by Wanda Sabir
Let’s celebrate! On Saturday, Aug. 31, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., come to the Freedom and Movement Center, 4400 Market St. at 44th in North Oakland. Join LSPC (Legal Services for Prisoners With Children) and All of Us or None for a celebration of community on the first anniversary of the opening of the center.
They’re throwing a BLOCK PARTY, and all their friends, neighbors and comrades are invited. Come enjoy delicious BBQ, games for kids, raffle prizes, live music, and quality time with friends and neighbors.
A year ago, on Sept. 1, 2018, the Freedom and Movement Center held its grand opening with plenty of food and a bike giveaway, announcing, “We’re so excited to have a new home of our own and to open up the Freedom and Movement Center – a community center to train and organize formerly incarcerated and convicted people, family members and allies.”
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, founded by attorney Ellen Barry in 1978, now headed by Executive Director Dorsey Nunn, has advocated for incarcerated parents, their children and family members for 40 years. Formerly located in San Francisco, the organization recently purchased a building in North Oakland’s Longfellow District on a quiet residential block. The impressive structure, now extensively remodeled, sits prominently on a corner at 44th and Market streets.
“It wasn’t exactly our choice to leave San Francisco,” Nunn told Troy Williams, a formerly incarcerated journalist who has worked with the Bay View. Published by the Oakland Post, Williams’s story continues:
“In fact, the building they had rented for 17 years was being demolished to make way for new development in San Francisco’s transit-rich and walkable mid-Market area.
“’After calculating the amount of rent we paid over 17 years,’ Nunn continued, ‘I realized that we had paid over $1,224,000 for a building we didn’t own.’
“The Freedom and Movement Center opened with a block party at 44th and Market Streets in Oakland that saluted the elders and the community with live music and barbeque, and they donated 50 free bicycles, helmets and electric toy cars to children. The celebration gave inspiration to a community to know that their prodigal sons and daughters were returning home to do right by them.
“According to Nunn, the inspiration to build a Freedom and Movement Center came from Assata Shakur, whom he met while traveling to Cuba. ‘She (Shakur) said we need to create a space where we felt welcomed and safe,’ said Nunn.
“’We’re going to build for permanency,’ he added and then went on dispel the myth that formerly incarcerated people don’t know how to work. He said the general contractor who worked on the building was formerly incarcerated. The workers the general contractor hired were formerly incarcerated. Many of his staff are formerly incarcerated.
“It is often said that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
Several businesses also share the Freedom and Movement Center, offering massage, child and marriage family therapists and a vagina steam salon, and the rent paid by these tenants covers the building’s mortgage almost to the penny – not bad for an organization which literally threw away $1,214,000 dollars in rent for over 17 years.
Nunn, who is himself formerly incarcerated (at 19) and was serving a life sentence, mentions often the fact that the Freedom and Movement Center sits not far from the headquarters of the Black Panther Party, which launched an international movement for social justice and human rights 53 years ago that shook up the world, a world which included political prisoners and prisoners of war.
As Kathleen Cleaver says, the Black Panther Party inspired and ignited the imagination of a generation. The same is true of LSPC and organizations founded while Nunn has been at the helm or in the room: All of Us or None, celebrating its 16th anniversary; California Coalition for Women Prisoners, now in its 23rd year; and Critical Resistance, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sept. 30, 2018, at the Freedom and Movement Center. CR is headquartered just up the street from LSPC.
It is hard to separate where All of Us or None stops and LSPC starts. Their work over the past four decades is enormous, from changing laws which make shackling pregnant mothers illegal to allowing intention to be a factor in sentencing hearings.
All of Us or None’s Ban the Box Campaign has rippled across the country, making significant changes to private and government employment applications that used to eliminate applicants who checked the box asking whether they had ever been convicted of a crime. Why must a person who has served time be identified by his or her criminal record?
Economic disparity and labels like felon or ex-con are huge causes in recidivism. Other major campaigns have called for ending the sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP) and the California Habeas Project, which allowed women who were battered to have cases reviewed for cause and sentencing relief.
LSPC provided legal support for the mass hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 against solitary confinement by California prisoners, whose participation peaked at 30,000. The strikes ended with settlement of a class action suit against the state by prisoners held in solitary confinement for indeterminate sentences in punishment for their alleged “gang affiliation.” Fees earned by LSPC attorney Carol Strickman, a lead counsel in that litigation were used for the building’s down payment and mortgage payments in addition to the rent from businesses housed there.
When one enters the bright open space of the Freedom and Movement Center, the knowledge that Nunn had hired formerly incarcerated people for the construction and remodeling work demonstrates his integrity and commitment. The general contractor, construction supervisor as well as the majority of workers, all formerly incarcerated, are responsible for recreating all 3,999 square feet, offices circling cubicles, a conference room just beyond, and down the hall a larger room that could be a banquet hall. At the grand opening, that space was filled with 50 bikes and electric cars for the opening week raffle. A few bathrooms and a kitchen complete the overview.
The space is designed so that there is privacy when needed but the spirit of conviviality and comradery is ever present. The Freedom and Movement Center is a space shared among people who agree on what is most important – children and families affected by parental loss to incarceration. It is a tragedy that is quantifiable. These Movement folks work hard and long hours to change outcomes.
To push their legislative goals, a Quest for Democracy Day is held annually, a time when Formerly Incarcerated People and Their Families (FICPF) converge on the state capital from throughout California – the tiniest cities and counties to the more sprawling municipalities. At last year’s FICPF Movement conference in Miami, more than 900 delegates contacted 82,000 people in two hours by phone, text and knocking on doors.
What is compelling about this action is that those registering others to vote could not register to vote themselves. In Florida, 1.6 million people with felony convictions thought they’d never be able to vote again, but the organizing at the conference contributed to a huge victory at the polls last November re-enfranchising all those voters. Voter registration is just one of many campaigns LSPC has mounted over its 40 years.
With a $1 million budget, 18-20 employees – all affected by mass incarceration – and many volunteers, LSPC is no small player in the movement for justice for everyone, especially those forgotten by society: women, men and children in custody or on parole. Speaking last year, Nunn wiped away a few tears as he reflected on all the family and friends who did not live to see the day, yet here LSPC sits, stronger than ever to continue the work. “It is a marriage,” Nunn says between “activism, litigation and policy.”
One of several attorneys whose lives were shaped by LSPC and AOUON values is Bryan Stevenson, MacArthur Fellow and founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Last year, EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration. Another is former Oakland mayoral candidate Pamela Price.
At the Block Party last Sept. 1, there was live music on Market Street, chairs center stage for people to sit and eat and a tent with barbecue grills, the cooks serving burgers, veggies on skewers, chips, cookies and soda. Information tables about the organization were along one side, fresh popcorn popped into bags and then mouths as fast as a volunteer filled them. However, it was the bike raffle, tour of the Freedom and Movement Center and free chair massage by Back in Action, a resident business, that had the most activity.
Other allies in the work like Essie Justice hold meetings at the Freedom and Movement Center, AOUON has its general membership meeting every third Thursday at 6:30 p.m., and California Prison Focus, an organization that produces a highly regarded quarterly newsletter for prisoners and the weekly radio show Prison Focus on KPOO 89.5 FM from 11:00 a.m. to noon every Thursday, has since moved into the Freedom and Movement Center.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks. Bay View staff contributed to this story.