by Vincent Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we have many reminders that the arc of the moral universe is very long indeed. There are many prominent signs that racial disparities persist. And yet it has been heartening to see recent events that promise real progress on issues surrounding our justice system — especially as it impacts young men of color.
While the Trayvon Martin ruling was a sad denial of justice and a reminder of the work that remains in our society (read my article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy), in the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two important and significant changes to business as usual. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote a sharp rebuke of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy and called the practice unconstitutional and indirect racial profiling. This hard-fought battle against a powerful police force is a major victory for civil and human rights, as well as judicial reform in the US. And within days of Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder announced sweeping new policies to address America’s prison epidemic, especially for drug-related offenses. Holder’s speech called for easing mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, as well as more treatment programs to curb our nation’s troubling eagerness to lock people away — especially people of color — for decades regardless of their threat to society.
And while these decisions make an immediate impact for millions of people across the country and will hopefully usher in a new age of judicial reforms, media projects have been shining a bright light on race, injustice and the disaster of “tough on crime” drug sentencing guidelines for decades.
Earlier this year Media Impact Funders hosted a conversation between Snitch director Ric Roman Waugh and The House I Live In director Eugene Jarecki to explore how an big budget action movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a moving documentary about mandatory minimums in drug sentencing are shifting the conversation in both entertainment and documentary arenas.
The story of the Central Park Five is one scarring New York history; a case of injustice for five teenagers of color who were wrongly convicted of raping a Central Park jogger and tricked into confessing by the police. This tragic story showcases many issues addressed by philanthropy for decades, including race, class, policy and juvenile justice. Convened at The Atlantic Philanthropies, and viewed by more than 400 people via livestream on FORA.tv, the dialogue featured filmmakers Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Raymond Santana, a victim from the case; Annmarie Benedict, Program Executive at The Atlantic Philanthropies; and discussion leader Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!
In addition to films like The Central Park Five, Snitch and The House I Live In, there are many compelling media explorations of race and injustice — from documentary films like Slavery By Another Name and The Interrupters to the Harper High radio series on This American Life and major feature films like the newly released Fruitvale Station to humorous companion campaigns like Lock It Down America!
Media projects like these (and there are many others) help keep issues in the public spotlight and spur activism, policy initiatives and journalistic scrutiny. They are essential components of our democratic process and civic discourse, especially when they help expose wrong and clarify the better path forward.