Black Women & The Death Penalty

Earlier this year I was apart of a dialogue on the death penalty for Religion & Politics  The Table Dialogue where various faith leaders write responses on a pressing social issue from the perspective of their faith tradition.

Death-Penalty-GettyImages-984627-001-584-x-380-445x290

Never Murder.  –Exodus 20:13 (God’s Word Translation)

As an African American woman who identifies with the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith and who has found a theological home in womanist theology, my religious tradition informs my views of the death penalty in general and as it affects Black women in particular. As a follower of Yahshua (Jesus), the Ten Commandments are still very relevant to my life and shape my ethics. I do not separate the message of the Gospel from the cultural context that Yahshua was born into. In light of this I still observe the Sabbath and when I read in Exodus 20:13 that “we should not murder,” that applies to my brothers and sisters who are incarcerated as well. As a practical womanist theologian who works against mass incarceration’s impact on Black women and girls through the PICO National Network’s Live Free Campaign, which works to end mass incarceration and police brutality, I am grieved by how the intersections of racism, sexism and classism collide to send my sisters to death row. Do we see these women?

As a woman I am inspired by the account of the Egyptian enslaved woman Hagar, who after being unjustly cast out of the home of Abraham and Sarah with her son, encounters the “God who sees her” (Genesis 16:13). Like Hagar, African American women in the criminal justice system are usually unseen and unheard, especially those who are on death row. According to academics Harry and Sheila P. Greenlee, “The percentage of women of every race receiving death sentences is less than their percentage in the female population, except for African American and Native American women. The percentage of African American and Native American females receiving death sentences is more than double their percentage of the U.S. female population. Interestingly, this finding is not true for the other women of color.” It should also be noted that Native American women face disparities in the criminal justice system as well, and this reflects the ongoing injustice faced by the general Native American population since the inception of the United States, which prospered due to the stolen land of Native Americans and stolen bodies of Africa. Theologically I believe that sin is not only individual but also social and is embedded into the very fabric of American society. The United States’ original sin is racism, and the death penalty is just another reflection of this sin. Theologically we mustsee the millions of Black women and girls who are abused by the criminal justice system, whose lives end not only in murder on death row but also while in police custody. In July 2015 five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

I would challenge advocates against the death penalty to expand their work to include advocacy concerning those who die in police custody, because in my opinion this goes hand-in-hand with the death penalty: One is formal, another is informal, but both are murder by our criminal justice system.

As a faith-based organizer I know that what must be done about the death penalty in general, and its impact on Black women in particular, is that we need to get organized. But this organization should be led by African Americans because we are the ones most affected by the injustice of mass incarceration. Ending the death penalty has to be a part of a holistic campaign to reform our broken, profit-driven mass incarceration system. African American women must organize against the death penalty in all its forms—whether it’s a sister sitting on death row for ten years or Sandra Bland who died in police custody. We have to organize with prophetic public actions, standing not for but withwomen on death row, because the most powerful movements are led by those closest to the pain.

We also must organize by withholding our money and our votes. According to the Nielsen Company study entitled “African American Consumers: Still Vital, Still Growing in 2015,” African American buying power is 1.1 trillion. According to the “Buying Power of Black America” report by Target Market News, “the purchases made by Black women are the single biggest influence on the growth of African American spending.” With this buying power we can begin to boycott those companies that utilize prison labor and those companies that invest in private prisons. According to my colleague Margarida Jorge, national director of the Women’s Equality Center, African American women are the most consistent voters for the Democratic Party. With this voting power, we should demand of all political parties, but especially the Democratic Party, that our support be tied to candidates willing to stand against the death penalty. According to research from Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in his book From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African ancestry. Black women not only have buck and ballot power; we have the power to influence the Christian church to take on the issue of ending the death penalty. For non-Black women allies the death penalty affects all of us and your voice as an ally is extremely important in supporting a movement to end this sinful practice in our criminal justice system. We all must get organized to build a groundswell that says the death penalty is unacceptable in our society. We all must see those who are on death row because they are our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends, and neighbors. It is only when we see the tragedy of a criminal justice system that murders rather than reforms that we will create a society that honors the lives of all.

Onleilove Alston, M.Div., MSW, is a native New Yorker and Executive Director of Faith in NY, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, where she leads A Women’s Theology of Liberation, training women of faith to organize through a gender lens rooted in their faith. She tweets@Wholeness4ALL

Also In
The Discussion

Capital Crime Calls for Capital Punishment

By J. Daryl Charles

The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty, as Pope Francis Implores

By Joseph A. Fiorenza

For Mormons, a Contested Legacy on Capital Punishment

By Patrick Q. Mason

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/01/19/lets-reform-our-broken-criminal-justice-system/#sthash.tjxLcEFr.dpuf

UN Working Group for People of African Descent Testimony on Mass Incarceration’s Impact on Black Women & Girls

On Tuesday January 26th, 2016 I  testified before the U.N. Working Group for People of African Descent at their NY Factfinding Mission. Her testimony was about how Mass Incarceration impacts Black Women and Girls. This Factfinding mission is apart of the decade for people of African Descent whose ancestors were taken into the transatlantic slave trade. Find my testimony below:

My name is Onleilove Alston and I am the Executive Director of PICO-Faith in New York, which is the New York affiliate of the PICO Network, the largest faith based organizing network in the world, additionally, I led A Women’s Theology of Liberation for the network. Faith in New York is a federation of over 70 multi-faith and multi-race congregations representing over 80,000 New Yorkers. Our vision is to build a New York where ALL not some of New Yorkers live in dignity through ending mass incarceration, fostering economic dignity and gaining comprehensive immigration reform. I want to welcome the delegation and thank you for traveling to the US to assess to state of People of African descent.

Personally, I was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn one of the seven neighborhoods in New York that sends the highest numbers of people to New York State prisons. As a young woman who experienced homelessness and foster care (which is a pipeline to prison), the intersections of race, class and gender caused me to be targeted by police. While most of us are aware of the New Jim Crow against Black men and boys Black women and girls are silently facing police brutality and sexual assault and raising incarceration rates. In July 2015 alone five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

 

What many do not know is that Black women of child bearing age are entering prison for the first time at extremely high rates. Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many  don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”

The implicit bias of colorism also affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities.

Furthermore, since 2013 there have been multiple incidents of visibly pregnant Black women being beaten by police. One such woman was Brenda Hardaway a Rochester, New York resident who was slammed to the ground by cops while crying “you’re going to kill my baby” this is one of five incidents of pregnant women of color being beaten by the cops that I have encountered in my work this year. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was also going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of Black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community, quantitative data is needed to further study the impact of mass incarceration on African-American women and girls.

Suggested Questions

A. Culturally-Competent, Gender & Race Informed Criminal Justice Services-What efforts have federal, state and local governments made to ensure the availability of: a) trainings for law enforcement professionals focused on cultural and gender competencies and b) resources to attract Black women into criminal justice and legal professions?
B. Legislation-what federal, state or local legislation has been passed to a) ensure that gender-based police violence is prosecuted to the full extent of the law and b) ensure that African-American girls that are sex trafficked are given support services and not incarcerated as sex workers?
C. Disaggregate Data-Does the federal, state and local governments collect data categorized by race or ethnic origin that is disaggregated by gender-identity related to police misconduct?

 

Suggested Recommendations

A. That the Department of Justice, as well as state and local governments be required to collect data concerning police brutality categorized by race and ethnic origin that is disaggregated by age and gender-identity.
B. That the U.S. Department of Justice partner with Domestic Violence and Women’s Organizations to host local Truth Commissions on gender based police violence against Black Women with a commitment to enacting policy changes that are generated from these commissions.
C. That U.S. Department of Justice, state and local police departments should:
• Provide culturally-competent, age appropriate and gender informed criminal justice services.
• Collect data concerning the role that theimplicit bias of colorism plays on arrest and sentencing and provide recommendations for law enforcement and legal staff at the local, state and federal levels to counteract this bias in sentencing and arrest.

Poetry Challenge Day 30: The New Jim Crow

Today is the last day of my 30 Day Poetry Challenge! I can’t believe I am done. Today I am in Cincinnati, Ohio for the Children’s Defense Fund National Conference
which is convening thousands of child advocates, faith leaders, Social Workers, community organizers and activist to build a movement to protect children in our country. This morning at 6:00am young leaders convened outside the convention center for a time of silent reflection on African-Americans, especially young men in the prison system. What many may not know is that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and it is overwhelming inhabited Black men. Author Michelle Alexander calls this phenomena the New Jim  because many of these men were led to prison due to economic and racial circumstances. After getting out of prison most ex-offenders lose voting rights and can’t get jobs which means they are basically a separate class. The poem below was inspired by poems I read this morning that were written by young people in prison, their poems touched me and reminded me that I was born and raised in one of the 12 communities in NYC that sends the most people in the state to prison. To read my poetic reflection:

Continue reading