Dec 27 2012

Dick Gregory: Still A Boss…

I admit to being a stan for Dick Gregory… I simply adore the man. I am grateful for the purposeful life that he has led and continues to lead. I love him.

Years ago, I was privileged to meet Mr. Gregory at a reception following a book reading. I made a complete fool of myself gushing over him. He was characteristically hilarious when he quipped (deadpanned) that he would much prefer my money to my appreciation. Then he smiled and I was done. My fandom only intensified. I am sure that thousands of people across the world have their own Dick Gregory stories.

Anyway, over the years I have read Mr. Gregory’s writings and have collected photographs of him. My favorite photographs are those of him getting arrested… [Don’t ask]. I thought that it would be fun to share some of those photos here as a way to honor Mr. Gregory’s activism and civil disobedience over the years. Stay tuned for those in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I just finished his memoir “Callus On My Soul” yesterday. It was published in 2001 and is an excellent read. Below is the book cover which is appropriate to the topics that I usually consider on this blog.

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Dec 23 2012

The Anguilla Prison Camp Massacre…

On July 12 1947, an article was published in the New York Times under the headline “Five Convicts Slain in Break in Georgia.” It opened with the following sentence:

Five Negro convicts were shot to death and eight others were wounded, two critically, in an escape attempt at a state highway work camp today, Warden H. G. Worthy said.

Real Photo Postcard (1905) - From My Collection

Real Photo Postcard (1905) – From My Collection

The words are unremarkable on their face. In fact, many prisoners tried to escape from convict camps over the years. Camps were brutal and terrible places for prisoners. However the initial account of what happened at the Anguilla Prison Camp (near Brunswick, Georgia) on July 11, 1947 turned out to be completely fabricated. Warden H. G. Worthy provided his initial version of events which was published in the Times:

A group of new prisoners joined the camp yesterday and were sent out today to work on the Jesup Highway. The new men refused to work and were brought back to the camp about 4 p.m. They would not get out of the trucks when ordered and Warden Worthy called county police.

Chief of Police Russell B. Henderson of Glynn County talked to the prisoners and told them to do what the warden ordered, “cut out that foolishness.”

The men left the trucks and were lined up in the prison enclosure. When the police chief finished talking to them they broke, ran to the barracks and dove under the building, which is about two feet off the ground. The prisoners crawled on under the building and ran toward the fence enclosure on the other side.

Officers then opened fire with shotguns and rifles. Five were killed and eight were wounded. Fourteen prisoners came back and surrendered.

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Dec 22 2012

Poem of the Day: A Full 40oz Beer is Tossed From a Passing Car and Lands at My Feet

A Full 40oz Beer is Tossed From a Passing Car and Lands at My Feet
by Roger Bonair-Agard

and its roar is deafening — glass
and beer everywhere — night
and an incredible sadness
and Trayvon Martin is still
on everyone’s lips tonight
and I’m wearing a dark blue hoodie
and the people in the car can’t know
what color I am or even
that I’m there — pushing
as I am on my bicycle
and I don’t know many days
what the logarithms of rage
and so many people given
so much permission
to hate

a man says call me
a racist but I couldn’t care
as much about the character
because they made her black
which means

has given him a history — too
and an unyielding right to count
my body expendable

When did I become less

Who mounted me such a mule —
human whose death is unremarkable
and for whom no one waits
at home as I pedal on through
the cloakish night which everyone knows
now after Sanford, Florida
adjudicates nothing in favor
of black bodies — enter lynch
cliche here — which is to say
it is possible for my death
by mob to be so unremarkable
as to not be shocking
or newsworthy — my mother
my woman should learn
expect even to veil themselves
in black lace shame
on them for even wanting me
to star in my own life — to return
home triumphant and drunk
with my God-given right
in the darkness and the streets
and this is what I pray
to sometimes — what is God-
what I know
is my burden tonight — this
Palm Sunday as I come
celebrated into the Calvary
of my own personal black history
expecting what the Father has laid
out for me — sure death by mob
who hurls invective and missile
who say black can’t possible
be rooted for – who will deny
who will say their hands
were tied — who gets paid
for my death everyday
who knowing me already
convicted touches the hem
of my garment says nothing
and is made whole.

Dec 21 2012

Doing Time During the Holidays…

It’s that time of year again. I am writing cards for several prisoners. I’ve shared my feelings about the holidays & prisoners here before…

One of my former students spent several years locked up. I used to write him regularly and by his 5th year in prison, mine were the only letters that he received. He told me that they became his lifeline. He told me the letters helped him remember that he was still “human.” When he shared those words with me, I felt a huge weight land on my shoulders. For a few weeks, I was paralyzed and unable to write more letters. I don’t know what was wrong with me but I just got scared. Thankfully, I snapped out of my funk. Writing is such a small thing. It was something that I could easily afford to do. I felt relieved to have moved past the paralysis.

Below is an image of a cell at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). It is a photograph by Richard Ross for his seering Juvenile-In-Justice project. I have and do spend a lot of time at the JTDC. My organization incubates a project called Girl Talk there. I have been in those cells. I know the young people who are locked up there. I hate to think of them there at all (and especially during this time of year). Christopher spent time locked up at JTDC when he was 13 years old. You can hear him talk about his experience here (note: when he references the “Audy Home” he means the JTDC).

by Richard Ross (for Juvenile-In-Justice)

by Richard Ross (for Juvenile-In-Justice)

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Dec 20 2012

Guest Post: Of Guns and Bitter by Nancy A. Heitzeg

Of Guns and Bitter
by nancy a heitzeg

“As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
~ Statement from The President on School Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

In the face of yet another unspeakable tragedy – 28 Dead, 20 of them small children – attention turns yet again to the ubiquity and ready availability of guns. There are more 300 million guns in private hands here — one for nearly every man woman and child in the United States. Since the 2004 expiration of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, some of these legally owned guns include semi-automatic assault weapons such as the AR-15.

In addition, these guns are more freely assessable due to a plethora of NRA/ALEC driven lax gun laws — some 99 reduced restrictions on permits, training, buying/selling, conceal and carry in the past three years alone. Their unfettered use is also increasingly supported by law; as detailed in CI last week, Stand Your Ground/Shoot First legislation allows shooters in 25 states to claim self-defense under situations that were once simply plain murder.

The expected result is a seemingly endless death toll. The United States ranks 5th in the World for murder by gun – these shootings occur on the street, in homes and what seems to be a growing number of mass shootings at schools, places of work and worship, and public spaces.

And, in the face of these unspeakable tragedies, the reaction is often the same. Horror. Shock. The Tragedy of Silence is temporarily broken. Media attention that exploits individual and personal tragedy. Story lines that search for “motive” and individualized explanations. The “othering” of the shooter – labels of “mental illness” if the shooter is white; “thuggery” if not. The anger, the bitterness, the blame.

And then the calls for tougher gun laws – certainly a renewed ban on assault weapons, but more improbable calls too, such as Repeal the Second Amendment.

A Word of Caution from Melissa Harris-Perry:

“What I would caution–and I think it’s part of the lesson we learn as parents, and that we also have to learn as a country, vis-á-vis our children–is that we cannot make them safe at all times. And so we have to be careful about the reaction being, ‘Let’s build a moat, and a wall, and a metal detector around our whole worlds.’ We can, however, change the structural realities in which they exist that make them safer because there would be fewer available guns… we can’t exclusively lead with our hearts. We must also lead with our heads as we start thinking about reasonable reactions to this.”

I echo these concerns.

Full disclosure: I strongly support the reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban. I fully support the stricter regulations on the manufacture, sale and possession of guns and ammo, as well as the repeal of lax conceal/carry laws and Shoot First legislation. I am opposed to “sport hunting“, the tactics/politics of the odious NRA and the gun show loophole.

But I am not opposed to the Second Amendment, nor to the notion expressed in District of Columbia v. Heller that the “right to keep and bear arms” is an individual right. I support legitimate efforts at self-defense as both individual and collective community rights. By any means necessary – No Justice/No Peace.
I am also aware that “increasing criminalization would adversely affect certain populations”, most notably communities of color. Consider this:

  • The school security measures instituted post-Columbine ostensibly to “protect” students – security cameras., metal detectors, a police presence at school – became, in inner city majority Black/Brown schools, a vehicle for turning schools into mini-security states and the grease for the “school to prison pipeline”.

We must be clear – the law has never saved us, calls for “law and order” and more more more criminalization never make us safer, In fact, for certain communities at least, it escalates the risk of institutionalized state violence.

So Yes, let us have that national conversation about reinstating the assault weapons ban, the repeal of Shoot First legislation and increasing the regulation of all guns and ammo.

But let’s make sure all voices are at the table and heeded too, especially those who will bear the brunt of our “solutions”. Let’s not replicate yet again our old “Law and Order” mistakes. Let’s discuss not just more legislation but an end to differential enforcement as well.

Let us remember too, that this will the beginning and not the end of the conversation — guns are just another tool for violence in a culture that celebrates, commodities and capitalizes on it at every turn.

The real conversation must ultimately be much broader – the real solutions so much bolder.

I hope that we are finally ready…

Dec 19 2012

Still Talking About The Police…

I facilitated a workshop last month. At the end, a long-time acquaintance approached me: “So, still talking about the police I see…”
I was quiet.

Late last year, a young neighbor committed suicide.
I was devastated. The scars remain.

Regular readers of this blog know that even before my young neighbor’s suicide, I had spent a lot of time documenting the hostile relationship between black youth in particular and the police. It cannot be helped. The young people who I work with mostly want to talk about their encounters with the police. Back in August, I quoted a young man who I work with:

“You know Ms. K, when I was growing up in the hood, I wasn’t afraid of the bogeyman, I was afraid of the 5.0. In the ghetto, the police are the bogeyman.”

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Dec 18 2012

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failed…

For the next several weeks, I will be devoting most Tuesdays to posting something about the failed drug war. Today, I am posting this self-explanatory graphic to illustrate the racist part of the drug war.


The following video clip of Eugene Jarecki (director of the excellent documentary, The House I Live In) illustrates the “failed” part of the drug war.

Dec 17 2012

So Apparently Ella Fitzgerald Was Locked Up As A Teenager…

I never knew this but it seems that Ella Fitzgerald spent a year of her life as a teen at a girls’ reformatory in New York. She never spoke about this period of her life. I stumbled upon this information as part of my ongoing research about Billie Holiday.

An article by Nina Bernstein appeared in the New York Times in 1996 which unearths this unknown period of Fitzgerald’s life:

The unwritten story survives in the recollections of former employees of the New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y., and in the records of a government investigation undertaken there in 1936, about two years after Miss Fitzgerald left. State investigators reported that black girls, then 88 of 460 residents, were segregated in the two most crowded and dilapidated of the reformatory’s 17 “cottages,” and were routinely beaten by male staff.

At a time of renewed calls for institutions to rescue children from failed families, this lost chapter in the life of an American icon illuminates the gap between a recurrent ideal and the harsh realities of the child welfare system.

Like Miss Fitzgerald, most of the 12- to 16-year-old girls sent to the reform school by the family courts were guilty of nothing more serious than truancy or running away. Like today’s foster children, they were typically victims of poverty, abuse and family disruption; indeed, many had been discarded by private foster care charities upon reaching a troublesome puberty.

When Thomas Tunney, the institution’s last superintendent, arrived in 1965 and tried to bring back former residents to talk to the girls of his own day, he learned that Miss Fitzgerald had already rebuffed invitations to return as an honored guest.

“She hated the place,” Mr. Tunney said from his home in Saratoga Springs, where he retired some years after the institution closed in 1976. “She had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured. She was damned if she was going to come back.”

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Dec 16 2012

Raging Against the Dying of the Light in Chicago…

I stood in the rain last night here in Chicago under a tree filled with 500 wooden stars. Each star listed the name and age (when known) of a person who was killed in Chicago so far this year.

by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/15/12)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/15/12)

The vigil was organized by members of Occupy Rogers Park and the crowd was small but hearty. As I looked up to watch Jim G tie the 500th wooden star to a tree branch, I thought of each of the lives represented. I thought of the 17 year old who would not be able to attend his senior prom and perhaps the 28 year old who would never be a mother. I thought of the 6 year old who won’t be playing in the snow this winter and the 50 year old who won’t get to hold his grandson again. I was overwhelmed with anger and not yet grief.

by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/15/12)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/15/12)

When I got home, I did what I always do when my feelings threaten to submerge me. I turned to poetry to try to make sense of the world. I reached for the complete poems of Dylan Thomas and read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Below are two verses that always speak to me:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

I let the words of the poem wash over me. I felt the anger slowly seeping from my pores. I took deep breaths.The Overpass Light Brigade took part in the vigil. It seemed fitting somehow. Everywhere they go, they illuminate the pressing social issues that we confront. They literally bring light.


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Dec 15 2012

Musical Interlude: Young Lords by Immortal Technique

I love this song. Stay tuned for information about an upcoming project that I am working on about the Young Lords.