Oct 28 2015

Creative Organizing, Political Education and Abolition in Chicago…

In Chicago, in this historical moment, groups of people are relying on creative organizing to envision and struggle for a radically transformed world where policing and the violence it produces are abolished. This fight is inherently connected to a vision of a world where housing is affordable, quality education is accessible, and health care is available to all. The organizers, activists, artists, and community members engaged in the daily struggle for a more just world under a #BlackLivesMatter umbrella in Chicago keenly understand that poetry, visual art, and other modes of creative expression are important in, as Angela Davis has written, “provoking new understandings of persisting social problems.” Together, we’ve been actively experimenting with different ways to lay out the core issues related to criminalization and social transformation.

A key aspect of organizing is storytelling and here in Chicago, some of us have been relying on multiple methods to tell stories about the police. Over the past few weeks, members of a group that I am part of called “We Charge Genocide” (WCG) has narrated a story about how policing dominates the city budget to the exclusion of social goods. 39% of Chicago’s operating budget is devoted to the police. We want every person in Chicago to know this fact. As such, we’ve been engaged in a kind of guerilla political education project that relies on social media, dramatizations, train takeovers and traditional organizing methods.

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a series of community budget townhalls, members of WCG got to work by creating a set of memes that would encourage our supporters and other Chicagoans to attend these meetings.

#CHIBUDGET2016_2 (1) (1)

We also encouraged people to let the Mayor know that they were unhappy with the priorities expressed in the budget by circulating memes on social media.

#CHIBUDGET2016_4 (1)

#CHIBUDGET2016_3

On September 22, members and supporters of WCG (including a few middle school students from Village Leadership Academy) planned an action outside City Hall to coincide with the Mayor’s unveiling of his 2016 budget proposal. WCG members and allies held a banner that visualized how our money has been spent in Chicago–the biggest portion by far going to CPD.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (9/22/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (9/22/15)

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Oct 27 2015

Black Girl Down… and Up

I should express requisite shock but I haven’t the energy to perform. Another viral video shows a Black girl thrown across her classroom by a white cop who outweighs her by 150 pounds (at least).

I’m not shocked. Not in the least. I don’t wear this admission like a badge of honor. I’m not desensitized or blase. I just know that treating Black children carelessly and roughly is the norm. We all know this even those who want to pretend they don’t.

There are cops in schools. Everyone also knows this. The proponents of this policy say that it’s to ‘keep students safe.’ These words pour out without irony even as research suggests that having police in schools usually escalates minor discipline issues.

Last year, in Chicago, there were over 3000 youth arrests inside our public schools. The vast majority of these (77%) were Black students. Girls made up 32% of the school-based arrests. How many Black children were thrown across their classrooms with no video evidence?

cpdincps6TW

The myth of officer friendly will not and cannot die. It doesn’t matter how many videos are produced showing Black children being brutalized. Too many people need and want cops to do their dirty work. The cop in that video is a stand-in for a society that hates Black children. Break the Black girl before she grows. Beat her down and then make sure she knows that anyone who comes to her defense will be punished too. Neutralize the threat. The message is clear as day: ‘You are insignificant, a nothing and we can crush you at will.’

The sad spectacle of impotent and complicit adults online and offline does nothing to inspire confidence in the young. Black children learn early that no one will save them from brutalization by the state and its agents. In fact, most adults like the teacher in the viral video will invite state brutalization in the name of ‘safety.’ At best safety as a concept is rendered a meaningless farce. At worst, safety becomes an additional means or tool of subjugation and oppression.

While Rome burns and you with it, you’ll hear some adults offer prescriptions for the problem that will make you despair. More ‘training’ for school resource officers, some will confidently assert. More cameras in schools, others will counter. Meanwhile, you and your friends will wonder who will simply remove the cops from your schools. Wouldn’t that be the first place to start, you’ll ask. You’ll likely be greeted with the sounds of crickets because so many adults have ceilings on their brains. The result of decades of oppression that has left them without imagination or even good sense.

So you’ll band together with your friends and organize to change the depressing reality. I know so many Black girls leading campaigns to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

It’s you who give me hope. Black girl, I’ve seen you and continue to see you standing up in defense of your life and that of your sisters. #NiyaKenny, we speak your name.

A Long  Walk Home March 4 Rekia, photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/17/15)

A Long Walk Home March 4 Rekia, photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/17/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (8/14/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (8/14/15)

You do the same for your brothers even as too many of them refuse to stand up for you. I’ve shed tears with you about this as you’ve continued to show up time and again in defense of their lives.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

I’m blessed to witness your resistance. Perhaps it’s why I don’t despair for the future. How can I when I am privy to so much #BlackGirlMagic? There are few viral videos of your beautiful resistance and too many of your degradation. That isn’t your doing, it is ours and we have to do so much better by you.

Oct 25 2015

#SurvivedandPunished: Criminalizing Survivors of Violence

It’s domestic violence awareness month. I’ve been wanting to write about this all month. Sadly, between work and life, I’ve had little time to post regularly. I hope that 2016 will allow me to do so more consistently.

As some of you know, I was a co-founder and co-organizer of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA). CAFMA has become Love and Protect. The mission of Love and Protect is to “support those who identify as women and gender non-conforming persons of color who are criminalized or harmed by state and interpersonal violence.”

This month, in partnership with other defense committees and organizations, Love and Protect launched a project called #SurvivedandPunished.

#DVAM2015_ImmFreedom

#SurvivedandPunished released its vision statement last week. I am republishing it below:

For many survivors, the experiences of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of gender violence are bound up with systems of incarceration and police violence. According to the ACLU, nearly 60% of people in women’s prison nationwide, and as many as 94% of some women’s prison populations, have a history of physical or sexual abuse before being incarcerated. Once incarcerated or detained, many women (including trans women) and trans & gender non-conforming people experience sexual violence from guards and others. Being controlled by police, prosecutors, judges, immigration enforcement, homeland security, detention centers, and prisons is often integrated with the experience of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is especially true for Black, Native, and immigrant survivors. The Survived And Punished Project demands the immediate release of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions, including: self-defense, “failure to protect,” migration, removing children from abusive people, being coerced into acting as an “accomplice,” and securing resources needed to live. Furthermore, we demand that these same survivors are swiftly reunified with their families.

Our coalition of freedom campaigns and organizations believes that policing, immigration enforcement and the prison industrial complex are violent institutions that primarily target poor communities of color. They are fundamentally racist, anti-family, anti-trans/queer, anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-Native, anti-poor and anti-immigrant. Black women are constantly policed, controlled, and dehumanized by these systems. Immigrant and refugee survivors face constant threat of detention and deportation. Native women’s high rates of incarceration are part of the colonial conditions of ongoing gender violence waged against them. Trans women, trans, & gender non-conforming people are violently profiled and targeted by police officers and prison guards. All are threatened with being separated from their children and families. Poverty, which disproportionately impacts communities of color and trans/queer communities, renders survivors even more vulnerable to all forms of violence, including police violence and imprisonment. It is in this context that self-defense and other survival actions are often criminalized.

“GOOD VICTIM” VS “NON-VICTIM CRIMINAL”

In the face of epidemic rates of domestic and sexual violence, anti-violence advocates have partnered with police and district attorneys to try to find protection for survivors, and to institutionalize gender violence as a “crime.” However, this pro-criminalization approach to addressing violence has created a racial divide between “good victims” and non-victim “criminals.” A “good victim” is one who readily accesses and cooperates with the criminal legal system in order to prosecute and incarcerate their batterer or rapist. But when a survivor of sexual or domestic violence is only supported when seen as a “victim of crime,” survivors who are already criminalized are not recognized as people in need of support and advocacy. Survivors are criminalized for being Black, undocumented, poor, transgender, queer, disabled, women or girls of color, in the sex industry, or for having a past “criminal record.” Their experience of violence is diminished, distorted, or disappeared, and they are instead simply seen as criminals who should be punished. They face hostility from police, prosecutors and judges, and they are often denied the support “good victims” receive from anti-violence advocates. These “criminal” survivors are then particularly vulnerable when racist pro-criminalization policies (such as mandatory minimums, the war on drugs, “Felons not Families” deportation enforcement, and increased police authority) are waged against our communities because those policies facilitate and reinforce domestic and sexual violence. For example:

Marissa Alexander defended her life from her abusive husband by firing one warning shot that caused no physical harm. She was targeted by a racist smear campaign by Florida State Attorney Angela Corey designed to frame her as an “angry black woman,” but never as a victim of domestic violence. She was prosecuted and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison.

When Marcela Rodriguez called the police during a domestic violence incident, the police came, arrested her, and turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which detained her and forced her into deportation proceedings.

Nan-Hui Jo fled her abusive American citizen partner with her child to seek safety for her and her young daughter. She was then arrested for child abduction, and the district attorney who prosecuted her tried to portray her as a manipulative illegal immigrant seeking to cheat U.S. systems, calling her a “tiger mom” who was too competent to be a victim.

The New Jersey 4 were called a “killer lesbian gang” by both prosecutors and media after they defended themselves against racist, misogynistic and homophobic sexual violence in a gentrified neighborhood.

Ky Peterson was told that he, as a transman, was not a “believable victim” of rape after defending himself against a brutal sexual assault, and he was bullied into signing a “plea deal” of 20 years in prison.

All of these survivors of violence were prosecuted using racist, sexist, anti-trans/queer and classist logic. Many were prosecuted by using policies that target poor communities of color, and many did not receive support from anti-violence organizations. The same system that criminalizes, re-traumatizes and further abuses victims is also the one that the anti-violence movement entrusts and authorizes to protect survivors and create safety. The institutionalization of this racialized “good victim/criminal” dichotomy has left a huge portion of survivors, overwhelmingly Black women, unsupported and unaccounted for by the anti-violence movement.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

We affirm the lives and self-determination of all survivors of domestic and sexual violence. We endorse efforts to abolish these anti-survivor systems and create new approaches that prioritize accountable, community-based responses to domestic and sexual violence. Knowing that abuse and incarceration are both meant to isolate and diminish the person, we hope for more restorative resources and options for survivors. We must organize for a world in which survivors are always supported by their communities. We look forward to the day when survivors do not have to resort to calling 9-1-1, anonymous hotlines, restrictive shelters far from home, and broken legal systems in their attempts to find support. We reject false dichotomies of “good victim/prisoner/immigrant” and “bad victim/prisoner/immigrant” that individualize the problems of domestic and sexual violence, and choose to instead target the systemic issues that further facilitate abuse. We focus on survivors because we want to highlight the specific pipeline between surviving sexual and domestic violence and being arrested, locked up, and/or deported.

We call for the anti-domestic violence and anti-rape movements to seriously contend with how their enmeshed relationships with prosecutors and police limits the ability to see criminalized victims as deserving of resources and advocacy, undermining their safety and well-being. We call for racial justice and migrant justice movements organizing against the violence of policing, immigration enforcement, and prisons to consistently highlight survivors of gender violence in political analysis and strategies. We call for your fearless support of survivors who live within the intersection of gender violence and criminalization. They need and deserve our solidarity.

Oct 06 2015

Video: Stories from the Inside/Outside

Video documentation of a 96 Acres Project event through a two-part projected animation loop. Two animations were projected onto the Cook County Jail Wall by artists examining the effects of incarceration. These humanizing and personal stories depict both sides of the wall—from the perspective of a family and those behind bars. “Letters Home” describes a story between a daughter and her incarcerated father, told through his letters over a ten year period and narrated by the daughter, Melissa Garcia. Artists Hector Duarte, Susan Mullen, Melissa Garcia, and Claudia Rangel collaborated to produce an animation that describes the tension and difficulties within a family experiencing a sense of loss. In collaboration with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, we also projected “Freedom/Time” by artists Damon Locks, Rob Shaw, and eleven incarcerated men at Stateville Correctional Center. They explored the idea of time and notions of freedom through original hand-drawn animations. With intermissions of youth-generated text by by Yollocalli Arts Reach.

96 Acres is a series of community-engaged, site-responsive art projects that involve community stakeholders’ ideas about social and restorative justice issues, and that examine the impact of incarceration at the Cook County Jail on Chicago’s West Side. 96 Acres uses multi-disciplinary practices to explore the social and political implications of incarceration on communities of color. Through creative processes and coalition building, 96 Acres aims to generate alternative narratives reflecting on power and responsibility by presenting insightful and informed collective responses for the transformation of a space that occupies 96 acres, but has a much larger reaching outcome.

For more information: 96acres.org or contact Maria Gaspar at 96acresproject@gmail.com.
Video Documentation by Scrappers Film Group.

Oct 05 2015

Working Toward Abolition…

by Bianca Diaz

by Bianca Diaz

In 2015, it is hard to imagine an institution more harmful than a prison. With daily reports of sexual assaults by correctional staff, hunger strikes by those opposing long-term solitary confinement, and many deaths in custody, prisons perpetuate violence and are antithetical to public safety.

In 2003, activist and scholar Angela Davis suggested that “our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.” Twelve years later, her admonition is more urgent and relevant than ever. With the largest prison population on the planet—some 2.2 million people locked up and millions more under correctional supervision—politicians from Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton are rhetorically embracing the idea that mass incarceration is a national problem. Far fewer people, however, are ready to declare that prisons are fundamentally destructive and beyond reform. Both statements are true. As such, it is incumbent on all of us to collectively reimagine and build a viable and humane way to address our social problems beyond the endless cages. For these reasons and more, I am a prison abolitionist.

Yes, some individuals in prison have caused great harm to people and to communities. This cannot be minimized. That’s precisely why I am so passionate about the need to create community-based structures to address harm and to mediate conflicts. As a survivor of violence, I want safer communities. Importantly, most people who do harm will never be imprisoned. Building community-based structures will allow us to focus on harms that our current systems of policing and punishment ignore, neglect, or are unable to resolve.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Rikers Island to Guantánamo Bay, our prison nation ensures expensive and profound precarity and violence. Yet the current interventions posited as “alternatives to incarceration”—including drug-treatment programs, boot camps, community-based supervision or probation, electronic monitoring, and community service—still depend on carceral logics of surveillance, containment, and sometimes punishment. We must create new forms of justice defined by principles of respect, interrelatedness, and mutuality, and we need to ask: Are prisons obsolete?

Obviously, abolishing prisons is not something that will be accomplished easily, but we do have a growing community-accountability movement we can build on. Organizations and groups like Critical Resistance, Black & Pink, We Charge Genocide, Common Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, and my own organization, Project NIA, among many others, are practicing abolition every day. We are doing so by creating local projects and initiatives that offer alternative ideas and structures for mediating conflicts and addressing harms without relying on police or prisons.

When I speak of abolition, I don’t demand the immediate closing of all prisons (though we can certainly accelerate the process of decarceration through, for example, abolishing cash bail). The abolitionists I know understand that as a society we will always need to ensure accountability for people who repeatedly cause harm. Part of our work, then, must be to create the conditions necessary to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons.

Scholar-activist Ruthie Gilmore has defined abolition as “a movement to end systemic violence, including the interpersonal vulnerabilities and displacements that keep the system going.” Practically, that looks like “creating structures that reduce the demand and need for prisons,” as my friend and colleague Erica Meiners has written. She adds: “It is ensuring that communities have viable, at least living-wage, jobs that are not dehumanizing. It means establishing mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution and other processes that address conflict or harm with mediation. It means ensuring that our most vulnerable populations, for example those who are mentally ill or undereducated, do not get warehoused in our prisons and jails because of the failure of other institutions such as health care and education.”

As there is no blueprint for abolition, we must spend time imagining, strategizing, and practicing other futures. In my work this encompasses many facets: We organize and mobilize to address the root causes of oppression and violence. We test the limits of our imagination of what’s possible in terms of addressing violence and harm. We creatively rethink our current structures of policing and warehousing individuals. We expose the brutality and abject failure of the current system. We foreground a revolutionary transformation of ideas while demanding that our resources be radically reallocated. Collectively envisioned and determined, abolition will look different from one community to the next. There are many vexing questions and unknowns to puzzle through, but we can do this together. We must, we will, and we are.