Sep 16 2015

Guest Post: “You Ain’t Shit” Says Cop to Young Person

In light of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14 year old boy in Texas who was arrested for bringing a clock to school that administrators mistook for a bomb, I wanted to share this a post by my friend Pidgeon Pagonis written last year. It underscores the routine criminalization of young people of color in our public schools. Pidgeon is an intersex activist, lecturer & consultant. For more information about them, visit their site.


Last Wednesday I was in a Chicago Public High School (CPS) recruiting youth in the cafeteria for an after school program centered around teen dating violence prevention and social justice. Undergrads from a local University are paired with high school students for 2/3 of the school year and culminates with an end of the year community project where the youth share back what they’ve learned with their people. Throughout the year, we investigate oppression, racism, classism, sexism, ableism, masculinity, healthy relationships, sexuality and the list continues. You get it.

So, like I said, I was handing out flyers in the cafeteria of a high school on the city’s southwest side. The immediate neighborhood has houses that are all tidy and kept up and the school is all nice looking.

Anyways, I met with the school counselors, representatives from a local large “family services” org, the student advocate/dean (due to budgeting, he’s both) and some other folks that deal with student activities. I asked them about their sense of dating violence in the school and they said “There hasn’t been none of that in about 3 years…” They looked at each other and all sorta shook their heads in agreement. They told me that all the “bad kids” are gone and I wouldn’t have to worry bout that. “Where did they go?” I asked? “Dead, transferred out, or just gone,” was his response. “The problems we have now are kids being lazy or making out in the hallways. That’s what you can help them with. You can probably open this door right now and see some of that in the hallway.” They all “um-hmm’d” at the same time and it was a consensus. All the bad kids are gone, and the ones left make out too much.

This was my first day there so I didn’t say much. I was just there to ask questions, listen, and get our program’s foot in the door.

Fast forward to the following week (last Weds.). So, I was standing in a cafeteria of a strange new high school. All my insecurities and fears came back like it was my first day in that new school I had to go to in 5th grade. I haven’t been in a high school cafeteria since before I started getting gray hairs…

So like I said, I was recruiting. I was looking cute. Feeling brave. My undergraduate interns were scattered across the cafeteria handing out flyers and information about the after school program and some were stationed at our table. I walked over to a table of 2 students and handed them 2 flyers. I started talking about why our program is badass and necessary. Just as I started to say, “the program looks at violence in dating relationships and tries to empower young people to…”, I heard a student about 20 yards away from me that had just been thrown up into the cafeteria wall by a cop. The young person was almost a foot shorter than the cop and the cop was decked out in his uniform, vest, gun, night stick, tazer, etc. The cop repeatedly threw the kid in the wall and chest bumped him over and over again. The young person repeatedly tried to maintain his balance and defend himself, but the cop was winning this battle.

Before I knew it, my feet were carrying me over to the cop and the young person. I started yelling at the cop “STOP TREATING HIM LIKE THAT?! STOP TALKING TO HIM LIKE THAT!!” The cop at this point was yelling in the kids face, “YOU AIN’T SHIT. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU! YOU AIN’T SHIT” while spit flew from his mouth into the young person’s face. The young person responded back the best he could with his own round of “Fuck You’s”—but really it was a futile attempt to reclaim a bit of his dignity in a manufactured situation where his power had already been stripped from him the minute he walked through those metal detectors that morning. The cop looked as if he was about to break his arm over his head and eventually handcuffed him and pushed him out.

I immediately saw the people I had met the previous week. I looked at the “student advocate/dean” and pleaded with him and he just said, “that’s just the way it is.” I then looked at my contact from the “family services” program and he just shrugged as well. Everyone went back to eating and functioning as if what had just happened was normal. It was normal. It is normal for our kids everyday. I went back to the table that I had previously been recruiting at and asked if that was a normal occurrence. They said, “not really, but to the black kids—it is.” And they say young girls are falling behind in the sciences…that was some participant observation if I ever saw it.

I continued my recruiting until the last lunch bell rang. Then I headed out of the school with my team of interns and we debriefed on the train. We shared with each other how in just a little over an hour we had each heard some heavy stuff from the teens. One person told us that she was kicked out a year before and now lived with her boyfriend who she was engaged to. She also shared with us that she was selling cigarettes saying, “I gotta pay rent.” Another student told us she had a seizure after getting in fight the prior week with her boyfriend who I’ll call “Nick”. Screen printed on her shirt were the words, “Nick’s Keeper.” Multiple students told me that she was abusive towards “Nick” and one even told me “She’s the man in the relationship.” When I pushed back and asked her if she believes men beat their girlfriends, she just kinda smiled and said “I don’t know.” I told her to come to the after school program so we could talk about it. She asked if she would be able to see “college boys” if she joined, and I said “yes”— to which she started screaming and signed up right a way. Another student at that table that had signed up to come to the program had ‘Chi-Raq” tattoed across his neck. He spoke very softly and said he really wanted to come to the program. Another girl, who was pregnant, told us she would come if “this didn’t get in the way” and by this, she meant her soon to be born baby. We heard so much in so little time. It triggered me into remembering the school officials telling me the week before that dating violence hadn’t been an issue in the school in “over 3 years.”

As we begin the program this week I will start to ask the youth questions about what they think are the biggest injustices going on in their community. I will work with the interns to create an environment that taps into their own curiosity and observations about what’s going on in their school to hopefully inspire them to reach out to fellow students with surveys about violence. Then, I hope they can turn around and share their youth led research results with their administration. Maybe we can also work together to create digital storytelling pieces that allow their voices to come together as a unified story that can be shared with the world.

One of my interns who graduated from a nearby CPS high school. He said that when he saw what happened earlier in the day with the cop and the kid—he just brushed it off as normal. He was desensitized to it because it’s what he grew up seeing all the time in his own high school’s cafeteria. He said that he no longer feels like it’s okay for cops to treat kids like that. He said he feels his ideas changing now.

If you have any ideas about how to do this work with youth please share your thoughts. My views do not represent the views of the program, university or high school that I work with.

MLK said he had a dream that one day his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. We ain’t there yet.

Sep 01 2015

Image of the Day: Women Prisoners at Sing Sing

Fascinating stereoview print from the 1860s…

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Aug 12 2015

“The Outrage in North Carolina:” The Savage Brutalization of Phillis

When I was creating the No Selves to Defend exhibition last year, I knew that it would have two anchors: the stories of Celia and of Marissa Alexander. As I began to conceptualize a new exhibition about Black women and state violence (with several friends), I remembered the story of Phillis, a newly emancipated young Black woman. I knew that she would be an anchor of ‘Blood at the Root.’

Harper’s Weekly described how Phillis was brutally and savagely beaten by a group of men in North Carolina in 1867.

Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1867 (From My Collection)

Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1867 (From My Collection)

Below is an excerpt from the Harper’s story tiled “The Outrage in North Carolina.” TW: It is very difficult to read.

“There has been no minor incident of late occurrence at the South which has caused a more general expression of indignation throughout the country than the whipping inflicted by a set of ruffians in North Carolina on a poor, defenseless, colored girl who had fallen into their power. No single act of inhumanity has more clearly indicated the animosity yet existing in Southern hearts against the former slaves; or shown how unwise it would be to trust the government of these people in the hands of their former masters.

The order of General Daniel E. Sickles approving the sentences inflicted on the perpetrators of the outrage, reviews the evidence and furnishes the following history of the affair. The General says:

“The evidence in the foregoing cases discloses a deed of lawless and inhuman violence. It appears that the daughter of one of the prisoners, having attempted to beat a young colored girl, met with resistance which became successful, and resulted in the chastisement of the white by the black. This unlooked-for reversal of a long-accustomed relation filled the neighborhood with consternation and rage. Couriers passed to and fro from farm to farm inflaming the temper of the people, and concerting measures to produce terror among the negroes. A meeting of citizens convened at a school-house near the residence of the parties. The accused were among those assembled. The magistrate, Jenkins, was invited to lend the sanction of his presence, and did so. Phillis, the young freedwoman, was sent for. Dragged before the self-constituted conclave of angry men, whom she had been accustomed since infancy to call masters, some of whom she now heard urging her incarceration, while one swore she should be hung, and all agreed she must be imprisoned and whipped, the frightened girl exclaimed that she had rather be whipped than go to jail. This was taken as the expression of assent which they desired. Some sort of writing was drawn up, called an indenture, by which Phillis having signed it, was made to bind herself as apprentice to one Mrs. Harmon, who thereupon consented that her so-called ward should be flogged. Quite enough was thought to have been thus conceded to the mockery of legal formalities, and the impatient assemblage, consisting of all the prisoners who have been convicted except the magistrate, hastened to execute the penalty awarded.

Phillis was conducted into an adjacent wood, where, at a spot some sixty yards remote from any road, she was halted and told to take down her dress. She not obeying with alacrity, one of the prisoners snatched it off her shoulders. Stripped to her waist, except of her chemise, she was then whipped by five of these men in succession, by whom, according to the testimony of one of them, one hundred and twenty-six (126) lashes were inflicted upon her half-naked body with rods three feet long and one-half to three-eighths of an inch thick. Her garment was cut through and through; blood run from the wales raised on her lacerated back; one gash in her flesh three days after showed four inches in length; the heavy blows fell upon her person at random; she was pushed, she was pulled, she was kicked in the abdomen; till at last it seems that one of the accused, an applauding by-stander, not utterly insensible to the sufferings and the sex of the wretched victim, was so far touched by the spectacle of her torture that the cry was wrung from him: ‘Boys don’t hurt her breast!’

Having satiated their savage vengeance, her tormentors, fatigued by their exertions, withdrew: not, however, without considering the proposal of one of the number to return and give her ten more lashes each to stop her screaming. Finally the poor child, wounded and groaning, was permitted to make her way to the house of her mistress, where for days she suffered, scarcely able to crawl to her unremitted task, or even to wear her clothes without pain.

In the revolting crime thus briefly outlined all of these prisoners are shown to have been eager participants. In the interest of outraged justice it is to be deplored that the perpetrators have been adjudged to undergo punishment so inadequate to the enormity of their offense.”

The sentences were as follow: Jenkins, the magistrate who authorized the whipping, was removed from his office, fined $25, and confined at hard labor for one month; Dunning, Cook and James and John Early were confined for two months at hard labor and fined $25 each; the other guilty participant, George Mitchell, was fined heavily and imprisoned for three months, the common jail at Plymouth, North Carolina, being designated as the place of confinement.

Phillis’s story is remarkable for two reasons: 1. it was published in a popular newspaper; 2. the men who were responsible for her savage assault were actually made accountable in some way.

On Friday, Blood at the Root will open. I hope that you will come out to see the exhibition. You’ll get to see an original copy of the newspaper article about Phyllis and much more. RSVP HERE.

Aug 04 2015

Blood At The Root Opens on August 14

I wish that I had time to regularly post here. This year has been one of the busiest I’ve experienced in some time. I have been running my organization, supporting several others, organizing campaigns, teaching, and developing new programming. Regular blogging has become a casualty.

Currently, I am working with a wonderful group of friends to curate an exhibition about state violence against Black women. The exhibition titled Blood at the Root opens next Friday August 14. You can RSVP HERE for the reception. The exhibition will run through October.

poster by Monica Trinidad

poster by Monica Trinidad

Jul 30 2015

#SayingHerName in Chicago

Yesterday on Facebook, I read a series of posts by a young Black woman. She was lamenting the fact that Black men are too often silent and sometimes hostile about addressing violence against Black women. She was also dismayed at some of the women who insist that raising the issue of violence against Black women is ‘divisive.’ At one point, she wrote in exasperation: “You would think as a black woman you’d be on your own side.” Her words are profound and sad.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/28/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/28/15)

On Tuesday night in Chicago, many Black women were on our own side as we lifted up the name of our sister Sandra Bland. Last week, my friend Kelly who is a local indigenous organizer reached out to me to ask if my organization would co-sponsor a Light Action for Sandra Bland as part of a National call to action. I immediately agreed and Kelly did the heavy lifting to organize the event.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/28/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/28/15)

I listened on Tuesday night as Black women I know and care about spoke about our erasure and about the silence that too often greets our suffering. Together we declared ‘no more.’ There were tears and song. There was rage and love. There was an insistence that we would MAKE our own lives matter because we understand our value. It was so heartening that nearly 300 people braved the humidity and showed up despite the late hour. We needed darkness for the action to happen.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/28/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/28/15)

I was in Cleveland this weekend to participate in the Movement for Black Lives Convening. As we were leaving to meet the bus that would take us home to Chicago, we stumbled upon a group of people demanding that the police release a 14 year old who they had in handcuffs. The police escalated the confrontation by pepper spraying several people indiscriminately. The cops did not care who they were spraying. We were all Black and it didn’t matter if we were women, men, gender non conforming, trans, adult or child. We were Black and they sprayed us as my friend Page said “like we were bugs.” Dr. Brittany Cooper was there too and wrote about the incident:

“While protesters were securing the teenager’s release, I was among a group of attendees helping those who had been pepper-sprayed – filling emptied water bottles with milk to treat the spray, holding hands and rubbing the backs of those writhing in pain, reminding them to breathe while I did the same. I won’t soon be over the horror and helplessness of that moment. I won’t soon forget the sound of Black people screaming from the effects of pepper spray, because they had stood up to protect the safety of a Black child. I haven’t stopped wondering how those activists who have been on the front lines since last August manage to be subjected to such violent bodily violation regularly.”

I am coming down with something (a cough and sore throat) and I have no doubt that Sunday’s chaos has contributed to my illness. The incident in Cleveland should remind everyone that we are in this thing TOGETHER and that ALL Black people are targets. When some of my friends were sprayed, I ran to get milk. Other women were tending to those in pain. Trans people put their bodies on the line by blocking the path of police cars. Black women lawyers were the ones directly negotiating with cops who were threatening to have them arrested. Black men were there too; helping to keep people calm and putting their bodies on the line. My point is that all of us were needed to successfully de-arrest the 14 year boy. All of us had a role to play. We needed everyone. And as Black women, we are always there for everyone. I think that it’s important to prioritize being on our own side.

There is a lot to say about the Movement for Black Lives convening aside from the deplorable actions of the police on that last day. I continue to process my experience. One thing that stands out is how central love (in its various manifestations) was to the convening. Love: not the sentimental kind but the Agape kind in particular. My friend Dr.Tamara Nopper recently posted some words by Sonia Sanchez that resonate for me in this moment:

The great writer Zora Neal Hurston said,
Fear was the greatest emotion on the planet Earth
and I said, No my dear sista
Fear will make us move to save our lives
To save our own skins
But love
Will make us save other people’s skins and lives
So love is primary at this particular point in time.
Put on, what I like to call:
The sleeves of love
Put on the legs of love
Put on the feet of love
Put on the head of love
Put on the mouth of love
Put on the hands of love
And love love love love love love
And others
Love love love love love
Because love is the greatest emotion on the planet Earth

-Sonia Sanchez

In the coming days here in Chicago, a number of us are organizing a series of events to center the experiences of and resistance to state violence against Black women as part of Black August. And yes, for me, this is a labor of love. It is a litany for survival. You can learn about the upcoming events, actions, and interventions HERE. If you are in Chicago, hope to see some of you.

Jul 28 2015

Video: Traffic Stop

Below is a new animated video by Storycorps.

“Alex Landau, an African American man, was raised by his adoptive white parents to believe that skin color didn’t matter. But when Alex was pulled over by Denver police officers one night in 2009, he lost his belief in a color-blind world—and nearly lost his life. Alex tells his mother, Patsy Hathaway, what happened that night and how it affects him to this day.”

In this short film, Landau and his mother, Patsy, remember that night and how it changed them both forever. “For me it was the point of awakening to how the rest of the world is going to look at you,” Landau says. “I was just another black face in the streets.”

Jul 20 2015

‘My Cracks Are Now Gaping Wounds…’

This afternoon, I facilitated a welcome circle for a young man recently released from prison. Due to confidentiality, I can’t speak about his specific experiences. I did get permission from him to share one sentence from the circle:

“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”

There were audible gasps when the young man spoke these words today. Gasps and some tears. The purpose of the circle was to provide support and encouragement. It was also to identify his needs and how those in his community might help to meet them. His needs are many and resources are criminally limited. I keep replaying this sentence in my head:

“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”

This young man was wounded before entering prison. He was in his words already cracked. After three years in prison, his cracks are wider and deeper. His assertion that he is invisibly bleeding is searing and frightening for both him and for his community. How do we stanch the bleeding? I now envision thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of walking wounded bleeding invisibly all around us. I am haunted by the image and paralyzed as to what to do.

Our circle today was an embrace of this young man to let him know that he is not alone. It’s a necessary step in a long process that cannot begin to prioritize his need for healing. It’s not close to adequate and definitely not enough to stop the bleeding. I’ve been thinking a lot during this current moment of increased attention to mass incarceration that too few understand the scope and scale of the problem. Those who can best speak to these are struggling to survive inside and outside the walls of the cages in which we confine them. Their families and friends are too often shamed and silenced. The stage is ceded to elite technocrats who don’t seem to care that “lives matter more than the data representing them.”

The parameters of the mass criminalization “debate” are currently being delineated and cemented. We’re allowed to talk about the ‘war on drugs’ and the importance of freeing “non-violent” offenders. Those setting the boundaries of acceptable demands are fully aware though that this will not end mass incarceration (not even close). Anyone who is serious about addressing the problem understands that we’ll have to also free many people convicted of violent offenses to begin to turn the tide. Importantly too, the anti-Blackness endemic to the criminal punishment system is glossed over with euphemisms like ‘disproportionate minority contact’ if ever discussed. The criminal punishment system helps to create and then feeds off Black people’s expendability. The system has always reinforced white supremacy and maintained the subordination of Black people. How can the criminal punishment system be transformed without action to uproot white supremacy? There’s so much rhetoric and smoke and so little action and substance. The young man in today’s circle and the thousands like him deserve better.

I’m sitting on the floor of my living room as I type and I am crying. I’m thinking about a 25 year old young Black man who has to borrow $5 to get on the bus that will take him home after a circle while he bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking about a 28 year old Black woman who has to reconnect with her children while she bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking of the 17 year old trans person locked up for suspicion of prostitution. We’re in a state of emergency and the elites who created the carnage are discussing which color Bandaids to buy for the gaping wounds. The people who created the problem are now loudly proclaiming that they are the best positioned to solve it. It makes me ill and so very pessimistic.

“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”

I don’t know how we’ll stop the bleeding…

Jul 20 2015

Art and Incarcerated Children…

Through my friend, artist Micah Bazant, I learned about an organization working with incarcerated children called Performing Statistics.

Last month, Performing Statistics shared some of the art projects that the incarcerated children they work with have been creating this summer:

“This week, at Art 180 we began our 8 week program with a group of incarcerated youth. Throughout the summer they’ll be working with an amazing group of artists, legal advocates, designers, and others to produce a mobile exhibition filled with their own creative visions for how to change this broken system. This week was spent mostly just getting to know each other but we ended the week by creating our own protest posters…each teen came up with a slogan and a hand gesture to symbolize their slogan (since we aren’t allowed to photograph their faces).”

Below are some of the protest posters.

Performing Statistics Youth Created Poster (June 2015)

Performing Statistics Youth Created Poster (June 2015)

Performing Statistics Youth Created Poster (June 2015)

Performing Statistics Youth Created Poster (June 2015)

Performing Statistics Youth-Created Poster (June 2015)

Performing Statistics Youth-Created Poster (June 2015)

Jul 18 2015

Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks

My friend Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon has written an article suggesting that in the urban planning field “public safety is rarely taken up as a sphere of concern.” He points out that it is important to take into account how policing and prisons have shared our urban spaces. Finally he introduces a terrific new mapping project that seeks to fill in the gaps.

Quoting from the article:

“In Chicago, where I live, is far too familiar with the New Jim Crow. On parts of Chicago’s West Side, nearly 70 percent of men between ages 18 and 54 are likely to have interacted with the criminal justice system, casting the long shadow of concentrated criminality across local households, schools, parks, bus stops and places of business.

Through a new website, Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks, some colleagues and I show exactly how much the State of Illinois has been spending to incarcerate residents of these areas. As the site demonstrates, in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, more than $500 million was committed to incarcerating residents of a single neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. That’s many millions of dollars more than will be spent on schools, housing, transportation, job creation or parks in the area.

Our site builds on a tradition of “incarceration mapping,” begun by Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center. Starting with Cadora’s identification of these incarceration hot spots in the early 2000s, urbanists have started to think more critically about the impact of the criminal justice system on place.”

Check out the new website Chicago Million Dollar Blocks.

Jul 17 2015

Musical Interlude: Still Doin’ Time

Yes I listen to George Jones :)