Category: Transformative Justice

Nov 16 2014

Indicting A System Not A Man….

I’m on the outside looking in and I’ve held my tongue…

by Sandra Khalifa

by Sandra Khalifa

Everyone I know is on edge. Will a grand jury in St. Louis indict or not? How will residents of Ferguson react if (as many expect) the grand jury advises against an indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Mike Brown? What will be the response of the St. Louis and Ferguson police? Photos of MRAPs and boarded up businesses proliferate on social media. Articles suggest that St. Louis police have been recently stockpiling riot gear and military grade weapons. It’s war but that’s not new. Everyone is holding their breath.

On the other hand, what’s next if the grand jury does decide that Wilson should stand trial? So much psychic, emotional, and spiritual energy is focused on a successful indictment. I imagine the sighs of relief. I anticipate the countless social media posts crying out “justice!!!!” I imagine that many exhausted protesters will decide that their work is done. I fear a return to our seductive slumber and to complacency.

I’m not invested in indicting Darren Wilson though I understand its (symbolic) import to many people, most especially Mike Brown’s family and friends. Vincent Warren of the Center on Constitutional Rights speaks for many, I think, when he writes:

“Without accountability, there can be no rule of law. If Wilson is not indicted, or is under-indicted, the clear message is that it is open season on people of color, that St. Louis has declared that Darren Wilson is not a criminal but that the people who live under the thumbs of the Darren Wilsons of this country are. It would say to the cry that “Black lives matter” that, no, in fact, they do not.”

I understand the sentiment that Warren expresses. Yet I don’t believe that an indictment of Wilson would be evidence that Black lives do in fact matter to anyone other than black people. Nor do I think his indictment would mean that it was no longer open season on people of color in this country. If we are to take seriously that oppressive policing is not a problem of individual “bad apple” cops then it must follow that a singular indictment will have little to no impact on ending police violence. As I type, I can already feel the impatience and frustration of some who will read these words.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

It feels blasphemous to suggest that one is disinvested from the outcome of the grand jury deliberations. “Don’t you care about accountability for harm caused?” some will ask. “What about justice?” others will accuse. My response is always the same; I am not against indicting killer cops. I just know that indictments won’t and can’t end oppressive policing which is rooted in anti-blackness, social control and containment. Policing is derivative of a broader social justice. It’s impossible for non-oppressive policing to exist in a fundamentally oppressive and unjust society. The truth is that as the authors of Struggle for Justice wrote in 1971 “without a radical change in our values and a drastic restructuring of our social and economic institutions” we can only achieve modest reforms of the criminal punishment system (including policing).

The pattern after police killings is all too familiar. Person X is shot & killed. Person X is usually black (or less frequently brown). Community members (sometimes) take to the streets in protest. They are (sometimes) brutally suppressed. The press calls for investigations. Advocates call for reforms suggesting that the current practices and systems are ‘broken’ and/or unjust. There is a (racist) backlash by people who “support” the police. A very few people whisper that the essential nature of policing is oppressive and is not susceptible to any reforms, thus only abolition is realistic. These people are considered heretic by most. I’ve spent years participating in one way or another in this cycle.

Knowing all of this, what can/should we do to end oppressive policing? We have to take various actions in the short, medium and long term. We have to act at the individual, community, institutional, and societal levels.

For my own part, I start by never calling the cops. I hope more people will join me in that practice. It demands that we feel for the edge of our imaginations to stop relying on the police. It takes practice to do this. As such, we need popular education within our communities about the need to create alternatives to policing.

I vocally and actively oppose any calls for increased police presence as a response to harm in my community and in my city. At budget time, I pay attention to how much money is allocated to law enforcement. I press my local elected officials to oppose any increases in that amount and to instead advocate for a DECREASE in the police department’s budget. I support campaigns for reparations to police torture & violence victims. I support elected civilian police accountability councils and boards (knowing full well that they are bandaids). I believe that we need grassroots organizations in every town & city that document and publicize the cases of people who have suffered from police violence. These organizations should use all levers of power to seek redress for those victims and their families.

I list these actions with the understanding that together they aren’t enough to end oppressive policing. They will lessen the harm to be sure but only building power among those most marginalized in society holds the possibility of radical transformation. And that’s an endless quest for justice. That’s a struggle rather than a goal. Only movements can build power. We need a movement for transformative justice.

To the young people who have taken to the streets across the country and are agitating for some ‘justice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Ferguson indictment decision. Don’t let a nonindictment crush your spirit and steal your hope. Hope is a discipline. And frankly, the actions you have and are taking inspire so many daily. On the other hand, a decision to indict Darren Wilson isn’t a victory for ‘justice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indictment won’t end police violence or prevent the death of another Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must organize with those most impacted by oppression while also making room for others who want to join the struggle too as comrades. As Kwame Ture often said: “We need each other. We have to have each other for our survival.” Take this admonition seriously. We should use the occasion of the indictment announcement to gather and to continue to build power together. This is how we will win.

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.

Sep 09 2014

Upcoming Event Series: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation

image-1 (3)

A monthly forum on Chicago-based cultural projects that confront, agitate, and work to dismantle the prison nation.

In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a prison nation The U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.

Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.

What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?

Read more »

Jun 29 2014

Restorative Justice is about ‘Being Seen’

I spent a good chunk of my week at a gathering of local restorative justice practitioners. There were nearly 100 of us in attendance at this three day event. There’s a lot to say about the gathering but unfortunately I don’t have time to say it all. It was re-invigorating, challenging, and affirming.

My journey toward restorative and then transformative justice was organic. In fact, I was a restorative justice practitioner even before I read about the idea and became trained in the philosophy. One aspect of restorative practice that sustains me is that in circle, for example, we are all “seen.”

I correspond regularly with several prisoners. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. Recently, I mailed a blog post to one of my newest pen pals Tristan. I met Tristan when I taught a class at Stateville Prison last month. He told me that he appreciated my writing and so I started sending him some posts that I thought might be of interest.

In commenting on the recent post that I sent, Tristan wrote:

“You mentioned something that caught my attention though and I related to it so well. It was the scene where you asked the brother that was with you on the EL to keep his voice down and he basically said something to the effect of: ‘they need to know that I was here.’

Oh sister… This spoke volumes to me! A lot of us in our madness out there in those city streets strive to leave a memory if not a legacy that’ll proceed us long after we’re gone. Because in reality, most of us will never become a Malcolm or Martin or Maya but we still feel this sense of letting the world know that we once walked this earth too. And with this, coupled with the fact that we try to out shine the ones who did it before us, we do a lot of ignorant an devilish things. So sister as you can see it’s not a certain type of person that we need to target and lock out of society but a mindset that we need to rid our people of. We must create an atmosphere where our people are in love with information and education because without it, we are being destroyed!”

I think a lot about our need to ‘be seen’ and I think it’s mostly a desire to be acknowledged and validated as human. ‘Look at me, see me, I’m here and deserving of your care.’ This is an unspoken plea from many of the young people with whom I work. I wrote about this a bit in a post about a circle that I facilitated with a teacher-friend and her student. Here’s a relevant passage about 14 year old Jamal* addressing his teacher:

“Jamal’s eyes were dry until he responded to the question of what he was thinking when he pushed his teacher. “I was thinking that from the first day of school,” he said, “you looked at me like you know I ain’t shit.” You could hear a pin drop after he expressed these sentiments. He had the talking piece in hand so he had the floor. He continued by telling us that he believes that Ms. P is afraid of him. “In my head, I said if she already be thinkin’ I’m a scary black man, then I’m gonna be that – a scary black man,” he continued.”

During the 3-day gathering that I attended, we discussed race, trauma, oppression and healing. I think all of these play out in restorative justice. But as I’ve kept circles (in particular) over the years, I’ve been most struck by the ability of those participating to listen, to hear, and to “see.” Circles are not a panacea and I don’t think that they are for everyone. I do think, however, that we can all do better at “seeing” others as human.

Until this spring, my organization incubated a program called “Circles & Ciphers.” Now the group is standing on its own as an independent intergenerational project. I could not be more proud of the excellent work that all of the members and the co-founders of Circles & Ciphers have done. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

One of the young leaders of Circles, Ethan Viets VanLear, discussed the value of restorative justice at a forum earlier this year. In under four minutes, he explains why I find restorative justice to be a powerful philosophy and approach for addressing harm. The first step is about ‘being seen’ and respected. The rest flows from there…

Jun 01 2014

Transforming Justice… Brief Notes

On Thursday, I was privileged to participate on a panel titled “What is the 21st Century Landscape of Injustice? Carceral States: Surveillance, Prisons, Police, and Immigration Detention” which was part of the Freedom Dreams Freedom Now conference organized by UIC’s Social Justice Institute (and co-sponsored by my organization among many others).

My charge was to share some concrete examples of how we are transforming justice (particularly Illinois). I didn’t write a speech but I did jot down some notes. I was asked by some conference participants if I could post those notes here. I am doing so today with a caveat. These are just notes and I didn’t even share all of them during my talk. At a later date, I might try to write something more coherent to share.

Notes for Thursday’s Plenary…

I’m interested in the relationship and intersections between surveillance, prisons & policing. I came to prison abolition and transformative justice through my work to end racialized and gender-based violence in particular. I recognized that prison normalizes violence rather than challenging or ending it.

We are in the era of mass criminalization and not merely mass incarceration. This is an important distinction because while it’s imperative to center the prison in our work; our resistance must be broader.

As Beth (Richie) and Liat (Ben Moshe) have said, the carceral state extends from drug testing of welfare recipients to questions about arrests on college applications to the criminalization of mental illness to the punishment and policing of the child welfare system.

These are systemic & structural issues that require change at a broad societal level. This means investing in both communities and individuals to ensure that everyone has housing, healthcare, education, employment, and is free from violence.

The evidence is in and it shows that the rise of the prison nation is the result of policy rather than a spike in crime rates. Imprisonment and criminalization disproportionately affect communities that experience systemic oppressions.

Here in Illinois we have nearly 50,000 people in our adult prisons and about 800 in our juvenile prisons on any given day (excluding our jail population). While making up about 15% of adults in Illinois, blacks are 56% of our prison and jail population. In the juvenile system, black youth are about 20% of the state pop and 65% of those incarcerated in youth prisons. Just as an example.

WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT CRIMINALIZATION DOES NOT CREATE SAFETY.

Real community safety (everyone having access to housing, food, employment, education and freedom from violence) is not created by increasing criminalization. We need to consider transformative changes, and investing resources in communities.

All of us can work to build communities based on gender, racial, and economic justice and work towards the long-term abolition of prisons and the end of the PIC.

STRATEGIES TO END THE PIC
Critical Resistance, an abolitionist grassroots national organization, offers a framework for ending the PIC centered on: 1. Dismantling; 2. Changing; and 3. Building.

We are doing all three in Illinois. I’d like to offer a few of my own ideas and also share some of the ways that we are working to end the PIC in this state.

Dismantling
● Stop calling the police. Just stop. [Our Chain Reaction project here in Chicago is addressing itself to just this issue.] We need to get the cops off our streets.
● Shut down existing prisons and jails. [We’ve done this in IL; TAMMS, Dwight, 2 Youth Prisons in the last 3 years. Our challenge is/will be to keep them closed].
● Prevent the expansion of new prisons and jails [Once again we’ve done that in Illinois in Crete/Joliet/Champaign].
● Reduce levels of surveillance [These are campaigns that need to emerge and be inclusive]
● Interrupt and resist the criminalization of spaces like schools, parks etc…
● Ensure that our organizations (and/or organizations you work with and make referrals to) do not set up any barriers or discrimination to people who have been criminalized [support/start Ban the Box initiatives, sealing and expungement efforts, etc…]
● Distinguish between what Ruthie Gilmore and others have called reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. Refuse to participate in the expansion and further entrenchment of the PIC.

Changing
● We must understand the symbiotic relationships of social issues such as housing, immigration, mental health care, education, jobs. Working on any of these issues is ultimately working toward abolishing the PIC.
● Reject the idea that everyone who uses drugs is an addict and therefore needs treatment. This is creating a new containment industry that has extended the reach of the PIC.
● Ensure that prisons are not positioned as a solution to complex and vexing social problems.
● Use different language (returning citizens vs ex-offenders, mass criminalization vs mass incarceration, etc…)

Building
● Educate yourself and others. Intellectual work and analysis are important.
● Work in community with people who have been imprisoned and criminalized, value the knowledge and expertise that people with the lived experience of imprisonment or criminalization bring.
● Actively imagine a world without prisons and criminalization. Think about what actually generates safety in our communities
● Start building the world that we want to live in. Try out many things. Use restorative practices where warranted.
● Create alternatives to policing, surveillance, and imprisonment. Recognize that this takes time. But we know how to do it because as Danielle Sered of Common Justice has said: the biggest and most successful alternative to incarceration program in the United States is whiteness…

May 19 2014

#NoYouthInPrison: Kicking Off National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth

If you’ve read this blog even once, you know that I am against prisons. I am particularly against incarcerating children. Today kicks off the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.

nationalweekofaction

I write a lot about the prison industrial complex (including the juvenile punishment system) and last year I published a paper with my friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta about alternatives to youth incarceration in Chicago. In the paper, we provided a brief literature review about juvenile detention and incarceration. I am republishing that part here to buttress the case against incarcerating young people.

Read more »

Dec 21 2013

Community Safety Looks Like…Imagining Justice

A few months ago, I saw Morris Justice’s community safety wall project. I loved the idea and decided that it would be great to replicate it in Chicago. Then time got away from me; I got busy doing other things. A month ago, I posted a link to the project on Facebook and asked if any of my friends wanted to create our own community safety wall in Chicago. I got a terrific response and my friend, movement photographer Sarah Jane Rhee offered to help.

So over the past couple of weeks, we collaborated to run a photobooth at the Hull House Museum’s Practicing Peace event and then Sarah continued to ask people to share their thoughts about what community safety would look like at some other events. I’ve uploaded the photos that Sarah has taken to date on Tumblr.

I love this project because it opens space for us to consider the world that we’d like to see and build. It gives us an opportunity to imagine what justice might look like in our communities.

Below are a few photographs. If you live in Chicago, you can participate by sending your own photo to projectnia@hotmail.com.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

See the other photographs HERE.

Nov 18 2013

On ‘Justice’ & Renisha McBride

It turns out that Renisha McBride was actually shot in the face.

renisha When I read the words, they didn’t compute. I read them again. They still didn’t penetrate. Early reports suggested that she’d been shot in the back of the head. I had taken a perverse solace in believing that she was walking away from the stranger’s house when he shot her. I imagined that she didn’t know what hit her when the bullet tore through her skull. I convinced myself that she didn’t know what was coming. I’m sure that fear and perhaps disorientation led her to knock on several strangers’ doors that night. But I wanted to believe that in her final moments, she was taken by surprise & maybe even died instantly. No pain; just darkness. But this likely didn’t happen. Instead she was shot in the face through a closed screen door. Her parents had to have a closed casket funeral. She was probably terrified in those final moments before her assailant pulled the trigger. I am haunted by this image.

After Renisha’s death, we performed our well-rehearsed ritual of how to respond to the cold-blooded killing of black youth. Second degree murder and manslaughter charges were brought against her assailant on Friday, nearly two weeks after her tragic death. The charges came after calls by her family and community members for the Dearborn Heights police to arrest, for the prosecutor to file charges and bring the case to trial, and for a jury to convict. Amidst this organizing, the family repeatedly called for ‘justice’ and according to their attorney: “Only a conviction will result in justice for Renisha McBride, not just charges.”

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