Category: violence

Apr 24 2014

The Young and Unmoored…

Ten days ago I got news that I didn’t feel ready to process until today. A young man I’ve known since he was a teenager was shot in Florida. I’ve come to dread phone calls at any time of day, most especially those that come late in the night. I’ve struggled to find the perfect ringtone to allay my anxiety. I’ve been unsuccessful.

So when my phone rang a few days ago and I saw that it was past midnight and that I didn’t recognize the number, I steeled myself for bad news. I answered with trepidation. It was the young man’s cousin and he said that Julian (not his real name) was shot while sitting in a parked car. It was a case of mistaken identity. After an uncertain prognosis, he recovered after surgery. A couple of days ago, I finally had a chance to hear his voice which was a relief.

I wrote about Julian a few years ago in this post:

I wanted to relay a story about a young man who I have been working with for the past few months. He has been struggling greatly since his release from prison in March of this year. He is ill-equipped for “life on the outside” as he likes to say. He is easily angered and raises his voice to make mundane points. Any suggestion is perceived as a criticism and a slight. His favorite word to use is “respect” and yet he has a difficult time showing any for others. I am not telling tales out of school since everything that I am writing about him, I have also expressed directly to him (more than once).

The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about integrity and grit from Julian. He chides me for being “too nice” and he worries that I’m going to get “run over” by people. I remind him that I am a grown woman in my 40s while he’s barely out of his teens. I can and do take care of myself. He says that he’s already lived two lifetimes. I don’t argue because I know something about the trials and struggles that he’s had to face and to try to overcome.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the young people who live in the world, unmoored. The ones who seem to be passing through and don’t have any expectations of staying for long. I’ve been thinking about the young people who resist ‘counseling’ because they know that their thoughts and behaviors are rational within the context of their worlds. Julian is one of the unmooored. And if I’m honest, I hold my breath for him every day, afraid that to exhale means he might disappear.

What do you do with a young person who resists the inspirational script of overcoming all adversity? What do you do with a young person who never had any bootstraps and won’t pretend that any amount of work on his part will provide them? What do you do?

We rode on the EL together once and Julian spoke with a booming voice throughout the trip. I asked him to lower his voice. He looked at me for a moment and kept loud-talking. I was embarrassed at his display and felt disrespected that he ignored my request. As soon as we got off the EL, his voice returned to its normal decibel level. Once I got over my anger, I asked why he spoke so loudly on the train. His response: “I want them uncomfortable and they need to know that I was here.” My anger dissipated and I’ve never forgotten his words. They are seared in my mind: “they need to know that I was here.” We’ve never spoken of what it’s like to feel “not here.” I don’t know how to broach the topic.

Julian is verbally gifted and I badgered him to write something that I could post here. He’s always resisted. When I asked him a few years ago what he might share with readers of this blog he answered succinctly: “Tell them that I am a human being.” He also shared a poem that he said best described his prison experience.

Julian is a human being who is passing through while contending with “not hereness.” He’s alive right now, lying in the hospital recovering. He’s alive and passing through. I am struggling to understand what this means for him and for me. I think back to a few lines of Julian’s favorite poem by M.A. Church that he says best captures his prison experience.

You ask what it’s like here
but there are no words for it.
I answer difficult, painful, that men
die hearing their own voices. That answer
isn’t right though and I tell you now
that prison is a room
where a man waits with his nerves
drawn tight as barbed wire, an afternoon
that continues for months, that rises
around his legs like water
until the man is insane
and thinks the afternoon is a lake:
blue water, whitecaps, an island
where he lies under pale sunlight, one
red gardenia growing from his hand –

After surviving that kind of an experience, it’s understandable that one would want to take up space in the “free” world, to ‘be here,’ and to remind others of our humanity. But I fear that the “free” world has no concern for those who return from this unspeakable place. So I’m still holding my breath for Julian, afraid that to exhale means he’ll disappear…

Apr 23 2014

Image of the Day: Fugitive Slave

Slave-owner shooting a fugitive slave. (1853) - Creator: Mason, Walter George, 1820-1866 -- Engraver - Source: Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom ; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.

Slave-owner shooting a fugitive slave. (1853) – Creator: Mason, Walter George, 1820-1866 — Engraver – Source: Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.

Apr 22 2014

Young People Continue To Talk About the Cops…

If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about policing. The cops are the gateway to the prison industrial complex and the gatekeepers of state power. In addition, as I’ve often written, the young people I work with want to talk about the police. Their material experiences of feeling and being oppressed usually revolve around how they are treated by cops.

Recently a young person who I love named Richard released a new music video for his song “Cops and Robbers.” You can and should watch it below.

I asked Richard about his inspiration for the song and his response was as follows:

“So the idea of the song actually was nothing planned. I was on the Greyhound coming back from a very short spring break and I had just started to re-read Assata Shakur’s Autobiography and I listened to the beat right after I read the first chapter and the first thing I could think of was Cops and Robbers, and how Assata was portrayed and accused and related to my experiences growing up in Chicago.”

I also asked about how he views the role of police in communities like the one he grew up in. His response was that they were “overseers” of the community. I thought that this terminology was instructive and harkens back to the slave patrols which were America’s original police forces.

Recently my comrade Francesco de Salvatore shared his collaboration with a group called the Young Fugitives about policing in Chicago. The project titled “Growing Up With CPD” is a set of audio interviews with young Chicagoans about their experiences with law enforcement. Below is one story.

“Growing Up With CPD” follows on the heels of a similar project that my organization undertook a couple of years ago called “Chain Reaction.” I think that what all of these projects have in common is a desire to surface the voices of young people who feel oppressed by policing in the hope that people will come to rely less on cops as the solution of violence. I hope that people will heed young people’s calls for true justice.

Apr 21 2014

No Selves to Defend #3: Rosa Lee Ingram

I am thrilled to report that the project I’ve been working on for the past few weeks was handed over to a friend to design. I’ve gotten a sneak peak of the publication and it’s beautiful. On short notice, many people came together and came through. With only a few snags along the way, it was a joy to work on this project. If you’ve read this blog even just once, you’ll recognize how much history matters to me. I very much wanted to put Marissa Alexander’s case in historical context in an accessible way. I think that we achieved this goal. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the project and am looking forward to unveiling the finished product(s) soon.

As a preview, I am sharing Rosa Lee Ingram’s story along with art created especially for this project by my friend Billy Dee. The project includes eleven other stories of women of color (including Marissa) who were criminalized for self-defense. Along with the publication which we will use to raise funds for Marissa’s legal defense, we are also planning an exhibition here in Chicago in July. I look forward to sharing more soon.

Rosa Lee Ingram by Billy Dee (2014)

Rosa Lee Ingram by Billy Dee (2014)

In 1954, 90 year old Mary Church Terrell, a lifelong activist, declared: “I’m going back to Georgia.” Terrell, chairwoman of the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice, was announcing a “Mother’s Day crusade” that she and other women would lead to once again advocate for the release of Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons. By this time, all three had already spent the better part of six years in prison.

In 1948, Rosa Lee Ingram, a widowed mother of 12 children, was convicted and sentenced to death along with her two sons, Wallace & Sammie Lee, for killing a white man in self-defense. Ingram, a sharecropper, lived on the same property as 64 year old John Stratford, also a sharecropper. She had endured years of harassment by him.

On November 4 1947, an argument that allegedly began because Stratford was angry that some hogs had crossed into his property quickly escalated when he tried to force Rosa Lee into a shed to have sex with him. She fought back. Ingram’s 16 year old son Wallace heard the commotion and ran to help his mother. He warned Stratford to “stop beating mama” and when he did not, Wallace picked up a gun and slammed it on his head. He and his mother left Stratford lying on the ground unaware that he was dead.

After Rosa Lee, Wallace, and another son named Sammie Lee were convicted of first degree murder on January 26 1948 in a one day trial, they were sentenced to die in the electric chair on February 27. There was immediate outrage at the conviction and death sentence. Family members of the Ingrams, including Rosa Lee’s mother Mrs. Amy Hunt, asked religious and other organizations for funds to support an appeal. The NAACP and the Georgia Defense Committee pledged their support and contributed money.

Supporters across the country organized protests. The widespread public pressure worked: in March 1948, Judge W.M Harper set aside the death penalty and commuted the family’s sentences to life in prison. Wallace was 16 years old and his brother Sammie Lee was only 14.

While the NAACP actively raised money and provided legal support during the case, Black women actually drove the campaign to free Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons from prison. In 1949, a group of Black women formed the National Committee for the Defense of the Ingram Family. In addition to Mary Church Terrell who served as its national chair, the group included luminaries like Maude White Katz, Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Charlotta Bass.

The committee organized an action in spring 1949, sending 10,000 Mother’s Day cards and a petition with 25,000 signatures to President Truman insisting that Mrs. Ingram be freed.

The Ingram Defense Committee also reached out for international support in its campaign. In September 1949, members asked W.E.B. DuBois to write a petition to the UN Commission on Human Rights asking that it debate her case.

For years afterwards, contingents of women continued to organize diligently insisting that the Ingrams be paroled and freed from prison. They organized “Mother’s Day crusades” which included visits to local politicians asking them to intervene in securing the release of the Ingrams. Georgia finally released Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons on August 26 1959 after 12 years of incarceration. This would not have happened if not for the consistent agitation and organizing on their behalf by thousands of people across the world, and particularly Black women. It was that organizing that saved their lives.

Apr 20 2014

Image of the Day: A Letter about KKK Terror, 1928

From the National Archives:

Letter from Rampy J. Burdick to Attorney General John G. Sargeant Detailing the Violence Committed by the Ku Klux Klan against His Family, 03/03/1928

Letter from Rampy J. Burdick to Attorney General John G. Sargeant Detailing the Violence Committed by the Ku Klux Klan against His Family, 03/03/1928

rampykkk2

Apr 16 2014

Poem of the Day: Rape

I love Jayne Cortez. I love hearing her read this poem… It’s explicit. She’s gone now but her work lives on. Rape is a poem about Joan Little and Inez Garcia. I’m immersed in a current project that also focuses in part on them…

Rape
by: Jayne Cortez

What was Inez Garcia supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body
the man who carved a combat zone between her breasts
Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass
kiss every pimple on his butt
blow hot breath on his big toe
draw back the corners of her vagina and
he haw like a California burro
This being war time for Inez
she stood facing the knife
the insults and
her own smell drying on the penis of
the man who raped her
She stood with a rifle in her hand
doing what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the man started grunting and panting and
wobbling forward like a giant hog
She pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of shaking flesh
Sent it flying to the Virgin of Guadelupe
then celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else was she supposed to do?
And what was Joanne Little supposed to do for the man who declared war on her life
Was she supposed to tongue his encrusted
toilet stool lips
suck the numbers off of his tin badge
choke on his clap trap balls
squeeze on his nub of rotten maggots and
sing “god bless america thank you for fucking my life away?”
This being wartime for Joanne
she did what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the piss drinking shit sniffing guard said
“I’m gonna make you wish you were dead black bitch
come here”
Joanne came down with an ice pick in
the swat freak motherfucker’s chest
yes in the fat neck of that racist policeman
Joanne did the dance of the ice picks and once again
from coast to coast
house to house
we celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else were we supposed to do

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 10 2014

Poem of the Day: ‘I Am Somebody’ by Joan Little

Since I am in the middle of working on a project focused on the history of criminalizing women for self-defense, I am coming across a number of interesting pieces of information.

Here’s a poem written by Joan Little:

I AM SOMEBODY!
By Joann Little

I may be down today
But I am somebody!

I may be considered the lowest
on earth; but I am somebody!

I came up in low rent housing,
sometimes lived in the slums;
But I am still somebody!

I read an article where a black youth
was jailed, he stole some food, but got
15-20 years – he was somebody!

I killed a white in ‘self-defense’
but the jury doesn’t care – and when
he came for me to prepare trial –
he said she deserves the chair –

Every time

Every hurt and pain I feel inside,
Everytime I pick up the morning news
only to see my name on the front page –
I begin to wonder; they make me feel
less than somebody.

But in the end I will have freedom
and peace of mind. I will do anything
to help prove my innocence. Because
of one important fact above all…

‘I am somebody!’

Source: Save Joann Little (Women’s Press Collective, 1975)

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 »

Apr 05 2014

Musical Interlude: One Love…

An all time classic…