While Bruce Knotts was a student at Pepperdine University in the late 1960s, a family friend and former police officer working at the school as a security guard shot and killed an unarmed black man near a women’s dormitory.
“His crime was walking while black,” said Knotts, 65, the executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s United Nations Office.
“…That white, Irish former police officer and the family settled out of court, and at the time I wished that would be the last time I experienced something like that,” he said. “Unfortunately, that has not been the case.”
Knotts was a panelist Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset for an assembly commemorating the 66th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The panel took place following a screening of the 2012 documentary “Broken on All Sides,” which uses the Philadelphia prison system as a lens to explore an alleged culture of racial discrimination within the United States’ criminal justice system.
But the event took on added significance for participants and members of the congregation’s social justice program in wake of recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island to not indict white police officers accused of criminality in causing the deaths of unarmed black men, sparking protests across the country.
“When we began planning this program six months ago, we could not know that our nation would face an issue not unrelated – the deaths of unarmed black men by law enforcement officers,” said Claire Deroche, the congregation’s social justice coordinator.
Those interviewed for the 68-minute film – including activists, academics, legal experts and formerly imprisoned U.S. citizens – formed a central thesis that skyrocketing incarceration rates in the last 40 years have been due to a criminal justice system conditioned to repeatedly target and harshly punish predominantly non-violent offenders in low-income neighborhoods, notably black and Latino men. One in 15 black men and one in 36 Latino men in the United States are imprisoned, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center report cited in the film.
The United States makes up approximately five percent of the global population but imprisons 2.3 million people, the most in the world, according to the United Kingdom-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
The film notes that Philadelphia prisons have become overcrowded with people accused of petty drug crimes – not convicted criminals – who often await judicial hearings behind bars because they cannot afford bail.
Despite a slight decrease in property crimes since the 1950s, and a slight increase in violent crime over that same span, the U.S. incarceration rate has spiked nearly 600 percent in the last 40 years due largely to law enforcement priorities placed on the War on Drugs, according to the film.
Convicted felons often face even greater hardship once they are released from incarceration, according to the film, due to a lack of education and reform programs in prison as well as a legal stigma requiring them to disclose their criminal history, which harms their ability to gain employment or housing.
“A lot of the institutions that we supposedly left behind with the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again,” Michelle Alexander, an associate professor at Ohio State University and senior fellow at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, says in the film.
It has been this system, according to the film and later reiterated by the panel, that has led to a “racial caste” by which police brutality and repeated incarceration has become the norm for minorities, but often not their white contemporaries.
“We don’t punish white-collar crime, which robs people of more value than any black teenager,” Knotts said. “We punish people we don’t like. We punish the black teenager, not the corporate executive who steals millions from our pension fund.”
He also said the rise of for-profit prisons and the prison-industrial complex has led to a decrease in resources utilized for education, mental health and substance abuse treatment and job training.
“Locking people up does seem to have some utility. It does take some criminals off the street,” Knotts said. “However, when those people are released from prison, they’re often worse off than when they went in.”
Linda Mahabir, a panelist who interns with the Broken on All Sides project, a grassroots activism effort created following the film’s release, said the film allowed her to see “the human side of this issue.”
“People can read the statistics, but you can still be disconnected from the issue,” she said. “What we found in the making of the film was that most of the people caught within the system are not the people you see on ‘Cops.’ They’re good people, they’re good friends and neighbors who often struggle to make end’s meet.”
Matthew Pillischer, the film’s director, editor and primary producer, was slated to appear at the congregation for a discussion about the film but was unable to attend because he was set to receive a humanitarian award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Also scheduled to participate on the panel was Five Mualimm-ak, the director of the non-profit Incarcerated Nation Campaign, who declined due to a family emergency.
Mualimm-ak, who took part in a panel at the congregation in March about mass incarceration and solitary confinement rates, was imprisoned for 12 years for drug trafficking and illegal weapons possession that was later overturned after new evidence came to light suggesting he was set up by police.
The congregation’s social justice program earlier this year lobbied in Albany for the passage of the state HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would end the practice in New York.
Deroche and a band of supporters in June protested Nassau County’s incarceration practices outside the county correctional facility in East Meadow.
Human Rights Day is officially observed on Dec. 10. Sunday’s assembly coincided with the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i.
The event began with a performance by the congregation’s women’s choir, Willow, capped by its rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”