“I felt human again!” Know Your Rights programming reduces violence

In my four years as an anti-violence outreach counselor working with high risk youth and young adults I learned one major obstacle to behavior modification: that they felt totally helpless when it came to abusive law enforcement. Their frustration often led to aggressive behavior. This behavior was not modified because there was no catharsis: these individuals did not know their rights when it came to law enforcement and had no knowledge on properly asserting their rights. Rather than ignore this problem I chose to take it head on.

As a First Defense Legal Aid Know Your Rights Organizer, my target group comes from poor black communities where contact with law enforcement is highly likely. These individuals tell of being mistreated by the police, and know many others like them who have been mistreated by law enforcement.  Their anger and frustration is often misplaced and taken out on other members of their communities. Rather than give proven studies to support my contention that “knowing your rights and asserting them” reduces aggressive behavior I would like to point to my personal story.

I entered the prison system at the age of 17. While in prison I thought violence and retaliation was the normal way to handle problems. This lead to many altercations with prison staff and other inmates. I attended school while incarcerated working towards my B.G.S. degree believing that I was reforming through academics. Still, my anger and frustration with prison guards and other inmates fueled negative events. The prison staff fueled my rage because most of them had no respect for the inmates and treated the inmates like trash. I felt totally helpless when it came to prison staff. So my mindset, like many other inmates, was that when staff does wrong combat it with aggression. My aggression led me to the segregation unit many times. On one of my trips to the segregation unit I met a group of older inmates and I overheard them talking about grievances, lawsuits, and prisoner rights issues.

Here I was studying to get a four year degree in prison and I never realized prisoners had rights and a way to enforce them. I began to study prisoners’ rights issues and eventually started filling grievances, letter of complaints, and eventually lawsuits on prisoners’ rights issues. Suddenly the prison staff began to call me Mr. Jones instead of inmate. When I asked for something I was able to receive it as long as it was allowed. I felt human again! Knowing I had rights changed how others treated me and how I viewed myself. As time progressed I started helping other inmates and my entire thought process was reformed.

I discovered that knowing your rights, accessing your rights,  and understanding what you can do to ensure your rights are respected is a major factor in behavior modification. As an outreach counselor I teach young people about the law, their rights, accessing their rights and what can be done when they feel their rights have been violated. My workshops are directed toward a high risk population. That population includes those people who are more likely to come in contact with the police.

Long term, I know that these high risk individuals will change their perspectives on violence. I am teaching my participants that violence is an uncivilized way of dealing with conflict. I am teaching them that every right we have as a citizens came not from acting out on each other but through legal process.

If you know any one that is interested in attending my Know Your Rights sessions please contact me: Charles@first-defense.org.

HERE is a chart of the VERA institute’s findings of how NYC’s stop & frisks fueled violence.

In THIS handbook, the United Nations finds increased public safety where station-house defense is available to all.

Procedural Justice studies out of Yale University also show a causal link between people’s mistreatment by police and street violence.


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