Tuesday, August 02, 2016

TOP STORY >> Reform efforts focus of NAACP

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville NAACP held a seminar Saturday at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church on criminal justice reform, where more than 40 people heard community leaders, lawyers and advocates talk about legal procedures, parole problems and programs designed to motivate and keep kids on the right path.

A few people spoke about their personal experiences of being in prison and their interactions with the police. Sometimes laughter filled the room, and at other times the audience was deadly silent.

One of the event’s organizers, Jacksonville NAACP’s first vice president Reginald Ford, said the event was held in conjunction with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law’s Racial Disparities in the Arkansas Criminal Justice System Research Project.

Gwendolyn Harper, Jacksonville NAACP president, welcomed guests, and Malik Sharif, who is a consultant for the Racial Disparities Project, talked about the reasons behind for his work.

He is collecting the stories of individuals who have been arrested, charged or convicted of a crime in Arkansas.

The long-term goal is to bring about “legislative, policy and community-based reforms to create a fair and just criminal justice system in Arkansas,” Sharif said.

There were a number of stories, including one that involved an altercation with a Jacksonville police officer; another concerning a false accusation involving a minor; and a violent felony.

The stories are authenticated, Shari said.

Communication is the key.

Most of the stories were submitted anonymously, but Robert Combs, who served time as a convicted sex offender, talks openly about his experiences.

At one time, Combs had a comfortable job as a professor and museum director in Asia but his next stop was prison. He was released—basically, dumped in Little Rock where he had no family or friends—and ended up sleeping under the Broadway Bridge until he managed to put his life back together, with the help of his parole officer, he said.

These days, he is an advocate for social justice.

Ford said the event was designed to try to address some of the systemic problems that are currently harming relations between police officers and African Americans.

As a result, the number of dead on both sides is growing, he said. In part, he said, because of how society views black men.

For instance, if Ford accidentally locked himself out of his house, he said he worries about climbing over the fence of his own home in an upper middle-class neighborhood.

It might be difficult to convince the police that he had a right to be there, he said.

Another example, he said is one of the event’s speakers, Omavi Shukur, who looked more like a young artist or student than a lawyer.

Shukur is a lawyer in downtown Little Rock and was at the Saturday event for a lecture called “Know the Law, Know Your Rights.”

Former UALR and Philander Smith College professor Diane Chase of North Little Rock said she worries when her grandsons, now preteens, who are well over 6 feet tall, leave the house.

She said they’re never allowed out alone, even to play basketball.

It was one of the reasons she attended the event.

During a conversation around the lunch table, she and others discussed the importance of talking with kids about how to deal with law enforcement.

The recent deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement officers and the mass shooting of officers in Dallas, Texas; Baton Rouge, La., and now San Diego, Calif., are also troubling, Chase said.

Following a 30-minute story-sharing session, John W. Miller, Ph.D. talked about the 100 Black Men of Little Rock. He is president of the organization that is designed as a mentoring program for boys between the ages of 13 and 17.

“It strives to improve self-esteem and self-efficacy,” Miller said.

He said they normally work with about five Jacksonville boys every fall.

There are more than 100 chapters around the country.

“The only way to make a difference is to get kids while they are young,” he said.

Miller, who is a professor at UALR, said, “We need to push them toward the education pipeline instead of to the prison pipeline.”

He was referring to the school-to-prison pipeline phase that references practices and policies that make it difficult for many urban, at-risk and poor young black men and women, as well as other minorities, to succeed.

During his session Shukur said, “I see injustice in the system, and I think our system is designed by and for the elite.”

During the question-and-answer portion of his session, Gwen Porter-Cole asked, “What can we do Monday?”

Shukur suggested getting involved, “Call your state senator…Learn as much as possible about how power operates.”

Circuit Judge Wendell L. Griffen, Sixth Judicial District, Fifth Division, also attended the event, and said he is “very concerned about the violence” that’s happening around the country.

“We need to have an honest conversation. We cannot accept a culture where the police mindset and misconduct are tolerated. A culture that is disrespectful is dangerous,” he said.

Ivory Tillman, a Jacksonville NAACP founding member, said the group has been talking with Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and the Jacksonville Police Department about ways to keep the city’s black youth and its officers safe.

He said he feels good about race relations in Jacksonville.

All news has a local impact, Tillman said, “But still there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Ford agreed that the nation needs to talk about race, and people need to understand and respect cultural differences and help close the racial gap.

Sharif grew up in Little Rock—sometimes near the projects and in high crime areas—and these days he blames the news media for much of the racial tension.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” and while sensationalizing the news, it also drives much of the country’s racial fears and tensions, he said.

Whether in schools, prisons or courtrooms, Sharif wants institutions to work toward equity in their practices. He also advocates personal responsibility.

“We talk about communities doing the right thing, but communities are made up of persons. Personal responsibility is a good place to start. We all share common ground. We’re all struggling. We all want a good quality of life.”

Taylor Ford, who at 19 is the Jacksonville NAACP’s youngest member, said the information presented at the event was “informative and very interesting…We all need to get involved.”