Yesterday, a friend shared a petition with me. It’s by a man named Timothy Lee and opens:
We want RBS Citizens to call off the eviction and provide an opportunity for my family to stay in our home. Before Mrs. Lee passed we grew up in this house and we are not planning to leave any day soon. This means we will not let anyone evict us form our home. We want to continue with the mortgage before it went default so that we can stay in our home.
I have several friends here in Chicago who are very active in the anti-eviction movement and their actions have deep historical roots in this city. It’s no secret that I am fairly obsessed with the Black American Communists of the early to mid-20th century. I actively seek out information about their lives and work. Many years ago, I read an article written in 1931 by Horace Cayton that was published in the Nation Magazine. He was a well-respected sociologist who studied black life. In “The Black Bugs,” Cayton recounts a scene that he observed in Chicago while eating in a restaurant: “I chanced to look out the window and saw a number of Negroes walking by, three abreast, forming a long uninterrupted line. On going outside I was informed that they were the ‘black bugs’ — the Communists — the ‘black reds.”
Cayton decided to join the group and march alongside them, curious as to what he would find. He wrote:
Turning to my marching companion I asked where we were headed for, and what we would do when we got there. He looked surprised, and told me we were marching down to put in a family who had been evicted from a house for not paying their rent. Things were awfully tough down in the Black Belt now, he continued, and jobs were impossible to get. The Negro was the first to be discharged and the last to be hired. Now with unemployment they were hungry, and if they were put out in the street their situation would be a desperate one. The Negroes of the community had been exploited for years by the unscrupulous landlords who had taken advantage of prejudice compelling the Negroes to live only in that district, and had forced them to pay exorbitant rents. Now, continued my informer, hard times had hit them and they were being turned out into the street. Furthermore, as the Negroes did not know their legal rights, the landlords would simply pitch their few belongings out of the window with no legal procedure at all. They, the Communists, were going to see that the people were not treated in this fashion.
This passage reads like it could be written today and in fact, it probably has been and is being written dozens of times across the country. The episode that Cayton writes about in 1931 ends predictably with the police arriving and beating the crap out of the Communists who had stopped to hear a soap box speaker. Cayton describes the chaotic scene:
Then the riot squad turned into the street, four cars full of blue-coated officers and a patrol wagon. They jumped out before the cars came to stop and charged down upon the crowd. Night sticks and “billies” played a tattoo on black heads. Clubs came down in a sickening rain of blows on the woolly head of one of the boys who was holding her [the soap box speaker] up. Blood spurted from his mouth and nose. Finally she was pulled down. A tremor of nervousness ran through the crowd. Then someone turned and ran. In a minute the whole group was running like mad for cover. One of the officers shot twice at one of the boys who had been holding up the woman speaker. The boy stumbled, grabbed his thigh, but kept on running. The woman was struggling in the arms of two husky policemen. It was all over in a minute, and all that was left was the soap box and the struggling black woman. I turned and left.
It would be rare today for the police to use this level of violence against anti-eviction protesters. Still, putting one’s body on the line to prevent an eviction often comes with the risk and even the likelihood of an arrest. I have a ton of respect for my friends who take this chance regularly. The very least that I can do is to sign a petition supporting Mr. Lee’s right to stay in his home. I hope that you will too!
“A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine.” – Steven Biko
My father was the first person to talk with me about Steven Biko. He’s taught me the most about African revolutionaries: Lumumba, Toure, Cabral, and so many more. My dad knew many of these men (and yes, growing up all revolutionaries that I encountered through my dad’s stories were men). Biko he didn’t know personally but he admired him greatly. Dad gave me a bunch of pamphlets that included speeches and writing by Biko and others. I read them voraciously.
I was a teenager when the film “Cry Freedom” was released. I remember almost nothing about it except for the police interrogation and torture scenes. Those left their mark on my psyche. I’d of course heard the whispers about my own uncle’s interrogations, torture, and imprisonment as a kid. But the visual representations in “Cry Freedom” made that vague concept real. It’s strange writing these words because it now makes so much sense that I would became obsessed with organizing against policing and violence.
Desmond Tutu recounts the story of South African minister of police Jimmy Krueger who upon hearing of the torture and killing of Steve Biko in prison is reported to have said that his death “leaves me cold.” Tutu writes of this: “You have to ask what has happened to the humanity – the ubuntu — of someone who could speak so callously about the suffering and death of a fellow human being.”
Our capacity to dehumanize each other is seemingly boundless. And yet, we are also capable of demonstrating great compassion toward one another too. This, it seems, is the central paradox of humans. The persistent question is which part of ourselves will we feed.
The police officers who tortured and killed Steven Biko on this day in 1977 chose to feed their inhumanity. [Read the harrowing sequence of events that led up to his death here]. They thought to bury Biko’s ideas (which they found so threatening) along with his body. They failed because some of us still remember the potency of his philosophy. He was the one who said: “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.”
Were he alive today, Biko would surely be dismayed at the fact that white supremacy & domination persist in his beloved South Africa even though its leaders have black skin. He would remind us that blackness is about more than skin color. Now more than ever, we need to re-animate Biko’s ideas and apply them to our current challenges.
So today, please do me a favor, read something that Biko actually wrote himself. Not an article about him or someone else’s testimony of who the man was. Not an out of context quote that you find on the internet. Read his original writing. Let’s recover his voice.
You can listen to Biko talk about the Black Consciousness Movement below:
I’m working on a project that will be happening this fall. I’ll share more about it later. In the meantime, I am reading A LOT of the writing by black political prisoners from the 1920s through 1970s.
Anyway, John Clutchette who was one of the Soledad Brothers, wrote a letter that was excerpted in the book “If They Come In the Morning.” I wanted to highlight his thoughts about the need to abolish prisons because it illustrates the theorizing and analysis that prisoners offered in the late 60′s-early 70′s in particular.
Today’s prison system should be abolished because it is a system predesigned and constructed to warehouse the people of undeveloped and lower economical communities. Under the existing social order men and women are sent to prison for labor (free labor) and further economical gain (money) by the state. Where else can you get a full day’s work for two to sixteen cents an hour, and these hours become an indeterminate period of years. This is slave labor in 20th-century America. Repeat! Men and women are sent to prison for free labor, not for what contributions they might make to their communities, under the guise of rehabilitation. Ninety-eight per cent of (all) people held in U.S. concentration camps are people of oppression, we are the people who come from the under class of the system, we are the people castigated and barred from the productive arenas of social employment, decent housing, correct education, correct medical care, etc., etc., a war of survival… Bear with me, I don’t intend to sound bitter, but only to relate the truth; we must come to know the truth, we are the people left to the crumbs of the system… we are the people who lay prey to the criminal elements of the system. The choice — survive or perish! The first always being to survive. It is a fact that man is a product of his environment; that the character and state of mind of a people, a race, a nation, the world, depends essentially and decisively on being able to control their economic environment in relation to controlling the fruits of their labor (production) in essence this is the determining factor of one’s social, political and economical power. Again ninety-eight per cent of all the people in concentration camps are members of the oppressed class. You won’t find members of the ruling-clique in places like this, but you will find their victims.
Building more and better prisons is not the solution — build a thousand prisons, arrest and lock up tens of thousands of people; all will be to no avail. This will not arrest poverty, oppression and the other ills of this unjust social order. But the people, working in united effort, can eliminate these conditions by removing the source that produces them. We need people who will stand up and speak out when it is a matter of right or wrong, of justice or injustice, of struggling or not struggling to help correct and remove conditions affecting the people, all I ask is that the people support us, I will break my back in helping to bring peace and justice upon the face of the earth.
Runner up for the ADPSR prison campaign poster contest:
…One of the ways for me as a designer is to promote or help other organizations that already do that. I didn’t know anything about the prison problem before reading about it on your web site and other sources that cover the topic. I knew right away I wanted to be part of ADPSR’s campaign. By employing standard emotionless symbols often used in design and architecture combined with a very tight poster layout and limited color palette I tried to communicate some basic human emotions such a anxiety, fear, loneliness and sadness.
I read this blog post yesterday (it was published in the Washington Post):
Americans are familiar with stories of dissidents fleeing repressive regimes such as those in China or Iran and seeking asylum in the United States. Snowden is in the opposite position. He’s an American leaving the land of his birth because he fears persecution.
Sigh… Americans fleeing U.S. government repression for other countries is not new. Think Paul and Eslanda Robeson. Think of Robert Williams fleeing to Cuba to escape trumped up kidnapping charges or Assata Shakur currently exiled in Cuba…
The U.S. government has always targeted dissenters. Dozens of political prisoners languish in cages across the country. This should be well-known to most Americans. It isn’t but it should be.
The current case of Edward Snowden seems to have revived (for at least a couple of days) a conversation about dissent, ‘criminality,’ and political imprisonment. It’s a good time to revisit some history…
On January 27, 1966, an American political prisoner stood in a courtroom and delivered a speech titled “We Accuse” His name was Bill Epton. I have written about Epton on this blog here and here. He should be better known to more people.
Below are some words from “We Accuse.” I encourage you to read the whole speech; it is worth it.
“Cause everybody dies in the summer.
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring.
I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring. — Chance The Rapper”
Summer is around the corner in Chicago… These words have a specific meaning if you live in this city. I was thinking about the summer on Tuesday as I sat in an auditorium at the University of Chicago with over 400 people. It was packed and this meeting had been three years in the making. The young people from Fearless Leading By the Youth and their adult allies had spent that time organizing, researching, petitioning, sitting in, and dying in for an opportunity to meet with the administrators of the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC). Their demand: to establish a level 1 trauma center for adults on the southside of Chicago.
“They merking kids, they murder kids here
Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here
Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here
Probably scared of all the refugees, look like we had a fucking hurricane here.” — Chance The Rapper
There are over 800,000 people who live on the southside and some neighborhoods are particularly plagued by gun violence. Yet gun shot victims are often taken miles away from their communities to access the critical trauma care that they need. The cruel distance contributes to our untimely deaths. Many community members have found this to be unjust over the years but it was the young people of FLY, who after the death of their friend Damian Turner in 2010, mobilized to change the situation.
As I listened to the UCMC administrators tout the ways that their institution already “promotes health and wellness” on the southside, I admit that my mind was also wandering. I took notice of the diversity of the crowd: a mix of young and old, medical students and local community members, black, latin@, white and asian folks, people in wheel-chairs and the outwardly able-bodied. I felt some sadness as the spectre of death loomed in the space. Here we all were in this room having to affirm once again the value of black lives. UCMC said that the lack of trauma care on the southside was a “societal” problem and they were of course right. But it still felt like a deflection from its responsibility as a medical institution to save more black lives. This is our relentless mourning song. It’s a familiar one to young men like Chicago-born and raised Chance the Rapper and his peers.
But my sadness and frustration were also tempered by hope. The UCMC administrators, who had previously refused to meet with community members about their demand for a trauma center, were in fact now doing so. They had been pressured into talking with us. They also changed their tune about the fact that no new trauma center was needed on the southside. Dean Kenneth Polansky said there was in fact a need for trauma care services but that UCMC could not afford to provide them. This was the message they conveyed.
As the administrators tried to bring the meeting to a close, the intrepid and dedicated Alex Goldenberg grabbed the microphone. He thanked the organizers for finally engaging with the community and then said what had been left unspoken throughout the meeting:
“The deaths that we’re talking about are Black deaths. If White people were dying at the rate that Black people die, this hospital would have had a trauma center a long time ago. You know it’s true.”
Alex added: “We’re not going to go away until you do more.” And so the struggle to establish a level 1 adult trauma center on the southside will continue. I believe that the community will ultimately prevail. Because it’s literally a matter of life and death…
Update: The following video from the Medill News Service does a good job summarizing the events.
David Simon speaks some truth:
The occasion was staged by the Observer and chaired by its editor, John Mulholland, as part of its campaign to address the global drugs crisis.
Simon took no prisoners. In his vision, the war on – and the curse of – drugs are inseparable from what he called, in his book, The Death of Working Class America, the de-industrialisation and ravaging of cities that were once the engine-rooms and, in Baltimore’s case, the seaboard of an industrial superpower.
The war is about the disposal of what Simon called, in his most unforgiving but cogent term, “excess Americans”: once a labour force, but no longer of use to capitalism. He went so far as to call the war on drugs “a holocaust in slow motion”.
Simon said he “begins with the assumption that drugs are bad”, but also that the war on drugs has “always proceeded along racial lines”, since the banning of opium.
It is waged “not against dangerous substances but against the poor, the excess Americans,” he said, and with striking and subversive originality, posited the crisis in stark economic terms: “We do not need 10-12% of our population; they’ve been abandoned. They don’t have barbed wire around them, but they might as well.”
As a result, “drugs are the only industry left in places such as Baltimore and east St Louis” – an industry that employs “children, old people, people who’ve been shooting drugs for 20 years, it doesn’t matter. It’s the only factory that’s still open. The doors are open.”
Only a rich white man can make such statements and still be taken half-seriously by some elites. As such, I hope that he keeps speaking publicly…