Category: Organizing

Nov 22 2014

Interesting Things This Week 2

This is the second edition of something that I hope to make a regular feature on the blog. I come across a lot of interesting material through my work. I’ll share things that stood out this week.

1. Art and Cook County Jail
“Youth from Yollocalli Arts Reach produced a series of “reverse graffiti” stencils that were installed around the Cook County Jail wall and sidewalk with the 96 Acres Project. They included text such as, “What is your role?” and “Do you see me?”. With help from Rob Castañeda from Beyond the Ball, the stencils were power washed within a matter of a few hours. They will be producing some more stencils next Spring 2015.”

2. My friend Jacqui Shine shared a terrific find: The “Joliet Prison Post” from 1914.

3. A short film about police violence created by Philly young people.

4. I read an interesting paper titled “Rendering Invisible Punishments Visible” by Welsh and Rajah (2014).

5. I spoke about the Darren Wilson indictment and prison abolition on Counterspin.

6. A good interview with Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB).

7. American Friends Service Committee, in collaboration with Grassroots Leadership (Austin, TX) and the Southern Center for Human Rights (Atlanta, GA), is released a new report that exposes the ways in which for-profit prison corporations are adapting to historic reductions in prison populations by seeking out new markets previously served by non-profit behavioral health and treatment-oriented agencies.

8. If you are on Twitter, I think that you’ll find this project fascinating and infuriating.

9. Nikky Finney ethers the National Book Awards. Bow Down!

10. A post that asks white people where they will stand after the Ferguson grand jury issues its indictment decision.

11. I re-read this essay by Kristian Williams about the birth of the modern police force.

12. Only 16 days until opening arguments in Marissa Alexander’s retrial. We’re having a solidarity rally for Marissa in Chicago this Monday. Join Us!

FreeMarissa1

Nov 15 2014

Interesting Things This Week…

I came across various things of interest this week and thought to share them here.

1. I listened to this very good panel discussion about abolition with Reina Gossett, Janetta Johnson, CeCe McDonald, Miss Major, and Eric A. Stanley.

2. I read a good essay by Vesla Weaver titled “Black Citizenship and Summary Punishment: A Brief History to the Present.” It’s part of a special issue of Theory & Event focused on the events in Ferguson.

3. I was interested in the findings from this Pew Charitable Trust survey about Americans’ perceptions of surveillance, privacy and security.

4. I watched and enjoyed Ana Tijoux’s new video which offers a vision of how the world might look without capitalism.

5. I was profoundly moved by Cord Jefferson’s essay “On Kindness.”

6. I’ve been listening to audio stories about Cook County Jail recorded by 96 acres.

7. Only 23 more days until opening statements in Marissa Alexander’s retrial…

marissa

8. I was bursting with pride for the wonderful young organizers from We Charge Genocide who made themselves heard this week at the UN in Geneva.

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

We Charge Genocide at UN in Geneva

We Charge Genocide at UN in Geneva

Nov 13 2014

Eric Stanley on Prison Abolition & More…

I am really, really busy so I am failing to post daily as I usually do. The fact that I am so busy with work has also cut down on my reading time.

I just got to this interview with Eric Stanley published in the New Inquiry. I think that anyone interested in the PIC should read it.

Here’s a section that I appreciated:

“A tiring critique of prison abolition that can make even a self-identified radical sound like a mouthpiece for the right is that if we abolish the PIC, we will all be subject to greater risks of harm. In response to this assertion, it is important to note at least two related points.

First, the most dangerous, violent people in our society are not in prison, but are running our military, government, prisons, and banks. Secondly, what we have now, even for people who have caused harm, is a form of nonaccountability where the survivors of a violation are often harmed again through the desires of a district attorney whose only interest is conviction rates. Anyone who has been deposed or been through a trial can attest to this. Abolition is not simply about letting everyone out of prison, as our critics like to suggest, although that would be an important component. It is forged in the work of daring to ask what true accountability, justice, and safety might look and feel like and what are the ways we might build our world now so violence in all its forms is decreased, rather than something that we only attend to post-infraction.”

Read the whole thing.

Nov 10 2014

Broken Bonds, Un-Broken Cages: Some Thoughts on Locked Down, Locked Out

In her new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, Maya Schenwar writes heartwrenchingly and unsparingly about the ravages wrought on human beings by the prison industrial complex. She tells a personal story of how her sister Kayla’s repeated encounters and contacts with the criminal punishment system have impacted her and her family’s lives.

Prison12_sized What I appreciated most about the book is the consistent emphasis on the need for connection between people. Locked Down understands that relationships matter greatly. Connection and relationships are the very things that prisons excel at destroying.

Maya correctly identifies that the logic of the PIC “is all about subtraction.” She writes:

“Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they can’t poison us—so we don’t even have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.

The surprise pops up when the broken seams are revealed—the way that incarceration rips open new holes in the social fabric of families and communities outside, severing intricate networks strung together in ways that are observable only upon their breaking. Instead of eggs, we are tossing away people’s mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, partners, friends.”

Locked Down is unrelenting in reminding us that the people who are funneled into the PIC are HUMAN and not widgets. Even when they no longer have ties with loved ones, prisoners are human beings deserving of our care. From the opening of the book, we are thrust in the middle of Kayla’s pain and her struggle with addiction. Maya is unflinchingly honest about her exasperation with her sister’s repeated arrests and her prison terms. In fact, Maya and her family decide against bailing Kayla out of prison in her latest brush with the law because they believe that jail “may be the only place that can save Kayla’s life, staving off her burning dependency on heroin.” Maya and her family are at their wits end. She writes honestly about the tension between her desire to save her sister’s life and her anti-PIC politics: “How could I reconcile my wholehearted opposition to the prison-industrial complex with a desire to see my own sister locked up?”

The entire book, however, is a rebuke to the idea that prison can “save” anyone’s life. Maya quotes Angela Davis: “Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” The first half of Locked Down tells of Maya and her family’s refusal to allow Kayla to be disappeared by the PIC.

The book also debunks myths about conjugal visits in prison, lays bare the ways that businesses gouge and exploit the family of prisoners through charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, highlights the importance of letters for and to prisoners, describes the deplorable treatment of pregnant and parenting mothers, underscores that “re-entry” for most prisoners is exceedingly difficult because of the barriers they face and more.

Locked Down would be worthwhile if it simply focused on these issues. But what sets it apart from other books about the mass incarceration epidemic is its focus on how people in communities across the country are working to address the problem(s). Maya features individuals, programs and organizations that are either doing reformist or abolitionist work. For example, she describes the efforts of Umoja Student Development Corporation in North Lawndale as it tries to interrupt the school to prison pipeline on a local level through the use of peace rooms and restorative justice. She shares the work of organizations like Black & Pink that run successful pen pal programs. She underscores efforts to decarcerate state prison populations and to create transformative justice models in local communities across the country. These are concrete examples and they are welcome.

Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Maya for the book and we are friends who organize together with the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. However, I would have the same thoughts about Locked Down if these weren’t true. I would recommend the book if I had no connections to it or its author.

In important ways, Locked Down gives voice to those who are left behind after their loved one is caged. I remember an email that I received from a prisoner’s wife a few years ago. Tina (not her real name) wrote in her note to me: “I am the other side of ‘Prison Culture’. I am the one left behind.” She wrote of love; the abiding love that she feels for her incarcerated husband. She wrote about loneliness. Loneliness that she says is worse than the kind she felt when her mother passed away a couple of years earlier. “Knowing that my mother is no longer on earth actually means that she is beyond reach to me, my husband is not dead, he is still on this earth, but beyond reach to me.” She wrote that no one in her circle truly understands what she is going through and that they are not sympathetic to her situation. She felt isolated. She was tired. She was stressed. Money troubles threatened to derail her already fragile family. Locked Down gives voice (in part) to the struggles of women like Tina and if only for that reason, it is a necessary book and an important contribution to the literature on how mass incarceration has destroyed our communities.

Throughout the book, Maya asks herself questions that are ones with which we as readers must grapple too. They are questions about whether restorative/transformative justice can encompass those who have committed terrible harm. They are questions about whether a prisoner can ever really be “free.”

I’ll end with a quote by anti-prison activist Barbara Fair because I think that Locked Down ultimately insists that we need radical interventions to end the prison industrial complex. Fair is quoted in the book as saying: “I have worked so hard at reform, and saw so little change, that I have come to the conclusion that revolution might be the only response to what is occurring in America relative to criminal justice and the prison industry it feeds.” I think that Fair gets it right and so does Locked Down. You should read the book.

If you live in Chicago, the book launch is this Sunday November 16. Details are here. In addition, all proceeds from this first week of book sales will be generously donated to Marissa Alexander’s legal defense fund.

Nov 04 2014

Heading to Geneva…To Charge Genocide

On Saturday, a group of eight young people of color (ages 19-30) from Chicago will board a plane to Geneva. There, they will present a report about Chicago police violence against young people of color to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. It’s been difficult to articulate my thoughts and feelings about this trip and this delegation of incredible young people. I have too many emotions wrapped up in the endeavor.

As I type, I remember the sense of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me when I saw and heard Damo‘s friends pour out their grief at his killing by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in May. I also admit to being scared of the chain reaction of pain and hopelessness that this loss could engender in our close-knit community. As I considered ways to honor Damo’s life and to transform our grief into healing, I turned as I often do to history. I was still a young person when I first read “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.” The petition and especially the story of how much was overcome to actually present it to the United Nations have stayed with me for years. Wading through grief, fear and anger, I returned to “We Charge Genocide” as a vehicle that could be retooled and reinvigorated in this historical moment. The organizing that my initial call has engendered is incredible and I claim no credit for it. The group of people involved in this effort are committed, selfless, smart and talented. The outpouring of community support has been inspiring.

There have of course been critics and that’s to be expected. Critique is good, cynicism is not. Some delegation members have been told that the UN is a toothless, corrupt and/or useless institution. To be sure, there are many legitimate criticisms that can be leveled against the UN. I have my own. All institutions should and can be critiqued. And yet, many of the critics miss the import of this trip for the delegation heading to Geneva and for our communities. Some of loudest and most cynical people about this effort have been white. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence. For too many white people, representation matters little. They are not invisible. They are always centered in all narratives. Whiteness has the power to invisibilize and consume everything in its path. So for some white people, it means nothing that this is the first time that a delegation of young people of color will appear before the UN Committee against Torture to make a case against police violence. But I promise that it means a lot to the young delegates that they have an opportunity to be “seen” and “heard” on the international stage if only for a few minutes. To be clear, a number of white people have supported the delegation and its efforts (including being members of WCG) but it’s been instructive that the most vociferous critics have also been white. White critics have also taken issue with the name “We Charge Genocide” but that’s for a future post.

Beyond representation, the WCG delegation is carrying the stories of many young people in Chicago who have for the first time publicly shared their experiences of being targeted and tortured by the police. These stories were previously buried and the pain, though real, remained bottled up for too many. At the August youth hearing where WCG collected some of these stories, many young people thanked us for the opportunity to share and as one young man put it: “to finally let it all out.” WCG delegation members are acutely aware that it is a sacred trust to carry and then share these stories.


Poet Kevin Coval writes that “[e]very institution in Chicago fails Black youth.” And he is right. Thousands of young people of color in Chicago are being failed on a minute by minute basis. We must condemn and hold accountable the systems and institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and well-being of young people in this city. Going to the UN to demand that they call out the Chicago police for its torture of young people of color is an outside/in strategy to insist on accountability. It is just one strategy but we have to rely on all available tools and resources at our disposal if we want to transform our conditions. This has always been part of our history as black people in particular.

It matters too that WCG delegates are making an international claim. It’s an acknowledgement that this struggle for justice is a global one. For this trip, a number of the delegates applied for their first passports. For many, it will be the first time they’ve ever been outside of the U.S. and this too matters. Sometimes, one can only understand their country by leaving it and seeing it again through outsiders’ eyes. There will be delegates at the UN from countries all over the world. This will offer an invaluable opportunity to learn from them about their struggles and to make some connections that can enhance the work here.

Finally, I return to Damo. It’s difficult to express how much it means to members of the WCG delegation that they will be able to invoke Damo’s name and share his story at the UN. Since I don’t have the words, I’ll let his friend Ethan speak the final ones:

Nov 01 2014

New Resource: “I Live for Trans Education”

I met Andre Perez a few years ago and I have seldom encountered a more committed young activist, organizer and human. Andre has been instrumental in creating the Transgender Oral History Project (TOHP)  which is a community-driven effort to collect and share a diverse range of stories by promoting grassroots media projects, documenting trans people’s experiences, and teaching media production skills. This year TOHP created a grassroots multimedia curriculum for youth.

I Live for Trans Education features videos paired with interactive activities to teach about issues that impact the transgender community. Trans educators, youth workers, and youth leaders can use this multimedia toolkit to educate about issues that impact the trans community from an intersectional perspective. I Live addresses four topics–Media Literacy, Health Care, Employment, and Creating Acceptance. There is also a bonus lesson on Civil Rights. This toolkit functions as a trans 202, going beyond the basics to discuss some of the more nuanced issues the trans* community faces. Check out a pdf of the curriculum here. Check out their videos online

How do you bring I Live to your school? Use the tools to lead an interactive workshop yourself or invite a TOHP facilitator  to your school today at transoralhistory@gmail.com.

I often suggest that Chicago has the most dynamic, creative, kickass young organizers in the country. It’s simply true. TOHP is one example of this reality. Make sure to check out their work and spread the information to others who might be interested.

Oct 25 2014

Damo, We Speak Your Name: Resisting Police Violence in Chicago

Dominique (Damo) Franklin, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life mattered. Look at what you’ve inspired…

In May, I wrote about the death of a young man known to his friends as Damo at the hands of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Months later, answers about his killing are still elusive. To conclude my post about Damo’s death, I wrote:

“He was managed throughout his life through the lens of repression, crime, and punishment. And now he is dead and those of us left behind must find a way to heal while building more justice. We’ll continue to fight in Damo’s memory because we won’t allow his death to have been in vain…”

We are keeping our promise. On Wednesday, hundreds of people participated in manifestations of Damo’s legacy.

Damo, in a couple of weeks, your friends and peers are on their way to the United Nations in Geneva to tell your story that of countless others who have perished and been tortured at the hands of the CPD.

Your death has inspired this song though we would rather have you alive and here with us. The telling of police torture is a mourning song. But the protest on Wednesday evening reminds me that it is also a freedom song.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life matters.

At Wednesday’s protest, your friends and peers invoked your name; placing it alongside Roshad, Deshawn, Rekia and Mike’s.

“Protect and serve that’s a lie, you don’t care when black kids die.”

I am really tired and I am incredibly inspired. I am still struggling to find the words to express my feelings. So I am going to rely on photos taken by friends and comrades to end this post. I am privileged and humbled to organize with a wonderful group of people. I wish Damo was here to join us.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life still matters… In your memory, we will continue working to shut down oppression.

Read more »

Oct 18 2014

Guest Post: ‘Not Made for TV:’ Ferguson Reflections by Kelly Hayes

Continuing the series of reflections by local Chicago organizers who traveled to St. Louis and Ferguson last weekend is my comrade Kelly Hayes. I am so happy to feature Kelly’s words and photos today.

It’s been about three days since I returned from Ferguson October, and my body and mind are finally starting to settle back into the life I know. A number of people have asked me about what I saw and experienced there, and I’ve generally responded with simplistic, vague statements like, “It was intense.” I’ve done this partly because I haven’t fully processed all that I saw and heard out there, and partly because I know that as soon as I start to speak, I’ll be walking a fine line between bearing witness and co-opting someone else’s narrative and struggle. Because while I am a person of color, I am not black, and I do not live in a community where my life has been deemed utterly disposable. Were my partner and I to have children, I would not spend my days wondering if some police officer would imagine their cellphone was a weapon, or simply gun them down out of a blind contempt for all things black.

This disposability of blackness is not my daily reality, so I know I must take care in how I explain what I saw and experienced on those streets, amongst those brave people.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

I arrived in St. Louis on Saturday. The atmosphere was much as I expected it to be, with props and banners and high spirits. There were smiles. There was laughter. There was spectacle. I was glad I walked with those people, some of whom traveled great distances just to participate in that march, before hopping back on their buses for the long trip home. I was glad I was there, but even as we marched, I thought, “This is the gentle part.” And it was.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

Mike Brown means, we’ve got to fight back!

That night, I arrived at the scene of Mike Brown’s murder around 7:00pm. A small crowd had formed. I took photographs and talked to a few people. The scene was calm. Then, out of the relative quiet, I heard chanting, as hundreds marched up the street to the memorial. At that point, the scene became infused with an energy I can hardly describe. Despite my exhaustion and my bad back, I could only feel what was being expressed all around me: uncertainty, heartbreak, rage, and an aching need for some kind of justice. But there was something else in the air. Ferocity. These young people meant it when they chanted, “We’re young! We’re strong! We’re marching all night long!”

The crowd moved fast, and I’m not actually as young and strong as I used to be, but I had no trouble keeping up that night. The energy of the march pulled me away from myself. All I could think was, “Take pictures, tweet, get this out there.” It seemed like the one thing that I could do that was of any real value. I could bear witness, and try to show people, in real time, just how powerful these moments were.

And they were powerful.

Read more »

Oct 15 2014

Applauding Black Death in the Hour of Chaos…

You need not die today.
Stay here — through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

– Gwendolyn Brooks

On Monday night, I heard a 19 year old young black man say that he wasn’t afraid to die for justice in Ferguson. Some in the assembled multi-racial audience applauded. I wanted to throw up.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

What does it mean to be willing to die for a cause in a society that already considers you to be hyper-disposable? Your evisceration, your death is desirable and actively pursued. What if the revolutionary act in such a society, in such a world, is to live out loud instead? Or simply to live.

I wanted to yell: “No. stay a while. We don’t need any more black 19 year olds in caskets.” How are we to reconcile a call for the state to stop killing us with a willingness to die for that end?

I can’t get the clapping out of my head.

What were the people who clapped applauding? Did they clap because they thought the young man was courageous? Were they clapping because they too were prepared to die? Did they clap because they were trapped in a 20th century documentary titled ‘real freedom fighters are willing to die for justice?’ Were they clapping in support of black martyrdom? Were they applauding black death?

Why were they clapping? I can’t stop thinking of it.

On Saturday, while we were in St. Louis, my comrade Kelly took a photo of a young woman standing on the bed of a truck exuberantly chanting: “Back up! Back up! We want freedom, freedom! All these racist ass cops, we don’t need ‘em, need ‘em!”

photo by Kelly Hayes (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

Some people chanted along with her while the familiar refrain of ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ reverberated across most of the crowd. Fists up. Voices loud. All around me was love and life. I saw the young woman as I marched past her. In looking at the photograph later, I thought that it captured the youthful resistance that permeated the St. Louis march/rally and has characterized so much of this Ferguson moment.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

When the young man on Monday’s panel described justice as the prosecution of officer Darren Wilson, the man who killed Mike Brown, I felt as if I was dissolving. Maybe I left my body for a second or a minute or I don’t know how long. This is the ‘justice’ for which this young man was prepared to die? This small, narrow, insignificant in the larger scheme of the world thing? We have failed our young by not creating an expansive idea of justice. And then I thought about the fact that his peers had mentioned that they had “nothing” to begin with and I knew that justice would center on addressing that as THE issue.

I kept my mouth shut. I hope that the young man stays in the struggle and that he like so many others in Ferguson and across the country refuses to be quiet. Most of all though, I wish for him a long and healthy life in a future with more justice and some peace.

Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring
. – G. Brooks

Oct 14 2014

Guest Post: #Ferguson Reflections by Sarah Jane Rhee (words & photos)

A number of Chicagoans responded to the call to come to St. Louis and Ferguson for a weekend of resistance as part of Ferguson October. I attended a march in St. Louis on Saturday and several other friends from Chicago spent all or part of their weekends in Ferguson. I am still sorting out my thoughts and feelings but I asked some friends to share theirs if they were willing. This week, I will post the responses that I receive. Today, my friend Sarah reflects on her experience through words and her photos.

It’s Sunday morning, 8am, and my daughter Cadence and our friends Pidgeon and Mika are slowly waking up in our hotel room in St. Louis. I decide to use this time before we check out to edit my photos from the night before taken at the vigil at Mike Brown’s memorial and the subsequent protest at the Ferguson police station. While I wait for the photos to download onto my laptop, I read Mariame’s post from Friday, and see this video of Ethan, a young person I care very much about, and my heart cracks as I recall the events of the previous night when I watched him unleash his anger and pain in the faces of the Ferguson police officers lined up in front of the protesters. I then return to my downloaded photos, and the very first one I see is that of Mike Brown’s mother and family leading the march after the vigil to the police station, and that’s when my already cracked heart breaks wide open and I start weeping.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

The night before at the Ferguson PD protest, I witnessed several young men from Chicago whom I care about very much passionately and furiously express their anger and pain at the police officers who were lined up in front of them a few feet away, separated from them only by a thin yellow police tape that poorly represented the chasm between these two groups.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

As I watched, I was worried for their safety because I knew these officers could care less about the lives of these young Black men, that they may as well all be Mike Brown or nameless. I also recognized these young people’s need for an outlet for the feelings of anguish and rage that I don’t have adequate words with which to describe them.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

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