Apr 24 2014

The Young and Unmoored…

Ten days ago I got news that I didn’t feel ready to process until today. A young man I’ve known since he was a teenager was shot in Florida. I’ve come to dread phone calls at any time of day, most especially those that come late in the night. I’ve struggled to find the perfect ringtone to allay my anxiety. I’ve been unsuccessful.

So when my phone rang a few days ago and I saw that it was past midnight and that I didn’t recognize the number, I steeled myself for bad news. I answered with trepidation. It was the young man’s cousin and he said that Julian (not his real name) was shot while sitting in a parked car. It was a case of mistaken identity. After an uncertain prognosis, he recovered after surgery. A couple of days ago, I finally had a chance to hear his voice which was a relief.

I wrote about Julian a few years ago in this post:

I wanted to relay a story about a young man who I have been working with for the past few months. He has been struggling greatly since his release from prison in March of this year. He is ill-equipped for “life on the outside” as he likes to say. He is easily angered and raises his voice to make mundane points. Any suggestion is perceived as a criticism and a slight. His favorite word to use is “respect” and yet he has a difficult time showing any for others. I am not telling tales out of school since everything that I am writing about him, I have also expressed directly to him (more than once).

The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about integrity and grit from Julian. He chides me for being “too nice” and he worries that I’m going to get “run over” by people. I remind him that I am a grown woman in my 40s while he’s barely out of his teens. I can and do take care of myself. He says that he’s already lived two lifetimes. I don’t argue because I know something about the trials and struggles that he’s had to face and to try to overcome.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the young people who live in the world, unmoored. The ones who seem to be passing through and don’t have any expectations of staying for long. I’ve been thinking about the young people who resist ‘counseling’ because they know that their thoughts and behaviors are rational within the context of their worlds. Julian is one of the unmooored. And if I’m honest, I hold my breath for him every day, afraid that to exhale means he might disappear.

What do you do with a young person who resists the inspirational script of overcoming all adversity? What do you do with a young person who never had any bootstraps and won’t pretend that any amount of work on his part will provide them? What do you do?

We rode on the EL together once and Julian spoke with a booming voice throughout the trip. I asked him to lower his voice. He looked at me for a moment and kept loud-talking. I was embarrassed at his display and felt disrespected that he ignored my request. As soon as we got off the EL, his voice returned to its normal decibel level. Once I got over my anger, I asked why he spoke so loudly on the train. His response: “I want them uncomfortable and they need to know that I was here.” My anger dissipated and I’ve never forgotten his words. They are seared in my mind: “they need to know that I was here.” We’ve never spoken of what it’s like to feel “not here.” I don’t know how to broach the topic.

Julian is verbally gifted and I badgered him to write something that I could post here. He’s always resisted. When I asked him a few years ago what he might share with readers of this blog he answered succinctly: “Tell them that I am a human being.” He also shared a poem that he said best described his prison experience.

Julian is a human being who is passing through while contending with “not hereness.” He’s alive right now, lying in the hospital recovering. He’s alive and passing through. I am struggling to understand what this means for him and for me. I think back to a few lines of Julian’s favorite poem by M.A. Church that he says best captures his prison experience.

You ask what it’s like here
but there are no words for it.
I answer difficult, painful, that men
die hearing their own voices. That answer
isn’t right though and I tell you now
that prison is a room
where a man waits with his nerves
drawn tight as barbed wire, an afternoon
that continues for months, that rises
around his legs like water
until the man is insane
and thinks the afternoon is a lake:
blue water, whitecaps, an island
where he lies under pale sunlight, one
red gardenia growing from his hand –

After surviving that kind of an experience, it’s understandable that one would want to take up space in the “free” world, to ‘be here,’ and to remind others of our humanity. But I fear that the “free” world has no concern for those who return from this unspeakable place. So I’m still holding my breath for Julian, afraid that to exhale means he’ll disappear…

Apr 23 2014

Image of the Day: Fugitive Slave

Slave-owner shooting a fugitive slave. (1853) - Creator: Mason, Walter George, 1820-1866 -- Engraver - Source: Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom ; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.

Slave-owner shooting a fugitive slave. (1853) – Creator: Mason, Walter George, 1820-1866 — Engraver – Source: Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.

Apr 22 2014

Young People Continue To Talk About the Cops…

If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about policing. The cops are the gateway to the prison industrial complex and the gatekeepers of state power. In addition, as I’ve often written, the young people I work with want to talk about the police. Their material experiences of feeling and being oppressed usually revolve around how they are treated by cops.

Recently a young person who I love named Richard released a new music video for his song “Cops and Robbers.” You can and should watch it below.

I asked Richard about his inspiration for the song and his response was as follows:

“So the idea of the song actually was nothing planned. I was on the Greyhound coming back from a very short spring break and I had just started to re-read Assata Shakur’s Autobiography and I listened to the beat right after I read the first chapter and the first thing I could think of was Cops and Robbers, and how Assata was portrayed and accused and related to my experiences growing up in Chicago.”

I also asked about how he views the role of police in communities like the one he grew up in. His response was that they were “overseers” of the community. I thought that this terminology was instructive and harkens back to the slave patrols which were America’s original police forces.

Recently my comrade Francesco de Salvatore shared his collaboration with a group called the Young Fugitives about policing in Chicago. The project titled “Growing Up With CPD” is a set of audio interviews with young Chicagoans about their experiences with law enforcement. Below is one story.

“Growing Up With CPD” follows on the heels of a similar project that my organization undertook a couple of years ago called “Chain Reaction.” I think that what all of these projects have in common is a desire to surface the voices of young people who feel oppressed by policing in the hope that people will come to rely less on cops as the solution of violence. I hope that people will heed young people’s calls for true justice.

Apr 21 2014

No Selves to Defend #3: Rosa Lee Ingram

I am thrilled to report that the project I’ve been working on for the past few weeks was handed over to a friend to design. I’ve gotten a sneak peak of the publication and it’s beautiful. On short notice, many people came together and came through. With only a few snags along the way, it was a joy to work on this project. If you’ve read this blog even just once, you’ll recognize how much history matters to me. I very much wanted to put Marissa Alexander’s case in historical context in an accessible way. I think that we achieved this goal. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the project and am looking forward to unveiling the finished product(s) soon.

As a preview, I am sharing Rosa Lee Ingram’s story along with art created especially for this project by my friend Billy Dee. The project includes eleven other stories of women of color (including Marissa) who were criminalized for self-defense. Along with the publication which we will use to raise funds for Marissa’s legal defense, we are also planning an exhibition here in Chicago in July. I look forward to sharing more soon.

Rosa Lee Ingram by Billy Dee (2014)

Rosa Lee Ingram by Billy Dee (2014)

In 1954, 90 year old Mary Church Terrell, a lifelong activist, declared: “I’m going back to Georgia.” Terrell, chairwoman of the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice, was announcing a “Mother’s Day crusade” that she and other women would lead to once again advocate for the release of Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons. By this time, all three had already spent the better part of six years in prison.

In 1948, Rosa Lee Ingram, a widowed mother of 12 children, was convicted and sentenced to death along with her two sons, Wallace & Sammie Lee, for killing a white man in self-defense. Ingram, a sharecropper, lived on the same property as 64 year old John Stratford, also a sharecropper. She had endured years of harassment by him.

On November 4 1947, an argument that allegedly began because Stratford was angry that some hogs had crossed into his property quickly escalated when he tried to force Rosa Lee into a shed to have sex with him. She fought back. Ingram’s 16 year old son Wallace heard the commotion and ran to help his mother. He warned Stratford to “stop beating mama” and when he did not, Wallace picked up a gun and slammed it on his head. He and his mother left Stratford lying on the ground unaware that he was dead.

After Rosa Lee, Wallace, and another son named Sammie Lee were convicted of first degree murder on January 26 1948 in a one day trial, they were sentenced to die in the electric chair on February 27. There was immediate outrage at the conviction and death sentence. Family members of the Ingrams, including Rosa Lee’s mother Mrs. Amy Hunt, asked religious and other organizations for funds to support an appeal. The NAACP and the Georgia Defense Committee pledged their support and contributed money.

Supporters across the country organized protests. The widespread public pressure worked: in March 1948, Judge W.M Harper set aside the death penalty and commuted the family’s sentences to life in prison. Wallace was 16 years old and his brother Sammie Lee was only 14.

While the NAACP actively raised money and provided legal support during the case, Black women actually drove the campaign to free Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons from prison. In 1949, a group of Black women formed the National Committee for the Defense of the Ingram Family. In addition to Mary Church Terrell who served as its national chair, the group included luminaries like Maude White Katz, Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Charlotta Bass.

The committee organized an action in spring 1949, sending 10,000 Mother’s Day cards and a petition with 25,000 signatures to President Truman insisting that Mrs. Ingram be freed.

The Ingram Defense Committee also reached out for international support in its campaign. In September 1949, members asked W.E.B. DuBois to write a petition to the UN Commission on Human Rights asking that it debate her case.

For years afterwards, contingents of women continued to organize diligently insisting that the Ingrams be paroled and freed from prison. They organized “Mother’s Day crusades” which included visits to local politicians asking them to intervene in securing the release of the Ingrams. Georgia finally released Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons on August 26 1959 after 12 years of incarceration. This would not have happened if not for the consistent agitation and organizing on their behalf by thousands of people across the world, and particularly Black women. It was that organizing that saved their lives.

Apr 20 2014

Image of the Day: A Letter about KKK Terror, 1928

From the National Archives:

Letter from Rampy J. Burdick to Attorney General John G. Sargeant Detailing the Violence Committed by the Ku Klux Klan against His Family, 03/03/1928

Letter from Rampy J. Burdick to Attorney General John G. Sargeant Detailing the Violence Committed by the Ku Klux Klan against His Family, 03/03/1928

rampykkk2

Apr 19 2014

Video: Why Are We Sending So Many Women to Prison?

This video is a good short explainer about women’s incarceration by Brave New Films… Also the Sentencing Project put out a useful report about rates of women’s incarceration here. Finally, here’s a short post about women’s incarceration and the “myth of small numbers.”

Apr 18 2014

Trials as Theater Redux: Billie Holiday Edition

A few weeks ago writer & artist Molly Crabapple considered the theatrical nature of court proceedings:

“Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.”

I had the pleasure of talking with Molly a bit about my experiences of sitting in numerous courtrooms over the years. As she points out in her essay, most trials are not high drama or high profile. They are mostly rote and often very boring. Yet the public is weaned on television courtroom depictions and mistake “Law & Order” for real life.

There are, however, individual high profile trials that can take on the character of high drama. Billy Holiday’s 1949 drug trial fits the bill. Sara Ramshaw (2004) writes about it in an essay titled “He’s my man!”: Lyrics of Innocence and Betrayal in The People v. Billie Holiday. A number of accounts have been written about the trial. They all vary but one thing is consistent: Holiday was found not-guilty. This was seen as a surprise given the fact that she was allegedly caught in possession of narcotics by a well-respected FBI agent named George H. White. Additionally, in an era where black defendants were subject to ‘legal lynchings’ even celebrity was not a get out of jail free card.

Ramshaw (2004) addresses how “the racist, heterosexist, and classist violence and victimization [Holiday] had experienced throughout her life was brought to the fore and highlighted in order to support her trial narrative (p.88).” Billie Holiday proclaimed her ‘innocence’ at trial and an all-white jury found her credible. She was acquitted on June 3 1949.

Holiday’s attorney, Jake Ehrlich, suggested as a defense that she had been set up by her boyfriend John Levy. Yet Ramshaw contends that “Erlich’s position had obvious deficiencies…Nonetheless, the jury appears to have accepted Ehrlich’s argument (p.100).” Why did the jury believe Holiday’s defense? Ramshaw explains: “The reason for this decision, I suggest, lies in the blurring of Holiday’s personal and public lives and the credibility her celebrity persona lent to her narrative of innocence and betrayal in the courtroom (p.100).”

The defense sought to play up Billie Holiday’s public image as being ‘unlucky in life and love.’ Ramshaw describes how they relied on and constructed this image:

“To begin, Holiday entered the courtroom on 31 May 1949, looking uncharacteristically ‘unkempt in a beige suit.’ Her eyes were puffy from crying and one eye was bruised and swollen. She told a reporter in the courtroom that Levy had hit her. ‘You should see my back,’ she stated: ‘He done it Friday night. It looks better now than what it did. He went off Saturday night – even took my mink – eighteen grand worth of coat…I got nothing now, and I’m scared.’”

Holiday was probably telling the truth about being abused by Levy. He was not the first boyfriend to have allegedly assaulted her. But Ramshaw makes clear that Holiday and her lawyers chose to underscore her victimhood and to marshal the public’s perceptions of her to their benefit. They succeeded in this; overcoming racism and turning misogyny to their advantage. The entire article by Ramshaw is fascinating and worth reading.

In the conclusion to the article, Ramshaw offers the following assessment of Holiday’s courtroom ‘performance:’

Holiday’s “My Man” routine, otherwise referred to as her “unlucky in life” public persona, was configured in United States popular culture on the basis of myths and stereotypes regarding black women and their sexuality. Throughout Holiday’s trial, issues regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality were either implicitly or explicitly highlighted in order to direct attention back to Holiday’s “unlucky in life” persona. This persona, in turn, filled gaps and resolved contradictions in the evidence. The heightened authenticity that her “unlucky in life” public persona lent to her trial narrative of innocence and betrayal gave Holiday’s testimony the quality of truthfulness needed to get a jury to overlook the evidence (or lack thereof) in front of them (p.105).

When I read Molly’s article, I remembered Ramshaw’s account of Holiday’s 1949 trial as a good example of how theatricality can manifest in courtrooms (especially in high profile trials). Take a few minutes to enjoy this poignant performance of “My Man” by Lady Day and think about how she marshaled the lyrics of this song, connected them to her personal experiences, and convinced a jury of white people to acquit her on drug charges in 1949.

Apr 16 2014

Poem of the Day: Rape

I love Jayne Cortez. I love hearing her read this poem… It’s explicit. She’s gone now but her work lives on. Rape is a poem about Joan Little and Inez Garcia. I’m immersed in a current project that also focuses in part on them…

Rape
by: Jayne Cortez

What was Inez Garcia supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body
the man who carved a combat zone between her breasts
Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass
kiss every pimple on his butt
blow hot breath on his big toe
draw back the corners of her vagina and
he haw like a California burro
This being war time for Inez
she stood facing the knife
the insults and
her own smell drying on the penis of
the man who raped her
She stood with a rifle in her hand
doing what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the man started grunting and panting and
wobbling forward like a giant hog
She pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of shaking flesh
Sent it flying to the Virgin of Guadelupe
then celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else was she supposed to do?
And what was Joanne Little supposed to do for the man who declared war on her life
Was she supposed to tongue his encrusted
toilet stool lips
suck the numbers off of his tin badge
choke on his clap trap balls
squeeze on his nub of rotten maggots and
sing “god bless america thank you for fucking my life away?”
This being wartime for Joanne
she did what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the piss drinking shit sniffing guard said
“I’m gonna make you wish you were dead black bitch
come here”
Joanne came down with an ice pick in
the swat freak motherfucker’s chest
yes in the fat neck of that racist policeman
Joanne did the dance of the ice picks and once again
from coast to coast
house to house
we celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else were we supposed to do

Apr 15 2014

Nearly 12,000 Petition Signatures To Be Delivered Today!

by Antonia Clifford

by Antonia Clifford

On Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 2 p.m. local Arizonians will deliver a petition signed by nearly 12,000 people from across the U.S. asking that County Attorney Bill Montgomery drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor.

People across the country ask that Maricopa County & Bill Montgomery use common-sense & compassion to provide support for Ms. Taylor and her children rather than punishment.

Phoenix resident Kelsie Dunmire is coordinating the petition delivery. She explained her involvement this way:

I became involved in delivering the petition signatures because Shanesha Taylor’s story is the story of so many other people. She was doing what she had to do to try to support her children and herself with the limited resources that she had available to her; she shouldn’t be jailed for thatI hope that County Attorney will drop the charges against her.”

Kelsie will be joined by Rev. Jarrett Maupin and other community members at County Attorney Montgomery’s office at 2 p.m.:

Maricopa County Attorney’s Office
301 West Jefferson Street, Suite 800
Phoenix, AZ 85003  

If you are in the Phoenix area, you are invited to join in the petition delivery event.

In solidarity with this event, a virtual petition delivery will happen on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr) at 10 am (Arizona time). Over 260,000 people will hear the message that Bill Montgomery should drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor.

Apr 15 2014

Snippet From History #5: Judge Edward Aaron, White Terrorism, and the KKK

With this weekend’s terrible shooting at a Jewish community center, the KKK is again in the news. Many Americans, though, either view the organization with indifference or low-level contempt. After all, it’s difficult to get exercised about an organization that is most often portrayed as being passé, in decline and lacking power. Yet the KKK is in fact alive and active aross the United States. And I think that we need to understand its origins as a white terrorist organization in order to fully grasp American history and to understand our present.

There’s a scene in the film Mississippi Burning that references the story of a black man named “Homer Wilkes” which is actually based on the true story of Judge Edward Aaron.

In September 1957, six members of the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama kidnapped Judge Aaron, took him to their meeting place, and castrated him with a razor blade. What was unusual about this case is that the men were arrested, tried, and convicted by all-white juries of “committing mayhem” & “assault with intent to murder.” Four of the defendants were sentenced to twenty years in prison. Two who testified against their peers were given five year sentences.

Judge Edward Aaron, a handyman, was walking with a woman when he was apprehended by robed and hooded men. There was a brief struggle before he was subdued and knocked unconscious. Aaron was hit in the head with a pistol, a wrench, and kicked in the face. B.A. Floyd mutilated Aaron as a test of whether he would be promoted to Klan captain.

Aaron was randomly picked for torture. His sin was being a black man. Judge Aaron didn’t die. Instead, he testified at some of his assailants’ and torturers’ trials. He told the jury that when he came to, he was emasculated. He pretended to be unconscious because he heard one of the Klansmen say: “If he wakes up, blow his brains out.” When he was apprehended, he was told that he would serve as a warning to other blacks not to participate in or support integration efforts.

One of the culprits testified that he thought they were simply “going to scare the hell out of a negro” & was surprised at what he saw when he came in from standing guard outside the meeting place. After castrating Aaron, they poured turpentine in his wounds, put him in the trunk of their car, and dumped him in a creek where he was found by police. Judge Aaron, who was reportedly mildly developmentally disabled, was near death from blood loss.

The men who tortured Aaron were ordinary white men: construction workers, supermarket clerks, newspaper editors, etc… Their names were William Miller, John Griffin, Joe P. Pritchett, Jesse Mabry, B.A. Floyd and Grover McCullough. I point out their “ordinariness” because it’s important to note that it wasn’t “monsters” who upheld white supremacy and committed torture against black people and others in this country. It was “ordinary” white people who were backed by the power of government.

When George Wallace became Governor of Alabama, he pardoned the four men who had been given 20 year prison sentences. He did not pardon the two who had turned state’s evidence against their peers. He didn’t explain why he made the decision. He didn’t have to. He restored proper order and made it clear that terrorizing black people was sanctioned by the state.

I’m not sure how many people in this country know Judge Aaron’s story. I don’t forget his story. But I am keenly aware that there are thousands of other stories of white terrorism in the U.S. that I don’t know. Those stories should be unearthed and shared. They tell us something about what we are as a country. They ground practices like stop & frisk in a historical context that helps us to understand the virulent violence of the practice. There is a direct line between Judge Aaron unsuspectingly walking with his girlfriend & being kidnapped by hooded men with the backing of state power & the unsuspecting young black man in NYC who is apprehended by cops for simply walking while black. Stop & frisk terrorizes black & brown young people. History resonates still…