USC Price School of Public Policy

Students of Color and Allies Policy Forum:

Student forum centers on ‘constructing policy through restorative justice’

May 5, 2017

USC Law Professor Jody Armour speaking on a SCAPF
panel (Photos by Tom Queally and Han Li)

By Matthew Kredell

Graduate students from the USC Price School of Public Policy organized a public conversation on “Constructing Policy through Restorative Justice” 25 years after the L.A. uprising in the fourth-annual Students of Color and Allies Policy Forum.

At the heart of the April forum was a panel discussion featuring USC Gould School of Law Professor Jody Armour, Californians for Safety and Justice advocate Marisa Arrona and L.A. Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez.

Armour recalled how the civil unrest created a spike in national consciousness about race matters, but that it only lasted six to nine months and then fizzled. The same issues of police brutality, mass-incarceration and racial profiling remain today.

“The uprising proved to be a moment, not a movement,” Armour said. “What we’ve seen over the last three years is what a movement looks like. Black Lives Matter changed the landscape radically.”

He confronted the frequent interpretation that the uprising was a bunch of hooligans looking for any excuse to burn and pillage, by countering that they had every excuse to go off during the months that TV was saturated with the police beating of Rodney King.

“They waited until that Simi Valley jury returned the acquittal of those officers who we’d all seen with our own eyes brutalize that man, and told us with their verdict that black lives don’t matter,” Armour said. “It’s the tangible price we pay as a nation when our criminal justice system loses its moral legitimacy and credibility in at least a large segment of the American population.”

Systemic failures

Master of Public Policy student Victor Sanchez Jr., right, moderates a panel featuring Jody Armour, Marisa Arrona and Ref Rodriguez. More photos available on Flickr »

Rodriguez contended that California’s educational system isn’t working for the students it’s supposed to serve, with dollars going out of low-income communities to subsidize places with less need. He suggested that the state needs to reexamine its priorities, given that it costs roughly $50,000 a year to incarcerate a youth compared to the $7,000 in state funding given to educate that same child.

Arrona asserted that it’s time to rethink the prison industrial complex that criminalizes poverty, addiction and homelessness. She noted that blacks make up 13 percent of drug users, Latinos 17 percent and whites 65 percent, yet people of color make up more than half of the prisons and jails. The barriers created for the formerly incarcerated – a felony conviction comes with 4,800 restrictions – lead to more than 60 percent going back behind bars within three years.

However, she does see hope on the horizon as Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to undo the legacy of what he helped establish with sentencing in the tough-on-crime era.

“He is very aware of the outcomes of his first time as governor and committed to undo decades of terrible outcomes that are results of mass incarceration,” Arrona said. “There’s traction in this state to actually do things, and people often say: As goes California, so goes the rest of the country.”

Californians for Safety and Justice helped get approval in 2014 for Prop 47, which reduced the penalty for six non-violent crimes from felony to misdemeanor, and in 2016 for Prop 57, which increased parole opportunities for non-violent felons. Current reform efforts focus on lessening the significance of bail money in determining pretrial release.

The keynote address was given by UCLA professor Marcus Anthony Hunter, who based his remarks on his forthcoming book Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life.

Hunter presented that African-Americans thought they could get away from racism by fleeing the south, but that structures to constrain blackness have followed no matter where they went in the country.

“The south has a very funny way of following black people,” Hunter said. To back up this point, Hunter noted that even in Alaska – a state far removed from the injustices committed against the race in U.S. history – black people are over-represented in prisons.

Offering guidance

Civil rights attorney Nana Gyamfi leads a workshop. More photos available on Flickr »

For students pursuing a career in public policy, Arrona advised finding a narrative that works and generating empathy.

“In our work, changing a felony to misdemeanor freaks out a lot of people,” Arrona said. “The one thread people often respond to is if that person is employed, you are safer. Helping people find jobs and reintegrate into the community easier, helping them reach economic and family stability, makes all of us safe — which is true.”

Armour advised students that to make an impact in advocacy they have to talk about racism without bringing up racism.

“As soon as you use the word ‘racist,’ people shut down,” Armour said. “What I say is that we’re all creatures of habit. It’s not that bad people discriminate; we all do it all the time. Then we get to start approaching discrimination as a public health problem rather than a problem of going after wrong doers who know they’re doing wrong.”

Arrona also moderated the discussion for one of three workshops offered, on ways reparations for black enslavement can be integrated into the current policy context rather than as economic repayments.

Student advocacy

USC Price students host fourth-annual Students of Color and Allies Policy Forum. More photos available on Flickr »

In other workshops, Yoel Haile, director of political affairs at the African Black Coalition, led a case study analysis of the University of California system’s private prison divestment. Nana Gyamfi, a Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney, led a workshop exploring why current state-sponsored police enforcement is problematic and discriminatory, and what alternatives are available to ensure safety for all communities.

“We are at this pivotal moment of 25 years after the L.A. Riots, and here we are in recent years with a resurgence of the sort of feelings that led to that unrest,” said Tiffany Pangiban, a first-year Master of Public Policy student at USC Price. “I particularly appreciated the point Professor Armour made about empathy bias, because that is something as public policy analysts and students at Price that we should have in our curriculum.”

Joining Pangiban on the steering committee for SCAPF were Joanna Cortez, Thai Le, Radin Rahimzadeh, Monica Santander and Nick Weinmeister. All the students involved with SCAPF wore black t-shirts with the message “Resist. Persist.”

“We very much believe that what went on in the 90s in California is what’s now happening throughout the country,” said Victor Sanchez Jr., a second-year MPP student who served on the programming committee. “With our workshops, we’re trying to hit on these key conversations that have lived in the criminal justice space for a while and really make them tangible in a policy sense.”