Collage of photos of speakers at the event

Ohio’s first-ever “Day of Empathy” – part of a nationwide effort first initiated by CNN’s Van Jones – took place Thursday, March 31 in the Ohio Statehouse atrium. The event attracted a who’s who of Columbus activists who challenged the community to seek criminal justice transformation for the betterment of all. Participants demanded more empathy from police, and at the same time, towards those suffering from trauma, like heroin addicts.

“Our game plan is to create positive change and a new vision for the great state of Ohio. To be the nation’s leader in reducing violence, crime, poverty, hungry, addiction, and trauma, and broken families by creating equity in Ohio, as well as strengthen relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” said De-Escalate Ohio’s Cynthia Brown, who created and hosted the event.

Brown has been pushing for police to de-escalate their violence since 2017, when her nephew, Kareem Ali Nadir Jones, was shot and killed by Columbus police. He was approached for no good reason, ordered to lie face down and then killed. The two officers are still with the Division.

Brown spoke of how billions of taxpayer dollars have been paid nationwide, just in the last five years alone, to those who have been impacted by police violence.

“I will tell you this. The state of Ohio is number two in the amount of payoffs,” she said. “You’re paying for those police brutality lawsuits.”

Pastor Marcella Bailey, mother of Kareem Ali Nadir Jones and Brown’s sister, told the audience how some may perceive her family as anti-law enforcement, but that’s simply not the case.  

“I have a son who is a state trooper. I had a son that was not protected by the badge. So, I have a son that is protected by the badge, and we talked. And I want this son to come home every day, too. [Yet] we [both] understood that qualified immunity is not intended for the way it is being used today,” said Pastor Bailey.

Pastor Bailey says the community should demand that police no longer use the excuse “that I feared for my life” in situations such as what happened to Kareem.

“Qualified immunity is a shield that wrongdoers hide behind,” said Pastor Bailey.

Also taking the podium, and firing up the audience, was the “Saint of Sullivant Avenue” – Esther Flores, who runs the non-profit 1DIVINELINE2HEALTH. As the addiction epidemic ravages parts of Columbus, Flores has seemingly taken it upon herself to treat local addicts and human trafficking victims with empathy and not a prison cell.

“Why is it that we are living in a society, that if you’re poor, you are not worth anything?” asked Flores, who was raised by a single mother and grew up in poverty.

“We believe that love is not just an emotion, it’s an action,” said Flores who mentioned how in 2021 her nonprofit helped 1,800 street sisters and brothers, or human trafficking victims suffering from addiction.

“Incarceration is not rehabilitation for people who have mental health issues and substance abuse disorders. The overdose crisis is happening because people lack love, and they are actually taking synthetic drugs so they can forget the pain they are suffering. What happens is, we have too many institutional settings, but we lack compassionate settings. We have too many institutional settings that actually profit off human suffering. Let’s stop that,” said Flores.

Also taking the stage was Ohio’s rising progressive star and US Senate candidate Morgan Harper.

“I think that the definition of empathy – which to remind myself and all of you – is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another,” said Harper.

She’s traveled the state during her campaign, gauging Ohio’s temperature, so to speak. Harper asked, “Where are we at?”

“I have met so many people who have suffered unimaginable loss. We have thousands of people who have died of the coronavirus – that’s a loss. I’ve met teenagers who have told me that they felt like their only options were getting involved in drugs or going to prison – that’s a loss. There are a lot of families here today, who I have known for years now, who have graciously shared with us their experience of loss at the hands of and (during) incidents with law enforcement,” she said.

Harper was at a facility on the Westside earlier this week which provides food, clothing, and emergency response to those suffering from addiction.

“They’re saying people don’t even know the level of overdoses that are happening right now because the news has stopped covering it, because it’s no longer a story worth talking about. But that’s the obligation we need to feel. We will be telling these stories,” she said.

Harper remains hopeful because everybody is saying the same thing, everybody has the same concerns, she says.

“When I go to Toledo, Chillicothe, Portsmouth, Akron. Canton, Cincinnati, Lima, Cleveland, everybody is saying the same thing. ‘We don’t want another twenty years like the last twenty. We don’t want to live like this. We want to be able to work together to build a better future for all of us,’” she said. “So that’s the opportunity that we have right now.”