Aug 13 2014

Poem of the Day: Death in Yorkville by Langston Hughes

Death In Yorkville
(James Powell, Summer, 1964)

by Langston Hughes

How many bullets does it take
To kill a fifteen-year-old kid?
How many bullets does it take
To kill me?

How many centuries does it take
To bind my mind — chain my feet –
Rope my neck — lynch me –
Unfree?

From the slave chain to the lynch rope
To the bullets of Yorkville,
Jamestown, 1619 to 1963:
Emancipation Centennial —
100 years NOT free.

Civil War Centenntial: 1965
How many Centennials does it take
To kill me,
Still alive?

When the long hot summers come
Death ain’t
No jive.

Aug 10 2014

The Man With The Cardboard Sign…

The image is seared in my mind as I type through my tears.

I’ll never forget the man in the picture below holding a cardboard sign that reads “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!” Yesterday, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot at least 10 times by police. He’s dead.

ferguson

The image is a declaration and an affirmation of humanity; a father making a way out of no way to insist that his son’s life mattered. A man standing before us devastated yet stoic holding a screaming sign announcing his son’s execution. Michael had kin. He was loved. The image is a declaration and affirmation of that too.

I’m bone tired and my mind is racing…

I’m thinking of Julian (not his real name) still recovering from being shot in Florida. Julian who talks extra loudly on the EL because as he tells me: “they need to know that I was here.”

I’m thinking of Max (not his real name) who warned me that the cops were out to lock him up and is now serving time in adult prison after cycling in and out of juvenile court for crimes of survival.

I’m thinking of James (not his real name) who tells me that he won’t live to be an old man. James who is 22 years old now and bought me flowers last Valentine’s day with his second paycheck ever. I tell him that he should save his money and he assures me that he won’t be here ‘but for a bit.’

I’m thinking of three young black men living in the in-between. I’m not sure how much longer I can live there too. I need my own sign but I’m so tired and I have lost my words. I’m looking for some cardboard and some hope.

Aug 06 2014

Blogging Break…

I started this blog in late June 2010. I forgot to mark the 4 year anniversary in June because I’ve been so busy. The past few months have been a whirlwind basically. When I first started blogging, I wanted to use this space as a running work journal; a parking lot for the inchoate ideas that I have pertaining to juvenile justice, prisons, and transformative justice.

I honestly never thought that anyone else would be interested. But over the years, this blog has developed a core of regular readers. One of the things that I most appreciate is that readers sometimes reach out to me to offer encouragement, ask questions, and share ideas. I am grateful that you take the time to read and to share your own ideas and struggles. I am particularly moved when currently and formerly incarcerated people reach out to me based on something they read here.

In the past few weeks, I organized and edited an anthology, co-curated and opened an exhibition, co-organized countless events including a major community protest against youth criminalization, helped launch a new coalition to address police violence against young people, wrote grant proposals, wrote and released a couple of data reports, wrote several essays slated for publication, spoke on panels, facilitated workshops, did the day to day administrative work of running an organization, taught two college courses, and tried to live a life where I still interact & engage with my loved ones all while regularly posting on this blog. It’s been a lot to juggle and I need a break.

So for the next few days, I won’t be posting (unless something significant moves me to do so). I should be back to regularly writing here in a couple of weeks. I leave you with an excerpt from a new poem by one of my favorite writers/poets Nikky Finney written about/for Marissa Alexander!

Marissa Alexander has been granted a new trial.
She waits for her new day in court under house arrest.

This time she could go free.
This time she could get 60 years instead of 20.

For defending her life, her life that no one else historically has ever
stepped up to protect, for sending her ruby red flaming pink flamingo flare

into the salty air, her Black woman mama bear warning, that she was alive,
that she would not go missing, her human refusal, to not be

another Black woman legally & immorally abducted from her life.

Please consider making a contribution to Marissa’s legal defense fund here or purchase an item from the Free Marissa store here. The latest items added are these great patches created by Mary Scott Boria and being modeled by me.

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Aug 04 2014

‘Mistaken Identity,’ The Violent Un-Gendering of Black Women, and the NYPD

Like many others, I saw the video of Denise Stewart’s assault by NYPD cops.

Perhaps unlike others though, I was most interested in the response of those watching rather than in the violence of the cops. I expect police officers to abuse black people so that’s not shocking anymore.

In the first few seconds of the video, a man is heard repeating: “Are you serious? That’s a woman. That’s a female. Where the female cops? That’s a female. That’s a female.” Then someone else (presumably a cop) says: “Shut it up! This has nothing to do with you.”

Clearly, the speaker assumes that a woman should be treated less harshly than Denise Stewart. Yet what kind of treatment at the hands of law enforcement is appropriate for a ‘female’ if she’s black? Black women have never had the benefit of protection by and from the state. As importantly, black women were not and haven’t been spared from brutal treatment. What historian Sarah Haley (2013) has termed “the absence of a normative gendered subject position” for black women explains (in part) how the NYPD can violently drag Denise Stewart out of her apartment half naked and manhandle her. She is ungendered to the cops and as a black person she is unhuman to them.

Ms. Stewart’s lawyer claims that the police knocked on the wrong door that night. But I would contend that under the current regime of racist policing across the country, there is no such thing as ‘mistaken identity’ for black people. We are all suspect and susceptible to police violence at any time, anywhere, for being black. This fact is undeniable. The people in blue are voracious and they crave black bodies. They are insatiable and rapacious. Let’s do away with euphemisms and imprecise language: U.S policing is and has always been inherently anti-black.

The speaker on the video’s question “Where the female cops?” belies how the cops are in our heads. We don’t question their necessity even as they are brutalizing us in the hallways of our apartments. The question should always be “Why are you here?” We must train ourselves to ask it. More black police officers, more women cops will not alter the fact that policing is oppressive.

One reason that the police were in Denise Stewart’s building is that someone called the cops to report a disturbance in another apartment. We have to begin to divest ourselves of the police and start finding ways not to call them. This will not end oppressive policing but it is an important step towards harm reduction. Below is the result of one simple call to the police:

“Denise Stewart was charged with assaulting a police officer, and she and her 20-year-old daughter Diamond Stewart were charged with resisting arrest, criminal possession of a weapon, and acting in a manner injurious to a child.

Stewart’s 24-year-old son Kirkland Stewart was also charged with resisting arrest, and her 12-year-old daughter was charged with assaulting a police officer, criminal mischief, and criminal possession of a weapon.”

The family also claims that a 4 year old child was pepper-sprayed during the incident. There will be no counseling for the members of the Stewart family who have been traumatized by the NYPD. Instead, there will be lawyer fees, countless visits to court, lost wages, nightmares, and zero justice. Most people (except those directly impacted) will or already have forgotten this incident. As I type this, the NYPD is probably terrorizing another black woman as the ghost of Eleanor Bumpurs (who Audre invited us to remember) hovers overhead.

“and I am going to keep writing it down
how they carried her body out of the house
dress torn up around her waist
uncovered
past tenants and the neighborhood children
a mountain of Black Woman”

Because Audre taught me well, I am going to write down how the NYPD dragged Denise Stewart out of her apartment at almost midnight in a towel that quickly fell off leaving her in her underwear half naked pressed against a wall gasping for breath calling out for oxygen because she suffered from asthma until she crumpled to the floor having fainted but 12 cops didn’t know that and they simply walked around her to go harass and harm her children and her grandchildren….

I’m going to keep writing it down…

Aug 01 2014

Beyond the Case & the Cause is A Person: #FreeMarissa

Marissa Alexander is a person. She is also fighting a case and that case illuminates a greater cause. But she is a human being. This is something that can be overlooked. It’s easy to do for a number of reasons. Most defendants are advised by their attorneys to keep quiet while facing charges. This creates a vacuum. If the defendant is lucky, others step in to speak for them and to act as their surrogate filling in the gaps in their story. This is the position in which Marissa finds herself.

And so it falls to others to find ways to keep her name and her story in the public’s mind. It falls to others to devise creative ways of engaging new supporters. It falls to other to convince people that they should care about the defendant and that they should offer material support for a prisoner.

One of the important lessons that I’ve learned in my years of prisoner defense committee work is how isolating and lonely the criminal legal process is. This is particularly true for detainees who find themselves jailed while awaiting trial or a plea deal. It is difficult to make peace with the loss of your freedom when you haven’t been convicted. Letters and other communications are lifelines for those who find themselves in such a predicament. The knowledge that people on the outside care about you, haven’t forgotten about you, and support you is encouraging. Often it makes the difference between giving up and staying hopeful. That line is an excruciatingly thin one.

Yesterday, the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign delivered several #SelfiesForSelfDefense directly to Marissa. Below are some of the tweets describing her reaction.

Marissa Alexander is a human being and she needs our support. Please donate to her legal defense or purchase an item from the Free Marissa online store (all proceeds go to the legal defense fund).

Jul 29 2014

Sliced Shoes, Mary Mitchell & Fighting Violence with More Violence

According to Mary Mitchell, “gun-toting teenagers in Chicago are practically laughing at police.” Her solution is for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to implement New York City’s recently ended stop and frisk policies and practices as a violence prevention measure.

What a sad and pathetic ‘solution’ to interpersonal violence. Mitchell suggests that citizens should willingly forfeit our civil rights and be subjected to more violence in order to decrease interpersonal violence. It makes no sense and is a destructive idea. Mitchell is advocating that Chicagoans cede even more power to a police department that is renowned for its corruption.

On Sunday, I sat in a peace circle with Jaime Hauad’s mother, Anabel Perez. Ms. Perez spoke about her son’s tortured confession secured by CPD. She showed us a copy of that day’s Tribune which had a front page story on her son’s experiences.

“Jaime Hauad was 17 and in the middle of two days of questioning — and alleged torture — by Chicago police investigating a double murder when he saw his chance, his attorneys say.

There, in a hallway as he was led to his second lineup, were his white Filas, gym shoes that he alleges police took from him after they lowered the blade of an office-grade paper cutter over his shoes, while he wore them, slicing at the tips and threatening to cut his toes to try and coerce a confession.

Hauad said he quickly grabbed the shoes — the tips had by then been completely removed — and quietly asked another arrestee, whom he knew from his Northwest Side neighborhood, to switch shoes with him. Take the Filas to my mom, Hauad urged as he took his pal’s Nike Scottie Pippen-edition shoes, and tell her they are trying to get me to confess to a murder.

The shoe switch 17 years ago didn’t prevent Hauad’s conviction and life sentence, as he had hoped, but it was documented in two Chicago Police Department lineup photo arrays, providing “before and after” views that persuaded the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to conclude that Hauad’s torture story was credible and his case worthy of review.”

This is the department that Mitchell advocates be allowed to randomly stop and frisk people across this city. Last week, someone on Facebook posted a video of the Chicago Police Department chasing down and then arresting a 9 year old boy in North Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago.

Watch the video and notice how tiny that little boy who they are arresting is. Notice how many cops there are around him. Imagine how scared he was. Then imagine giving even more license to CPD to stop and harass 9 year old black boys across this city. I refuse. So do many others living in Chicago.

This Saturday, August 2 the We Charge Genocide working committee will launch a project in Chicago by hosting a youth hearing on police violence at Roosevelt University. From 1 to 2 PM, Chicago’s youth will put the system of police violence on trial, breaking their silence to confront the targeted repression, harassment and brutality disproportionately faced by low-income people and young people of color.

Youth aged 25 and under are invited to share their experiences. Personal and community stories of police violence will be told, such as the recent incident where a young man named Damo by the police, hit his head, and later died.

One of the organizers of “We Charge Genocide,” 19 year old Richard Wilson explained the reason for organizing a youth hearing:

“If you’re young and poor and black or brown, the police see you as a criminal. Young people are the future of this city, but you wouldn’t know it by the way we’re treated. Police violence and harassment are a reality in our neighborhoods but we aren’t powerless, we’re putting the system on trial.”

We Charge Genocide is a grassroots, intergenerational effort to center the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago. The name “We Charge Genocide” comes from a petition filed to the United Nations in 1951, which documented 153 racial killings and other human rights abuses committed mostly by the police.  

We Charge Genocide seeks to address this tradition of violence by offering a vehicle for needed organizing and social transformation through documentation of youth experiences with the Chicago Police Department, and through popular education both about police abuses of power and about youth-driven solutions and alternatives to policing.

Everyone is invited to attend the youth hearing on Saturday. Details are here.

Jul 28 2014

#ChicagoForMarissa

I am incredibly grateful to everyone who organized and took part in the excellent Chicago Community Gathering in solidarity with Marissa Alexander on Saturday. The gathering was the culmination of a very busy month of events that members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA) organized initially anticipating that her trial would kick off today. CAFMA later learned that the trial was postponed until December and used the events to continue to educate Chicagoans about Marissa’s case and to fundraise for her legal defense.

This month, hundreds of people attended a teach-in about Marissa’s case, the opening reception of the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition, a screening of the film “Crime after Crime” followed by a panel discussion, and finally the community gathering on Saturday.

For myself, it’s a true blessing to organize with my fellow CAFMA members. We are all fully committed to supporting Marissa in her fight for freedom. I hope that others in Chicago will join in the fight. You can see Chicago’s contribution to Free Marissa NOW’s http://www.freemarissanow.org/selfies-for-self-defense.html project here.

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Jul 27 2014

Image of the Day: Ella Fitzgerald vs. Pan Am

In 1954, Ella Fitzgerald filed a complaint against Pan American for discrimination. On her way to a concert from Honolulu to Australia, Fitzgerald was barred from a Pan American flight, because she was Black. Below is one page of her complaint. Here’s the transcript.

National Archives (1954)

National Archives (1954)

Jul 24 2014

Shanesha Taylor & “Better Days To Come”

It was a far cry from the mug shot photograph that first caught my attention. Shanesha Taylor stood smiling flanked by her attorney Benjamin Taylor (no relation) after accepting a deal from prosecutors that will eventually lead to the dismissal of felony charges against her.

shanesha2

I wanted to wait until Shanesha had spoken publicly before writing again. When I wrote about her plight in March, Shanesha was in jail and silenced. I wanted in my own small way to show her as human rather than tragic. So I used the information that I had gathered to write about her plight and to encourage others to take action in support of her.

I wish that the charges were unconditionally dropped but that is not to be. I believe that Shanesha should not have been criminalized in the first place. I rue the robbing of human dignity that permeates our criminal punishment system. Still, Shanesha is relieved and grateful to everyone who has supported her. She’s looking forward to “better days to come” and to being fully reunited with her beloved children.

And so I find myself thinking (again) about black mothers. My thoughts are with the thousands who are spending their nights locked behind bars, separated from their children. As I recall Shanesha’s mugshot, I am reminded of their tears too, invisible to most of us. Cecily McMillan has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that lays bare the torture and brutality that women incarcerated at Rikers Island prison routinely endure. Offering one example, she writes:

Inmates are routinely denied basic medical treatment. I saw a woman soiled with vomit and sobbing for hours. We other inmates were afraid and concerned. We didn’t know what was happening, or what we could do. Finally, at the insistence of a few inmates, she was taken to the hospital. She never came back. Her name was Judith. She had befriended me before she died.

Acknowledging the tears and the pain, I also admire and know of incarcerated women’s resilience, strength and boundless love for their children. In other words, like all of us, they are complex and multi-dimensional people. Within this culture, black mothers are either “bad” or cruelly “self-sacrificing.” As Evelyn C. White (1990) has written: “the images and expectations of black women are actually both super- and sub-human (p.94).” We are caricatured as Sapphires and Jezebels. We are Mammy and Matriarch. We are Superwomen and “Mules of the World.” The missing description always is quite simply: human. It’s that humanity with all its attendant flaws and beauty that I claim for all black women.

I’m happy for Shanesha and I wish only good things ahead. While I celebrate with her, I am conscious of the many, many other unjustly criminalized black women who are languishing in prison, fighting charges, or tragically dead. I am thinking about Debra Harrell, Marissa Alexander, and Nimali Henry (just to name a few).

So for Shanesha and all of us, I dedicate this poem to our humanity as black women.

Shanesha Taylor hugs Kathryn McKinney as Rev. Jarrett Maupin Jr. looks on

Shanesha Taylor hugs Kathryn McKinney as Rev. Jarrett Maupin Jr. looks on

Sister Outsider
by Opal Palmer Adisa, For Audre Lorde

we
women black
are always
outside
even when
we believe
we’re in
but being
out side
ain’t so bad
cause
we be
learning
to love
each other better
we be
learning
to listen
more closely
to one another
we be
learning
to allow
all of us
our humanity

sisters
are too often
out side
fronting
trying
to get over
but
we be coming
to gether
coming
together
ending our silence
transforming
space and pace
searching
and finding
the most valuable
is often
that which is
overlooked us

Jul 24 2014

Statement from Jan Brewer: Execution of Joseph Wood (Annotated)

I am concerned by the length of time it took for the administered drug protocol to complete the lawful execution of the convicted double murderer, Joseph Wood.

According to Wood’s attorney, Dale Baich, “It took Joseph Wood two hours to die, and he gasped and struggled to breath for about an hour and forty minutes.” Why should Brewer be ‘concerned’ about the length of time it took to kill Wood? Surely she was aware that the two drugs that were administered to Wood, midazolam and hydromorphone, were the same ones used in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio in January.

While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of this process.”

How can the torture of another human being be considered or called “justice?” It makes an absolutely mockery of the concept. Also given the statement by Stephanie Grisham, a spokesperson for the Arizona Attorney General’s office who witnessed the execution, one can’t have confidence in the so-called review. Grisham said: “There was no gasping of air. There was snoring…He just laid there. It was quite peaceful.”

The Washington Post reported that “Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, said in a statement Wednesday night that Wood did not suffer during the execution.

‘Throughout this execution, I conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress,’ Ryan said.

He said that the medical team confirmed that Wood was sedated, checking eight different times in all. Ryan also said in his statement that Wood did not grimace or make any movements other than snoring.”

Are these the folks we are supposed to trust to do an honest review?

One thing is certain, however, Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer.”

Here are some account from witnesses to the execution.
“An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution saw Wood start gasping shortly after a sedative and a pain killer were injected into his veins. He gasped more than 600 times over the next hour and 40 minutes.”

Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic who witnessed the execution, told the Republic he counted 660 gasps. “I just know it was not efficient,” Kiefer said. “It took a long time.”

This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims – and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

I’ll let Radley Balko respond here: