Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
2017 Ripple of Hope Gala
December 13, 2017
Speaking at the University of Georgia at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Daddy said: “All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.”
2017 is a difficult and perplexing time.
Over the past year, we have endured a full frontal assault on human rights and the very values which are the greatest strengths of our nation.
The current administration closed borders and shut the door to refugees
They encourage hate, even as hate based crimes and harassment of Muslims, the LBGTQI community, and women, increase.
At the highest levels, our country emboldened and armed human rights abusers in Turkey, China, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Nigeria and beyond.
They expanded conflict, increased the military force, put the CIA back into the killing business, and our Chief Executive has promised to bring back torture.
Meanwhile, they’ve cut resources to a world in crisis- slashing funding for the UN, capping support for UN Peacekeeping, and gutting diplomacy.
Our public lands have been stolen from us and handed over to private interests for the accumulation of personal wealth.
As hundreds of thousands of courageous women have come forth to declare #metoo, policy protections against assault in the workplace and reproductive rights are shattered.
They rolled back critical protections on health care, climate change, and fighting corruption
And, Donald Trump’s attacks on his critics and threats of prosecution against members of the press have had repercussions across the globe. Totalitarian regimes threaten, arrest, disappear and torture journalists, dissidents and human rights activists, quoting the President of the United States and citing fake news.
In the face of this war on human decency, we look to Robert Kennedy for inspiration. He told us not to be mired in saying “Why;” but to ask, “Why not?” Why Not create an America which is a city on a hill, a beacon of hope, an oasis for those who flee persecution and hunger for justice.
Tonight, I’d like to tell you about two of our efforts, which exemplify the work of our team of lawyers and what we are able to accomplish because of the support of all of you in this room.
A few weeks ago, I returned from Mexico, where RFK Human Rights has been working for nearly 20 years.
In Juarez, we met with the mothers and grandmothers of women who had been murdered—in each case, with signs of sexual assault.
One after the other, they talked about their children—she had dreams, she wanted to be a doctor said one. Another told us her 15 year old daughter’s body was found, but not that of her 24 day old grandchild. Femicide is the crime of gender based homicide—typically associated with rape and murder. In Juarez, there is virtual impunity for femicide.
When we met with the local prosecutor, she explained that she has a backlog of 14,000 cases of violence against women, for which she has 11 investigators. 14,000 cases; 11 investigators. When we asked how many people were disappeared this year, she casually guesstimated, “less than 50 a month”.
So, we partnered with local council, and we are suing the government of Mexico for failure to protect women against femicide. This is a tough one, but our team of lawyers at RFK human rights has NEVER LOST A CASE.
We intend to win this one.
On April 4, 1968, Daddy broke the news to a crowd of thousands in the largest ghetto in Indianapolis that their hero, Martin Luther King, had been killed. He talked about losing his brother to gun violence, he quoted Aeschuylus, that we should seek to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of the world. Then he asked the crowd to go home and say a prayer for the King family, and for our country.
That night 125 cities burned in the United States. But Indianapolis was peaceful.
Reacting to the riots, white politicians proclaimed they no longer had a duty to address the degradation in the ghettos. Daddy reminded White leaders about their role in creating and benefiting from the structures in society which led to the riots. He said we have a moral obligation to address the destruction. His words about the mindless menace of violence resonate across the decades.
At RFK Human Rights we address mass incarceration. Here in New York, we focus on ending unjust pretrial incarceration, disposing of cash bail, and closing Rikers Island.
In New York, when someone is accused of a crime, he is brought before a judge, who sets bail. If you are rich, you just pay the bail, and you go home, to your family, to your school, to your career, to prepare for trial. But, if you are too poor to make bail, for the EXACT same crime, you are not sent home. Instead, BECAUSE YOU ARE POOR, you are sent to Rikers island to await trial. 80 percent of the people on Rikers are merely accused of a crime, and are awaiting trial. Today, there are about 1200 high school students in cages at Rikers, none of whom have been convicted of a crime, all at Rikers instead of in school simply because they cannot afford bail. Does that make sense? Do you know how much that costs taxpayers? $270,000 per high school student, per year, to sit in cages instead of sending them to high school, ONLY because they cannot afford to make bail!
These are our children. Pedro Hernandez is one of those children.
Surely, we can do better than that.
The solution is simple. The solution is reforming pretrial incarceration and ending cash bail forever. That is our main legislative agenda.
But kids in cages cannot wait around for the slow grind of legislative change. They need help now. So, we are partnering with local bail funds, and we are bailing them out. Between RFK Human Rights, our dollar bail brigade, and the bail funds, we have emancipated over 100 people from Rikers in the last 4 months. We couldn’t do it without you in this room.
At RFK Human Rights, we have joined the coalition, led by our human rights award laureate, Glenn Martin, demanding to close Rikers. 12 months ago at this gala, you all chanted Close Rikers Now. 6 months later, in response to our work and that of the coalition, Mayor DeBlasio agreed to close it down. Congratulations. Now our task is to join Glenn and others to make sure we close rikers sooner than the decade timeframe City Hall has laid out. We must close Rikers now.
What I have learned in 35 years of human rights work, is that change can happen, but only when individuals , then small groups of determined people, then larger and larger groups, harness the dream of freedom and make it come true. Daddy said one person can make a difference. Just think of the difference all of us in this room, working together, can make. That's what tonight is all about. That’s why you are here. This is not a tranquil world. These times are indeed difficult. They are perplexing, and they are filled with opportunity. Together, we will close Rikers Island.
Together we will end cash bail. Together we will free prisoners from Egypt to Bangladesh. Together we will end violence against women, and together we will take back our country.