If they asked, Glenn Martin would tell most of his friends and colleagues that he had a good year as an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals. He’s been in the same room with President Barack Obama three times, and with top Department of Justice officials more times than that, as the administration focused on federal criminal justice reform. And he said Black Lives Matter, the social justice movement that over the last year helped pushed his issue into a national dialogue, deserves the credit.
“I give a lot of respect, admiration and acknowledgment to young people who have been putting their lives at risk by demanding change, because it created a lot of access for traditional advocates like me,” said Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA, a national prison reform organization based in New York City.
For Martin and other social justice advocates, 2015 was a record year that saw issues of injustice and inequality thrust into the national spotlight as protesters demonstrated against police brutality, landmark legal changes awarded minorities new rights and lawmakers debated the future of a nation long troubled by race and gender inequalities. But if 2015 was the year that black and brown people rose up to demand a different relationship with their government, then 2016 will be the year to build greater awareness and see further change as Obama, the nation's first black president often heralded as a champion for social justice issues, enters his last year in office and the U.S. Supreme Court takes up immigration reform and voting rights, advocates said.
“The 2016 presidential election still is more than 10 months off, but already it promises to serve as a referendum on social justice and racial reconciliation, in a year when national attitudes are changing faster than ever — and not always for the better,” Marc Morial, president of the civil rights group the National Urban League, wrote in an op-ed published this week by the Los Angeles Sentinel.
The year 2015 was one in which women beat back attacks on contraceptive rights, including the controversy over Planned Parenthood clinics’ handling of aborted materials that sparked unsuccessful efforts to defund abortion-providing clinics. The LGBT community won marriage equality nationwide over the summer. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, conservatives and liberals agreed to consider criminal justice reforms that could reduce the nation's rate of incarceration.
Moves at the federal level that saw early releases for 6,000 prison inmates sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses and restrictions on the consideration of criminal records in federal employment, among other actions, were positive steps, said Martin, the prison reform advocate. “It was like no other year,” he said. “But even if the president pardoned every single person in the system, that system would fill back up relatively quickly if public attitudes don’t change about crime and punishment.”
The year also saw continued protests and civil unrest over incidents of police brutality and the use of lethal force in places like Chicago and Baltimore. As officers faced trials on murder and misconduct charges in those cities, the Justice Department launched investigations into police practices. Verdicts and reports of those investigations can be expected in 2016. Beyond that, activists said they will look to lawmakers to change policies in the new year amid an unprecedented modern era of police-involved deaths in communities of color.
Voting rights also saw a pivotal moment in 2015. Veteran civil rights organizations marked 50 years since the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a sweeping address, Obama called on Congress to restore voting rights protections struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013's Holder v. Shelby County. Although Democrats and Republicans have introduced the requested legislation, Congress has yet to move a bill beyond the Senate's and House of Representatives' respective committees. There is concern that black and Latino communities will be prevented from casting ballots during the 2016 elections under a regime of new voter suppression laws enacted in the wake of the Holder decision, advocates have said.
In 2016, advocates said they will also watch closely as the Supreme Court hears Evenwel v. Abbott, the “one person, one vote” case out of Texas that challenges the use of total population to determine equal representation in legislative bodies at state and federal levels. The plaintiffs have argued that only eligible voters should be counted, meaning districts with more racial minorities, children, noncitizen immigrants and those disenfranchised by the criminal justice system would, in essence, become underrepresented in Congress and at statehouses.
Immigration reform had a rough year in 2015, some immigrant rights advocates have said. It began with half of U.S. states filing a lawsuit to block Obama’s executive actions on immigration that deferred deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants and peaked with the administration’s defeat in federal courts in late summer. The year neared its end with an increase in anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments, as state leaders and Republican presidential candidates rejected planned resettlements of Syrian refugees in the U.S., and as the Obama administration revealed plans to ramp up deportation of Central Americans who have illegally crossed the border. The administration has filed a Supreme Court appeal over rulings by a judge in Texas and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which, if it isn’t considered early in the court’s term in 2016, could doom the policy for 5 million undocumented immigrants who qualify.
But fear baiting and xenophobia are unlikely to deter immigrant rights advocates in 2016, said Flavia Jimenez, senior attorney and project director of immigrant justice at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. “What kind of nation are we? What is the United States of America? Are we a democracy, a place where people have found refuge, and a place of opportunity? Those questions are very much up in the air,” she said.
Such questions will likely define the presidential contest as Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has vowed to address racial inequalities, while Republican front-runner Donald Trump has boasted of his relationships with women, Latinos, Muslims and blacks while attacking policies such as immigration reform and food stamps. Obama is also expected to tackle social justice issues during his final State of the Union address in January.
After immigration, policing and voting rights, among the building blocks of equality, played such a significant role in the national conversation in 2015, such issues must continue to resonate next year, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, a civil rights organization based in New York.
“The ability for people to be safe and have opportunity is at the cornerstone of issues that we have to tackle in this country,” he said. “The year 2016 has to be about transforming [our] presence to political and cultural power.”