We Are All Criminals: Seen. Exhibit Inspires Recognition of Common Humanity

Nov 5, 2020

…rather than looking at the incident itself that led them there or the series of incidents, I turn over the platform for these incredible poets and prose writers and memoirists to share their words and to share their humanity in a hope that we can collapse that gap between us and them... And I think that this project We Are All Criminals certainly does seek to shine a spotlight on the racial disparities within our criminal legal system from the start to the end and then back again...

Prisons… they don't disappear problems. They disappear people and they exacerbate problems.  

Emily Baxter, We Are All Criminals


The  MacRostie Art Center recently hosted Seen, an exhibit melding poetry, prose, photography, and prison.  The project is a collaboration between The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and We Are All Criminals.  You can view it here.

Emily Baxter founded We Are All Criminals,  a nonprofit dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be “criminal.”  She joined the morning show to discuss the project.

I interview people who have gotten away with crimes - doctors, lawyers, legislators, professors, students. And we look at how their lives would be different had they been labeled a criminal. So through a series of collateral consequences, including state code, federal code, broader social stigma, we look at the doors that would have been foreclosed to them had they been caught…we look at the privileges that they've experienced in life that have allowed them to live outside the crosshairs of the criminal legal system as a reflection of humility and privilege and the shared humanity.

Now, with the same project, I work with people who are currently incarcerated. So these are most certainly individuals who have been affected by the criminal legal system. And rather than looking at rather than looking at the incident itself that led them there or the series of incidents, I turn over the platform for these incredible poets and prose writers and memoirists to share their words and to share their humanity in a hope that we can collapse that gap between us and them.

The vast majority of people who have gotten away with their crimes,

have been white, affluent or middle class people who have committed crimes in communities that are not overpoliced, in schools that don't have a school resource officer, in places where if there is an interaction with the criminal legal system, it isn't one that leads to arrest and incarceration. …I mean, through these interviews, I have heard time and again examples of great policing, right?... officers stopping individuals who are engaged in criminal activity and essentially rerouting them home. There's one individual, an Ivy League student, who says that he grew up in an affluent community, a place where interactions with police were rare. The few interactions he had, he said, were respectful and innocuous. They would result in a tap on the shoulder and a suggestion to go home that is much different than ending up facedown on the pavement with a knee in your back and spending the weekend in jail and then a criminal record that prevents you from moving on in life.  And so the racial breakdown of the stories … the folks that I work with who are incarcerated, and this also tracks with my experience as a public defender, the individuals who are brought into the criminal legal system are most definitely not overwhelmingly white, proportionately speaking. And I think that this project We Are All Criminals certainly does seek to shine a spotlight on the racial disparities within our criminal legal system from the start to the end and then back again.

 
I ask people to … think about the crimes that you have committed for which you have not been caught, and then think about how life would be different had you been caught, had you been labeled by that record, had you been labeled by that activity, been defined and confined by that that criminal act, and then think about all of the doors that would have been foreclosed to you…you wouldn't have gotten that scholarship, you wouldn't have been able to go to that school where you met your wife. You wouldn't now have your two kids. You wouldn't be able to lead the parent group at school. You wouldn't be able to you wouldn't have gotten your job or your promotion, the loan for your home. It goes on and on and on. And then think about the privileges that you experienced that allowed you to, again, exist outside the crosshairs of the criminal legal system and extend that same context and compassion that you allow yourself…  – It’s an opportunity to recognize a common humanity. ….

Prisons… they don't disappear problems. They disappear people and they exacerbate problems.

Emily Baxter, We Are All Criminals