Award-Winning Filmmaker Dawn Porter Scheduled to Speak at Holy Cross in Observation of Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, the College of the Holy Cross community is poised to celebrate a series of events sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU) throughout the month of February.

“American history is incomplete without Black history,” said Vicmarys Brito ’15, co-chair of the BSU. “In order to understand the state that our nation is in today we all need to understand Black history, American history.” Brito, a history major with a concentration in Latin American and Latino Studies hailing from Lynn, MA, discussed justice during the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast held on campus on Jan. 20.

“Black History Month presents a unique opportunity for us an organization to educate the Holy Cross community on Black history and its impact on our society,” added Oluwaseun Oke ’15, a chemistry major from Newark, NJ and co-chair of the BSU. “When many students think of Black history, they typically think of prominent Black figures but we hope the events we have planned for the month will uncover some new aspects of Black history that are usually overlooked,” Oke explained.

One such guest is noted attorney, civil rights activist and critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter.

Porter is scheduled to deliver a speech reviewing the current state of the American justice system on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. in the Hogan Ballroom. The event is free and open to the public.

Closely examining and questioning a system in which nearly 12 million people are arrested annually, Porter’s work also focuses on how these cases navigate through the criminal justice system. It is quite common for lawyers to handle hundreds of cases simultaneously, a point which Porter’s award-winning documentary “Gideon’s Army” depicts.

The film follows the stories of three young, idealistic public defenders in the deep South as they grapple with long hours, low pay, and massive caseloads to ensure justice for America’s forgotten poor. Though released nearly two years ago, Porter’s film still underscores what many feel is inequality and a growing racial disparity within the criminal justice system.

For example, while state laws regarding DUI vary, it’s common for first-time offenders to spend some time in jail. However, many states often require mandatory jail time for second-offender DUIs, often because the severity of the offense jumps from misdemeanor to felony.

However, a USA Today study — which compared arrest data from local police departments reported to the FBI in 2011 and 2012 with data from the 2010 U.S. Census — found that only 173 out of 3,538 police departments across the country arrest blacks at an equal rate to or lower than other races. In addition, at least 1,581 police departments arrest blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, MO, where blacks are arrested three times more than other races.

Not only are blacks more likely to be arrested, they’re also more likely to be subjected to harsher sentencing.

While people of color account for 30% of the United State’s population, they make up more than half — 60% — of those imprisoned, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group. The prison population grew by a whopping 700% between 1970 and 2005, a rate which outpaced both crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately affect men of color: one in every 15 African American and one in every 36 Hispanic men are imprisoned, compared to one in every 106 white men. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

Committed to education and diversity, as well as the cultural, social, and political development of its members, it is the hope of the entire Holy Cross community and the BSU to create an environment which embraces identity while encouraging diversity. Events such as Porter’s discussion are reflective of the College’s HC Solidarity initiative, which invites members of the Holy Cross community and beyond to explore what it means to live and work as a community in solidarity in today’s world.

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