She was 13 and in a foster home. Then, on to group homes. Nothing was stable. Her young life, in tatters.
“So I learned the streets,” the young woman says on the video for Durham’s Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ).
She committed some crimes. Fast forward a few years. The woman continues, a tear rolling down her face as she speaks.
“I was doing good,” she says. “Got a great job. They wait on my background check to come back. Boom. I don’t have a job.”
“Right now,” she says, “I just want a clean start.”
At the dawn of a new year, hundreds do. The coalition had to stop taking new applications for its re-entry legal services when they hit 1000.
The group has been headquartered on N.C. 54 West since 2007. Its workload, influence and impact have grown sharply. Its staff must be doing something right.
Next, my interview with Anita Earls, the coalition’s executive director. Our talk was edited for brevity.
Gaspo: Part of your mission/vision statement statement says: “Challenging racial discrimination at all stages of the criminal justice system and its impact on racial and ethnic minority communities.” That’s a big, broad mandate.
Earls: “The mandate is what we see as crucial to the survival of people of color in this country. We also are conscious of the need to address the systemic problems that create injustices.”
What motivated you to want to make a difference in this way?
Earls: “I grew up in a mixed-race family and saw the daily toll that racism takes on people’s lives. As well, the bigger racial injustices that go unanswered because of lack of access to legal representation. I wanted to do something.”
About the recent North Carolina gubernatorial election, Durham stood tall in the face of criticism about the veracity of its vote count, don’t you think?
Earls: “There is great pressure to be partisan. The integrity of individuals who are able to rise above and make decisions based on their best evaluation can make a tremendous positive difference.”
What are a few cases/issues where you believe the coalition has really made its mark in the last five years?
Earls: “Our work fighting the monster vote suppression law (HB 589) has probably enfranchised the most voters. I think our clean slate work has the biggest impact in individuals’ lives.
The recent police-involved fatal shooting of Frank Clark at McDougald Terrace in Durham. Are you all involved in looking at that?
Earls: “Yes, SCSJ’s Dave Hall represents Frank Clark’s family.”
Thoughts on why so few officers ever get convicted in fatal killings?
Earls: “Juries in the South, in particular, are not willing to hold police officers accountable. I think implicit bias plays a role as well – juries are more willing to believe that a black man is a threat to a police officer’s life, even if he is unarmed and running away.”
In most cases, in fact, the police do not commit a crime or utilize obviously poor judgment in a shooting. Yet every one is under a microscope.
Earls: “We give police officers tremendous power and authority; we should hire only the best people, pay them well, create the right incentives, reward good policing and, without fail, hold those who act without justification accountable for their actions.”
(I asked Earls about her view on HB2, still on the books.)
When I say Donald Trump and election, what comes to mind?
Earls: “We need to understand the risks to democracy of an electorate that can easily be misled by complete falsehoods.”
Durham, unfortunately, has a good number of young teens who go wrong and wind up locked up.
Earls: “North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically prosecutes 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. Youthful offenders are far more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence in jails and prisons. The solution is raising the age which people can be prosecuted as adults to 18.”
How would you describe the environment and challenges for Latinos in their interactions with law enforcement, particularly those relatively new to Durham?
Earls: “I think none of us can know what they face until we have walked in their shoes. We need to listen more to their voices.”