The Role of Policy in SURJ’s Racial Justice Work

Quest For Democracy Day attendees including SURJ Bay Area members in front of the Capitol Building in Sacramento.

In the wake of the brutal police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, dozens of POC-led organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the United States came together in a year-long process to develop and articulate a bold, visionary policy platform and agenda: the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Policy Platform, also known as A Vision for Black Lives. Centered on six core demands — End the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest-Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control, Political Power — the platform is grounded in the central and systemic issues of our time — police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial and gender inequities — and lays out policy prescriptions as a vital means to challenge them. In their own words:

“We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision. We have come together now because we believe it is time to forge a new covenant. We are dreamers and doers and this platform is meant to articulate some of our vision.”

Shortly after the release of this visionary document, members of SURJ Bay Area began conversations with our POC-led partner organizations that work on legislative advocacy in California to see if there was a role for us to support their efforts and this broader platform. Since then, the SURJ Bay Area Policy Working Group has worked in service to, and in collaboration with, these partner organizations, many of whom have been at the forefront of this work for years, including: Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children / All of Us or None, Essie Justice Group, and Initiate Justice. We are proud to work under the visions, strategies, and leadership of these remarkable organizations.

So…What does the policy working group do?

We believe that the solutions for repairing harm and restoring rights should come from the communities most impacted. As white people who have largely been shielded from the devastating impacts of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, we are committed to leveraging this privilege towards mobilizing white people to support this vital advocacy with urgency, action, and resources.

To engage effectively at the legislative level, we needed to build our legislative capacity and understanding of how the policy process works. We have prioritized building this capacity through workshops, trainings, and on-the-ground experience in Sacramento. We have learned to write bill analyses and letters of support, and how to track legislation through the system. We have deepened our understanding of the criminal justice priorities identified by our partners, including bail reform, the reduction of sentence enhancements, and the restoration of rights for current and formerly incarcerated persons.

We learn, listen, and participate in coalitions led by our POC partners and prioritize our advocacy agenda based on this collaboration. We advise our chapter on legislation based on these priorities and then work to organize and activate our membership to advocate on these bills.

This activation can take many forms. At a minimum, we track these bills through the legislative cycle, submit letters of support or opposition from SURJ Bay Area to various committees, and target legislators throughout the year. Beyond sending letters, we have also organized in-district visits to legislators; organized trips to Sacramento for key hearings; sent action alerts calling on our membership to send their own letters/make calls to their elected representatives; participated in partner-led advocacy days like Quest for Democracy Day; and given workshops to SURJ members on how to effectively lobby, especially as a white person showing up in support of our partners.

How do you choose what bills to support & what are you currently taking action on?

At the start of each legislative cycle, the policy working group sets up conversations with our partners to hear about their legislative priorities for the year and discuss how we might be able to support these efforts. Often, our partners are supporting a significant number of bills and as a volunteer-based group our capacity is limited, so we created three criteria to help decide which legislation SURJ Bay Area will focus on:

  • How does the legislation fit within the Movement 4 Black Lives Policy Platform?
  • How does the legislation fit within SURJ Bay Area’s three primary issue areas (police terror; mass incarceration / prison industrial complex; gentrification / displacement)?
  • How many of our partner organizations are supporting this legislation and was there a specific ask for support?

In 2017, we took a position on 11 bills, with specific focus on SB 10 (Bail Reform), AB 1008 (Ban the Box), SB 310 (Name & Dignity Act), and SB 180 (The RISE Act).

We’re still finalizing our list of legislation for 2018, but some of the bills we are supporting this year include:

  • SB 1392: To repeal unjust one-year sentence enhancements for prior felony convictions.
  • SB 1393: To restore judicial discretion for five-year sentence enhancements for prior serious felony conviction.
  • SB 1437: To abolish the felony murder rule for accomplices.
  • SB 1421: To increase transparency around police misconduct.

How can I get involved?

We’re always looking for more folks to help us with this work. If you’re interested in getting involved, we encourage you to check out a SURJ Intro Meeting and then reach out to us at policy@surjbayarea.org.

As Taina Vargas-Edmond co-founder and Executive Director of Initiate Justice discussed on a recent podcast, California has a reputation for being liberal and progressive in many areas — but not when it comes to mass incarceration. We believe that it is critical for white folks to support legislation being advanced by our POC-led partners — especially those with direct experiences of incarceration — and fight to abolish our racist systems of mass incarceration. We hope you’ll join us.