Where’s the Next Eddie Ellis? Criminal Justice Reform Needs A New Leader

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Eddie Ellis, criminal justice visionary. Photo: Barry L. Mason

By Michael Lambert

Michael Lambert at Rikers Island asks, “Where
is the torchbearer for Black and Brown people?” 

Between 1890 and 1920, after the passing of the 13th Amendment, African American Reformers, including social workers, journalists, educators and politicians, founded the Progressive Movement, based on the belief that great change was needed to protect everyday people.  Injustices that impacted African Americans included racism, segregation, political disenfranchisement, lack of access to quality health care, education, affordable housing and the rampant lynching of Black men in the South.

This Progressive period gave birth to great African American Reformers and leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, and led to the formation of organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the Niagara Movement, the NAACP and the National Urban League.  Organizations founded by and led by the nation’s original Progressives, African Americans.

Fast-forward to 2019, and to many Blacks, the word “progressive” has taken on very different meanings than in 1890. Today’s Progressive champions for Criminal Justice Reform (CJR) are often not Black.  When “The New Jim Crow,” a book written by civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, went mainstream, many whites took up the Progressive mantle. 

Alexander’s book helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter Movement, and many new Progressive organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, Brand-New Congress and Justice Democrats became the leading voices for the CJR movement. Many organizations are not founded or led by Blacks or graduates of the Criminal Justice System – groups often promoting non-Black candidates who have not directly touched the Criminal Justice System but framed by their leaders and supporters as the true Progressive champions. While I believe allies in your fight are helpful, I must ask, why aren’t our own Progressive leaders leading this fight?

Last week, I read David Greaves’ 1997 interview with Eddie Ellis, an African American Progressive pioneer of Criminal Justice Reform who before his passing in 2014, had been a target of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) for his Black Panther Party activities, and had also spent 23 years of his life at one point or another in every prison in New York State.  While incarcerated, Ellis earned a master’s degree from the New York Theological Seminary, a bachelor’s from Marist College and a paralegal degree from Sullivan County Community College.

The interview is a profound read that gives the reader a firsthand look into the impact of mass incarceration on the Black and Brown community from the vantage of a Black leader who experienced the direct impact of the system.  Ellis was president of the Community Justice Center, Inc., an anti-crime research, education and advocacy organization.  He’d also founded and was president of the Brooklyn-based Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

Ellis spoke to prison’s representation of societies failures. He drew correlations between the capitalist, materialist, consumer-driven environment and how the limitations of poor people legitimately interacting with this environment led to many impoverished men interacting with law enforcement and the Criminal Justice System. Ellis noted that 7 neighborhoods in New York City provided over 75% of the state’s prison population.

In Queens last week, Tiffany Caban, a 32-year-old, self-proclaimed queer Latina, Public Defender resident of Astoria lost a close Primary for the Democratic nomination for District Attorney. 

Running on a platform of decriminalizing sex work and fighting mass incarceration through decarceration, Caban fashioned herself as the Progressive champion of the Black and Brown men incarcerated on Rikers Island.  Ellis’ interview made me further wonder… How does a 32-year-old queer Latina female from Astoria become the torchbearer for incarcerated Black and Brown men?  How is it that we don’t have more Eddie Ellis’ leading this Progressive charge for CJR?  How is it that on Social Media, the loudest voices claiming to speak on behalf of those suffering mass incarceration in New York State are from neighborhoods like the majority-white 36th Assembly District which voted six to one for Caban’s platform, when the most impacted neighborhoods would be those of the largely Black areas of Southeast Queens, some 10 miles away?  How do we get the Progressive Movement to be led by the descendants of those brave African Americans who started the movement over 100 years ago?  How do we elevate the next Eddie Ellis?