Though the coronavirus outbreak has negatively impacted people’s daily lives worldwide, the Legal Aid Justice Center knew certain communities would be hit harder than most.
“COVID-19 is not just a destructive act of nature. It is also a human-made crisis caused by our collective failure to address gaps in our economic system and social safety net,” wrote LAJC executive director Angela Ciolfi in a March 19 op-ed in the Virginia Mercury. “Those gaps existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic will exacerbate and compound their effects.”
Throughout the pandemic, and during “normal times,” LAJC seeks to dismantle systems that “create and perpetuate poverty” by fighting for racial, social and economic justice. As a community-focused organization, much of their advocacy work, from lobbying to rallies, involved large groups and face-to-face contact.
Of course, both options were thrown off the table when the governor declared the virus a statewide emergency on March 11.
The center’s first step was to develop a game plan on connecting with the community in this “strange new world.”
“We came together as an organization to very quickly identify what needed to be done internally,” said Jeff Jones, communications director of LAJC. “We recognized the fact we can’t be in public as we used to… But didn’t want to stop our work in the community.”
Therefore, the LAJC created “Know Your Rights,” a series of informational videos on a wide range of subjects important to their clients and target communities, including low income communities and communities of color.
More than 30 videos have been published on the LAJC Facebook page since March. The videos — which are recorded in both English and Spanish — discuss various legal topics of importance to immigrants and low-income Virginians, including unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, a breakdown of Virginia’s stay-at-home order and how to continue receiving health insurance during COVID-19.
LAJC has conducted more than half a dozen live Zoom legal workshops in English and Spanish, as well.
Jones said both the workshops and the videos have provided a “much needed resource that has been very positively received.”
“It’s been an interesting way for all of our folks to communicate with an audience they would normally see in person,” Jones said.
But the “Know Your Rights” series is just part of the work that LAJC has been doing to support marginalized communities during COVID-19. In collaboration with housing advocates, LAJC attorneys helped stall evictions in Virginia through June 28, while other lawyers in the organization have fought for the release from detention of more than a dozen “high-risk” immigrants through bond motions.
Most recently, in a joint effort with the Richmond Free Our People Coalition, the LAJC staff pressured officials to begin testing for COVID-19 in the Richmond City Jail.
According to Catherine Green, a Richmond Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, only four inmates had been tested for COVID-19 as a prerequisite for medical appointments since mid-March.
“This was a particularly big deal because up until now, there have essentially been zero tests [in Richmond jails],” Jones said. “Our criminal rights and racial justice programs have been doing a lot of work to change that.”
The center’s advocacy efforts took a shift following the death of George Floyd — a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 — that heightened the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.
On May 31, more than 200 individuals were arrested in Richmond following an 8 p.m. curfew enacted by the governor as BLM protests became violent in the days before.
LAJC wasted no time in providing aid to those who were arrested.
“We helped organize a long list of pro bono criminal defense attorneys to provide support for any protesters arrested,” Jones said. “We’ve also worked with law firms to provide pro bono advice to small businesses run in communities of color and in low income areas that were having difficulties going through the insurance process during this time.”
The topics discussed in the “Know Your Rights” videos pivoted, as well. Most recently, the videos have covered the concept of civil review boards and civilian oversight of the Richmond Police Department.
According to Jones, LAJC has shown further support to the BLM movements by offering to provide an immigration consult to any Virginia immigrant arrested or concerned about possible arrest at a protest in Virginia or Washington, D.C.
“We’re a pretty scrappy group… And we’ve turned really quickly from having limitations to trying to produce and promote work that we hadn’t really done before,” Jones said.
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