Activists conduct peaceful disobedience to aid formerly incarcerated

OAKLAND, Calif. – Tired of waiting after months of discussions with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, advocates of greater county spending to help formerly incarcerated people staged a peaceful disruption of the supervisors’ Mar. 3 meeting to press their demands.

Since last summer, a coalition brought together by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has been urging the five supervisors to increase funding for community-based programs and services to help formerly incarcerated people return successfully to the community.

The Jobs Not Jails coalition has been calling for an end to the current practice of giving most funds from the county’s public safety realignment budget to the sheriff, and urging instead that half the money go to community-based housing, health care, education and job training programs for people coming out of jail, starting with the current 2014-15 fiscal year.

They have also been calling on the supervisors to sign a pledge stating that they support “50% for Jobs Not Jails.”

At the Mar. 3 meeting, speakers including a representative of the Alameda Labor Council advocated for the increase in reentry spending.

The Labor Council’s statement called incarceration “a labor issue,” and urged Alameda County to “be a leader and a model in California. Jails do not make safe communities. Jobs, education and opportunities make safe, strong communities.”

Noting that the current fiscal year began July 1 of last year, Ella Baker Center organizer Maria Dominguez reminded the supervisors that they had yet to respond to the Jobs Not Jails coalitions’ recommendations. “We are waiting to get your support, and we have sought your support numerous times since last summer,” she said.

When it became clear that no action would be taken at the current meeting, some 75 supporters in the audience began to chant and sing freedom songs. Five supporters, including Ella Baker Center’s executive director, Zachary Norris, crossed the barrier separating the supervisors from the audience, calling on the four supervisors present to sign a pledge of support for the allocation.

Joining Norris were the Rev. Jacqueline Duhart and Bill Chorneau of Oakland’s First Unitarian Church, Gopal Dayaneni from Movement Generation and Judy Belcher from the Wellstone Democratic Club.

The meeting was then recessed. Afterwards, Supervisor Richard Valle signed the activists’ pledge of support, while Supervisor Keith Carson read an extensive statement calling for half the public safety budget to go to community programs and services in the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1, 2015.

Norris and the four other protest leaders remained in the chambers, in the company of the county sheriff and his deputies, for over an hour after deputies escorted other protesters out. They then rejoined supporters outside the County Administration Building.

The Ella Baker Center says the March 3 action brought “key victories,” and is calling on supporters to step up their pressure.

“This is a critical moment,” Norris said in a message to supporters. “In just a couple of weeks, the supervisors will vote on the county’s public safety budget, and we need to increase the pressure to make sure they pass a Jobs Not Jails budget.”

The county’s Public Safety Realignment budget stems from 2011 California legislation that shifted people convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sex related offenses from state prisons to county jails, and in turn, allocated state funds to each county.

In a Feb. 17 letter to the county supervisors, the Ella Baker Center pointed out that since realignment began, Alameda County “has engaged in some promising practices,” and is to be one of 11 California counties profiled by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Board of State and Community Corrections “to identify effective and efficient recidivism reduction practices.”

The Center urged the county to build on this momentum by moving resources where they are needed most, “reentry and alternatives to detention.”

The letter noted that by allocating 60 percent of its realignment funds to reentry programs and services, neighboring Contra Costa County has achieved “an astonishing drop in their recidivism rate by 21 percent.”

Photo: From left: Bill Chorneau, Judy Belcher, Rev. Jacqueline Duhart, Zachary Norris, and Gopal Dayaneni.  |  Marilyn Bechtel/PW


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.