Who’s Your DJ for Justice?

Robert Rooks is the Criminal Justice Director of the NAACP and Project Coordinator and co-author of the Misplaced Priorities Report.

Original posted in The Huffington Post on 4.11.2011

When a recording artist releases a great song or album, it will not be widely heard until the tune is played by our nation's DJs. DJs are responsible for getting music to the public, getting the crowd hyped at a party and promoting the work of recording artists. Without DJs, good music would be like a tree falling in the forest -- it really wouldn't matter if it made a sound. But I'm not writing to talk about what the music industry needs to do. I'm writing about what those of us who are working to ensure that our children live in a socially just, compassionate and equitable society need to do. We need to be DJs, mixmasters spinning the words of justice into a movement that creates the kind of world that will truly be livable for all Americans.

Last week, my organization, the NAACP, released a groundbreaking report entitled Misplaced Priorities, which ties mass incarceration and the exorbitant spending on prisons to decreased funding in education. In the report, the NAACP calls on states to shift funding from prisons to schools. Although this new report makes an excellent case about why America should downsize prisons, it, like many other reports, run the risk of collecting dust on shelves. Community organizers must use Misplaced Priorities to mobilize communities and hold policymakers accountable for downsizing prisons and investing in schools.

Perhaps more than anyone, community organizers are the DJ's of the social justice world. Community organizers are in trenches of neighborhoods all across America. They sound the alarm that brings people together in order to help them analyze a problem and solution. Without good community organizers, our communities may have never responded to the injustices in Jena, Louisiana or the Scott Sisters in Mississippi. We might have been defenseless against the searing truth Misplaced Priorities offers: which is that if the country could address the reasons why we incarcerate African Americans and Latinos at higher rates than whites for the same crimes, we could, in effect, dramatically bring down the prison population and save billions of dollars.

Historically, social justice DJ's like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Bob Moses, Cesar Chavez and A. Phillip Randolph made civil rights history not just by giving great speeches or, releasing reports or offering broadcast commentary. These great leaders shaped our history by organizing students, churches, immigrants and union workers around clear plans of action.

Misplaced Priorities offers America a clear plan of action for today-a plan that starts with recognizing that mass incarceration is the challenge of this generation. Right now, we have more people incarcerated then were enslaved in America in the 1850's. Just last month, the Florida legislature disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people who now must wait five years to apply for their right to vote -- obviously after the 2012 election. Every day, scores of people who were in prison -- many for non violent drug offenses, have to identify that they have a felony record when applying for jobs -- undermining their ability to find employment. Over the last 20 years, funding for prisons has risen six times more than funding for higher education. Current criminal justice policies are putting civil rights accomplishments of the 1960's at risk. For me, these harsh realities demand we ask: who among this generation are going to be the DJs for Justice, the modern day Drum Major for Justice Dr. King spoke of?

In the west, All of Us or None in San Francisco, Partnership for Safety and Justice in Oregon, the Defender Association in Seattle and the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) have people working in communities of color to organize against racial targeting by law enforcement and failed criminal justice policies. In the South, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and The Ordinary People Society in Alabama have made tremendous strides in advancing sentencing reforms. Also, in Mississippi, the Young People's Project, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement as well as the ACLU of Mississippi have worked to build coalitions to fight against the school to prison pipeline and the excessive sentencing of youth and adults. In the Midwest, the League of Young Voters has worked to elevate the voices of young people who have been negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. In the Northeast, the A Better Way Foundation in Connecticut has been a national leader in reforming sentencing policies that negatively impact communities of color. Last but not least, NAACP state units from across the country have been on the front lines of criminal justice issues-- organizing for those unfairly targeted by law enforcement since its inception 102 years ago.

Certainly, these groups do not represent all social justice organizers working to end mass incarceration in the US. These groups represent a few of the DJs I know. Who is your DJ for justice? If you don't have one, find one, BE one. Our future is dependent on it. Organize to end mass incarceration and shift dollars from prisons back to schools. Read the NAACP Report Misplaced Priorities at www.naacp.org, sign our petition calling for downsizing prisons and organize to make a difference! Don't let this report collect dust. Find your DJ for justice.