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.
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…
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
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
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 that. I 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.
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…
“Stealing Chickens” & “Manifesting Prostitution:” Lizzy Williams, Monica Jones & Criminalizing Black Women
On Friday, Monica Jones was found guilty of “manifestation of prostitution.” I was unsurprised and upset. Unsurprised because the criminal punishment system is inherently racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, classist, ableist, & so on. Upset because I hate injustice. Jones is part of a long line of black women who have been unjustly targeted by the state. She vows to fight on and so should we all.
Black women in the U.S. have been excluded from definitions of ‘respectable’ and/or ‘proper’ womanhood, sexuality, & beauty. This matters when one considers how we’re treated within society as a result. Black women have also been constructed as always ‘publicly available.’ Think of how this played out for Monica Jones as a trans black woman (though repeatedly misgendered by authorities) and for other black women. If we are always ‘publicly available,’ then charging us with manifestation of prostitution is more likely. These ideological constructs have their roots in justifying slavery and our general subjugation. They are doing particular work and we see this work clearly ‘manifested’ in the historical criminalization of black women. Unfortunately, there have been few studies about the history of black women’s punishment and criminalization. Notable exceptions include work by Kali Gross and Ann Butler. So when I come across interesting stories about crime and punishment in Black women’s history, I try to document them.
In 1951, a black woman named Elizabeth (Lizzy) Williams escaped from an Alabama prison farm. She had served nine long years of a 218 year prison sentence. What could Ms. Williams have done to deserve 218 years behind bars? She was convicted by three all-white juries of lying to protect her boyfriend from a robbery charge for stealing chickens. Officially, she was convicted of one count each of unarmed robbery by three different Alabama juries (even though there was no evidence that she had participated in any robberies).
In 1942, Lizzy, the mother of a young daughter, was dating a man named Turner Washington. He came home one night and told her that he had stolen some chickens. As Lizzy recalled: “He said if you don’t tell them I was with you, they’re gonna burn me.” So she lied for him to law enforcement.
When asked about her trials, Lizzy, who quit school in the third grade, couldn’t recall them. She explained: “They was the judge and two or three men on the right of me…They talked between themselves and then they told me how much time they was giving me (Atlanta Daily World, 4/16/78).” No attorney represented her. Lizzy Williams didn’t stand a chance of a ‘fair trial’ in 1940s Alabama where black people were routinely sentenced to long prison terms for minor crimes.
After being forbidden from holding prayer services in prison, Lizzy fled to Detroit where she lived with family for the next 27 years. As a fugitive, she made a living as a maid, a seamstress, and by leading church revivals. She lived in poverty afraid to apply for any benefits in case she would be discovered. She recounted having to eat bug-infested food while incarcerated.
At 60 years old, Williams was arrested by local police after her sister informed them of her whereabouts. Lizzy and her sister Annie had argued so Annie alerted law enforcement of her outstanding warrant. Lizzy was jailed for eight days in January 1978. In March, officials in Alabama asked that she be extradited to serve the remaining 209 years of her sentence.
After an outpouring of community outrage, Michigan governor William Milliken refused to extradite Lizzy Williams stating that: “The ends of justice would not be served” by sending her back to Alabama.
It’s inconceivable to me that a white woman in Alabama would have been subjected to such racist treatment in the criminal legal system. Lizzy Williams, however, would not have had access to ‘proper’ womanhood as a buffer from harsh treatment. This, in part, explains how she could be sentenced to 218 years in prison for lying about some chickens.
I’ll be part of a discussion about the contemporary criminalization of black women and girls sponsored by the Black Youth Project this Wednesday at 6 p.m. Details are here and all are welcome.
I love Dead Prez…
You ain’t gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
You ain’t gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
I’m really lucky. Since people know that I am interested in prisons, friends and acquaintances often send me items that they think I’ll like. A couple of years ago, a friend’s mother who was a prison abolitionist in the 1970s sent me some old issues of a feminist anti-prison publication titled “Through the Looking Glass.” I put them in storage but recently I pulled out a couple of copies for an exhibition that I am planning. As I flipped through one issue, I came across a statement published by Women Against Prisons in 1978. It’s incredibly relevant to what is currently happening around prison issues in California so I am republishing it. [Notice that Jerry Brown plays a central role here in 1978 - unbelievable]
STOP NEW PRISONS
Once again the law and order forces in California are pretending to solve the problems of poverty and crime by building new prisons. This year there are two separate actions pending in the legislature that would authorize millions of dollars for the construction of new prisons.
LAST YEAR’S VICTORY
Last year strong pressure from individuals and groups throughout the state stopped the allocation of nearly $100 million for 4-6 new men’s prisons and 1 new women’s prison. Two years ago similar pressure forced the closure of a behavior modification unit at the California Institution for Women (the state’s women’s prison). WE HAVE STOPPED THEM BEFORE. WE CAN AND MUST STOP THEM AGAIN!
THIS YEAR’S STRUGGLE
Despite last year’s widespread opposition to prison construction, the California Department of Corrections (CDC), Governor Brown, and certain right-wing legislators remain firm in their commitment to lock up more people. As part of his strategy for getting votes in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, Governor Brown has proposed that $100 million be allocated to build 5 new men’s prison (to be located in Southern California) and one new women’s prison (to be located in Northern California), a total of 2400 new beds. Additionally, Senator Robert Presley of Riverside has proposed the spending of $130 million on facilities for 3600 more prisoners. Both the Governor’s proposed new prison budget and Presley’s bill, SB1342, have to go through subcommittees and committees of both the Senate and Assembly this Spring (April or May 1978). If approved, they will then move on to the entire legislature for a final vote. The Presley Bill has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The legislature is moving faster than anticipated. It is important that we apply public pressure at every step. We must act now!
The CDC claims that new prisons are needed because existing prisons are overcrowded, rundown, and located far from urban centers. But new prisons will not necessarily mean better prison conditions or the tearing down of the old prisons. New prisons will cause more people to be locked up under the same intolerable conditions that exist now. The vast majority of prisoners are low-income, and a disproportionately high number are Third World. Their crimes are those of economic and social survival: robbery, forgery and bad checks, and drug-related crimes are among the most common. Most homicides for which people are in prison are related to family violence, drugs, and car accidents.
Since I am in the middle of working on a project focused on the history of criminalizing women for self-defense, I am coming across a number of interesting pieces of information.
Here’s a poem written by Joan Little:
I AM SOMEBODY!
By Joann Little
I may be down today
But I am somebody!
I may be considered the lowest
on earth; but I am somebody!
I came up in low rent housing,
sometimes lived in the slums;
But I am still somebody!
I read an article where a black youth
was jailed, he stole some food, but got
15-20 years – he was somebody!
I killed a white in ‘self-defense’
but the jury doesn’t care – and when
he came for me to prepare trial –
he said she deserves the chair –
Every hurt and pain I feel inside,
Everytime I pick up the morning news
only to see my name on the front page –
I begin to wonder; they make me feel
less than somebody.
But in the end I will have freedom
and peace of mind. I will do anything
to help prove my innocence. Because
of one important fact above all…
‘I am somebody!’
Source: Save Joann Little (Women’s Press Collective, 1975)