When we launched the ACLU People Power Tour late last year, the idea was to join forces with supporters and coalition partners to hold townhalls in communities across the state. We would talk about our work but, just as importantly, we’d also listen as residents spoke out about the civil rights issues confronting them. Then we’d think through ways to make things better. Together.
Keeping the focus community-centered – both in terms of identifying problems and then devising ways to address them through collaboration – served as the tour’s guiding light.
Then the COVID-19 outbreak hit, forcing an abrupt halt to all public gatherings.
But we’re not going to let a pandemic stop the momentum that was beginning to build. The need is too great. In fact, with the coronavirus exacerbating many of the problems we were already confronting, the work is now more urgent than ever.
Which is why the tour will continue – in virtual form – with a townhall in the Jackson area at 6 p.m. on May 12. The event, which includes our coalition partner Nation Outside-Jackson Chapter, will highlight both groups’ efforts to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal legal system, as well as advocacy in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. During breakout discussions among small groups, we will also spend considerable time listening to Jackson residents talk about the rights issues that are important to them.
Part of the reason we’re pressing on with a virtual ACLU People Power Tour is the enthusiastic response to our first few in-person events.
We launched the tour in December with a stop in Saginaw, where we have been addressing mass incarceration through our Smart Justice campaign. Data we gathered early in that campaign showed that Blacks in Saginaw County were five times more likely than whites to end up incarcerated. Police practices have been a concern in the area as well, dating back to at least 2014 and the fatal shooting of Milton Hall. Mr. Hall, a 49-year-old mentally ill Black man, was shot by six police officers who fired a total of 47 shots during a standoff in the parking lot of a Saginaw strip mall.
Residents told us that reform of the criminal legal system and police practices continue to be a priority. They were also concerned about protecting their rights as voters and wanted to learn more about their constitutional rights overall.
We followed that Saginaw event with a townhall in Sterling Heights, where we heard from residents from across Macomb County. At that event, my colleague Sharon Dolente, our voting rights strategist, told residents about our work protecting voting rights and ways in which they can be involved. The topic resonated with residents, who told us that a lack of voter-education and voter-engagement resources were significant issues they wanted to see addressed. Racial justice, particularly the lack of diversity in county leadership, and education equity are also prominent issues residents want to tackle. Then we talked about tactics to do just that.
Our lives have all changed since then. But the work must continue. Which is why we look forward to sharing the latest on our advocacy in the wake of COVID-19 with our Jackson audience, and hearing how they prioritize issues during the first ACLU People Power Tour virtual town hall.