ALBANY, New York — At the midpoint of the 180-mile March for Justice, its organizer, Soffiyah Elijah, was overwhelmed. She was simultaneously trying to find the proper turn on a back road in a Hudson Valley town, coordinate with the caretaker of a 105-year-old woman who wanted to join the march and figure out where to find a laundromat that would stay open late.
She slumped in her seat on the repurposed school bus and wearily placed her face into her hands.
“I need a nap,” she said.
At that point Albany seemed more like 900 miles away than 90, but Wednesday Soffiyah Elijah wore footwear that wasn’t sneakers for the first time in 18 days. She pointed to her brown-and-tan strap sandals inside LaZeez, the Indian restaurant where she was planning the rally for later that evening and cracked a joke.
“It feels good to be in something other than sneakers,” she said, flashing a brilliant smile.
She had launched the March for Justice on Aug. 26 in Harlem in Manhattan. And after walking through numerous counties, towns, villages and cities, they had finally made it.
Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, conceived of the march as a way to employ traditional 20th-century civil rights tactics to draw attention to what she considers an urgent 21st-century civil rights catastrophe in New York: the abuse of prisoners in the state’s juvenile adult facilities and the broken criminal justice system that puts them there. The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on Earth. In New York, often heralded as a beacon of progressivism, 80 percent of its prison population is black or Hispanic.
Elijah’s organization is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. It fights for a number of issues — from voter registration to meaningful raise-the-age reforms, as well as supporting the families with loved ones behind bars.
New York’s prisons are almost exclusively upstate, away from New York City, often in bucolic surroundings near charming hamlets and villages. Elijah strategically selected a route that would take the march past as many prisons as possible en route to Albany, the heart of political power in the state.
At 5 p.m. the march culminated in a rally in West Capitol Park, in the center of vast, imposing state government buildings. Behind the stage was the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, its granite facade etched with the names of many of the counties the marchers crossed: Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster, Green.
Elijah opened the rally by launching into her favorite chant, one she recited dozens of times. It begins: “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family …” She did her trademark crouch and shimmy and then ran into the crowd like the front man of a rock band and kept leading the chant. She approached Miss Ivey, the oldest of the marchers who made it all the way from Harlem, and held her signature red megaphone to Miss Ivey’s mouth so she could lead the chant.
Across the lawn of the park sat the New York Capitol Building, on either side the monumental Legislative and state Educational buildings. The emcee, Alliance member Carol Harriott, kept the mood light as well, making jokes and moving the evening along with an upbeat, conversational tone. She teased Elijah at one point and had the crowd laughing.
Many of the 200 people who gathered for the rally wore T-shirts or held handmade posters advocating for the cause they think is in most need of reform. Some support ending solitary confinement for youth, others for improved reentry services.
Whatever the cause, all the attendees were in agreement with the march’s aim — to bring as much attention as possible to what they see as a civil rights catastrophe in New York’s criminal justice system. One recurring theme for speakers was the need to convert the energy created by the march into tangible policy successes.
Again and again, speakers encouraged attendees to reach out to politicians and policymakers at every level of government. As the sun set, in a theatrical gesture Elijah showed how she was going to tell Andrew, referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She raised her megaphone to her mouth and led a chant about bringing an end to the prison state. Her voice was rugged and raw after 18 days of chants, but it could be heard clearly as it bounced off the walls of the Capitol building.
Throughout the evening speakers talked about the list of demands. Chief among them was closing down the Attica Correctional Facility, which Elijah called New York’s Abu Ghraib. She had timed the march with the anniversary of what some call a riot and others call a rebellion and an uprising, when Attica prisoners took corrections officers hostage to draw attention to abuses happening inside the prison.
“If you consider yourself a person of conscience,” Elijah said. “Then you should never be able to rest at night until you’ve done everything in your power to help bring an end to the suffering going on in prisons and jails going on right in New York and across the country.”
Throughout the two-hour rally speakers came to tell their stories and give intimate, human examples of what they meant when they used the clunky phrase “prison industrial complex.”
Alicia Barraza, a veteran of the political battle to raise the age of treating juveniles as adults during the last state legislative session, recounted the story of her son, Ben Van Zandt. She talked about how as a result of a severe mental illness he committed a crime, arson, when he was 17. He was charged as an adult and placed in series of adult prisons where he endured beatings, rapes and frequent harassment due to his illness. Eventually, he ended up in Fishkill Correctional Facility. It’s a prison in Beacon, New York, where Elijah and her marchers had a confrontation with an administrator who accused them of riling up the inmates.
While he was in Fishkill, Baraza was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. Eventually, he killed himself. He was 21.
“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” Barraza said.
When she explained that her son committed suicide, the crowd gasped. She cautioned the crowd to be vigilant. Despite the Empire State passing a law to raise the age, district attorneys still have vast power to steer teenagers into the adult system.
“People should be paying attention,” she said.
Some marchers reunited for the first time since meeting on the road. Friends, associates and fellow activists chatted amiably between speakers. But after Barraza spoke, the mood took a jarring turn.
For most of the evening the mood had been light and jovial, despite the seriousness of the event. Harriott took back the microphone. For most of the evening she had been upbeat. She suddenly appeared shaken, overcome with sorrow.
She made a few halting attempts to encourage people to be active, her voice starting to crack.
“I’ve run out of words,” she said.
She stepped away from the microphone, slid her fingers beneath her glasses and wiped away tears. Elijah came up from the crowd, where she had been glad-handing and hugging well-wishers, to meet her. She hugged Harriot, who was now sobbing.
Other marchers noticed Harriot, who, like them, had made some part of the 180-mile journey from Harlem to the shadow of the statehouse in Albany. They took a few more steps to join in consoling her.
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