Nov 29 2014

Send White People to Jail: Protest in the Era of Black (Mass) Incarceration

On Tuesday, young people from BYP 100‘s Chicago chapter organized and led an occupation of City Hall. Sitting and standing in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offices, members of Chicago BYP 100 chanted, facilitated teach-ins about the PIC, staged a die-in and kept healing circles.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/25/14)

BYP 100 members were joined in this action by dozens of supporters of all ages, races, genders and more. By all accounts, it was a beautiful and affecting action for those in attendance.

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

The protesters intended to stay at City Hall for 28 hours to dramatize the fact that “every 28 hours in this country, a black person is killed by a police officer, security officer or a self-appointed vigilante.”

City Hall closes officially at 5 pm. During the entire day beginning at 9 am, protesters were monitored by police officers who guarded the entrance of the Mayor’s offices.

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

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Nov 28 2014

Palante Young Leaders, Siempre Palante…

Dear young revolutionaries the world over, I love you. If no one has told you so today, I’m glad that I did.

These are exciting and uncertain times everywhere. I am a witness to young people’s activism and organizing in Chicago on a daily basis.

It fills me with immense hope and a lot of joy to be able to contribute in various ways to supporting some of these wonderful human beings. But I admit to also sitting with worry. I worry about violence that can be/has been directed at these young activists. I worry about their physical, emotional, spiritual health and well-being. I worry about whether they can sustain the fire of social justice without being incinerated. I worry…

I began to take action around the conditions of my oppression(s) as a teenager. That was a very long time ago now. I’m not a particularly reflective person but I have decided today to look back in order to look forward. It’s been 30 years since I attended my first protest on my own. Ironically, the action was called after an incident of police violence in New York City. Earlier this week, I stood in the cold in front of Chicago Police Department (CPD) headquarters speaking at a protest that I had co-organized partly in response to Darren Wilson’s nonindictment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

In the intervening years, I learned that social change and transformation is a long, hard slog. Howard Zinn is right that: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” There are setbacks mixed with some terrific highs. What’s most important though is that we act. Alice Walker puts it well:

“I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.”

I agree in large part with Walker’s words about the importance of action (however one defines it). I believe, however, as Audre Lorde has written that: “Despair is a tool for your enemies.” The key to life-long activism and organizing, in my opinion, is to rededicate oneself daily to hope. As has been said, hope is a discipline. In his life-giving essay “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn underscores the value and importance of hope in movement-building. I often share this essay with young people who ask me for advice about how to stay awake in the world when it would be easier to be complacent. Zinn writes:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

“The future is an infinite succession of presents…” I relate deeply to these words. To transform the conditions of our oppression(s), we can only do what we can today, where we are, in the best way that we know how. Ethical action as part of our daily lives is an important path to social justice. Mistakes are a given. Disappointments are many. But we keep moving forward. Palante young leaders, Siempre Palante!

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

Nov 25 2014

Free Marissa and All Black People…

“What if she goes to jail again? How will you feel?”

The questions bring me up short. My goddaughter hasn’t previously expressed an interest in Marissa Alexander. She knows that I’ve been involved in a local defense committee to support Marissa in her struggle for freedom. But up to this point, she hasn’t asked any questions. Her mother, however, tells me that Nina (not her real name) has been following my updates on social media.

I’m still considering how to respond and I must have been silent for too long because Nina apologizes. “Forget about it, Auntie,” she says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

It’s interesting that she thinks I am upset. She knows that I have no faith in the U.S. criminal legal system and perhaps assumes that I am pessimistic about Marissa’s prospects in court. I tell her that while I have no faith in the criminal punishment system, I am hopeful for a legal victory in Marissa’s case. I say that while the system as a whole is unjust, in some individual cases legal victories can be achieved. I tell her that this is particularly true for defendants who have good legal representation and resources. Money makes a difference in securing legal victories. I explain that this is why I have worked so hard to fundraise for Marissa’s legal defense.

“But how will you feel if she’s convicted again though?” Nina persists.

“I’ll definitely be sad for her and her family,” I respond.

“I think that you’ll be a lot more than sad,” she says.

Does sadness have levels? I guess so. I’m not sure what “more than sad” feels like so I keep quiet.

A friend, who has spent years supporting Marissa Alexander through the Free Marissa NOW National Mobilization Campaign, recently confided that she was unable to contemplate another conviction for Marissa at her retrial in December. Many of us who’ve been supporting Marissa have been bracing ourselves. Each of us trying to cope as best we can. Over the past few weeks, I’d taken to asking comrades if they believed that Marissa would be free. Some answered affirmatively without hesitation but they were in the minority. Most eyed me warily and slowly said that they were hopeful of an acquittal. I don’t think that they believed what they were saying.

The U.S. criminal punishment system cannot deliver any “justice.” Marissa has already served over 1000 days in jail and prison. She spent another year under strict house arrest wearing an ankle monitor costing her family $105 every two weeks. Marissa fired a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband and no one was injured. For this, she was facing a 60 year sentence if convicted in her re-trial. True justice is not being arrested and taken away from her children, family and friends. Justice is living a life free of domestic abuse. Justice is benefiting from state protection rather than suffering from state violence. Justice is having a self to defend in the first place.

Yesterday morning, I got news that Marissa had agreed to a plea deal. A couple of hours later, the news broke on social media. I saw a mix of people celebrating this outcome and others expressing their anger that Marissa was forced into a Faustian ‘choice’. I got calls, texts and emails from friends and family checking in on me. I appreciated everyone’s concern but I was unfortunately thrust into action when I heard that the grand jury in St. Louis would be announcing their indictment decision in the killing of Mike Brown later in the day. It was a mad rush to make arrangements to combine solidarity events since we already had one planned for Marissa yesterday evening.

The parallels between Marissa’s unjust prosecution/imprisonment & Mike Brown’s killing by law enforcement are evident to me. Yet, I am well aware that for too many these are treated as distinct and separate occurrences. They are not. In fact, the logic of anti-blackness and punishment connects both.

In the late 19th century, a remark was attributed to a Southern police chief who suggested that there were three types of homicides: “If a nigger kills a white man, that’s murder. If a white man kills a nigger, that’s justifiable homicide. If a nigger kills a nigger, that’s one less nigger (Berg, 2011, p.116).” The devaluing of black life in this country has its roots in colonial America. In the book “Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America,” Manfred Berg makes a convincing case that: “The slave codes singled out blacks for extremely cruel punishment, thus marking black bodies as innately inferior (p.11).” Berg argues that: “Colonial slavery set clear patterns for future racial violence in America (p.11).”

“Innately inferior” bodies can be debased, punished and killed without consequence. The twist is that black people have always been considered dangerous along with our disposability. Mike Brown’s (disposable) body is a lethal weapon and so he is justifiably threatening. Marissa’s (disposable) body is deserving of abuse and is incapable of claiming a self worth defending. Mike Brown was described by his killer, Darren Wilson, as a “demon” and called an “It.”

The doctrine of pre-emptive killing and preventative captivity finds expression in the daily lives of all black people in the U.S. Black people are never ‘innocent.’ That language or concept doesn’t apply. We are always guilty until proven something less than suspect or dangerous.

Read more »

Nov 22 2014

Interesting Things This Week 2

This is the second edition of something that I hope to make a regular feature on the blog. I come across a lot of interesting material through my work. I’ll share things that stood out this week.

1. Art and Cook County Jail
“Youth from Yollocalli Arts Reach produced a series of “reverse graffiti” stencils that were installed around the Cook County Jail wall and sidewalk with the 96 Acres Project. They included text such as, “What is your role?” and “Do you see me?”. With help from Rob Castañeda from Beyond the Ball, the stencils were power washed within a matter of a few hours. They will be producing some more stencils next Spring 2015.”

2. My friend Jacqui Shine shared a terrific find: The “Joliet Prison Post” from 1914.

3. A short film about police violence created by Philly young people.

4. I read an interesting paper titled “Rendering Invisible Punishments Visible” by Welsh and Rajah (2014).

5. I spoke about the Darren Wilson indictment and prison abolition on Counterspin.

6. A good interview with Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB).

7. American Friends Service Committee, in collaboration with Grassroots Leadership (Austin, TX) and the Southern Center for Human Rights (Atlanta, GA), is released a new report that exposes the ways in which for-profit prison corporations are adapting to historic reductions in prison populations by seeking out new markets previously served by non-profit behavioral health and treatment-oriented agencies.

8. If you are on Twitter, I think that you’ll find this project fascinating and infuriating.

9. Nikky Finney ethers the National Book Awards. Bow Down!

10. A post that asks white people where they will stand after the Ferguson grand jury issues its indictment decision.

11. I re-read this essay by Kristian Williams about the birth of the modern police force.

12. Only 16 days until opening arguments in Marissa Alexander’s retrial. We’re having a solidarity rally for Marissa in Chicago this Monday. Join Us!

FreeMarissa1

Nov 21 2014

Video: The Truth About Police by Molly Crabapple

I really appreciate this video about police violence by artist Molly Crabapple. It opens with these words: “On August 9th, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot a black teenager named Mike Brown. Since then, the city has been protesting. The police did not react well.”

Nov 16 2014

Indicting A System Not A Man….

I’m on the outside looking in and I’ve held my tongue…

by Sandra Khalifa

by Sandra Khalifa

Everyone I know is on edge. Will a grand jury in St. Louis indict or not? How will residents of Ferguson react if (as many expect) the grand jury advises against an indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Mike Brown? What will be the response of the St. Louis and Ferguson police? Photos of MRAPs and boarded up businesses proliferate on social media. Articles suggest that St. Louis police have been recently stockpiling riot gear and military grade weapons. It’s war but that’s not new. Everyone is holding their breath.

On the other hand, what’s next if the grand jury does decide that Wilson should stand trial? So much psychic, emotional, and spiritual energy is focused on a successful indictment. I imagine the sighs of relief. I anticipate the countless social media posts crying out “justice!!!!” I imagine that many exhausted protesters will decide that their work is done. I fear a return to our seductive slumber and to complacency.

I’m not invested in indicting Darren Wilson though I understand its (symbolic) import to many people, most especially Mike Brown’s family and friends. Vincent Warren of the Center on Constitutional Rights speaks for many, I think, when he writes:

“Without accountability, there can be no rule of law. If Wilson is not indicted, or is under-indicted, the clear message is that it is open season on people of color, that St. Louis has declared that Darren Wilson is not a criminal but that the people who live under the thumbs of the Darren Wilsons of this country are. It would say to the cry that “Black lives matter” that, no, in fact, they do not.”

I understand the sentiment that Warren expresses. Yet I don’t believe that an indictment of Wilson would be evidence that Black lives do in fact matter to anyone other than black people. Nor do I think his indictment would mean that it was no longer open season on people of color in this country. If we are to take seriously that oppressive policing is not a problem of individual “bad apple” cops then it must follow that a singular indictment will have little to no impact on ending police violence. As I type, I can already feel the impatience and frustration of some who will read these words.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

It feels blasphemous to suggest that one is disinvested from the outcome of the grand jury deliberations. “Don’t you care about accountability for harm caused?” some will ask. “What about justice?” others will accuse. My response is always the same; I am not against indicting killer cops. I just know that indictments won’t and can’t end oppressive policing which is rooted in anti-blackness, social control and containment. Policing is derivative of a broader social justice. It’s impossible for non-oppressive policing to exist in a fundamentally oppressive and unjust society. The truth is that as the authors of Struggle for Justice wrote in 1971 “without a radical change in our values and a drastic restructuring of our social and economic institutions” we can only achieve modest reforms of the criminal punishment system (including policing).

The pattern after police killings is all too familiar. Person X is shot & killed. Person X is usually black (or less frequently brown). Community members (sometimes) take to the streets in protest. They are (sometimes) brutally suppressed. The press calls for investigations. Advocates call for reforms suggesting that the current practices and systems are ‘broken’ and/or unjust. There is a (racist) backlash by people who “support” the police. A very few people whisper that the essential nature of policing is oppressive and is not susceptible to any reforms, thus only abolition is realistic. These people are considered heretic by most. I’ve spent years participating in one way or another in this cycle.

Knowing all of this, what can/should we do to end oppressive policing? We have to take various actions in the short, medium and long term. We have to act at the individual, community, institutional, and societal levels.

For my own part, I start by never calling the cops. I hope more people will join me in that practice. It demands that we feel for the edge of our imaginations to stop relying on the police. It takes practice to do this. As such, we need popular education within our communities about the need to create alternatives to policing.

I vocally and actively oppose any calls for increased police presence as a response to harm in my community and in my city. At budget time, I pay attention to how much money is allocated to law enforcement. I press my local elected officials to oppose any increases in that amount and to instead advocate for a DECREASE in the police department’s budget. I support campaigns for reparations to police torture & violence victims. I support elected civilian police accountability councils and boards (knowing full well that they are bandaids). I believe that we need grassroots organizations in every town & city that document and publicize the cases of people who have suffered from police violence. These organizations should use all levers of power to seek redress for those victims and their families.

I list these actions with the understanding that together they aren’t enough to end oppressive policing. They will lessen the harm to be sure but only building power among those most marginalized in society holds the possibility of radical transformation. And that’s an endless quest for justice. That’s a struggle rather than a goal. Only movements can build power. We need a movement for transformative justice.

To the young people who have taken to the streets across the country and are agitating for some ‘justice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Ferguson indictment decision. Don’t let a nonindictment crush your spirit and steal your hope. Hope is a discipline. And frankly, the actions you have and are taking inspire so many daily. On the other hand, a decision to indict Darren Wilson isn’t a victory for ‘justice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indictment won’t end police violence or prevent the death of another Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must organize with those most impacted by oppression while also making room for others who want to join the struggle too as comrades. As Kwame Ture often said: “We need each other. We have to have each other for our survival.” Take this admonition seriously. We should use the occasion of the indictment announcement to gather and to continue to build power together. This is how we will win.

Nov 15 2014

Interesting Things This Week…

I came across various things of interest this week and thought to share them here.

1. I listened to this very good panel discussion about abolition with Reina Gossett, Janetta Johnson, CeCe McDonald, Miss Major, and Eric A. Stanley.

2. I read a good essay by Vesla Weaver titled “Black Citizenship and Summary Punishment: A Brief History to the Present.” It’s part of a special issue of Theory & Event focused on the events in Ferguson.

3. I was interested in the findings from this Pew Charitable Trust survey about Americans’ perceptions of surveillance, privacy and security.

4. I watched and enjoyed Ana Tijoux’s new video which offers a vision of how the world might look without capitalism.

5. I was profoundly moved by Cord Jefferson’s essay “On Kindness.”

6. I’ve been listening to audio stories about Cook County Jail recorded by 96 acres.

7. Only 23 more days until opening statements in Marissa Alexander’s retrial…

marissa

8. I was bursting with pride for the wonderful young organizers from We Charge Genocide who made themselves heard this week at the UN in Geneva.

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

We Charge Genocide at UN in Geneva

We Charge Genocide at UN in Geneva

Nov 13 2014

Eric Stanley on Prison Abolition & More…

I am really, really busy so I am failing to post daily as I usually do. The fact that I am so busy with work has also cut down on my reading time.

I just got to this interview with Eric Stanley published in the New Inquiry. I think that anyone interested in the PIC should read it.

Here’s a section that I appreciated:

“A tiring critique of prison abolition that can make even a self-identified radical sound like a mouthpiece for the right is that if we abolish the PIC, we will all be subject to greater risks of harm. In response to this assertion, it is important to note at least two related points.

First, the most dangerous, violent people in our society are not in prison, but are running our military, government, prisons, and banks. Secondly, what we have now, even for people who have caused harm, is a form of nonaccountability where the survivors of a violation are often harmed again through the desires of a district attorney whose only interest is conviction rates. Anyone who has been deposed or been through a trial can attest to this. Abolition is not simply about letting everyone out of prison, as our critics like to suggest, although that would be an important component. It is forged in the work of daring to ask what true accountability, justice, and safety might look and feel like and what are the ways we might build our world now so violence in all its forms is decreased, rather than something that we only attend to post-infraction.”

Read the whole thing.

Nov 10 2014

Broken Bonds, Un-Broken Cages: Some Thoughts on Locked Down, Locked Out

In her new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, Maya Schenwar writes heartwrenchingly and unsparingly about the ravages wrought on human beings by the prison industrial complex. She tells a personal story of how her sister Kayla’s repeated encounters and contacts with the criminal punishment system have impacted her and her family’s lives.

Prison12_sized What I appreciated most about the book is the consistent emphasis on the need for connection between people. Locked Down understands that relationships matter greatly. Connection and relationships are the very things that prisons excel at destroying.

Maya correctly identifies that the logic of the PIC “is all about subtraction.” She writes:

“Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they can’t poison us—so we don’t even have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.

The surprise pops up when the broken seams are revealed—the way that incarceration rips open new holes in the social fabric of families and communities outside, severing intricate networks strung together in ways that are observable only upon their breaking. Instead of eggs, we are tossing away people’s mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, partners, friends.”

Locked Down is unrelenting in reminding us that the people who are funneled into the PIC are HUMAN and not widgets. Even when they no longer have ties with loved ones, prisoners are human beings deserving of our care. From the opening of the book, we are thrust in the middle of Kayla’s pain and her struggle with addiction. Maya is unflinchingly honest about her exasperation with her sister’s repeated arrests and her prison terms. In fact, Maya and her family decide against bailing Kayla out of prison in her latest brush with the law because they believe that jail “may be the only place that can save Kayla’s life, staving off her burning dependency on heroin.” Maya and her family are at their wits end. She writes honestly about the tension between her desire to save her sister’s life and her anti-PIC politics: “How could I reconcile my wholehearted opposition to the prison-industrial complex with a desire to see my own sister locked up?”

The entire book, however, is a rebuke to the idea that prison can “save” anyone’s life. Maya quotes Angela Davis: “Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” The first half of Locked Down tells of Maya and her family’s refusal to allow Kayla to be disappeared by the PIC.

The book also debunks myths about conjugal visits in prison, lays bare the ways that businesses gouge and exploit the family of prisoners through charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, highlights the importance of letters for and to prisoners, describes the deplorable treatment of pregnant and parenting mothers, underscores that “re-entry” for most prisoners is exceedingly difficult because of the barriers they face and more.

Locked Down would be worthwhile if it simply focused on these issues. But what sets it apart from other books about the mass incarceration epidemic is its focus on how people in communities across the country are working to address the problem(s). Maya features individuals, programs and organizations that are either doing reformist or abolitionist work. For example, she describes the efforts of Umoja Student Development Corporation in North Lawndale as it tries to interrupt the school to prison pipeline on a local level through the use of peace rooms and restorative justice. She shares the work of organizations like Black & Pink that run successful pen pal programs. She underscores efforts to decarcerate state prison populations and to create transformative justice models in local communities across the country. These are concrete examples and they are welcome.

Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Maya for the book and we are friends who organize together with the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. However, I would have the same thoughts about Locked Down if these weren’t true. I would recommend the book if I had no connections to it or its author.

In important ways, Locked Down gives voice to those who are left behind after their loved one is caged. I remember an email that I received from a prisoner’s wife a few years ago. Tina (not her real name) wrote in her note to me: “I am the other side of ‘Prison Culture’. I am the one left behind.” She wrote of love; the abiding love that she feels for her incarcerated husband. She wrote about loneliness. Loneliness that she says is worse than the kind she felt when her mother passed away a couple of years earlier. “Knowing that my mother is no longer on earth actually means that she is beyond reach to me, my husband is not dead, he is still on this earth, but beyond reach to me.” She wrote that no one in her circle truly understands what she is going through and that they are not sympathetic to her situation. She felt isolated. She was tired. She was stressed. Money troubles threatened to derail her already fragile family. Locked Down gives voice (in part) to the struggles of women like Tina and if only for that reason, it is a necessary book and an important contribution to the literature on how mass incarceration has destroyed our communities.

Throughout the book, Maya asks herself questions that are ones with which we as readers must grapple too. They are questions about whether restorative/transformative justice can encompass those who have committed terrible harm. They are questions about whether a prisoner can ever really be “free.”

I’ll end with a quote by anti-prison activist Barbara Fair because I think that Locked Down ultimately insists that we need radical interventions to end the prison industrial complex. Fair is quoted in the book as saying: “I have worked so hard at reform, and saw so little change, that I have come to the conclusion that revolution might be the only response to what is occurring in America relative to criminal justice and the prison industry it feeds.” I think that Fair gets it right and so does Locked Down. You should read the book.

If you live in Chicago, the book launch is this Sunday November 16. Details are here. In addition, all proceeds from this first week of book sales will be generously donated to Marissa Alexander’s legal defense fund.

Nov 09 2014

Image of the Day: Dominique Franklin

art by Molly Crabapple

art by Molly Crabapple