UCSC graduate Carmen Perez returns to Santa Cruz on April 28 to give the keynote address at this year’s Alumni Weekend, after having co-chaired the Women’s March on Washington in January. Meanwhile, another UCSC graduate (and former City on a Hill writer), Amelia McDonell-Parry, has also stepped onto the national stage as a co-host of Undisclosed, the popular criminal-justice podcast that this year is taking on perhaps its most controversial episodes with ‘The Killing of Freddie Gray.’ The two Santa Cruz alum spoke to us about their different approaches to the fight for social justice.
When I reach Carmen Perez on the phone, she is in transit between meetings on the noisy streets of New York City. Since 2010, she’s been the executive director of Gathering For Justice, a political action nonprofit with a mission to end child incarceration and eliminate the racial inequities in the criminal justice system that enliven mass incarceration.
As a national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, Perez is, naturally, full of excitement and fire when I ask her about the event—famous not just for inciting shortages of pink yarn across the country, but also for having one of the most radical platforms ever released for a march. Its uniting principles, which Perez was responsible for defining (following several weeks of dialogue with 24 experts) consist of: promoting environmental justice, and reproductive, LGBTQIA, worker, civil, disability, and immigrant rights, and an end to violence.
While the march—which drew half a million to the capital and an estimated 5 million worldwide—is over, the movement hasn’t gone dormant. Rather, it’s in a re-grouping mode. At press time, there had been more than 5,448 “huddles,” or small groups holding informal conversations, across the country, as part of the march’s 10 Actions for the First 100 Days campaign.
Between the car horns and sirens, a smile shines on the other side of the line when I ask Perez about Santa Cruz.
“From the moment that I walked off UC Santa Cruz to the present day, it’s all prepared me to have been the national co-chair of the Women’s March,” she says.
After graduating UCSC with a psychology degree in 2001, Perez went to work advocating for young women and men in the county’s criminal justice system. It was here that she founded the youth leadership program R.E.A.L. (Reforming Education, Advocating for Leadership) and co-founded the Girls Task Force, which helps to improve services for at-risk girls in Santa Cruz and discourage juvenile incarceration. In 2006, Perez went to work for the Santa Cruz County Probation Department as a bilingual probation officer with a female-intensive caseload. She also worked with Barrios Unidos, where founder Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez took note of the driven young Perez, and became her mentor, introducing her to civil rights activist and singer Harry Belafonte. Belafonte founded The Gathering for Justice in 2005, and brought her in in 2009.
“All the organizing that I did on a local level, on a statewide level, on a national and international level … and all the wisdom that I received [from mentors in Santa Cruz] led me to really ensure that the march was not only a success but also had a lot of grounding in intention,” says Perez.
Along with Nane and Belafonte, Perez names UCSC feminism professor Aida Hurtado and UCSC psychology professor Craig Haney as early influences in her career. Haney will be introducing Perez during UCSC’s Alumni Weekend when she will give a keynote talk at the Cocoanut Grove at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 28.
Somewhere around 70 percent of the Women’s March participants around the globe are said to have been marching for the first time. What does that mean to you, and what does that say about activism today?
I think one of the great things about the Women’s March is that we were extremely intentional about creating entry points for all people to get involved. We understood that at the time many women, many people, felt defeated, specifically because of the election, and so we wanted to make sure that if people were not able to be physically present in Washington D.C. that they were able to march in their local city. And so there were people organizing locally to ensure that they also were connected to the larger mission and vision of the Women’s March. And so for me, I think sometimes I’m in awe of what we were able to accomplish, but I know we worked extremely hard to make sure that people from different walks of life and from different groups felt as if they were included … In the beginning when we were talking to different organizations to come on and partner, for the first three weeks what we were hearing from people was “do you have a permit?” And “what are the risks?” “Should we bring our children?” But as soon as we were able to demonstrate that we did have our permit, the conversation shifted to “what are we marching for?”
In what ways do you think the march was successful?
I think the march was a huge success before it even started. To have so many women feel that they want to show up the day after the inauguration, and then allow four women co-chairs—three of the four women being of color—lead them, and also the intentionality through conversation, through relationship-building, teaching the women that had never organized before who were working with us, who had been seasoned organizers. And then also being able to hold space around different issues and conversations online, through Facebook Live, that addressed white privilege, that addressed different issues—for me, that was a success. Showing up the day of, on January 21st, was just mindblowing, I still remember the morning that we arrived at 4 and there was already a sea of pink hats. There were so many people telling us that they were marching with us … we turned on the TV the night before, and they were marching in different countries. We were able to use the six principles of nonviolence that were really from the ideology of Dr. King and Kingian nonviolence. We had our elders that were part of the honorary co-chairs, that we would have conversations with and they would share with us what they had gone through during their times, so it was also future generational, the children that we saw out on January 21st. So for me there were so many successes, and I think that the way in which the movement is going to continue, is if we continue to be intentional, if we continue to create entry points, and if people continue to show up for one another.
We saw continued demonstrations at airports, in protest of the travel ban on Muslims—a sign that people are continuing to show up for each other. In what other ways do you see the momentum of the march continuing?
What we launched immediately after the march were 10 actions in 100 days, and so we are now on our seventh action. You can go to our website [womensmarch.com] to see what actions we put together continuing to elevate our partners, to ensure that people know that the work just didn’t start on January 21st, but there have been so many organizations doing this work for so many years that we need to support. We were able to bring together so many people for A Day Without a Woman [strike], where we created three entry points. One was for women and men and families to wear red in solidarity if they cared about women’s issues. The second was if you have to buy anything, purchase from local and women-owned businesses. The third was not to go to work. There were so many people that participated. And to this day the color red has been a symbolism of resistance. And it comes from our elders—Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez …
We just did a Facebook analysis, and there were 88 million people that knew about our strike, and so we’re seeing people continue to show up. I think people need to connect with one another. Just because we’re not physically seeing people in a march doesn’t mean that people are not showing up, doesn’t mean that people are not active. It’s not visible, and so we continue to encourage people to act locally, think nationally.
How can people use multiple approaches—strikes, direct action, boycotts—to make progress in social justice?
I completely believe in a multi-pronged approach. It is the work I’ve done throughout my life. I believe that we need to organize our communities and give power back to the people, I believe that we also need to be at the tables where policies are being made. I also believe in civil disobedience. I believe also in withdrawing your money from certain entities that are oppressive. And so I believe that a strike, I believe that a boycott, I believe that a civil disobedience and direct action, policy change, organizing, training, need to all be used in order to be effective and to also create the change that we want to see. It can’t be one or the other. We cannot just say that one of these tactics works, because I have seen the power of all of them working simultaneously in order for us to change the injustices happening in our communities.
What was your time like at UCSC, and working at Barrios Unidos?
My time at UC Santa Cruz was one of your typical, I think, farmworker child—not being able to really focus on school because you’re having to work while you’re in college, and not having the tradition of support. I think my family supported me as much as they could, but I was the youngest of five, and I was the first to go away to go to college. And I had also just lost my sister, so I was dealing with a lot of grief. But I met women like Aida Hurtado, and I’d heard about women like Angela Davis. And Aida was somebody that, for me, was who I wanted to become. She was that example, she was a Mexican-American woman, Chicana, teaching chicana feminism and psychology. And also through Barrios Unidos, I worked at Y Corps and I was working with youth that were coming out of the juvenile justice system, and that’s really where I feel I got my bearings in the community. I got trained in the strength-based approach and I was creating detention alternatives, and I was also the founder of the Girl’s Task Force in Santa Cruz County, so before I even entered or stepped into Barrios Unidos I had already been organizing local youth around detention alternatives.
Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, a mentor to you and the founder of Barrios Unidos, introduced you to Harry Belafonte. What was that like?
So I didn’t really necessarily know who Mr. B was, Mr B is 50 years older than me, he’s of a different generation, I never really heard his songs, with the exception I had learned that he had sang the song that was in Beetlejuice. And so my mentor Nane really respected him, and really looked up to him, and felt that it was important that I learned from somebody like him. So Nane really had opened so many doors for somebody like me who was coming fresh out of college, who was already involved in the community. So he saw something in me and he told me he did. And so he had me traveling with him to different places, and it was also in my second encounter with Mr. Belafonte where I was now a part of a youth executive committee to help build the organization that I’m now the executive director of. And so I’ve been with Mr. B for close to 13 years. And I try to continue in the tradition of all that he has been a part of and create a pathway for young people to see themselves as leaders as well. It’s been hard because I am 50 years younger than him, and I think that sometimes our elders, you kind of forget that, because he certainly walked beside Dr. King. And I’ve learned so much.
How has your mission as an activist changed with the 45th president now in office, if it even changes at all?
I think for me we’re going to have to continue to organize whether it’s number 45 in office or it was President Barack Obama. I think that our communities are always suffering, specifically black and Latino. And we just can’t ease up. We have to put the pressure on the ground, we have to put political pressure, we’re also fighting statewide battles, we’re fighting local changes, local policies, and so I think as an organizer, what it did for others, it woke them up, and so it’s my responsibility to organize those that just woke up, and again create the entry points, but also say welcome, I’m here to support you in your process, and your leadership, and your activism. And so I know not many people are down for that, because they’re like where have you been all these years? We’ve been suffering? There’s no telling unarmed black men, or unarmed black Latino men, but I’m just of a different school. Mr. Belafonte always said you have to meet people where they’re at, and change their hearts and minds and champion them to your cause. And so it’s also about meeting with the people who don’t agree with you, and having that courageous conversation about what does this really mean and what are the implications for our community under a presidency of someone like Donald Trump. But also understanding that Donald Trump is only one human being, and he’s truly the reflection of a whole country. He got elected. So we have to dismantle the institution of racism and oppression in our country by using different tactics. So it’s not just about attacking him, it’s actually about making sure that we stand up for something.
What would you tell people who are new to activism but want to get involved and stand up for human rights or the environment?
I would say stay alert, educate yourself on previous movements, from the American Indian movements to the Chicano movement, United Farm Workers, to the Black Liberation, to all these different movements. Do your due diligence. Learn about community. Go and meet with your neighbor and say hello. Go to your local community-based organization and volunteer. What we ask so many people that are new to activism, you don’t have to be an activist, it’s actually what do you love to do? What do you do well? And how could you bring that to the movement and share your gift with others?
Exposing the failings of America’s criminal justice system on ‘Undisclosed: The Killing of Freddie Gray’
By Steve Palopoli
In 2014, Serial brought podcasts into the mainstream when millions of listeners obsessed for 12 weeks over its coverage of the murder of Hae Min Lee. The question at the core of its first-season episodes was whether Adnan Syed, an ex-boyfriend of Lee’s who is serving a life sentence for her murder, was wrongly convicted.
Many of those same listeners were immediately drawn to Undisclosed, a podcast that arose in the wake of Serial’s first season that featured three lawyers—Rabia Chaudry (who had originally brought Syed’s story to the attention of Serial’s producers), Susan Simpson and Colin Miller—digging even deeper into mistakes and subterfuge on the part of Baltimore police officers and prosecutors in the case against Syed. Undisclosed’s profile skyrocketed last year when one of the Undisclosed team’s findings became the basis for a Baltimore circuit judge’s dismissal of Syed’s conviction.
In the meantime, Undisclosed has continued their work to expose the failings of the American criminal justice system, including a season about the case of Joey Watkins, who they argued was wrongfully convicted for the 2000 murder of Isaac Dawkins in Georgia, and a shorter arc of episodes about South Carolina’s Jamar Huggins, who had the only witness in the bizarre armed robbery case against him recant in court, only to be convicted and sentenced to 15 years despite any evidence against him.
For their new arc of episodes, “The Killing of Freddie Gray,” Undisclosed has flipped its own script, both because the case of the Baltimore man who died on April 19, 2015—after being fatally injured in police custody—is already well-known, and because this time they are examining whether there should have been convictions in the cases against the six Baltimore police officers indicted in Gray’s death.
To do so, Undisclosed—which reaches over a million listeners each week—has added to its core team. One of the new members is Amelia McDonell-Parry, a 2001 UCSC graduate who began digging into the Gray case with fellow journalist Justine Barron last year. What they found impressed the Undisclosed team so much that they brought them on to co-host and write the new episodes, along with Chaudry and historian Dr. Marcia Chatelain. The New York-based McDonell-Parry spoke to us about her work on Undisclosed, and what she’s uncovered about the Freddie Gray case.
You’re a few episodes into ‘The Killing of Freddie Gray’ now. Do you feel like you’ve been accepted by ‘Undisclosed’ listeners?
AMELIA MCDONELL-PARRY: Yeah, we have been getting good feedback. I was a little nervous because the first two seasons were the same core team of Rabia, Susan and Colin. Rabia’s one of our hosts, but this was going to be three people they hadn’t heard from, at least not in this way. I’d done an addendum before. So yeah, I was a little bit worried about that, because there are real diehard fans of that team, but people have been really awesome about it, actually. I think they understand that it’s not always possible for Susan, Rabia and Colin to align their schedules perfectly, and it takes them a lot of time to investigate wrongful conviction cases. So it’s not like they can do one season and then just quickly spit out another. And I also think they just have their pet projects sometimes, too, like Colin did his four-episode arc on Jamar Huggins, which was great.
That mini-arc on Jamar Huggins was really a turning point for ‘Undisclosed.’ It was the first time they took a step away from the ‘Serial’ model and started experimenting with new ways to examine and critique the criminal justice system.
It was exciting for us when they were interested in turning the work that we were doing on the Freddie case into one of their sort-of “mini-seasons.” Myself and Justine, who’s another co-host and my co-investigator—she and I have done the bulk of the real deep dive into every single little shred of evidence in this case—we were kind of doing it as a labor of love before this. When Undisclosed was interested in turning it into one of their seasons, we were stoked, because, first of all, it’s a built-in audience for the story, and what we cared about more than anything was just having people hear it. We knew that this was the first time someone was doing a deep investigatory dive into this case. There was lots of coverage of it shortly after Freddie died, and throughout the trial, certainly, but there’s so much that you can do with the benefit of hindsight. Looking back on this case has allowed us to look at the timeline of how everything happened from the very, very beginning. Not even just starting with the foot chase, but starting with Freddie’s history with Baltimore police from before that, his growing up in Baltimore.
One way you seem like a good match with the ‘Undisclosed’ team is they made their name by digging into incredibly minute details of their cases, and then showing why those were crucial. The way you’ve broken down each stop of the police van during Freddie’s arrest, for instance, or what each surveillance camera shows at exactly what time, reflects that same belief that the ‘devil is in the details.’
I was always interested in true crime. You know, I like a mystery, I like that kind of thing. But with Serial, I was obsessed. And then Undisclosed, I would say, actually kind of changed my life in this weird way. I ran a women’s website for nine years. Don’t get me wrong, I was incredibly lucky to have that job, and it was an incredible experience. But toward the end I was burnt out. I stuck around because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. But I felt really passionately about the Adnan case, and I started getting more and more into looking at wrongful conviction cases. And more than anything, I really respected Undisclosed’s approach to journalism. I’d blogged, but I hadn’t done reporting in a really long time. I started to write a lot about the Adnan case, and I started to see how frequent cases like his are, and how, if you look at … any case, probably, you will see the same kind of recurring problems. Whether it’s somebody being convicted of something they didn’t do, or a crime not being thoroughly investigated. And I don’t mean to be completely dismissive of all law enforcement, by any means, there are obviously some brilliant detectives out there. But it’s not just detectives who do police work, and it’s just sort of shocking when you start to look at how evidence is collected, and how much people’s own personal biases influence which things they end up pursuing. You could say the same thing about prosecutor and state attorney offices. All of these criminal justice issues are intertwined. I’ve learned so much doing this project, not just about what happened in this horrible case of Freddie Gray dying in police custody, but also just the micro-violations that happen daily in poor communities of color at the hands of police.
How did you first connect to the ‘Undisclosed’ team?
I had started covering Adnan’s case when I was at the Frisky. This was after I had quit as editor-in-chief, but I was still doing some writing for them. I went to Baltimore and covered Adnan’s post-conviction hearing. I had never done any sort of trial reporting before, and I’m not a lawyer. But I have this need to be really detailed—I like to cut off trolls at the pass by trying to answer any of their possible questions or criticisms in advance. So I was doing these exhaustingly detailed recaps of every day of the hearing. Adnan’s attorneys read some of my recaps and liked them, so I became friendly with him. That’s how I met Rabia, and it sort of naturally developed as not only a friendship, but also a professional connection. I just liked her a lot.
I know you and Justine came together on this project because you both had a passion for this case, but had you known her long before you started working together on it last summer?
We had never met. We still haven’t met! She lives in California. I always joke that she’s like my podcast wife, because we don’t ever see each other, but at the same time we weirdly know each other so well. And sometimes we bicker like married people. But we became really invested, and we had other jobs, and we quickly realized “holy shit, this is so much work.” I mean, you have six defendants, dozens of witnesses, six stops—which are questionable—20-something CCTV pieces of footage to review. That was a huge undertaking. There’s just so much. We’re still completely immersed in investigating at the same time that we’re writing episodes.
What has the investigative process been like for you for this podcast?
Only four of the cases went to trial, but that’s four trials to listen to. And that’s just what made it into court. Before that, a lot of this case was litigated through motions prior to trial. So that’s a mountain of paperwork to go through. And before that, the state’s attorney allegedly did their own investigation, and there was a police investigation to look into. There’s all of the media reporting. And then there’s just putting all of that aside and trying to figure out, without any of the noise, what happened that day, and then how the narrative of what happened that day came together. That’s a huge part of what this is about. Where we get the benefit of hindsight is that we can see, for example, stop three—the stop that Goodson, the driver, didn’t alert dispatch about: When did that come about? When did police learn about that? How did they learn about that? What is the proof of that stop, and does it hold up? A big part of this was also trying to figure out what happened with the case when [Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn] Mosby charged the six officers. I remember watching that and being blown away that she had charged six; I mean, it was just incredible. I was thinking, “Holy shit, this woman is a badass.” But then fast forward to the [Baltimore Police Officer William G.] Porter trial, eight months or something like that, and you have a mistrial. And a few months after that, the [Officer Edward] Nero trial—he opted for a bench trial, and that went his way, and he was acquitted. After that, every other officer was choosing a bench trial, and that changes the state’s attorney’s case. Because presenting a case in front of a judge is very different than presenting in front of a jury.
How has your investigation been different from how the mainstream media covered the case while it was happening?
I think about the CCTV footage, for example. I’m sure that journalists in Baltimore watched it, but they probably watched it all once or twice. I’ve watched the CCTV footage [from each camera] at this point over 100 times, and all of them a couple of times, at least, frame by frame. And there are things to see—they are chock full of things that just refute things that the officers said.
Has your opinion of what happened at those police trials or during Gray’s arrest changed because of what you’ve discovered doing the podcast?
In some ways, my overall feelings have stayed the same. I don’t think that Freddie’s death was an accident, in the sense that I don’t think that he fell and hit the wagon and that’s what did it. So in that sense, my feeling has stayed the same. But my feelings on the prosecution’s case, and more than anything the prosecution’s narrative for this case, which is essentially the police department’s narrative, how that came together—when you start looking at this case, you realize “Hold on, that’s what they went with? Is that really what happened?” It’s interesting, because it really has challenged some of my convictions. Because I firmly believe that if there is not evidence to convict, there should be no conviction. And I see why, in some ways, a number of the defendants were acquitted. In many ways, I don’t necessarily blame Barry Williams, the judge, for going in the direction that he did. I also admire Mosby for bringing charges—I just wish they had been better, and more thoughtfully considered.
You’ve said a larger issue in this case is how the state allowed the police to completely shape the narrative of what happened to Gray—you could almost say the prosecution put the defendants in charge of building the case against themselves. How do you hope the podcast will change how people see Gray’s story?
For me, one of the more infuriating things about this case is the way witnesses to the first and second stops were largely ignored after that first week. Detectives interviewed some of them; the people I’ve talked to about that have said that they felt like the detectives just didn’t believe them. What those witnesses allege they saw at stops one and two, I don’t know whether those actions by the police ultimately led to Freddie’s fatal neck injury. But to me, that doesn’t make those things irrelevant at all. Those things still matter. What those people saw still matters, and I loathe the fact that the media narrative and the state’s narrative and the police narrative for this case gaslighted that entire community. They were given attention in the media for a week or two, and then they were ignored the minute it was determined that “what happened, happened in the van.” … When I first started going around and talking to people, I heard from a number of them, “What’s the point? Nobody listened to us before.” And I want people to listen to them. Regardless of what it says about how Freddie died, I think what they saw has something to say about the ways in which Freddie had to live. And I feel that’s just as important to telling the story as anything else.
You and I were at UCSC at different times, but we share a mentor who taught there: Conn Hallinan, my journalism hero.
He’s the best. For me, I know a lot of certain ethics I have about how journalism should be pushing boundaries came from him. One of the things I always think about is how he taught us that there’s really no such thing as an unbiased reporter. How you frame a story, who you give your kicker quote to, headlines, all of that kind of stuff conveys—whether you want to admit it or not—your perspective. So it’s better to be conscious of that. And then also, not every story has two equally valid perspectives. Climate change is real, period, no matter what some people say. I just so appreciate that, because it’s been a big guiding principle for me. Sometimes it’s okay to have an opinion, because there’s truth, and there are lies. There’s fact, and there’s fiction. Journalism needs to be able to point out when something is fiction.