Children’s Defense Fund
The brilliant lawyer and author of the critically important book Just Mercy Bryan Stevenson said, “We have to judge how we’re doing in America, not by looking at how we treat the rich and the popular and the famous. You have to judge how you’re doing in a country like ours not by how you treat the privileged and the rich but by how you treat the poor and the incarcerated and the condemned.” None of us must be deterred by the fierce thunder and lightning of powerful political forces trampling our American values and the survival needs of our struggling poor children and neighbors. A multifront radical war against children, the poor, people with disabilities, women, immigrants, refugees and other vulnerable people is underway. Never has there been a more urgent time to combat fear and confusion, stand together and fearlessly demand just treatment for all.
A nation-threatening toxic cocktail of poverty, racial disparities, poor education and racially unjust zero tolerance school discipline policies, and discriminatory arrests and sentencing fuels America’s costly Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis and morally indefensible and unjust mass incarceration system that funnel millions of poor children and adults of color into dead-end lives.
• Black children are over seven times more likely to have an incarcerated parent compared to White children.
• Black youths are more than twice as likely as White peers to be arrested.
• Zero tolerance discipline policies push Black students out of school each day in America, fueling the pipeline.
• The U.S. spends over three times more per prisoner than per public school student.
• Black citizens are less than 13 percent of the U.S. population but 42 percent of the 2,905 people currently on death row.
• One innocent person on death row is identified and exonerated for every nine people executed in America. The death penalty kills innocent people.
On March 1, Ash Wednesday began the holy season of Lent. Rooted in the ancient Jewish tradition, Christians celebrate Lent as a time for penance, fasting and reflection leading up to Easter. In Washington, D.C., a new art installation opened on the lawn in front of the United Methodist Building (100 Maryland Avenue, N.E.) facing the U.S. Supreme Court. Created by gentle gifted artist, former death row prisoner and passionate advocate for justice Ndume Olatushani, this interactive exhibit is the first stop on the unique “Stations of the Cross” exhibition at 14 locations across our capital city ending at the National Cathedral. It tells the story of the Passion of Christ in a powerful new way for people of all faiths and seeks to remind us of Jesus’s question when He was on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Olatushani came to work at the Children’s Defense Fund in 2012 as an organizer in Nashville, Tennessee, after nearly 28 years in prison, 20 of them on death row, until proving he’d been wrongly convicted. During those prison years, Olatushani became a fine self-taught artist. In this installation, Olatushani tells his story – a Cradle to Prison Pipeline story – mirroring countless stories of other poor children, youths and adults of color unjustly snared by our morally flawed criminal justice system. They are the names and faces and lives behind the statistics. They also often mirror the biblical story of Jesus, who faced trumped up charges of rebelling against the Roman Empire and was condemned to die on the cross.
The exhibition’s website describes the installation this way: “Standing before Pilate, Jesus is mostly silent as he is condemned to death. Rather than incriminate Jesus, this silence indicts the system that charges him, magnifying the injustice at play. Ndume Olathushani’s art at the United Methodist Building reflects this theme … A four-by-nine-foot cage, orange jumpsuits, and sign posts draw attention to injustice in varying forms, including wrongful conviction, disproportionate punishment, for-profit imprisonment, racial bias and systemic mass incarceration. The setting of the United Methodist Building, a religious center for justice, sharpens the critique. Facing the Supreme Court, the art installation issues a challenge as with Jesus in Pilate’s court, justice revealed not as a matter of abstracted jurisprudence, but as a matter of moral urgency and, ultimately, human being.”
In her bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander wrote “there are more adult African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.” The Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis and the epidemic of mass incarceration have created one of the most dangerous crises affecting everyone in America but especially the Black community. I hope those who can will visit the Stations of the Cross exhibition before it closes April 13. For those who cannot, I hope you will form study groups and read the eye-opening books by Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson.
Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org.