The Courage Where We Fail #MarchForOurLives

Letter by LPY board member, Rikers Island yoga instructor and actor:  Yael Stone

This week I thought of Ella’s Song by Sweet Honey In The Rock, a piece that celebrates the thinking of civil rights luminary Ella Baker. “To me, young people come first, they have the courage where we fail.”

Listening to the inspiring young leaders at #MarchForOurLives I felt their hands on the wheel, driving toward a destination of their own imagining. That future, so bravely etched by people like Emma Gonzalez, Edna Chavez, Naomi Walder or Cameron Kasky means a cascade of inspiration and the actualization of change. Most importantly other young people like them have been sparked to act, and by virtue of the undeniable draw of hope, older generations too feel the immediacy of the moment. A grand and heart-wrenching demand for a change in gun laws, an epic shift in our relationship to violence and wake up that human life is more precious than a dollar amount.

There are profound truths revealed when we peel back the layers of systematic failure that have allowed an average of 96 Americans to be killed each day from gun violence, according to Everytown Research. I can’t help but see the parallels with mass incarceration. To my mind, the causes that feed ballooning incarceration and the dominance and damage of the NRA are coming from one compromised well. A well contaminated with racism and the ethos of the almighty dollar above all else.

CDC data shows us that black Americans are 8 times more likely to be killed by a firearm than a white person. Gun violence overwhelmingly impacts the black community. Meanwhile, the NRA, for a comparatively small lobby has an unparalleled influence on both elections and policy change. The current president addressed the NRA after 100 days in office and said ‘You came through for me and I’m going to come through for you.’ Protecting gun manufacturers puts dollars over lives and allows a cycle of racism to continue unchecked, national policy to be subverted and a select group of people to make big money.

By crude comparison, The NAACP reports that a Black American is incarcerated at 5 times the rate of a white American. Companies like Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) report profits in the billions. They also funnel considerable cash into lobbying government and are likely to see major gains after the current administration scrapped Obama’s plan to phase out the use of private prisons along with the promise of being ‘tough on crime’ which historically heralds a soaring prison population that disproportionately impacts people of color. Again we see national policy subverted, a racist system refueled and a select group of people making big money on the back of others suffering.

In this inspiring moment, sparked by horrific tragedy I see the strength in those willing to actively take part in creating the future. A future where the dollar doesn’t ride roughshod over very basic human rights, a future I want to support. I begin to understand more and more that all efforts to respect life, safety, and dignity are fundamentally intertwined. Likewise, I see the ever-connected need for healing wherever these basic tenants have been neglected or actively dismantled. The LPY mission for radical healing inside jails and prisons must include a future where these failed structures are themselves dismantled. Where humane, just and truly effective alternatives see people recover from trauma, rather than bound in a brutal trauma cycle. Like these young leaders, we’ve got to find that courage to chase and make this future we want to see.


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