Louisiana is no longer the world capitol of mass incarceration, but the state only missed that dubious honor by a hair’s breadth.
The state recently fell to second-place among the most-incarcerated places on Earth on the back of recent reforms to the criminal justice system that thousands of people fought tirelessly to enact. And being second-worst is nobody’s end game. So, the fight to fix Louisiana and the way it locks up so many of its citizens rages on.
There are many different ways that people are pushing to reform Louisiana’s broken system, reaching out to legislators and laymen alike with actions and happenings from the statehouse to the playhouse. Black August: A Call To Action is an example of the latter, hoping to keep the conversation around criminal justice reform going in the community through a day of performing arts.
The event is being put on on Saturday, September 8, by No Dream Deferred. That this year-old theater company would be the one to host a day calling for the end of mass incarceration makes a certain sort of sense. It was founded with fighting injustice baked into its very bones.
“The theater community [of New Orleans] is very much segregated and the majority of theater leadership being white,” explained No Dream Deferred Artistic Director Lauren E. Turner in a recent chat with Very Local. “We thought in a city that is majority people of color there should be at least one theater company that looks like the people who live here and programmed in a way that prioritizes [them].”
With a big vote on criminal justice reform fast approaching, broaching the subject in a day of performance and discussions couldn’t be more timely. A ballot initiative to end non-unanimous jury verdicts is on the ballot November 6. Louisiana is one of two states to allow juries to convict with verdicts that aren’t unanimous and — as was pointed out in a recent editorial in The Washington Post by singer John Legend — the decision to allow that has a fairly strong connection to the state’s overtly racist past. Non-unanimous juries allowed juries that were already heavily steered away from being representations of the state’s population to disregard the opinions of any outliers.
Ahead of the vote to possibly end this practice, organizers stressed the importance of making sure that the citizens of Louisiana understand the power that they have.
The only way we’re going to get [non-unanimous juries] to be changed is by having it passed,” said Vera Institute of Justice Director Will Snowden in a phone interview earlier this week. “This issue has been litigated numerous times in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court. It’s also been brought before the United States Supreme Court. It has been unsuccessful. Having the citizens of Louisiana [make it happen] is an awesome way to bring about this change.”
No Dream Deferred hopes to connect with people who might be on the fence about working to fix the problems that lead to mass incarceration and help sway them with plays and readings about the effects of mass incarceration, some of which have been written by former inmates.
“Art and performing art has a profound effect on the hearts of people who are in the audience,” said Turner. “Everyone has a stance in their head on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, so there’s really a change in the heart that needs to take place.”
Black August: A Call To Action takes place September 8 at Arts Estuary from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. The organizers are asking for a suggested donation of $10. Learn more here.