I think that numbers aren’t enough to convey the horror of racial terror & violence but I think that they help provide some context. Pay particular attention to the reasons cited for the lynchings. You’ll notice several accusations of rape which as Ida B. Wells noted were usually trumped up charges leveled against black men.
Herman Wallace would have turned 72 years old today. Instead on October 4th, he died in his sleep, his body ravaged by liver cancer. Wallace had just been released from a Louisiana prison three days earlier after having spent over 40 years in solitary confinement in a 6 by 9 cell.
Among his final words, he is reported to have said: “I am free. I am free.” It’s a minor miracle that he was able to die surrounded by friends instead of in a prison hospital. A judge overturned his 1974 conviction for the murder of a guard at Angola prison and ordered his immediate release. Only a couple of days later, while he lay dying in his hospital bed, the state of Louisiana filed charges to re-indict him. There was actually a question as to whether he might be re-arrested. Louisiana was determined that Wallace should die in prison by any means necessary.
I watched a documentary called “The Perfect Victim” early this morning.
The film focuses on the lives of four women incarcerated in Missouri for killing their husbands. It opens with Shirley Lute talking to an interviewer in 2002. She is 70 years old and has spent 22 years already behind bars. She was sentenced to 50 years to life for allegedly paying her son to murder her husband. We hear Shirley describe the years of abuse that she and her children endured at his hands. “I was the one who was being tortured,” she says at one point, “I missed my entire life.”
When Lute was on trial, battered women’s syndrome was not yet accepted as a legal basis to explain the “learned helplessness” that can lead some victims of repeated abuse to stay in their relationships. [Incidentally battered women's syndrome is a controversial concept on all sides.] Shirley Lute was also encouraged by her attorneys not to bring up the abuse she suffered at trial because they feared that this would be seen as motive for the murder.
“The Perfect Victim” features the work of the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition which took on the cases of 11 domestic violence survivors who were convicted of murdering their partners & given very long sentences.
In 2004, the Coalition secured pardons for two women (including Shirley Lute who wasn’t actually released until 2007). After Lute is released, the documentary follows her. We see the difficulty that Lute has in adjusting to life on the outside. At first, she spends most of her time in her room and asks for permission to do almost everything. She is an institutionalized woman. Eventually, she meets a man who she quickly moves in with and eventually marries.
Another woman in the film is Carlene Borden who was sentenced to 50 years to life for the death of her husband (who was shot by Borden’s boyfriend). She had already left her husband when he found her, threatened her, and then was shot by her boyfriend. She was 14 when she married and the abuse started a couple of years later. Her husband was also abusive to her children. During a particularly poignant moment in the film, Borden says that she has 7 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren who she has “raised in the visiting room” of the prison. The Clemency project tries several times to secure a pardon for Borden. Finally, after having spent 32 years in prison, Carlene is granted parole. The documentary follows her adjustment to life after prison.
The film gets its title from the words of an attorney for the Clemency project who explains that parole boards are “looking for the perfect victim.” He adds that this victim is usually white and must be submissive at all times. When survivors fight back, then they aren’t seen as victims anymore. At one point in the film, this same attorney suggests that counseling and other supports would have served all of these women better than prison. The audience is left to agree with this assessment.
Tanya Mitchell, another survivor & incarcerated woman featured in the film, explains that: “People just don’t understand the fear that you go through with an abuser.” I think that this is fundamentally true. It’s important to understand that the nature of women’s violence is often different from men’s violence. Mark Totten writes that “the literature suggests that women’s use of violence is qualitatively different from that of men: whereas male violence tends to be more frequent, serious, and utilitarian, female violence is more often contextualized in significant factors related to self-defence, anticipation of upcoming physical or sexual assault, and prior victimization by physical and sexual abuse.” Sexism, oppression and a misunderstanding of the roots of women’s violence often lead to disproportionately severe sentences for women who defend themselves or others from violence perpetrated by abusive men. In the stories of Shirley, Carlene, Ruby, and Tanya, we can see the fallacy & tyranny of the concept of a “perfect victim.” Through the documentary, the audience must consider the profound unfairness of a criminal legal system that punishes victims of violence for defending their lives. “The Perfect Victim” will be of interest to anyone concerned about justice and ending violence.
Note: This week is a crucial one in the case of Marissa Alexander who is currently incarcerated for attempting to defend herself from her husband’s abuse. Please take action to help FREE HER. You can find details HERE.
September 13, 1971: Bloody Monday. Rockefeller orders thousands of National Guardsmen, State Troopers and Corrections Guards to attack the prisoners. Hundreds of prisoners are shot. The State’s forces also shoot and kill nine of the hostages. The prisoners have no guns. Many of the alleged leaders of the rebellion are selectively marked and assassinated by the State’s forces. 39 men (prisoners and hostages) die in the retaking of the prison. The Corrections Department says the hostages’ throats were slashed by the prisoners (a lie). Guards torture and beat prisoners.
Here’s how Carl Jones-EL recalls the events of September 13th:
“The thirteenth, everyone was in the yard and there was a lot of tension, because you could see that these people were getting ready to come in. They was going to use force. Now from where I was, I’m in the middle of the yard, so to speak, near the trench. Next thing I knowed there’s this big helicopter flying over us and tear gas coming from everyone, and there’s a whole lot of shooting and carrying on. So naturally, everyone is running for cover. So I’m next to the wall and I note that around me everyone is hiding his face and guys spitting in rags and putting it to their nose. But what I know was troopers start coming from everywhere, then I start seeing different people fall, you know, they was shot. Guys was losing their hands and shot in the head and the neck. Like it’s been stated about indiscriminate firing. I don’t see it as indiscriminate firing because the people that were shot, and the people that were killed, they were selected, man. How you going to call this indiscriminate? You take the troopers that came in, they wasn’t hurt. Now if it was indiscriminate, why didn’t some of them get hurt? You see, why was it just inmates and hostages that got shot, that got killed? At the same time the helicopter was flying overhead, the helicopter was telling everyone to surrender and they wouldn’t be hurt. A lot of people were doing this and they were still getting shot. They were putting their hands up and this helicopter just kept flying around talking about surrendering and nobody would get hurt. So after everyone seen what was happening, they didn’t come out. It was a slaughter like, man, the people were defenseless. They had sticks and homemade weapons to defend themselves, but this doesn’t compare, man, with magnums and carbines. This is ridiculous, you know .”
Below is an excerpt from a forthcoming film about the Attica prison uprising titled “Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica.”
“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:
Today is the day on 8/4/64 that the bodies of civil rights martyrs of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found buried in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Below is a short video summarizing this seminal moment in civil rights history. Also the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website provides a detailed account.
After the murders of the three young civil rights organizers, the KKK (which was responsible for their murder) issued a newsletter offering their response. It was written in a Q & A format.
Q: What is your explanation of why there have been so many National Police Agents involved in the case of the “missing civil rights workers?”
A: First I must correct you on your terms. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were not civil rights workers. They were Communist Revolutionaries, actively working to undermine and destroy Christian Civilization. The blatant and outlandish National Police activity surrounding their case merely points up the political overtones of the entire affair…
Q: By “political overtones” do you mean that the case has a bearing on the forthcoming elections?
A. It is doubtful that the case itself will be made an issue in the election. However, the incumbent in the White House [Lyndon B. Johnson] is a communist sympathizer, as proven by his numerous acts of treason, and his sole chance of victory in the November election will depend upon his being able to hold his communist-liberal block together by continuing to support and protect all Domestic Communists…
Q: Isn’t it unlikely that the Communists would do that [kill the three civil rights workers themselves] in this case? Schwerner was a valuable man?
A. Not at all. The Communists never hesitate to murder one of their own if it will benefit the party. Communism is pure, refined, scientific Cannibalism in action. A case in point is the murdered Kennedy. Certainly, no President could have been a more willing tool to the Communists than was the late and unlamented “Red Jack.” He cooperated with them at every turn. Yet… he was callously given up for execution by those whom he had served so well…
Q: Do the White Knights of the KU KLUX KLAN advocate or engage in unlawful violence?
A. We are absolutely opposed to street riots and public demonstrations of all kinds. Our work is largely educational in nature… All of our work is carried on in a dignified and reverent manner…We are all Americans in the White Knights of the KU KLUX KLAN of Mississippi.
Source: The Klan-Leader, Special Neshoba County Fair Edition.
[Please be advised that this is very traumatic information to read & must have been hell to experience.]
There is an inextricable connection between power, control, and privilege. It is often difficult for people to wrap their heads around these concepts individually, let alone to understand them as intersecting. After the George Zimmerman verdict, there’s been a lot of talk about the continuing salience of racism in American culture. It’s been shocking though how decontextualized from actual history some of the discussion has been. Racism is of course woven through all of our structures. It has always been so and continues today. Racism (like other forms of oppression) is held together through violence which helps to maintain unequal relationships.
It’s useful, I think, to focus on specific examples from history to make these ideas more concrete. I’m reading an absolutely harrowing book by Geo W. Carleton titled “The Suppressed Book About Slavery.” I came across a story that is seared in my mind. It illustrates that slaveowners didn’t respect the bonds of marriage between enslaved people. It shows how slave women were always at risk of sexual violence. One also gets an up-close account of the brutality of slavery which is often obscured in our sanitized re-tellings of history. Most importantly, the story underscores that American racism was a series of ACTIONS that sought to purposely subjugate & sublimate an entire class of people over hundreds of years. Many of these actions deliberately engendered black pain and suffering. Any discussions of the current role of race & racism in the country that don’t take these realities into account are not worth having.
I open this with a salutation to all those of like-mind, who in solidarity stand as one. My name is Carlos M. Argueta. I come to you from San Quentin´s Death Row. Here in the Adjustment Center (A/C), like other S.H.U. units, we have endured mental as well as physical torture and injustice by the administration and correctional officers for decades. However, the time has come to respond to this injustice and remain silent no longer.
Never again will we be quiet about the discrimination, the inhumane treatment and torturous practices that take place behind these walls. The misuse and abuse of authority by Prison Officials and Correctional Officers can no longer continue to be kept quiet. The injustice being done here needs to be exposed, with the hope that it may be brought to an end.
Maybe then we can be treated with the dignity and self-respect that is entitled to all human beings. For though we are Death Row prisoners who have already lost our physical freedom, we have not ceased to be human and still have the same rights as everyone else: Human Rights and Civil Rights. When we were sentenced to death, we weren’t sentenced to be mistreated, humiliated, discriminated against, psychologically tortured and kept in solitary dungeons until the day of our executions. Never once did the judge say that was to be part of our sentence.
This is why now is the time for us to make our voices heard. To shed light on the injustice that continues to take place here. The time has come to seek to be treated fairly, with human dignity and have our human rights recognized.
For here in the infamous San Quentin State Prison resides a population of prisoners that have been shunned by the state, allowing prison officials to get away with too many rule violations for far too long. That group of prisoners resides in the Adjustment Center. A prison within a prison and a solitary confinement torture unit used to seclude prisoners from the rest of the prison population. It´s a `punishment unit` otherwise known as a S.H.U. for those who have committed an alleged infraction of the rules. Some are immediately placed in the A/C without any due process afforded or write-up. It is supposed to be only for a set amount of time; after that rule infraction is adjudicated. Once that set amount of time expires they are supposed to be released back to general population. Yet, some are held here without any further rule violations or without ever having had one to begin with. It is supposed to be a unit of “Temporary Punishment” of sorts for rule violators. However, it has only been a unit of torture, sensory deprivation and mental abuse. It is where no prisoner wants to go.
Unfortunately for death row prisoners, there´s no choice but to start serving our death sentence here in this unit upon our arrival from county jail. It is home to 102 prisoners and over 90% of us are death row inmates. Many of us have not left this unit since our arrival at San Quentin, never being given the opportunity to program as moderate inmates, which can be considered a custom afforded to all prisoners when sentenced to state prison. We are held here indefinitely since our arrival, with most of us never having violated a single rule. We have been subjected to a different form of treatment and in truth, we are being punished without merit. We have been housed here in this unit under the false pretense that we are being monitored before we can be given a regular program. The reality though is we have been treated to a harsh and psychologically torturous environment. One where throughout the day and late at night, you can hear the screams of those who have been driven over the edge and into mental illness by the circumstances they are forced to live in. We have been subjected to a different set of rules called `I.P. No. 608`. This is a set of rules that mirrors the CDCR Title 15 Rules book (that governs all CDCR inmates) but gives more authority to death row prison officials and administration to do as they please with us and to violate our rights under the cover of “The Law”, to discriminate against us and hold us here in the A/C –Solitary Confinement indefinitely. This concerns a set of certain prisoners for whom they seem to hold disdain and dislike. As that set of prisoners is only a small fraction of the condemned, they have been able to get away with this for decades.
However, the issues mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg for the problems here on Death Row go far beyond this. To cover them all, we need more time, space and patience from you. We want to disclose it all so you can understand why we also choose to peacefully protest this injustice being done. Why we, too, will be joining the national hunger strike, pitching our own demands for change. The change needed here and everywhere else where there is the continued abuse of authority and solitary confinement torture units. That all needs to come to an end for the greater good of humanity.
As the Zimmerman trial churns, the idea of self-defense figures prominently in the legal proceeding. Did George Zimmerman shoot Trayvon Martin because he was ‘standing his ground’ when attacked by him? Was Trayvon the one who was protecting himself against a strange man following him with a gun?
Last week, Zimmerman’s defense team contended that “Trayvon Martin did, in fact, cause his own death.” In a society where black skin is an inherent marker of suspicion and criminality, Trayvon’s (disposable) body becomes a lethal weapon. This gives anyone a license to kill him. His dangerous ‘weaponized’ black skin means that he can only be an aggressor and never a victim.
As something less than human, Trayvon is disembodied and therefore has no ‘self’ to defend. Aware of this, prosecutors have resorted to painting a portrait of a young man who didn’t try to fight back against being stalked by a stranger. This ‘turn-the-other cheek’ Trayvon Martin is as unrealistic to me as the defense’s version of a menacing Ninja criminalblackman. Despite history’s precedent, I sure as heck hope that Trayvon believed that he had a ‘self’ worth defending and that he did indeed fight back.
Over the past few months, I’ve referenced several incidents (such as lynchings and other forms of violence against black people) documented by Rev. Elijah Clarence Branch in his book titled “Judge Lynch’s Court in America (1913?).” Citing a Houston Chronicle article published on February 12, 1913, Rev. Branch shares a woman named Mary Wilson’s misfortune:
“San Antonio, Texas, February 12 – A charge of murder has been preferred against Mary Wilson, a Negro woman, arrested in connection with the killing of Olaf Olson, a trooper of Fort Sam Houston, last Monday.
“According to Sheriff Tobin the woman signed a written confession and a copy of this has been presented to the grand jury. She waived preliminary examination before Justice Campbell and was bound over without bail.
“The woman stated that the soldier was at her house Sunday night and threatened her. When she started to go to a friend’s home, she said, he followed her and caught hold of her. Believing he intended to do her bodily injury, she says, she drew a revolver and shot him.”
Rev. Branch offered his thoughts about this incident:
“A white man was killed and a Negro woman arrested. What was it? It was only a case of social equality. What right did he have in her room? The white people are burning Negro men about white women, unidentified. Why not let the Negro women protect themselves? Do any honest set of men regardless of color say he had any right in this woman’s room? The white people will harp on the separation of the races until a white man is killed about a Negro woman. She had a legal right to protect herself and home.
I’ve written before about how women of color are often precluded from invoking self-defense. Mary Wilson’s story is unfortunately all too common. She was criminalized for protecting herself and so are countless people of color still today.
This history impacts how black people consider the concept of self-defense. Over the weekend, I read an excellent essay by Vargas & James (2012) recommended to me by Dr. Christina Sharpe. The authors make the provocative point that black people have an ambivalent relationship to self-defense:
“Blacks do not easily, publicly embrace the concept of self-defense. Perhaps this embrace makes them feel more vulnerable to violence and censorship. Perhaps it challenges the constitution of the all-loving cyborg who demonstrates “superiority” by their capacity to love haters? (p.200).”
It seems important for us, as black people, in this historical moment to publicly re-assert that we have ‘selves’ worth defending; that Trayvon had a self worth defending. I woke up this morning to the news that Yasin Bey (formerly Mos Def) underwent the force-feeding torture to which Guantanamo prisoners are subjected. My first and continuing thought is that he’s the wrong body to undertake this stunt if his goal is to illicit outrage or any emotion really. His black skin is a repellent to empathy. Who will empathize with him as he cries? The logical extension of black people having no ‘selves’ to defend is that we also have little empathy that we can generate in others (even if they look like us). I think that we’ll see this play out in a few days when the verdict in the Martin trial is announced…