Vernon Park event promotes civic awareness in the formerly-incarcerated

The BLOC Party, an emerging political organization in Philadelphia promoting neighborhood solidarity around the issue of mass incarceration, hosted a rally in Germantown’s Vernon Park on Saturday afternoon.

Sponsored by The Center for Returning Citizens, the BLOC Party event started at 1 p.m. Local organizations, including The Green Party of Pennsylvania, the City Commissioners Office, and the Coalition Against Mass Incarceration, set up booths throughout the park to provide potential voters with information. Event volunteers made themselves available with voter registration forms.

Speakers at the rally included Mikail Holmes, Program Development Coordinator for The Center for Returning Citizens and co-founder of The BLOC Party; Marietta Tanner, representing the Coalition Against Mass Incarceration (CAMI) and the Take Five voting initiative; Stephanie Singer, Chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, returning citizen Third Eye; and J. Jondhi Harrell, Executive Director of The Center for Returning Citizens and co-founder of The BLOC Party.

Entertainment was provided by Philadelphia-based artists Ox, City Soul, Jay Mills, and Washington, DC artist Stephen Redhead. Philadelphia’s Gilly da Kid dropped by for an impromptu performance in order to show his support. YahNé Ndgo Baker, Chief Visionary Officer of the Deep Blue Womyn Company, hosted the rally and coordinated the day’s events.

The Center for Returning Citizens was founded to “to assist citizens returning from prison, both male and female, in their transition to freedom,” including “assisting persons who are ready for a life change to find employment, access to necessary services and safe, affordable housing.”

Jondhi Harrell, the center’s executive director, explained that “it is vitally important that a transitioning person not become discouraged and feel as if the process has become too hard.”

To that end the center promotes a group-centered approach, providing returning citizens with “the necessary resources and a social network to rely on.” This often involves everything from donating proper attire for a job interview to providing instruction in creating a resume, and might also include mentoring and counseling.

TCRC also advocates for returning citizens to become active and engaged members of their communities. “Use returning citizens as mentors in the community,” said Harrell. “Train them to be mentors and mediators. Provide them with conflict resolution skills. Give them respectable jobs. This will contribute immeasurably to the reduction of crime in the city.”

The BLOC Party

According to Harrell, “The BLOC Party is part of a long-term strategic plan. It is a small beginning, but it is necessary. We want to hold politicians accountable for what they say and elect representatives who truly desire to advocate for the good of the community. We are tired of hoping for the best when the best never comes.”

The BLOC Party plans to hold events like the one at Vernon Park all over Philadelphia in advance of November’s election.

Mikail Holmes explained, “We are attempting to empower the people. We lose our communities without political power. You have to be at the table if you want to make things happen. Change is going to come from us. If we are in there with the politicians then they will know we hear what they are saying. The BLOC Party is one step in the process of our community getting back at that table.”

Mass incarceration

“The United States is the greatest incarcerator in the history of the world. Today 1 in 100 adults in the US is behind bars. The US constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but contains fully 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”

These sobering statistics were provided by Matthew Pillischer, a Philadelphia attorney and the director of “Broken on All Sides,” “a documentary about mass incarceration. 

Pillischer continued, “We are here today to address the right of returning citizens to vote. We use the term returning citizens because it seems that every aspect of citizenship is stripped from a person once a person has a serious criminal record.”

Marietta Tanner, a member of the Unitarian Society of Germantown, was moved by the grim prospects facing returning citizens to start organizing in Philadelphia around the issue of mass incarceration.

Through the Coalition Against Mass Incarceration she is helping to organize the Take 5 initiative, which encourages people to vote and reach out to five others to vote and reach out to five others to do the same.

She said, “I once was a Rockefeller Democrat, but I watched as my community crumbled around me, as so many in the black community suffered under those draconian sentencing laws.”

“There are people in the community that don’t want to know about returning citizens. But the formerly incarcerated are not people to be thrown away and forgotten. These are people that have paid their dues. So many black families are impacted by mass incarceration. We have a right and a responsibility to help them as their loved ones return to society.”

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