BCK FILE--The Trump Administration has spawned an activist movement. At least one weekend a month, throngs bearing signs congregate in Pershing Square and at various locations throughout the city.
Some march for numerous causes, from equality and reproductive rights to fighting the immigration, gun, and environment policies of the current administration. Others show more focus on a specific issue.
And among those focused activists, Elise Moore (photo left) has spent the past two years becoming quite a force in the criminal justice reform arena.
Although she studied political science in college, Elise’s brand of activism honed since Trump took office is remarkable. While others might relegate themselves to complaining on social media or throwing their hands up in frustration, Elise prefers to engage directly with politicians.
“Constituents don’t realize that these people represent you. You voted them into the Assembly or Senate and you have the right to speak to them about their voting records. A lot of what affects you day to day is at the state level,” she says. “When you talk about day to day issues like bail reform for example, we have the power to get that done.”
“From Kamala Harris in the Senate or Ted Lieu in the House, here in California or all the way across the country, you can go into the district office or email,” she says. “I did an event in Riverside and after I spoke on the panel, people came up to me. They weren’t as interested in the details of the legislation as they were in asking, ‘How can I speak to my elected official. I thought that was fascinating. They asked if a phone call was better than an email or what they should say, practical questions. They were hungry for information and to have an impact with their representatives. It’s natural to be intimidated or starstruck but most politicians want to hear from constituents.”
Elise has impressed stakeholders with her thorough knowledge of criminal justice reform and is currently working on bail reform, as well as fixing the funnel from school suspensions and expulsions to prison. “I’ve always been an abolitionist and sensitive to the way minorities are treated. I do think we are in the new Jim Crow. Mass incarceration is a symptom of that,” she explains, referencing racial segregation laws instituted in the post-Civil War south. “Criminal justice reform has everything to do with racial inequality. We’re lacking in a big way. Some people say I must be frustrated being in California where there’s not a lot to do but I feel the opposite.”
“We are the leader of the resistance, the Blue Beacon, but we still have issues. I want to make sure we’re walking the walk and talking the talk. It wasn’t that long ago that the Supreme Court found mass incarceration in California unconstitutional,”” she says, speaking of Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493(2011), which ruled that a court-mandated prison population limit was necessary to remediate a violation of the 8th Amendment rights of inmates.
Elise questions the response of the DA in the Stephon Clark case in which officers shot and killed an unarmed Sacramento man in his grandmother’s backyard. “The DA said to use patience; these things take time. Some people think this is just semantics but patience is not what you want to ask for when addressing racial inequality,” she says. “This isn’t just about police brutality. It’s about racial inequality and bias. We can’t keep asking for patience. If we don’t learn or address what’s really going on, we’re doomed to repeat over and over.
Governor Brown signed a number of criminal justice reform bills last October, including many which deal with juvenile inmates and defendants. Elise is pleased with the progress but says there’s much more to be done. “Especially things like bail reform. I’ve worked on that bill more than anything else this two-year session,” she says. “It’s phenomenal. I didn’t anticipate getting that. It’s great to see that coming down the pipeline.”
Elise is now working on SB 607, which would limit suspension and expulsion, a significant contributor to the school to prison pipeline. Currently, California students in kindergarten through third grade may not be suspended for “willful defiance;” SB 607 would extend that ban for students through grade 12. Willful defiance is defined as disrupting activities or defying the teacher or those in authority.
“This should be handled in a case by case basis. There’s a direct correlation between graduation rate and suspension with suspended students 7% less likely to graduate. We’re skipping a step, rehabilitating or addressing specific needs.”
Suspensions are divided between two groups, with one group committing serious offenses such as violence, harassment and property destruction. The less serious include “willful defiance.” Elise says, “If you look at who is suspended for these less serious things, you’ll see black and brown children, LGBTQ students but they are the lowest percentage of those who commit serious offenses. It floored me when I read that information. I am thrilled that this bill was introduced.”
Bail reform is another of Elise’s issues. “We have a high number of people in pretrial who are incarcerated, sitting in jail but who cannot afford to buy freedom. People who score high on the risk assessment can buy their way out.
“When people argue that the arrested shouldn’t have committed a crime, I ask if they are guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty?”
She adds that many have misperceptions about bail. “Bail is not money; it has nothing to do with money. It’s an agreement that you will come back to the next court date. We decide to put a monetary aspect to it, like a security deposit. That’s completely the wrong way to do it. You not only get to buy freedom but we let people out who are dangerous. They can potentially be back on the street as long as they can buy freedom.” Elise supports a rigorous risk assessment program in lieu of bail.
“Priors or fail to appears are red flags. So is domestic violence,” she says, “If someone has a first offense with no priors, a job, kids, rent to pay, if charges are not violent, there is no reason to charge $50K. That’s the average bail in California. Someone might sit in jail for 2 years pretrial. In that time, they lose their job, home, kids, car. Or they could go to a bail bondsman who charges 10 percent and set up payments or put property as collateral.”
Elise says she has seen changes in the criminal justice system already but has come to terms that she may never see all the changes she wants in her lifetime.
What advice does Elise have for would-be activists? “ If someone feels strongly about a certain issue, it would be best to focus on that one issue and not spread yourself too thin,” she advises. “The most important piece of advice is to know what you’re talking about. Have your ducks in a row. You don’t have to be a college professor but do some research before you try to advocate for legislation or talk to an elected official. You at least need a clear objective. Unfortunately, I have seen a million times where someone’s passion gets the best of them.”
“Another thing I tell people is even if they do sit down with a legislator and the legislator tells them they are absolutely not going to vote for a bill, it’s still a good meeting because now I know the issues they have first hand,right out of the person’s mouth. The more armed I am, the better. There’s no such thing as a bad meeting.”
Elise is inspired to continue her fight and hopes others do the same. “There’s the proverbial what would I have done? Would I have stood up against the Nazis or marched with Dr. King? You don’t have to ask. It’s happening right now. The way you answer right now is if you’re going to stand up against mass incarceration and racial inequalities that are happening in our beautiful state now. Slavery turned into Jim Crow turned into mass incarceration. Clearly, we are missing something because this keeps going on and is unfair. Don’t we want everyone to be doing well instead of in the cycle of poverty? If we aren’t part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.”
(Beth Cone Kramer is a professional writer living in the Los Angeles area. She covers Resistance Watch and other major issues for CityWatch.)