News Tag: Racial Justice

New Legislation Could Require Drug Testing for Public Benefit Recipients

January 28, 2015

Once again, the Mississippi Legislature has proposed a bill to require drug testing for public benefit recipients in the form of House Bill 383. The ACLU of Mississippi opposes HB 383 and any effort to mandate any type of drug testing of public benefit applicants and recipients as an intrusion upon an individual’s right to privacy and an unreasonable search by the government. In addition to constitutional issues, drug testing is a misguided policy, based on the false premise that poor people are more likely to be drug users than other members of our society.  By targeting recipients of public benefits, these proposals disproportionately impact communities of color.

Last year, the Mississippi Legislature passed HB49 requiring the drug screening and subsequent testing of TANF applicants. Implementation of this bill required recipients complete the SASSI instrument to assess their “probable” drug abuse. Recently, SASSI released a paper to make clear where the Institute stands with regard to states' use of the instrument for their TANF drug testing programs. As you'll see, the SASSI folks are unequivocal in their opposition to the use of the SASSI for these purposes. 

Drug testing an entire class of citizens simply because they are poor "would be dangerously at odds with the tenets of our democracy." It is for this reason we strongly oppose HB 383 and would call for the legislature to reconsider its stance.

HB 383 has been referred to the House Public Health and Human Services Committee. 

Honor MLK - Continue the March

January 19, 2015

"How Long? Not Long!" was the question and answer given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on the steps of the Capitol building in March 1965 after leading the march from Selma to Montgomery. It was also a declaration that the struggle must continue. Despite obstacles and adversity, people came together and demanded better. They showed that it was not acceptable to establish laws that disenfranchised. They marched together to exemplify that together we can address discriminatory housing practices, inadequate public school funding and policies that keep poverty in place. As a result of their trek protesting injustices, they advanced equality.  

In Mississippi, we continue to see communities of color, the immigrant community, our LGBT citizens, and persons with disability marginalized.  Mississippi touts the 2nd highest prison population, ranks at the bottom when it comes to education, and continues to have the worst poverty ranking.  All of these issues are the result of deep seated, structural and institutional inequity in income, education, criminal justice, employment, and health. 

A battle was won 50 years ago but the war still wages. The tactics of enemies of equality may not be as overt but they remain the same.  Public schools and quality education remain a focus of attack.  Employment opportunities are barred by unnecessary policies. Injustices in application of criminal laws have targeted young men of color.    

The time for the arc to turn toward justice in Mississippi is now.  It is our sincere hope that all Mississippians join together to establish a better Mississippi.  Help us today.  Pivot Mississippi toward justice by calling on political leaders to dismantle barriers and increase equity.  In honor of Dr. King and other heroes who marched, bled, and died - vote. 

A Lesson From Ferguson: Driving While Black Leads to Jailed for Being Poor

January 09, 2015

By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program

The tragic killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August has brought much needed attention to the epidemic of racialized policing in America. In Ferguson and cities throughout the country, police stop, search, and arrest black people and other communities of color at rates grossly disproportionate to their population.

In late December, the Missouri Supreme Court took an important step to addressing the problem: curbing the use of municipal courts as debtors' prisons. An editorial in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch explains the vicious cycle linking racial profiling and debtors' prisons in St. Louis County:

It works like this: A black driver gets pulled over in Bel-Ridge, for example, for failure to signal. Maybe a headlight is out on the car, too, or the registration has expired. The driver gets a summons for two or three violations. Hundred dollar fines are stacked on top of each other.

Violators sit and wait on the one night a month the municipal court is in session, stewing as lawyers, most of whom are white, get preferential treatment. They get called up first by the judge to dispose of the cases of their paying clients.

Those who can't afford a lawyer often can't afford the fines, either. So when their turn finally comes, they tell the court they can't pay. They may be threatened with jail if they don't come up with the money. If they miss a payment or a court date, a warrant can be issued for their arrest.

In St. Louis County, as throughout the country, modern-day debtors prisons exist despite the fact that the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts nearly two centuries ago. In the process, poor people –disproportionately people of color – and their families suffer from the collateral impacts of jailing on employment, and housing.

In September 2014, shortly after the killing of Brown, lawyers from Arch City Defenders and law professors at St. Louis University sought help in breaking this cycle. They wrote to the Missouri Supreme Court asking for a change to the court rules that guide judges in collecting fines and fees from defendants.

The Missouri Supreme Court showed that it understood what's going on. It revised a Missouri court rule to explicitly allow judges to permit defendants to pay through installment plans and to waive or reduce fines for those who cannot pay. The rule now also requires judges to schedule a "show cause" hearing before issuing arrest warrants for failure to appear, which gives defendants an opportunity to explain why they did not or cannot pay their fines.

And, crucially important, the rule now provides that when a defendant is held in contempt of court for failure to pay, the fine may be collected by the same means used to enforce court orders awarding money damages to a party.

This means that a Missouri court cannot use its contempt authority to jail a person who is simply too poor to pay a fine or fee. Instead, it must use the same procedures routinely employed to enforcement judgments, such as ordering a lien on real or personal property. Using these methods requires providing important procedural safeguards and respecting statutory exemptions from collection for home and personal property, both of which help to protect the poor.

In a country where the racial wealth gap remains stark, the link between driving while black and jailed for being poor has a devastating impact on people and communities of color. The Missouri Supreme Court showed that it understands the need to break the cycle.

Other courts should follow its lead.

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View this blog on ACLU National's website.

ACLU of Mississippi Responds to "No True Bill"

November 25, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org 

JACKSON, Miss – The following is a statement from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi Executive Director, Jennifer Riley-Collins, about the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The decision is part of a national pattern of police using excessive, and sometimes fatal, force against people of color, often during routine encounters. Understandably, many people in our community are angry and frustrated about the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Wilson. Some will take to the streets as part of peaceful protests to express their grievances. The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy. As an organization dedicated to protecting people’s First Amendment rights, the ACLU of Mississippi is here to serve as a resource for protestors who need to know their rights.

People should continue to peacefully protest the frequency with which police officers, and the departments they work for, are not held accountable for their actions. While many law enforcement officers carry out their jobs admirably and with great respect for the communities they serve, we cannot ignore the systematic use of excessive force employed by some police officers.

There is an erosion of the protect and serve role expected from law enforcement allowed by the total lack of police transparency and accountability; militarization of departments so they appear and operate more like an occupying military force; and the failure of police departments to eliminate racial profiling.

The ACLU of Mississippi will not let up in its tireless pursuit of defending the rights of citizens to protest and preventing future tragedies like the one in Ferguson from happening again. Through our litigation and public policy advocacy, we will remain in the forefront of working for meaningful and long-lasting systemic reforms of police departments.” 

Learn about our work to ensure police accountability.

 

ACLU of Mississippi Receives $350,000 from W.K. Kellogg Foundation

November 24, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Morgan Miller, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi Foundation (ACLU-MS) received a two-year $350,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support a school safety project. The project seeks to improve outcomes for Mississippi’s students with disabilities and students of color by restricting the use of restraints and seclusion on children in schools. 

“This generous grant will allow us to empower families and communities thereby increasing opportunities for Mississippi’s vulnerable children to have a fair chance at success in school and life,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

The project will engage of civic, community, corporate, and congregational leaders, promote public awareness, monitor use of restraint and seclusion in school districts and advocate for the implementation of positive behavior interventions and supports that are safe, effective, and evidence-based.

Mississippi is one of five states that lack a statute, regulation, or even nonbinding guidelines. The lack of regulation has resulted in the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children becoming common place among Mississippi schools despite the potential dangers and lack of evidence of their effectiveness. Data also has revealed the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline with students with disabilities and students of color who also experience disabilities. “The lack of regulation has resulted in the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children becoming common place among Mississippi schools despite the potential dangers and lack of evidence of their effectiveness,” stated Charles Irvin, Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi.

ACLU-MS has been a champion of children’s rights. ACLU-MS has produced a number of reports including Missing the Mark and Handcuffs on Success which have illuminated extreme and destructive approaches to school discipline which not only have directly harmed students and families, but also have caused teachers, law enforcement officials, and community members to have their lives and careers made more difficult by these ineffective and counter-productive school discipline policies and practices. As a result of these efforts, reforms have been implemented which have improved outcomes for children across the state.

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About the ACLU of Mississippi

The ACLU of Mississippi is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization founded in 1969 that defends and expands the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Mississippians guaranteed under the United States and Mississippi Constitutions, through its litigation, legislative and public education programs. It is an affiliate of the national ACLU.

About the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti. For more information, visit www.wkkf.org.

Stand With Us Against Proposed Initiative 46

November 06, 2014

A group in Mississippi is proposing a ballot initiative that could discriminate against Mississippians with different religious beliefs as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

The proposed initiative calls for Christianity as the official religion of Mississippi, English as the official language, requires the Confederate Flag to fly over the State Capitol, and establishes a Confederate Heritage Month and Confederate Memorial Day.

In order for this initiative to make it on the ballot for the General Election in November 2016, the Magnolia Heritage State Heritage Campaign must collect over 100,000 signatures by October 2015 and we cannot let that happen.

We must draw a line in the sand and stand in defense of freedom for ALL Mississippians!

  • No one religion should be promoted by the government over another. The initiative’s promotion of Christianity undermines our rich traditions of peaceful pluralism and religious diversity.
  • Discrimination against language minorities and restrictions on communication in languages other than English implicate our most basic rights of equal protection, free speech, and due process. A declaration of English as the official language is inconsistent with the spirit of tolerance and diversity embodied in the federal Constitution, and in particular the Equal Protection Clause.
  • Ballot Initiative 46 wants to assert “heritage, culture and traditions” that are steeped in historical discrimination based on race. 

If we allow discrimination in one situation, it will be allowed in other situations where it may cause serious harm. We stand ready to defend freedom in Mississippi and will adamantly oppose Initiative 46!

We are ready to ensure that all individuals are protected from discrimination. Stand with us! 

Read more about Ballot Initiative 46 in the Clarion Ledger.

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ACLU-MS to Law Enforcement: Protect Citizens' Right to Record Actions of Public Officials

September 29, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; jriley-collins@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – Highlighting recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and following the model set by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in an unprecedented legal statement on citizens’ rights to record police actions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi is contacting local law enforcement agencies throughout Mississippi, urging them to establish clear policies and training to ensure that officers conform to the Constitution they are sworn to protect. The ACLU of Mississippi hopes that by sharing information with Mississippi law enforcement officials about best practices the organization can assist police in heading off problems and protecting the rights of citizens as well as public safety.

“Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right. That includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” said ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director, Charles Irvin. “Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often order people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and sometimes harass, detain or even arrest people who use their cameras or cell phone recording devices in public. We urge Mississippi’s law enforcement agencies to join with us and to conduct embrace policies in line with DOJ guidance which protect this right.”

Given the conflicts over recording that continue to arise despite the enormous attention this issue is receiving across the country, the ACLU of Mississippi urges that now is the time for Mississippi police departments to review and modify their internal policies and training programs to ensure protection of the rights of citizen journalists.

The Department of Justice specifically recommends that police policies do the following:

  • Affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right to record police activity;
  • Describe the range of prohibited police responses to individuals observing or recording the police;
  • Clearly describe when an individual’s actions amount to interference with police duties;
  • Provide clear guidance on the necessity of supervisory review of any proposed action to be taken by officers against an individual who is recording police;
  • Describe the narrow circumstances under which it is permissible for officers to seize recordings and recording devices; and
  • Indicate that no higher burden be placed on individuals exercising their right to record police activity than that placed on members of the press.


Read the letter
to law enforcement agencies.

Learn more about the right to record.

Advocacy Groups Issue Joint Statement on Revisions to TANF Procedures

August 19, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Sid Scott, Mississippi Center for Justice, 769-230-2841, sscott@mscenterforjustice.org

JACKSON, Miss. — The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice issued the following joint statement in light of the Mississippi Department of Human Services release of revisions to the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) rules:

“We applaud DHS for adopting a provision that protects TANF payments for children. This action comes after a July 22 public hearing that we called for and that featured heartfelt testimony calling for the change to protect payments for children, among other things. While we are generally very pleased with the new regulations, we continue to express concern about the viability of the chosen screening instrument, and reassert that TANF recipients should not be required to pay for the treatment process.”

Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

August 18, 2014

By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program at 5:07pm

The tragic killing of college-bound teenager Michael Brown has raised questions about the frequency with which police kill unarmed black men in America. The answer, unfortunately, is far too often.

Just three months ago, on a warm April afternoon, a white police officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man, in downtown Milwaukee's Red Arrow Park. According to the Milwaukee police chief, the officer was "defending himself in a violent situation." But the eyewitness report of a Starbucks barista paints a very different picture.

According to the barista, Hamilton had been sleeping on the concrete sidewalk next to Starbucks when two police officers approached him, asked him questions, and left after determining that he was doing nothing wrong. But an hour or so later, she heard yelling. Looking out the Starbucks window, she saw a different white police officer standing up against Hamilton, "who was holding the officer's own baton in a defense posture." The officer "lunged" at Hamilton in an attempt to get the baton, but failed. The barista watched in horror as the officer stood 10 feet away from Hamilton, pulled out a gun, and shot Hamilton 10 times in quick succession without issuing any verbal warnings. The barista reports that she never saw Hamilton hit the officer with the baton.

The tragic killing of Hamilton bears a striking – and deeply troubling – resemblance to the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot by an officer six times, including twice in the head, after being stopped for walking down the middle of a street. Including Hamilton and Brown, at least six black men were shot and killed by police since April in circumstances that suggest the unjustified use of excessive force and possible racial profiling.

In July, Eric Garner was killed in New York by officers who placed him in a chokehold – a banned tactic – and slammed his head into a sidewalk during an attempt to arrest him for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes.

In early August, police in Beavercreek, Ohio, fatally shot John Crawford III in a Walmart, where Crawford had been holding a BB gun that he had picked up on a store shelf.

Just days after the killing of Brown, Ezell Ford was killed by police on a Los Angeles sidewalk during an investigative stop. While police contend that officers opened fire after a "struggle," Ford's mother reports that he was lying on the ground complying with the officers' order when he was shot three times in the back.

And the very next day, pressman Dante Parker was killed in Victorville, California, after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by police attempting to arrest him as a suspect in a nearby robbery. Apparently, police suspected him because he was riding a bicycle, and the robbery suspect was reported to have fled on a bike.

The stories of these six people make one thing painfully clear: The killing of black men in incidents that begin as investigatory police stops are anything but unusual in America. In this sense, Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

There is a reason for this. More than 240 years of slavery and 90 years of legal segregation in this country have created a legacy of racialized policing. Killings and beatings lie at one end of a spectrum in which black people ­– and young black men in particular – are routinely stigmatized, humiliated, and harassed as targets for police stops, frisks, and searches, even when they are doing nothing wrong.

The numbers show the reality.

Studies of Rhode Island traffic stops and New York pedestrian stops confirm that police stop blacks at higher rates than whites. Even more troubling is that the New York study determined that a neighborhood's racial composition was the main factor for determining NYPD stop rates, above and beyond the "role of crime, social conditions, or the allocation of police resources." In other words, New York cops targeted blacks because of their race – not because they happened to live in a dangerous place or in an area flooded by police.

Data from Ferguson mirrors these racial disparities. Last year, blacks not only accounted for 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests by Ferguson police, the state attorney general's office calculated that blacks were overrepresented in these encounters in light of their population figures. Even more damning is the fact that although police were twice as likely to search blacks than whites after initiating a stop, whites were far more likely to be found with contraband.

It is not a leap to conclude that the same biases that cause those racial disparities also make it more likely that black men will die during the course of police arrests. According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, although black men made up only 27.8 percent of all persons arrested from 2003-2009, they made up 31.8 percent of all persons who died in the course of arrest, and the majority of these deaths were homicides.

Why does racialized policing persist despite the end of slavery and Jim Crow? While explicit racial bias may be less prominent today (albeit anything but eliminated), implicit racial biases plague all of us, including those charged with keeping our streets safe. A large body of compelling research has demonstrated how these unconscious, automatically activated, and pervasive mental processes translate into action with devastating consequences for black people.

In particular, researchers have well-documented shooter bias. One video game study simulated the nearly instantaneous decisions made by police officers to shoot armed individuals and to refrain from shooting the unarmed. The study revealed that participants were more likely to shoot black people than white people in error.

Both explicit and implicit biases lead far too often to the killing of black men in police-civilian encounters. And they undergird the daily indignity and humiliation experienced by blacks who are stopped, questioned, and searched by police when they have done nothing wrong.

Police are sworn to serve and protect everyone equally, not disproportionately stop and harass only certain communities. Rather than express surprise and shock during a summer where six black men have been killed by police in highly questionable circumstances, it is up to us to do something.

The single most important first step is to provide accountability—including through the Attorney General's issuance of a comprehensive ban on racial profiling. Accountability will advance justice for past harms and pave the way forward for a future in which we are closer to the promise of equal justice for all.

Sign our petition asking the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice to stop funneling billions into the militarization of state and local police forces.

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Reflecting on Freedom Summer Youth Congress

July 02, 2014

By Jed Oppenheim, Advocacy Coordinator

They came from all over. By bus, train, airplane and car. From June 23-28, young people from all over Mississippi and our country came to Jackson, MS to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer. Part of this contingent was a large scale Freedom Summer Youth Congress (FSYC). Although participants commemorated the civil rights victories achieved partly because of Freedom Summer ’64, such as the Civil Rights Act and, later, the Voting Rights Act, the FSYC was a deliberate call to action by youth-led organizations. These organizations are on the forefront of the current movement defining what we need to do to keep pushing social justice and civil liberties forward.

In the last decade, we have seen our public education system attacked by private interests (much like they were just before and after Brown v. Board); we have seen SCOTUS back track on the pre-clearance required by the Voting Rights Act; at the state and federal levels we have seen attack after attack on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions (most recently, the June 30 SCOTUS decision regarding contraception); we are hearing of young people who have only ever known what life is like in America—being deported to countries they have never known due to decisions their parents made decades ago; we are seeing black and brown youth incarcerated more than ever because private corporations are looking for profit; and so much more. We will not resolve these issues without the engagement and leadership by and for our young people.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the last year, you’ve seen the youth-led Dream Defenders sit-in over the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida; you have seen the DREAMers take to Capitol Hill and push the Obama Administration on immigration reform; and, right here in Mississippi, you have seen the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance (MSJA) organize for a union at the Nissan plant in Canton for workers’ rights. These stories often get missed in the mainstream because our elders and our media are quicker to judge young people as apathetic, uninvolved and selfish. By the end of last week’s Youth Congress, it was obvious that this paternalistic rational was debunked.

At the FSYC, the youth, who came to Tougaloo College in Jackson, strategized, collaborated and shared ideas that cut across the highly-silo’d way in which we normally operate in social justice work. Youth, who normally work on access to quality education, were working with youth on access to the ballot. Youth “DREAMers,” who came together as undocumented students, collaborated with other youth on breaking down the Prison Industrial Complex. Every issue is inter-connected and nowhere was that more clear than at the FSYC.

At FSYC, political power was a main topic of how to change perception, but also how to change the power structure. On the last day of the Youth Congress, I walked into a room where representatives from the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Freedom Side, The Young People’s Project, Advancement Project and many other groups were talking about a new political structure with more political voices. The discussion revolved around political power and how to obtain it. Amazingly, FSYC was filled with rooms of young people who have made a drastic impact on their communities, yet young people are constantly told to wait their turn. Moving forward, these young activists will be the voices of change because it is their turn.

In 2064, I hope we will not be talking about the same topics in 2014 nor the topics of 1964. Going forward from FSYC, we will use youth-driven people power to create new conversations and institutions. We will also continue the work to creatively break down systems that don’t work for black, brown, LGBT or DREAMer youth and create new one’s that actually serve the people. Most of the youth who came to FSYC are already doing the work. FSYC was an opportunity to build and expand on that foundation.

The ACLU of Mississippi applauds these courageous young people and were glad to participate in the FSYC. It is this youthful base that will forge into our future and finally allow our potential to be realized. It is this potential that will make our state and our nation great. A place where justice, fairness and equity are not just words on a paper (or in a blog) to be academized, but real acts of vision and love meant to exist in a great society.