In the spirit of Nellie Stone-Johnson, the late local African American union and civil rights activist, the NAACP Minneapolis branch kicked off its first official event Friday, October 30 taking aim at the ills of the criminal justice system as they affect Black women.
The event, entitled “Black Women, Policing and Mass Incarceration,” took place at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis and featured Kemba Smith, a former incarcerated person, who chronicled her transformation from college student to federal prisoner in the memoir Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story.
Smith gave a riveting account of her time in prison and the life choices that put her on the wrong path and asked pointed questions about the prison system and sentencing. “There are alternatives to incarceration,” Smith told attendees as she gave an emotional account of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her drug-dealing boyfriend and the toll her time in prison took on her family.
Video highlights of Kemba Smith’s Speech
Video above: Highlights of Kemba Smith’s speech
Video below: NAACP Panel Discussion
In 1994, Smith, at age 24, was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison without possibility of parole due to her relationship with a drug dealer, even though she was a nonviolent offender and had no prior record. Before her talk, she played a BET news clip where she was interviewed in prison to underscore how far she’d come since her days of incarceration.
Smith’s case drew nationwide attention from media outlets and activists, and in December 2000 President Clinton commuted her sentence to time served after six and a half years in prison.
After her speech, Smith joined Judge Pamela Alexander — a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform — for a panel discussion led by Branch President Nekima Levy-Pounds. The discussion delved into issues ranging from the impact and lack of resources available for children of incarcerated parents to corruption and abuse in the prison system and felon disenfranchisement, to name a few.
Panel discussion video
Although President Clinton commuted Smith’s sentence, Judge Alexander pointedly noted how the policies of his administration have been harmful. “He has since apologized,” said Judge Alexander. “However, he did institute some very bad criminal justice policy that we’re trying to get over right now.”
She went on to applaud President Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder for their continued efforts on the issue. All the panelists agreed that much more could be done and needs to be done.
Judge Alexander, who retired from life on the bench in 2008 and took a position with the Council on Crime and Justice, disclosed to the audience that she would be retiring and moving in two years. She said she felt her legacy was in good hands with the leadership of Levy-Pounds.
Prior to the keynote address, Levy-Pounds informed attendees of the initiatives that the new NAACP Minneapolis branch has embarked on since the May special election that endorsed an historic all-women slate of officials. These included the push for the firing of a Metro Transit officer who beat an autistic African American teen and the fight for the successful repeal of the spitting and lurking laws.
Levy-Pounds cited felon disenfranchisement as an issue the NAACP-Minneapolis would take up during the next legislative session. She implored attendees to do their part in fighting for justice in any way they can.
“Not everybody will be out there marching and protesting and stopping trains — I recognize that,” said Levy-Pounds. “But there are some young folks who have the energy to do that. So let’s support and encourage them.
“There are others of us who can use the power of our voices behind the pulpit, in our institutions, to speak truth to power when we see injustices happen. And there are those of us who could use the power of the pen to articulate the challenges we face… It’s time for justice.”
For more information on Kemba Smith, go to www.kembasmithfoundation.org.
Information about NAACP-Minneapolis can be found on their Facebook page.
Paige Elliott welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Editor’s note: Paige Elliot is one of The UpTake’s Conflict Sensitive Video Journalism Fellows and wrote this story as part of her participation in the program. The fellowship is dedicated to enhancing local journalists’ ability to report on the political, social, economic, and cultural conflict that impacts the civic well being of their communities through the unique power of video journalism.