Jul 03 2015

Ida B Wells and Solitary Confinement

While reading a local newspaper, Ida B Wells-Barnett’s attention was captured by the story of Chicken Joe Campbell.

Campbell was already incarcerated at Joliet Prison when, in 1915, the warden’s wife was killed in a fire. He was accused of murdering her. The warden, Edmund M. Allen had been appointed by the Governor of Illinois in 1913. He had progressive views (especially for the time) about how to treat prisoners. “There is some good in every man…and there exists some influence which will appeal to his heart and reason (cited in Giddings, 2009, p.549).” Allen had instituted an “honor system” at the Prison that allowed inmates to be rewarded with privileges and better job assignments for good behavior.

Joe Campbell had through his good behavior been elevated to the status of “trusty” and was assigned as a personal servant to the wife of the warden, Odette. Campbell was scheduled to appear before a parole board in a little more than a week when a fire broke out in the second-floor bedroom of the warden’s house. (Incidentally, Mrs. Allen had apparently agreed to testify in support of Campbell at his upcoming parole hearing). Paula Giddings explains what happened next in her authoritative biography Ida: A Sword Among Lions (2009):

“When prison guards and convicts from the volunteer fire department rushed to the residence, they found the lifeless body of Mrs. Allen. A later investigation found that alcohol had been spread over the bedding and that Mrs. Allen’s skull had been fractured. The coroner concluded that she had been knocked unconscious before succumbing to smoke inhalation and the flames. The Allen’s physician, who also had access to the warden’s living quarters and was himself a convict in the prison for killing his wife, claimed that Odette Allen had also been strangled and sexually assaulted — thought he had not made a thorough examination and no secretions were analyzed (p.549).”

Joseph Campbell was arrested for the crime right away. Barnett read about his plight when the Chicago papers reported that Campbell had been “confined to solitary in complete darkness for fifty hours on bread and water (Bay, p. 292).” After 40 hours of being subjected to questioning, Campbell ‘confessed’ to the crime. Wells was appalled by this barbaric treatment and wrote an outraged letter and appeal to local papers. “Is this justice? Is this humanity? Can we stand to see a dog treated in such fashion without protest?” she wrote. Her full letter can be read here:

Editor of the Herald: In common with thousands who have read of the horrible murder committed in Joliet penitentiary Sunday, I have followed the testimony given at the inquest now being held in an effort to find the murder.

All shudder to think so terrible a dead could be committed within the prison walls, but I write to ask if one more terrible is not now taking place these in the name of justice, and if there is not enough decent human feeling in the state to put a stop to it and give “Chicken Joe” a chance to prove whether e is innocent or guilty.

The papers say he has been confined in solitary fifty hours, hands chained straight out before him and then brought in to the inquest, sweated and tortured to make him confess a crime that he may not have committed. Is this justice? Is this humanity? Would we stand to see a dog treated in such a fashion without protest? I know we would not. Then why will not the justice-loving, law-abiding citizens put a stop to this barbarism?
The Negro Fellowship League will send a lawyer there tomorrow and we ask that your powerful journal help us to see that he gets a chance to defend “Chicken Joe” and give him an opportunity to prove whether he is innocent.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Representing Negro Fellowship League
Letter Published in Chicago Record-Herald & Chicago Defender (June 1915)

She didn’t stop there. She sent her husband, Ferdinand, to represent Campbell because she felt that the “prominent people” in Chicago weren’t supporting him. Ferdinand was told by prison officials that Campbell already had an attorney (it turned out that this was not true). A persistent Mrs. Barnett wrote a letter to Campbell himself and went to see him at the prison. She came away convinced of his innocence. When she returned to Chicago, she found a letter that Campbell had sent in response to her original letter to him. It was subsequently published in local and national papers and proclaimed his innocence of the charges against him:

Joliet, July 10th, 1915
Mrs. I.B. W. Barnett,
My Dear Madam:
I cannot find words to thank you for the kindness which you have shown me. I have been in this place 22 days and you are the first one that has come to my rescue and believe me when I say that I will accept your kind offer with joy and I know that if I am given a chance I can prove that I am innocent of this crime. I have not had any chance, that’s why I cannot prove that I did not commit the crime, but if you will do as you say in your letter, then I will have a chance to prove to the world that I am innocent and believe me when I say that I thank you with all my heart and may God bless you.

Joseph Campbell

Ida and Ferdinand threw themselves into the defense of Joseph Campbell. Ida tirelessly raised funds while Ferdinand defended him in court. Despite Ferdinand’s best efforts, Joseph Campbell was found guilty and sentenced to death in April 1916. Ida and her husband supported Campbell through three appeals. After the final appeal, Campbell’s sentence was commuted by the Governor from death to life in prison in large part due to the pressure that the Barnetts kept up in this case. Campbell died in Joliet prison in 1950, nineteen years after Ida herself had passed.

I revisit this incident to underscore that the struggle against solitary confinement as a form of torture is a long one. Last month, here in Illinois, the Uptown People’s Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over its solidarity confinement practices. The suit claims “that the Illinois prison system is excessively and inappropriately using the restrictive housing for inmates.” Ida already told us so in 1915. 100 years later you’d think that we would have learned the lesson.

Jun 29 2015

Breaking People…

It’s been a struggle to write lately. Words feel at once constraining and overwhelming. Kalief Browder’s suicide has left me flattened. I’ve been moving through the world but in an emotional fog that won’t lift. I’ve been thinking of Jamal (not his real name) who I’ve written and talked about before.

Jamal was 15 when we met. He was brilliant and funny. I would regularly see him standing in front of the EL station on my way to work in the mornings and suggest that he should be in school. He would tell me that standing in front of the EL was much more educational than school. Shortly afterwards, I gave him a book. Over the next couple of years, we became reading buddies. Jamal would come over on some Sundays to pick up new books. We would talk about life. I treasure those days.

Then the trouble came. In 2007, I didn’t see or hear from Jamal for a month. That was unusual. I asked some of his friends in the neighborhood where he was and what happened to him. There was radio silence. Finally one evening in October, I got a phone call from Jamal. He was at Cook County Jail and he needed my help. “What can I do,” I asked. “Do you need a private lawyer, I have friends who could help? Money for items from the commissary…” I was going on and on and he finally stopped me when he could get a word in. “Ms. K he said, please tell them to send me to prison now…just get me out of here.” Cook County Jail was and is still hell.

By 2012, Jamal was dead by his own hand. I was and still am devastated. Jail and prison kill. This, I know for sure. I’ve never written about Jamal’s death. I’ve started to several times. The words won’t form. I haven’t recovered from his loss. I never will. It’s been 3 years but it might as well be 1 day. I remember his smile but it’s always so fleeting, so ephemeral. I knew that he was broken by prison. I didn’t know how to unbreak him. That’s my unending nightmare.

Jun 17 2015

Making Black Criminals and Selling Tires…

I’m starting to envision an exhibition that will use some of the racist, anti-black ephemera that I have collected over the past few years. I’ll write more about my intentions and hopes for the exhibition in the next few weeks.

Recently as I was antiquing, I came across the following ad from 1927 for The Fisk Tire Company. I knew nothing of this company before seeing the ad. I confess to failing to understand the connection between the image below and selling tires.

1927 Ad for Fisk Tires (from my collection)

1927 Ad for Fisk Tires (from my collection)

Jun 16 2015

Video: A Family Locked Apart

From Narratively:

“William Koger lives in Washington, D.C., with his mother, Sandra, and three boys: Isaiah, 11, Demetri, 10, and Deshawn, 8. But it is the absence of their mother, Sherrie Harris — who is serving a long-term sentence at Hazelton Penitentiary, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia — that looms over the household. William took on the unexpected role of primary caregiver to all three children, including one stepchild, but he has been in and out of jobs and in and out of prison himself. After being injured in a serious car accident, he is now unemployed and often in severe pain. The family is stretched financially and often unable to afford food or medicine. The children are emotionally scarred by their mother’s absence and sometimes withdraw into their shells or act out. Only when pressed do they express their intense yearning for their mother to come home, rejoin the family, and provide them with the maternal love they are missing. Sherrie Harris has been incarcerated since 2006 and is scheduled to be released in 2017.

This piece is part of a much larger multimedia project, titled Locked Apart, that includes multiple families in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge that family members of offenders are among those who are victimized when a crime occurs. Like the voices of crime victims and their families, the voices of offenders’ family members should be heard.”

Watch this video.

Locked Apart from Narratively on Vimeo.

Jun 09 2015

Lifting Up the Name of Our Dead: Celebration and Commemoration in Chicago

It’s the one year anniversary of We Charge Genocide (WCG) and there is so much to say about this year. We celebrated our accomplishments together on Saturday. It was a moving and beautiful afternoon/evening that was capped off by several of us flying kites.

L.A. based artist Amitis Motevalli was in Chicago this weekend as part of the Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival to fly 23 kites representing people killed by law enforcement within one year in the state of Illinois. Through collaboration with organizers, artists and journalists, Amitis documented people killed in Illinois by law enforcement over a one year span from May 2014 until this weekend. Their faces and names were stenciled on kites. On Saturday, those kites were flown at Homan Square Park overlooking Homan Square Police Buildings.

photo by Amitis Motevalli

photo by Amitis Motevalli

Those who attended the performance at Homan Square park flew “one kite with a portrait of each person killed to reflect on the life beyond state violence and the life each of these people lived, rather than the way they were killed.” The performance, “Flying Moons” is from an ongoing series of Amitis titled “This is How the Moon Died,” taken from the last sentence of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Victim Number Forty Eight”, about the repercussions of the killing of a young Palestinian man by Israeli police.

Most of We Charge Genocide’s (WCG) work this year has focused on honoring and fighting for our dead. Yet, we’ve reminded ourselves of life too. We’ve stressed how our loved ones lived. This was a major part of last month’s #DamoDay celebration. I was struck yesterday by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words about Kalief Browder’s suicide:

“Browder was not “the blacks.” He was his mother and father’s child—an individual. And yet for reasons as old as America, he was not treated like one.”

Indeed, we must guard against crunching the victims of state violence into mere numbers: statistics to be tallied. These are individuals. We have to preserve their humanity as we mourn their deaths. We invited Amitis to join us on the Southside after her event at Homan Square Park ended. She graciously accepted and at our WCG celebration, she shared her motivation for creating the kites and the performance.

Amitis sharing with us (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/6/15)

Amitis sharing with us (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/6/15)

As we wrapped up our celebration, several of us went outside to fly kites. One of them depicted Dominique “Damo” Franklin Jr who is the reason that WCG formed in the first place. It felt as though we had come full circle. There was such beauty in seeing the kites in the air. We laughed raucously as we flew them. It was a cathartic experience. We were literally lifting up the names of our dead. We were remembering their lives together. It’s an experience that I will never forget.

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

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

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

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

photo by Kelly Hayes (6/6/15)

photo by Kelly Hayes (6/6/15)

photo by Kelly Hayes (6/6/15)

photo by Kelly Hayes (6/6/15)

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

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

photo by Kelly Hayes (6/6/15)

photo by Kelly Hayes (6/6/15)

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

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

Names of those remembered through the kites:
3-21-12, Rekia Boyd, 22, Chicago
5-20-14, Dominique Franklin Jr., 23, Chicago
7-4-14, Pedro Rios, 14, Chicago
7-5-14, Warren Robinson, 16, Chicago
7-9-14, Steven Minch, 45, Granite City
7-28-14, Steven Isby, 53, Chicago
7-29-14, Josh Edwards, 25, Pana
8-18-14, Joshua Paul, 31, Carpentersville
8-19-14, Darius Cole Garrit, 21, Chicago
8-24-14, Desean Pittman, 17, Chicago
8-24-14, Roshad McIntosh, 19, Chicago
9-13-14, Fredi Morales, 20, Wheeling
10-20-14, Laquan McDonald, 17, Chicago
10-25-14, Craig Hall, 29, Maywood
11-3-14, Christopher Anderson, 27,Highland Park
12-7-14, “unknown”, in his 20s, Chicago
12-26-14, Terrence Gilbert, 25, Chicago
1-7-15, Joseph Caffarello, 31, Rosemont
1-11-15, Tommy Smith, 39, Arcola
3-2-15, Shaquille Barrow, 20, Joliet
4-2-15, Darrin Langford, 32, Rock Island
4-4-15, Justus Howell, 17, Zion
4-13-15, Isaac Jiminez, 27, Alton

Jun 05 2015

Image of the Day

My friend, organizer and artist Monica Trinidad, has a new website that includes some of her artwork. One of my favorite pieces is below.

by Monica Trinidad

by Monica Trinidad

Jun 01 2015

Chicago Youth Try to Make Sense of Violence

Once again, the conversation about interpersonal violence in Chicago has turned into a debate about the moniker of “Chiraq.” Spike Lee is making a film called “Chiraq” and this has sparked editorials and endless commentary. I’ve received some calls from the press asking for my opinion. Since I’ve already discussed this issue ad nauseum, I’ve declined to offer more words.

Young people in Chicago have been commenting on the violence that they experience for years. They have been making art about that violence too. Recently, my friend Daphne, a Chicago Public School teacher, worked with her students on a series of audio and visual pieces about interpersonal violence. One video that was entirely shot, edited and produced by some of her students is below.

In a community-based program at the YMCA, one of my colleagues helped young people produce a series of audio stories about their experiences of violence. You can listen to all of them below:

One particular story about the trauma caused by interpersonal violence really stood out to me.

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)

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