“What if you can still feel a sense of justice without reaching out to the legal system? What if you still can have access to healing without punishment? What if this person who harmed you can do the hard work to never harm anyone ever again? Would that feel like justice for you? And if so, how can we support you in achieving that goal?” – Mike Milton, founder of the Freedom Community Center
On this opening episode of Freedom Dreams: Season 2, Mike Milton, founder of the Freedom Community Center in St. Louis, Missouri is building a movement of survivors in order to design systems that actually keep us safe, rooted in Black freedom, self-determination and healing.
MIKE Milton: Like, yo, what if you can still feel a sense of justice without reaching out to the legal system? What if you still can have access to healing without punishment? What if this person who harmed you can do the hard work to never harm anyone ever again? Would that feel like justice for you? And if so, how can we support you in, in achieving that goal?
AMANDA Alexander: Welcome back to Freedom Dreams. We are so excited about this new season in which we’re talking to people who are building powerful solutions to violence.
We as abolitionists are often accused of not taking violence seriously when that could not be further from the truth. We take violence and harm so seriously that we’re trying to find solutions that actually prevent and address it. At the Detroit Justice Center, we are honored to be part of a community of builders, violence interrupters, healers, organizers, restorative justice practitioners, and movement lawyers that stretches from Detroit to Brooklyn to St. Louis, to Jackson, Mississippi. And we’re not building from scratch. We’re building upon a foundation laid by elders and ancestors.
CASEY Rocheteau: Mike Milton is one of several organizers around the country that we’re gonna meet this season. He runs the Freedom Community Center in North St. Louis.
MIKE: Our mission is to build a movement of survivors, those who are directly impacted by violence, so that we can design systems that actually keep us safe, rooted in Black freedom, self-determination and healing.
CASEY: They also use restorative and transformative justice practices to address incarceration.
MIKE: We make peace. Um, we practice transformative responses to violence, but we also build power. We believe that any pathway towards doable change for Black people, for people, um, who are poor, um, marginalized, queer people, fem people. The only way to real freedom is that if we gathered our collective liberation, and we also fought against systems and created our own. So, that’s pretty much the work that we do in short.
CASEY: I’m Casey Rocheteau, Communications Director at the Detroit Justice Center (DJC).
AMANDA: And I’m Amanda Alexander, the founding Executive Director of DJC.
CASEY: And this is Freedom Dreams.
AMANDA: The show that knows another world is possible, because we’re talking to the people who are building it. People like the brilliant and open-hearted, Mike Milton.
Beat of music
AMANDA: How did you come to this work, Mike?
MIKE: I came to this work because I’m personally formerly incarcerated. Um, but I had some, some very transformative experiences through community, um, both before I was incarcerated and after, during and after. And a lot of that was like, yo, like people who loved me so much and was like, you know, there is ways that you can stop doing harm.But also, it takes an examination of why you do harm.
And a lot of that was because I was harmed myself. I’m a survivor of sexual assault, but also gun violence and, and other type of types of violence in my communities. But really it came down to what does it look like for us to dream of a future that does not depend on the legal system. That does not depend that, that has other structures of accountability, um, that I was raised in. So I was raised in like, if we fought in our neighborhood, the community centers would come in and like break us up, you know, like, you go over there, I’m gonna tell your mom, I’m gonna tell your grandmother.
Police wasn’t really, you know, cycling in our communities when I was growing up. We, we took care of ourselves. And so, um, a lot of our work, a lot of me coming to this work is, is about reestablishing and really honoring the work of our ancestors, um, who created systems to keep us safe and really uplifting systems that we know keep us safe in it, in the long-term.
AMANDA: Thank you. That feels like it’s been a running theme this season for us is like a lot of this isn’t, we’re not creating it from scratch. We’re building off of the work that so many elders and ancestors have already laid for us, so thank you. Casey, do you wanna do the next question?
CASEY: Yeah. Before we have you sort of walk us through the process, what would you say are some of the root causes of violence in St.Louis?
MIKE: Yeah. I think the root causes of violence in St. Louis is the root cause of violence pretty much everywhere. Um, we look at it as political violence taught us how violence happens in our communities because they have starved us as resources, because they have used public policy to divest from our communities, to divest from structures that actually keep us safe: our school systems, our healthcare system.
That has left us in a state of starvation, and it was intentional. We know that the legal system is rooted in racial violence and white supremacy. We know that a lot of these policies, these public policies – redlining, housing – are rooted in capitalism and rooted in white supremacy.
And so, yeah, I think that the core, the deep core, of violence that happens in our communities was because they taught us about isolation. They taught us about violence – how to use systems and power and whiteness to uphold the system of white supremacy. And so before I even get into anything around community violence, um, we talk about that exact root. That if we have any choice, any hope of coming to a whole community again, we must address the systems and the policies and the legislation that actually caused harm.
AMANDA: Thank you. Could you talk now about, um, could you describe the process that the Freedom Community Center undertakes to deal with incidents of harm? Could you walk us through the steps of that?
MIKE: Our first goal is – One of our programs, we have a program called Group Track Sponsored Recognizance. So the last five years I’ve been working in the bill work, um, figuring out ways in which we can eliminate cash bail in our communities, um, as a system. And so far we’ve won in a lot of ways.
We went from – in 2018, about only 4% of people released on their own recognizance to now about 45 to 50% of people released on their own recognizance. The negative part of that is that it actually switched to now, um, not having unaffordable cash bail to defacto unaffordable cash bail with no bond allowed determinations, which basically means that people are now trapped in cages without any options to get bail.
And so what we do is, is that one-half of our program is that we actually sponsor release for serious violence. So, people who have been accused of second-degree murder, people who are accused of robbery-first, assault-first, shootings, stabbings, um, families impacted by death – we interview those inside of the jails, and then we advocate for the release into our process where they do 12 weeks of nonviolence courses. They also sign up for therapy if they, if they want, if they so choose to. But in that process, um, it’s a restorative process around nonviolence that essentially helps them take accountability in their life. And then we use that work that they’ve done with us over that 12 weeks to advocate for their continued release or amendments of the charges, or either their cases being dropped. So, that’s one half of it, is that we continue to fight in the bail realm by continued pretrial release, um, through sponsored recognizance.
The other half of our programming is we do community response to violence. So, um, we have organizers who knock on doors every week, thousands of doors every week, um, to really ask them what the community needs and collect their data. But, we also give them a number and if they experience violence, if they see violence, if they hear of violence, and they think that restorative justice could be the way, then they can call us, and then we set out an outreach team who actually come and mediate the situation, um, and does endure a restorative justice process or a healing justice process to, to bring us towards reconciliation, healing, and freedom.
Um, and a lot of that work is done before they even get to the legal system. And so we would call the community response. So, that’s one half of our work, um, in our transformative response to violence work is that we on the ground, we in the neighborhoods, um, we’re literally sometimes snatching guns outta people hands. Um, we’re literally protecting women. Um, and a lot of that is based around our thoughts for our survivors. How do we get survivors to immediate safety? I mean, how can we support them, um, and using transformative practices like pod mapping – like family mediation – how can we equip this neighborhood to really use these tools on their own so they can both stop violence before even violence happens, but also know how to respond and have the tools and skills to respond to violence when it does happen. But, we just support that neighborhood.
AMANDA: This is incredible. Mike, and I have lots of questions that flow from that, the first one though is kind of a smaller one. So, for those who might not be familiar with what pod mapping is, can you talk about what that means in practice?
MIKE: Yeah, yeah. We know that the answer to violence is always belonging, always community, always care. So pod mapping is really an opportunity to assess the people who are in your life, who can either hold you accountable when you want to do violence or also interrupt violence when, um, we know violence is aware. Like, for an example, we had one domestic violence couple that we were working with. Well, I’ll put it this way: we had a couple who were in the cycle of domestic violence, um, and they decided that they wanted to stay together. And they had got pretty violent for a while. They were shooting at each other at one point. Um, it’s pretty violent, and we really wanna honor people’s self-determination in whatever decision that they make.
And so, um, one of the things that we did was that we said, “Look, yo, who are the people that you can call that knows your patterns, who knows y’all, who can really expose some of these things and bring it to the light, but also who you can trust, who can interrupt – in case it happens. And then one of them, I mean, one of the people who was in their pod was the next door neighbor, right? And so we did some work with this family, with this couple, to figure out like, what are some of the cycles, um, when does it happen? What are some of the trigger points for both of you that, for, for both of y’all that this happens? Um, and one of them was like, you know, it really happens after he come home from work. He’s really tired, he’s really exhausted, and, um, you know, and we never know how those days are gonna go. And so one of the things that, um, she wanted was, she wanted her neighbor to be available, um, after 9:00 PM. She gave us a window: I’m available from 9 to like 1:30, so that if something happens or if I hear something, I’ll come and knock on the door. And then I have these numbers that I also can call, that we all worked on together.
So, really pod mapping is a network. How can we establish your community around you, who you trust, who you love, who you feel like you belong to, and vice versa. And then also how can we equip them to support you when you need it the most? And what are some of the things that we need to be aware of so we can step in when it’s time? And so that’s really what it is – it’s creating a new system of support and family around each individual that knows how to love them in times when they feel, um, scared, afraid, hurt, um, but also when they, when they feel like they need to hurt, uh, or the need to harm. Um, and really, what does it look like ultimately to slowly but surely walk out of that process along with this community, because we know that a lot of violence happens in isolation. Which is exactly why we must stop the legal system. We must abolish the legal system because it generates violence, it’s predicated on isolation.
MIKE: Capitalism is predicated on isolation. It’s predicated on shame. It’s predicated on literal blame. Right? So how do we create systems that are the literal antithesis of that exists – where love, belonging, and care, and compassion can happen? And that’s really where the pod mapping is really centered in.
AMANDA: We’ll be back after a short break.
CASEY: What does it mean for you to take a survivor-centered approach to violence and what does it look like in practice?
MIKE: It’s a beautiful question. A lot of the training that we do at FCC is around empathy and listening. And what does empathetic listening look like? Um, so a survivor-centered approach is literally sitting with survivors of harm and listening to what they need, to what they want, to what they find is safe for them, what they need in our feeling to be safe again.
I might get choked up a couple times, y’all, ‘cause one I’m emotional, but two, we just lost one of our participants, uh, last week or two weeks ago. Um, but it’s, it’s literally sitting with someone and listening without judgment, without understanding, I mean, with understanding. It’s a process of, of putting your vulnerable process, of putting yourself in their shoes, and really listening for what they need with the realization that rage may be there, that sorrow may be there, that grief may be there, that lovelessness might be there. Um, and not judging their emotions at the time, but also, taking their guidance as they figure out what they need in order for them to be safe long-term.
And so I, but that does not mean, um, that we, you know, that we respond to everything that the survivor wants as us being a community-based organization. ‘Cause sometimes the survivor might say that I want incarceration, you know, and we don’t try to change their minds, but we do present options for them.
Like, yo, what if you can still feel a sense of justice without reaching out to the legal system? What if you still can have access to healing without punishment? What if this person who harmed you can do the hard work to never harm anyone ever again? Would that feel like justice for you? And if so, how can we support you in achieving that goal?
So really I just say it means listening. It means care and compassion in a way that’s communal. And, it means facilitating a process where they can, where one can feel safe possibly again.
AMANDA: That’s beautiful. Um, it reminded me of conversations that I’ve heard Danielle talk about with Common Justice where they say, you know, we offer this opportunity and it’s something like 90/95% of people take it? What has been your experience of having those conversations in St. Louis? Is it the same, or are there many people who are still wanting to opt for incarceration and indictment and all of that – what have you found?
MIKE: Every time, you know, Danielle say that I get chills.
AMANDA: Popping in here real quick. So, Danielle – who I just mentioned – that’s Danielle Sered. She’s also a guest this season on the show. Danielle runs Common Justice, a restorative justice program in New York City. That 90 to 95 percent stat I just gave: I’m talking about the fact that when victims of serious harm, who have been given the choice of seeing the person who harmed them incarcerated, or seeing them take part in a restorative justice process, 90% of them choose Common Justice. What has been your experience of having those conversations in St. Louis? Is it the same, or are there many people who are still wanting to opt for incarceration and indictment and all of that – what have you found?
MIKE: Um, that is not our exact experience because we reached out to people very close to the harm. And so we are under the understanding that this will take time for folks.
MIKE: And we don’t try to rush through that time. For an example, there was a 13-year-old who unfortunately stole his grandmother’s car, picked up his cousin, picked up one of his friends. The car lost control, and, um, he lost control of the car and he ran into a tree. And unfortunately, uh, all three of his friends, including his cousin, had died in the car. They charged him with four counts of manslaughter. Now, we’re dealing with this family, right? Like where the, the mother, the mothers of both the person who did the harm and the person who, who lost their baby, are like, I don’t even know what to do with all of this. So we spent, we did one RJ circle with them – we did a couple of RJ circles with them – but the first RJ circle we did with them, um, it was almost like six hours. And, um, they had finally got at the end of that six hours out of all of the pain and rage. Um, all of the, the fact that I lost my baby, all of the fact that your son, who if you wasn’t on, you know, your substances, he probably would be in a better position. Like all of this blame, pointing at each other. Uh, we had finally got to a point where the mother who lost their child said, we don’t have to lose another one because of this incident. But that took so much labor.
MIKE: And it’s so much, uh, work to make the space safe. And, it took so much hope for her, for her to finally say, okay, I don’t wanna pursue prosecution for him because we, we don’t have to lose another one, um, because of this. And so, although that’s not our direct experience when it comes to survivors – um, and that’s because we are so close to the harm – um, what we do often see, and we don’t, we don’t, you know, measure it yet, but what we do often see is that when you are patient enough, they can dream of other alternatives themselves.
MIKE: And it’s because they deeply feel within them that there’s ways to, to get to, to get to justice, or that this legal system won’t actually gimme the justice that I want. Like, even if he does get incarcerated for three counts of manslaughter, it will not bring my baby back. It won’t. And so I think survivors, I think Daniel is right. The survivors have an innate sense of what they need and they know a structure like the legal system, like the prison industrial complex, is incapable of providing the justice that they need or the healing that they need. That part I know is true.
AMANDA: Thank you, Mike. And to clarify for listeners who might not understand the distinction: So when you’re saying that you’re working with people who are very close to the harm, you’re saying closer in time often than what Common Justice is able to do?
AMANDA: Because my understanding is that often those are cases that have gone, you know, through the, um, the charging, the indictment stage. So they’re further along. It’s further after the fact of the harm.
AMANDA: And you guys, part of your, you know, intervention here is that it’s much earlier in the process.
AMANDA: Like sometimes you’re saying, you know, if particularly the, um, sponsored recognizance work, like that might be within hours of something happening, right?
MIKE: Yeah. Um, yes, for sure. Yeah. We work all the way. They call it intercepts zero to four. Zero is like pre-charge to no legal system. Four is, uh, post indictment to incarceration to sentencing. So we worked literally, um, both in our organizing work and in our direct service work from the literal beginning stages, within hours of the harm, all the way into post-indictment. We do have some post indictment cases, too. Uh, the beauty that we learned from Common Justice is that, you know, um, with the agreements with the Court, but we do it differently because we don’t have agreements with the prosecutor. But, we literally show up to court hearings in full community power.
MIKE: So the community coming up, including the survivor at the sentencing, is saying, no, we actually disagree with whatever you’re trying to do. Right. And, it has actually organized the judges, organized the prosecutors, organized the defense attorneys to listen to us, as community power, uh, which I love. You know, we don’t have the same luxury as Danielle to have that relationship with the prosecutor’s office, nor do we want one.
But we, we actually have seen that it’s possible, uh, for the community to have enough power to literally stop the tracks of violence that incarceration does. And so that’s why we kind of, we kind of look at it from that scale. We can work with people who are about to be released from the hospital, got shot 24 hours before, is intending on harming someone, kind of like the hospital intervention work, all the way ‘till they’ve been waiting in pre-trial for two and a half years. Because the length of stay at pretrial detention in St. Louis City is about 385 days more than a year. So they could, they’re not even going to trial yet. So we work with people who are years from the harm and also really early on in, in between the process of the harm.
AMANDA: Got it, got it. That’s incredible – that range. Um, one other question before we move on. So, um, Mike, this question of community power has come up, um, and I’m wondering what has it taken to build that up? Um, my understanding is that it sounds like some of this is connected to other fights in the city, like the fight to close the workhouse. Can you talk about, like maybe backing us up a few years, what has it taken to build the power to this point?
MIKE: Oh my goodness. Um, shout out to Action St. Louis. Shout out to our city defenders, my Comrades in this work.
MIKE: It takes a lot, a lot, a lot of labor, a lot of one-on-ones. I remember someone told me, actually, Rich McClure, he told me a long time ago, if you’re not doing at least 40 one-on-ones a week, you’re not organizing. Also, a lot of connecting with folks.
But over the years, I will say because of the closing of the workhouse, because of the electoral power that Action St. Louis has been able to establish, a lot of it has been, um, and because we also used the, the gasoline that Ferguson gave us a worldwide revolutionary time in our, in our country and in our world.
MIKE: Um, we’ve used that to really flip the political landscape on its head and really empower, um, the people to have real political choice, real political will and fight in every election cycle. So both of our prosecutors are progressive, if that’s a such thing. Um, the whole board of alderman in the city has been flipped to where everybody’s progressive now.
Um, it has taken us narrative shift, doing narrative shifting work, locally in St. Louis. How do we switch? How do we not allow of conservative politics? How do we not allow, um, even liberal politics centric, centric to politics,to drive the narrative around violence in our communities? How do we continue to bring us back that the reason why we’re here is because of the years in disinvestment of our community – the years of moving us around Black flight and white flight, the years of closing our schools. I really let that be the playing field for where we start the conversation.
We did not get here overnight. We did not get here because Black people chose to get in the car and drive around and shoot people. We got here because of the political violence that now exists. And now that we’ve risen that from the top, we’ve risen that and brung that to the surface, we’re able to do something about it in real time. And, so a lot of it has been narrative shifting work. It has been a lot of connecting with folks.
Specifically, FCC’s version of working that is that we have a biweekly meeting that we hold, um, Black only space, where we bring in survivors of violence. So, we literally just asked them, “Yo, what do y’all want?” Um, what do you dream, if we have 567 million dollars of the general fund budget and only 3% of that money goes towards social services? Uh, 0.3, excuse me, but over 60% goes towards public safety. We know that arrest and incarceration models does not work for us, does not keep us safe. If so, we would be the safest city in the country. What if you had 500 million dollars? What would you want? And grandmothers who are, who probably voted for three strikes in ‘92, are saying, yo, you know, I, if we had community centers, right, if we had things for people to do, if we were able to have jobs for our young folks and our young people to have things to do. What if we had a basketball night? They dreamed about options, and it really empowered them. So now when they wanna use ARPA funds to give to policing for elevators or cars, these same grandmothers could be like, no, no, no, no – we’ve been doing that for years. It does not work. Now is a once in a life, a once in a lifetime chance for us to meaningfully invest into our streets, into lights, into our schooling, into our health. I demand that you do something different, and I think that’s what really helped us change and flip the power dynamic on its head.
CASEY: Could you talk a little bit about why it’s important for you and for FCC to do this work outside of the criminal legal system?
MIKE: It’s important because the legal system is not for Black people. It’s for protecting, uh, capital. It’s for protecting businesses, it’s for protecting property. It’s not about, um, actual public safety. Um, it’s important because people – Black people, poor people, fem people, queer people are geniuses. They’re geniuses.
For an example, in the 1960s, the first thought around domestic violence shelters came from Black women in neighborhoods creating spaces in their basements. Because, um, they, they, they wanted to create a space for people to be safe when their, their partner is, is harming them. So, they would have magazines in their, in their basements, and they would have coffee and they would have warm blankets, right? White women, and I can specifically say that with citation, um, and the Violence Against Women Act, used the beauty of that in, of that, of that ingenuity, of that creativity, and said let’s create domestic violence shelters and let’s do something around white feminism. Let’s do something around, um, and cause, let’s do something around interrupting violence, interrupting this violence, but, but let’s involve mandatory arrest on the first call when domestic violence calls happened, which really exploded. Exploded mass incarceration, right? And so because Black people, poor people – there’s a scripture, I come from the church world – it says those who are poor in spirit are rich in faith, right? Poor people, Black people, fem people have been forced to create systems in order for them to be safe because they never had a system where they were safe. And so it’s even more, it’s so much more important for us to tap into that creativity, tap into that ingenuity, because one, we will create something better and different. But two, because the legal system is ultimately generative of violence.
CASEY: What are your freedom dreams, and what do you like 50, a hundred years from now, hope is the legacy for your work?
MIKE: Oh my goodness. I want Black people to be free, happy and whole. I want Black people to have their autonomy to create what they want to create. I want Black people to have family, strong family structures and picnics and barbecues like we used to.
I want Black people to not be starving for resources, to be self-determined, to not operate 90% of the time at overregulated and overstimulated, and having the tools to, to address harm themselves, to address their inner harm and their inner voice. I want Black people to have joy. That’s my freedom dream. Sounds a lot like heaven.
AMANDA: Hmm. Thank you, Mike. I’m so deeply, deeply grateful, um, for you and for all of your work.
MIKE: Thank y’all.
CASEY: Freedom Dreams is a production of the Detroit Justice Center. Special thanks to our team: Zak Rosen our producer….
AMANDA: The Freedom Dreams’ theme song is by Asante. Our artwork is by Gunner and Hobbes. If you want to learn more about today’s episode, head to FreedomDreamsPodcast.com. You can email us a voice memo of your Freedom Dream at Freedom Dreams AT Detroit Justice DOT org.
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