OP-ED: Criminal Justice Reform Victory the Result of Many.

By Richard Wallace

Last week, the Illinois General Assembly created a watershed moment when it passed comprehensive criminal justice reforms. Whether or not our state inches closer toward equity and justice for all of its citizens now rests on the desk of Governor J.B. Pritzker who must determine if he will remain on the right side of history and sign HB 3653 into law.

This historic moment did not happen because of a sudden political stroke of goodwill. This legislative victory was born out of the literal blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice of thousands of people impacted by the murders of Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Marcellis Stinnette, and Tyris Jones by police in Illinois, as well as the killings of George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Stephon Clark, Freddie Grey, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and far too many others, at the hands of their local law enforcement.

We commend the members of the Illinois Black Legislative Caucus for their bold leadership in introducing HB 3653 that will create systems of accountability and transparency around policing; seek to demilitarize and reduce police power and interaction; work to end the carceral state while repairing the current criminal-legal system; and seek to redistribute resources to build healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for all people. These legislators, some of whom shed tears as the legislation passed, listened to the pleas of their constituents and took decisive action to end the pattern of systemic abuse and injustice rooted in our criminal justice system.

Our collective tears reminded me of the values instilled in me by my mother Rev. Doris Green and her work to transform the prison system. My father, Minister Micheal D. Smith, passed away in 2011 in Dixon State Prison and never got to see this day. He knew the value of organizing. I do this work for him, reminded of how I too sat in a cage for two years, strategizing on how I would dismantle this system as soon as I got free.

Yet, HB 3653’s passage was not informed by any one organization. It was informed by decades of organizing, by dozens of leaders, individuals, and organizations, taking on the call for action. And we did so facing strong opposition from police unions, MAGA fanatics, and well-funded anti-Black and anti-democracy groups and individuals determined to uphold the legacy of Jim Crow.

The Illinois BREATHE Coalition (IBC), created by Equity and Transformation (EAT), fought hard for this win. We are grassroots organizations, policy makers, and general members of Illinois communities concerned with ensuring the best possible legislation to address the systemic injustices facing Illinois residents. Partners include A Just Harvest, Black Roots Alliance, Westside Justice Center, Afro Soc, SOUL, Live Free, End Money Bond, Change Illinois, Safer Foundation, and Illinois Justice Project.

Our work was fueled by the leadership of Black, queer, and feminist voices like Charlene Carruthers and Black Youth Project 100; scholar-activist Dr. Barbara Ransby; Paige May of Assata’s Daughters; and Benny Lee, an advocate for the formerly incarcerated. It was informed by trails blazed by Dr. Amara Enyia and her campaign for mayor of Chicago.

Our victory was shaped by the thousands of public schools educators, working families, and labor activists who stood in the gaps of power to demand the schools and communities our children deserve.

The acknowledgment of EAT’s role in HB 3653 is incomplete if we don’t first honor the legacy of advocacy that got us here. EAT simply reached for a baton that was handed to us by our ancestors and co-collaborators, because that is our tradition. What is not our tradition, is erasing the legacy of our allies, friends, and co-workers to get ahead; because we know there is no future unless we all get free.

As Gov. Pritzker prepares to sign this legislation, our coalition will keep advocating for a system that works for everyone. We rest assured that we are not alone in this fight as we enjoy this win with our movement family.

The future is big enough to hold us all.

Richard Wallace is executive director of Equity and Transformation (EAT), a 501(c)3 community-led organization based in Chicago committed to building social and economic equity. Founded and established for and by post incarcerated and marginalized Black people, EAT strives to uplift the faces, voices, and power of the vast disenfranchised and excluded Black informal workforce locally and internationally.

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