Current Conversations: A Q&A with Carmen Perez on Indigenous Peoples' Day

Handle: @msladyjusice1
Occupation: human and civil rights activist
Location: NYC/LA

How did your journey in advocating for social justice and civil rights begin?

I've known I wanted to help people and make a difference in my community since I was a child. At the time, I didn't quite know how I was going to accomplish that until my sister was killed and buried on my 17th birthday. Her death became the catalyst for me to want to change the world. So, I went to college and began working with youth that were impacted by incarceration and the juvenile justice system. My first true exposure to restorative justice was through my father when he refused to press charges against the person responsible for my sister's death. He said he wouldn't take another mother's child away. He understood that repairing the harm was not going to be achieved through any courtroom. That grief and loss not only gave me a sense of purpose and direction, but it motivated me to dedicate my life to being a better person, like my father and to change the world.

Organizations and movement building:

Can you talk about your role with The Gathering for Justice?

I'm currently the President and CEO of the Gathering for Justice. Our organization was founded in 2005 by the legendary Harry Belafone when he witnessed a 5-year old black girl being handcuffed and arrested in Florida. After dedicating his life to the Civil Rights movement, and seeing so many gains, he was struck in that moment with the distance left still to go. Mr. B’s first instinct was to gather the civil rights leaders of his generation, his peers, and have a conversation about what is left to be done in the struggle for Civil Rights. He says, “the civil rights movement never ended, it just took a deep breath.” So he called together his peers in the movement – for the “Gathering of the Elders” - many of the people in the room today, folks like Marian Wright Edelman and my mentor Nane Alejandrez, as well as Julian Bond, Ruby Dee, Rep John Lewis were from movement of the past like the Civil Rights Movement, Chicano movement, American Indian movement and Black Liberation Movement. He asked them – how is it that children are being locked up, and languishing in prisons across America? When had the Movement gone off course? He quickly realized he was going to have to fix his sights on the youth and organize with a new generation.

And so next, Mr. B organized a Gathering of the Youth, in 2005, in Epps, AL.

I was there as a representative of the young people at the Santa Cruz county detention center where I ran programming; I felt I had a responsibility to carry them into that space.  During that event, there was a moment of intensity when the young people kicked the elders out of the room, saying the elders didn’t have a right to be there because they had failed. To me, it didn't feel natural to kick out elders; I respected the wisdom that I gained from my mentors and I also felt like my responsibility was to be there representing those who couldn’t be present, because they were locked up.

And so I was one of the young people who stayed behind, and took counsel with my elders. I remember my mentor Nane Alejandrez gathering everyone in a circle for prayer and burning sage. And Mr. B said, “you can cage the singer but not the song”

And so that really shaped how The Gathering for Justice was formed, as an intergenerational, intercultural movement, rooted in nonviolence, to end child incarceration; to be a bridge that connects the wisdom of our elders and harnesses the energy of our youth, to make a commitment to building the next generation of movement leaders.

My first role within the Gathering for Justice was helping build the agenda for the organization as a youth representative on the Executive Committee ultimately transitioning into the first National Organizing Director, the Executive Director, and today to President and CEO. I am proud to say that my organization has championed some of the most visible movements for progressive change in this country, including housing the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, organizing marches and protest in response to the death of Eric Garner and other victims of police brutality, providing support and resources to Colin Kaepernick for his Take a Knee Campaign and working with a dynamic team to free Meek Mill. We have also achieved many legislative victories like Raise the Age, which ended the practice of automatically charging 16 and 17 year olds as adults in New York State.

My role at the Gathering is not only to set the direction and vision for the organization but to also cultivate the leadership of our team and Justice League members. I take pride in mentoring a new wave of activists and paying it forward.

As for the Justice League LA and NYC, can you share how this organization came about and its mission.

In 2010, when I stepped into the role of Executive Director, I was the only person on staff. I felt intense pressure to prove myself and to get creative to expand our resources. I began investing in building relationships with people and letting them know that they were important to this work.

After a few years of building intentional transformative relationships with some of the most dynamic leaders of my generation, naturally I thought the next step would be to convene folks together to discuss how we could build collective power, leverage our human resources when we didn’t have financial resources and change the landscape of the criminal justice system.

Along with Marvin Bing, we put out a clarion call.  We had our first meeting in January 2014. Over the course of 9 months, we named ourselves Justice League NYC and organized a 3-day, multimedia, multicultural, solutions-based juvenile justice reform conference in New York City. Growing Up Locked Down brought together the power of artists, young people, criminal justice experts, direct service providers, activists, and formerly incarcerated individuals to create a blueprint to reform the justice system in New York City and State. And we ended up convening people who had never been in the same room together, and reigniting the fire in people’s hearts.

This was just the beginning of what we now call a movement family. Later when a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner, we came together like Voltron - responding to the non-indictment by organizing mass mobilizations day after day. We shut down the Westside Highway, staged "die-ins" at major retailers, used our connections with artists to infuse our actions with a cultural impact. We had Common, Nas, Rhapsody and others attend the marches and press conferences and we worked with Jay Z to get t-shirts reading "I Can't Breathe" into the Nets' lock room so players could show their solidarity.

An idea to ignite my generation of movement leaders has become the manifestation of The Gathering for Justice and the rapid response arm of our organization. In 2016, I felt it was important to expand our efforts to my home state of California and we have been organizing around closing Youth Prisons and seeking Justice for Sean, a young latino man killed at the hand of Vallejo Police Department among other campaigns.

Justice League NYC and Justice League CA are The Gathering’s, two state-based task forces and we come together like Voltron to respond rapidly to injustice.

The nation needs us, now, to change the unjust systems that have shackled our youth for generations

How can we collectively build support against racial inequality and bias, specifically with mass incarceration and police misconduct and violence?

There’s a quote by an aboriginal woman named Lila Watson that one of my sisters in the movement Linda Sarsour often shares. She says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

And so understanding that before we can answer these critical questions and provide insight about what needs to happen in order to achieve collective liberation, we have to decide for ourselves what our commitment is to the cause. What does solidarity look like? What are we willing to risk and who are we willing to have difficult conversations with? And lastly, “What type of ancestor do I want to be.” Do I want to be known for standing up against injustice at all cost or standing on the sidelines? And my answer is, I want to be known for fighting against injustice at all cost! Once we answer those questions, then we can collectively build support against racial inequity and bias. Because it will be our personal commitment that drives the outcome. And of course with support, continuous education and entry points to get involved. We will build the beloved community that Dr. King dreamt.

One of the most important things is showing up and making your voice heard. Whether it’s showing up at an action for Black Lives Matter or calling your representatives regarding local budgets to demand that they commit to funding alternatives to incarceration. We can demand the decertification of the police who violate the power and authority entrusted to them, demilitarize the police so there’s oversight to how weapons are put to use, create police-free schools, and ultimately defund the police. To be clear, this does not mean to get rid of police all together. Rather, we know many of the activities police do can actually be done by other professionals, such as mental health specialists, social works, and conflict resolution specialists. It starts with us and together we can commit to a better world for all.

As a Latinx woman, how do you identify with the BLM movement, and stand in solidarity? Further, how can the Latinx community become a part of this conversation?

My experience as a Chicana in America is deeply connected to the Black experience in America. I grew up in Oxnard, California, my parents farmworkers in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and predominantly low-income community. My teachers, coaches and friends were all Black and Brown; we lived in the same neighborhoods, ate at each other's houses, and got disciplined by each other's parents. These innocent years continue to inspire my vision for the world we’re working towards, but as I grew older I became aware of the presence of anti-Blackness throughout our society. And because so many people invested in me, I felt a responsibility to pay it forward and to fight against the injustices that harm our communities. Solidarity is showing up in service of and finding commonality. Even in my work now, the truth is that we have a lot in common: struggles with police brutality, justice system reform, housing disparities, civil liberties, etc. Blacks and Latino/xs make up approximately 32% of the US population, but 56% of all incarcerated people. We can stand in solidarity by recognizing that in this country, historically the systems that are weaponized against Black people have been used against Latinos. Knowing our history creates an opportunity for solidarity. We can confront the internalized racism and anti-Blackness in ourselves and in our families. We can show up in organizing spaces and center the voices of Black people who are directly impacted by the issue at hand and still care about the issues that impact our own communities.

Why protest –– what are the benefits of taking this form of resistance?

Dr. King said, in his letter from a Birmingham jail, the purpose of Direct Action and Civil Disobedience is “to create such a crisis and foster such tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Protest is just one of the tactics in my work’s overall strategy. It gives people an entry point to get connected and be in solidarity with each other’s pain. It provides a different level of visibility versus policy change which allows us to see the number of people who are feeling strongly about an issue.

Protest gives us an opportunity to educate the public on solutions, and allow the people to make their voices heard and demand change. Protests have also given voice to families that have been impacted by a specific issue, and community members that have been organizing on this issue for quite some time. It also allows communities to confront power and hold power accountable.

In 2015, The Gathering for Justice organized the March 2 Justice - a 100 person 250-mile march from Staten Island, NY to Washington, DC in April 2015. We marched to pass three pieces of justice reform legislation to end racial profiling, demilitairzie police forces, and invest in meaningful alternatives to juvenile incarceration and community safety. Two of the bills we marched for were subsequently introduced and one was reauthorized. During our march, not only were we able to raise awareness about why we were marching but raised visibility of victims of police violence across the U.S.

What are some leading actions and campaigns you have helped spearhead?

Over the last 15 years, I have had the honor of being part of and helping spearhead some major actions and campaigns. Some of my most recent work has been organizing protest, incubating the 2017 Women’s March on Washington right in our offices, leading the campaign to Free Meek Mill after he was sentenced to jail time in 2017, which resulted in a judge dismissing the case against Meek in 2019. That same year we led the Free Pedro Campaign on behalf of Pedro Hernandez, a Bronx teenager who was arrested without evidence and spent more than a year behind bars without ever being convicted. He almost lost his opportunity to go to college. Raise the Age was a campaign Justice League was instrumental in - it ended the practice of automatically charging youth as young as 16 as adults and incarcerating them as adults. We produced Kenny Still’s Social Justice Road Trip, provided strategic guidance for Colin Kaepernick and provided trainers and trainings for Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp. Most recently, we organized the March for Stolen Lives & Looted Dreams #TheTakeBack which brought together 35,000 people and presented 5 demands on police reform to Mayor DeBlasio in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Occupying a feminist space:

How did you begin mobilizing for the Women’s March on Washington, what was your position, and what are three takeaways as a co-chair of starting a national movement?

I attribute my extensive experience in organizing, mobilizing and in human and civil rights activism to helping me lead and mobilize the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. As well, being a Chicana Feminist student of Aida Hurtado at UCSC in 2000 where she taught Intersectional Feminism and planted the seed for me wanting to one day show her that I paid attention in class. This moment would provide the opportunity to demonstrate to her that not only did I listen but I was a true student of her teachings and had applied them to my life’s work.

Initially, I received a call along with Tamika Mallory from my board member and friend, Michael Skolnik. Skolnik shared with those on the phone that Tamika and myself could organize marches in our sleep. This led to Tamika and myself meeting with other women and Tamika ensuring that Linda Sarsour was part of the planning as well. We learned shortly after that the white women who initially named the “Women’s March” the Millions Women’s March had received backlash for erasing the work that black women had done 20 years prior in Philadelphia. One of the first calls we made was to Bernice King to get permission to change the name. Immediately after the idea was conceived and the name was solidified and we agreed to lead as National Co-Chairs, we got to work. I was responsible for ensuring that we brought on women who represented diverse backgrounds, identities, and communities as major contributors to the development of the unity principles, mission, vision, partnerships, and more.

As well, we incubated the Women’s March from our Gathering for Justices offices in New York City. 70 national organizers came in and out of our office for 8 weeks working tirelessly to ensure that the Women’s March was a huge success. We worked hard to create a march that was grounded in Kingian Nonviolence and Intersectional Feminism. And create entry points for new activists and a place for marchers of all backgrounds and gender identities to come together to affirm our rights as women. The March became the beginning of a cultural movement in which progressives rallied together to build the political movement that elected a record 102 women to the House of Representatives in 2018, and just as important talented women from the most marginalized communities started to get their share of the spotlight.

Being one of the National Co-Chairs and co-founders has been a great honor. There are so many take aways but if I had to narrow it to three, I would say: 

1. The sisterhood that was created with all of the organizers who worked out of my office and with the folks who were on my team like Paola Mendoza, Tony Choi, Sarah Sophie Flicker and more was one of the best organizing experiences I have had outside of organizing with my Justice League NYC family. We shared lots of stressful planning moments but also many moments of joy. And I will cherish those memories as long as I live.

2. When you organize with women, keep your “Eyes on the Prize”, and are grounded in something bigger than yourself, you can accomplish anything. This huge undertaking was possible by all the people who woke up every morning knowing that this moment was bigger than them and their political persuasion.  

3. It was something that Bernice King shared with us when we spoke with her. She talked about the role her mother, Coretta Scott King played in the original March on Washington. Organizing over 700 partners in a year span. As the person who led partnerships, I immediately wanted to achieve that goal although we only had 8 weeks to organize the Women’s March on Washington but it was a quote by her mother that struck us all and became my mantra every morning. Her mother’s words were, “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.” Those words still resonate with me and guide my work daily.  


What keeps you going and drives you?

If you asked me this question 25 to 15 years ago, I would have said that my sister who was killed and my nieces and nephews who at the time were babies were what kept me going and were my drive. The answer to that question is very different since they’re all grown up and have become successful. I now feel that the next generation of leaders keep me going. People like Luis Hernandez, Keris Love, Brea Baker, Jasmine Dellafosse, Kris Arroyo, Cynthia Gutierrez, Brooke Baker, Nia Adams and so many others. And what drives me are my two children and my husband. My husband is someone living with a felony conviction and because of the mistake he made 17 years ago at the age of 18, he can never coach our son’s little league baseball team, he can never ride on the bus with our son for a school field trip nor can we ever adopt a child. My passion lies in not only ensuring that my husband one day can have his full rights back but that my children don’t ever have to face the type of injustice that we see online every single day because they are black and brown. I will continue to wake up fighting for families impacted by incarceration and police and state violence and I will do everything in my power to create the beloved community that Dr. King talked about. Not only for my children but for future generations.

What is next?

I am the cofounder of a new nonprofit initiative called She Se Puede. She Se Puede is a cultural movement created by Latinas for Latinas to drive a lifestyle of empowerment. We are a collective force working to educate, inspire, organize, and activate Latinas across the United States on the issues impacting our lives so we can lead our communities and country forward. We engage Latinas by creating unique, sharable multi-platform content and events across all areas of lifestyle, including health, parenting, food, fashion, culture, news, and civic engagement. As we get closer to this election. I’m dedicating some time to ensure that Latinas show up and VOTE and Latinos are engaged and informed on important criminal justice propositions in CA that impact our community.
And in the midst of all of this, I will be taking some time to rest, heal and spending time with my newborn 2 week old son, Damacio Amare, and my 2 year old son, Jerron Marcelo.
As I take some time with my family and focus on some of my passions, the fight for justice continues.

Our organization will continue to fight for justice for Sean Monterrosa, a young man attending a protest in support of George Floyd who was killed at the hands of Vallejo police, a police department with a long history of abuse of power. In fact, the city of Vallejo just enacted a state of emergency to address these issues. We’re also working to support Alvin Cole’s family, a 17 year old in Milwaukee who was killed at the hands of a police officer who has had two other fatal shootings but is still on the force.

Ultimately, I am a person who is committed to liberation and the movement. This isn’t a job for me but a lifestyle. I will always fight for marginalized communities and whether I’m supposed to be on maternity leave or not, I will make sure that I show up, raise my voice and take time to guide and mentor the next generation of leaders.


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