Amid calls for resistance to free market policies in Latin America, and dreams of a socialist revolution, Nekima Levy-Pounds described her research into the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery.
“The 13th amendment took one form of slavery and replaced it with another – incarceration,” she told an audience of about 100 on March 1 at a conference in North Minneapolis on the African Diaspora in the Americas.
Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, went on to outline how states profited from prisoners as they had profited slave labor even 100 years after slavery was forbidden.
By bringing together Afro-Venezuelan organizers, Colombian exiles, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and African American activists, the conference strove to establish a common sense of purpose for the disparate groups of African-descended peoples in the United States and Latin America. Sponsors included La Raza Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, the Embassy of Venezuela, the Macalester College Program Board, the Haiti Justice Committee, the Minnesota Cuba Committee, the Minnesota-Venezuela Solidarity Committee, and the Hands Off Venezuela Committee.
Levy-Pounds, who is African American, grew up in the Deep South, and then lived in South Central Los Angeles where single mothers raised families on less than $15,000 a year. She saw gangs, and poverty first hand. She’s written about how race and economic inequality intersect but, unlike some of presenters, she doesn’t see race as the most important issue.
“The link I see is poverty,” she said.
That’s why Levy-Pounds is passionate about changing policy that keeps poor people down. She’s adamant that poverty needs careful attention from those in power – which puts her in good stead with the other activists and intellectuals at the conference. But sometimes, Levy-Pounds says, she feels out of place at conferences like this one when presenters push a Pan-African view that emphasizes unity and glosses over differences in culture and religion.
“My Christian faith is the reason I do this work,” Levy-Pounds says.
And she doesn’t fit in with the jeans-and-boots-wearing socialist activists in the room either. Levy-Pounds works with city prosecutors and elected officials. She dresses like a lawyer wearing a subtle pearl necklace, a black skirt, and button up blue blouse. (Before Levy-Pounds spoke, an activist had questioned the keynote speaker Jesus Garcia about when the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela would start to turn over the means of production to workers as the Cuban Revolution had few years after Castro came to power. )
In 2006, the Community Justice Project, which Levy-Pounds directs, and the St. Paul branch of the NAACP met with the St. Paul city attorney and asked him to look into how the charge of Obstruction of Legal Process was routinely prosecuted improperly. Police were arresting bystanders for just asking why their friend was getting arrested. Then city prosecutors were backing the police up, charging the onlooker with Obstruction of Legal Process.
“Officers were abusing their discretion,” she said. The practice did not comply with the statutes. In November, the city attorney cut the percentage of arrestees charged in half, and began talking with police about the matter.
This was important, Levy-Pounds said, because an arrest record can keep landlords from renting to you, and employers from hiring you.
Her motivation is simple: “I believe in treating people like they are worth something.”
In the audience activists said this message resonated with them. Colombian exile Gerardo Cajamarca said he saw similarities between oppression that union workers face in Colombia, and that faced by African-descended people in the Americas. Cajamarca had to flee Colombia due to his union involvement. Paramilitaries had threatened his family, and three years ago, when several of his friends were murdered, Cajamarca got out. He eventually received political asylum in the U.S.
“Thousands of unionists are persecuted or killed because they live in indignity,” said Cajamarca, who currently heads the human rights office of the United Steel Workers in Minneapolis. More than 2,000 union members have been killed in Colombia since 1991, according to the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, a Colombian labor umbrella group.
Cajamarca has light skin and straight dark hair, but he said most Colombians have some African ancestry.
Cajamarca said U.S. activists can learn something from South Americans. “Latin Americans can share the value of dignity, and our fight to be able to express ourselves,” he said. “That is the right to have a minimum of guarantees like the right to study, to get healthcare, and to be free to express oneself.”
Another conference attendee, Terrell Webb, is involved in La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota and volunteers with the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network. Webb, who is African American and Latino, said many African Americans see their struggles without any larger context. “It’s important to put it into [African American’s] minds that they are not the only people,” he said.
Venezuela has taken some important steps towards addressing poverty, Webb said. One step is a project to subsidize factories to process cocoa, the raw ingredient for chocolate.
Martin Sanchez, Consul General of Venezuela traveled from Chicago to attend the conference. He explained that by manufacturing raw cocoa in the place where it’s produced, which happens to be an Afro-Venezuelan area, the government can create wealth for average people. One of the processing plants is located in Barlovento, a Venezuelan region where Sanchez’s grandmother grew up. He hopes that by coming to Minnesota, he can make connections with people here who would buy chocolate directly from Barlovento.
“We want to build avenues of solidarity between groups here and Venezuela,” Sanchez said.
Solidarity travels from the developing world to the United States as well. Venezuela’s state-owned Citgo oil company has offered discounted fuel oil to poor Americans. Sanchez said Citgo has donated fuel oil to Native American reservations in the Midwest as a form of solidarity.
Unionist Gerardo Calamarca knows about solidarity. He arrived in this country with the help of a Madison, Wisconsin-based human rights group. “This solidarity of the United Steel Workers, that’s how I got my job,” he says.
Civil rights lawyer Levy-Pounds doesn’t talk about solidarity but her passion to change systems that penalize the poor sounds like solidarity. “I grew up in poverty so I can empathize with the people it hurts,” she said. “I have a heart for men who were incarcerated as little boys.”
Joel Grostephan is a reporter based in St. Paul. His work is regularly aired on KFAI Radio and in The Environment Report (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan). He’s always looking for a good story about class, race or poverty. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.