This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Political commentator and activist Van Jones’ We Rise Tour made a stop at The Fillmore Philadelphia on Thursday night to lift the spirits of the City of Brotherly Love and to talk about the problem of mass incarceration.
Through a partnership with Roc Nation, an entertainment company started by rapper JAY-Z, Jones began his 14-city tour in Los Angeles on July 6. Joined by special guests at each stop of the tour, the two-time best-selling author discusses criminal justice reform and the turbulent political climate.
Philadelphia was the fifth stop on the tour and the special guests included recording artist Meek Mill, former district attorney of Suffolk County in Massachusetts John Adam Foss, and Fusion TV host Kimberly Brooks.
Comedian David A. Arnold emceed the event, which was attended by about 300 people, and there were musical performances, as well.
“We simply want to just begin to bring good people together because we believe good people can solve big problems,” said Jones. “And there is no problem that I have seen in all my travels across this country that is more urgent and more right to be solved than this question of mass incarceration. It’s just right here to be solved.”
During his travels throughout the country as a political commentator for CNN, Jones said, he saw “the exact same thing” in parts of the country such as West Virginia, South Central Los Angeles, and parts of Arizona. He listed addiction, poverty, high death rates, and “a broken criminal justice system making everything worse and not better.”
“The skin color may be different, the accents may be different,” he said. “But it’s the same in West Virginia as it is in South Central [Los Angeles].”
In 2014, Jones, a former green jobs adviser for the Obama administration, co-founded Dream Corps, a nonprofit incubator for social justice initiatives. Among them is #Cut50, which is a bipartisan effort to reduce the number of people in jails.
With the support of both Democrats and Republicans, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Republican, #Cut50 seeks to reduce the prison population by 50 percent in less than 10 years.
Proceeds from the event will go toward Dream Corps initiatives and local charities.
Rapper Meek Mill joined Jones onstage for a sit-down conversation about his experience in the criminal justice system.
In 2008, Meek was incarcerated for eight months for a gun and drug conviction stemming from an incident that happened when he was 18. And now at almost 30, he said the mistakes from his past still follow him.
“I can’t leave the city without asking another adult, ‘Can I take my son to Dorney Park, or to Disney World?’” he said. “I am still suffering from that to this day.”
Befoore Jones and Mill took the stage, Foss and Brooks warmed up the crowd with a brief discussion about the criminal justice system from the perspective of a former prosecutor.
Recently, it was reported that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions encouraged federal prosecutors to seek the harshest punishment for criminal offenses. In light of this, Foss, a strong believer in restorative justice, said Washington isn’t where all of the power lies.
“The criminal justice system is on our hands, the local elections, the local voters,” said Foss. “Ninety percent of the prison population are there because of state and local prosecutors, not because of the federal government.”
After the show, Foss also weighed in on the juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania, which has the highest number of juvenile lifers in the country. He said the environment that youth grow up in “dictate the outcomes of their future.”
“If we are going to blame a person for doing a bad crime [as a teenager], we need to blame ourselves for all the opportunities we had to stop that crime from happening by giving those kids the same things that everybody else has,” he said.
“This nonsense of sending kids to prison for life because of something they did, even though it was a really bad thing, we need to understand where that came from and fix that.”
In a speech to close the event, Jones offered a new perspective on the country’s place in history. He said democracy wasn’t realized until the late 1960s—after slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement — and called the United States a “brand new democracy.” And because it is a new democracy, “we’re founders” tasked with creating a better country, where mass incarceration doesn’t exist, he said.
“We have to be unequivocal that locking people up by the millions in the way that we’re doing is not consistent with the democracy we’re building,” he said.
The We Rise Tour will continue through Aug. 19, with its final stop in Las Vegas at the House of Blues. The next stop is the Apollo Theater in New York City on Aug. 5.
The Notebook is one of 15 partner news organizations comprising The Reentry Project. This piece is part of an occasional series — across the region and across platforms — on the challenges facing people returning from prison and what can be done about them. See our collective work at: https://thereentryproject.org