Not here. Not now. Not again.
That was the mantra at Grace Episcopal Church in Green Bay on Monday night during a Martin Luther King day gathering to address the growing prison pipeline issues plaguing every part of the state of Wisconsin.
About 100 people gathered on Monday night to sing hymns read aloud to the words and visions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With every pew filled, the issue of the many ways Wisconsin’s prison system is overcrowded was explored in an emotional way.
Renita Robinson, the CEO of the YWCA of Greater Green Bay, said that it was important to fill the church with people willing to explore this issue. Because, otherwise, it would show we have even further to go.
Robinson, who was the keynote speaker at Monday’s event, said that the gathering in such a space on a day like MLK Day shows the progress that has been made when it comes to respecting everyone’s dignity.
“I’m so grateful that you all have reminded me tonight to be a voice, to be a word of justice, to be a word of peace,” Robinson told the gathering. “And dignity is really interesting these days because what I feel like is dignity or dignified may be different than what you feel like is dignity or unifies you. We have this amazing opportunity for a time when we can say, ‘What would you like to be called? How would you like for me to refer to you? What would make you feel honored in this space?’ There was a time, not too long ago, when that wasn’t the truth.”
But in many places and spaces it still isn’t the truth. For Black and Brown children across Wisconsin, the truth is that systemic and institutionalized racism continue to shepherd those kids towards confinement rather than success.
Robinson said that 70% of students involved in in-school arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or latino and that 40% of the students expelled from United States schools in 2018 were black.
Last year, in Milwaukee, black students made up 87 percent of all suspensions in the Milwaukee Public School system according to a report done by the Office of Civil Rights. The correlation between police in schools and the number of children of color coming into contact with Corrections can not be overstated.
Robinson spoke with force and with tears when talking about how her son has grown up. The lengths she has had to go to in order to make sure he was safe from patrolling officers who might stereotype and then harm him. How sometimes she has to drive the car with the broken tail light so that he doesn’t have to face the prospect of being pulled over.
Robinson said that black students in the greater Green Bay School District have been suspended at a rate five times greater than white students and four times greater than hispanic students. She said that during the 2015-16 school year, 356 of the 1212 students suspended in Green Bay schools were black. That black students account for 29 percent of total suspensions, yet black students only make up 9 percent of the student body.
At Washington Middle School, nearly 60 percent of the black students were suspended. At Franklin Middle School, 40 percent were.
“We know tonight that we can say, ‘No more, not here, not now’” Robinson said. “Because we can raise our voices and we can use the education and information that we have to do something different. Information is enlightening and it’s life giving. What I know today is that things don’t look like they did 60 years ago, 70 years ago, 100 years ago and today we have the privilege of saying No more, Not here, Not Now.”
Robinson implored the audience to go back into their spheres and circles in life and press for change.
Mostly, Robinson asked people to be extreme. Extreme in the way Dr. Martin Luther King jr. described extremism.
“When he was called an extremist, what he said was, ‘If I am extremely loving, and I am extremely committed to justice, if I am extremely committed to peace, then I am indeed and that is the truth.’ And I say to you tonight, if I am extremely committed to equal pay, if I am extremely committed to a woman having the right to have a voice in a public space like this with a smile though saying some things that might be difficult to hear, then I stand convicted as such.”
This was the 15th year that Grace Episcopal in Green Bay has had interfaith organized events on MLk Day.