Jul 08 2014

Image of the Day

The wonderful Jenna Peters Golden contributed to the terrific Radicalphabet poster project.

Image by Jenna Peters-Golden

Image by Jenna Peters-Golden

Jul 06 2014

Poetry Interlude: The Courtroom

A classic…

Jul 05 2014

Obliterating Black Women…

“He basically got on top of her … it’s basically a UFC ground-and-pound move … full force, punching her in the head … in the head,” Diaz said.

I saw the video and wondered who she was. Who was the woman whose head was being pounded, pummeled by a man wearing a uniform that made him THE LAW? She was black, that much I could tell. But WHO was she? Someone’s grandmother, sister, daughter, friend? And where is she? Is she in the hospital? Just what has happened to this woman?

The woman on the ground using her forearms to block the blows is so familiar to me. I know that she is invisible to others but I ‘recognize’ her. I wonder if she will speak and tell of her torment. I hope so. I hope that she will in Audre’s words “forgo the vanities of silence” and speak her pain. Because in the end, as black women, our voices are too often all we have. We are punished for speaking and yet we must.

The Law keeps punching her in the face and head. Eleven times at least in the video. He doesn’t want her to speak. So many people want us to die silently and to be buried in unmarked graves. I feel this acutely and so I raise my voice in public even though I’m actually a private & quiet person. Those who know me best recognize this description, those who don’t cannot, will not. I’ve learned to raise my voice as an act of resistance against the constant attacks and the acts of intentional obliteration. Muriel Rukeseyer asked that question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” The answer: “The world would split open.” But what of black women? What would happen if all of us told the truth about our lives? Maybe we would save the world.

The currently anonymous no name black woman whose head was pounded and pummeled by The Law is of course not the first to be so victimized. Assata Shakur has told her story of police torture in her autobiography and in interviews. Below she recounts her brutal treatment at the hand of The Law in 1973:

On the night of May 2, I was shot twice by the New Jersey State Police. I was kept on the floor, kicked, pulled, dragged along by my hair. Finally, I was put into an ambulance, but the police would not let the ambulance leave. They kept asking the ambulance attendant: “Is she dead yet? Is she dead yet?” Finally, when it was clear that I wasn’t going to die in the next five or ten minutes, they took me to the hospital. The police were jumping on me, beating me, choking me, doing everything that they could possibly do as soon as the doctors or the nurses would go outside. I was half dead – hospital authorities had brought in a priest to give me the last rites – but the police would not stop torturing me. That went on until the next morning, when I was taken to the intensive care unit. They had to calm down a little while I was there. Then they moved me to another room, which was the Johnson Suite, and they closed off the exit from the hallway. So they could virtually control all traffic in and out. It was just open season on me for about three or four days. They’d turned up the air conditioning so that I was freezing to death. My lungs were threatening to collapse. They were doing everything so that I would get pneumonia.

It isn’t hard to imagine The Law thinking “Is she dead yet?” as his fists landed consecutive blows across the head and face of the currently anonymous no name black woman lying on the side of the 10 Freeway.

In 1979, Eula Love, a black woman trying to support her 3 daughters on social security payments, let her $22 gas bill lapse. The Southern California Gas Company sent out a meter man to shut off the gas in the dead of January. Eula threw him out of her house. The Gas Company called the LAPD which dispatched two officers to Ms. Love’s home. She had a knife in her hand when they arrived. They clubbed her to the ground and emptied their .38 caliber revolvers into her as she lay on the floor. I’m glad there was no video of that clubbing. What if Ms. Love had been able to tell the truth about her life? Instead The Law killed her dead.

And so it is against this backdrop of constant, consistent, fear-inducing, paralyzing, galvanizing, obliterating violence that we stand our ground. Always exhausted yet unwilling to be destroyed, resisting, we speak our pain and refuse to be silent. We stay for the dead and we fight for the living. We raise our forearms to protect against the blows (even from those who sometimes claim to love us) preparing for the moment when we can strike a collective blow for our freedom and self-determination.

In the meantime, we call the names of our sisters Assata, Eula, Ersula, Rekia, and the currently anonymous no name black woman who was pummeled by The Law on the side of the 10 Freeway… We call your names and make you visible.

We tell our truth to save the world.

Update: An LA Times article published Saturday evening offers more information on the anonymous woman pummeled by the cop in LA. She is a great-grandmother!!

Jul 04 2014

Musical Interlude: Jail House Blues

Jul 01 2014

Image of the Day: Samuel Green – Criminalizing Reading

Read about Samuel Green’s case here.

Samuel Green sentenced to the penitentiary for ten years for having a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in his house. (1872) Source: The underground railroad: A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, & c., narrating the hardships, hair-breadth escapes, and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom, as related by themselves and others or witnessed by the author : together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders and most liberal aiders and advisers of the road.

Samuel Green sentenced to the penitentiary for ten years for having a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in his house. (1872)
Source: The underground railroad: A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, & c., narrating the hardships, hair-breadth escapes, and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom, as related by themselves and others or witnessed by the author : together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders and most liberal aiders and advisers of the road.

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 27 2014

Reproductive Justice & The Criminalization of Black Women: Some Remarks

Last night, I was privileged to attend an event titled “Breastfeeding and Incarceration: A Panel Discussion on Maternal Rights in Prison and Criminalization of Black Mothers” organized by the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), Moms United against Violence and Incarceration and Black on Both Sides. It was a wonderful, infuriating, and moving event.

breastfeeding & incarcerated mothers panel (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/26/14)

breastfeeding & incarcerated mothers panel (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/26/14)

My friend Ayanna Banks Harris who is a co-organizer of CAFMA was on the panel. I thought that her remarks were excellent and asked for permission to publish them. They are below for all of you to read and consider. My thanks to Ayanna for allowing me to share her words here.

Breastfeeding & Incarcerated Mothers
Remarks by Ayanna Banks-Harris
26 June 2014

I am very grateful for this opportunity to share the stories of two mothers who are just a miniscule representation of the thousands of mothers whose stories go untold and voices go unheard.

Before our discussion opens to insuring breastfeeding rights of mothers who are incarcerated, we must examine how and why our society is caging mothers at increasingly exponential rates and why we’ve become comfortable with so many children being ripped from the loving care of their mothers who are more often than not nurturing, loving, caring and providing.

Exactly four years ago, a pregnant woman and already mother of two fled the marital home she shared with her second husband as she had been physically abused multiple times by him. Being pregnant did not ward off the violent attacks of her husband, the father of her unborn child. Six weeks prior to her scheduled delivery date, she gave birth to a daughter who would remain in NICU for weeks following her birth. Nine days post-partum, the now mother of three was once again attacked and threatened and has been in a battle for the right to live her life freely ever since.

She is Marissa Alexander.

In August 2010, just nine days after giving birth, Marissa briefly left her daughter’s side to return to her marital home to retrieve necessary documents at a time she knew her estranged husband wouldn’t be home. While there, he did return home along with two of his children from another relationship and began invading her privacy by going through her phone. In a jealous rage, he confronted her while she was in the restroom, assaulted her, shoved her, strangled her, threatened her and held her against her will preventing her from fleeing. Once she was able to leave, she headed to the garage where her car was parked but left behind her keys and phone.

Upon realizing she’d left her keys and she attempted to open the garage door but could not.

Trapped, she retrieved her gun for which she has a permit and re-entered the home with her gun down at her side for the sole purpose of obtaining her phone and keys and leaving through another exit.

Upon hearing her reenter the home, her estranged husband entered the kitchen. He became further enraged upon seeing the weapon at her side, lunged at her while yelling, “Bitch, I will kill you.” It was at the moment of him lunging at her did Marissa raise her arm with weapon in hand to fire one shot in an upwards direction that neither hit him nor anyone else. Marissa was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, each of which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.

Marissa went from asserting her right to live by defending herself against her husband to asserting her right to live by defending herself in a fight against a system that seeks to imprison her for 60 years for interrupting the violence inflicted upon her.

Marissa Alexander is just one of thousands of women who are incarcerated for warding off abusive partners as violence inflicted against women and girls puts them at greater risk for incarceration because their survival strategies are often deemed criminal.

Domestic violence is just one precipice from which mothers, specifically those of color, fall into the criminal justice system

Earlier this year, another mother of three had to make a decision no mother, no person should have to – leave her children in the car that she could attend an interview that would catapult her and her family out of homelessness (housing insecurity) and poverty or be a no-show.

It’s not that Shanesha Taylor hadn’t diligently coordinated the day so that she wouldn’t have to make such a decision as she had already arranged a caretaker for her two youngest children. When she arrived at the home of the caretaker on her way to the interview, no one answered the door. Literally having no other options, Shanesha made the difficult decision to leave her kids unattended in the car for an hour. She made every attempt within her power to alleviate the dangers involved with doing so – cracking the tinted windows and leaving keys in the ignition with the engine off but allowing the fan to continue to blow air. Upon returning to the car following her interview – an interview she says went extremely well and resulted in a job offer – Shanesha discovers her car is parked in the center of a crime scene. The two children who were in the car were taken to the hospital and were immediately released as they had not been harmed. Shanesha was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse. Though only two of her children were in the car, both unharmed, all three of her children have been removed from her custody. She faces upwards of seven years in prison.

What is solved by imprisoning Shanesha for seven years?
What is solved by caging Marissa for 60 years?
How are these families, these children, made better by their mothers being incarcerated?
How are our communities any safer as a result?
Why is such behavior even deemed criminal?

Though the manner in which Marissa and Shanesha were catapulted into the judicial system and separated from their children are vastly different, a similarity is glaring -both of these mothers, women of color, have been incarcerated, face years of further incarceration, are no longer their children’s primary caretaker/guardian not for having actually done harm, not for having an intent to do harm, but because of a hypothetical harm that COULD HAVE been done. We are punishing mothers in desperate situations against impossible odds for NOT inflicting harm on their children or others.

It is past time that we demand to live in a society that is less concerned with being punitive for every reaction and obsessed with ensuring solutions for all, that no person – no mother – is cornered in perilous situations with no options.

Jun 25 2014

‘I do as I am bid’ or why we can’t reform policing…

The ACLU released a new report about the increasing and excessive militarization of the police. Radley Balko offers a good summary and analysis of the report here. He concludes that this issue is raised every few years, covered by the press, but leads to no useful reforms:

“The mass media seem to find renewed interest in this issue every five or six years. The problem, as the ACLU documents well, is that none of that coverage has generated any meaningful reform. And so the militarization continues.”

I think a lot about policing and violence. I always have. Currently, I am in the early stages of collaborating with several other people to organize around police violence against young people in Chicago. If I am honest, I’m not sure that it is actually possible to meaningfully ‘reform’ policing in the context of an oppressive society. I just don’t know. I engage in reform work mainly as harm reduction but I think we need to just start over from scratch. I don’t know how we do that but I am committed to investing time and resources to figure out how to abolish the entire PIC (policing, surveillance, and prisons).

One of the reasons I am pessimistic about prospects to reform policing is related to testimony that I read some time ago from a police officer during the era of American chattel slavery. The testimony underscores the actual function of the police which is and has always been to protect PROPERTY and the interests of the powerful. I mean this was clear in the 19th century and remains true today. How do we ‘reform’ the function of policing?

Below is an excerpt from the testimony I referenced. I think that it is instructive for a number of reasons including the collusion between police officers and slavemasters, the profit-making associated with law enforcement, the reliance on corporal punishment rather than long-term detention, and more…

I Do as I Am Bid
[John Capehart provided a special service for slaveholders. In his testimony before a court, he explains his job.]

Q: Mr. Capehart, is it part of your duty, as a policeman, to take up colored persons who are out after hours in the streets?
A. Yes, sir.
Q: What is done with them?
A. We put them in the lock-up, and in the morning they are brought into Court and ordered to be punished — those that are to be punished.
Q: What punishment do they get?
A. Not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.
Q: Who gives them these lashes?
A: Any of the Officers. I do, sometimes.
Q: Are you paid extra for this? How much?
A. Fifty cents a head. It used to be sixty-two cents. Now, it is only fifty. Fifty cents for each one we arrest, and fifty more for each one we flog.
Q: Are these persons you flog Men and Boys only, or are they Women and Girls also?
A. Men, Women, Boys, and Girls, just as it happens.
Q: Is your flogging, confined to these cases? Do you not flog Slaves at the request of their Masters?
A. Sometimes I do. Certainly, when I am called upon.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, are the Negroes sent to you? Have you a place for flogging?
A. No; I go round, as I am sent for.
Q: Is this part of your duty as an Officer?
A. No, sir.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, do you inquire into the circumstances to see what the fault has been, or if there is any?
A. That’s none of my business. I do as I am bid. The Master is responsible.

Source: Geo. W. Carleton, The Suppressed Book About Slavery (New York, 1864), pp. 193-195

Jun 24 2014

Poem of the Day: To Timberly, From Her 16 Year Old Daughter

by Amaryllis Moleski

by Amaryllis Moleski

Dear Mom,

I love you very much, even though we haven’t had the greatest relationship.
I sometimes get angry when I think of all the years we have been separated.
I love you very much and wouldn’t trade you for anything.
I know it’s not your fault and I don’t blame you.
I just hope and pray that I will be able to spend more time than once or twice a year with the mom I love and adore.
Always remember I love you and never forget it.
And when you are in rehab and you feel like no one cares and you are not going to make it just remember what I am writing in this letter and I love you.

Love, your daughter,
Latoya

Source: Writers’ Block: The Voices of Women Inside (Women and Prison Program, Beyondmedia Education)

Jun 23 2014

Snippet from History #6: U.S. Prisoners in 1904

Regular readers are aware that I am a data geek. A few years ago, at a library used book sale, I picked up an old report about U.S. prisoners in 1904. I’ve used it only a couple of times since I bought it but I thought that some of you might be interested in this information. These numbers include both the prison and jail populations. In addition, these are numbers of prisoners who were committed during the 12 months of 1904.  Anything surprising to you in these numbers?

Prisoners in 1904

Source:  Prisoners and Juvenile Delinquents in Institutions 1904 (Bureau of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, 1907)

1. Number and ratio of prisoners committed during 1904, classified by sex

Male

Female

Number

Number per 100,000 of pop

Number

Number per 100,000 of pop

TOTAL Number

Number per 100,000

Continental U.S.

136,365

328.7

13,326

33.5

149,691

184.1

During 1904, a total of 149,691 prisoners were committed on term sentences and the table below shows that 23,698 of these were “Negro.” On June 30, 1904, there were 81,772 prisoners locked up in the U.S. (We can assume that this represents the average number on any given day).

Comparatively in 2012, there were 2,228,400 prisoners in state, federal prisons and local jails in the U.S. and the incarceration rate was 710 per 100,000 people as opposed to 184.1 per 100,000 in 1904.

[I have included incarceration RATES to pre-empt those who will INEVITABLY complain about using aggregate numbers. So please save those complaints. Through the rates, you can now make apple to apple comparisons accounting for population growth.]

2. Distribution of prisoners committed during 1904, by sex, color, race and nativity

TOTAL Male Female
Total Number % Total Number % Total Number %
Aggregate 149,691 100 136,365 100 13,326 100
White 125,093 83.6 114,670 84.1 10,423 78.2
Colored 24,598 16.4 21,695 15.9 2,903 21.8
Negro** 23,698 15.8 20,865 15.3 2,833 21.3

** I’ve broken out Negro which is a subset of colored

Of the male prisoners shown in Table 2, 20,865 or 15.3 percent were Negro and of the female prisoners 2,833, or 21.3 percent were Negro. So what’s interesting to note is that in 1904 black women were disproportionately imprisoned compared to their male counterparts.