New York’s March for Justice

They were white and black, young and old, gay, trans and straight, putting themselves on the line for what the organizer called the civil rights movement for the 21st century.

Soffiyah Elijah came up with the 180-mile walk from Harlem to Albany, New York, an attempt to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hoped, bring about some reforms. She is the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice.

The story of the march is told in Bokeh.

Check out previous New York March coverage

March for Justice Reaches Albany After 180 Miles

After a 180-mile hike that began in Harlem in Manhattan on Aug. 26, the March for Justice arrived in Albany, New York, this morning.

They timed their arrival at the state capital with the anniversary of the notorious Attica Prison uprising, which ended after state troopers raided the complex. Ten corrections officers and 33 inmates were killed.

The March for Justice organizers are holding a press conference at 1 p.m. today and a rally this evening in front of the capital building. The march was organized to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hope, to bring about reforms.

Soffiyah Elijah, the march’s leader and chief organizer, is the founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice.

Check out previous New York March coverage


Leader of Civil Rights March Shaped By Exposure to Segregation, Racial Bias

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York — When she was in the sixth grade, when she still wanted to be a pediatrician and not a lawyer for revolutionaries, Soffiyah Elijah entered her first integrated school in Hempstead, Long Island. She remembers that in response to integration the administration of the school then segregated the classrooms. So she spent her first day in an integrated school among all black students.

That didn’t last long.

That afternoon after school was dismissed she went home and told her parents.

“My mother marched up to the school the next day,” Elijah recollected. “And she moved her little girl over to the other class. It was like either my daughter will be in this other class or you’ll wish she was. My mother was a no-nonsense mom.”

When asked if she feels some of her mother’s sense of justice helped shaped the woman she has become, she bursts out into laughter.

“I think a lot of her rubbed off on me,” she said. “And my dad was a no-nonsense dad.”

Elijah was looking to explain what inspired her to organize and lead the March for Justice. In order to do that, she reached back to her childhood. She needed to explain the ubiquitous system of segregation that touched her life starting as a toddler.

Major events of her childhood

It wasn’t just her professional life as a lawyer or her work leading the Correctional Association of New York, but a lifetime of exposure to rampant segregation that shaped the 62-year-old to organize a 21st-century civil rights march in the state often considered one of the most progressive in the union. That’s a misconception she hopes to dispel by the time she reaches Albany, New York, at the end of her 180-mile March for Justice.

“The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Malcolm X, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Cointelpro program, the brutality of the civil rights workers that they went through,” Elijah said, listing the historical forces that shaped her youth. “That’s a lot, right, to shape someone’s formative years. I watched the political assassination of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., I grew up when black people were never depicted on television in a positive light. So, it’s rooted in my DNA.”

By the time Elijah had reached sixth grade she had already become inured to the ubiquitous racism that defined her neighborhood. She grew up on the border of Hempstead and Garden City. Garden City was all white back then, but Hempstead was segregated between black and white residents. Her house was near the border of Garden City. So she and her black playmates grew up knowing a lesson that wasn’t taught at any school.

“So I knew,” she said “As black kids growing up there we all knew. ‘Do not ride your bicycle past this block.’”

As a black child in Long Island, segregation was as much a part of her life as someone in the deep South. Elijah grew up hearing her parents tell the story of moving day. Her neighbors were white. Someone had painted “Go Home NIGGER” on the picket fence.

“Now I was too young to see that or to understand it because I was only 2, but my parents, as I got older I would hear them talking about that,” she said. “So, I didn’t have to wait until I got to the sixth grade.”

When her parents took her on trips to Delaware to visit her godmother or farther south into Maryland to visit relatives, Elijah became accustomed to a routine: Her parents would always pack food and a portable toilet. She learned on those trips that because she and her parents were black that they couldn’t use any public accommodations.

“That was just the norm,” she said flatly. “You packed your food; you packed your port-a-potty, and that’s how you traveled. And so I learned that well before I got to sixth grade. The idea of stopping at a rest stop on the road to D.C. to go in and use the bathroom and buy something to eat — I didn’t learn that until I was an adult.”

First step to fix justice system

As the founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, Elijah now works with many families with loved ones behind bars. But in 2001 she had her own close call. Elijah’s son was arrested by the Boston Transit Police for a graffiti charge. She attended the court hearing in Boston, but did not reveal she was a criminal defense lawyer who had once taught at Harvard. Her son’s defense lawyer came up to Elijah and told her to relax.

“‘Mom, you don’t have to worry, we’re going to get him six months probation,’” Elijah remembers her saying. “I said, ‘Oh no, you’re not. You’ve got yourself the wrong little black boy.’ And I gave her my card. And I said, ‘Now you fix it or I will.’”

The head of the gang violence unit of the Boston police came into court and swore out an affidavit that she witnessed him doing graffiti at a train station, Elijah said. The headmaster and the dean of her son’s private school went to court and swore out an affidavit that he was in school.

“I’m sure the only reason he didn’t go on the adult track is because he had a criminal defense lawyer as a mother,” she said. “It was like, ‘You are not going to screw up my son.’ If it weren’t for that, I’m sure his life would have been very different.”

She said there is no fixing the criminal justice system without first repairing a broken juvenile justice system.

“I don’t think you can fix mass incarceration unless you address the juvenile justice system,” Elijah said. “And you can’t address the juvenile justice system without addressing the education system. They are feeder systems.”

She had just taken a quick cat nap on a beat-up sofa in the lobby of one of the many churches that offered her marchers shelter. She was on the eve of reaching the halfway point between the beginning of the march in Harlem to the terminus in Albany.

She remained steadfast in her belief that this civil rights movement for the 21st century she is trying to jumpstart is essential in influencing a generation of young people to make as big a difference as the activists of the 1960s did to transform the country.

“This is part of how we can touch the next generation. This why I am doing this,” she said. “Lord knows, I could be doing something else at 62 years old besides going down the block in some strange neighborhood with a megaphone, OK? But it’s like a moving classroom. It’s like an interactive moving classroom for young people. And that’s really important. There’s no university they can go to on this planet where they can go to that can teach them this.”

Check out previous New York March coverage

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Me My Sister and the Bully

At age 12 we moved from a small town in Kansas to a suburb of Albany, .N.Y. Over the summer, I befriended another boy named Dean. On the first day of school, while at the bus stop in front of my house, a group of boys approached. When Dean saw them, he became visibly upset.

"What's wrong," I asked.

"That's Jeff and his gang." he said. "They're trouble."

It was not their bus stop. "This could not be good," I thought.

When they arrived, Jeff said something I couldn't make out, but I knew from his tone and body language that he wanted to pick a fight with Dean.

Having been raised to be chivalrous -- or some would say "stupid" -- I stepped between Dean and the gang and said something foolish that went something like "You will have to go through me."

They just looked at each other and laughed. I thought their laughter to be incredulous but at the same time praying my mother would look out the window and rescue me.

She didn't and I was contemplating, "Do I run toward the house or stay and get pummeled to death?"

Just before I turned to look at Dean, I was thinking, "At least I have my friend Dean."

But there was no Dean. He opted to do what I was just thinking, he ran!

I turned back around facing Jeff. He says to me, "What are you going to do now?"

Just as I was about to run, I heard a loud motherly voice. In that split second, I thought of my Mom -- but it wasn't her -- it was Dean's mom. He ran to get help.

"You leave now before I call the police," she hollered.

Jeff and his gang of thugs left, but they didn't forget.

A week later, I was standing in the back of a crowded bus. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I looked around and there Jeff stood with a hateful stare.

He slapped me across the face. I stood there and didn't move. His friends were standing around waiting for me to do something. I didn't. I was too scared.

They soon discovered I had a sister. She rode the same bus. It wasn’t long before they attacked her.  That’s when my personality changed forever. I became a fighter.

I got into a lot of fights that year protecting my sister. The gang of bullies made sure to attack when adults were not around.

I took a beating physically and emotionally until it dawned on me that I could start my own gang. If Jeff can bully in numbers, I can defend in numbers.

My friends Mike, Louie, and John soon had my back. It didn't take long for Jeff to figure out that I wasn't worth his trouble. You see -- my friends were bigger and smarter.

I fought off my bullies because I was resourceful. Most victims are not resourceful. The research shows that many teachers are not aware of the frequency of bullying in the school. Much of it has to do with the bully's covert approach to harming others coupled with the victim’s failure to report the incidents of bullying.

Studies show that most don't tell on their attackers for a number of reasons. In a survey of post-secondary students, most students believed that teachers are not helpful and may make the problem worse by drawing more attention to the bully without taking effective steps to prevent further abuse. The bully is now aggravated and the attacks occur more frequently and with greater intensity.

Other reasons given include fearing retaliation, feeling shame at not being able to stand up for themselves, fearing they would not be believed, not wanting to worry their parents, having no confidence that anything would change as a result, thinking their parents' or a teacher's advice would make the problem worse, fearing their teacher would tell the bully who told on him or her and thinking it was worse to be thought of as a snitch.

What should we expect from kids who are under neurological construction? Their frontal lobe -- the part of the brain that translates emotion into logic -- is not developed until age 25.

For my sister and I, we didnt want our parents to worry. It’s an interesting paradox the love between a parent and child. My parents were nurturers. They were protective -- not overly so -- but always hugging, asking questions, and in our business.

Here is the rub -- knowing the extent of their love also meant knowing the anguish and pain they would experience if they knew our pain. They always told us we could talk to them and share problems, but we didn't always do that. Not because we didn't trust them, but because we loved them, in our cognitively short-sighted way.

In hindsight, my adolescent male ego was bigger than my immature frontal lobe. I didn’t want the bullies and others to witness my Mom in action to save me and my sister. I trusted my Mom to fix things but I didn’t want the embarrassment of being labeled a "momma's boy."

Ironically, my selfless chivalry was in part driven by my selfish need to avoid humiliation. Sadly, this irony placed my sister in harm’s way. I am sure she wasn’t concerned about mommy coming to the rescue.  My emotions were not getting filtered through an objective lens to reach logical decisions. That's the nature of adolescence.

As I cull through the evidence-based approaches to combat bullying and look back on those dark days, I am convinced that the best approach is not zero tolerance, it's teaching the teachers to identify bullies coupled with programs designed specifically to assess and respond to their need to bully.

Otherwise, kids will continue to be traumatized. They will find their own way to deal with it.  Some are resourceful -- most aren't.

The effects can be long lasting.  Others simply try to take their own life -- and some succeed.

City’s ‘Saggy Pants Ban’ Pays Off in First 10 Months

In its first ten months of existence, Albany, Ga.’s ban on saggy pants has netted the city nearly $4,000 in fines.

The city’s “Public Indecency Prohibited” ordinance has lead to more than 180 citations since being enacted in November of last year, according to a story in the Albany Herald, with police averaging 20 or so citations a month. At the current rate the city could see an additional $1,500 in revenue before year’s end.

While violators cannot be arrested under they law, they can expect to pay a fine between $25 and $200 depending on their number of infractions of the law.

The ordinance bans the wearing of pants and skirts more than three inches below the hip line. The ordinance also allows the offender to complete 40 hours of community service in lieu of paying the fines.

Albany passed its ban on the heels of Dublin, Ga.’s controversial ordinance earlier in 2010. But the relatively small southern cities aren’t alone in their fight against fashion. A number of other municipalities around the state and around the nation have introduced similar restrictions, or are considering them.

Albany, with a population of little more than 75,000, according to the 2010 Census, is the state's ninth largest city and located about 175 miles south of Atlanta.

Albany Teen Could Face Death Penalty for Murder of Store Clerk

An Albany, Ga. teen charged with murder may be fighting for his life.  Anthony Hill, 16, could be facing the death penalty for his role in a convenience store robbery that left a clerk dead, according to Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards.

Surveillance video shows two men wearing ski masks enter the Miscelenea Guate-Mex Store waving guns.  After robbing the store, police say one of the men shot and killed the store clerk, Sentos Vincente.  They are still searching for the second man.

Hill appeared before a Magistrate judge yesterday.  A Superior Court judge will decide on bail at a later hearing.