VIRGINIA — Emily Baxter stood on the stage at Mesabi Range College’s auditorium Wednesday afternoon, asking the audience to consider something: “Are you a criminal?”
The former public defender and noted speaker maintains that “we are all criminals.”
“One in four people in the United States has a criminal record,” she said. “I contend that four in four have a criminal history.”
Everyone, she said, has done something criminal during his or her lifetime. The difference between having a criminal record and a criminal history is a matter of whether or not a person has been caught.
Some people are haunted by their wrongdoings for a lifetime. Some people — whether by socioeconomic privilege or luck — “have the luxury to forget.”
Baxter, executive director of We Are All Criminals, a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of what it means to be ‘criminal,’ began her “We Are All Criminals” project in 2012.
She has since collected more than 400 stories of individuals ranging from a deacon who was never arrested for selling drugs to an attorney who was never caught for burglary, trespassing, driving under the influence and selling and possessing controlled substances.
Many of the stories are compiled on the We Are All Criminals website and in the book by the same name.
Baxter’s presentation was coordinated by the Iron Range Equal Justice Committee, which was formed last year to “advance equality and promote multicultural understanding and competency among judicial officers, court employees, and justice system partners who live and work in Iron Range communities.” It is comprised of area judges, court staff, law enforcement, attorneys, community members and organizations.
Baxter shared with the audience at MRC’s Virginia campus — filled with social workers, mental health practitioners, members of the criminal justice system and legal aid, second-year law enforcement cadets and others — the story of a man named Anthony.
Baxter explained that she had left her job in public defense to work in public policy, taking a position at a legal nonprofit in Minneapolis. Her focus was on criminal records.
One day, Anthony walked into the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center, where criminal records clinics were held. He was among those individuals — predominantly poor and people of color, she said — who would wait for hours to speak with an attorney who might help expunge their record.
“Anthony was tall, thin, black, and clearly distraught,” she said. “He was on the verge of tears.” Given his distress, she wondered what his record contained.
Baxter said she was surprised to find “it contained no more than a theft, and a minor one at that.”
Baxter relayed how she had “let out a laugh” in relief and told Anthony: “Even if the judge doesn’t expunge this, it’s not like your life is over.”
The comment prompted Anthony to break down in tears, she said. For Anthony, “it was not just a theft.” Rather, it was a lost job, missed housing payments, skipped meals and the loss of respect from friends and family.
Baxter said Anthony’s story made her consider her own criminality in a new way.
She asked herself: “How many times have I taken something that isn’t mine? … How many times have my skin color and zip code prevented me from the crosshairs of the criminal justice system? … What would have happened if I had been caught? … What would life be if I didn’t have the luxury to forget?”
Baxter — who graduated from the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas School of Law, both of Minneapolis, and now lives in Durham, N.C. — began the We Are All Criminals project in Minnesota through a Bush Foundation Fellowship.
She drove around the state, talking to people who volunteered to anonymously tell personal stories of criminal acts they had “the luxury to forget” — either because they were not caught or because those in the system looked the other way.
She met with them “in cars, at bars” — even aboard boats.
Each story in the project is accompanied by a photograph that does not show the individual’s identity. In many of them, the individuals hold a chalkboard, on which they have written a few words about their story.
“Boys will be boys,” reads one. “Drugs in my purse now,” reads another.
“I would not be here chasing my dream,” reads the chalkboard held by a nurse, who was not arrested for driving while intoxicated, multiple times.
Baxter shared several of the project’s “Luxury to Forget” stories during the presentation, including that of a woman who had repeatedly stolen food at a pizza-by-the-slice restaurant on her college campus by bypassing the payment station located between the point of ordering and receiving.
Many of the “Luxury to Forget” stories are juxtaposed with “Parallel” stories, such as that of the person who said he had “swiped two chicken wings from a salad bar on University Avenue.” He was caught, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft, lost his security job, and has struggled to find full-time, permanent employment ever since.
Criminal records create barriers in many aspects of life, Baxter said. Those who have a record must disclose their criminal past by “checking yes” on everything from job to loan to schooling applications.
Checking “yes” affects employment, housing, public benefits, education, travel, immigration — even “the ability to cast a ballot,” she said, adding “and to get an organ transplant.”
Baxter asked the audience to pause “and think about that.” A criminal record could prevent a person from receiving a life-saving measure, she said.
“You are sentenced to a lifetime of checking the box.”
Baxter told the story of a student who attended one of her presentations at a college. The young woman told her afterward that her father at one time had been arrested and she was placed in foster care for three years.
Her dad had been required to have a job and an apartment “before he got her back.” He was unable to obtain those things because of his record, Baxter said. The man ended up taking his own life.
Baxter spoke also about the racial and economic discrepancies that play a role in criminal justice.
Black men are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, incarcerated, and plagued by criminal records than their white counterparts, she said. The same is true for all people of color and those in poor communities, she added.
Baxter displayed on a screen a chart titled: “Likelihood of Imprisonment.” For black men, the figure is one out of three, compared to one out of 111 for white women, she noted.
There are 65-100 million people incarcerated in the country. A number of those people have not been convicted, but are simply too poor to post bail, she said.
There are millions, like Anthony, she added, who “are held under water by their criminal records, unable to come up for air.”
Baxter also talked briefly about a new project called “SEEN,” which tells the stories of Minnesotans who have been incarcerated.
A description of the project states: “Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen.”
Baxter concluded the presentation asking the audience to think about the following questions: “What’s your story? What would your chalkboard say? What would life be like for you if you had to check ‘yes?’”