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CJJ and Fight for 15 - Becoming Better Allies
Meredith Cohen, co-chair of the Durham-Chapel Hill CJJ chapter, and Keith Bullard, Southeast Coordinator of Fight for 15, answer questions about how they came to work together and what they've learned from each other.
13th Movie Showing + Panel
Emma Cohn, CJJ West
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." - Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution
On December 4th, the ACLU of North Carolina and the Western North Carolina branch of Carolina Jews for Justice hosted a showing of the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th at the Altamont Theatre in downtown Asheville, followed by a panel discussion by black activists and community workers. The movie 13th focuses on the evolution of the prison system in the United States, specifically in relation to how the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution has legalized and institutionalized slavery through the criminalization of black communities. The oft-ignored middle clause that allows slavery “as punishment for crime” set in motion over a hundred years of racial oppression and exploitation.
Preceded by a short introduction and explanation of the unshown section of the movie by CJJ member Peretz Cohn, the showing of 13th was abridged, starting with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. The movie covered how early crime policies set forth by Clinton such as mandatory minimum sentencing and the infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 created an explosion in the US prison population. Between the years of 1990 and 2000, the crime population nearly doubled, skyrocketing from 1,179,200 to 2,015,300 people. These measures that legalized and made official the wars on drugs and crime declared by Nixon and Reagan disproportionately targeted Black citizens and by 2001, over 40% of the prison population was black. The film discusses the impact this had on the black community, and how generations of potential leaders for change have been silenced through the prison and law enforcement systems.
13th also dives into the topic of prison labor. The prison-industrial system is a complex legislative and corporate system in which many private companies profit greatly off of higher inmate numbers. Whether this is through private prison building contracts, supply contracts for services like food or health care, or even the use of prisoners for extremely cheap labor, there are billions of dollars invested in maintaining high prison populations. This feeds higher arrest rates and distinctly targets low-income communities, many of which are typically communities of color.
The repercussions of this system, a system that arrests for money and targets black people, have not only disrupted generations. Equally as important is the impact on the individual, which cannot be overstated. Once a person has been convicted of a crime, even after he or she has served his sentence and is no longer legally allowed to be enslaved, the convict loses the right to vote and in the vast majority of cases has a far harder time getting a job, steady housing, or any social governmental benefits. Oftentimes, this forces the person back into crime as the only option to stay afloat. After realizing this, one can only ask, is this a flaw of the system or a strategic move to perpetuate it?
The movie also discusses the issues of bail, advancements in imprisonment technology, the impact of lobbying from major corporations, and the current movement of Black Lives Matter. Clocking in at over an hour and forty minutes long, at times it feels the film is still only scraping the surface. It’s a series of interconnected issues that beg for further discussion. And so in many ways, the panel that followed this showing felt more a necessity than anything else. The panel was composed of three prominent members of the Buncombe County community: DeWayne Barton, the founder of the local organization Hood Huggers International; Dr. Rima Vesely-Flad, a professor at Warren Wilson and leader of the educational Inside-Out program at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women; and Stephen Smith, a convicted felon who spent sixteen years in prison and now runs MS Lean Landscaping, a company that employs ex-convicts in order to help them get back on their feet after jail. Panelists discussed issues such as how the gentrification affects the black and low-income community in Asheville, how legislation can (or cannot) solve the issues of systemic racism in America, and what it actually looks like to return to society after spending time in jail. Although it did not last long, the discussion that happened opened up many new lines of inquiry and thought.
Today more than ever there is a need for events and discussions like this. Although the three panelists were black, the vast majority of audience members were white. At a time when political polarization is higher than ever, money is the driving force in policy creation, and we cannot rely on our legislators for laws that will act on behalf all people, gaps must be bridged between historically separated groups; it is critical that we come together and listen to one another. This event created a space where I felt real listening happened and people left the room with a deeper understanding of an issue that has been plaguing our country since its inception. It is my most sincere wish that the lessons learned on Monday night can and will be transferred out of the Altamont and into the lives of each audience member as we carry on with the noble pursuit of teaching one another to think critically about our nation’s issues and to fight to fix them.
The Federal Budget Debate: What Does it Mean for NC Children & Families?
Terry Grunwald, CJJ Wake
How much do Jewish North Carolinians know about the impact of last week’s hastily crafted “tax scam” on the welfare of our state? A panel co-sponsored by the Child Advocacy Network and the Budget and Tax Center served up some bad news. It’s no surprise that the recent tax bill represents extremely poor economic outcomes for North Carolina. The most obvious result is worsening income equality - averaging $5000 in cuts for the top 1% and only $290 for low and middle income households. Plus, it is estimated that as many as 1 in 4 families in the latter group will actually see their taxes go up. (See 3 Reasons Why the US Senate’s Tax Plan is Bad for North Carolina).
The bigger threat, however, is the fact that it is a 2-step process: first the outrageous tax cuts, with the devastating budget cuts not far behind. The estimated $1.4 trillion budget shortfall will trigger massive cuts in programs and services to NC families in order to address the deficit.
Based on the blueprint of previous budget proposals by Congressional leadership, here are just a few of the programs that currently benefit low and middle income families that can expect drastic cuts or could be completely abolished:
1. Hunger prevention. (SNAP, WIC, school lunch, and 21st Century Learning Communities). For example, 700,000 NC children benefit from SNAP, which provides food security.
2. Early childhood services. 75% of programs are federally financed.
3. Housing assistance. Reduction of tax rates for corporations and the wealthy will devalue the low income housing tax credit (even if the credit itself survives) – essentially gutting the program, which enables up to 90% of new affordable housing. Plus housing choice vouchers for the poor will be at risk.
4. Strong communities. The community development block grant and the HOME programs, which support neighborhood revitalization and water and sewer projects, has been targeted for complete elimination – a projected loss to NC of over $100 million.
5. Health Care. Federal funding for children’s health has already ended and reauthorization is not assured. 1.1 million children could be affected. Expect early intervention programs to be decimated. And seniors will also be affected: $25 billion nationally in Medicare cuts will be triggered the first year. The elimination of the individual mandate will likely increase ACA premiums for older adults in NC by over $1500/ year – one of the highest rates in the country.
And these are just a sample of what we can expect.
Studies have shown that tax cuts really don’t help the economy, but the budget cuts that invariably follow really are painful – especially for the most vulnerable in our state. Be mindful and watch for these cuts. They’re coming.
A matter of life or death: A D'var torah on the IMPORTANce of clean water
Delivered by Glenn Tetterton on December 22nd, 2017, in Wilmington North Carolina at Temple Israel
"This week’s Torah portion includes Joseph’s encounter with his brothers, where he reveals his identity to them. Joseph was longing for news of his father, he acknowledged what his brothers had done to him, but also recognized the importance this played, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you, he concluded.
Joseph’s brothers had come to Egypt to save the lives of their people from the terrible drought, which deprived Canaan as well as Egypt of water. Now we find ourselves with a similar shortage. The Cape Fear is flowing at its normal rate, but since the Star News report from last summer, we know that the Cape Fear River is teeming with toxic chemical wastes thanks to Chemours and DuPont, who have poured these wastes from their Fayetteville Works site into the Cape Fear River. For forty years these corporations have been dumping toxic chemical wastes into the Cape Fear. We have become their unwitting and unwilling lab rats, not only all of us, whose drinking water comes from the Cape Fear, but our children and grandchildren as well. Of course, we filtered our water, but it was of no use with these microscopic compounds. Because these are untested chemicals, at least in this country, we know very little about their effects on our health. Dutch and Swedish scientists have begun studying these chemicals, but Dupont, Chemours, the EPA, and the Department of Environmental Quality have done very little to date.
What does this have to do with the Temple of Israel? Is it the responsibility of this congregation to take a stand against this pollution? Is it our duty to fight against the corrupt political climate, which allows this abuse of our drinking water to drag on and on? And if it is our responsibility to act, what are we called upon to do? How many times is mayim, water, referred to in Torah?
Judaism teaches us, that Jews cannot be silent observers of wrongdoing, we are called upon to become shakers and shapers of our world. Just as we cannot stand idly by, while our neighbor’s house burns, when our entire community is threatened, we are required to stand with and for our city and indeed our entire region. If not, we are less than Menschen, less than Jews, and unworthy of our heritage. We are called to pray for the peace of the city in which we dwell, for in its peace, we will find peace. Just how whole do you feel buying bottled water at Costco or Harris-Teeter? Does Chemours keep you awake at night?
The Temple of Israel must take the lead in this fight for our community. Where Reform leads, others will follow. We have seen the ineffective, toadied responses of the General Assembly, we have seen their refusal to fund the positions needed by the Justice Department and by the Department of Environmental Quality. We have witnessed their weak-kneed commission, while keeping Wilmington’s representative from even sitting on that body. We have also seen the systematic emasculation of the Environmental Protection Agency by the ideological corporatists, who now control the Federal Government. These policies continue, while there is no solution to our water problem. Think how long the policies in Flint have continued to poison the residents of that beleaguered city. We must act, and we must act quickly and forcefully. If the Temple does not stand for justice on so basic an issue, why does it stand? Will God accept our prayers and petitions, if we do not bear witness, if we take no action?
All of us can call our representatives in the General Assembly and demand immediate action to make our river whole. We can call our Congressman and Senators and demand national standards with enforcement for all our people. If there is no response, call them again every week. Email them every day. Our politicians are hard of hearing, they will not hear one complaint, they need to hear thousands. So, ask your friends to help. Ask your families from across the country to demand resolution. Contact Chemours and demand decency from this corporate citizen. Also, and this is important, look for existing organizations and work with them, they need your support and are already raising concerns: Clean Cape Fear, Cape Fear River Watch, Carolina Jews for Justice, and there are others. You can find them on the internet, contact them, donate, and stand with them to take united action. As a movement the Union for Reform Judaism has a Religious Action Committee, which campaigns for justice. Ask for help from the RAC in fighting this injustice. If our congregation doesn’t lead, we are failing to live as Reformed Jews, who value high ethical standards, we are not living as Jews, who are called to speak truth to power, and to defend the widow and orphan. Finally, we are not valuing our own lives and health. Health, healing, wholesome, whole, and holy all share the same root. Shalom is the Hebrew word for whole as well as peace. Pray for the peace of your city and act to make it whole.
I would like to conclude with this prayer.
Blessed are You, Eternal God.
You have planted us here in this beautiful place and provided us with all we need.
Forgive us, Eternal One, for polluting our air and water. Forgive our arrogance for defiling our river with wasted chemicals.
You let justice flow like water, give us the strength to return our water to wholesomeness.
You let righteousness roll like a mighty stream. Help us find the strength to end the corruption which defiles our river.
Let us be bold to bring healing to our river, to forgive those who misuse it, and give us the strength to carry our struggle for justice and healing of our water, so that the circle of life becomes whole once more.
And let us say, amen and amen."
My name is Emma Cohn. I’m a junior at the public high school the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville. I’ve been passionate about social justice since middle school, but I’ve really started to do something with that motivation just in this past year. Over the summer I got involved with Just Economics, an organization here in Asheville that works to fight economic inequality in my community, as well as Carolina Jews for Justice. As a wonderful combination of my work with both organizations, I’ve begun to participate in the statewide campaign backed by both CJJ and Just Economics, Raising Wages NC. Raising Wages NC’s goal is to get the state minimum wage raised to fifteen dollars an hour. The ultimate goal is a NC General Assembly piece of legislation, but the campaign is also doing work in cities and towns to get individual establishments and communities to begin raising their minimum wage. It is Raising Wages NC’s belief that there cannot be economic justice before everyone is paid a living wage that is enough to support them and provide for basic needs; I wholeheartedly agree with this fight and am incredibly excited to be working on this campaign. As I’ve gotten more involved with Raising Wages, I’ve begun to co-coordinate event planning with faith-based communities and am working on extending Raising Wages NC’s reach to more faith organizations outside my community. I’ve also started to do more work for Carolina Jews for Justice, which has led me to running their Instagram page (@carolinajewsforjustice) and doing this, writing for the blog! All in all, I had a very eventful second half of 2017.
Working for Raising Wages, Just Economics, and Carolina Jews for Justice has empowered me to create more change in my community and take the initiative to do more on my own. As I’ve continued my work with these three organizations, I’ve also created my own program in Asheville for teenage girls, called Girl Speak (@girlspeak on Instagram and www.girlspeak.co). It’s an event series that focuses on issues like body image, sexuality, and representation and features community experts and guest speakers. I’ve taken so much from what I’ve learned about publicity, leadership, outreach, and event planning from my time thus far with CJJ and co. to work to create Girl Speak, and if anything, working on Girl Speak has motivated me to get more involved with Raising Wages NC and CJJ. I feel the more I do, the more I want to do.
I’m especially excited about writing for the CJJ blog because I want to bring a younger perspective to social issues that CJJ is involved with. I think each generation taking part in the social action fight has more to learn from the other age groups fighting than it believes, and I want to be a piece of fostering a more diverse chorus of voices from all ages and backgrounds. It may feel cliché but it’s absolutely true that the more we listen to other points of view, the more we have to learn.
Thank you for having me on this blog and I hope to see you again soon!