Carmen Perez Interview: A Fearless Activist Gathering The People For Justice
Carmen Perez has been fighting for the liberation of people of color throughout the world for over 20 years. She is well respected nationally and abroad for her ability to organize and her commitment to solving the everyday struggle of human rights. Her dedication caught the attention of one the the civil rights movements greatest pillars, Mr. Harry Belafonte who would go on to make Carmen the Executive Director of “The Gathering For Justice.” Her hardwork has just earned her the “Beth Arnovits Gutsy Advocate For Youth Award” and we had the opportunity to find out more about her and her movement!
A.WaL: What made you decide to get involved with “Gathering for Justice” and how did it feel to be called upon to carry the torch for Harry Belafonte? Him being such an iconic figure in the civil rights movement, I’m sure it was a humbling experience.
Carmen: My involvement in this work has stemmed from my childhood. I grew up in a community that was plagued by domestic, police and gang violence. It wasn’t until I went away to college that a huge cloud was lifted over my head that allowed me to articulate the injustices that I experienced growing up. I believe every single day when you live in a neighborhood that has those different elements, you’re constantly on survival mode. When I attended UC Santa Cruz, I had to work so that I can afford school and so I got involved in the community working providing detention alternatives for young people. It was then that I felt I found my purpose in life because I saw myself in a lot of the young people I served. Fortunately, as a child I had the opportunity to play sports and that’s what kept me connected to a better path for myself but a lot of what they had gone through were things I went through, I just had a positive outlet. While I was working in the community of Santa Cruz, I met my mentor, Nane Alejandrez who is the founder of Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos. He took me under his wing and that is when I got involved doing violence prevention work and working inside prisons with men that were serving a life sentence. During my time with Nane and Barrios Unidos, I had the opportunity to meet Harry Belafonte who was a mentor to Nane. I had seen him at different events and participated in meetings that he, Nane and Danny Glover lead. At the time, I was just a fly on the wall, absorbing everything they would say and just felt honored to be in the room and then in August of 2005, Mr. B, as we all call him, called upon Nane to attend “The Gathering of the Elders” after he had seen a clipping of a five-year-old black girl from Florida by the name of Jahesha Scott on TV being handcuffed for being unruly in the classroom. Stunned by the news, Mr. B quickly contacted Connie Rice who shared with him that this was not an isolated incident; children are handcuffed every single day in America particularly in black and brown communities. The Gathering of the Elders was the first of many convening’s, included his peers from SNCC, elected officials and respected civil rights leaders. What Mr. B realized during that time was that a lot of these individuals were no longer working directly within community and so he called for them to invite the young people they mentored to Epps, Alabama to “The Gathering of the Youth and Elders. There would be the catalyst that created, The Gathering for Justice.
I, at the time was invited to participate as a mentee of Nane’s and a youth representative. I initially was a part of the Executive Committee that helped build the organization and in 2010 became the 2nd Executive Director. I’ve been with Mr. Belafonte since 2005 and prior to that, through my mentor, so it is and has been truly an honor to be with someone so committed to the movement; whether through the civil rights movement or the current movement and lending his wisdom, support and guidance to young people like myself. I blessed that I sit with such a giant who shares his vision with me. Sometimes it’s hard to see past tomorrow but he gives you a historical perspective that reminds you that what you are experiencing at the current time isn’t anything new. He reminds me to keep my eyes on the prize and stay grounded in ideology bigger than myself. That it’s my responsibility to build coalitions and community as well, train other activist and influence others to get involved.
A.WaL: You spoke at the 20th anniversary of the million man march right?
Carmen: I did. I spoke at Justice or Else by invitation of Minister Louis Farrakhan. Justice League NYC led the march from New York to DC. I was the march director. We marched nine days 250 miles and delivered three pieces of federal legislation. One was the demilitarization of policing. The second was to end racial profiling and the third one was a policy that the gathering had been pushing for about a decade called the “Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act.” There was an image of me and my march co-chairs. Tamika Mallory, my African-American sister, Linda Sarsour, my Palestinian sister and myself, a Chicana/Mexican-American woman. The image of us three leading the March made news everywhere and I was told that he saw this image of three women leading a March. He saw the diversity and said that’s what I want for Justice or Else. I want this to be a place where we bring women. We also bring diversity and we have a call to action for people. So he certainly allowed us to use his platform to send a message to our generation so that we can come together collectively to build power and change the landscape of the criminal justice system.
A.WaL: Russell Simmons brought together a great program with the ‘All Def Digital Town Hall Meeting.” I was glad to see you on the panel!
Carmen: He’s a great ally! He supports a lot of the work that we do. When Justice League lead several of the shutdowns after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo; the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. He really lent his support and brought a lot of his celebrity friends to participate in our marches, our press conferences and also showed support via Twitter which helped us apply pressure on the ground. He supported us in setting up meeting with these elected officials so that we could share our 10 demands with them. Russell has definitely provided a lot of support and is definitely a great ally. You saw me on his stage which allows us to get our message out and allows for people to see us, the younger generation, the folks not only out on the streets but those of us that are also advocating for policy change.
A.WaL: What are your thoughts on the recent highly publicized police killings of unarmed people, and your thoughts on the police officers who have been killed? As well as the blame some of the media has been trying to put on “Black Lives Matter” even though we know they are not involved.
Carmen: We can mourn the lives of these officers and mourn the lives of the people that have been killed at the hands of the police. The people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as well, those that were not mentioned in the media like the Delron Smalls out of Brooklyn, Pedro Villanueva out of Southern California and Anthony Nunez of San Jose. It’s important that we also understand that as we mourn both, we still want police accountability. When you see an unarmed person killed at the hands of police and there are no consequences, that is a miscarriage of justice. Yet, we know that if someone is killed in our community by another civilian, there are consequences.
The Black Lives Matter organization, the movement for Black Lives Matter and those of working towards the liberation of Black and Brown people are grounded in nonviolence. The Gathering for Justice/Justice League are grounded in the ideology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Kingian Nonviolence. We practice the six principles of nonviolence and one of our principles is, “attack the forces of evil; not people doing evil.” So the narrative coming out of the mainstream media that this has something to do with Black Lives Matter is a false narrative. What we really want is for violence to stop! We want for police officers to be held accountable the same way we as civilians are held accountable.
I grew up in Southern California and remember watching Rodney King getting beat over and over and over. Seeing that on T.V. did something to our souls. Although, it was the first time I witnessed something like that on T.V., it was not the first time I has witnessed something like that in general. And although, it was caught on tape and the evidence was there, all the officers were let go. Personally, there is no justification for these killings and there’s no justification for these police officers not to b held accountable for blatantly killing people like Eric Garner, Meagan Hockaday, Jesse Hernandez and Philando Castile.
Currently, Justice League NYC is working with 12 whistleblowers called the NYPD 12 who are all employed by the NYPD. They have come forward and have a lawsuit against the NYPD regarding the racist quota system that targets black and brown men. Although NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton states that’s false, there’s hundreds of hours of recordings of people, like sergeants, telling their officers to go out and target black and brown men. So clearly, there is something wrong with the system. So for me, the fact that we have 12 courageous officers saying this yet there have been no changes in the department again is true injustice.
A.WaL: Are the NYPD 12 still currently police officers?
Carmen: All of them are currently police officers. Edwin Raymond is one of the lead plaintiffs in the case and he’s currently employed; they all are. What they’re experiencing as a result of their case is retaliation. Raymond not so much, but the other 11 are. There’s a woman that’s been put at risk. They’re taking her overtime and she has children. So as a community, we need to come out and support them and that’s what Justice League is trying to do. We have coalition partners like CPR, “Communities United for Police Reform,” as well as The New York Civil Liberties Association. One of the things we are committed to is ensuring that their voices are heard and they are speaking out on the racist quota system and the racist structures that hold up this department.
A.WaL: One of the things I hear in the streets is the protesting doesn’t do anything. I heard you in a recent interview say you don’t consider yourself a protester you consider yourself an organizer/activist.
Carmen: There are protesters out there where that’s all they do and that’s wonderful; we need them! I’m an organizer. I’ve been an organizer for the past 20 years. I’m the Executive Director of an organization that works on stopping child incarceration, prison reform, policy, provide programming for young people who are incarcerated. We train new activists, ground them in an ideology as well provide entry points for people to get involved. The work of Justice League is around police brutality, injustice and is the rapid response arm of The Gathering. The work we do at Justice League NYC is more visible where the work within The Gathering is long-term. I do consider myself an activist and organizer because I organize community members to support the policies that impact our communities. I think a lot of people have this misperception about protesters not having jobs. We do have jobs, we are leaders in our community, we are dedicated to our work and have different levels of expertise. For The Gathering and Justice League NYC, protest is only one of the tactics in the larger strategy. We use a multi-pronged strategy; policy reform, programming, training, community building, protest and leadership development. We have different types of educational opportunities, one being our juvenile justice conference, “Growing Up Locked Down.” It’s a three-day solutions based convening that we built in September of 2014 and was one of our first tasks within Justice League NYC. Our next “Growing Up Locked Down” conference will be in Oxnard, CA on October 13-15, 2016.
A.WaL: I know you’ve done work all over the world in the prison system. Can you talk about kids getting locked up around the world for making mistakes? What’s the connection?
Carmen: We criminalize children for childish behavior. One of my mentors by the name of James Bell, who runs the Burns Institute, said “Children get locked up for pissing off adults.” Whether it’s their schoolteacher, principles or parents, young people nowadays are being penalized for things that we used to do. I remember just doing some really dumb things and of course my mom would discipline me, however, I wouldn’t get sent to jail for it. But when you examine who the people are making decisions about young people particularly those growing up in poverty or in communities of color. These individuals have never lived in those conditions nor have they never come from our communities. So, it easy for them to be disconnected with reality and pass laws that create the school to prison pipeline versus investing in our young people in order for them to thrive in their environments.
A.WaL: I heard you just got The “Beth Arnovits Gutsy Advocate For Youth Award” award. Congratulations! How do you feel about that and why do you think you were selected?
Carmen: When I was informed that I was getting the award, I screamed and jumped up and down with joy. I was selected because of my life’s work and my dedication to working with young people in the system by creating pathways for them to become leaders in their communities. I have been doing this work since I was really young because the system has personally impacted my family. I’ve had family members in and out the system. My family also had to navigate the system when my sister lost her life at the age of 18. Getting recognized for something you love and believe in is truly an honor. I am grateful to the National Juvenile Justice Network for recognizing me and as a Latina woman, under the age of 40, I want to show other young women that they can also be where I am. We don’t receive many awards nor do we get many accolades for this work but we do this because we really believe in humanity and the well-being of others. Someone believed in me and it’s my responsibility to put my hand behind me and create a pathway for other people to have the same opportunities I was given. So it’s truly an honor; I’m excited. I just hope I can be a positive role model for another young person who has experienced something like myself and for them to know that regardless of what happened to you as a child or where you come from, you can make it and create positive opportunities for others to thrive in the world.
A.WaL: How do you want to be remembered?
Carmen: I just want people to know that I love my people and I’m willing to die to ensure that there is justice for our children and communities. Mr. Belafonte would always say, “are you willing to die for this and I’ve made that commitment a long time ago. I want to ensure young people, particularly those that feel hopeless, that there is an individual out there working to create the beloved community that Dr. King talked about.
A.WaL: Thank you Carmen it has been a pleasure talking to you!
Make sure to follow Carmen Perez!