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How Raj Jayadev and Silicon Valley De-Bug are challenging and changing the American justice system

It’s a warmer than average Friday in late October, and at 4pm plenty of folks would be itching to get a jump on the weekend. But not Raj Jayadev. The youthful-looking 43-year-old community organizer is still running around the offices of the non-profit he helped co-found, Silicon Valley De-Bug, as he prepares to head over to the Santa Clara County Main Jail.

The office is buzzing. In one corner, a couple of young boys are horsing around with a De-Bug staffer. In another, a man is pouring over a stack of legal paperwork with another De-Bugger, as staff and volunteers are called. Jayadev and his team are preparing to head over to the jail to support the family of Isai Lopez, a 23-year-old man who died in custody several days prior.

Jayadev is antsy to join the group but has to deal with one last bit of business: a photoshoot for this article. He’s friendly and easygoing—the type of person you can quickly slip into confidence with—but also clearly has much bigger concerns than how he’s going to look in photographs. He hasn’t prepared by donning his best suit and tie. Rather, he is wearing a slim-fitting black shirt, which is emblazoned with the De-Bug slogan: Protect Your People.

“How long is this gonna take?” he asks.

The last few weeks of Jayadev’s life have been far busier than usual. On Oct. 4, he was named one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows. On top of his normal schedule of meeting with families and people entangled in the criminal justice system, attending court with the De-Bug team, and working on spreading the group’s participatory defense model across the country, he’s been fielding interviews with the media, seen an increase in requests for participatory defense trainings, and has had publishing companies sniffing out the possibility of a De-Bug book.

Things were thrown even further into chaos when news broke that Lopez had been found dead in his cell. “Everyone’s been kinda preoccupied,” Jayadev says. “He was a young, young, young man.”

Following the news, De-Bug made contact with Lopez’s family. By the Thursday after his death, De-Bug, which is known for using community organizing tactics to tackle criminal justice issues, was still trying to develop a plan of action based on the family’s wishes. But as a first step, the organization had sent a list of questions to the jail, requesting copies of bodycam and surveillance video footage, as well as audio recordings. “When or how the family can get those answers will probably be what the struggle is,” Jayadev says.

Jayadev and the whole De-Bug team are used to that struggle. For nearly 15 years now, pain, loss and death have been at the heart of their work. The organization started in 2001 as a magazine telling the stories of Silicon Valley’s unseen workers—the people behind the scenes of the dot-com boom. But just a few years into its existence, in February 2004, the death of 43-year-old Rudy Cardenas changed De-Bug’s course.

Cardenas was shot and killed by a state narcotics agent in downtown San Jose—just a few blocks from De-Bug’s office at the time—in a case of mistaken identity. Some De-Buggers knew the family and attended Cardenas’s vigil, and the work grew organically. “Our political philosophy was to ask the family what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go, and let them know that we were going to walk with them,” Jayadev says.

De-Bug helped facilitate marches and rallies and kept pressure on the district attorney until the grand jury investigation into the shooting was made public—an extremely uncommon move. The officer was eventually indicted, an outcome that is still rare in officer-involved shootings. Throughout all this, Jayadev saw De-Bug’s role as secondary; the group was simply there to elevate the grieving and enraged family’s voice.

Organizing IQ
Working closely with families who have lost loved ones to police violence is what Jayadev considers the root of De-Bug. It’s through this work that many people first come into contact with the organization.

Laurie Valdez became a De-Bugger in February 2014, after her partner, Antonio Guzman Lopez, was killed by San Jose State University police. Overnight, she found herself a single mother, and watched in horror as rumors began to fly about Guzman Lopez.

“Everybody at De-Bug, they all embraced me and helped me,” she says, “I was alone and I was fighting these bunch of liars.” Not only did De-Bug help her manage her pain and isolation, it also helped her navigate the confusing aftermath—the depositions, the vigils and rallies, the calls for justice.

She’s transformed her pain into action and now does outreach with De-Bug to families who have lost loved ones. “It’s hard,” she admits. “It triggers everything that I’ve been going through.” But it also helps her heal; sitting with these families, listening to their grief and connecting them to resources reminds her of what Jayadev and other De-Buggers did for her nearly five years ago, at the darkest time in her life. De-Bug, she says, “helps us get our stories out in a powerful way so that the community can hear us.”

Jayadev credits so much of what De-Bug has achieved to the unflagging belief and hard work of those like Valdez, who have lost and suffered. But De-Bug’s success depends equally on its deep well of knowledge, tapping into what he calls an instinctual organizing IQ and applying it to new contexts, like the criminal justice system.

“They are serious veterans in the organizing game,” says William Armaline, a professor and the director of the Human Rights Collaborative at San Jose State University, and a frequent collaborator with De-Bug. “They have legit credentials; they have a legit pedigree in that work.”

Community Ties
De-Bug’s participatory defense work evolved from initial experiences with officer-involved shootings, and in 2008 the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project—the De-Bug program that handles participatory defense, named after a volunteer who died—was born. It began as a weekly meeting during which people could come to De-Bug and strategize about how to fight legal charges or criminal cases they or their loved ones were facing.

The group began to see real results. Notable successes include helping to prove the innocence of Ramon, a 28-year-old father of two, who was wrongfully accused of murder; stopping the deportation of Jeysson, a legal resident; and securing the release of a 15-year-old boy whose cognitive disabilities led him to confess to a crime he did not commit.

In the last year, the participatory defense model has expanded beyond weekly meetings. Now, every weekday, the De-Bug team heads to the Hall of Justice in downtown San Jose to assist the families of arrestees awaiting arraignment in felony criminal cases. The team splits into two groups, one of which does “court watching,” or tracking decisions made by judges, prosecutorial behaviors, bail amounts and other data points that will help De-Bug understand what’s happening on an empirical level.

The other half of the De-Bug team handles what Jayadev calls “court doing.” The public defender or someone from the team will explain that De-Bug is present to help family and friends of an incarcerated person navigate the confusing and chaotic world of arraignment court. These family and friends then filter over to the back of the court where De-Bug is stationed, and the team jumps into action.

The first step is to guide them through filling out a “community ties” form. De-Bug developed the form in collaboration with the public defender’s office so that public defenders, who are often burdened with upward of 30 cases at once, can make more compelling arguments for their clients to be released without bail or released with some form of monitoring in lieu of cash bail.

The form’s goal is to both humanize the arrestee and demonstrate the support network he or she has—who will provide lodging, rides to court, employment—thereby refuting any reason a judge could have to deny bail.

De-Bug starts its engagement with families at this stage because, Jayadev explains, the arraignment and bail hearing is arguably the most important court date. “That means everything, because people can lose their jobs, they can lose their homes, they can lose their kids if they’re just detained for a few days,” he says. Even if the community ties form isn’t successful in securing a defendant’s release, it sets in motion the process of De-Bug assisting the families in their fight to positively influence the outcome of the case.

Beyond that initial hearing, participatory defense relies on family and friends to assist a public defender by scouring evidence or building a humanizing narrative of the defendant.

Organizations in 21 cities ranging from Boston to Philadelphia to Nashville have been trained by De-Bug in participatory defense, and De-Bug, and Jayadev in particular, have gained notoriety for this model. In 2014, Jayadev was named an Ashoka Fellow; in 2017 he was nominated as a San Francisco Chronicle Visionary of the Year; and this year he was tapped as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People, in addition to winning a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called the “genius grant.” But Jayadev’s modus operandi is to downplay accolades, deflect this attention off of himself, and credit the achievements to the wider community.

Genius in Action
“His humility is really kind of astounding,” Aaron Zisser, San Jose’s former independent police auditor, says of Jayadev. “People who know Raj, they’re like, ‘Yeah, that guy is an effing genius,’ even before he got the genius grant.”

Zisser first saw that brilliance in action when he started as the IPA. He asked to meet with Jayadev to learn more about De-Bug’s work, but when he showed up to what he thought would be a one-on-one meeting, he found a group of families waiting to talk to him. “I think the implication was, ‘This is your first time meeting with us? You’re going to meet with the people who actually need to meet with you,'” Zisser says, adding that Jayadev “really stands in the background.”

Valdez seconds that sentiment. “That’s what I love about De-Bug,” she says. “They don’t put themselves first and try to take all the glory. They put the people that are impacted at the forefront.”

The more Zisser collaborated with De-Bug, the more he came to understand the effectiveness of that philosophy. Alone, families who had lost loved ones in officer-involved shootings—Zisser’s particular area of concern—stood the risk of being marginalized, of simply shouting their pain into a void or getting lost in a confusing, bureaucratic system. But as part of De-Bug, they have others to share their sorrow and they can send a unified message, giving their grievances more weight. Zisser believes that the MacArthur Fellowship will further legitimize these families’ struggles in the eyes of many.

Still, Jayadev is quick to point out that the fellowship doesn’t register with some of the people closest to him. “In a lot of the worlds we’re in, this thing didn’t mean anything. [People are] like, ‘McDonalds? Who? What?'” he chuckles. He often refers to the award as “this thing” or “the MacArthur thing,” downplaying its prestige, but it’s clear he also knows what a game changer this will be for De-Bug. “I see it as like rocket fuel,” he says. “It’s gonna put us in hyper speed.”

Systemic Change
Going into hyper speed means expanding participatory defense beyond the 21 cities it’s already in, spreading it nationally and likely even internationally, much faster than it otherwise could have. This has the potential to create the kind of systemic change the group has long dreamed of, but the irony isn’t lost on Jayadev that he won the MacArthur Fellowship for work he and other De-Buggers have long been vilified for.

Although he and De-Bug now have a working relationship with the San Jose Police Department, that used to be far from the truth. He recalls how at the beginning of the group’s involvement in officer-involved shootings and issues of police violence, it used to have to hold rallies and bang on the police department’s door to get attention; Jayadev was personally ridiculed and attacked in videos made by the Police Officers Association. Now he sits on the police chief’s Community Advisory Board and can simply send an email or a text and request a meeting. “I’ve seen him use that access really, really intelligently,” Zisser says.

As important as this progress has been, in Jayadev’s mind it’s far from enough. “We’re not giving each other ribbons ’cause we’re allowed to come to a meeting,” he says. “We think there’s another level of how to make real transformative change, and we’re trying to figure out what that is.”

One way De-Bug is attempting to push systemic change is through legislation and policy. Armaline, the SJSU professor, has collaborated on various campaigns and initiatives with De-Bug, ranging from immigration services for undocumented people to participating in the city’s cannabis equity working group to pushing the district attorney’s office on specific cases. “I work with them because I feel like I’m learning,” Armaline says. “Bottom line is they also get results.”

One such recent success was De-Bug’s support of California Senate Bill 1421, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law at the end of September. The bill amends the state penal code to grant greater public access to records of incidents involving police or correctional officers. A lot of the work to pass that bill was done by families from San Jose, Jayadev says. “They’ve done something that a lot of people I think two years ago would have said was impossible. This notion of lifting the veil just seemed so impossible.”

Several years ago at a conference, Jayadev pitched his vision for De-Bug in a workshop with a media expert. “We did our thing and were like, ‘Oh, and we think this could change the trajectory of how justice is understood in this country forever,” he says. “The criticism that we got was, ‘Look, that’s way over the top, and totally impossible, and farfetched, and you need to dial that shit down,'” he chuckles.

Luckily, Jayadev didn’t take the critique to heart. “We didn’t say anything,” he reflects back on that moment. But now he has a response for them: “This type of MacArthur thing, it’s saying, yeah, that’s exactly the road these folks are on.”

Lindsey J. Smith

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