For the Democratic Party, it’s been a tense primary season. Across the country, entrenched Democratic incumbents have been faced with progressive challengers. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has found his progressive challenger in actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. Cuomo has clashed with Nixon over policies that many progressive candidates are demanding, such as the implementation of a statewide Medicare for All system, but another issue has gained prominence in the race that was less foreseeable: commutations for survivors of abuse and assault who are imprisoned for acts of self-defense. Commutations aren’t exactly a hot topic in most major electoral races in the US, which raises the question: How did the issue gain prominence in one of the country’s most-watched gubernatorial races?
For months, Cuomo has faced fierce demands from an organization called Survived and Punished, whose #FreeThemNY campaign (part of a national #FreeThemAll campaign) demands Cuomo commute the sentences of survivors who are imprisoned for acts of self-defense. By uplifting stories like that of abuse survivor Jacqueline Smalls through educational efforts, dialogue and direct action, a relatively small team of organizers, operating on a shoestring budget, has forced their objectives into the realm of public discussion and political contention. Cynthia Nixon has vowed to commute the sentences of survivors like Smalls, if elected. Creating tension around a prisoners’ rights issue in a major race is no small organizing feat. To learn more about how grassroots organizers brought this issue to the front and why it belongs there, Truthout spoke with Survived and Punished organizer Mariame Kaba.
Kelly Hayes: Can you tell us a bit about Cuomo’s history on commutations, and why Survived and Punished launched this campaign?
Mariame Kaba: In late 2014, Cuomo made a big deal of creating a new clemency bureau as…