Dozens of activists stood out front of the courthouse Saturday evening to speak out against racial injustice, particularly in relation to the mass incarceration of minorities in America.
Elaine Weintraub, historian and co-founder of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail, first took a moment to reflect on the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“They say we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us,” Weintraub said. “[Ginsburg] showed us that you just have to refuse to give up, and that is what we have to do now.”
Weintraub said that this year, 34 percent of American prisons are filled with African American men. She said the percentage of people using illegal drugs is the same for white and black people, yet black people are punished 70 percent more often by the criminal justice system.
“We have to keep going, and say this isn’t right. There are more people incarcerated in the United States than in any other country on earth. Now why is that? Because we have always had an underclass that has been oppressed,” Weintraub said.
She stressed the importance of eliminating racism and bias in school systems, because “that is where it all begins.”
“The whole passage from school to jail is set up. We have to stand up and yell, and keep yelling,” Weintraub said.
Activist and co-organizer of the rally Eugene Langston-Jemison first acknowledged and thanked all the police officers who carry out their duties with fairness, justice, and compassion. “I want to acknowledge and talk about the good men and women behind the badge. There are some, there are a lot,” Langston-Jemison said. He denounced the criticism and condemnation of police officers without just cause. “If someone were to attack my friend Chief Bruce McNamee standing over there, that would be a problem with me,” Langston-Jemison said.
Langston-Jemison said his own life is evidence of the fact that the institution of slavery still exists in America. At age 18, he said, he was arrested and convicted for stealing bicycles, and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
“Eight years in prison to be followed by 10 years’ supervised probation — for stealing an [expletive] bicycle. I admit I did break the law, but sentencing me like I murdered someone,” Langston-Jemison said. “I remember only coming out to work at the warden’s house, cleaning out his [expletive] pool, and working at 10 cents an hour building tables that were sold throughout the world. Is that justice? No, I call it ‘just us.’”
After Langston-Jemison served his time, he said, he still cannot escape the prejudicial treatment that has followed him all his life. “I got pulled over, and found out my license was suspended because I didn’t pay my fines from 30 years ago, they want to take that from me, too,” Langston-Jemison said. “I’m tired, I’m fed up. The justice system cannot be ‘just us’ anymore.”
Longtime school teacher and co-organizer Keily Rigali said she taught most of her career so far in inner-city schools. She said the inner city school system is a place where children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and adult criminal detention centers, and that 32 percent of our youth are in juvenile detention centers currently.
“Many of these young people never re-enter mainstream education, and the loss to society is immeasurable. Not only do communities lose potential talents these students hold, but they also commit themselves to expending vast amounts of resources — far greater resources than it would take to educate kids in public schools,” she said.
According to Rigali, now is the time to shift funding toward supporting the education of our youth, and “investing in families that have lived in poverty for far too long.”