Maria Chappelle-Nadal. (Photo: Jamelle Bouie/Flickr)

4 Politicians Fighting for Fairness in America’s Justice System

In the legislature and on the streets, these politicians are fighting against police brutality and prison abuses.
Sep 4, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

The 2014 midterm elections are fast approaching, and state and local campaigns are under way across the country. Though most politicians seem more concerned about fund-raising and polling numbers than about police brutality, some have responded to stories and personal experiences of law enforcement abuse with targeted outrage and strong calls for better policies. It's the sort of inspired and motivated lawmaking that has a shot at changing the status quo.

Politicians who are able see the world through the eyes of the people are uncommon but not unheard of. Accounts like the ones below remind us how unusual it is for elected officials to be out in the streets advocating for vulnerable or oppressed constituents.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal Makes Waves in Ferguson, Mo.

In Ferguson, during the aftermath of the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal has been everywhere: haranguing Police Chief Thomas Jackson, doing the Ice Bucket Challenge while holding a sign reading "STL JOBS FOR OUR YOUTH IN FERGUSON NOW," carrying a cutout picture of Gov. Jay Nixon (which she's aptly nicknamed "Flat Jay"), and posing for pictures sporting her trademark big sunglasses and bright smile.

Chappelle-Nadal wasn't smiling in August when she was teargassed by police during protests over Brown's death.

During a press conference held by Jackson after the incident, Chappelle-Nadal said to him, "If I was going to be gassed again like I was on Monday night—and I was peaceful.” She also gave voice to widespread outrage over Nixon's tardy response, tweeting, "You don't know sh-- bc you never communicate. F--K you, Governor!"

Chappelle-Nadal isn't just on the front lines facing off with police and government. She's also working to get out the vote. Though she's running unopposed in November, she wants to "help people of color learn about issues" and mobilize her community to push for better protections, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

NYC Council Member Fights Back Against Stop-and-Frisk

The militarization of local police is a serious problem across the country. Coupled with the increase in heavy weaponry is the abusive practice of stop-and-frisk policing, which overwhelmingly targets young black and Latino men.

During Brooklyn's Caribbean Day Parade in 2011, New York City council member Jumaane Williams was trying to reach an event at the Brooklyn Museum. Police had blocked off the sidewalk, and when Williams walked past he was handcuffed and detained until NYPD officers confirmed his identity.

Williams has been one of the most vocal critics of stop-and-frisk, and his position on the issue comes from experience. In 2012, during an Occupy Wall Street anniversary protest, he said two officers pushed him "while he tried to explain his purpose at the park," according to a statement. In a photograph of the incident, an officer appears to be shoving Williams with a baton.

When protests erupted in Flatbush, Brooklyn, after 16-year-old Kimani Gray was killed by police, Williams was among the crowd.

"Dr. Martin Luther King said riots are the language of the unheard," Williams said. "This is not about one shooting. It's about the way people live in these communities day after day."

Williams, who was often seen in the courtroom while New York City's stop-and-frisk policies were on trial, coauthored a bill to create an independent inspector general for the NYPD. The City Council passed the legislation last August, and a new inspector general was appointed earlier this year.

State Senator Puts an End to Sterilizations in California Prisons

Last year diligent coverage by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that tubal ligations in California prisons had been done without proper consent or a legally mandated waiting period.

When California state Sen. Ted Lieu heard about these coercive sterilizations, "it made me sick to my stomach," he told CIR. He requested that the Medical Board of California investigate the program.

Not content to simply complain in public about the abusive practices, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach, and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, called for an audit of the program. The audit confirmed CIR's findings. There were rules governing sterilizations in California prisons, but doctors weren’t following them.

Jackson responded by introducing a bill to end the practice of sterilization in California prisons except in the case of life-threatening emergencies.

"It's clear that the law wasn't strong enough, and as a result, we need to make sure that the unconscionable act of forced or coerced sterilizations never occur in our prisons again," Jackson said in a statement. "Pressuring a vulnerable population into making permanent reproductive choices without informed consent violates our most basic human rights."

Both legislatures passed the bill this summer and Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to approve the law.

Washington Senator Fights to Make Sure Internment Never Happens Again

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that would consign 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII, Washington state Sen. Bob Hasegawa’s parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were sent to live in a camp in southern Idaho. They stayed there for three years.

"While they were constructing the camp, my family lived in horse stalls in the stables at the Puyallup Fairgrounds," Hasegawa told The Daily Caller last year. "They were all U.S. citizens."

Hasegawa was the first person in his family born after internment, and though family members rarely spoke about their time in the camps, it haunted him.

After Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2011, it became legal to detain U.S. citizens in the interest of national security indefinitely and without probable cause. Inspired by the memory of his family's struggle, Hasegawa proposed the Washington State Preservation of Liberty Act in 2013. The state law would make it illegal to detain U.S. citizens and resident aliens without due process.

While the law seems largely symbolic, Hasegawa is keeping the conversation about indefinite detention alive. He reintroduced the bill early this year.