The following are some newswire photographs from my collection related to the trial of Joan (pronounced JoAnne) Little which I have previously written about here.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, people who identified as feminists cared profoundly about prisoners and prisons. They were at the forefront of advocating prison abolition. Things changed…
I decided to share this great reminder from 1971 in the radical feminist publication “Off Our Backs (PDF)” when it was still a newsletter. Below are some excerpts from the publication that includes an essay about prison abolition.
Women Prisoners Revolt
In support of their brothers at Attica and the 28 demands they made, the women incarcerated at Alderson demonstrated peacefully on Tuesday, September 14. The demonstration developed into a total strike with the women refusing to return to their cottages. Later they met with representatives of the federal prison parole board and presented additional demands including fair wages for work performed in the jail (they presently receive 7 cents an hour); mail privileges; and treatment facilities for addicts. Frustrated by the out-of-hand rejection of their demands and the harsh and adamant attitude of the prison officials, the women rioted. Tear gas was used. They were all then locked into the cottages. Three sisters “escaped” from the rooms to tell the press what had happened.
Unprecedented actions have been taken against the women who presented the demands. Sixty-six of them have been transferred to to a male youth reformatory in Ashland, Ky. Additional male guards (there are usually * 60) now patrol Alderson to enforce “order.” Authorities will not release the names of women who have been transferred or say where they will be sent now.
How Many Lives?
How many years of people’s lives must be lost, hidden, and brutalized, before we see that prisons must be abolished?
How many Atticas, San Quentins and Aldersons will it take till we realize that our society has created these monstrous institutions out of fear — fear of human freedom, cultural differences, loss of capitalist property. The ethics of our society have been distorted by this fear, and are then imposed on non-white people, poor people, young people and women to make survival and experimentation crimes. Why should people in Amerika spend years in jail for such “immoral” acts as smoking grass, getting drunk and singing in the streets, making love or printing “obscenity”, much less for standing by moral decisions not to kill or work for an immoral government? If prisons were really to protect us from psychopaths, murderers and thieves, they would contain Nixon, Rockefeller, Mitchell, Reagan, Agnew, owners of motor industries and oil dynasties, slum land lords, church leaders, and Pentagon officials. Prisons are the extreme domestic example of the racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism that we have been watching for years in Vietnam.
Who needs “rehabilitation” in our society? Not the slaves of ghetto deprivation and drugs pushed by those who wish to dull possible insurgency. Not the men and women who have learned to hustle and survive despite all efforts to destroy them. Not revolutionaries like Angela Davis and George Jackson. The people who need to be “rehabilitated” (if that’s even a correct attitude to have toward any human beings) are those whose minds and bodies have been warped by false value systems that convince them that some people must die so they can live, many must starve so they can eat, all must slave so they can enjoy rest.
“Rehabilitation” is the pacification program of liberalism. Even if we did want to “rehabilitate” sick or deviant minds or bodies, prison would be the last place to achieve it. We need to rid our selves of prisons. They are a danger to society not only because they are schools for “crime” (70% of all “crimes” are committed by ex-convicts) but because they try to erase from our consciousness people who could possibly bring about exciting changes in our social order. We need women like Angela Davis, Erica Huggins and Madame Ngo Ba Thanh among us. We need the Puerto Rican revolutionaries locked inside Alderson.
To abolish prisons we may have to develop “reforms” that carry within them contradictions that will make it hard to achieve them without drastically changing prisons — black prisoners’ unions with collective bargaining power, ending detention before conviction, a national prisoner monitoring system, open door policies, viable alternatives to incarceration. But whatever approaches are used, the goal should be prison abolition. To have no alternative at all would be better than to continue the present reality. And we can’t wait for the ending of racism, sexism and poverty in this country before we begin tearing down the walls. It may be in our own self-interest.
The question on the table: which current feminist publication can you imagine would publish such words?
Her name was Dorothy Young and she was sentenced to a reformatory for allegedly cursing at a white boy in 1969. Jet Magazine (2/27/1969) reported:
For allegedly calling a white boy a “bastard,” telling him where to kiss her and using the words “damn” and “goddamn” on a school bus, Dorothy Young, 14, of Sylvester, Ga., is confined indefinitely to a reformatory known as the Regional Youth Development Center in Sandersville, Ga. She is the first child sent there from her county in three years.
Dorothy’s sister, Yvonnne, 11, was accused of using similar profane language to a white boy a year older than she and is serving a year’s probation.
Dorothy and her sister Yvonne were among a handful of other black children who had decided to attend all white schools under the “freedom of choice plan.”
Apparently Dorothy had been reprimanded before for the use of profanity by school officials. She was also written up for “refusing to pick up pecan hulls she dropped on the floor of a school bus.”
Dorothy’s mother, Mrs. Ida Mae Young, explained that her daughter was being antagonized by the white boy:
“Last November Dorothy and Will Aultman, a 14-year-old white boy, were on a school bus and he threw a spitball at her. Dorothy jumped on him and whipped him. Nothing was done to the Aultman boy.”
It’s been two and a half years since I launched Prison Culture and I continue to be amazed by the loyal following that it has garnered. I started this blog for myself. It’s true. I didn’t expect that 5 other people (including a couple of family members) would be interested in my ramblings. I wanted an outlet to distill my thoughts about my work and activism. I wanted to better organize my ideas about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. I often don’t really know what I think about something until I write it down. The blog was intended to be a catalogue of my interests and of some of my ideas. It is all of those things.
But over the past couple of years, I have also learned that some of what appears on this blog resonates with others. Some of you have been incredibly kind to reach out to me when you agree with something you read here and also when you disagree. The blog has now evolved to include artifacts from my personal collection and some writing about key historical moments that I am researching. From time to time (not regularly enough for me), my friends have generously submitted guest posts here too. So I feel in a way that Prison Culture is no longer just a blog for myself.
In 2013, I am challenging myself to become more organized in how I present information here. I am going to try to abide by a regular posting schedule that is organized according to particular categories. For example, I often post poems of the day related to the PIC. I will continue to do so on a weekly basis on Wednesdays for example. You can also continue to expect weekly images of the day. These will appear mostly on Sundays now. I am looking for a way to make my blogging schedule more predictable for me and for readers. Wish me luck in following through on this.
I will continue to work more than full-time running my organization this year and I am also teaching another college class this semester. I want to make sure that I can still continue to regularly blog even though I am going to be swamped (as usual).
I am excited to continue to share my work and passions with you in 2013. I can’t tell you how humbling it is for me that you take the time to read what I write and to offer your input when the desire strikes.
May this year be a prosperous, healthy, and peaceful one for you and yours!
Inspired by the story of an amazing three word letter that former Attorney General of Alabama Bill Baxley wrote to a Klan member in 1976, I wanted to share one of my favorite letters.
I am a great admirer of W.E.B. DuBois though I have rarely written about him on this blog. DuBois wrote a letter on June 26, 1957 with instructions that it be opened after his death which occurred August 27, 1963.
Last Message to the World
It is much more difficult in theory than actually to say the last good-bye to one’s loved ones and friends and to all the familiar things of this life.
I am going to take a long, deep and endless sleep. This is not punishment but a privilege to which I have looked forward for years.
I have loved my work. I have loved people and my play, but always I have been uplifted by the thought that what I have done well will live long and justify my life; that what I have done ill or never finished can now be handed on to others for endless days to be finished, perhaps better than I could have done.
And that peace will be my applause.
One thing alone I charge you. As you live, believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life.
The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.
I am starting a new feature on the blog. I don’t know if it will be a long-term project. I come across so much information and I often find myself thinking: “I wish I knew more about this person or that topic, etc…” My curiosity is endless. So I’ll use this space to muse about subject matters or people who I wish I had more information about (but for whatever reason cannot follow-through).Today, I wish I knew more about Chicago Black abolitionist, Emma J. Atkinson. She came to Chicago in 1847 with her husband, Isaac. She lived in Chicago at a time when there were only about 200 other blacks in the city. By 1850, Blacks in Chicago only numbered 378 out of a population of over 23,000 people.
Emma was one of the mysterious “Big Four,” a group of black women at Quinn Chapel who provided food, clothing, and shelter to runaway slaves. Emma Atkinson is the only named member of the group at this time. Unfortunately black abolitionists in Chicago (or abolitionist in general) who assisted fugitive slaves did not keep written records and accounts of their efforts. So we know almost nothing about the work of the “Big Four” and that is a huge shame. I wish I knew more about them…
In the past week, I have been gratified to receive several pieces of good news. I swear that it is weeks like this one that keep me going.
I have written a couple of times about a young man named Darius who I met through this blog. My friend Maurice stepped up big time and has become a great friend and ally to Darius.
Darius’s grades have steadily improved since last year and he e-mailed to share that he will be graduating from the 10th grade with honors in June. He adds in his note: “Share the good news with the people, Ms. K.” So Darius, I am sharing the good news with the people. In addition, it appears that Maurice is rubbing off on Darius since he has been accepted into a prestigious pre-engineering summer program for young black men. As I type these words, I am grinning ear to ear. I am really proud of Darius and I have faith that he will be a success in whatever he chooses to pursue in life. Congratulations, D! Can’t wait to see what’s next…
I’ve been working with another young man for the past few months. He is my hero for all that he has had to overcome. This week he called to tell me that he successfully passed his GED exam. I feel like it is a Masters degree. He will enroll in a local community college this summer. He is on his way…
A young woman, who I have known since she was 14 when she joined a group for young women in my community that I started, is graduating from college in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t be prouder of the young woman that she has grown into. She has never let her circumstances define her and she is now headed off to graduate school.
Finally, two other young people have received great news this week. One learned that he is a Gates Scholar and the other has won a full scholarship to Harvard. Both of these young people are my inspirations. They are activists and leaders. I am privileged to know them. They have both said such kind things to me about my influence in their lives. The truth is though that I am better for having them in mine.
Weeks like this one don’t come around often enough. But when they do, it’s worth taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and giving thanks to the universe. Bad things happened this week too, of course. But for today, I won’t dwell on them. I choose to focus instead on the good. It was a good week.
I dedicate this to all of the young people in my life (from my first love):
Yes, yes, I already know what you are thinking…
You are thinking: “What is it with this woman and her obsession with James Baldwin?” Well, I won’t give you the one million reasons why Baldwin is awesome. I’ll save that for another post. I will only say that Baldwin was and remains incredibly relevant to understanding America. That should be a good enough reason for my near constant citing of his work. He was one of a kind. Think about it: “Who is our Baldwin today?” It’s a rhetorical question.
Because I am working on something about Harlem community members’ resistance to police violence (set to be released on May 7th), I have been immersed in reading about the neighborhood. Today, I am moved to write about a long-forgotten incident that took place in 1964: the case of the Harlem six.
Baldwin writes about the case in an article titled “A Report from Occupied Territory” that was published in the Nation magazine in 1966. The article opens with these paragraphs:
On April 17, 1964, in Harlem, New York City, a young salesman, father of two, left a customer’s apartment and went into the streets. There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys. They were running from the police. Other people, in windows, left their windows, in terror of the police because the police had their guns out, and were aiming the guns at the roofs. Then the salesman noticed that two of the policemen were beating up a kid: “So I spoke up and asked them, ‘why are you beating him like that?’ Police jump up and start swinging on me. He put the gun on me and said, ‘get over there.’ I said, ‘what for?’ ”
An unwise question. Three of the policemen beat up the salesman in the streets. Then they took the young salesman, whose hands had been handcuffed behind his back, along with four others, much younger than the salesman, who were handcuffed in the same way, to the police station.
The incident that Baldwin writes about took place two years before he published his essay in the Nation and came to be known as the “Little Fruit Stand Riot.” The young salesman that Baldwin quotes in his piece was Frank Stafford, a 31 year old door-to-door salesman, who was arrested and brutally assaulted by police when he and a 47 year old Puerto Rican seaman named Fecundo Acion came to the aid of three black teens charged by the cops with overturning a fruit cart owned by Edward DeLuca. A young man named Wallace Baker also witnessed the incident and jumped in to assist a young man who was being beaten by police; Baker found himself assaulted and arrested too.
Several days after this incident, a white couple who owned a second hand store in Harlem was attacked. Frank and Margit Sugar were both stabbed several times. Mrs. Sugar died from her wounds while her husband would be saved by doctors at Harlem Hospital. Within just a few hours, the police had rounded up several young people who they had identified as having been at the scene of the “Little Fruit Stand Riot” that had taken place days earlier. Included in the group were: Wallace Baker (who had been a witness to the “fruit stand” incident) and a few of his teenage friends – Daniel Hamm, William Craig, Ronald Felder, Walter Thomas, and Robert Rice. Police also brought in Robert Baron, a former prisoner who lived in the community.
The NAACP declined to take on the case, even though it seemed clear from the beginning that the young men were in the process of being railroaded, so a local attorney named Conrad Lynn tried to assemble a defense team to handle the trials of the young men. William Kunstler, who would later become famous for defending Black Panther Party members and Attica prisoners, volunteered to represent the young men at trial. However, the young men were instead assigned public defenders. This fact would prove very important later.
The trial for the young men who would come to be known as the Harlem Six began in March 1965. Harlem was a community that was still roiling from the aftermath of the 1964 riots. It was against this backdrop that the young men were being tried. A black reporter at the New York Times falsely claimed that the six young men had “sworn a blood oath to murder white people.” The Harlem Six then became known to the wider community as the “Blood Brothers.” They were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
William Epton, who I have previously written about, helped found the Harlem Defense Council, which took the lead in the struggle to free the Harlem Six. The Defense Council raised money and tried to keep the case in the news.
Three years after the young men were convicted, Lynn, Kunstler and others mounted an appeal and were thrilled when the convictions were reversed and new trials ordered. However, Lynn and his associates were again not permitted to represent the young men at their new trials. Two of the six were tried separately and found guilty again. The other four went on trial in February 1971. The trial ended with a deadlocked jury so the judge declared a mistrial. Another trial also ended with a deadlock. Bail was set at $75,000 for each defendant. They could not afford to post this amount and had by this time already spent 8 years in prison. In the end, all of the young men were released from prison after having lost years of their lives unjustly locked behind bars. James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, and many others had played a role in helping to ultimately free the Harlem Six.
For those who want to learn more about this case, you can read Truman Nelson’s article published in Ramparts Magazine in 1965 titled “Torture of Mothers.”
Baldwin always wrote with passion and moral clarity. For me the power of his work is that it always seemed as if he had a deep investment in what he was writing about or commenting on. Below, for example, he explains his interest in the case of the Harlem Six:
This means that I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled. I know something else: these young men have been in jail for two years now. Even if the attempts being put forth to free them should succeed, what has happened to them in these two years? People are destroyed very easily. Where is the civilization and where, indeed, is the morality which can afford to destroy so many?
As Baldwin writes about the tactics that law enforcement deployed against black people in Harlem, I dare you not to find echoes in our current situation:
But the police are afraid of everything in Harlem and they are especially afraid of the roofs, which they consider to be guerrilla outposts. This means that the citizens of Harlem who, as we have seen, can come to grief at any hour in the streets, and who are not safe at their windows, are forbidden the very air. They are safe only in their houses—or were, until the city passed the No Knock, Stop and Frisk laws, which permit a policeman to enter one’s home without knocking and to stop anyone on the streets, at will, at any hour, and search him. Harlem believes, and I certainly agree, that these laws are directed against Negroes.
There is nothing else to add. If you’ve never read, Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory,” what are you waiting for? Do it today, do it now.
This post is going to be pretty disjointed as I am still trying to formulate my ideas…
I have been in and out of town for the past ten days but have still been hooked to social media intravenously. So I found out via Facebook last week that an unarmed young black woman named Rekia Boyd was shot by an off-duty police officer on the West side of Chicago and subsequently died. The officer claims that another person in her group pulled a gun out and aimed it at him. There was no gun found at the scene however except for the one that the officer used to fire at and (unintentionally) kill Rekia who just happened to be standing with the group. Below is a video that describes the incident.
Today is Rekia Boyd’s funeral. May she rest in power.
In the past few weeks, a number of examples of unarmed people being gunned down by police have come to public attention. The truth is however that there is nothing new about police violence in America. I am currently living, breathing, and reading about the history of policing, violence and resistance as I prepare to release a set of resources that I have been working on for the past year. My work on this project has led me to think quite a bit about how I have personally framed the issue of police violence over the past few years.
I become incredibly exorcised about incidents of stop and frisk, police shootings, and other forms of violence when the targets are young men of color and in particular young black men. As I interrogate the reasons for this, I think that perhaps it is because I have brothers, cousins, nephews, and friends who are black and male. Could it be that simple? The answer has to be “no” because I also have sisters, cousins, nieces, and friends who are black and female but I don’t find myself getting as outraged over their senseless killing and assaults at the hands of law enforcement. Why is this? Is it the result of internalized sexism? Do I think that young women’s lives are less valuable than young men’s? How could that be when I have spent a lifetime fighting for the right of girls and young women to live lives free from violence?
I seem to be a bundle of contradictions on this matter. I know that by virtue of living in this society I am swimming in the waters of sexism and have therefore internalized it. Yet I am also living in a society that is racist too. But I still feel a visceral sense of loss and dread when I hear about another young black man gunned down by the cops. Is it because the numbers are unbalanced? It is true that young men of color do more often find themselves targeted by police in the streets than do young women of color. However that doesn’t explain the depth of the feelings of pain that I experience when I hear that another young black man has been shot or assaulted or killed.
So I am left to attribute my asymetrical response to the killing of Amadou Diallo and the killing of Rekia Boyd to the sad fact that I have indeed internalized the belief that my life is perhaps less valuable than that of my brother. Somehow his survival has come to mean more to me than my own. I partly blame this on the fact that most of the images of public violence that I have been and am bombarded with on a daily basis are distinctly male. When I watch movies about war, the people who are dying on the battlefields are men. When I see photographs of lynchings, those bodies are also male. When I notice incidents of police violence in the media, the victims are overwhelmingly men (and so are the killers). Public violence is male while private violence is colored female. The rampant street harassment that young women are subjected to which is in fact a form of public violence is almost always made invisible by calling it “flirting.” Young women who are raped, abused, etc… are most often harmed in “private” spaces away from the glare of the spotlight. And we are harmed by the millions in this way. I feel this “private” harm in a visceral way yet in terms of the public violence that girls/young women experience, my emotions are duller.
I am not proud of this admission. It proves how much work I still have to do to overcome my internalized sexism. I wonder if others have thoughts about this…