People’s Justice Project Founders Gain a Seat at the Table
Collective action helps Tammy Fournier-Alsaada and Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata move from “powerless to powerful.”
Beyond the protests, the chants and the demands, Tammy Fournier-Alsaada and Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata have a deep reverence for the historic struggle of Black Americans. The founders of the People’s Justice Project feel they play a part in a centurieslong effort for freedom. “It’s a sacred struggle of Black power, going back and understanding Africa,” says Sundiata, executive director of PJP. “We are in that lineage.”
Since the organization started in 2015, the People’s Justice Project has centered its efforts on responding to several high-profile police killings of Black boys and men in Central Ohio, as well as broader injustices in the legal system. Between 2015 and 2020, at least 32 people in Columbus have been fatally shot by police—21 of them were Black, according to The Washington Post national database of police shootings.
The PJP has also emerged as one of the most visible and influential activist groups in Columbus, with Fournier-Alsaada earning prominent spots on the Columbus police chief’s advisory panel and Mayor Andy Ginther’s Community Safety Advisory Commission, in addition to receiving a YWCA Woman of Achievement Award in 2017. “We pushed ourselves into rooms, and we demanded credibility and respect,” says Fournier-Alsaada, PJP’s lead organizer. “It has allowed me to be a part of the fight for police accountability, which was not what we initially started to do. But it was what we were required to do for the people.”
Since taking a leading role in the protests that followed the 2016 killings of 23-year-old Henry Green and 13-year-old Ty’re King by Columbus police, the PJP has issued several demands, including the removal of Columbus police chief Kim Jacobs and her successor, Thomas Quinlan; ending the police summer initiative focusing on high-crime neighborhoods; and creating a fund to help the community deal with the effects of violence and trauma. Fournier-Alsaada says all of those demands have been met. “Individually, we feel powerless, but collectively we move from powerless to powerful,” she says. “To move from feeling powerless to recognizing connectedness and collectiveness is what keeps our organization alive. It gives us hope.”
Fournier-Alsaada can trace her activist lineage to her great-great-grandfather. He escaped slavery, walking from Tennessee to Kentucky to fight in the Civil War. Later, he was one of the founders of Promise Land, Tennessee, a town built by Black people escaping the Jim Crow South during Reconstruction. “Birthed in me is a constant fight for liberation and freedom,” says Fournier-Alsaada, who’s written two novels inspired by her life experiences. “It’s part of my DNA, and it’s not unique to me. Most Black folks in America understand their unique desire for freedom and what that looks like.”
Sundiata’s experience in grassroots organizing comes from years of work with social justice organizations across the country, a bachelor’s degree in African studies from Ohio State University and extensive research on global justice initiatives. “These young people sometimes have no idea what they’re getting themselves into,” Sundiata says. “They are sitting there with their pads, writing down information about this thing of ours because they went to some protests, because they were organized in a historical moment and had the consciousness to involve themselves deeper. You can’t play with that.”
Sundiata says the spirit of PJP has permeated Columbus’ Black communities as people in local coffeeshops, corner stores and churches look for solutions to social injustice in Columbus. He says PJP aims to create a “a long-term strategy to build Black power.”
In 2021, PJP is creating a more formal channel for people to join the organization through a new membership training class. Sundiata serves as PJP’s social justice organizer, as well as a mentor and coach for new and invigorated activists who are looking for productive channels for their frustrations. In February 2020, he became executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, a sister organization of PJP that advocates for youth in the juvenile justice system.
“We are entering into this year more laser-focused on what needs to be done,” Sundiata says. “People have been asking and demanding to be a part of this work of ours. Black or white, they want a space to feel safe and examine the political conditions this city is in.”
And though Fournier-Alsaada has gained establishment roles and credibility in recent years, she continues to challenge authority. For instance, she’s the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that accuses the Columbus Division of Police of excessive force and abuse of citizens during the protests following George Floyd’s May 25 killing in Minneapolis. She also remains a forceful critic of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, the law enforcement union that she and many others view as an obstacle to reform.
“It is not fun confronting the power of the Columbus police department and the Fraternal Order of Police,” Fournier-Alsaada says. “But I know that it’s necessary that I stay in those rooms.”