Two years after the devastation of
The city’s criminal justice system, already rated among the worst in the nation by human rights organizations pre-Katrina, continues to be in crisis. After the storm, thousands of prisoners were abandoned in Orleans Parish Prison as the water was rising. In the days after Katrina, mainstream media depicted the people of
For Robert Goodman, an activist for criminal justice reform who was born and raised in the schools and prisons of
On May 9, 2006, Robert Goodman’s brother was killed in an encounter with the
A Broken System
For poor Black kids growing up in
New Orleans’ public defense system is in such poor shape that Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter recently complained that, “indigent defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking the basic professional standards of legal representation, and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western civilized nation.”
Robert Goodman is fighting to change the system that took away his brother, as part of a grassroots organization called Safe Streets Strong Communities. Safe Streets is struggling not just to reform the entire system, from policing and public defense to prison, but also to reframe the debate around these issues.
Safe Streets began as a coalition of grassroots activists and organizers from a number of organizations who came together post-Katrina to respond to the immediate crisis. “Our first priority was to help those individuals who had been in Orleans Parish Prison prior to Katrina, many of whom were being held illegally for minor, non-violent offenses,” explains co-director Norris Henderson. “In the early days, right after the storm, Safe Streets was basically performing triage for a broken system.”
In the transition from the crisis of Katrina to the long-term catastrophe that the city is still in, Safe Streets focused their energy on building their base, ensuring that people in communities most affected were shaping the priorities and making the decisions of the organization.
The organization has been a vital leader in the struggle for a just recovery for
More importantly, they affected the debate around criminal justice in the city. Within a few months after the storm, instead of talk of more prisons, journalists and politicians were looking at the system, and the roots of the problems. Evidence of widespread police misconduct and people locked up for months without charges began to be reported.
For those that have been victimized by law enforcement violence, organizing and talking about what they have faced has already been transformative. “I can’t imagine where my family would be if it weren’t for Safe Streets,” Goodman tells me. “We would have been pushed to the side. This organizing inspired my mother to live another day.”
Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn Magazine, a journal of grassroots resistance. His previous articles from
A version of this story originally appeared in the July/August issue of ColorLines Magazine. See a special online collection of Katrina-related reporting at http://www.colorlines.com/.