Category: Art and Social Change

Jan 25 2015

Chicago #TrainTakeOver For #BlackLivesMatter

If you read this blog with any regularity, then you will be unsurprised at young Chicagoans’ consistent and constant creativity in protests. Over the past few months, young people in Chicago have led several protests against state violence.

On Friday, some of these young people organized a #TrainTakeOver. Below is a terrific video by Kuumba Lynx documenting the action.

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

Jan 18 2015

“Free Us All:” Love in Action in Chicago

It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday on Thursday and Chicago was in the mood to celebrate through study, action and protest. As part of an effort to #ReclaimMLK, Chicagoans demanded reparations for police torture survivors, gathered to discuss the radical roots of the Black Freedom Movement, called out a list of the system’s crimes against those most marginalized and finally marched by the hundreds in solidarity with a youth-led protest on the near Westside of Chicago.

Listen to these words offered by Kaleb Autman, a 12 year old student at Village Leadership Academy & co-organizer of the ReclaimMLK march and by Page May, a young organizer with We Charge Genocide who helped VLA students bring their vision to fruition. Listen to their words to better understand the current rebellions led mostly by young people of color taking place across the country.

I was invited to speak at Thursday’s rally and march. I had jotted down a few words but when it came time for me to speak I decided to focus on what was in front of me rather than on what I had planned to share. You see, by the time I was called to speak, we were in front of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (Chicago’s youth jail) and I could hear the children who were locked in cells insistently pounding on their windows.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

Their message to us on the outside was urgent and unequivocal: “Free Us.”

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez  (1/15/15)

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez (1/15/15)

I turned and looked to my right. I saw my friends of the Chicago Light Brigade holding light boards spelling out “Free Us All” as they projected the words “Indict the System” on the side of the courthouse. I struggled to hold back tears.

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

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

It was the vision of a group of Black elementary school students that we march 2.5 miles from their school to the juvenile jail to underscore how close they are to being funneled through the pipeline to prison. My friend Kelly Hayes, who helped organize the march, wrote beautifully about the proximity of incarceration for these students:

VLA student Jakya Hobbs told us, “It is this system that keeps us from the world.” Her use of the word “us” was very intentional in this context. These student organizers see no distinction between themselves and the incarcerated, and rightly believe that as long as black and brown children are criminalized and caged, no young person is truly free. In elementary school, they understand what it took me decades to comprehend: Prisons don’t simply confine prisoners. They confine hopes and ambitions, and dampen the faith of those who might otherwise dare to believe in better things. Living as a black or brown person in a country where the prison industrial complex cages over two million of our brothers and sisters means walking through the world with the knowledge that, while you may have eluded the slave catcher, many of your people will not.

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Over 600 people braved the Chicago cold to march alongside the young organizers of the protest. I was so proud to live in this city as people of all ages, genders, class backgrounds and races responded to their call to action. I felt hopeful.

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

One of the children in the jail scrawled out the words “I <3 You” on his window. It read crystal clear to those of us standing outside of the jail. People responded by calling out and signing their love in kind.

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

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

Thursday’s #ReclaimMLK march was a manifestation of love in action. It’s that simple and that complex. If these uprisings and rebellions are to develop into a movement, love will have to be centered alongside power. This is a truth gleaned from past movements and leaders:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Source: pp. 324-325 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998).

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

In the end though, I will remember three words from this action: “Free Us All.”

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

These words will ring out as we continue to struggle and fight for a more just and peaceful world. “Free Us All” is our North Star helping us to find our way in our journey toward liberation.

Jan 15 2015

For the Living…

This morning on Dr. King’s birthday, I’ll be joining friends and comrades at City Hall to sing in for reparations. This action is the third one in a month and is focused on pressuring Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. Over half of the council has expressed their support for the ordinance, the Emanuel administration is the current obstacle to passage.

My Goddaughter recently asked why it is important to pass this reparations ordinance. I gave a number of reasons having to do with fairness, restitution, decency, morality and more. Above all though, I told her that it would be one way to concretize the meaning(s) of #BlackLivesMatter. As political philosopher. Joy James has said: “Black lives matter because we make them matter.” Insisting that black people who are tortured by the state be compensated for this harm is one way that we can make Black lives matter.

As protesters around the world have taken to lying down in public spaces, staging “die-ins,” I’ve been uncomfortable and mute. I’ve been screaming inside though: “The system already wants us dead. Living is resistance.

I saw a photograph on Twitter a few weeks ago. It was of a young black woman lying on train tracks as a “die-in” protest against police violence.

diein

The image has haunted me. I’m over dying in. I hate death.

But I have kept my mouth shut because who cares, really, about what I think of a particular protest tactic. There are plenty of tactics that I disavow but I don’t use my small platform to do so publicly. And besides, plenty of people think die-ins are symbolically effective.

For me, the reparations ordinance is a memorial for the living. The ordinance’s stubborn insistence that people (no matter what they have done) should be compensated for torture is a little earthquake. It shakes up and re-configures the normalization of punishment. To say that the state needs to formally apologize for harm done is important too.

At City Hall today, survivors of Jon Burge’s torture will once again speak of it loudly, publicly and with courage. And those of us who are there to listen and demand restitution will sing. It’s a live-in. Join Us.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/29/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/29/14)

Jan 08 2015

Video: #BlackLivesMatter Chicago

I thought that I would be able to ease into the New Year. Hahaha jokes on me. I am busier than ever so I won’t be able to blog regularly for the next couple of weeks at least.

I am happy to say, however, that the work that I get to be part of feels promising. We’ll see.

In the meantime, my friend Kelly put together this wonderful short video documenting some of the #BlackLivesMatter actions in Chicago. It’s inspiring so I thought I’d share it with you. You can also read Kelly’s post about some of the Chicago-based protests and actions that inspired her in 2014 here.

Dec 30 2014

“The Princess Who Went Quiet:” A Fable

For the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with and to get to know a talented young Chicago artist named Bianca Diaz. Bianca spent a summer (a couple of years ago) as an intern with my organization and has stayed on as a volunteer since that time. Over the past couple of years, I have watched Bianca learn about the ravages of the prison industrial complex along with the possibilities for transformative justice. She has listened attentively to the stories of people who been incarcerated and their families. She has used her artistic talents to further the struggle for justice and to promote an end of prisons.

Bianca is currently studying art in Ireland. While there, she completed a beautiful children’s book titled “The Princess Who Went Quiet.” It’s a story informed by Bianca’s thinking about incarceration and peace. Hard copies of the book will be distributed to children who have a loved one incarcerated at Cook County Jail through a grant by 96 Acres.

Bianca has generously made the story available to others who want to read it by posting it online too. Here in her own words Bianca shares her inspiration:

“I’m happy to share that my comic is now online for your reading and downloading pleasure! Please feel free to print and share this with anyone.
This comic was inspired by the stories that many people have shared with me about how incarceration has impacted their own lives, the lives of their family members, and the life of their communities. Thank you so much for letting me listen.”

by Bianca Diaz (2014)

by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Below is Bianca’s description of the story. I could not be more proud and blessed to know and work with such an incredibly kind, creative and talented person as Bianca. Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration between us in the new year!

“There once lived a storytelling princess who was loved by her entire kingdom. When the princess was stolen away by a dragon everyone searched desperately for her, but they never found her. Alone in the belly of the dragon and with no one to tell stories to, the princess fell into a deep sleep.

In the kingdom of her dreams, the princess rules with fairness and love. She introduces peace circles to help her community find peace together. Having heard of the princess’s many great deeds and her ability to grow peace, King Capybara seeks her help when the capybara way of life is threatened, and capybara are disappearing. The princess travels to a far away land with the capybara and discovers what is making them disappear.

To save them, she must re-learn how to use her voice and speak. To save herself, she must open her eyes, and unite her dream world with her waking reality.”

Dec 23 2014

Video – Groundswell’s Brooklyn Mural Project: The Prison Industrial Complex

THIRTEEN documented one Groundswell mural from conception to execution — a piece entitled “P.I.C.T.U.R.E.S Prison Industrial Complex: Tyranny Undermining Rights, Education, and Society” in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, that addresses the causes and effects of incarceration.

Since 1996, Groundswell has brought together artists, educators, activists and youth to create collaborative public artwork across New York City. Every mural has a central theme — meant to give expression to underrepresented ideas and perspectives, and to better the lives of both neighbors and artists alike.

Dec 14 2014

Free Lookman, Kidnapped by Chicago Police…

Update: Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing this post. I have just returned from bond court and have some “good news” regarding Lookman and his case. His charges were dropped to two misdemeanors (battery and resisting arrest). The charges remain bogus and will be fought in court. Lookman will be represented by my friend Joey Mogul in his next court date. For now, we are told that he will be released later today on a $10,000 I-bond. The money raised so far will go towards the legal fees that will accrue. But for now, Lookman should be home later today. Thank God and thank all of you for your support.

On a related note, two other young people of color were arrested at yesterday’s protests. One was badly beaten by the cops and taken to the hospital before being returned to jail. They too were represented by Joey and Molly Armour of the National Lawyers Guild today. Unfortunately, they are still charged with felonies. They have a $150,000 bond between them so they will need $15,000 to be bailed out. Some of their supporters are currently working on an online fundraiser for this. I will share the link once I have it.

Update #2: Lookman is out of jail. However, two other young men remain locked up on felony aggravated battery charges on a police officer, a felony. One of those young men was badly beaten by the police and had to be taken to the hospital. They are without resources for bail. Here is their bail fund. Please help them get out of jail as soon as possible. Any amount helps and please share the link with others. Thanks.

It’s his smile that draws you in… Mischievous and precious because it isn’t bestowed to everyone. You have to earn it because his ‘unlucky’ life has offered little to smile about. To bask in that smile is a gift.

I was at a visioning and strategy session about how to end police violence yesterday when I heard that Lookman was arrested.

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

He was protesting police terror along of hundreds of other Chicagoans. As soon as I heard that he was snatched by CPD, my heart dropped. I knew that he was close, so damn close, to getting off probation for a nonviolent offense. I knew that nothing good would come of this. Nothing.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the police station last night, I heard that he was being charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony. Witnesses who saw the entire episode unfold say that he did no such thing. These are trumped up charges. We will fight them starting today in bond court.

Lookman is a young black man living in Chicago. As such, he is a walking target. This takes its toll over the course of a young life. Along with the relentless police surveillance and harassment, Lookman was a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

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

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

In Chicago, we lock black boys up to cage the rage but it doesn’t disappear, it only grows. To heal the walking wounded, we cling to anything that we can find. We beg them to talk, to express, to let go. We have almost no resources. The state is allocating those to the military and to build more cages. Some of them like Lookman channel their feelings in spoken word. “I’m tired,” he says.

Over the years, Lookman has grown as a person within a leadership development program that my organization incubated for many years called Circles and Ciphers. Lookman has traveled across Chicago leading peace circles in schools and other community spaces.

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

He spends most of his time these days looking for ways to bring more justice and some peace into this world. For this, he should be respected and uplifted. The Chicago Police department is hell bent on harassing, targeting and destroying him instead. We will not allow them to kidnap and disappear Lookman. He has a family and community that loves him. We want him back. He has work to do in the world. He has a life to live. We will not stand for this injustice. Please help us fight.

We need to raise money to bail Lookman out of jail. Click HERE to donate (this link will be updated with information after today’s bond hearing, we are just getting a head start). Thank you in advance for your support and help.

Dec 12 2014

Reporting Back From the UN…

Yesterday evening was the official We Charge Genocide report back from the delegation’s trip to present to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva.

Over 250 people gathered to hear members of the delegation share their experiences and reflections on the trip.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/11/14)

I’m extremely tired and I still have several long days ahead of me so I will keep it short. I am so proud of everyone who is part of We Charge Genocide. I am blessed to get to keep such wonderful company. There is much work to do in this movement moment. We plan to get on with the business of doing that work.

Dominique (Damo) Franklin Jr remains at the center of our work. We will continue to speak his name. Ethan Viets-VanLear, one of the delegates to the UN, wrote a poem titled “For Damo.” Page May, another delegate & a WCG organizer, created a video of the poem which was filmed in Geneva. Please watch and share it.

Dec 03 2014

Interesting Things This Week 3

I’ve had some time to catch up on reading this week. Here are a few things that I appreciated.

1. Kiese Laymon is a gorgeous writer. I was mesmerized by this essay.

2. I liked Jelani Cobb’s reflections about Ferguson.

3. I re-read Mari Evans’s beautiful poem “If There Be Sorrow” and it’s still exquisite.

4. My friend Joey Mogul was interviewed about her work on the Burge Torture cases and the recent UNCAT concluding remarks. You should read the interview.

5. Chris Hedges is a wonderful writer (not popular to say these days, I know). He writes about Alcatraz as Disneyland. It’s well worth your time.

6. Read this glorious essay about our current historical moment by Robin D.G. Kelly.

7. This is a beautiful animated meditation about time and freedom made by 11 incarcerated artists at Stateville Prison.

8. Tanisha Anderson’s family is still trying to raise money to bury her. You can contribute here. Tanisha, who had a history of mental illness, was recently killed by Cleveland cops.

9. This Matt Bors comic says so much and yet not enough.

10. I read an interesting study the “superhumanization bias in whites’ perceptions of blacks.”

11. In response to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and in solidarity with Marissa Alexander, I co-organized an action last Monday. This is lovely short video capturing the action and the subsequent impromptu march.

Nov 30 2014

Coffins on Trees: Art and Protest in Chicago

I don’t remember if I called or Facebook messaged my friend Kelly. One morning, a few weeks ago, I woke up with the certainty that we would have to organize an event, an action, SOMETHING when Darren Wilson’s non-indictment was announced. There was no question in my mind that it would be a non-indictment (for reasons that I write about all the time on this blog).

I had an idea but it was inchoate. I needed help to actualize it. Kelly is one of the founders of the Chicago Light Brigade. She teaches direct action strategy and is well-versed in creating art for protest. Art making is definitely not my strength so I reached out for help. My idea was to create something that could symbolize the 89 people who have been killed by Chicago Police in the last 5 years. I knew that I wanted to incorporate coffins somehow. Kelly didn’t hesitate to help and came up with the idea to create a tree where the coffins would hang. At its base, she (along with volunteers) would recreate the teddy bear and candle memorial that Mike Brown’s supporters made in Ferguson.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

photo by Kelly Hayes

The symbolism of coffins hanging from a tree and coffins hanging by a string is brutal testimony to racist violence in the U.S. It was a fitting symbol to incorporate in our action.

“Return the tree, the moon, the naked man
Hanging from the indifferent branch
Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart
Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body
Untie the knot, undo the noose
Return the kicking feet to ground
Unwhisper the word jesus” – Reverse: A Lynching by Ansel Elkins

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

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