Back to What's New

‘Voting Is My Healing’: Inside a Push to Turn Out 100,000 Crime Survivors

Eris Eady, a project organizer at the Alliance for Safety and Justice, began a Zoom call this week with a request to the hundreds of participants: Tell us why, or for whom, you are here.

The answers poured into the in-meeting chat. “For my son,” who was fatally shot. “For survivors of mental and emotional abuse.” “For myself.” “For all our Black men and boys.”

And then: “For those who don’t think that voting makes a difference.”

For all that narratives about crime shape American politics, crime survivors are rarely at the center of the conversation, if they are heard at all. Many express a sense that their voices and their needs don’t matter at the polls, just as they didn’t matter to the person who shot, assaulted or otherwise harmed them.

Hence the Zoom call, which served as the introductory event for a new campaign called #HealTheVote that aims to turn out 100,000 crime survivors for the coming election.

The Alliance for Safety and Justice, an advocacy group that supports crime prevention and rehabilitation programs instead of mass incarceration, will announce the initiative on Friday.

Its premise is that crime survivors are, like women or working-class voters or people with disabilities, a constituency with distinct needs that elected officials should be pushed to address — and also that engaging in the political process can help survivors themselves.

The campaign is nonpartisan, and it includes both Democrats and Republicans who promote a shift away from the 1990s-era “tough on crime” approach that led to mass incarceration of people of color.

Officials in both parties have supported that shift in the past few years, through initiatives including the First Step Act. But there is a stark contrast between #HealTheVote’s platform and the “law and order” messaging that President Trump and his allies — including a few speakers who lost loved ones to violence — promoted at the Republican convention last week.

Among #HealTheVote organizers, “I believe what unites us is our vision for shared safety — this value that no one is disposable, despite their worst offense,” said LaDonna Butler, a sexual-assault survivor and mental health counselor who founded the Well for Life, a healing center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Jearlyn Dennie, a pastor in Palm Coast, Fla., who is a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence and leads the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee, said she was disturbed by the lack of educational and antirecidivism resources for former prisoners in many parts of the country, and by the fact that the police often arrest people experiencing mental health crises.

“I would rather see a person get some type of services so they’re not recommitting the same crime versus have them incarcerated repeatedly,” she said.

The campaign arose from more than 40,000 phone calls that Alliance for Safety and Justice organizers made to members early in the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to relaying specific needs — like access to telehealth services and resources for people quarantined with domestic abusers — members repeatedly “expressed frustration and concern with the disconnect from the electoral process and what was happening in their communities,” said Robert Rooks, one of the group’s founders, who lost several childhood friends to violent crime.Election 2020 ›

Between now and the election, members of the campaign will train local organizers and make tens of thousands of phone calls to ensure that crime survivors know where and how to vote, said Aswad Thomas, managing director of the alliance’s Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice program, who was shot in 2009.

Organizers are also putting a heavy emphasis on survivors’ telling their stories publicly. An online tool distributed during the launch event lets participants record a brief video clip describing their experience, and puts the video in a shareable format marked with the name of the #HealTheVote campaign.

“The current moment is where we can inject our voice, our ideas, our stories to carve a pathway for everyone to listen to and adhere to as we plan what the future of the justice system should look like,” Mr. Rooks said. “What everyone is now asking is how can we do criminal justice differently, and survivors have answers.”

Some celebrities, including the rapper and singer T-Pain, will promote the effort, as will athletes like the former N.F.L. player Stedman Bailey, who retired after being shot in 2015.

Mr. Bailey and Katelyn Ohashi, a former gymnast who has spoken out about the abusive culture she experienced, are working to mobilize survivors in the sports world, where violence can be common. (“As you know, I am friends with a lot of crime survivors,” Ms. Ohashi said, a reference to the more than 160 women sexually assaulted by the former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Lawrence Nassar.)

“The reality is over 60 million Americans have been victims of crime in the last 10 years alone, and so we’re all affected or close to survivors whose voices have gone unheard and overlooked,” Ms. Ohashi said. “It’s the very act of voting that makes it clear crime survivors can’t be ignored.”

Survivors said repeatedly, both during the launch event and in interviews afterward, that they considered voting a way not only to influence policy, but to combat the sense of powerlessness and violation they felt after being attacked.

“Voting is my healing action,” Dr. Butler said. “It allows me to feel like I can make change in my own life as well as the lives of others, and that has not always been true for me as a survivor.”

Maggie Astor
The New York Times

Stay Connected