well as student run organizations such as BARS: Beyond Arrests Rethinking Systematic Oppression.
Meek Mill’s mother, Kathy Williams, attorney Joe Tacopina, Reverend Al Sharpton, Bryan Stevenson, and several other activists, lawyers and celebrities were in attendance. Midway through the event, Meek Mill himself offered a few words over the phone. Speakers shared their perspective on Meek Mill’s case, the criminal justice system and overall race relations in America using Mill’s story to address the ways in which the system regularly targets and disenfranchises marginalized groups.
Bryan Stevenson was the first to take the stage and he spoke not only about Meek Mill, but also about the countless others impacted by the system and the barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals face when attempting to re enter society. Furthermore, Stevenson emphasized the importance of engaging directly with the people who are most impacted by the system.
“We cannot change things by only going to the places where privileged people go, where the protected people go. We are going to have to go to the parts of community where there’s suffering and neglect…The answers to how we change things reside in the places where there’s suffering and inequality,” Stevenson urged.
The details of Meek Mill’s case draw attention to some of the strategies that the “justice” system uses to ensure victims of the system remain so for their entire lives, namely through probation and parole. Although the Narcotics Federal Unit police officers who arrested Meek Mill at 19 years old are currently under investigation for a number of crimes including false arrests and extortion, Meek Mill has remained on probation throughout his entire adult life. Meek Mill’s most recent arrest was due to a technical non criminal violation of his probation for which he was sentenced to two to four years in prison.
More than anything, the REFORM discussion drove home the importance that Meek Mill’s case is not an isolated incident and should not be addressed as such. Meek Mill’s attorney Joe Tacopina mentioned “⅓ of Pennsylvania’s 50,000 state prisoners are people who have been put in jail for technical violations of probation.” Reverend Al Sharpton went on to discuss the ways in which intersecting oppressions of both class and race leave victims like Meek Mill unsupported and often times silenced.
The event also featured two panels of experts who expanded on some of the issues that individuals currently face as well as some of the reform efforts that are taking place. One of the many disparities highlighted at the event was the issue of children under the age of 18 being placed in adult jail cells. Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project Co-Director, Joanna Visser Adjoian mentioned “As we sit here tonight, there are eighteen young men and three girls in the adult jails.” In addition to YSRP, organizations such as POWER, the Philadelphia ACLU, Frontline Dads, Alliance of Families for Justice, and more were all represented.
An important takeaway from the event was centering the voices of those who may not have access to the platforms that Meek Mill has access to. One question brought up by attorney Tacopina was what happens after Meek comes home. This moment gives us the opportunity to have a necessary conversation about criminal justice reform, but how do we ensure that this moment doesn’t phase out? Over the phone, Meek Mill said, “Of course I want my freedom back too but I’m the platform for other people to fight for their freedom in the light without being in the dark and being railroaded like we always have been for a long amount of time.”
As mentioned by Bryan Stevenson, keeping this fight in the light means getting out of our comfort zones and stepping up to the plate in a way that matters. In addition to signing the petition for the immediate release of Meek Mill and all others wrongfully convicted by corrupt police officers, it’s important to remain involved and active right here in the Philadelphia community. Whether through some of the organizations mentioned above or through other avenues, real change comes from listening to and empowering the voices of the most marginalized and disenfranchised communities.