“We understand that there will then be the need to follow up on that to make the legal and legislative changes and practical changes that really mean there is not slavery and involuntary servitude in actual practice. There’s a lot of other work that needs to happen in the criminal justice system, but you would think that we could at least agree that whatever it is, it shouldn’t be slavery or involuntary servitude.”

An Unbroken Tempo: The Modern-Day Abolitionists Fighting to End the Exception (Part 2)

 

Welcome back to Part 2 of MO Foundation’s interview with a couple of the founders of one of our fiscal projects, Abolish Slavery National Network (ASNN). You can read Part 1 here to learn about the modern abolitionist movement and how the founders got involved.

On this day so often associated with independence in the United States, it is important for us to remember that slavery continues to exists in the U.S. We must also recognize that with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, marginalized populations like the Black community, the AAPI community, the Latinx community, the LGBTQIA+ community, and women are more vulnerable today to the brutalization of the white supremacist patriarchy than they have in decades. It is imperative that the most privileged of us do our part to dismantle this system through culturally responsive learning and letting the voices of advocates like our colleagues at ASNN lead the charge. We hope you find Part 2 of this interview valuable to your own advocacy and activism.

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and former director of the ACLU of Colorado for eight years. He lived in Colorado for most of 20 years, during which time he fought to pass Amendment T to remove the Exception Clause allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime from of the state Constitution in Colorado. When Amendment T was defeated in 2016, he later worked with Kamau Allen to pass Amendment A, which had the same goal. Amendment A passed in 2018, making Colorado the first state to fully abolish slavery and involuntary servitude from its constitution. He currently lives in South Carolina and is the director of finance for ASNN.

Kamau Allen, originally born Clarence Allen III in Denver, CO, comes from “a long line of folks who both fought and fled, resisted and endured a lot.” His family fled Louisiana for Los Angeles to escape the horrors of chattel slavery, sharecropping, and racial terror lynchings. Despite this move, his family continues to face racially-motivated hardships, including mass incarceration, the “new iteration of slavery that we’re fighting today.” Out of respect for and in honor of his ancestors and elders before him, he joined the abolitionist movement in 2018 and worked as a community organizer for Together Colorado. Together with Nathan Woodliff-Stanley and other activists, he worked to abolish slavery from the Colorado State Constitution through the ballot measure initiative Amendment A. He is currently the lead organizer of ASNN in Colorado.

This interview took place on May 18, 2022. Kamau and Nathan would like to acknowledge Max Parthas, Savannah Eldridge, Jamilia Land, Dennis Febo, Sarah Chase, Bianca Tylek, and all of the other organizers that make ASNN’s work possible. 

Learn more about ASNN by visiting AbolishSlavery.us.

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Emma Buchman (Digital Content Director, MO Foundation):

So, what are your other top priorities? Or is it just solely ending the exception in the Constitution?

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley (Finance Director, South Carolina, ASNN):

I mean, that’s our biggest goal is to do that in other states, as happened in 2020 in Nebraska and Utah. And now there are four states that have abolition on the ballot right now with potentially as many as four more that could still be on the ballot in November… There are some others… So there’s gonna be several states on the ballot where the opportunity to do this will be there this fall. And helping those campaigns, that’s our number one priority. 

And then, helping that happen in other states and building a movement that can lead, we hope, eventually toward changing the U.S. Constitution. There is a federal amendment out there and a movement around that. I think we need to keep getting wins at the state level to light a fire under that, so that it can really succeed at the federal level. 

But those are our goals and we understand that there will then be the need to follow up on that to, you know, make the legal and legislative changes and practical changes that really mean there is not slavery and involuntary servitude in actual practice. Just changing the Constitution doesn’t directly change the practices, you have to build off of it. So there will be work to be done around that in the future… We have a very clear focus of changing state constitutions and ultimately changing the U.S. Constitution. I mean, there’s a lot of other work that needs to happen in the criminal justice system, but you would think that we could at least agree that whatever it is, it shouldn’t be slavery or involuntary servitude.

Kamau Allen, ASNN Lead Organizer – Colorado

Kamau Allen (Lead Organizer, Colorado, ASNN):

That’s correct. Man, that line right there helped save a lot of our messaging in Colorado in 2018. ‘Cause we got a lot of questions about, “Will this require overturning convictions and sentences,” or “Will this do that, will this do that?” Understanding the role of the Constitution was critical, and that no matter what our prison system looks like, slavery should not be a part of any of its equation. 

Nathan highlighted very succinctly what our mission [is], what our strategy is. There is a bit of a thought experiment that we’re looking into. So, the other reality is that we’ve never lived in a society where slavery was absolutely legally abolished. We’ve just never lived in that society. So there’s a lot of legal questions about, what does this mean in terms of our prison system, et cetera. ASNN does not have the capacity to sue Department of Corrections or any institution for practices of slavery. We’re just not a team of lawyers. But ASNN’s other commitment is to build a working relationship with people who can. 

For example, in Colorado there is a lawsuit that has been filed against the Department of Corrections and Governor Jared Polis for forced labor practices inside of Colorado institutions of corrections. And so we’re building a public awareness campaign and a coalition around that… And a part of our thinking is that even though Colorado had abolished slavery through our constitution, there is still some work to be done around the follow-up, specifically about putting words to what this is about: why did we do Amendment A?

So it’s an extension of that campaign…

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, ASNN Director of Finance – South Carolina.

Nathan:

I’ll mention another related issue is voting and voting disenfranchisement. It is part of the same picture. Again, I think these constitutional victories are probably not going to directly change that reality the way we would want it to, but it would help lay the groundwork for changes there. 

Because I’ve never thought it made sense that you would take the right to vote away from someone. If you are a citizen, you don’t lose your citizenship, or at least you shouldn’t be, unless you’re considered a slave and no longer a citizen… You don’t lose your citizenship just because you are in jail, so why should you lose your right to vote? And, you know, there’s the law enforcement person in Georgia who admitted [to] arresting someone and charging them with a felony instead of a misdemeanor so he could take their vote away. That is very much one of the functions of the criminal justice system, is to disenfranchise voters.

Emma:

I’m very excited to ask this question, because in my work I’ve recently been studying a lot about the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC), and it’s just abundantly clear how those in power, this might be leading, but it seems that those in power don’t want activists to make change. So, in your personal experience, how much do you think those in power prevent activists, advocates, from making systemic change?

Kamau:

Man, so, this is that opposition question that we talk a lot about in the Network. In the earlier campaigns, which we look at as like Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, everything before our current political moment, [it] was relatively easy in terms of facing opposition. We have not, to date, faced any paid counter-campaigns to any of our campaigns. In Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, our biggest opponent at the time was confused messaging, and not even all the way. There were Republicans who were very in favor of this and who would actually testify in favor of abolishing slavery. Their reason was a little different, because they didn’t wanna see what they said was “archaic language” in the Constitution. Their view was more of, “This is a stain on our legacy.” Or at least that’s what they said. 

We did receive some opposition from the casual person online, you know, making threats against the campaign, and… That did boil to a point in 2018 in Colorado, where somebody actually took all the door hangers from a neighborhood, found Jumoke Emory’s house, one of our organizers, and burned a stack of campaign flyers on his front porch. And so we had to get the police involved, you know, file a few reports. That happened at the same time that there were other white supremacist activities taking place against another ballot measure initiative that Will Dickerson was leading… 

But now, especially in our Southern states and other states where we have stronger, more vocal opposition, we’re seeing things where these issues are not making it out of committee, that they’re not even having committee hearings. That a lot, especially a lot of Republican-held committees are essentially drowning these efforts. In the state of Louisiana last year, the nearly all-Republican committee shot this issue down, calling it “the most dangerous bill their state had ever seen.”

Ending slavery was seen as the most dangerous bill that they’ve ever seen, that their state had ever seen in the state of Louisiana, which is a very audacious claim. But fortunately, now that was reintroduced, yesterday or two days ago, and it passed out of committee.

Nathan:

On Monday [May 16], it got through committee in Louisiana. I mean, there’s still more [to] process there, but it’s moving, there’s progress there.

Kamau:

We are seeing other things where, like, a few sheriffs and [district attorneys] have spoken out against this. But we’re beginning to see more and more opposition rear its head against this. Not too many people have wanted to openly come out against [eradicating] slavery, but what they are very happy to go out against is any changes to prison work programs. So if this issue is associated with changes of prison labor, prison wages, prison work programs, that’s when [the] opposition sees this as fair game. And that’s when you begin to hear things like, “We’re gonna have to have to pay X amount for prisoners to live in luxury…” You know, you’ve heard all the arguments.

Nathan:

Like we said, this is a step in a process. It’s not the end of the story, but it’s a really important piece. I think it’s important to stay really focused on the core moral message around slavery and involuntary servitude because it is hard for people to just openly say, “I support slavery.” When we’re able to stay focused on that, we’ve been able to win, but there’s a lot more that needs to happen to be sure.

Emma:

That ties into my next question, it’s a question that I asked of another interviewee too… We’re two years out now from the massive movement of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. And we saw a lot of elected officials on a local and national level promising to hold themselves accountable both to those organizers and to their local Black communities. Now, as we approach two years later in the summer of 2022, what are your reflections on that summer and those promises that were made?

Kamau:

Photo credit: Abolish Slavery National Network

Hmm. That, man, that summer was really hard. That was one of those summers that none of us expected at that scale, at that level. I’ve been in places like Ferguson and Baltimore before, but in my lifetime I had never seen anything like that from coast to coast, where there were all different types of uprisings, some more explosive than others. And I do remember a lot of elected officials at that time, making these public proclamations about, you know, my value as a Black person in this society; the need to challenge systemic racism; the need to reform the police. 

And I know that a lot of elected officials really did genuinely mean that. And I think about a lot of the elected officials that I know in Colorado, some of them were out there marching with us, getting tear-gassed with us. And those were some of the legislators that I know, that I would call on at any given moment. I know that there were some who see their job as just a job, but for the ones that really meant it, it did mean a lot. 

But what I also know is that, two years is not enough time for me to see the desired results that I would like to see. I felt like in the 2020 protests, that was one of the first times that I felt a unified voice that we need to defund these police departments and divest a lot more money back into the community. That was one of the things that I really felt stuck in terms of a solid demand from the protests. Saw more focus on systemic racism and stuff like that. 

But I knew that that would be a hard promise to keep. And because of that, I also saw that some people really reversed their enthusiasm about their promises to us. I’m very disappointed in how quickly some elected officials completely dropped the issue when it was no longer politically expedient for them. That, “Oh yeah, we should reform the police, but we shouldn’t do too much.” And now there are calls to give more money to police officers. And in some regards, I feel like our promises were abandoned, feel like we were abandoned in a lot of ways. 

But for the elected officials that were still marching with us, they try to keep that promise and they pass things like the Clean Slate Act here in Colorado. They pass things like Senate Bill 217 in Colorado. There were some very strong deliverable items that were given to us. But as I mentioned before, two years isn’t enough time to see the desired results. And I feel like the people who are pushing for those desired results are very… It’s a much smaller group, but it’s still there. So I don’t wanna write off every elected official, ’cause a lot of them genuinely meant it. Some might feel like us: like they’re fighting by themselves in those Senate chambers or on the House floor. But yeah, Nathan, I don’t know what your thoughts are about it?

Nathan:

No, that was great. You said it well, I’d just say, what I look for is sustained effort. Not just in the heat of the moment, but when it’s not popular, when there’s blowback or obstacles or difficulties along the way and you still keep going, that’s what I want to see.

Emma:

Awesome. I wanna be respectful of your time, but there were two short questions I wanted to try and squeeze in. The first one, I ask this of all activists that I interview because I think we need this, especially right now: what is one thing that gives each of you hope for the future?

Kamau:

I’ll just make this very quick: sharing space with other freedom fighters gives me hope. ‘Cause I realize I’m not alone, I’m not by myself, that there is, in fact, a nation of abolitionists fighting to do exactly the same thing. And now that we’ve got them all under one roof, it gives me a lot of hope to think, “Hey, we really can do these things.” And you start to see other people’s talent and skills, that these are brilliant people, strategic organizers; that these are people who have moved mountains before. And to know that this is the A team that was assembled, we’re in good hands. We’re in really, really good hands.

Nathan:

And I’ll just say it gives me hope to see so many states with abolition on the ballot this fall. It shows that this is an expanding movement that really has some momentum to it.

Emma:

That’s amazing. The only other question I had was, how can one join the modern abolitionist movement and how can they get involved with ASNN?

Kamau:

The best way to get involved is through our website, AbolishSlavery.us. Especially if you’re in a state where this is on the ballot, or if you want to contribute to the federal campaign that we’re affiliated with, or you want to just ask more questions and be up to speed…

You can text “endtheexception” at 52886, all as one word, “endtheexception.” Yeah, we’d love to have more folks join us.

Nathan:

Yeah, it’s www.AbolishSlavery.us. There are links to make donations on the website and to sign up, so we know you’re there supporting us.

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Some of the ASNN Team

Co-Director of State Operations Max Parthas (South Carolina); Network Coordinator Jamilia Land (California); & Administrative Coordinator Melina Cohen (Nebraska).

 

Co-Director of State Operations Dennis Febo (New Jersey); Director of Communications Sarah Chase (Washington); Director of Federal Operations Bianca Tylek (New York); & Co-Director of State Operations Savannah Eldridge (Texas).
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