A crowd of New Haven residents and art lovers applauded as The Masked Maniac, a New Haven cultural icon, recited a poem describing the experience of being black in America on Saturday.
The recitation was part of “Arresting Patterns,” an exhibit addressing patterns of racial disparity in the American criminal justice system that culminated this weekend in a two-day conference at the Yale University Art Gallery. The conference drew an audience of roughly 600, including recently acquitted Bobby Johnson, a New Haven resident who was released from prison earlier this month after spending nine years in jail for a murder he did not commit. The conference featured a mix of community activists, academics and artists including the lead artist of “Arresting Patterns,” Titus Kaphar ART ’06.
“I think that the art and the activism have to go together,” Kaphar said. “I’m happy to see that now with Black Lives Matter and a lot of other campaigns, there is art and activism happening hand-in-hand.”
The conference included five panels, a keynote address by poet Clint Smith, a community forum and several breakout sessions.
Topics covered ranged from how race plays into parenting, to reducing incarceration rates in the United States, to current political movements regarding race and incarceration.
“We’ve had enough of being devalued, of being invisible, of being assaulted, and just totally ignored,” local community activist Barbara Fair said during a panel discussion.
Also addressed were the causes of criminal activity and the school-to-prison pipeline, when children who are disruptive in school are forced into the juvenile justice system. State Sen. Gary Winfield noted that economic inequality and limited opportunities for success hinder people from making good choices.
Kyisha Velazquez, a community activist, explained that she was once a troubled youth because of the circumstance and environment in which she was raised. She now works with New Haven Family Alliance, an organization that helps divert youth in the community from the juvenile justice system.
“I feel that with the right people by their sides encouraging them and giving them access to resources, some [youth] can really turn their lives around,” Velazquez said.
The impact of racial discrimination and the criminal justice system on families was a theme that speakers returned to throughout the conference. Several panelists discussed their families’ experiences with the criminal justice system and agreed that sharing information is key to changing the status quo.
Giselle Jacobs, an advocate and one of the panelists, noted that sharing stories about their encounters with the criminal justice system can help others avoid making bad choices.
Though several speakers championed the importance of sharing stories, other panel members noted that while sharing stories may be helpful, only direct action can lead to change.
“We all know that I can give you statistics all day long,” said panelist Glenn Martin, the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, referring to statistics on incarceration rates and money spent on prisons. “But most people, most Americans, no matter who they are, will sort of sit back in their seat and say, ‘Wow,’ and a week later won’t remember those statistics because in the end we make decisions with our gut.”