I have spent more than half my life as a community organizer advocating for change in the prison system in Los Angeles. My first brush with the system was as a child experiencing my father cycling in and out of the system until he passed away in 2009. Despite witnessing my father’s struggles, I didn’t really become aware of the depth of injustice in the system until I was 16.
My brother, who is four years older, was arrested after taking our mother’s car joy-riding. He was incarcerated in an LA County jail, where he was almost killed by the sheriffs. They beat him. They tortured him. They brutalized him. The abuse of my brother became my awakening. I was compelled to take action. I sought out mentors, established a network, and over a period of 11 years I learned the craft of community organizing.
In 2011 I came across an 86-page report prepared by the ACLU for their lawsuit against the LA Sheriff’s Department. Using this report I created STAINED: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence, a piece of performance art designed to bring community attention to state violence. During a year of touring I connected with many others who were also driven to take action. We built the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence.
At our onset we were the only group in the community advocating for civilian oversight. We gave testimony, rallied the people and secured two county supervisors votes. It quickly became clear that the Coalition was not enough. The issues extended beyond the conditions in the jails. We needed more resources to confront the increasing problem of violence against the Black community as a whole.
Expanding the organizational, psychological, and motivational capacity to end state violence meant developing five other projects that used art, research, resilience practices, and leadership development as center pieces in the work. Dignity and Power Now was created to be the primary organization for a multifaceted, trauma informed, healing, motivated movement to end state violence and mass incarceration.
Where are we now? We have achieved quite a bit, but more is needed. We continue to work to affect change. Dignity and Power Now demands a civilian oversight commission with power, mental health diversion, and a halt to the $3.5 billion jail plan. Black, Brown, and poor communities need a Los Angeles that will fight for our health and well-being instead of our incarceration.
I am proud of the work I have been able to lead in Los Angeles. I am even prouder of the team that has grown out of fighting for greater accountability for the sheriff’s department. Dignity and Power Now currently has a core leadership team made up of staff and volunteer members who have worked diligently to tell their stories and fight for the people they love. This team has been resilient against all odds. I have been honored to work with this team for the last 3 years and I am confident that they are the leaders Los Angeles County needs. As for me, I am transitioning from Executive Director of Dignity and Power Now and will be developing and revamping our Board.
As American democracy is continuously compromised by law enforcement with very few checks and balances, I feel compelled to support a national movement that is focused on pushing for local government to reinvest in the dignity of communities of color, black communities in particular. No movement is ahistorical. No movement is without strategy. When folks in Ferguson made the choice to demand accountability, and when local law enforcement’s response was to tear gas and rubber bullet a community that was grieving, I understood that there needed to be an intervention in the discussion around state violence.
Mostly, state violence and mass incarceration are seen as two separate issues. I argue that they are two sides of the same coin. The police arrest people who end up in jail or prison. The amount of funding that has been poured into law enforcement, jails, and prisons far exceeds the lack of investment made into black and poor communities. We can’t compartmentalize one apparatus from the other. They interact with one another. They support one another. We can’t have jails without police and police without jails. In the last nine months one thing has become clear. We need a national network that will help support victims and survivors of state violence. This network will build the capacity and support the leadership of victims and survivors. This will change the culture of America’s relationship to law enforcement and jails/prisons.
My new venture: Truth and Reinvestment Director at Ella Baker Center for Human Rights! In my position I will work to build the capacity of communities who are affected by state and law enforcement violence. We will support them in responding quickly and in a coordinated way through the creation of an online and on the ground support network. We will provide toolkits and a registry of local and national resources through the ACLU of Southern California’s mobile app. We will develop a web based platform for communities to better utilize tech tools for our agency and to change policy. I am excited about this powerful work and ready to push for greater accountability and transparency for law enforcement across the country. Follow my journey on twitter @osope and on Instagram @love_cullors.