This week is the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth. During this week, I am pleased to feature work by incarcerated young people at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) who participate in the Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy Program.
To kick us off, here is a poem by a young person named Tyreece.
I’m in the midst of a major life transition. After over 20 years of living and working in Chicago, I’m moving back home to NYC in a few days. As such, I’ve had no time to blog. I am hoping to get back to more regular blogging in mid-summer once I’m settled.
On Friday, I celebrated the one year anniversary of Chicago passing reparations for police torture survivors with friends and comrades. To commemorate the milestone, Kuumba Lynx released a short video that I had the honor of narrating.
This is how they describe it:
Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the Reparations Ordinance being passed for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors, which is the first time Reparations has been given for Police terrorism in the history of the United States. Our youth created documentary series “Journey to LTAB” begins in the summer of 2014 when the nation was exploding with police brutality after the Mike Brown and Eric Garner murders. After an unjust police search and arrest happens to one of the members of Kuumba Lynx, the youth within Kuumba lynx took the streets with their city to fight police brutality within the streets of Chicago. Using their art as a vehicle for activism, KL searches for their 3rd LTAB title. Taking the city by storm and putting light on issues that wouldn’t have been before. Throughout the year leading up to LTAB 2015, our work became connected to the fight for Reparations in Chicago, which “is the product of decades of activism, litigation and journalism and the culmination of a concerted six-month inspirational, intergenerational and interracial campaign co-led by Amnesty International – USA, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide,” and was driven by the Police Torture Survivors themselves, family members, Black People Against Police Torture and countless other organizations and communities’ work. We want to share this piece of our series that highlights this historic movement narrated by Reparations Now! organizer Mariame Kaba and the role Kuumba Lynx was honored to play in it.
This is the first sneak peak of the series we have released because of the importance of today’s anniversary. As we look back a year later, we look forward to debuting this 13 episode online series June 1st on KL We Get Free Media platforms. Please tune in and share to support Youth Powered Media.
As promised here’s part 2 of our Johnny Cash Podcast. You can listen to part 1 here.
In this edition, we focus on Johnny as a prison reformer. We discuss his 1972 testimony before the Senate. Below is an excerpt from his testimony:
“I have been in the entertainment business now for 16 years and shortly after I began, I performed my first concert at a prison at the request of the inmates at Huntsville, Tex., State Prison. I went from there to Folsom, to San Quentin, to Arkansas State Prison, and I met many fine men, inmates, and the personnel who run the prisons in all of these places. And I found over a period of 17 years, I believe that possibly 25 percent of the men behind the bars really need to be in a prison.
I think that with the program to cover the man from the time he is
arrested all the way through his trial, conviction, his prison sentence and his parole, that there will me many less men actually admitted to prison to serve prison terms, to become a part of this outturn, of this incubator for crime in the systems.
I have seen and heard of things at some of the concerts that would
chill the blood of the average citizen, but I think possibly the blood of the average citizen needs to be chilled in order for public apathy and conviction to come about because right now we have 1972 problems and 1872 jails. And like Governor Bumpers of Arkansas recently said, unless the public becomes aware and wants to and wants to help and becomes involved in prison reform and really cares, unless people begin to care, all of the money in the world will not help. Money cannot do the job. People have got to care in order for prison reform to come about.”
We hope you enjoy part 2 of the podcast.
“I mean, I just don’t think prisons do any good. They put ’em in there and just make ’em worse, if they were ever bad in the first place, and then when they let ’em out they’re just better at whatever put ’em in there in the first place. Nothing good ever came out a prison. That’s all I’m trying to say.” – J. Cash
I’ve been obsessed with Johnny Cash since I first heard ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ when I was 15 years old. I came upon the record quite by accident. I was at a friend’s apartment. Her father was an avid country music fan. He was playing the album while I happened to be visiting. It would be several years before I became an anti-prison activist. So at the time, it was the music rather than the song content or lyrics that piqued my interest.
For nearly a decade, my friend Sam and I have threatened to have a discussion about Cash, the man and his music, on radio. Well, we finally made it happen through a two part podcast.
I am so thrilled to share part 1 of our discussion with everyone today. Special thanks to my friend Sarah who was our engineer.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the podcast tomorrow!
Update: Here’s the link to part 2.
On Monday, we mark four years since Detective Dante Servin killed Rekia Boyd in North Lawndale. I first learned about her death from a friend’s Facebook post. As part of the early organizing efforts by Crista Noel of Women’s All Points Bulletin and Rekia’s family, I was invited to speak about Rekia’s killing on a panel in April 2012. The panel included former police officer and local activist Pat Hill and Rekia’s brother Martinez Sutton. Since then, Martinez has been a fixture in the efforts to seek justice for his dead sister. He has crisscrossed the world including speaking at the United Nations in Geneva to keep Rekia’s name alive and to pressure local authorities to hold Servin accountable for the harm and pain he’s caused.
After a judge dismissed all charges against Dante Servin (on a technicality) in April 2015, I was uncertain that Rekia’s name and story would remain central to our local organizing efforts against state violence. In fact, Rekia has never been more visible in our actions and protests to end police violence.
Since last May, a coalition of groups including BYP100, We Charge Genocide, BLM Chicago, Women’s All Points Bulletin,and Chicago Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, has been packing Chicago Police Board meetings to demand Dante Servin’s firing and that he be stripped of his pension. There’s been progress: In September, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) recommended his termination and former police superintendent Garry McCarthy concurred in November 2015. Last month, the police board finally set dates for Servin’s hearing to determine his future employment status.
I’ve despaired at times over the past four years. I was disappointed, for example, when I arrived to the first day of Servin’s trial and only found a small group gathered at the courthouse. I wrote about my feelings:
“I’ll admit that I am currently battling demoralization. I arrived to a pre-trial rally/gathering for Rekia Boyd during a downpour today. The skies opened and the rain came down mirroring my mood. I arrived late because I was supporting a young person who is on trial in juvenile court this morning. I ducked out and drove to Criminal Court to support Rekia’s family for a few minutes.
It was a small group when I arrived. Martinez Sutton, Rekia’s brother who has been steadfast in fighting to bring his sister’s killer to court, had just finished speaking. People held signs and images of Rekia and other women killed by police.”
Partly in response to my words and as a balm for my and others’ demoralization, some friends and comrades organized a beautiful show of support and solidarity for Rekia. My friend Kelly, one of the organizers of the light action, wrote:
“But tonight, after a great deal of discussion and reflection, my friends and I decided to offer what we could to those who are mourning, discouraged, and in need of hope. We decided to offer a bit of light and action, in the hopes that seeing a message for Rekia projected in the night sky, in the heart of our city, might make them feel a little less disheartened, and a little less alone. It’s a small offering, to be sure, but it is one that is made with love, and with a great deal of hope.”
Seeing Rekia’s name in lights on the surface of the Art Institute of Chicago reminded me not to erase the presence and participation of those who do show up consistently for Black lives even if the numbers aren’t large. There is a lot of pain and anger about the invisibility of Black women, trans and gender-non conforming people in struggles against state and interpersonal violence. Rightly so. It hurts to be erased and overlooked. But it’s important, I think, to simultaneously recognize those who do, in fact, insist on making these lives matter too. It’s always both/and.
I feel like I’ve gotten to know Rekia so much better since that panel in 2012. She feels like family. We owe immense gratitude to Women’s All Points Bulletin and to Rekia’s family for their insistence that her life mattered. In the more recent past, a multi-racial and intergenerational coalition led by young Black organizers has raised the stakes and issued an urgent demand to #FireServin.
On the occasion of the 4th anniversary of Rekia’s death, I offer this short video which is a collaboration with my friend and co-struggler Tom Callahan. The video illustrates some of the recent organizing and struggle to achieve some #Justice4Rekia. Tom and I offer this to Rekia’s family, friends and community with love and gratitude for their efforts which uplift and inspire us.
Thanks to my friend Sarah Jane Rhee for documenting so much of our organizing in Chicago through her photography. Thanks to the young people of Kuumba Lynx for their video documentation of several actions. Thanks to everyone who has struggled to make Rekia’s life matter over these years. Special thanks to the incomparably talented artist/singer Jamila Woods for allowing us to use her anthem Blk Girl Soldier for the video. In Chicago, art is a critical part of our resistance and struggle.
We demand #Justice4Rekia. Onward.
It’s been months and I still haven’t watched the video of Laquan McDonald’s execution. I never will. Like a lot of people, I know that he was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke. I know that he was walking away when he was gunned down. I know that he is dead and that’s enough for me.
I’ve been angry at people since the release of the video last November. My anger has been simmering and unexpressed. I’m hurt that it took this particular video to motivate some people to care about police violence against Black people. I’ve been suffering from a self-diagnosed low grade depression. Lots of things have contributed to this. One of them is despair that Laquan’s death will be adjudicated through a court system that cannot deliver any actual justice. I want to get off the merry-go-round. I want to escape from groundhog day. But I feel strangely trapped, maybe imprisoned by the limits of other people’s imaginations and their demands for ‘justice.’ I don’t want us to fail Laquan like we have Tamir and so many others.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit directing my strangled anger at Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. She waited 400 days before bringing charges against Van Dyke and only did so after a judge mandated the release of the videotape. But the truth is that my antipathy for her dates back years. She is the embodiment of a “tough on crime” prosecutor and I’ve wanted to see her out of office for the past 7 years.
I decided months ago that I would do my part to help defeat Alvarez during the primary. I’ve spent part of that time gently prodding others to join me. A confluence of forces catalyzed by the delayed release of the Laquan McDonald execution video has made it possible that Alvarez might lose the primary today. It’s not a given but it’s possible because a variety of individuals and organizations have worked both autonomously and collectively to educate, incite and mobilize Cook County residents to oust her from office. Some of these individuals and groups are politicians, PACs and unions that have endorsed a particular candidate. But what’s been different about this State’s Attorney contest is that people and groups that don’t usually engage in electoral politics (for various reasons) have joined the effort to unseat Alvarez.
My friend Kelly Hayes specifically writes about young Black Chicago organizers co-leading a grassroots #ByeAnita campaign in a Truthout article:
“Young Black organizers in Chicago, who have helped claim victories as historic as winning reparations for survivors of police torture and securing a trauma center for Chicago’s underserved South Side, made a decision in the weeks that followed the traumatic release of dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death: They wanted Anita Alvarez out of office.”
The #ByeAnita #AlvarezMustGo campaign of the past few weeks is unique. The lead groups and individuals involved did not work in coordination with any particular candidate or officially endorse one (much to some people’s consternation). Instead groups and individuals organized an outside political education campaign that relied on direct action, teach ins, traditional canvassing and social media. Actions were both autonomous and also strategically planned/coordinated. Four local youth-driven groups, Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Black Lives Matter Chicago (BLM Chi), planned and executed over a dozen direct actions in less than a month.
Again Kelly offers valuable context about these direct actions:
“With a budget of less than $1,000 scraped together for their efforts, the coalition of grassroots groups and organizers has staged more than a dozen actions in the last month.
These tactics, aimed at keeping grievances against Alvarez from falling from the public’s mind before Election Day, helped keep the record of the embattled state’s attorney in the spotlight, but according to Morris Moore, the campaign has also provided other benefits to its architects.
“In the beginning, the Bye Anita campaign felt like harm reduction, and like therapy in a sense,” said Morris Moore, noting that “Anita Alvarez was involved in a horrible tragedy that is still being felt in the Black community by young Black people. And even if the mainstream media isn’t paying attention to it anymore, we’re still feeling it.” But by bringing direct action to the campaign trail, and consistently ambushing their politically vulnerable target, Morris Moore says she found something that she needed in this political moment. “These actions have allowed me to recreate a way to be involved in politics,” she said. “I don’t have to support a candidate. I can say I don’t support this candidate, and this is why.”
Veronica Morris Moore gives voice to a different form of engagement that has in some ways provided a catharsis for a community of exhausted and depleted organizers. I include myself among those organizers. While I am tired from working to defeat Alvarez while managing all of my other work and life commitments, I have found inspiration in the persistence, commitment and creativity of younger organizers.
Yesterday, for example, members of Assata’s Daughters supported by allies staged an ambitious action across the city. They created and then unfurled 16 banners in communities across Chicago. As reported in Chicagoist:
“Blood on the ballot,” reads one banner hanging over the Kennedy Expressway at Irving Park. “Justice for Rekia, no votes for Anita, reads another hung over the Nicholas Bridge of the Art Institute of Chicago. “#AdiosAnita 16 shots and a cover up,” reads another on Western Avenue near 18th Street.”
In a statement, Assata’s Daughters explained the rationale for the action:
“Final voter engagement before the March 15th Primary in Chicago is taking to the sky today as airplanes are set to fly with banners highlighting the link between Hillary Clinton to the unpopular Rahm Emanuel and the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, with whom he covered up Laquan McDonald’s murder during his own re-election campaign. This is one of a series of 16 banners that will be released throughout the city all pushing the messaging that Anita Alvarez must go.”
Unfortunately the weather didn’t allow for the planes to fly the banner so they will try again today. However, the group did successfully drop all 16 banners across Chicago. I’m trying to keep the images of those 16 banners in my mind to replace the echoes of the 16 shots that continue to reverberate loudly in our community. And if Alvarez is defeated tonight, I’ll take a deep breath and pray that some of the despair I’ve been feeling about Laquan will dissipate. I’ll hope that Laquan is resting a bit easier. I’ll whisper words of gratitude for all of those whose efforts will have made her defeat a reality. I won’t confuse Alvarez’s defeat with systemic transformation. I’ll go back to work to abolish prisons, police and surveillance and to build a world that doesn’t need them. But I will do so satisfied that our collective action removed an awful elected official from office and that we now have more space to create the world in which we hope to thrive.
There are more components of the #ByeAnita campaign and many others (including me) who’ve been involved at various levels but that’s a story for another day. For today, I want to lift up the efforts, labor and leadership of the young Black Queer women and femmes who have planned and executed the bulk of the #ByeAnita campaign direct actions. They have been the life-blood of this campaign. I offer my appreciation and my love. I hope that anyone reading this who can vote in Cook County will use their ballot to say #ByeAnita in Laquan’s name.
March is Women’s History month. It’s fitting that the Afro-American History Society (AAHS) has published my essay on Laura Scott in its spring newsletter. I am so excited that Laura’s story will be read by a whole new group of people.
You can read the newsletter HERE
I haven’t been able to blog regularly so far in 2016. I’d hoped to have more time to do so. Life and work are both kicking my ass though. In my “free time,” I’m currently focused on grassroots organizing to defeat one of the worst prosecutors in the U.S.: Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
In the past few months, Anita Alvarez has come to national notoriety because of her handling of the Laquan McDonald case. Against all evidence of a cover-up, she still maintains that she’s handled the case appropriately. Many of us in Chicago have spent years documenting her various failures and problems as a prosecutor. It’s gratifying that more people are paying attention to Alvarez and her misdeeds. On Wednesday, the Chicago Suntimes editorialized about Alvarez’s bungling of the Rekia Boyd case:
“If the Justice Department hopes to get to the bottom of how justice runs aground in Chicago, it will extend its probe to include City Hall’s law department and the state’s attorney’s office. Chicago’s failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct cannot be blamed on the Police Department alone. Our city’s criminal justice troubles are more widely systemic.
As detailed Tuesday by Sun-Times reporters Mick Dumke and Frank Main, based on an examination of emails from the state’s attorney’s office, there is strong evidence the law department and county prosecutors in the Rekia Boyd case again slow-walked an investigation into police misconduct.”
Prosecutors play an outsized role in the criminal punishment system and receive very little public scrutiny. Writing at Seven Scribes, Josie Helen explains that the prosecutor’s role in mass incarceration deserves attention if viable solutions are to be developed:
“For years, prosecutors have managed to avoid responsibility for a system they’ve largely created. Many of them are up for primaries in early March. If you don’t know who’s on the ballot, find out. If you weren’t planning on voting, show up. Prosecutors have an outsized amount of power, but they are subject to the democratic process just like any other elected official. It’s about time we held them accountable.”
In Cook County, Anita Alvarez is up for re-election in a primary against two other Democratic opponents. This is a helpful voting guide that provides information about all three candidates. There are many reasons why Alvarez must be defeated. You can find some at a site that I created here.
I am not a person who believes that voting will lead us to liberation. I do however think that it’s critical to apply pressure where we can in order to make space for collective action and organizing that can help us build power to move our issues. In the case of Anita Alvarez, she is an active block to many of the changes that could lead to decarceration in Cook County. She needs to go.
On Wednesday, a group of young activists of color made it known that #AlvarezMustGo and on March 15th Cook County residents will have the opportunity to defeat her at the polls.
If you are a Cook County voter, you can keep up with information about the #AlvarezMustGo campaign on Facebook.