This past June 19, 2020, Solid Ground’s Black Affinity Group* presented a discussion on Black Liberation with Dr. Alexes Harris, a live conversation supported by Solid Ground’s Anti-Racism Initiative. Presented to Solid Ground employees, the discussion explored the longstanding implications of Juneteenth as a celebration of the US emancipation of enslaved Black people – but were they truly emancipated? Dr. Harris engages unflinchingly in a conversation on what this critical point in history can teach us about our contemporary culture, institutions, systems, and interpersonal relationships. The following is Part 2 of a two-part, condensed transcription of these reflections with correlating referrals to further education and resources. (Also see Black Liberation, Part 1: A product of our history.)
Questions for this section of the discussion were submitted by various Solid Ground agency employees and moderated by Food System Support Manager Yamila Sterling from Solid Ground’s Hunger and Food Resources Department. Topics include:
Social work & community health
Sterling: Thank you so much for having this dialogue with us, Dr. Harris. I’m curious about the role of social work and how you see that in the reforms we need.
Dr. Harris: I think social workers can save our world. Oftentimes, it’s funny, you know I’m a sociologist, and people say, “Oh you’re a social worker,” and “No – I just talk about stuff.” Social workers really do the work and are trained in doing the work and can be trained. They see and think about centering communities and about what’s really transformative. They understand what different communities need at different times and help elicit those needs from the communities. I would center public health providers and social workers in everything that we do.
My son is in local elementary school. There’s a social learning system – where the kids in school talk about what they’re bringing to the classroom every day. The teacher can see, maybe this student’s tired because their parents were fighting last night. Maybe this student is hungry because they didn’t have enough food. They see all of the emotional issues, and the lack of a safety net and structure in their family, possibly due to poverty or other issues. It’s completely inhibiting their ability to learn.
So we need to be able to get to – in every place and every institution – a way in which we can help people feel healthy – mentally, physically, and spiritually. I think social workers are going to do that.BACK TO TOP
Criminal justice reform
Sterling: Are there a few key reforms with regard to city criminal system sanctions that we could advocate for?
Dr. Harris: Oh yes. I’m for the abolition of all fines and fees. I don’t think we should have fiscal penalties. The unequal society that we have, in no way is it ever going to be fair or just to have fiscal penalties associated with punishment.
You know, Bill Gates lives way across the water from me, and if he gets that $200 ticket, he can pay it, wash his hands, move forward. Someone who’s not fortunate or doesn’t have that wealth can’t pay that ticket, even a traffic ticket. And what will happen is, maybe they have unstable housing, and they don’t receive the summons to court. Then, you lose your driver’s license. In Seattle, WA, DWLS3 – Driving with License Suspended is the 3rd degree. And, you’re driving on a suspended license. You get pulled over. You go to jail for that. And then that becomes a felony conviction with more fines and fees and incarceration.
“So I definitely would advocate for more restorative reforms, no fines and fees for criminal punishments.” ~Dr. Alexes Harris
So we should, in no way, have a system that attaches financial penalties unless it’s graduated sanctions based on ability to pay. But, even that, I don’t think we should be working within – why does money have to be the punishment? So I definitely would advocate for more restorative reforms, no fines and fees for criminal punishments.
I also am very happy that we’ve legalized cannabis in Washington State. I think that helps us remove a big segment of a population out of our criminal justice realm, but I do think we need to then revisit all of the [cannabis] convictions that we’ve had in the states. There shouldn’t be someone literally sitting in DOC in prison right now for doing what I can do tonight. So there’s a lot of things that we need to revisit – our sentences, mandatory minimums, sentence enhancement, any convictions for marijuana/cannabis, eliminate fines and fees. There’s a lot of different steps that we can move forward in decreasing the footprint of the criminal justice system and then defunding and restricting it.BACK TO TOP
Poverty monetized: A punishment continuum
Sterling: Can you speak more about your research and what you hope it will illuminate or change?
Dr. Harris: My daughter’s turning 13 next week, and I was pregnant when I first started the research. So I know exactly, it was 13 years ago that I started doing the research on fines and fees in WA State, and that’s what my book A Pound of Flesh focuses on.
I had [numerous] counties that I focused on in Washington, and I did interviews with judges, prosecutors, probation officers, clerks, and defense attorneys in the counties, and court observations. I sat in on hearings where judges would sentence fines and fees and then hearings where people would have hearings for nonpayment and what would happen. And so that’s really the book talking about the system in general, but this punishment continuum.
If you’re in one county, you’re going to have less fines and fees sanctioned. You’re also going to have less of a punitive experience. One county had a “pay or stay” system. So if you had a warrant related to nonpayment, you would get picked up by the police. You’d spend a couple nights in jail. You’d appear before a judge and the judge would say, “You pay or stay.” So you either pay $300 for the warrant, and that will go towards your fines and fees, or you stay 60 days until someone can come down and pay that for you. Do you have a credit card? How much money do you have in your wallet? Essentially extortion from the state. “You give us money or we keep you here.”
So that’s like this punishment continuum and the range of justice that people experience in this state. One question that I always got after the book was, “How representative of the US is this?” I’m just in the end of a five-year grant now where we’re in eight states replicating and expanding what I did in my book. We’re slowly getting our published papers out, but we’re finding very similar processes across the eight states that we’re in.
It really shows this broader system. We say it’s hidden, but it’s pervasive at the same time – that people don’t know about it unless you’re engaged in this system in some way. And it really creates a two-tiered system of justice. One for the wealthy who can wash their hands at that felony conviction, but they can still move and not be tethered to the criminal system. But for people without the means to pay, they’re essentially a permanent punishment for people who are poor in this country. They will die with this debt because they’re unable to pay it.
I think it also helps stepping back, giving us a broader lens of the history of social control in the US and how this isn’t new. It’s just a contemporary iteration of how the state will control particularly Black bodies and bodies that are poor and try to extract every possible penny that they can from these folks.BACK TO TOP
Data matters: Importance of being counted
Sterling: What are your feelings about the Census for African Americans?
Dr. Harris: I think it’s important to respond to your census as being one of the people that use census data. It’s important, one because the data matters, and it is how resources, political and economic resources, are allocated to our communities. We need to count. We need to be counted. It’s also important to allow us data analysis and understand the consequences.
For example, one project I have with my current project analysis is – well, there’s this million-dollar block study in New York, and they look at communities and the amount of money that state and federal agencies pay to extract and incarcerate populations. And they can identify different neighborhoods in NY, neighborhoods where the state is spending over a million dollars to incarcerate the population.
“We see consequences of a felony conviction at the community level; communities and people living in those communities are impacted by this wealth extraction process.” ~Dr. Alexes Harris
We see consequences of a felony conviction at the community level; communities and people living in those communities are impacted by this wealth extraction process. We’re looking right now in Washington state at the data, you can identify what we call “debt-burdened neighborhoods” – neighborhoods that have a heavy load of debt imposed from state and local courts. Those communities are disproportionately people of color and disproportionately have higher poverty rates than other communities.
Further analysis looks at time and when that debt is introduced. Three years later, we actually see poverty levels increase in communities of color and poorer communities. So, this criminal sentence increases poverty. The state purposefully is further marginalizing and exacerbating poverty in communities of color.
My point is in order to understand that we need census data. We need to know the characteristics of where people live in Seattle, and in WA state, and across the nation, in order to show these larger impacts by the community. So, they matter. I mean I’m a social scientist, so I’m always going to say yes, data matters. You need to be counted to further support economic and political resources, but also for data analysis and research.BACK TO TOP
Disparate outcomes for people of color
Sterling: Speak to the nature of structural phenomena compared to individual experience. How do individuals act institutionally?
Dr. Harris: For me, it’s about the discretion individuals have within the institution to replicate inequality.
For my dissertation, I went to UCLA, and I studied courthouses. My primary courthouses were in South Central LA Juvenile Hall and East LA Central, and I started focusing on what were called “fitness hearings,” where in juvenile courts, judges would hold hearings to determine whether or not a minor would be transferred to the adult court and would be prosecuted as an adult. In California, the age was 14 – and in Washington State it’s 12 – when they could be transferred. And so for me, there’s the law which I think people always think the law is the law is the law. It’s black and white. But, we really have layers and levels of individuals to interpret and apply that law.
And, in my book, A Pound of Flesh, we really see how we have one state statute that governs monetary sanctions and legal financial obligations in Washington State. But in different counties and different courthouses people, actors, are interpreting the law very differently. So that’s the relationship between individuals, their own biases and values, and the structure of the system that allows them to – even in race-neutral type policies – create very disparate outcomes for people of color.BACK TO TOP
A criminal justice market with no real control
Sterling: There is a law firm in Seattle working to outlaw Pay or Stay, coordinating with the ACLU to make this a class-action suit as it is a violation of 8th amendment Constitutional rights… I would love to hear more about your thinking around the connections and links between “state-sanctioned” fees and debts and “private sector” fees and debts (racial discrimination in payday loans, auto loans, etc.). Thank you.
Dr. Harris: The first success of the 8th amendment we had – TIMBS – was just last year. It was a US Supreme Court case where a man was convicted of buying drugs or selling drugs, and prior to that he had recently received a sum of money from his father’s estate – his father died – and he bought this Range Rover. He didn’t even use the car to purchase the drugs, but he was arrested and convicted and his car was taken. And the amount of that car was much more than any fine that was associated with the law that he violated.
In 2019, the US Supreme Court decided that the 8th amendment – excessive fines and fees clause – does apply to the states. There’s definitely room now to start thinking about what is excessive in terms of fines and fees and applying that to local jurisdictions. What’s the baseline for determining what’s excessive? Is it individual or is it sort of gross amount?
Private and state is interesting. I have a recent research paper that came out in 2019 where we looked just at this issue. I see the fines and fees that are sentenced by judges, but also there are all of these “cost points” that people have to pay post-conviction. Some of them involve fulfilling the conditions of their sentence. So going to driving classes, they have to pay for those to private organizations. Drug treatment, you have to pay to private organizations. Getting the interlock device in your car for DUI, your ankle bracelet, you pay for that.
There’s a lot of hidden but pervasive relationships between state and private entities that are allowed to generate profit off of people, in some instances who are literally captive and only have one option. For example, getting the JPay tablet in a Washington State DOC; for many people, that’s the only way they can communicate with their families. So they have to purchase the tablet or rent it, and then pay per email stamp or pay per photo. This is a really growing issue that researchers are starting to pay more and more attention to, this overlapping of public-private and profit making off of people who come through the criminal justice system.
But, it’s not new. If we think about enslavement, it was the same thing. The law allowed for Black people to be enslaved and then private individuals to make profit from their labor. And it’s been the same from then until now where the state allows this criminal justice market with no real control.
There was just a bill that was signed by Inslee in January or February that is arguing for more transparency of these contracts – so we’re moving forward a bit with that.BACK TO TOP
Defund police to “refund” community health
Sterling: If “defund the police” equals “fund and expand public and community health programs,” how much does this depend on a national commitment to a bigger and restructured social safety net?
Dr. Harris: This is all intertwined. That’s a very, very good question. I think that we need – again, it took us 400 years to get to this point – we need to really have these broader national and local conversations about what reforms we need. We need a safety net. We saw this with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools. They were great in the school district I’m at. They immediately set up tables where parents can drive through or walk through to get food, not just for the child in their family that attended that school, but for all their family members. And even they were so quick to organize. There’s some large apartment complexes where I live, and they were delivering food to the apartment complexes because they recognized that parents didn’t have access to regularly go to the schools to get the food.
We have to recognize where we’re at. There are so many Americans that are living in very precarious circumstances and COVID-19 put that magnifying glass on them. We definitely need a safety net where there’s sort of a baseline income for everyone I would argue, that there’s baseline health insurance and access.
We recognize that if you’re sick, my health is at risk. I think a lot of people still aren’t willing to recognize that. They’re fighting to not wear masks. They’re fighting to get their haircut. And they don’t recognize that we’re all intertwined here. Unless we take care of people who are living on the margins – if we have to think about it in this way – our health and our safety and our children’s health and safety is hurting. Much less, we should also just care in general about people having enough. People having enough food, enough access to healthcare, housing and shelter over their head.
There are answers, it’s just a matter of is there the will to really implement.BACK TO TOP
Center Black voices to transform systems
Sterling: As more of the world tries to listen to and center Black voices, can you share any thoughts around the diversity of demands and leadership among Black communities? Any advice on how we can have a unified movement while still honoring this? Thank you.”
Dr. Harris: We have to understand just like there’s no one white community, there’s no one Black community. There’s diversity amongst all of us.
“I don’t represent Black people, I represent Alexes Harris and the research that I’ve done. Some people might even differ with what I’m saying today. It’s important to recognize that there’s no one Black voice.” ~Dr. Alexes Harris
We have a lot of different ideas about how we should and can move forward. And all of our voices should be heard – all of our communities should be heard. I don’t represent Black people, I represent Alexes Harris and the research that I’ve done. Some people might even differ with what I’m saying today. It’s important to recognize that there’s no one Black voice.
Sterling: How can we make movement on transforming the youth criminal justice system? It seems like all of the community efforts to stop the new youth jail didn’t gain enough traction. How can we ride this wave for real change now?
Dr. Harris: For people – particularly maybe those who are non-Black who want to engage in the movement – there’s no one space to go to. There’s spaces where you can start but, you have to think about yourself, what resonates for your understanding and for the people around you. That’s why I think it’s so important for you to engage Black people. Find that leadership locally.
I have a weird hat where I work with UW Athletics. UW Athletics BLM has a BLM page, and we’re building that up to put a lot of resources there as well. I encourage you to recognize the diversity that we all have even in “the Black community.”
Again, this is really a powerful moment. I know that people in power, people whose positions depend on our votes are listening, so it’s time to hold them accountable. I don’t know if “no youth jail” is picking up again.** It was built, but I know that there were a lot of resources that were mandated by the King County Council to be community-centered and community-based.
Investigate who’s the leadership over the new jail – who’s the so-called leadership over that group within King County and then where are there community boards that can help give resources and help structure the way that the funds are allotted? I do know that they mandated to have broader connections with communities. Again gather information. See who are the people that we target for advocacy and put the pressure on.
Sterling: I read that Seattle’s Black population is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. What are some of the implications of this as to how social progress comes about in the city going forward?
Dr. Harris: Yeah, if you go to UW Civil Rights Project, they have these really interesting maps that show from like 1900s all the way to present day – census tracked maps – of where different racial and ethnic populations live in Seattle. From that time period, you see this gradual move, migration if you will, of our particularly African American population moving south and now in Pierce County, [which] has I think the highest percentage of African Americans in Washington State.
That means that we have to fight even harder for our voice in the city of Seattle. It is ironic with the CHAZ/CHOP [Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone/Capitol Hill Occupied Protest]. You look at the pictures and a lot of it is white. Like, we’re not there. So, having these conversations about gentrification… Africatown is trying to regain at least a part of the historic Central District.
This is a really, really good point, and I don’t have an answer for that. I do fear our voices are underrepresented. Even Black employees who work for the city of Seattle don’t live in the city of Seattle. So what can be done? Advocate for rent control or better housing access for people of color to move back in the city proper.
Sterling: Thank you!
Dr. Harris: Thank you for making space for your staff and your employees. I think it’s so important that we all engage in asking questions and not be fearful of saying it the wrong way. I encourage you all moving forward to have talks amongst yourselves where you can really break down stereotypes and assumptions people have without fear of saying the wrong thing. Then recognize that when you do say the wrong thing, let people check you and explain why it’s the wrong thing. There’s a good book [by] Robin DiAngelo – White Fragility – recognizing how hard it is to have these conversations in majority white settings or mixed settings.
Continue to further these conversations and really make sure everyone within your organization is in a similar space and can talk and share info comfortably, sharing where they’re at, challenging you if you offend them. Thank you for the opportunity to meet you all and talk with you. I appreciate it.BACK TO TOP
Additional Resources & Notes
- **Since this discussion took place, King County Executive Dow Constantine committed to depopulating the youth detention center in the historically redlined Central District neighborhood.
- In this discussion, Dr. Harris referred to an op-ed she wrote for Newsweek about moving away from hollow statements of solidarity to continued work and support of anti-racist practices.
- Learn more on the impact of LFOs and get support on reducing their impact through the local Washington State-based organization, Living with Conviction.
Solid Ground Race-based Caucuses & Affinity Groups*
At Solid Ground, we believe that all people of color and white people are affected by racism and have to work together to end it – yet we recognize that how we are affected by racism and the work we have to do is different. Caucuses are spaces where people of color and white people within an organization meet separately in order to do our different work, so all groups have intentional space and time to focus on their respective work to dismantle racism and advance racial equity. Affinity groups like the Black Affinity Group are formed and maintained by Solid Ground staff members to allow deeper racial justice dialogue, build relationships, remove specific barriers, and create greater opportunities for racial equity.