On Saturday, May 16, 2015, Just Info staff, Moira Meltzer-Cohen and William Eric Waters participated in the “Knowledge is Power” community forum at New Jerusalem Worship Center in Jamaica, NY.
There were about 50 people in attendance, a handful of them young people, our hoped-for target audience. It turned out that many of the young people who would otherwise have been in attendance were attending a street co-naming ceremony for Kevin L. Miller Jr., a 13-year-old who lost his life to gun violence in 2009 when he stumbled upon a fight on his way to McDonald’s.
The forum led off with Lt. Clarence Hopkins from the 113th Precinct, who talked about “how the police [are] working to build positive relations in the community.” During Q&A, a 21-year-old cited the recent police killings of unarmed men of color in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Missouri and South Carolina, Given current events and his own experience, he said, “It is hard to respect the police.” Another audience member stated that there seemed to be no police accountability. Lt. Hopkins mentioned the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and how seriously allegations of police misconduct are taken by the department. “There are serious consequences for misconduct,” he said, like “loss of vacation days.”
Two other individuals related their own unpleasant encounters with New York’s Finest. Questions and comments kept flying at the Lieutenant. He looked in Ms. Meltzer-Cohen’s direction and said she, an attorney, could answer some of the audience’s questions posed to him. Someone in the audience stage whispered, “Keep him in the hot seat.”
Lt. Hopkins got out of the hot seat as quickly as he could, and next up was Ms. Meltzer-Cohen, who prefers to be called Mo, a criminal defense attorney who, among other things, is one of the founders of the Just Info Hotline.
While Mo was being introduced, Lt. Hopkins and another officer who had accompanied him, made a hasty getaway.
Mo began her talk stating that she wished the cops had stayed. Surely there was something they could learn. There was definitely something they needed to hear.
Mo recounted how the idea for the Just Info Hotline was formed, how it came about during the work she and the other founders, especially Mik Maurus, had done to support people arrested during Occupy Wall Street. Mostly the people arrested during Occupy Wall Street were young and white, and their arrests or convictions for protesting would be unlikely to result in lifelong collateral consequences of involvement with this criminal justice system. Mo and the Just Info Hotline founders also knew that there was a greater need, specifically for over-policed communities of color, for reliable legal information, without which the already disproportionate consequences of arrest could be even worse.
After giving this history, Mo gave a quick “Know Your Rights” training, highlighting what people need to know and do if they are stopped, frisked or arrested by the cops, how specifically to invoke specific rights during these encounters, especially the rights to remain silent, and to speak to a lawyer.
There was good feedback. The same 21-year-old who had Lt. Hopkins in the hot seat commented how the information was very good, and that he hoped Mo would not leave after her presentation as the cops had.
There were two more speakers before the forum was over: Cedric, Dew, Executive Director of the Jamaica YMCA, talked about programs for youth and young adults at the Y, and Bernard Warren, President of Webb & Brooker Inc., Real Estate Services, discussed “tools for success,” illustrating how he used those tools to rise from a kid running the streets of Jamaica to the Chairman/President of Webb & Brooker, Inc.
The community forum, which was all about imparting knowledge and transforming it into power, had a diverse panel, and gauging by audience response, seemed to have done its job.