By Scott Cameron and Jason Croft
Members of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ) meet every Saturday at 4pm in the Independent Media Center at 202 South Broadway Avenue in Urbana.
On Thursday night, a small group of CUCPJ’s leaders talked with Illinois Public Media’s Scott Cameron about their goals and accomplishments.
As the name implies, the group has an ambitious agenda. Members lamented a society of parallel realities and parallel justice systems: “One for people of color, one for white people. Poor people, and people of means. Working class people, and people associated with the University.”
When asked what kind of community they hoped to build, one CUCPJ founder pointed to the small community they’d formed already as an example. Diversity, honesty and equality have been the foundation of the group since its inception in 2004. CUCPJ was created, as one member put it, by an unusual collaboration between “an African American couple and two queers,” all of whom, she says, work together to build a community of respect and cultural diversity.
“I want democracy,” one woman said, which she defined as, “having the information we need to participate in the decisions that affect our lives; that we can see the consequences of our participation; and based on that we can change our minds about how we want to participate.”
That ideal can seem elusive. One African-American member worried that the only way to reach true equality is for those white people who feel superior and reap many of society’s privileges to give up some of those privileges, something he’s not sure will happen in the short term.
Another member, an African-American woman who works with families in the criminal justice system, described a “state of siege” for many black families. Mothers, she says, too often live in fear that the courts will break up their families over any range of allegations of abuse.
Their mission, according to the website, is to strive “for a non-violent community in which community members eschew violence against others, and the police treat all people equally, and use the minimum force necessary to carry out their duties.”
Another founder of the group described her work as citizen journalism. She, like many other members, spends time investigating allegations of police brutality, racial profiling and discrimination in county courtrooms, streets and jails.
Often, those efforts succeed. Over the years, CUCPJ campaigns have ended the acquisition of tasers in Champaign, organized “Forgiveness Weekend” to stop felony disenfranchisement and documented a series of cases of alleged police brutality against unarmed residents.
Most of CUCPJ’s work focuses on the criminal justice system. The group wants to see a racial justice task force in Champaign County to better understand the roots of violence and injustice, from local policing to sentencing. Several members pointed to this week’s assessment of the county’s jail and justice system by an outside consultant as an example of the difficult questions that must be asked. The report, among other points, suggests finding alternatives to jail time for low-level offenders and says the county should be more concerned about who’s being locked up than building new jails.
CUCPJ’s Women in the Jail workgroup continues to push for parent-child contact visits at the county jail. That workgroup also remains committed to keeping children with their families, except in clear cases of abuse or neglect.
The group also points to racial profiling in traffic stops as a key issue. They continue to push to “ban the box” which refers to the question on many employment applications asking to check a box if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony. Members are also rallying to prevent an expansion of the jail facilities and instead spend more money on alternatives to jail and increased funding for public defenders. One member asked why more people aren’t talking about the remarkably high unemployment rate among young, black men. In a handout, CUCPJ compiled a lengthy “History of Police Misconduct in Champaign” and several pages of “Statistics on Racial Disparities in Champaign County.”
One CUCPJ founder says the group sometimes gets a bad rap as being anti-police. “What we want is fairness,” he said. “We fought for transparency and for police to be treated the same way as civilians when they violate the law.”
“It’s taken 10 years,” he said, “but we brought to the community some very difficult conversations.” And he added, “we’ve created an understanding that we are not in passing. We are powerful.”
“We’ve been conditioned to not like, to not trust those who aren’t like us,” he said. But, “when we work together … we know that it’s right, it’s just and it’s needed and it’s going to serve the interests of everybody.”