Criminal justice majors come to Jason Sole's classroom not to learn how the system works but to consider whether the system really works at all.
Sole teaches criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul. He is a professor, past president of the Minneapolis NAACP, an entrepreneur, a family man, a felon.
Only one of those things matters at a traffic stop.
"The problem," he told his students, as images of Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba flashed across the screen at the front of the lecture hall, "is policing. Policing, in and of itself, is bad for our health."
Sole grew up in Chicago during the war on drugs. Half a lifetime ago, he got involved in gangs, got shot, got arrested, got sent to jail, got out, got a Ph.D., got thinking.
"I can see a world without police and cages," Sole told his students. Some of those students are preparing for careers in law or law enforcement. Some hope to apply to the FBI Academy.
This is their chance to learn about policing from someone who has been policed.
Imagine how it feels, Sole tells them, to have a gun pulled on you in the street, then to get caught by police when you start carrying a gun for self-defense. Imagine being a 19-year-old felon, standing in court, watching your whole world shrink to a tiny cell and prison yard at the Faribault penitentiary with a view of the cemetery and the graves of all the inmates still serving their time.
Imagine being a 43-year-old college professor and civic leader who still lives in the shadow of a criminal record that is almost two decades old.
"I'm trying to dream beyond that," said Sole, who invites his students to imagine something different. A way to keep one another safe while holding people to account when they harm others.
He served his time, rebuilt his life, earned his doctorate and set about making amends to the community he had harmed with his drug dealing and gang activities.
"I walk around now with a level of peace," he said
He co-founded Humanize My Hoodie, pushing back against the stereotype of the scary Black man in a hooded sweatshirt. He wears hoodies to class. A living reminder that the human under that hood is your college professor.
He's hoping to found the Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists to take these conversations beyond the classroom. The project's Kickstarter has raised more than $47,000.
For years, he worked within the system. He worked with Hennepin County on Warrant Forgiveness Day. He served as the first Community-First Public Safety Initiatives director to the city of St. Paul. He marched and lobbied and planned and protested.
These days, he also volunteers with REP — Relationships Evolving Possibilities — one of several groups around the Twin Cities that offer alternatives to dialing 911. One recent call brought him to north Minneapolis, where someone had spotted recently evicted neighbors sneaking back into their old home.
The caller had also called police, but only the REP volunteers showed up, Sole said. They checked the house but didn't see anything. So they settled into the caller's living room and spent a little time just visiting, listening and reassuring them that the community cared enough to answer a call for help.
"Abolition is about presence," he said, "not absence."
Sole's serious troubles with the law are long past. But Minnesota doesn't make it easy to move past your past offenses.
There are three nonviolent felonies on Sole's record. Two for drug possession, one for that handgun when he was 19. To clear his record, he's going to have to beg Minnesota's pardon.
Sole has applied to the Minnesota Board of Pardons, a feudal system that requires former lawbreakers to plead their case before the governor, the attorney general and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Sidelined for most of the year by a legal dispute over just how many votes are necessary to grant a pardon, the board will meet Nov. 22, Dec. 13 and Dec. 14.
All three must agree to a pardon.
All three only agree about a third of the time.
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