On this week’s 51%, we sit down with Dr. Alice Green, founder and director of Albany’s Center for Law and Justice, to discuss her new book We Who Believe in Freedom: Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice.
Guest: Dr. Alice Green, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice; author of We Who Believe in Freedom: Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice
51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It is produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.
You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and stories. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King.
Our guest today is a longtime civil rights activist and icon in Albany, New York. Dr. Alice Green is the founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit organization that has called for criminal justice reform, including an end to mass incarceration and systemic oppression, since 1985.
Green herself has received several awards recognizing her activism in Albany, from organizations like NAACP, National Organization for Women, New York State Bar Association, and more. She earned her doctorate in criminal justice from SUNY’s University at Albany, as well as three master’s degrees in education, social work, and criminology. And late last year, she sought out a local Black press to publish her latest project: a part-memoir, part history of the city titled We Who Believe in Freedom: Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice. In it, Green examines her childhood in New York’s North Country, her activism in Albany, and the history of the city’s Black communities – from the early days of enslavement, to the Civil Rights Movement, and to the Black Lives Matter protests that continue in the city today.
Like cities across the U.S., Albany erupted in protest throughout the spring and summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. And like cities across the state that year, Albany looked inward following an executive order by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo requiring municipalities to study how they might “reimagine” policing.
I recently got the chance to sit down with Green and ask about all of these things and more – at least as much as we could touch on in a half-hour show. We bring you that full interview today.
“I’m from the Adirondacks. Actually, I was actually born in South Carolina, but my family moved when I was very young to the Adirondacks. It’s an iron ore-mining town. So I grew up in upstate New York, in a very white, very Catholic community, which was not easy if you’re African American and you’re not Catholic,” says Green. “I got the opportunity to enter SUNY, which was something of great pride to my family. My dad was illiterate coming from the south. My mom had some education, so she placed a lot of emphasis on education. So I was able to do that. I came to Albany to become an educator.”
Now, you’ve had a long role in activism in Albany. In the time that you’ve been here, what has that activism looked like? How have things changed today?
Well, there have been some changes. Yes, I can’t say that there haven’t. There’s a long way to go. Albany was a very controlled city by the Democratic machine. Politics actually was the name of the game. And over the years, it had been for a long time. The mayor, you know, Erastus Corning [II] was mayor for 42 years [1942-1983], and it was really very controlling. The party decided who could get good housing, decided who would be employed, decided how people would vote. And so the Black population – which came from the south, [in a continuation of] the Great Migration, Black migration north – they settled in Albany, and particularly in the South End. And they the ones that had to live in the worst housing, that did not have the services that were needed – like, there was no garbage pickup. A lot of people don’t believe that, that we were in that situation. There were not, you know, recreational-type resources. [It was] very segregated. Albany is a very segregated city. It still is, to some extent – to a great extent now, I have to admit that, [when] we look at our education system, who’s in public schools, where housing is, affordable housing, all of that, it’s still very much segregated.
But I think one of the biggest thing that’s happened is that the population, the African American population – due to the war on poverty, and the community organizing that took place then – have become much more involved in trying to have some control over their lives. So we now see Black legislators. There was a recognition that the police department was totally given the responsibility of controlling the population, and so we saw a lot of police brutality. At one point when we moved into the ‘70s, [there was] an increase in incarceration, due to the war on drugs. So we’ve been organized to a great extent to try to deal with those problems. Because during that period, in late ‘60s, neighborhood organizations grew up. And they had more to say about what their community is going to look like. And some of the population was able to move into different areas, moving on up to Arbor Hill, and even a number of people moving out into the suburbs. So there have been changes in terms of, to some extent, where people live, but we still have the problems of poor housing for most people. Poverty is still a big force in our community. The criminal justice system is still, unfortunately, affecting [the population] in a very negative kind of way. Much more police surveillance and community arrests are much higher among people of color. Those problems still exist. But the community, I think, has risen to a point of trying to be involved in making the kinds of changes [that are needed]. And I believe in people power. We’ve always worked in organized communities to try to deal with a lot of these issues.
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for the show, and a lot of things that people have been mentioning in the past year or so is that we’re in the midst of a new “racial reckoning,” a new social justice movement. How new really is it, one? But also, as people were coming together in 2020, do you see the momentum continuing? Are we making improvements?
Yeah, we were very excited [in 2020], after experiencing the death of George Floyd, that things were going to change. During that year, we certainly saw more people getting involved in demonstrating and protesting, regarding that issue of social justice. And we’re talking about Blacks and whites and other ethnic groups getting involved in it. So, it was quite exciting and very hopeful. Unfortunately, that didn’t last – there’s still very many people involved, and I think many people were affected by being involved in that kind of a movement, so we have more people than we had prior to it – but overall, it has quieted down. And we thought this was, indeed, a new reckoning for racism and dealing with structural racism in particular. We wanted to change things with the police department. The governor had issued Executive Order 203, saying that all the police departments needed to reexamine how they do policing, and address those issues of racism. And the community rose up and was very much involved. However, it didn’t quite pan out the way we had hoped. I don’t think the state was really that serious about making sure we had transformative change. There was a threat to the jurisdictions across the state that you would lose funding if you didn’t do certain things related to change. And the community, I think, was sold a really bad bill of goods here, because I don’t think any intended to look at the kinds of changes that are being proposed – there was no threat of losing money, I don’t think anybody lost any money. And so we didn’t really get the change that we had hoped for.
You know, this is one of the things that as I was thinking about writing this book. I wanted to go back and look at the history, to give young people something to go back to and look at. To see what we already tried, what the history of dealing with a lot of these institutions was like, trying to give them some sense of what they needed to know as they [plan] out how they [are] going to make the kinds of changes that we’ve been working for since 1619. And the Black Lives Matter movement was a major part of that.
You mentioned the governor’s mandate for “reimagining policing” across different communities. This is something that I’ve seen a lot online, these sentiments of “we always think the first step is ‘let’s study this,’ and then it doesn’t go beyond studying what’s happening in a community.” And then every time we revisit it, it’s like, “Well, let’s study it.” And there’s constant studies and a little less action. Would you agree with that? Is that something that you’ve noticed?
When politicians are short of on answers, the best thing to do is that is to say, “We will study it, or form a committee.” Our position has always been, “Hey, we know what the problems are.” I mean, I know why we have poverty, I know why we have disproportionate incarceration of Black people. It’s been a part of this country since the very beginning. I don’t need to study that anymore. And it’s important to have a history of what was done, but I think people now are speaking more about the impact of poverty on their lives, and speaking more about the impact of incarceration on their lives. We’ve given politicians and other people in power enough information to know that structural racism is a major problem in this country, and that it affects the way not only people behave, but how they treat other people. People who are most directly impacted by all of those horrible conditions can tell you very well what the problem is. But the problem, from what I see, is we have not listened to that. It’s not become a priority to make the kinds of changes that need to be made. It’s going to affect other people in power. I mean, I don’t think everybody wants to get rid of poverty. You know, we might say it’s the thing that we need to do. But there are a lot of people who are very satisfied with the status quo. They’re part of the system, they’re making money. They got the good houses, the good education systems, and all of that. Why [would] they want to change that? But that’s where the problems are. So we can’t keep going around saying, “Oh, we got to find out what the problem is,” and then have these Band-Aid solutions, which really infuriates me. [When you’ve got] issues like poverty, not only poverty, but violence, and, “Well, all we got to do is put more police on the street, and it’ll solve that particular problem.” Or, “We got to have a gun buyback program, and that will deal with the problem of violence and guns on the street.” More white people have guns than Black people.
You have to understand why all these problems linger in poor communities. It’s not an issue of people being Black, it’s more of an issue of people being in poverty. Racism creates poverty. But Blacks are not any more criminal or violent than any other people. But I think poor people have lived in different conditions that sort of define what they can and cannot do.
What do you see as the biggest tool towards real change? What should we be doing?
Well, that, of course, is the difficult part. The things that we would propose, you’re not going to get very much support on. We believe that public safety is not promoted by putting people in prisons. It’s already been shown that prisons are ineffective in dealing with criminal behavior. You know, I’m not any safer by have people in prison. It’s a tall order, as I said, we’ve been working to change the system since 1619. But we have to guarantee people a minimum income – people need resources to survive, and to thrive in this country. So there has to be a commitment to making sure that everyone is able to benefit from this society. There’s an economic problem here, you know. Structural racism is here, it’s been here. And even though some people are starting to understand it, and recognize it, we have not made it a top priority to deal with that within our institutions. We’re still willing to work and operate on stereotypes of people, and to treat them according to those stereotypes. And to define the problem in, I think, ways that don’t make a whole lot of sense. As I said, you know, when violence comes up, the first thing that people ask me is, “How can we deal with this violence in the Black community?” And I’m like, you know, “Wait a minute, that’s not a Black issue. It might be a poverty issue, it might be a racism issue. But it has nothing to do with the color of my skin. I’m not inherently criminal, none of the people that I know of are inherently criminal.” So we’ve got to really, as a society, make a commitment that this is going to be our top priority. If you’re really concerned about public safety, if we’re really concerned about poverty, and all of those issues, they should be uppermost on our list of things to address.
What do you see as the role of allies in the fight for social justice?
Oh, very, very important. Like I said, I believe in people power. That was one of the things that helped make the kind of the changes that I mentioned earlier in this particular community way before the George Floyd thing. We noticed that a number of people who were not familiar with the South End and Arbor Hill – where most of the population of color live – they didn’t know anything about the South End, then, you know, they started becoming much more involved in it. And I think we were able to make the few changes that we made because of the influence from different organizations that were uptown and white. And they came down and they helped establish some housing, affordable housing for people in the community. We had journalists who pointed out the problems of horrible housing that people were forced to live in. A lot of the interfaith community got involved, and that’s when you start to see some changes. Same thing with 2020, after George Floyd, you find allies who were willing to get involved in the struggle. And as I mentioned, a number of them still are, and that’s good. With people power, you need people. And you need good allies to work with you to do that. That’s one of the things that I mentioned in writing the book, how important it is to have those allies – because we can’t do it by ourselves. Even though, I think [for] the changes that need to be made regarding African Americans, and the impact of the system on them, there has to be leadership from the most affected and impacted communities.
In that regard, like what does a good ally look like?
A good ally is not afraid to speak truth to power. You can’t be silent and be a good ally. If you see injustice, you have to say that you see injustice, and you really want to do something about it. We have a lot of people who say, “I appreciate what you do. That’s wonderful. Keep on doing it.” But they’re not willing to make any sacrifices. They’re not willing to speak up to those in power. But those who are, who are willing to do that, are the good allies. They are saying that, “Hey, this is my community, this is my country. I know that certain things are not right.” You know, we see now displays of vigilantism, with open expressions of white supremacy. You know, we’re seeing all those things – voter suppression. And if you believe in a democracy, and you believe in equality, how you can be silent about something like that is beyond me.
And it’s not just about the freedom of Black people or brown people. I think white people need to be freed, too. Because it takes a lot of stress and fear to deny people housing, or whatever it happens to be. I mean, you got to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep people at a distance. To me, that would be horrible.
You mentioned earlier that you grew up in the North Country, and then you came down to Albany. What was that transition like, going from a small town to a larger city?
Yeah, it was a very important one for me, because as I mentioned, I didn’t know any people of color. Growing up in a small, rural, conservative community, I didn’t know who I was, because there was no way for me to. My parents didn’t talk about the south, because they had terrible experiences in the south. And so I am growing up without any benefit of African American history in education. I knew absolutely nothing. Moving from that kind of a setting, and coming to Albany, where there were more people of color, and particularly African Americans, and opportunities to learn more about my history as an African American, was exciting. You know, I started learning how to read things that I’ve never run across – James Baldwin, and a whole bunch of other writers. It was so refreshing, and helped me grow and understand not only who I was, but what my mission in life needed to be. So it was great coming into a community where there were other people of color.
Through your career of activism, how has it been advancing to where you are now as a woman, having to go through these things?
Yeah, that’s interesting, because, I can identify with other women, but I think it’s important to know that African American women have a totally different experience. We don’t look at this big picture of women. We know that white women are able to advance in ways that we can’t. I also am very sensitive to being a woman and wanting to do things that we are prevented from doing in this society, simply because I am a woman – but I’m prevented even further, because I’m a Black woman. I try to identify with women, and a lot of my allies are white women, but when I look back and see how this society treats white women differently, you know, they’ve been put on a pedestal, and Black women weren’t. Some of the things that white women won’t do, Black women were very happy to do. Like when the feminists, when the movement was started, white women were insulted to be offered a secretarial position, for instance. Black women always want to be, you know, in those positions that white women did not want to. And so during the feminist movement, we had some discussions about these issues, and I think, you know, we worked it out. So I identify with being a woman, and I know all the ways that women are oppressed in this country. It’s a two-fold thing: you’re oppressed because you’re a woman and you’re oppressed because you are Black. We have to deal with all of those issues, which maybe white women don’t have to.
Just lastly, your book focuses on your experiences and the situation in Albany. Are there certain aspects to Albany that distinguish it from other areas, or do you think Albany is pretty good example for what’s happening across the U.S.?
Well, I think both. As I mentioned earlier, Albany has always been politically controlled by one party. That means that a lot of things don’t happen. You don’t get fresh ideas, you don’t get politicians who can really compete with each other. And I think we’re missing getting all of the good people involved in that whole political process that we would, if we were a more open community. I would love to see, you know, a campaign where you had three good candidates, and they were interested in everybody’s issues, rather than having it being a foregone conclusion that certain people in certain parties were going to win. You know, we don’t benefit from that. That’s the difference. But I think Albany is experiencing some of the same problems that we experienced across the country: lack of good healthcare for people, particularly people of color, and even women. I mean, they’ve had to struggle for best health care, because everything has been geared towards white men in this country. They’re experiencing violence. I think everybody’s sort of experiencing that. Of course, the pandemic doesn’t discriminate, so that’s there. But I think, across the country, we want to see people who have been oppressed much more involved in the activities of their communities, and having much more of a voice, and being heard by those with power. Incarceration is a major issue across the country. And I think we’ve got to change our whole approach to dealing with those kinds of problems. Those are national problems and those are ones that we’re dealing with on a local level. But most change comes on a local level.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. That was all the questions that I had for you off the top my head, but is there anything that I’m missing that you’d like our listeners to know? What do you hope that people most take away from your book?
I hope that people will understand how important it is to understand the history. We sort of separate Black history from American history, and one of the reasons why I wrote the book, I wanted people to see the history that we’ve experienced and how it’s connected to the general history of this country. And that we need to work together to make the kinds of changes that are necessary. So I’m hoping that young people will be involved in all of this. You know, we’ve done the work over the years, and now we see a new population emerging that has to take on this horrible task – but I want them to be as equipped to do that as possible. So my focus in the book is on young people. How do we educate young people? How do we get them to understand the real nature of the problem, so that they can carry it forward? 1619, that’s a long time, and I think we’ve got to bring about that change that we want to get rid of the fear that so many people have. And I’m hoping that when they read the book, it will also spark some examination. I only just touch the surface, but I’m hoping that other people will take it up and say, “Ah, yes, we have to understand how to deal with this problem that we had, that we didn’t do back then.” So I’m excited and hopeful that young people will get that message: that they have to carry forward with the struggle for social justice, and they can do it.
Dr. Alice Green is the author of We Who Believe in Freedom: Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice, out now on King Jesus Press, LLC. She’s also the founder and director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, New York. You can learn more about the Center and its work at its website, cflj.org.
Thanks for tuning in to this week’s 51%. 51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by me, Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue. A big thanks, again, to Dr. Alice Green for taking the time to speak with me. Next week, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Harriet Tubman, brush up on our history, and recognize the power of Black joy. Hope to see you there. Until then, I’m Jesse King for 51%.