On our march for justice through New York

May 19, 2016

David Bliven reports from New York on the 150-mile "March 4 Justice," which brought attention to the fight for compensation for those wrongfully convicted.

I'M VERY proud to have taken part in the "March 4 Justice," a 150-mile walk organized by the grassroots group Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated.

Marchers set off on May 8 from Harlem in New York City and walked 20 miles a day through the Hudson Valley, with their final destination being the New York state Capitol building in Albany. Marchers arrived on May 15--tired, but with a renewed sense of justice.

The main aim of the March 4 Justice was to push for radical reforms of the criminal injustice system. The March drew explicit connections to Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The March sought to build on Alexander's suggestions in her last chapter regarding forming new movements challenging the prison-industrial complex.

Among the march's explicit calls for action was the introduction of legislation to offer automatic, minimum compensation and benefits to the exonerated. Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated is headed by Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully convicted in the Central Park Five case.

Activists reach the end of a 150-mile March 4 Justice for the wrongfully convicted
Activists reach the end of a 150-mile March 4 Justice for the wrongfully convicted (Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated)

Yusef had to wait over 13 years to get just compensation after his exoneration from his conviction for the rape and near-murder of a jogger in Central Park. He spent seven years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, yet the city of New York fought tooth and nail to deny him just compensation.

Many people are unaware that New York doesn't provide automatic, minimum-level compensation to persons who are exonerated after spending years--or even decades--in prison. That was the experience of Shabaka Shakur, a march participant who spent 27 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. This puts New York behind states like Texas, which provides an automatic minimum of $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and Mississippi, which provides a minimum of $50,000 per year.

The March 4 Justice was successful in getting a bill, known as A10169, introduced into the New York State Assembly. If passed, it would be the most progressive law for compensating the wrongfully incarcerated in the nation. It allows for $1 million per year of wrongful incarceration, free tuition at any public university or vocational course for the exoneree or his/her children, enhancement on civil service examinations and enhanced access to housing and jobs programs.

This bill is part of a loose package of legislation that is predicated on the Innocence Project's model bills for criminal justice reform. The other bills (A1131-a, A9575 and A8157-b) would collectively would establish a commission to investigate complaints or prosecutorial misconduct, provide re-entry services and benefits to exonerees, require the recording of all interrogations of felony crimes, and require procedures for conducting taint-free eyewitness identification of suspects.

THE MARCH 4 Justice had as many as 50 participants throughout, with about 10 to 15 core members doing all or most of the 150-mile walk to Albany. Marchers stopped at cities and towns along the way, speaking to community members about the injustice done to those who fall victim to the criminal system of injustice.

In Peekskill, marchers spoke at a forum hosted by the NAACP and spoke to students at the Peekskill High School. Other talks and forums were held in Tarrytown, Beacon, Hudson and Albany. Among the highlights for the marchers was joining Pete Seeger's daughter in a rendition of "We Shall Overcome" in Beacon.

All of the marchers agreed the march itself was a success overall. They uniformly saw it as just the beginning of the struggle, saying it will take many more marches and a much greater level of organization to actually win the reforms the group proposed.

Maria Velazquez, one of the marchers, said she wants to get word out about her son's wrongful conviction. Jon Adrian Velazquez has been wrongfully incarcerated for 17 years. Maria encourages people to sign the petition to gain his freedom.

Maria commented that she initially "thought the idea of the March was crazy--it was a lot of miles," but that after she met organizers at Central Park, she realized that she had to do this for her son. She explained that she trained for three months, sometimes walking around the shopping mall on rainy days just to get in shape for the march. Upon the march's conclusion, she said she "felt invigorated--it feels like justice is running through my blood!"

Aisha Salaam, the sister of exoneree Yusef Salaam, said the march was "productive in bringing attention to issues, and we were successful in getting the first draft of our bill introduced."

She said she joined the march because of "what happened to our family in the Central Park Five case and how hard it was for my brother to move on and find employment and become a productive member of society." Aisha added, "I have my own children and don't want this to happen to my children or any children--I want people to be held accountable!" She added:

The cops involved in the Central Park Five case just didn't care. And police in general tend to go after certain races of people and certain classes of people. Their mindset is that eventually "they" are going to do something bad, so it doesn't matter if they did this particular crime or not.

MARCH ORGANIZER Sharonne Salaam said that she was "pleased we could get so much support. I'm amazed so many people were following us on Facebook and that so many people were concerned enough to support the cause."

She added that "now is a good time for positive change to benefit the wrongfully convicted," and that the march was "a step toward change for the wrongfully incarcerated and their families. They've suffered enough!"

She connected the march to what happened with her son Yusef:

[A]fter the situation with my son Yusef, there's a difficult road that people who are wrongfully incarcerated have had to follow. Many of their families are also out on a limb because there's a huge stigma about being associated with incarcerated people...What happened to Yusef is, "Let's get someone quick."

She noted that there was no real investigative process with the Central Park Five case. "Once they decided [the Central Park Five] were the ones who did it, [prosecutors and police] began to sell that to the media," she said.

She added that accountability was the key to radical reforms of the criminal system of injustice:

Often, district attorneys want to make names for themselves. It's very hard to erase this phenomenon because no classes are taught [in police academies] to avoid arresting the wrong people. When police arrest people and DAs prosecute the wrong people, there's no risk to those people in that there's no punishment against those who convicted the wrong person.

In the end, the marchers were honored before the New York State Assembly, but all were aware that this was just the beginning.

"Justice 4 the Wrongfully Incarcerated" will be holding a panel at the upcoming Left Forum in New York City this weekend and is scheduling monthly organizing meetings at the State Office Building in Harlem to plan further local and regional actions against the criminal system of injustice.

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