By Dorsey Nunn | Special To The OBSERVER
OPINION – I am a former slave of the state of California. As Juneteenth approaches, I want to speak about the issue of current day slavery. Juneteenth has been adopted as a federal holiday, one that has been celebrated in the African American community since 1865.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, led by Gen. Gordon Granger. They freed enslaved people who had been held in bondage almost two years after the Jan. 1, 1863. signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Despite this alleged freedom, the prohibition of slavery in the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution and the First Amendment of the California Constitution have exceptions with regards to people duly convicted of crimes. People continue to be subjected to involuntary servitude in California and are as invisible as the enslaved people met by Gen. Granger in 1865. I question the moral implications of the state and federal governments’ ongoing practice of slavery; it is one thing to punish and another to be entitled to enslave.
A couple of weeks ago while sitting in a church listening to a minister preach about Moses, I wondered why current enslavement was invisible. Why can’t people see current day slavery? Why can’t they see people being forced to work on the side of freeways as current day slaves? Why can’t they see people being forced to work in parks, shoring up levees in the valley, fighting forest fires and countless other jobs extracted through threats and punishment by the state as current day slaves? Moreover, why can’t they see people being rented out to corporations by the state and traded on the stock exchange as current day slaves? I do not believe people can volunteer at gunpoint or while imprisoned. I wonder if Moses showed up today if we could really see him or his enslaved parents.
The narrative associated with right and wrong is so potent that it renders people indifferent. People assume because it is legal, it must be just and it must be right. History has more than enough examples where laws were proven to be unjust over the course of time. Chattel slavery is just one example.
If Assembly Constitution Amendment 3 (ACA3) passes in the California Senate, the issue of whether prisoners should be enslaved will be put on the California ballot. If it is put to a vote, it will be the first time in multiple generations that the California electorate will have the opportunity to vote on anything regarding slavery. I believe faith leaders will get a chance to ask themselves and their congregations, “What would Moses do if given an opportunity to vote on the issue of slavery?”
Ultimately, if the historic ACA3 winds up on the ballot, I want to offer my formerly incarcerated staff and All of Us or None members to speak or lead discussions on this most important political and moral issue. People could see my incarceration, but they still have not caught up with the notion of my enslavement.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dorsey Nunn is a leading expert with more than 40 years of professional experience in criminal justice reform. He is the first formerly incarcerated director of a public interest law office in California. Dorsey was sentenced to life in the California Department of Corrections when he was 19 years old. Under his leadership, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children has made significant advances including the development of the Elder Freeman Policy Fellowship, legal victories including the Ashker lawsuit ending long-term solitary confinement in California, and policy victories including the end of shackling of pregnant women and numerous Ban the Box laws passed in the public and private sectors.