Americus -- It's a journey for justice. The Prison and Jail Project started it's annual Freedomwalk today in Americus.
It's a 100-mile walk throughout South Georgia calling attention to poor jail and prison conditions, and unjust law enforcement practices.
A flag representing the injustice of the current criminal justice system lead the way for more than 30 freedom walkers.
"We need to bring this to the attention of the people of this country."
Issues these walkers want known are the unjust treatment of people in court, and the poor, over crowded conditions in jails and prisons nationwide.
"They're very deadly, they're racist, and they hurt rather than heal."
Thomas Pate knows how cruel paying hard time can be. The ex-con spent up to 13 years behind bars in several prisons, and much time in jail as well.
"You have maybe a 12 X 12 cell, you have to walk over the people when they peed, everything's spread all over the floor, you got people laying inside there for four or five days," said Thomas Pate.
It's conditions like these freedom walkers speak out against, and share with lawmakers why they need to change.
This year's Freedomwalk started right here at the Sumter County courthouse. Walkers will continue for a week, spreading a message of justice to South Georgia prisons and jails.
"We need to look at the enormous cost that the criminal justice system is to us and our communities, and to look for way to keep people from having to go to jail," said John Cole Vodicka.
It's these things freedomwalkers walk for, and for former inmates taking steps toward turning their lives around. For some, prison time leaves behind it's scars.
Memories that Thomas Pate won't ever forget.
"We're not considered humans, the way they speak to us, they speak down to us like we're the scum of the Earth," said Pate.
Freedomwalkers will march on in South Georgia.
"I want to do anything I can to help make things better."
And be a voice for people they say don't have one.
The freedomwalk began in Americus and walkers are walking through Macon, Taylor, and Marion Counties. Vigils and rallies will be held at different county jails, courthouses, and prisons along the way.
The walk ends back in Americus on September 16th.
An Annual Exercise in Undoing Racism
by Elizabeth Dede (Originally published 2001; from Resist, Inc.)
Since 1996, the Prison & Jail Project has led a sojourn through Southwest Georgia. The Freedomwalk is not a trip on a tour bus; it's not a visit to honorable, historic sites. Instead, it is a humble 85-mile journey that calls attention to abuses in the Southwest Georgia criminal justice system. The stops include prisons built to house 1500 "criminal aliens;" courthouses where harsh sentences are passed; small, suffocating jails, which meet no standard of building, health, plumbing, or fire code, and yet imprison human beings mainly young, African American men as they await their trial and sentencing.
US Department of Justice numbers show that Georgia rates first among all states with 6.8% of its adults in prison, jail, on probation or parole. Three of every four Georgia prisoners are African Americans. In many of the state's 150 county jails, 9 of every 10 prisoners are African American. The Freedomwalk visits many of those jails.
We walked through Smithville, Georgia, a town of 800, with 75% of the population being African American, yet the political and economic power is in the hands of white people. We heard stories of police abuse, including an African-American city council representative who was stopped and told by the police that he could not walk on the streets after dark. One young African-American man told of having the door to his house broken down at 3 a.m. by a probation officer who demanded a urine sample for a drug test.
Shortly after some African-American women from Smithville joined the walk, we were confronted by the white police chief who told us that he would arrest us for parading without a permit if we continued. We asked to see the ordinance and determined that it was unconstitutional. One of the women said, "Chief, this is our town and our Freedomwalk, and you'll just have to arrest us." If left on our own, we white people probably would have taken the van through town to avoid the hassle. We were arrested, and in court the charges were dropped because the judge found that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The women of Smithville, empowered by this experience, have now joined together to establish the Smithville Neighborhood Freedom Center, an organization that provides a safe place for youth to gather, a sounding board for issues such as police harassment, and a center for political organizing.
Along the highway towards Richland, we were met by our friend Sarah Jackson, her daughter, and her niece. While we are all now familiar with the phrase, "Driving While Black," Sarah has been harassed, brutalized, and arrested for "Walking While Black." She is an active spokesperson for her rights and the rights of her people, and is targeted as a result. Sarah met us, walked with us, and hosted us for a meal at her church, where we were all able to forget about our tired feet, and moved by her courage.
By the last day of the walk, our group stretched out along the highway, marching with new energy. As we entered the town of Butler, we were met by a daughter and a cousin of Maceo Snipes, and they walked with us to the courthouse. There we honored Maceo Snipes and his family, and remembered a little-known and shameful event in the racist history of Georgia.
Maceo Snipes was a decorated WWII veteran. He returned to his hometown determined to have the rights of freedom that he had fought for in other parts of the world and for other people. In 1946, during the first primary election open to African-American voters, Maceo Snipes dared to become the first African American to vote. The next day, he was dragged from his mother's porch by four white men and shot to death. The white men were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. Maceo Snipes' family fled in terror, unable even to bury him. The final rally of Freedomwalk at the Taylor County courthouse, and the presentation to his daughter of a plaque honoring Maceo Snipes, brought many of the family back together again for the first time.
When the Freedomwalkers heard about the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the hijackings of four commercial jets, we were just leaving Camilla, Georgia. There, on the courthouse lawn, we heard of the Camilla Massacre which took place on September 19, 1868. That day began as a peaceful Republican Party political rally during Reconstruction. A heavily armed force of white men fired on the crowd. At least 12 African Americans were killed and more than 40 others were wounded as they fled the town.
After the Freedomwalkers received word of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we talked about whether we should stop the Freedomwalk. For all of us, though, the walk seemed like the only peaceful response we could make. We knew that we were surrounded by people calling for swift retaliation, but we saw the connection between the oppression of jail and prison and the oppression of war.
So we kept on walking. We remembered those who were murdered in Camilla because they called for a change in power. They were freed slaves who wanted to share in the economic resources. They wanted to have representation in the political structures of their time.
We kept on walking for those who are in jail and prison today. We need to stop locking away so many of our people, primarily young African-American men, in jails that are substandard and inhuman.
We kept on walking for those who were killed in the terrorist attacks. We kept on walking for freedom and justice, both here in Georgia, and throughout the world.
Elizabeth Dede works at the Prison & Jail Project, which received a multi-year grant from Resist. For more information, contact them at PO Box 6749, Americus, GA 31709-6749.
Copyright © Resist, Inc., 2001
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