Lelani Russell attended Generation Progress’ criminal justice roundtable in Dallas, Texas this past fall and is a member of Generation Progress’ #Fight4AFuture National Leadership Council. To read the recommendations from that roundtable, click here. This piece is part of a series of profiles on young leaders moving the needle on criminal justice reform.
“I was five. I can’t remember a lot of stuff, but I remember that day very well.”
On an unforgettable Dallas afternoon, Lelani Russell and her father were going out for ice cream, when, upon their return, her father was approached by police about a custody dispute between her parents. The next few moments would leave an impression on Russell for the rest of her life.
“Instead of just arresting him, they beat my father outside of my daycare while I stood there and watched…I remember just screaming for him, not really understanding because he didn’t do anything to harm us. Regardless of the situation, it didn’t have to go like that,” Russell added.
Now 22, Russell is many things: a college student, an activist, and a mother. She’s also a victim of police brutality.
In May of 2015, Russell attended a solidarity rally for the late Freddie Gray, who, after being arrested for possessing an alleged illegal switchblade, sustained a spinal cord injury while in Baltimore police custody. At the rally, an officer in a parked patrol car suddenly jolted forward into a crowd of people, hitting Russell and others in the process.
“They were trying to incite a riot is what I believe they were trying to do, because they knew how we were feeling…and they antagonized my sister once the ambulance came and got me. As soon as she got off the ambulance they started questioning her, badgering her, telling her that’s not what she saw and that she was crazy,” Russell says. A month after she was hit by the patrol car, Russell and her daughter were about to cross the street when a police officer drove by. Her daughter jumped in front of Russell, screaming at her to wait.
“She was scared that it would happen again,” Russell says. “That broke my heart.”
In the past year, Russell has also been shoved by an officer on horseback, body slammed by multiple officers at once as she was trying to use her inhaler at a rally in Austin, and harassed daily on her way to school—to the point of changing her route completely to avoid it.
Excessive force complaints against the Dallas Police Department have dropped from a 2009 high of 147 to just 13 in late 2015, but Russell personally doesn’t believe that good officers exist.
“I’m not even going to lie, I don’t believe that there are good officers because good officers usually get fired… For some reason they will stay silent when it comes to losing their job versus the values that they took the job on…It’s an allegiance. Once you step out of it, you get burned,” Russell says.
A National Criminal Justice Reference Service report found that nationally, 67 percent of officers surveyed who reported misconduct of other officers got “the cold shoulder,” otherwise known as the “blue wall of silence.”
To combat that wall, participants at Generation Progress’ 2015 #Fight4AFuture Criminal Justice Dallas roundtable recommended that local and state government create safe spaces for officers to report wrongdoing observed of other officers.
“I guess that if there were more protections for them if they come out and speak, and more resources for them to come out and speak, maybe there will be a change. Maybe we can say that there are some good ones out there,” Russell says.
In the meantime, Russell has committed herself to meeting the basic needs of the community. As a co-founder of the Dallas non-profit Helping Hands Healing Hearts, that means doing just about anything–from monthly food and clothing drives to haircuts for homeless and low-income people—to help people.
“Anything that we possibly can do, we will do…We want to be available whenever needed,” Russell says.
Another key takeaway from the roundtable: increased state and local funding for youth mentorship programs. Such funding could be game-changing for Helping Hands Healing Hearts, which also mentors and uplifts youth in Dallas.
As a social work and business student at Texas Woman’s University with dreams of opening a group home for troubled teens, Russell thinks mentors are just as necessary now as when she needed them growing up. Thankfully, mentors made themselves available to Russell in her community, at the Boys and Girls Club, Upward Bound, and church.
“Mentors saved my life. If it weren’t for mentors I don’t think I would be where I am today…it’s an extreme necessity and a very worthy cause.”
For Russell, inspiration to keep fighting the Dallas status quo comes from her four-year-old daughter.
“I just want to do what’s right…I’m a single mother and I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that this is the way things should be. I want her to grow up knowing that she has the strength to fight, knowing that she’s more than what other people consider her to be.”