May 26 2015

Poem for the Day: Mr. Mail Man

Mr. Mail Man
(by Adolfo Davis, from Thoughts of A Broken Child)

Mr. Mail Man, please don’t pass me by today.
I need to receive some love from the outside world.
I guess they went on with their lives.

I don’t know how many more pass-bys I can take from the mail man,
So please don’t pass me by today.

The last letter I got was one I sent myself,
Just to hear them say “Davis” you got mail.

Because hearing your name called for mail is a feeling of grace, love, peace, joy and happiness all in one.
Because you feel someone cares.

But, when your name isn’t called,
It’s like getting your heart broke for the first time.
You never want to feel that pain again,
But you still put yourself out there hoping you get mail.

So today Mr. Mail Man, Please don’t pass me by.

P.S. I was passed up once again

May 26 2015

‘Sending Kites:’ Letters and Poems to Incarcerated Children

Last Thursday, I organized an event at the Hull House Museum as part of the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth. On any given day in 2013, almost 55,000 juveniles were held in custody across the U.S. In Illinois, about 700 children and youth are held in our 6 juvenile prisons on any given day. Sending Kites brought together people of all ages to bridge the divide between those inside and those of us in the outside world.

photo by Bobby Biedrzycki (5/21/15)

photo by Bobby Biedrzycki (5/21/15)

The event included some basic facts about juvenile incarceration in Illinois. We were also graced with the presence of a wonderful young person who shared his incarceration experience. Finally, led by my friend, writer and artist Bobby Biedrzycki, the assembled group wrote letters and poetry to incarcerated children. The writing produced in just a few minutes was poignant and beautiful. It will be compiled into a zine that we will mail to incarcerated children through a new program called Liberation Library.

There were many wonderful pieces written and I’ll share one below.

I am imagining what it might be like for your inside.
I’m making a space inside of myself where your voice could be heard.
The voice that is locked in a cage.
It can slip through the bars, under the doors, out of the windows and into the world.
You are in the world too.
There are many of us making spaces for you.
We see you.
We hear the voice that you have not yet released.
We will be here when you do.

photo by Frances Herrera-Lim (5/21/15)

photo by Frances Herrera-Lim (5/21/15)

All available research about juvenile incarceration suggests that it doesn’t work and worse that it is actually counterproductive. Yet we still lock up thousands of children each year. Those children are overwhelmingly Black, they are poor, they are mostly male, they suffer from mental illness and trauma, and they are under-educated. We can do so much better. For information about where your state stands in terms of juvenile incarceration, take a look at this interactive map by the ACLU.

For those in Chicago, Liberation Library is recruiting volunteers who can help to pack and mail books and write to incarcerated children starting this July. You can sign up to volunteer here. We are also collecting books and funds here.

May 24 2015

Grief, Love & Celebration: #DamoDay in Chicago

It’s been another packed week for me. I am tired and I haven’t had time to blog. #DamoDay took place on Wednesday and I felt a mix of emotions. It was wonderful to hear the stories shared by Damo’s friends. Since I didn’t know him, they provided new insights into him as a person. I smiled and laughed several times as the stories were shared. I also felt sad at his loss. What a vibrant soul I wish I could have known!

About 30 minutes into the gathering, a young Black man was provoked by a homeless (seemingly mentally ill) white man who first rammed him with a bike and then used his body to push him. Instead of detaining the white man, the young Black man (a friend of Damo’s) was taken into custody. The rest of my afternoon was peppered with calls to a lawyer and anxiety. I can’t ever calm down while young people are in police custody. I feel like I am holding my breath waiting to exhale. After several hours, he was finally released but not before being charged with simple battery. At least five witnesses are prepared to testify that he was the one provoked. Yet, another young person was criminalized at a gathering where he came to mourn and celebrate a friend who was killed by the Chicago Police Department (CPD). It’s infuriating and draining.

Below is a short video summary of #DamoDay.

As part of #DamoDay, participants in the Radical Education Project (a collaboration between We Charge Genocide and Chicago Light Brigade) created an interactive public memorial. This proved to be the emotional anchor for the day. Chicago is replete with examples of artists who have and continue come together to support activist and organizing efforts. Below are some photos that depict Damo’s public memorial.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/20/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/20/15)

photo by Charles Preston (5/20/15)

photo by Charles Preston (5/20/15)

Read more »

May 20 2015

We Do This For Damo…

It’s been a year since Dominique Franklin Jr’s death. Last May, Damo was a stranger to me. The first time that I heard his name was when a young person I love told me that he was in a coma. Shortly after, he was dead. I remember the pain of watching his friends wrestle with his loss. They were racked with grief and later I would learn with guilt. I remember a pervasive sense of helplessness engulfing me. Then a dawning glimmer of an idea pierced my consciousness. What if we organized an effort that would bring an international charge of genocide against the U.S. government for killing Damo and torturing other young Black and Brown people in Chicago? How about if we revived the 1951 We Charge Genocide petition for the 21st century? Perhaps such an effort could serve as a container for our collective pain. Maybe we could transform our devastation into righteous and purposeful collective action.

It’s been a year since Damo’s death and he is not forgotten. In fact, his friends and community have written his name into history. Most young Black people who are killed by police are lucky if they become social media hashtags. Usually, their deaths are unremarkable. Their lives are only memorialized by those who knew and loved them. Damo’s killing by the Chicago Police Department has registered beyond the circle of those who knew him. Out of the tragedy of his unnecessary death, We Charge Genocide was born.

photo by Page May (5/17/15)

photo by Page May (5/17/15)

Out of the despair of his friends, a social and political quilt to resist racist policing was created. Damo’s friends and peers traveled to Geneva to charge the U.S. with genocide. They came together to support a successful struggle for reparations for Burge police torture survivors. They organized protests, actions, Copwatch workshops, and many other events. They have spoken across the country about state violence. Most importantly, they have forged new relationships rooted in love and respect with many others across the city and have become a more powerful force to resist oppression. They (we) have done all of this in Damo’s name.

We Charge Genocide at UN in Geneva

We Charge Genocide at UN in Geneva

It’s been a year since Damo’s death and I am reminded that it’s possible to feel connected to someone you’ve never met. It’s possible to even come to love them. Damo’s friends have organized an event happening this afternoon to commemorate his death.


Ethan is a friend of Damo. He has worked tirelessly to co-organize today’s commemoration. He explained the nature and purpose of the event from his perspective:

“Damo Day is really a celebration. I’ve been going to protests all the time. I’m going to another one tomorrow. From what I’ve gotten from a lot of young people, and young people of color specifically, is that they get tired of going out in the streets and yelling at a system, yelling at the police department that has no inkling of change, has no positive intentions in their work. It’s like are we angry because the system is broken or angry because the system is working and doing what it is supposed to? So, I’m no longer trying to facilitate spaces for young people where we are asking the system to do something for us. I instead want to meet the death and the destruction that the system perpetuates with love, with gathering, with reason, with voice. We’re going to do a short march then we’re going to do a rally around the area where he was killed and then move on to a park. We rented a space and we’ll have music and dance and peace circles and talks. We have some prominent artists from the city coming out showing love and support.”

This afternoon, I will join Damo’s friends, family, and community “to meet the death and the destruction that the system perpetuates with love, with gathering, with reason, [and] with voice.” It’s been a year since Damo’s death and he’s no longer a stranger to me and many others. We do this for Damo…

May 17 2015

Video: An Intro to Mass Incarceration

A short video primer that explains mass incarceration.

May 11 2015

Image of the Day…

photo from the Manifest Justice exhibition  credit Gary Schmitt

photo from the Manifest Justice exhibition
credit Gary Schmitt

Details about Manifest Justice here.

May 07 2015

Police Torture, Reparations and Echoes from the ‘House of Screams’

photo by Kelly Hayes (5/6/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (5/6/14)

Yesterday, the Chicago City Council passed historic legislation to provide reparations for Burge police torture survivors. The package that was approved includes:

“a formal apology for the torture; specialized counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and their family members on the South Side; free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for survivors and family members (including grandchildren) as well as prioritized access to other City programs, including help with housing, transportation and senior care; a history lesson about the Burge torture cases taught in Chicago Public schools to 8th and 10th graders; the construction of a permanent public memorial to the survivors; and it sets aside $5.5 million for a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims that will allow the survivors with us today to receive financial compensation for the torture they endured.”

Chicago is the first municipality in the U.S. to legislate reparations for survivors and victims of racist police violence. This victory was an improbable one. In his book “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People” published in 2000, journalist John Conroy offered a bleak assessment of the city’s response to allegations about Burge and his henchmen’s torture:

“The citizens of Chicago were unmoved. The clergy showed no leadership; with the exception of a few mostly low-ranking ministers, religious officials were silent. In the absence of any clamor, politicians showed no interest. Reporters, hearing no complaint, conducted no investigations, and editorial writers launched no crusades. State and federal prosecutors, feeling no pressure from the press or the public, hearing no moral commentary from the religious quarter, prosecuted no one. Judges, seeing no officer indicted and hearing no officer speak against his comrades, could therefore comfortably dismiss claims of torture, and with few exceptions, they did.

I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country (p. 240).”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/6/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/6/15)

Fifteen years later, I listened from the third floor of City Hall as the Mayor and members of the City Council apologized for the torture endured by over 118 Black people at the hands of Burge and his henchmen. It was a miraculous moment.

What changed between Conroy’s description of an apathetic public response to allegations of Burge’s torture and yesterday’s Council vote on reparations? I actually think that Conroy was too dismissive of the organizing that took place in the 1990s. He thought that the protests were mostly insignificant and small. It’s a reminder, I think, that our perspectives on historical moments that we inhabit can sometimes be myopic. Conroy could not have known that the organizing in the 90s would serve as a foundation and a road map for efforts into the future. He was right that the political class, the 4th estate and most of the public were generally apathetic about the allegations of police torture. But I think that he also underestimated the importance of the sustained resistance led by groups like Citizens Alert, Black People Against Torture, the People’s Law Office and more. There were small victories along the way. Our historic achievement yesterday is owed to those hard-fought wins. The organizing and activism that began in the late 80s took the form of protests, advocacy, litigation, and storytelling (including Conroy’s powerful investigative journalism). Struggle and organizing matter. Change is too often slow. But sometimes we do win.

I became immersed in the Burge reparations campaign last Fall. Over the past six months, a coalition of individuals and groups organized tirelessly to pass this legislation. We held rallies, sing ins, marches, light actions, train takeovers, exhibition-ins, and more. The price of being immersed in this struggle is to be a witness to unspeakable acts of cruelty committed against other human beings. Burge and his fellow police officers electrocuted, beat, suffocated and generally tortured dozens of people over two decades. The rooms where Commander Jon Burge and his fellow officers tortured and forced confessions from suspects were called the “House[s] of Screams.” Those screams echoed in my head yesterday as I heard the Chicago City Council vote on the reparations legislation for survivors of Burge’s torture. Slowly those screams became whispers: thank you for believing us and for refusing to forget, they seemed to say.

To focus on such harms is painful and can lead to despair. Yet by organizing for some justice for torture survivors, I’ve seen and experienced incredible kindness, selflessness and compassion. This is what sustains my hope. I’m convinced that injustice and oppression will not have the last word. Last night, I attended a gathering of friends and comrades who have in their own ways contributed to this struggle. Some have spent the better part of 3 decades fighting to bring some justice to the torture survivors. I was asked to say a few words and I had difficulty expressing my feelings and thoughts. As I reached for my words, I was overcome at seeing the now old Black men standing before me. A couple had been brutalized in the early 1970s. I wasn’t eloquent last night but my words were heartfelt. I held it together but when I got home, I cried. They were tears of relief, gratitude, and most of all of love.

There will be time in the coming days and weeks to reflect and to find my words. But for today, let it be known that here in Chicago, we were determined not to forget the atrocities committed in our names by the police. We resisted the violence of fading memories and fought to preserve the knowledge of atrocities for which we all bear some responsibility. We struggled with survivors of torture and yesterday, we won.

May 05 2015

Some Words About Genocide by Ossie Davis

The 1970 edition of the “We Charge Genocide” petition included a preface by Ossie Davis. I recently re-read it and there was much that resonated with me. I’ve decided to re-publish his words not because I agree with every point that he makes or with all of the analysis but because I think that the essay echoes in our current historical moment. I’ve re-typed it faithfully.

Preface by Ossie Davis

by Micah Bazant (2015)

by Micah Bazant (2015)

This is not the first time the black people of the United States have issued a warning. W.E.B. Du Bois himself said it plain in 1900: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”

We say again, now: We will submit no further to the brutal indignities being practiced against us; we will not be intimidated, and most certainly not eliminated. We claim the ancient right of all peoples, not only to survive unhindered, but also to participate as equals in man’s inheritance here on earth. We fight to preserve ourselves, to see that the treasured ways of our life-in-common are not destroyed by brutal men or heedless institutions.

We Charge Genocide! indeed we do, for we would save ourselves and our children. History has taught us prudence — we do not need to wait until the Dachaus and Belsens and the Buchenwalds are built to know that we are dying. We live with death and it is ours; death not so obvious as Hitler’s ovens — not yet. But who can tell?

Black men were brought to this country to serve an economy which needed our labor. And even when slavery was over, there was still a need for us in the American economy as cheap labor. We picked the cotton, dug the ditches, shined the shoes, swept the floors, hustled the baggage, washed the clothes, cleaned the toilets — we did the dirty work for all America — that was our place, the place where the American economy needed us to be.

As long as we stayed in that place — there at the bottom — we were welcomed to love and work in America. The murder practiced against us then was partial and selective. A limited genocide meant not so much to exterminate us — America still had a job for “good niggers” to do — as to warn us, to correct us, to use those of us who would not submit as examples of what could happen to the rest of us. Those who objected to being kept in their “place” at the bottom were beaten or killed for being uppity. Those who challenged our racist overlords, claiming for themselves and for us our rights as men and as citizens, were burned for being insolent; lynched to teach the rest of us always to stay in our “place.”

But a revolution of profoundest import is taking place in America. Every year our economy produces more and more goods and services with fewer and fewer men. Hard, unskilled work — the kind nobody else wanted, that made us so welcome in America, the kind of work that we “niggers” have always done — is fast disappearing. Even in the South — in Mississippi for example — 95 per cent and more of the cotton is picked by machine. And in the North as I write this, more than 30 per cent of black teenage youth is unemployed.

The point I am getting to is that for the first time, black labor is expendable, the American economy does not need it any more. What will a racist society do to a subject population for which it no longer has any use? Will America, in a sudden gush of reason, good conscience, and common sense reorder her priorities? — revamp her institutions, clean them of racism so that blacks and Puerto Ricans and American Indians and Mexican Americans can be and will be fully and meanfully included on an equal basis?

Or, will America, grown meaner and more desperate as she confronts the just demands of her clamorous outcasts, choose genocide? America, of course, is not an abstraction; America is people, America is you and me. America will choose in the final analysis as we choose: to build a world of racial and social justice for each and for all; or to try the fascist alternative — a deliberate policy on a mass scale, of practices she already knows too well, of murderous skills she sharpens each day in Vietnam, of genocide, and final, mutual death.

We Charge Genocide — not only of the past but of the future. And we swear: it must not, it shall not, it will not happen to our people.

August 17, 1970.

May 01 2015

Some Thoughts On the Run…

I’ve already received emails from people asking for my thoughts on the decision to criminally charge the 6 cops who killed Freddie Gray. I am getting ready to head to the airport and don’t have time for any in depth responses. I shared these very quick thoughts on Facebook and re-post them here for those who want to know what I think in this moment.

I’ll admit to being alarmed that people who call themselves having a structural analysis are rejoicing over cops being charged for Freddie Gray’s death. I am even more alarmed that smart people who know that the current system is unable to offer any actual ‘justice’ are all over my timeline canonizing a state’s attorney whose actual JOB it is in a system that would be ‘functioning’ to prosecute killer cops. The expectations are so low as to be self-defeating. I understand. But I am supremely dismayed.

I want to also add that those of us who have studied, researched, experienced and lived the criminal punishment system cannot suffer from the collective amnesia that pervades at times like these. If your concept of ‘justice’ means convictions for cops, then you should be very concerned because this current system as designed is unlikely to deliver. If your concept of ‘justice’ means prison time for cops, then you should be despondent because this system as currently constituted almost NEVER delivers that either. If your concept of ‘justice’ means Black people being able to live our lives free from state violence, then today is not a day of celebration. Sorry but I have to say it since others are selling something else.

I know for sure that there would not even have been charges against these cops without the uprising of young Black people and others in Baltimore and across the country. And activism, organizing matter tremendously. They do. But to transform a death-making system, our expectations have to be much higher. Celebrating charges is like celebrating crumbs. It really, really is. I understand why people do it but I think according great significance to charges misses the point and it also freezes people in place. It has the effect of demobilizing collective action. Just watch what happens over the next couple of days. The “wait and see” chorus, the “let the system work” chorus will be out in full force. Organizers have our work cut out for us in that climate.

Finally, it feels terrible to have to depend on a system that you know is illegitimate to adjudicate your “worth.” It really does. The criminal punishment system has ALWAYS been a tool in this country for enforcing and maintaining white supremacy. Yet that ‘analysis’ goes out the window as we are compelled by some to ‘celebrate’ charges and to ‘canonize’ public officials who under the rules of said system are SUPPOSED to prosecute killer cops.

P.S. That same State’s Attorney is also likely to be prosecuting protesters and so called ‘looters.’ She’s the STATE’s attorney. Not the “people’s attorney.” Please stay awake. Challenge the conventional narratives that you will be fed. Always be critical. (thanks to Tamara Nopper for always being on the ball).