VOTE Speaks Out Against ANTIGRAVITY Magazine’s Attack on OPPRC & Help Not Handcuffs

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Bruce Reilly, J.D., Vice President of Voice of the Experienced VOTE took to social media last weekend to criticize ANTIGRAVITY Magazine for a story about the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition’s (OPPRC) Help Not Handcuffs (HNH) campaign that was based on misinformation. Help Not Handcuffs is an effort to create a non-police crisis response team that will respond to 911 calls involving people who are experiencing mental health crises. The team’s goal would be to deescalate these crisis situations to prevent intervention by law enforcement. 

“For the past decade we have been reforming the system. Banning the Box in jobs, education and housing; restoring voting rights; capping the jail size, ending the non-unanimous jury, reducing solitary confinement, allowing jury service, changing the guilty plea process creating parole eligibility and much more that reduced the prison population by over 25%,” said Reilly. VOTE has even replaced oppressive elected officials. 

“And all along the way, through successes and failures, there was always an abolitionist, usually not impacted by the system, criticizing this as ‘not radical enough.’ Idealistic pontifications often masquerade as critical analysis. Once upon a time, a lot of us were making pennies an hour as incarcerated labor, and now we’ve got people spending so many hours criticizing our reforms. It’s a bit ironic, don’t ya think?” Reilly concluded.  

OPPRC Executive Director Sade Dumas previously stated that the September 2021 article in ANTIGRAVITY Magazine was filled with “false and wildly malicious statements.” As to be expected, OPPRC asked that the article be retracted. In a lengthy rebuttal submitted directly to ANTIGRAVITY editor Dan Fox, OPPRC corrected many of the story’s misconceptions.

The article states near its beginning that OPPRC advocates building ‘a crisis stabilization center’ and then spends much of the rest of the story attacking that same idea. In fact, neither OPPRC nor the HNH coalition advocates for or supports forced care. The goal of the program is to do exactly the opposite of what the article speculates – that the crisis response would not involve a jail or any such “center,” let alone transport by law enforcement officers to a facility used for involuntary hospitalization. “That practice is abhorrent to OPPRC’s mission and the members of the HNH initiative,” OPPRC wrote.  

The story also implies that OPPRC supports increased funding to police as well as continued – and perhaps even escalated – involvement by police in response to 911 calls concerning mental health crises. “This implication is also categorically false. OPPPRC has consistently fought increased spending for police and jails and has been a leader in local efforts to defund police,” OPPRC explained. “It was OPPRC’s commitment to this ant to minimize community contact with police and the jail that led to the creation of the HNH campaign.”

Dumas says the crisis response program is designed to be accessed by calling 911 – which is operated by the Orleans Parish Communications District  – and not the NOPD. Therefore, citizens who want to access the crisis response team can do so without enhancing police involvement. 

The article also implies that OPPRC started the HNH campaign and task force without including impacted individuals and communities. “OPPRC poured tremendous resources, as well as staff and volunteer time, into ensuring active and inclusive community participation,” the group continued. That effort included community listening sessions attended by more than 500 citizens in every district of the city. Prior to those sessions, OPPRC launched a radio and social media campaign, reached out to dozens of partnered and allied organizations to spread the word, and worked with scores of volunteers to canvas neighborhoods. Host organizations which focus on mental illness were specifically invited to participate. All materials were translated and live interpretation of sessions – all held in ADA compliant buildings – was provided in Spanish, Vietnamese and American Sign Language.  

Because of these thorough community outreach efforts, stakeholders participated in drafting ordinances and resolutions, testified at City Council meetings, and remained actively involved in the ongoing process. “We made an enormous effort to be inclusive and have never barred anyone from any level of participation in this effort,” OPPRC stated.

In a third stinging denial of ANTIGRAVITY Magazine’s untruths, OPPRC denounces the reference to a lack of detail and ambiguity regarding the ultimate plan that will emerge from the Crisis Intervention Strategy Task Force (CISTF). Though Executive Director Sade Dumas was interviewed for the article on July 6, 2021, the task force had its first and only meeting on August 24. Naturally the details of the final product were vague and largely unknown at the time of Dumas’ interview. 

If ANTIGRAVITY’s reporters believe, said OPPRC, “that certain individuals and organizations have been omitted, they are more than welcome to invite them in. If they wish to raise specific concerns about the HNH campaign, OPPRC and its partners are very available for those conversations. However, misrepresenting our work, our intentions and our fundamental ontology regarding policing and detention throughout an 11,000 word article does not read as constructive criticism – it reads as a hit piece.”  

Anti-Gravity editor Dan Fox responded to OPPRC’s concerns in a series of Tweets.

“One of the features in our September issue explores the “Help Not Handcuffs” campaign and those organizations and people who support it. The authors began with a series of questions and went where the story took them, without an agenda,” said Fox. “After extensive interviews and research, the story’s overall narrative describes a campaign that seems progressive in its intent but unclear in its potential execution, in these early stages – an important bit of context this feature acknowledges repeatedly. 

One of the many groups interviewed (Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition) has expressed disappointment with the article on social media and in correspondence with ANTIGRAVITY and has asked for its retraction in whole or in part. Months of research and reporting went into this feature, drawing on work by longtime movement leaders and other sources. We interviewed local politicians, medical providers, legal experts, OPPRC, harm reduction activists, and more people who declined to speak on the record.

We understand that not everyone will agree with the analyses or framing of this feature. But after further review, we find the quotes and specific facts of this piece to be substantiated; hence we see no need at this time to correct, amend, or retract this feature.  ANTIGRAVITY stands behind the validity of this work. And while the feature is extensive in its scope and word count, we understand that it is just one part of a much larger conversation that needs to be had about programs that claim to offer alternatives to traditional policing.

We encourage you to read our feature – and also read OPPRCNOLA’s statements, and any other reports on the Help Not Handcuffs program and those like it.  Follow the process, offer support where it’s warranted, and challenges where potential pitfalls may await. Because, as the article establishes in detail, the need for a non-police alternative to mental health crises is urgent and vital to our city’s survival, and the details matter. The stakes are high. So rather than retract the feature, or change it to be more pleasing to certain parties, we will listen to critique and challenges from our readers and those involved and impacted by these issues. And in that spirit, we’ll leave you with this bit of satire (courtesy of OPPRCNOLA) at our expense.”

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