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.
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)
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
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…
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)
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.
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)
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.
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).
It was unlikely that we would come to know her by her first name: Rekia. She was a 22 year old young Black woman when Dante Servin, a CPD detective, shot her in the head. In the political economy of memorials and public grieving, being a young Black woman is not advantageous. The names that we lift up (when we memorialize Black lives at all) are usually attached to cis heterosexual men. Sean, Rodney, Amadou, Mike, Tamir and now Freddie…
I was at the Nashville airport last Monday when my phone started ringing. Friends who were at Dante Servin’s trial were calling and texting to relay the news. Judge Porter granted the defense’s motion for a directed finding and dismissed the case against Servin. I was not surprised. I only felt sad for Rekia Boyd’s family. They did not get the justice that they sought. They waited three years for Servin’s day in court. They fought for over 18 months just for an indictment. No cop had been tried for killing someone in Cook County for 17 years. And last Monday, Dante Servin walked out of 26th & California a ‘free man’ ready to carry a gun and to patrol the streets again.
In Chicago, Servin’s acquittal led to a couple of small, heart-felt protests and some limited outrage.
A couple of weeks ago, I lamented how few people attended a rally on the first day of Dante Servin’s trial:
I can’t lie. I was disappointed in the turnout. I know, I know that there are hundreds of reasons people didn’t show up in numbers. A friend mentioned that perhaps the rain had kept them away. I stared at him. We both knew the truth. For all of the talk of Black Lives mattering, all evidence points to the opposite. Rekia’s life surely mattered to her family and friends. It matters to the small but determined group that showed up in solidarity with her family today. Beyond that though, no, Rekia’s life doesn’t matter in this country.
There is in fact a hierarchy of oppression as Black women, Black trans and gender nonconforming people have even less access to limited sympathy than do cis heterosexual Black men. To deny this is to be a liar. When we call out ‘who will keep our sisters?’ too often we are greeted with one or two lone voices in the wilderness but usually with silence.
Partly in response to my words & as a balm for my and others’ demoralization, some friends and comrades organized a beautiful show of support and solidarity for Rekia. My friend Kelly, one of the organizers of the light action, wrote:
But tonight, after a great deal of discussion and reflection, my friends and I decided to offer what we could to those who are mourning, discouraged, and in need of hope. We decided to offer a bit of light and action, in the hopes that seeing a message for Rekia projected in the night sky, in the heart of our city, might make them feel a little less disheartened, and a little less alone. It’s a small offering, to be sure, but it is one that is made with love, and with a great deal of hope.
photo by Kelly Hayes (4/10/15)
I was very moved by the light action. I have struggled for a couple of weeks to adequately convey my emotions. I found some words after reading a post titled “No One Showed Up To Rally For Rekia.” While the title suggested an absence of people at the rally, the post began with this sentence: “Last night in New York City’s Union Square, a modest crowd of between 30 and 50 people (depending on who you ask) showed up to rally for Rekia Boyd and Black women and girls who’ve been killed by police.” So, in fact, some people (albeit a small number) did attend the rally.
The title of the post grated. I thought of those few dozen people who took the time to show up for Rekia and her family. Perhaps they were members of the choir so to speak but they were definitely somebody. One of the organizers of the rally noted on social media that she was frustrated that those people who did show up (mostly black women) were being dismissed and overlooked. She suggested that this was both an erasure of black women’s labor as organizers and a discounting of the fact that we regularly show up for each other even when others do not for us. She was right on both counts.
I often remind others of the importance of lifting up the choir, of insuring that those who do show up know that we are grateful for and value them. I’ve lectured others on the importance of never taking the choir for granted. Yet as I struggled with my demoralization, I disregarded my own admonition. Those of us who show up matter and as Kelly has written: “…what we are doing together matters, and must continue.” In a sense, I had written myself out of the story of resistance against Rekia’s killing. I had erased myself as a Black woman who shows up for other Black women across the spectrum and who understands that I cannot live without my life.
There is a lot of pain and anger about the invisibility of Black women, trans and gender-non conforming people in struggles against state and interpersonal violence. Rightly so. It hurts to be erased and overlooked. But it’s important, I think, to simultaneously recognize those who do, in fact, insist on making these lives matter too. It’s always both/and.
Later today, some of us in Chicago will show our solidarity for our comrades in Baltimore and also for Rekia and others killed in our own city. Join us if you can! We’ll be lifting up the choir.
I am very happy to publish this poem by Ebony Delaney. Ebony is a woman who is currently incarcerated in a California men’s prison. Her poem came to me via a reader of this blog named Tyler who corresponds with Ebony. They share poetry, books, and short stories with each other. I am honored to share Ebony’s work here.
An attorney friend of mine was kind enough to break down the Dante Servin acquittal for me. I am a lay person and not a lawyer. If you are like me, you were likely confused about all of the information that has been circulating regarding this case. My friend has generously agreed to allow me to post these thoughts anonymously. This helped me better understand the issues in this acquittal. I hope it helps others.
Update: If you are in Chicago, you are invited to the Legal Teach-in for Rekia Boyd on April 29th at 6 pm. Details are HERE.
The Dante Servin Acquittal
Issue #1: Judge Porter’s Decision to Grant the Directed Verdict is Shocking and Rare
Judge Porter granted the defendant’s motion for directed verdict at the conclusion of the State’s case. This means that after the State closed their case, before the defense put on their case, the defendant asked the judge to find that the State’s case was so weak that the case should not move forward. When ruling on a defendant’s motion for directed verdict, the judge must look at the facts presented in the State’s case in the light most favorable to the State, assuming inferences in the light most favorable to the State, and then determine that a reasonable person could not find that the State could prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. SeePeople v. McCord, 46 Ill.App.3d 389, 392 (1977). It’s a very high standard and motions for a directed verdict are almost never granted. If a judge grants a directed verdict, the defense doesn’t even need to put forth their own evidence to challenge the State’s case. The judge evaluates the case on the State’s facts only, in the light most favorable to the State, and then finds that it’s impossible for the State to succeed. In a case involving the shooting death of a young female, it’s shocking that the judge granted the defendant’s motion for directed verdict, acquitting Servin of all charges. The result was that Officer Servin did not have to testify and prosecutors were never able to cross-examine him. This is unsettling both because the judge prevented the prosecution from supporting their case in cross-examination of the defense witnesses, and because he failed to provide the emotional benefit to the family of having Officer Servin explain his actions on the stand.
Issue #2: Judge Porter’s Legal Reasoning is Questionable
Judge Porter granted the defense’s motion for a directed verdict based on Illinois law that supports a bizarre outcome. Even though this bizarre legal support exists, the judge had other options to support a different ruling. I’ll first explain his ruling, then explore the other options.
The judge accurately noted that all of the charges the State brought against Servin required the State to prove Servin acted recklessly. The judge then found that the State only introduced evidence that Dante Servin acted intentionally (not recklessly). As a result, the judge ruled as a matter of law that the State could not succeed in their case because Servin acted intentionally, not recklessly. The logic of this ruling is based on a technical matter of law; if someone intentionally shoots someone, they did not act recklessly, and vice versa (if they shot recklessly, they didn’t do so intentionally). There is support for saying this is the law in Illinois. SeePeople vs. Sipp, 378 Ill.App.3d 157 (2007). The bizarre outcome of the application of this law in this context is that a defendant (like Servin) could assert first degree murder as a defense to any charges regarding reckless behavior (freely admitting that he intentionally killed Rekia Boyd) and then be acquitted of all charges (more serious murder charges would then be prevented under double jeopardy). This is obviously a bizarre outcome, particularly when considering that the law has long found that intentional conduct is more culpable then reckless conduct (intentionally killing someone versus accidentally doing so because of reckless conduct).
Although Judge Porter’s opinion is written to make it look like his hands were tied by the above law, the judge had several other options to deny the defendant’s motion for directed verdict. First, the judge could have done what all lawyers are trained to do: instead of rely on the cases that he relied on in his ruling, he could have distinguished those cases from the present case in front of him (if the judge wanted to find a hook, they are distinguishable). For example, the legal issue in front of him was a directed verdict, whereas the cases cited in his ruling dealt with jury instructions. Those are different legal issues and he could have distinguished those cases on that ground. Similarly, the judge could have ruled that as a matter of law, if the defendant’s self-defense claim turned out to be unreasonable, “unreasonable self-defense” equates to reckless conduct. In addition, the facts in the cases cited in his ruling are different than the facts in the Servin case. For example, in the Sipp case, the defendant shot and killed his intended target, whereas Servin shot and killed an unintended victim. The defendant in Sipp also looked at the intended target as he shot him, whereas Servin shot over his shoulder and behind him while driving away. He could have distinguished this case on that ground. These are hooks that judges often use to distinguish prior cases from the present case to rule that those cases do not apply to the present case. In the end, all he needed was something to say that a reasonable person could support reckless charges based on the facts of this unique case.