Candidates for Douglas County district attorney address racial disparities, ‘anti-Blackness’
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Candidates for Douglas County district attorney participated in an online forum Thursday evening that specifically focused on issues of concern to Black people, Indigenous people and people of color as well as the LGBTQIA community.
During the 90-minute forum, the three Democratic candidates — defense attorney Cooper Overstreet, University of Kansas law professor and special prosecutor Suzanne Valdez and incumbent DA Charles Branson — answered questions about the issues and the work they’ve done to educate themselves and combat racism.
The moderators for the forum were Jay Pryor, a local speaker, author and activist; Tiffany Lewis, chief operations officer for Heartland Community Health Center; and Clare Nderagakura, a local entrepreneur and community organizer.
Lewis asked candidates what they would do to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Overstreet said it’s no secret that the system is racist, and that it disproportionately harms marginalized communities. He said he wants to treat people like people rather than numbers, and he will try to repair the harm the system caused. In addition, the DA should not punish people because they’re poor, Overstreet said.
Valdez said one way to start fixing disparities is to put people of color who have experienced systemic racism firsthand in prosecutor positions within the district attorney’s office, and that is something she would do if elected. She said she’s also supported KU law students from marginalized communities.
Branson said the system includes many parts, including judges and law enforcement, for instance. Everyone in his office went through implicit bias training last year, he said, and his office is working with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity to ensure that policies are promoting a fair and equitable system.
An audience member of the virtual forum also asked the candidates to “speak to (their) understanding of anti-Blackness” and what their personal responsibility was to eradicate it from the criminal justice system, the community and their personal lives.
Valdez said she read the book “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, and it “really resonated” with her. She said the experience she has as a brown person are not the same experiences that Black people have. We all have to look at race, she said, and determine how to truly address racial issues, understand them and determine what we can do to make ourselves better, learn more and listen.
Branson said his understanding of “anti-Blackness” is that it has two components: overt racism, which he said “we have to stamp down” anywhere that it exists, and systemic disregard for Black institutions. He said he’s learned about “little transgressions” his office has unintentionally made against people, and he and his staff have gone through training, but more needs to be done. He said his office needs to intentionally take race into consideration to ensure that it is creating equity in a deliberate manner.
Overstreet said the problem is not just overt racism, but also indifference and silence about systemic racism. He said doing the work to be antiracist is not just about holding listening sessions and reading studies, but enacting antiracist policies to combat the problems. He said racism in the criminal justice system leads to lives being ruined and fathers and mothers separated from their children.
The forum was recorded and the full video is available online on Pryor’s Facebook page at facebook.com/jaypryorconsulting. A similar forum for the candidates for Douglas County sheriff will be held online beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
The DA candidates will next participate in an online forum hosted by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP at 1 p.m. Saturday. Register for that forum online at bit.ly/NAACPDAForum.
The election will almost certainly be decided in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, as no Republicans filed for the seat. The deadline to register to vote is Tuesday. For more information or to check your registration, visit douglascountyelections.com or ksvotes.org.
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More 2020 election coverage: Douglas County district attorney race
• April 28, 2020: District Attorney Charles Branson files for reelection in 2020
• April 16, 2020: Two Democrats file to run for Douglas County district attorney