Apr 30 2012

New Resource – Blue & Black: Stories of Police Violence – A Zine

Next Monday, I will be releasing to the public a set of resources about policing, violence, and resistance that me and my friends have been working on for over a year. Regular readers of Prison Culture are aware of this work since I have been previewing some of what I have learned about the history and current manifestations of oppressive policing here.

by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

Today (as a preview of coming attractions), I am excited to share a new zine by my friend Rachel Marie-Crane Williams titled “Blue & Black: Stories of Policing and Violence.”

I’ve waxed poetic about Rachel at length here so I won’t embarrass her by gushing any further. I have already expressed my gratitude to her and she knows that I am in awe of her talent. So thank you, Rachel.

I hope that everyone reading this post will take the time to share the zine with someone else who you think should read it. For those who are in the Chicago area, we will be unveiling the zine and many other resources on Saturday May 5th at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Details of the event are here and we will have a few printed copies of the zine on hand.

I am swamped this week with work and several other projects so I will only post if there is any breaking news or if I feel an urge to rant. I hope to be back to regular posting next week.

Apr 29 2012

Poem for the Day: For Rodney King

I cannot believe that today is the 20th anniversary of the L.A. rebellion. To commemorate the incident, I am sharing this poem by one of my favorite poets Lucille Clifton. Look for this and other poems about policing, violence and resistance in the next couple of weeks in a publication that I have developed.

For rodney king

By Lucille Clifton

the body
of one black man
is rag and stone
is mud
and blood
the body of one
black man
contains no life
worth loving
so the body
of one black man
is nobody
is there no value
in this skin
if we are nothing
should we spare
the neighborhood
who will be next and
why should we save
the pictures

Apr 27 2012

Lynchings in America By the Numbers…

A new study in the Spring 2012 issue of the Sociological Quarterly makes the connection between lynchings and recent prison admissions. The authors find that “U.S. jurisdictions with the highest lynching rates now seem to imprison more of their residents (Jacobs et. al, p.167).” They offer a number of hypotheses for this association including the political climate of the states and the racial concentration of people of color. One of the conclusions is that racial antagonism is enduring and can basically take new forms in different eras. Today’s mass incarceration “may be employed to achieve the same ends as the illicit killings used in the distant past (p.170).”

My friend Jane went to the National Archives a few days ago. She was researching something else but came across this document that lists the numbers of people lynched in America between 1900 and 1945. She kindly took a photo of the document to share with me and I decided to share the images with you. [Some may be surprised at the numbers of white people who were lynched.]

Apr 26 2012

An Afternoon in Circle: “You looked at me like you know I ain’t shit…”

I spent over three hours yesterday afternoon facilitating a circle. I feel compelled to write about it and I have generously been given permission by the principal participants to do so here. I will use pseudonyms and won’t divulge any confidential information. I want to write about this experience because there are too few (in my opinion) first-hand accounts about circle-keeping.

Teachers are my favorite people and teaching is the most difficult profession to master. I would say this even if I weren’t an educator myself. Lately, teachers have become the whipping posts for all interests. The union-busters in state government are taking aim at long-promised pensions and are imposing a plethora of ill-conceived reforms. Parents bitch and complain while few if any offer any praise or encouragement. Many students who are suffering from the impact of neoliberal economic policies are coming to school hungry, poor, and pissed off (with good reason). With this as their backdrop, many teachers are trying to go about their daily work with hope and professionalism.

Ms. P is 30 years old and has been teaching middle-school math for 7 years. She is white, progressive and hails from Georgia. She has a masters degree in education and a huge heart. She also happens to be a friend of mine so I can personally attest to her character. Jamal just turned 14 and is very big for his age. At 6 foot 1, he towers over his peers. He is older than his 7th grade classmates because he had to repeat the 6th grade. He is new to the school this year; this is the third school that Jamal has attended in three years.

Things did not get off to a good start between Ms. P and Jamal this September. On the second day of class, he sat on his desk instead of his chair. After repeated requests that he take a seat on the chair, Ms. P sent him to the disciplinarian’s office. Jamal decided to make Ms. P public enemy #1. The situation escalated and earlier this week Jamal pushed Ms. P as she tried to get him to move when he was blocking the supply closet. He pushed her so hard that she fell and hit her head. This is cause for an immediate expulsion and even arrest. Ms. P did not want this for Jamal.

She reached out to me on Tuesday and I spent part of Wednesday speaking with her and with Jamal to see if he would consent to a peacemaking circle. He agreed to participate in large part because I think that he was afraid that Ms. P would press assault charges against him.

So we found ourselves yesterday in a neutral space sitting in circle. We began by having everyone introduce themselves by telling us one thing that we couldn’t tell about them just by looking at them. We then got right into the reason that we were all in the room by responding to the question: “What happened that brought us here?” Everyone had a chance to tell the story of what happened from their perspective. The subsequent questions were:

For Jamal: What were you thinking when you pushed Ms. P?
For Ms. P and the bystanders: What did you think when you realized what had happened?
For everyone: What has been the hardest/most difficult part of this incident for you?
For everyone: What do you think needs to happen to repair the harm that has been caused?

Needless to say, this was an extremely emotional process. Almost immediately, the tears began to flow. Jamal’s eyes were dry until he responded to the question of what he was thinking when he pushed his teacher. “I was thinking that from the first day of school,” he said, “you looked at me like you know I ain’t shit.” You could hear a pin drop after he expressed these sentiments. He had the talking piece in hand so he had the floor. He continued by telling us that he believes that Ms. P is afraid of him. “In my head, I said if she already be thinkin’ I’m a scary black man, then I’m gonna be that – a scary black man,” he continued.

When it was Ms. P’s turn to speak, she told Jamal that she was in fact afraid of him. That he had earned her fear by being disruptive and that he had confirmed her fears by pushing her. Then she stopped and took a deep breath and said something that was to my mind incredibly brave. “I have to be honest with myself though too. I was afraid of you from the start. From that first day and I can see now that I did not hide it from you at all. I am deeply sorry for that.” She went on to explain in very personal terms some of the reasons that he triggered her fears even though he had not yet done a thing. It was a powerful moment and it was a moment of deep connection between Ms. P and Jamal. As the circle proceeded, more personal stories were shared and more bridges were built.

This is the power and the value of the circle process. Do I think that Jamal won’t act out again? Of course not. Circles are not a panacea or a miracle cure. However, I think that Ms. P and Jamal now have a foundation from which to build trust and to address future infractions. During the circle, we set some rules for how we will behave with each other. We have a contract listing some expectations, responsibilities and consequences. Jamal will have to stay after school until the end of the school year to assist Ms. P with several projects and also to get extra help for his math deficiencies. I don’t know what today will bring for Ms. P and Jamal but I felt privileged to be able to support the process of repairing harm in a restorative way.

Apr 25 2012

Black/Inside: Curating An Exhibition about Captivity & Confinement #2

A couple of months ago, I wrote that I was going to be co-curating (with some friends) an exhibition about a history of black incarceration in the U.S. titled Black/Inside.

I haven’t had much time to think about planning the exhibition because I have been consumed with work and other projects. As I come to the end of a major project about policing and violence, I can now turn more of my attention back to Black/Inside.

Some updates on where things stand…

First, I am happy to announce that the exhibition will premiere at the African American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago in October 2012. We are designing the exhibition so that it can travel and we hope that other cultural spaces in the city will want to host the exhibition past November.

Next, I am happy to say that my friend Teresa is serving as the co-curator on this project. She was formerly a curatorial assistant at the Jane Addams Hull House museum and is just an all-round terrific human being. It’s a pleasure to be collaborating with her again. Also, I am thrilled to be working with my friend Billy who will be offering design and artistic support for the exhibition. Billy will be designing one of the interactive features of the exhibit and helping with other things too. It’s always fun working with Billy. Over the weekend, I met a new friend, Maria, who is an artist, a friend of Teresa and is also supporting this exhibition.

Snapshot from my Collection (1930, Macon, Georgia - Bibb County)

All of us are volunteering our time to organize Black/Inside because we strongly believe that mass incarceration is a huge waste of resources and also more importantly for us an “immoral destruction of human lives.” We also believe that there is a desperate need to engage more people in the movement to dismantle the prison industrial complex. We need to find multiple ways to capture the public’s attention and to marshal a base of people who will feel empowered to challenge this pernicious epidemic. We need to educate more people about mass incarceration in this moment but we must ground our discussions in a historical context.

Our exhibition is framed by a set of questions that were posed by Michelle Alexander when she was interviewed for a recent article in Rethinking Schools:

1. How did we get here?
2. Why is this happening?
3. How are things different in other communities?
4. How is this linked to what has gone on in prior periods of our nation’s history?
5. And what, then, can we do about it?

There are other related questions that we want to explore too; they are inspired by the late great Manning Marable:

1. Why do black people continue to be marginalized in the U.S.?
2. Who benefits from this marginalization?
3. Who is responsible for maintaining the structure of power and privilege that makes this marginalization an enduring fact of American life?

Over the next few weeks, I will periodically use this space on Prison Culture to muse out loud about various aspects of Black/Inside. For those who may want to more regularly follow the ideas that will eventually form the basis of the exhibition, I have started a Tumblr that will serve as the “container” for my musings. I have no doubt that a lot of what appears on the Tumblr won’t necessarily make it into the final exhibition. I am using the space as a kind of journal since I don’t usually know what I think about anything until I see it written down.

The bulk of the artifacts that will make up this exhibition are from my personal collection. I have not scanned the vast majority of the items that I have collected over the years. Regardless, I have started a Pinterest board that features some of the artifacts from my collection. The board will expand as I have an opportunity to scan and include more artifacts over time.

It should be an interesting next few months and I look forward to sharing some of the journey with you.

Apr 24 2012

Bill Clinton Was Incredibly Destructive for Black People…

I have refrained from writing this post for almost two years but I cannot hold back any longer. Bill Clinton is without a doubt my least favorite President of the last 40 years. You read that correctly. But, but, but, what about Ronald Reagan you might ask? What about George W. Bush you might protest? Well for me, the truth is that I expect Republicans to be detrimental to people of color’s prospects. They do not pretend to be interested in our survival.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has actively tried to ingratiate himself to black people by appropriating black culture. Think back to his appearance on Arsenio Hall, playing the Sax. Think back to his post-Presidency move to Harlem to locate his Clinton Foundation office there. Think back to the fact that we are incessantly told that Bill Clinton was the “first black” President. What a massive insult! People who speak this nonsense, say it without irony.

There are so many ways that the Clinton Presidency was toxic to black people in particular and people of color in general. I will periodically highlight some of his greatest hits against black people in the coming weeks. Today I want to focus on one piece of legislation that the U.S. Congress passed in 1994 which is still reverberating in 2012. The 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill (spearheaded by Joe Biden and Bill Clinton) cost $30 billion dollars and helped to accelerate the growth of the prison industrial complex in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. The bill’s provisions included:

1. $10.8 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over 5 years.
2. $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons.
3. An expansion of the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to fifty-eight (the bill also eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants).
4. A three strikes proposal that mandated life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies.
5. A section that allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults.
6. The creation of special courts able to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” on the basis of secret evidence.
7. Established guidelines for states to track sex offenders. Required states to track sex offenders by confirming their place of residence annually for ten years after their release into the community or quarterly for the rest of their lives if the sex offender was convicted of a violent sex crime. [This sex offender registry law has caused havoc in the legal system]

These are just a few of the greatest hits from the 1994 Crime Bill.

Progressives who are loudly complaining about President Obama’s record on civil liberties (which is abysmal) were overwhelmingly SILENT about Clinton’s dramatic expansion of the prison industrial complex. I remember that period of time clearly. I invite you to send me your own examples of the many ways that Bill Clinton’s presidency was destructive to people of color and I will happily post them here. I think that this is a period of history that many people either don’t know about or are willfully choosing to forget. It should NOT be forgotten since we are living with the consequences of that era today.

Apr 23 2012

Historical Moments of Policing, Violence, and Resistance #1: The Mississippi Black Papers

In the lead up to the release (on May 7) of several new resources that I have been developing with new and old friends, I will be previewing several items on Prison Culture. Today I am sharing a page from a pamphlet that my friend, talented artist and dedicated educator/activist Mauricio Pineda, has illustrated and designed. He and I have collaborated on a publication to share the stories of individuals who filed affidavits about law enforcement violence in Mississippi during the early to mid-60s. The pamphlet features six affidavits collected by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) which was a civil rights era organization.

Even people who only have limited knowledge about the black freedom movement are aware of the fact that Mississippi figured prominently in many of the primary struggles of that era. The page that I am sharing below is from volume 1 of a pamphlet series about policing, violence, and resistance. I am certain that you will be as stunned by the power of this visual image as I was when I first saw it yesterday:

Art and Design by Mauricio Pineda

Apr 22 2012

Guest Post: Stop the Criminal-Black-Man Narrative 2012 by Nancy A. Heitzeg

Stop the Criminal-Black-Man Narrative 2012
by nancy a heitzeg

“Trayvon Martin was killed by a very old idea..”
Brent Staples, New York Times, 4/14/2102

The Black Man as Dangerous is a lethal idea, ironically, not to those who perpetrate and fear, but especially to those to whom it is attached. It is indeed also a very old idea, one that has evolved over centuries. The Savage, The Brute, the Defiler of White Women — honed and solidified in the Post Civil Rights Era into an archetype that scholars and activists now refer to in aggregate short-hand:

The Criminal-Black-Man.

This image is ubiquitous — it is the text and subtext of all crime-reporting and “reality” cop/prison programing. It shapes the contours of everyday racism, the school to prison pipeline, police patrols and profiles; it offers the framework for both creating and then perversely justifying the demographics of both the prison industrial complex and the face of death row.

At times, as in the Trayvon Martin case, the archetype and its’ consequences are, at least briefly, openly examined and discussed. More often, as with the noxious Kony 2012 campaign, it looms just below the surface with an eerily subconscious pull.

The Criminal-Black-Man is the visible yet untouchable specter that lies at the center of fear and violence. It is personal and yes it is political.

Read more »

Apr 21 2012

Some Good News Amidst The Bad…

In the past week, I have been gratified to receive several pieces of good news. I swear that it is weeks like this one that keep me going.

I have written a couple of times about a young man named Darius who I met through this blog. My friend Maurice stepped up big time and has become a great friend and ally to Darius.

Darius’s grades have steadily improved since last year and he e-mailed to share that he will be graduating from the 10th grade with honors in June. He adds in his note: “Share the good news with the people, Ms. K.” So Darius, I am sharing the good news with the people. In addition, it appears that Maurice is rubbing off on Darius since he has been accepted into a prestigious pre-engineering summer program for young black men. As I type these words, I am grinning ear to ear. I am really proud of Darius and I have faith that he will be a success in whatever he chooses to pursue in life. Congratulations, D! Can’t wait to see what’s next…

I’ve been working with another young man for the past few months. He is my hero for all that he has had to overcome. This week he called to tell me that he successfully passed his GED exam. I feel like it is a Masters degree. He will enroll in a local community college this summer. He is on his way…

A young woman, who I have known since she was 14 when she joined a group for young women in my community that I started, is graduating from college in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t be prouder of the young woman that she has grown into. She has never let her circumstances define her and she is now headed off to graduate school.

Finally, two other young people have received great news this week. One learned that he is a Gates Scholar and the other has won a full scholarship to Harvard. Both of these young people are my inspirations. They are activists and leaders. I am privileged to know them. They have both said such kind things to me about my influence in their lives. The truth is though that I am better for having them in mine.

Weeks like this one don’t come around often enough. But when they do, it’s worth taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and giving thanks to the universe. Bad things happened this week too, of course. But for today, I won’t dwell on them. I choose to focus instead on the good. It was a good week.

I dedicate this to all of the young people in my life (from my first love):

Apr 20 2012

Poem for the Day: what’s missing?

My friend, the talented Rachael Hudak, has written a poignant poem based on the theme of what we all “miss” (in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and in our lives) as a result of the epidemic of mass incarceration. Rachael works at the Neighborhood Writing Alliance and facilitated a workshop this week based on a project that we are both involved in called “The Missing.”

what’s missing
by Rachael Hudak

in the last letter he wrote to me, Martin told me to
slow down
everything in the prison was starting to burst
into anger and he needed his friends on the outside to
keep peace

I’ve been thinking about how to keep peace
when there are so many pieces
missing from the whole
so many lives thrown into holes
wells dug so deep
that I can’t even dream of the day they all dry up

what is missing is
the ability to pick up the phone and call my friends
on their birthday
when they are dying
when I miss them
the ability to make them a handmade card
(the glue on the page questioned as a vehicle for drugs)
bring them soup when they are sick
hug them for longer than three breaths

what is missing is
Shaneka’s bond with her baby, taken from her three days after birth
what is missing is
Martin’s honeymoon with his wife after thirty years of love
what is missing is
the freedom to use a roll of scotch tape to patch things back together
(one piece at a time from a guard
more than one could be melted and shaped into a shank)
what is missing is
open spaces where I can talk about how much I miss Kinnari
who was deported back to India after serving 11 years
for defending her body against sexual assault
what is missing is
open spaces where we can talk about
how bad it hurts to have friends and family
in prison
who we can’t visit
who we can’t call
who we love and

fathers and mothers
and so many black and brown fathers
so many women
and so many babies who have grown up to be women
and so many babies who have grown up to be men
without their black and brown mothers
without their black and brown fathers
and white men and women
and poor men and women,
so many without money
locked away without enough to their name
to make a phone call
(in Chicago it costs $7 to make a 15 minute call)
I miss them in this city
I write poems every day
about how to keep peace in my heart
while this war eats my people

Martin, I miss you
Kinnari, I miss you
Jamal, I miss you
Phil, I miss you
Lala, I miss you
Shawn, I miss you
and for so many friends I have not named
those who wake and breathe dreaming of streets
that welcome them home
and a place at the table with food that steams the words
eat, you deserve to be nourished
I love you
I miss you