During Passover it’s our obligation to think about all the people who are in chains who should be free — whether they are Jewish or not. Today, as I sit at my desk longing to munch on anything but another matzo sandwich (how oppressed my taste buds are!), I’m thinking not just about frightening instances of anti-Semitism at home and abroad, but also about two innocent women who are unfairly caught up in America’s frightening, ballooning criminal justice system. I would like to see more Jewish groups, energized by the Passover message, engage with our terrifying “prison-industrial complex,” particularly the way that system targets marginalized groups.
One of these women is Cecily McMillan, a young pacifist protester involved in NYC’s Occupy movement, a grassroots encampment and protest movement which I covered for months. McMillan claims (credibly) that she was grabbed aggressively in the breast during an Occupy protest — when she was just dropping in to say hi to friends at Zuccotti Park. She says she reacted reflexively and elbowed her assailant from behind, not knowing he was a police officer. She now faces a disproportionately large prison sentence for assaulting an officer of the law — when she was the one assaulted. Women in protest movements are often in a disadvantaged position. They face sexism and sexual assault from their own comrades, and are often the target of gendered police violence. McMillan was hardly the first woman in the movement to complain about being groped during an arrest or detainment — it was a common cry during Occupy that female protesters were singled out, assaulted and humiliated. Her trial is, as Michelle Goldberg wrote a “grotesque act of prosecutorial overreach.” Let’s free Cecily.
The other woman is a transgender social work student, Monica Jones, who was arrested for “manifestation of prostitution” which is a dubious charge at best. Unfortunately, sweeping anti-prostitution laws often allow the police to profile and disproportionately arrest transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, for no good reason. Furthermore, as this important piece by Laura Campagna in Truth Out notes, in Arizona, profiling is the norm:
The officer admitted that he spotted Monica from his car and targeted her. He did not have to say it was for the way she looked: there could be no other explanation. Monica Jones was profiled for looking like a sex worker in a state where law enforcement has been granted the power to determine who people are based on their appearance. And the court reaffirmed that perception.
Standing against profiling means standing with Monica.
We speak of freeing ourselves from “narrow places” on Pesach, of unshackling and liberation. That’s why it’s disturbing that law enforcement can put people in chains in our names, with our tax dollars. This is the year for the Jewish community to stand up against overzealous and discriminatory applications of the law — and while we’re at it, prison and justice reform should be high on our agenda.