"I Knew In My Heart I Wanted To Help People": Justice League NYC's Carmen Perez

Photographed by Paul Octavious.
Carmen Perez is something of a Renaissance woman in modern-day activism. In her years of work, the executive director of Gathering for Justice has touched on many of today's important civil rights issues, including mass incarceration, gender equality, and community policing. From working with young women as a probation officer to helping organize labor activism, she hasn't shied away from any challenge.

Refinery29 spoke to Perez about her work with Gathering for Justice and its offshoot, Justice League NYC. She describes a two-fold organizational approach — with Gathering for Justice looking at foundational issues, such as mass incarceration, while Justice League addresses problems like police brutality.

“What we try to do at the Justice League is find the intersectionality between different movements. We understand that if a person doesn’t have a living wage, they’re more likely to end up in the system. We understand that if people are undocumented, they don’t have access to quality healthcare, education, things like that,” she said. “So for us, it’s important to bridge these movements.”

Tell me about your work with Gathering for Justice and Justice League NYC.

“Gathering for Justice was founded in 2005 after my mentor and boss, Harry Belafonte, witnessed a 5-year-old Black girl in Florida being handcuffed by three white police officers. The charge was that she was unruly in the classroom, so really, she was throwing a tantrum. Instead of her parents being called, the authorities were called and she was taken into a facility and charged with 'being unruly.' Mr. Belafonte was really troubled by it. He immediately called his peers from the civil rights movement, people he had organized with when he was involved with Dr. King, like John Lewis, and they met and developed a covenant to stop child incarceration.

“We began to train communities across the country, introducing them to the methodology of Dr. King, nonviolence as a foundation for civic engagement, organizing, and political action. The Gathering really was about working with nontraditional leaders, like formerly incarcerated individuals, people who were currently incarcerated, and former and current gang members to talk about a common covenant to end child incarceration.

“I always say we come together like Voltron. I may have the carrots and somebody else might have the celery and somebody has the onions — we make soup and we all get fed. So that’s really what’s been the success of Justice League. The fact that we’re able to bring in our resources, build collective power and go back into the streets using a multi-prong approach. It’s important to put political pressure and advocate for policy, but also to be on the streets and demanding justice from our communities and from those that are making decisions from positions of power.”
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Photographed by Paul Octavious.
How did you get involved in activism?

"I come from a small farm town outside of L.A. called Oxnard, CA. We had three Naval bases that created a very diverse community. I grew up in a predominantly first-generation Mexican-Chicano community, and African-American and Samoan communities. There were a lot of gangs and a lot of violence in the community. I played basketball as a positive alternative. A lot of my friends got caught up in gangs and ultimately were victims of violence.

"My sister, who was two years older than me, was buried on my 17th birthday. She was killed in a car accident. Then, I had a brother who was in and out of the criminal justice system. Every day, I think about the duality of the victim and offender in my life. My sister’s death really taught me how to live. Something about her leaving my home and never coming back. We were raised like twins and we shared a room all of our lives. It really made a profound impact in my life. I went away to UC Santa Cruz and I studied psychology, because I knew in my heart I wanted to help people.
“I began to work with incarcerated youth while I was in college. I started creating detention alternatives and really seeing the young people that I was working with as a reflection of me. I knew that if they were given something positive that they didn’t have to continue on this path of incarceration or violence or gangs. I was recruited to work in the probation department, so then I learned the system’s language and did gender-responsive programming for young women. So not only did I work in a grassroots nonprofit sector, I also worked in the system."

From your experience working with young women in the criminal justice system, what’s unique about women’s situations?

"The difference between women and men is that the criminal justice system was never set up for women. We don’t meet their basic needs. For instance, women are oftentimes the primary providers for children and there is this loss when a mother is no longer really able to see her children. Women aren’t given sanitary napkins, women are shackled while giving birth while they’re incarcerated; there are so many needs that just aren’t met.

"We’re not treating the problems, what we’re treating is the behavior. A young person could come into the system, maybe because of prostitution or runaway behavior, but what led them to that behavior is not what we deal with. We don’t deal with the sexual trauma; we don’t deal with the parent kicking these children out. I cofounded a group called The Girls Task Force in Santa Cruz County that provided gender-responsive programs for women, regardless of probation status. We’ve seen a huge increase in women in the system but we don’t fulfill their needs. There’s all these initiatives on a national level, Black boys' and men's initiatives, but we have nothing for young women. I think that’s something that we really need to focus on."
Photographed by Paul Octavious.

What is the most important thing for policy makers and the public to remember about the needs of women and children in the criminal justice system?

"I think policy makers are so far disconnected with the reality. I encourage policy makers to go into a prison, to a detention center, and see for themselves, meet the women and men who are incarcerated. Right now, we have 16-year-olds who are incarcerated with adults in Rikers. Justice League is working on a campaign to remove all 16-year-olds from Rikers. We have another campaign called the Raise the Age campaign; New York and North Carolina are two states that try 16 year olds as adults automatically. So a 16 year old could jump a turnstile and be sent to Rikers, where he is then susceptible to rape, abuse, and is 30 times more likely to commit suicide.

"I encourage them to come and look at these children, to speak about what we can provide as an alternative, and what we can invest back into our communities that would end the school to prison pipeline we see. Particularly in Black and brown communities, there is this direct pipeline to the jail or detention center, and it comes from what the community calls resource officers. They’re really police officers in the schools. Because of incidents like Columbine, schools have now placed metal detectors and police officers in schools that are penalizing children for childish behavior. Classrooms are bigger and teachers don’t have the resources. Since there’s a police officer in the school, they’re more likely to be called to deal with what used to be dealt with counselors. So our work is really to work in collaboration with other organizations to address the issue of why are there police officers in this schools and why are they penalizing children for childish behavior."

What do you want people to remember about your work?

“I think there is a lane for everybody to get involved. I want people to know that the work that we do, our Justice League, is about racial equality. It’s about long-term sustainability. It’s about building that beloved community and using different channels to do that. Whether it’s training, whether it’s advocacy work, whether it’s direct action, whether it’s healing — we want people to get involved in our work. We want people to feel as though they are part of something larger than themselves.

"Whether you’re clicking a like on Facebook, you're sharing information, or you’re donating, there’s a way for people from all different walks of life to support the work we’re doing on the ground. We need all of us to really win.”

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