Category: Torture

Apr 15 2014

Snippet From History #5: Judge Edward Aaron, White Terrorism, and the KKK

With this weekend’s terrible shooting at a Jewish community center, the KKK is again in the news. Many Americans, though, either view the organization with indifference or low-level contempt. After all, it’s difficult to get exercised about an organization that is most often portrayed as being passé, in decline and lacking power. Yet the KKK is in fact alive and active aross the United States. And I think that we need to understand its origins as a white terrorist organization in order to fully grasp American history and to understand our present.

There’s a scene in the film Mississippi Burning that references the story of a black man named “Homer Wilkes” which is actually based on the true story of Judge Edward Aaron.

In September 1957, six members of the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama kidnapped Judge Aaron, took him to their meeting place, and castrated him with a razor blade. What was unusual about this case is that the men were arrested, tried, and convicted by all-white juries of “committing mayhem” & “assault with intent to murder.” Four of the defendants were sentenced to twenty years in prison. Two who testified against their peers were given five year sentences.

Judge Edward Aaron, a handyman, was walking with a woman when he was apprehended by robed and hooded men. There was a brief struggle before he was subdued and knocked unconscious. Aaron was hit in the head with a pistol, a wrench, and kicked in the face. B.A. Floyd mutilated Aaron as a test of whether he would be promoted to Klan captain.

Aaron was randomly picked for torture. His sin was being a black man. Judge Aaron didn’t die. Instead, he testified at some of his assailants’ and torturers’ trials. He told the jury that when he came to, he was emasculated. He pretended to be unconscious because he heard one of the Klansmen say: “If he wakes up, blow his brains out.” When he was apprehended, he was told that he would serve as a warning to other blacks not to participate in or support integration efforts.

One of the culprits testified that he thought they were simply “going to scare the hell out of a negro” & was surprised at what he saw when he came in from standing guard outside the meeting place. After castrating Aaron, they poured turpentine in his wounds, put him in the trunk of their car, and dumped him in a creek where he was found by police. Judge Aaron, who was reportedly mildly developmentally disabled, was near death from blood loss.

The men who tortured Aaron were ordinary white men: construction workers, supermarket clerks, newspaper editors, etc… Their names were William Miller, John Griffin, Joe P. Pritchett, Jesse Mabry, B.A. Floyd and Grover McCullough. I point out their “ordinariness” because it’s important to note that it wasn’t “monsters” who upheld white supremacy and committed torture against black people and others in this country. It was “ordinary” white people who were backed by the power of government.

When George Wallace became Governor of Alabama, he pardoned the four men who had been given 20 year prison sentences. He did not pardon the two who had turned state’s evidence against their peers. He didn’t explain why he made the decision. He didn’t have to. He restored proper order and made it clear that terrorizing black people was sanctioned by the state.

I’m not sure how many people in this country know Judge Aaron’s story. I don’t forget his story. But I am keenly aware that there are thousands of other stories of white terrorism in the U.S. that I don’t know. Those stories should be unearthed and shared. They tell us something about what we are as a country. They ground practices like stop & frisk in a historical context that helps us to understand the virulent violence of the practice. There is a direct line between Judge Aaron unsuspectingly walking with his girlfriend & being kidnapped by hooded men with the backing of state power & the unsuspecting young black man in NYC who is apprehended by cops for simply walking while black. Stop & frisk terrorizes black & brown young people. History resonates still…

Apr 07 2014

On Police Torture, Bearing ‘Witness’ and Saving Ourselves…

I misjudged the weather. I didn’t dress appropriately. It’s cold and gray. Perhaps this is fitting.

Standing outside the Daley Center & across from City Hall, on Friday, about three hundred people chant: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”

Over one hundred people (118 to be exact) hold black banners/flags on wood sticks with the names of Jon Burge and his police officers’ torture victims. They called themselves the “midnight crew.” For over 20 years, they tortured an estimated 118 people, all of them black. 118 black bodies tortured in plain sight. The names are written in white on the black flags. Perhaps this is fitting too.

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

Most of the people who carry the banners are attending the Amnesty International 2014 Conference. They are mostly young and white. When the names are read out loud from the stage, they move over to stand in formation, silently acknowledging the sins of white supremacy. I wonder if they think of it this way; as atoning for a legacy of white terrorism. It strikes me again that the past is not past.

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

Nineteen men who were tortured by Burge still languish behind bars — their confessions extracted through electrocution, suffocation, and vicious beatings. I wonder if people know about this Guantanamo in Illinois or more accurately our Illinois in Guantanamo.

Read more »

Mar 19 2014

Poem of the Day: “If Only”

IF ONLY (by Lolita Stewart-White)

for Willie Edwards

If only it hadn’t been 1957
in a wooded area near Alabama, but it was;
or missing black folks hadn’t been looked for less
than missing shoes, and they weren’t;
or if only those Klansmen hadn’t gathered,
intent on finding a black man, and they were,
or if only they hadn’t stopped him on that gravel road,
or beaten him until they could see the white beneath his skin,
or marched him at gun point onto that bridge, and they did;
or if only they hadn’t said, “Bet this nigger can’t swim,”
or hooted and hollered as he fell from fifty feet,
or laughed as he vanished in the river’s moonlight, but they did;
or if only his death hadn’t been ruled suicide, and it was,
or his murderers hadn’t been set free, and they were,
or the daughter he left behind hadn’t had to live her life without him,
but she did.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets

Listen to the audio HERE

Mar 13 2014

Image of the Day: Faces of Lynching Victims #2

Will Brown, victim of mob's wrath. Source: Omaha's riot in story and picture.

Will Brown, victim of mob’s wrath.
Source: Omaha’s riot in story and picture.

Mar 12 2014

Poem of the Day: No Lady by Anonymous

Political Prisoner (1976) by Rupert García.    Smithsonian American Art Museum

Political Prisoner (1976) by Rupert García. Smithsonian American Art Museum

No Lady
Prison didn’t improve me none.
There was ten of us girls in the county jail
five white, five black awaitin’ trial for sellin shit.
The white girls, they all on probation.
Us black girls, we all go to Dwight. Me, three months gone.
An I ask myself sittin on them concrete benches in the county.
How come? How come me an my sisters goin to jail
An the white girls goin back to college?
Their mothers come in here an weep — they get probation.
My mama come in here – nose spread all over her face — she weepin too
But I goin to Dwight
An I think about that — But I don’t come up with no answers.
Ain’t got no money for a lawyer.
Hell, I couldn’t even make bail.
Met the defender five minutes before my trial
An I done what he said. Didn’t seem like no trial to me, not like T.V.
I didn’t understand none of it.
Six months to a year they give me…
They ride us out there in a bus.
See my playin’ the game — goin to charm class an the body
dynamics, (to learn my Feminine Role)
An I take keypunchin, an I do real well.
My boyfriend, he come to see me twice, and then he stop comin’
An when I have the baby, I give it up.
Weren’t nothin else for me to do.
They give me twenty-five dollar when I get outta there
An I wearin my winter clothes in July, an everyone knows where I comin from
Six month I try to find a job, make it straight.
But the man who give the job, he say I flunk that test
Sheeit man, I didn’t flunk that test.
You think I’m a criminal. I done my time, but you ain’t reclassified me.
I always be a criminal to you…
One of the counselors say I “mentally ill,” I needs treatment.
Two hours a week they give me group therapy.
The other hundred and fifteen, they lock me up — like an animal.
An I ain’t got no neurosis noways.
Sheeit, it’s this place make you ill…
Other night, I took sick with the cramps;
There weren’t no doctor ’til mornin.
He poke me in the sore spot an say,
“Girl — You jus wanna go to the hospital. Get you some tea an toast.”
Tea an toast!
My girlfriend — she die of diabetes, before they do anythin for her.
She come outta here in a box. Looks like it won’t be no different for me.
That’s how it is, Lady.
No. Prison didn’t improve me none.

– anonymous, reprinted from The Chicago Seed (1981).

Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.

There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.

I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).

Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.

The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.

Read more »

Mar 03 2014

Still Torturing Children…

New York is banning solitary confinement of children under 18 along with implementing other reforms. But as the Center on Investigative Reporting points out:

“…the rule does not apply to city and county jails, like New York City’s Rikers Island, which houses hundreds of minors as young as 16. Although most of them have not been convicted, they still can be punished as adults for breaking jail rules. That often means weeks or months in solitary confinement.”

Some of you reading this might be surprised that any state would use such a practice at all. A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a wrenching report about the scope and impact(s) of solitary on children. Basically, they reaffirmed that the practice amounts to physical and psychological torture. HRW produced the video below to accompany the report.

Solitary confinement or what many prisoners call “the hole” can only accurately be considered torture. Charles Dickens recognized as much in the 19th century. Too often, however, the practice is either ignored or discussed euphemistically. America has ALWAYS been pro-torture of certain people. I offer as exhibit A the spectacle lynching of black people in the U.S. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that we still torture so many people in prison through the use of solitary as well as other forms of physical, psychological, and emotional brutality. CIR produced an excellent animated video to illustrate how solitary confinement is experienced by children. I recommend that everyone watch it.

We should end solitary confinement in general as a practice in our prisons. We should abolish prisons.

Jan 20 2014

Those Left Behind: Fighting to Save Troy Davis…

troy-davis
I just finished the book “I Am Troy Davis” by Jean Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia. It’s a well-written and poignant account of the years-long struggle to save Troy Davis‘s life. More than that, the book underscores the fact that it’s the entire family who does time when one person is locked up. Everyone connected to a prisoner is impacted by incarceration. This is especially the case when the prisoner is sentenced to death like Troy Davis. Unfortunately, the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis on September 21, 2011.

I was privileged to participate in an event celebrating the book’s release in December. I read an excerpt about Martina Davis-Correia’s valiant struggle to save her brother’s life while also trying to save her own. I wanted to share that passage and also to encourage everyone to read the book.

It was another bad night of vomiting, retching, and diarrhea. Martina stayed curled up in bed in the morning, listening to the sounds of Mama getting De’Jaun ready and then everyone leaving the house. In another few weeks, her son would be seven years old. In another few months, her brother would have spent ten years on death row. Martina scratched her head, coming away with a clump of hair. She stared at the fistful of hair for a long moment before pushing back the blanket, slowly sitting up in bed, and pushing her feet into her slippers. She had a child to raise and a brother to get off of death row.

It was time to get up.

Martina opened the front door. She took one shuffling step and then another, making it as far as the mailbox, against which she leaned for support, feeling the warm Georgia sun beat down on her face.

“Tina, you all right?” It was her neighbor from across the street.


“I’m all right.”
She let the sun warm her for a few more minutes. She might be dying, but she wasn’t dying today.
 She made her way back into the house and, without fully realizing what she was doing, found herself in the bathroom rubbing a generous amount of Nair onto her head.

When De’Jaun came home that afternoon, Martina was waiting for him on the couch, wearing her favorite dress and her head fully wrapped in a colorful scarf with an African motif. As he approached to give her a hug, she pulled off the scarf, unveiling a shiny, bald head.

De’Jaun jumped back for a moment. Then he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed tightly. “It doesn’t look bad, Mom. You look really pretty today!”

She got up the next day and walked a few steps further. “Come on, let’s walk down the street,” her neighbor suggested the day after that. Martina took her hand and they slowly made their way to the corner and back. When Trevor picked her up to take her to chemo, Martina was fully made up, wearing jewelry and loud Caribbean colors.

“I might have cancer,” she told him when he looked at her quizzically. “But cancer doesn’t have me.”

Martina’s strength slowly returned, and as her renewed strength lasted, she decided that not only was she not dying today, she also wasn’t dying tomorrow. She likely wasn’t dying next week, or even next month. She could take a deep breath, relax, and live her life, without worrying that every moment might be her last. Perhaps her illness was her Creator’s way of telling her: I need your attention. There’s more that you need to do and I need you to do it more abundantly.

If she wasn’t dying today, then she was going to live today.

Dec 28 2013

10 Creative Ways That Chicagoans Addressed Violence in 2013

** This is my final recap of 2013…

Chicago has been in the spotlight over the past few years as the epitome of urban violence. The city has been dubbed the “murder capital of the U.S.” even though this is actually untrue. I’ve written and will continue to write about the various organizing and advocacy efforts by Chicagoans to address interpersonal and structural/systemic violence. Lots of people in this city are working to address violence; many in very creative ways.

Today, I want to focus on some of the creative interventions to address violence in Chicago that I’ve either been part of or have otherwise come to my attention in 2013. Thousands of people were engaged through these projects. There were of course many other efforts that I left off this list. I invite you to submit your suggestions in the comments section. Think about how you can contribute to ending violence in your own communities and then get to work!

1. 500campaign

From NBC 5 Chicago:

After the murder totals in Chicago started racking up after January of this year, South Side native Bryant Cross decided he’d seen enough.

The 28-year-old speech communications professor started thinking of effective ways to spread an anti-violence message and came up with the 500campaign, head shots of Chicagoans with the slogan “Angry Because Over 500 Youth Were Murdered in Chicago.”

**Note: The 500 youth number cited is not at annual number. Over the course of 5 years about 500 young people under 20 years old were victims of homicide in Chicago. One is too many but it’s important to be clear about what these numbers represent.

500campaign (2013)

500campaign (2013)

See more photos on pinterest or instagram.

Below is the founder of the 500campaign, Bryant Cross, talking about his campaign:

2. How Long Will I Cry? A Play and A Book

According to the Steppenwolf Theatre website:

“Woven together from interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University, How Long Will I Cry? provides raw, truthful insight into the problem of youth violence. By giving voice to those who know the tragic consequences of violence first-hand—families of the victims, residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods and especially young people—How Long Will I Cry? inspires all of us to join together in search of a solution.”

The play was performed for a month earlier this year and the stories have now been compiled into a book that is available for free to Chicagoans.

“The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.”

How Long Will I Cry – Book Trailer from Big Shoulders Books on Vimeo.

3. Uproar Chicago: A Community-Curated Audio Collage About Chicago Violence

I initiated this project and solicited support and help from friends to execute it. We asked Chicagoans to summarize their feelings about violence in one sentence. We used a central hotline to gather responses from people across Chicago. The responses were assembled into audio collages. In late April, community members gathered to listen to the audio collage and to participate in a peace circle where we could discuss our experiences and the impacts of violence in our lives.

I talk more about the project here. Below is the main audio collage.

Visit Soundcloud to listen to all of the audio from this project.

Read more »

Dec 25 2013

Image of the Day: Faces of Lynching Victims #1

I’m still trying to figure out how to present all of the information that I have collected and learned over the past five years of my intensive reading and research about lynching in the U.S. I haven’t yet figured out what to do but for now I will periodically feature the names and faces of lynching victims throughout next year. I’ll start with Paul Reed and Will Cato below.

Paul Reed; Will Cato; Negroes lynched by being burned alive at Statesboro; Georgia.

Paul Reed; Will Cato; Negroes lynched by being burned alive at Statesboro; Georgia.