Feb 28 2013

Snippet From History #2: The Negro Silent Protest of 1917

Black History Month officially comes to a close today. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, black history is American history so I always talk about it on the blog. Today, I wanted to highlight an important but not well-known historical moment that relates to our current prison nation: “The Negro Silent Protest Parade.”

Silent March Parade, 7/1917

Silent March Parade, 7/1917

“On July 1, 1917, two white policemen were killed in East St. Louis, Illinois, in an altercation caused when marauders attacked black homes. The incident sparked a race riot on July 2, which ended with forty-eight killed, hundreds injured, and thousands of blacks fleeing the city when their homes were burned. The police and state militia did little to prevent the carnage. On July 28, the NAACP protested with a silent march of 10,000 black men, women, and children down New York’s Fifth Avenue. The participants marched behind a row of drummers carrying banners calling for justice and equal rights. The only sound was the beat of muffled drums (source).”

Read more about this in the New York Times.

Negro Silent Protest Parade, July 1917

Negro Silent Protest Parade, July 1917

The march was organized by an ad-hoc group formed at St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. James Weldon Johnson was a key organizer of the “Negro Silent Protest Parade.” As the protesters marched silently down 5th Avenue, Boy scouts distributed fliers describing the NAACP’s struggle against segregation, lynching, discrimination, and other forms of racist oppression. It’s hard to imagine Boy and Girl Scouts in the 21st century participating in a mass protest against racialized mass incarceration…


NAACP literature outlined the objectives and goals of the march:

We march because by the Grace of God and the force of truth, the dangerous, hampering walls of prejudice and inhuman injustices must fall.

We march because we want to make impossible a repetition of Waco, Memphis, and East St. Louis, by arousing the conscience of the country and bringing the murders of our brothers, sisters, and innocent children to justice.

We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.

We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim-Crow Cars, Segregation, Discrimination, Disfranchisement, Lynching, and the host of evils that are forced on us. It is time that the Spirit of Christ should be manifested in the making and execution of laws.

We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot.

Could we get 10,000 black Chicagoans to march silently down Michigan Avenue to protest racialized mass incarceration today? If so, would anyone care?

Feb 27 2013

Poem of the Day: white lady

white lady

a street name for cocaine

wants my son
wants my niece
wants josie’s daughter
holds them hard
and close as slavery
what will it cost
to keep our children
what will it cost
to buy them back.

white lady
says i want you
let me be your lover
run me through your
feel me smell me taste me
love me
nobody understands you like
white lady

white lady
you have chained our sons
in the basement
of the big house
white lady

you have walked our daughters
out into our streets
white lady
what do we have to pay
to repossess our children
white lady
what do we have to owe
to own our own at last

by Lucille Clifton

Feb 26 2013

No Country For Black Boys: Trayvon Martin, Cages, & Rage…

It’s been a year since the killing of Trayvon Martin. I’ve written a lot about the case on this blog. Yet I’ve not really written about Trayvon as a person. I’ve only considered him as a symbol. He has been a proxy to allow me to discuss issues like the criminalization of black youth for example. In fairness, I didn’t know him personally and still know almost nothing about him. I have caught snippets of his biography listening to the pained words of his parents and his brother. I have also heard about who he supposedly was from the right wing media and other outlets that have tried to portray him as a hoodlum: a weed smoking, school failing, tatooed, gold teeth wearing black gangster wannabe. Those images circulate in the public sphere.

trayvon-martin-grad trayvon-martin-vibe_01

Trayvon was 17 years old when he was gunned down in his father’s gated community. I’ve often imagined him lying like a chalk figure on cold, wet concrete gasping for breath. I admit that his face is sometimes replaced in my head by those of other young men I’ve known over the years who are either incarcerated, dead, or disappeared. In order to remain sane, I try not to dwell on these thoughts.

About a month ago, I heard from one of my favorite young people that his 19 year old cousin was gunned down in cold blood on 84th street. This had happened just three weeks before we saw each other. I wasn’t shocked by this. Death announcements are routine now.

The young man then uttered words that I’ve been hearing a lot in the past few years.

I’m just tryin’ to get my head right,” he said. “I’m just tryin’ to get my head right,” he repeated.

This phrase has become a euphemism and it is heartbreaking. For the young black men in my life, “getting your head right” doesn’t mean talking about feelings. On the contrary, it is code for choking down your emotions; swallowing your sorrow when it threatens to overwhelm. The sadness stays lodged in the pit of your stomach & you don’t dare express your sense of profound pain. This is a rational coping mechanism but I think that it is unhealthy and can sometimes even be deadly. But this is life in what the young men in my world call “Chiraq.” [I’m not ready to unpack the meaning of this word yet.]

There is rage that is always close to the surface for black boys in Chicago. It can and does explode. Lookman is a young black man who I know and respect. He is part of a leadership development program that my organization incubates called Circles and Ciphers. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

When Lookman talks about his time in the “Audy Home,” he means the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Below is a photo of a cell at the juvenile jail. Lookman talks in the audio clip about looking out of the window in order to feel “human again,” you can see what that window looks like.

Read more »

Feb 25 2013

We Were Never Meant To Survive: On Quvenzhané Wallis, Intersectionality, & Drones…

This was going to be a post about the roots of racism and their implications for organizing to end mass incarceration. Then I “watched” the Oscars on Twitter and saw a tweet by the Onion about 9 year old black actress, Quvenzhané Wallis:


My head exploded. I took to Twitter to rant about how disgusting I felt the Onion was to say such a vile thing about a child. I tried to stop there but then went on a tirade about the historical context for this sexual objectification of a black girl. I suggested that originating in slavery, the idea that black women are loose, promiscuous, and generally easygoing about sexual matters still circulates throughout the dominant American culture and has an impact on intra-racial and inter-racial gender and sexual politics.

Look, I am not dumb and I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone else. I understand that this was an attempt by the Onion to make fun of the way that actresses are talked about in the media. But I was deeply offended that they chose to pick on a 9-year old black girl in this way. I tried to take a couple of hours away from social media but still found it difficult to calm down. I am an insomniac but I was even more agitated than usual so I decided to write in greater depth about the sources of my anger and disappointment. My thoughts are inchoate and regular readers are used to this so here goes…

Read more »

Feb 24 2013

Image of the Day: Freedom Must Be Lived

Photo by Marion Palfi

Chicago, 1964, School boycott. Photo by Marion Palfi

Feb 23 2013

F.L.Y Youth & Allies Demand A Southside Trauma Center (with photos)

by Sarah Jane Rhee

by Sarah Jane Rhee

I missed today’s protest by F.L.Y. Youth and their allies demanding that the University of Chicago drop charges against protesters and open a trauma center that can serve everyone on the Southside. Here are some of the youth speaking for themselves:

CBS News described the protest:

Around 70 protesters marched on the University of Chicago Medical Center demanding the school provide a Level 1 trauma center to the surrounding South Side neighborhoods.

Veronica Morris-Moore said the university and Chicago Police have both been hostile to the group’s demands.

“We were here four weeks ago to do a sit-in at the $700 million research building and we were basically
attacked and brutalized by the police when we came here. So yeah, we have gotten some response but not the response we are looking for,” said Morris-Moore.

Currently, trauma victims on the South Side are taken miles away to hospitals in other parts of the city. The University of Chicago closed its adult trauma center back in 1988, calling it a drain on the school’s finances.

Once again, my friend, the super talented Sarah Jane Rhee was at the protest and took some amazing photographs. She describes the events below:

On Saturday, Feb. 23rd, led by the youth of F.L.Y. (Fearless Leading by the Youth), protesters marched on the U of C Medical Center demanding that all charges against the 4 protesters violently arrested by UCPD a few weeks ago be dropped and that trauma care be expanded at the UCMC to help reduce the suffering caused by the violence in the community. The march continued to the home of U of C’s president, where protesters symbolically covered their mouths with stickers labeled with phrases such as “Drop the Charges,” “Free Speech,” “Community First,” and “Healthcare for Everyone.”

by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/23/13)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/23/13)

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Feb 23 2013

Musical Interlude For The Day…

Feb 22 2013

Infographic: Is This Justice?


Feb 21 2013

Dick Gregory’s Thoughts on Being Jailed for Wanting Good Schools…

I’ve written about my love for Mr. Dick Gregory before on this blog. In 1963, while protesting for school desegration, he was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct & jailed. He wrote about his experiences in Chicago’s Cook County House of Correction in JET MAGAZINE in 1963. Below are his words:

“Hey baby!

“How does it feel to see a real, big-time gangster this close up? You wanna know why I stayed in jail for something I believe in very much. I couldn’t march against segregation in Alabama and Mississippi without protesting it here. I was arrested on disorderly conduct charges because I joined hundreds of Negro parents demonstrating against those mobile units being placed all over the South Side in order to keep the city’s schools Jim Crow. The parents call them Willis Wagons because they are Supt. Benjamin Willis’ personal methods of hauling little colored folks all over the city’s Jim Crow ghetto to keep them from the white kids.

“I was actually put in a cell at the House of Correction. They call it Bridewell. Dig these baggy work pants with the four big rolls on the cuff and the army green, long sleeved shirts. I’d be the sharpest cat in my neighborhood if they let me wear these on the street.

“Man, those boots with the laces up above the ankles are real wild. I’ve been thinking about keeping mine if I get out ‘cuz I want to go to Washington, August 28 and I know there’s gonna be a lot of toes stepped on that day.

“You wanna know how I did my time. Well, some of the guards have it rougher than the prisoners. They have to punch the clock. Actually there’s only one guy in the cell with me, but plenty in the dormitory. I was thinking the other night, if we didn’t get a large Washington turnout, I know why…They got us all in jail.

“After we get up, we go to breakfast. After breakfast, I go back to my cell. The rest of them go to work. Then I had lunch. There’s a lot more baloney around this place than just between two slices of bread.

“Most prisoners are assigned to work details. The officials say race has nothing to do with it. You are assigned on the basis of your training and background and ability. It is all equal. Just like outside. You know what that means.

“I’m gonna write a book exposing this place when I get out. I’ll have a title something like The House of Corruption, That Needs Correction. It has been a real eye opener to be a prisoner and what I’ve seen will fill a book.

“I’ve seen dozens of examples of the greatest injustices of all…guys who wouldn’t even be here except they didn’t get adequate legal help during their trials. And sometimes they have to wait in the House of Correction 30 days to six months to get messed up. A lot of prisoners I’ve talked to complain of this. Most of them leave filled with bitterness and less able to face society then when they were jailed. If this can happen to me and I can afford to pay for legal help, what happens to the millions of poor souls. Guess there is some truth to the axiom ‘Justice delayed is Justice denied.’

“Then I learned about the guys who run this place. It’s a hard cold fact that Negroes with top seniority are passed over for advancement in preference for some white guy. I thought I was fighting racial prejudice and corruption on the outside, but that was nothing compared to in here.

“And they call it a model detention camp. A model for where they would like to put all of us.

“You know I was asked to entertain a bunch of the prisoners in here and I didn’t do it. You know why? Because I am not here as an entertainer, but as a Negro fighting for the rights that every Negro should be fighting for. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to visit me and some other ministers and it was great that these people knew what I was trying to do. My staff told me that the Crescendo Night Club in Los Angeles where I was booked is waiting anxiously for me to get out.

“Few people outside our race really understand the depth of our feelings. I’ve tried to relay the message through satire and comedy, but actions tell better than words and that’s why I went down to that mobile school site … to show how strongly I felt that those “Willis Wagons” should go. “When we win, just think of the news … It’ll be the first time in history that the schools are running away from the kids.”

Read more »

Feb 21 2013

Chicago Public Schools: No More Names of the Casualties

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are done with releasing any information about whether their students are victims of gun violence. This should surprise no one since they also refuse to divulge how many of their students are even arrested on school grounds. The public is also loathe to access data about the number of suspensions or expulsions in the Chicago public school system. Basically, their motto to the public has been and continues to be “the less you know the better.”

How does CPS justify refusing to say whether a young person who has been shot or killed is one of their students? Confidentiality:

CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said they’re trying to protect parents and students privacy. She said the district’s legal team advises the district not to tell reporters whether shooting victims attend public schools in the city.

Sainvilus said victim information must come from the Chicago Police Department or the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

But when WBEZ called the Chicago Police Department Wednesday, a spokesman said police don’t have access to student records and couldn’t say where a victim went to school. He suggested calling CPS.

Does CPS’s claim of a need to “protect” students and their families under federal law stand up to scrutiny? Of course not:

Frank LaMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said there is nothing in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that prevents districts from providing basic information about a student. He said it’s more likely CPS is withholding information for other reasons.

“Many schools are really, really image conscious and really sensitive to the idea that the public might get the impression that this is a dangerous place to go to school,” he said.

Back in the day, CPS used to be a bit more forthcoming with data about the number of their students shot and killed. The school system would provide some stakeholders with information through FOIA requests.

Below is a chart that outlines the numbers of CPS students shot and skilled from 2007 to 2011. Since the 2011-2012 school year, CPS has clamped down on providing information to the public.

CPS Student Shootings from the ’07-’08  Through 10’-11’ School Years






Students Shot










Total (Shot & Killed)





Source: Chicago Public Schools

* 2010/11 only covers September through January months.

Time permitting, I will share a detailed list of CPS student victims in firearm related incidents in the coming days (for the 2010/2011 school year which is the most recent data publicly available). It’s a list that belies the fact that CPS collects tons of details about these matters.

WBEZ provides a list based on press accounts of the number of CPS students killed so far in 2013. The list was unconfirmed by CPS.