If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about policing. The cops are the gateway to the prison industrial complex and the gatekeepers of state power. In addition, as I’ve often written, the young people I work with want to talk about the police. Their material experiences of feeling and being oppressed usually revolve around how they are treated by cops.
Recently a young person who I love named Richard released a new music video for his song “Cops and Robbers.” You can and should watch it below.
I asked Richard about his inspiration for the song and his response was as follows:
“So the idea of the song actually was nothing planned. I was on the Greyhound coming back from a very short spring break and I had just started to re-read Assata Shakur’s Autobiography and I listened to the beat right after I read the first chapter and the first thing I could think of was Cops and Robbers, and how Assata was portrayed and accused and related to my experiences growing up in Chicago.”
I also asked about how he views the role of police in communities like the one he grew up in. His response was that they were “overseers” of the community. I thought that this terminology was instructive and harkens back to the slave patrols which were America’s original police forces.
Recently my comrade Francesco de Salvatore shared his collaboration with a group called the Young Fugitives about policing in Chicago. The project titled “Growing Up With CPD” is a set of audio interviews with young Chicagoans about their experiences with law enforcement. Below is one story.
“Growing Up With CPD” follows on the heels of a similar project that my organization undertook a couple of years ago called “Chain Reaction.” I think that what all of these projects have in common is a desire to surface the voices of young people who feel oppressed by policing in the hope that people will come to rely less on cops as the solution of violence. I hope that people will heed young people’s calls for true justice.
A few weeks ago writer & artist Molly Crabapple considered the theatrical nature of court proceedings:
“Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.”
I had the pleasure of talking with Molly a bit about my experiences of sitting in numerous courtrooms over the years. As she points out in her essay, most trials are not high drama or high profile. They are mostly rote and often very boring. Yet the public is weaned on television courtroom depictions and mistake “Law & Order” for real life.
There are, however, individual high profile trials that can take on the character of high drama. Billy Holiday’s 1949 drug trial fits the bill. Sara Ramshaw (2004) writes about it in an essay titled “He’s my man!”: Lyrics of Innocence and Betrayal in The People v. Billie Holiday. A number of accounts have been written about the trial. They all vary but one thing is consistent: Holiday was found not-guilty. This was seen as a surprise given the fact that she was allegedly caught in possession of narcotics by a well-respected FBI agent named George H. White. Additionally, in an era where black defendants were subject to ‘legal lynchings’ even celebrity was not a get out of jail free card.
Ramshaw (2004) addresses how “the racist, heterosexist, and classist violence and victimization [Holiday] had experienced throughout her life was brought to the fore and highlighted in order to support her trial narrative (p.88).” Billie Holiday proclaimed her ‘innocence’ at trial and an all-white jury found her credible. She was acquitted on June 3 1949.
Holiday’s attorney, Jake Ehrlich, suggested as a defense that she had been set up by her boyfriend John Levy. Yet Ramshaw contends that “Erlich’s position had obvious deficiencies…Nonetheless, the jury appears to have accepted Ehrlich’s argument (p.100).” Why did the jury believe Holiday’s defense? Ramshaw explains: “The reason for this decision, I suggest, lies in the blurring of Holiday’s personal and public lives and the credibility her celebrity persona lent to her narrative of innocence and betrayal in the courtroom (p.100).”
The defense sought to play up Billie Holiday’s public image as being ‘unlucky in life and love.’ Ramshaw describes how they relied on and constructed this image:
“To begin, Holiday entered the courtroom on 31 May 1949, looking uncharacteristically ‘unkempt in a beige suit.’ Her eyes were puffy from crying and one eye was bruised and swollen. She told a reporter in the courtroom that Levy had hit her. ‘You should see my back,’ she stated: ‘He done it Friday night. It looks better now than what it did. He went off Saturday night – even took my mink – eighteen grand worth of coat…I got nothing now, and I’m scared.’”
Holiday was probably telling the truth about being abused by Levy. He was not the first boyfriend to have allegedly assaulted her. But Ramshaw makes clear that Holiday and her lawyers chose to underscore her victimhood and to marshal the public’s perceptions of her to their benefit. They succeeded in this; overcoming racism and turning misogyny to their advantage. The entire article by Ramshaw is fascinating and worth reading.
In the conclusion to the article, Ramshaw offers the following assessment of Holiday’s courtroom ‘performance:’
Holiday’s “My Man” routine, otherwise referred to as her “unlucky in life” public persona, was configured in United States popular culture on the basis of myths and stereotypes regarding black women and their sexuality. Throughout Holiday’s trial, issues regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality were either implicitly or explicitly highlighted in order to direct attention back to Holiday’s “unlucky in life” persona. This persona, in turn, filled gaps and resolved contradictions in the evidence. The heightened authenticity that her “unlucky in life” public persona lent to her trial narrative of innocence and betrayal gave Holiday’s testimony the quality of truthfulness needed to get a jury to overlook the evidence (or lack thereof) in front of them (p.105).
When I read Molly’s article, I remembered Ramshaw’s account of Holiday’s 1949 trial as a good example of how theatricality can manifest in courtrooms (especially in high profile trials). Take a few minutes to enjoy this poignant performance of “My Man” by Lady Day and think about how she marshaled the lyrics of this song, connected them to her personal experiences, and convinced a jury of white people to acquit her on drug charges in 1949.
I love Jayne Cortez. I love hearing her read this poem… It’s explicit. She’s gone now but her work lives on. Rape is a poem about Joan Little and Inez Garcia. I’m immersed in a current project that also focuses in part on them…
by: Jayne Cortez
What was Inez Garcia supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body
the man who carved a combat zone between her breasts
Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass
kiss every pimple on his butt
blow hot breath on his big toe
draw back the corners of her vagina and
he haw like a California burro
This being war time for Inez
she stood facing the knife
the insults and
her own smell drying on the penis of
the man who raped her
She stood with a rifle in her hand
doing what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the man started grunting and panting and
wobbling forward like a giant hog
She pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of shaking flesh
Sent it flying to the Virgin of Guadelupe
then celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else was she supposed to do?
And what was Joanne Little supposed to do for the man who declared war on her life
Was she supposed to tongue his encrusted
toilet stool lips
suck the numbers off of his tin badge
choke on his clap trap balls
squeeze on his nub of rotten maggots and
sing “god bless america thank you for fucking my life away?”
This being wartime for Joanne
she did what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the piss drinking shit sniffing guard said
“I’m gonna make you wish you were dead black bitch
Joanne came down with an ice pick in
the swat freak motherfucker’s chest
yes in the fat neck of that racist policeman
Joanne did the dance of the ice picks and once again
from coast to coast
house to house
we celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else were we supposed to do
Since I am in the middle of working on a project focused on the history of criminalizing women for self-defense, I am coming across a number of interesting pieces of information.
Here’s a poem written by Joan Little:
I AM SOMEBODY!
By Joann Little
I may be down today
But I am somebody!
I may be considered the lowest
on earth; but I am somebody!
I came up in low rent housing,
sometimes lived in the slums;
But I am still somebody!
I read an article where a black youth
was jailed, he stole some food, but got
15-20 years – he was somebody!
I killed a white in ‘self-defense’
but the jury doesn’t care – and when
he came for me to prepare trial –
he said she deserves the chair –
Every hurt and pain I feel inside,
Everytime I pick up the morning news
only to see my name on the front page –
I begin to wonder; they make me feel
less than somebody.
But in the end I will have freedom
and peace of mind. I will do anything
to help prove my innocence. Because
of one important fact above all…
‘I am somebody!’
Source: Save Joann Little (Women’s Press Collective, 1975)
An all time classic…
Whew, it’s been an incredibly busy few days and it hasn’t slowed down yet for me!! For those who want ongoing updates about Shanesha Taylor’s case, I put together a blog titled “Justice For Shanesha.” As I learn information, I’ll post there. So if you are on Tumblr, do follow the blog. The latest updated information that I have is posted there today.
I am swamped with tons of other work (believe it or not, I run an organization too) so I will be taking a blogging break for the rest of the week. I hope to be back to regular blogging soon. In the meantime, I am excited about two projects that I am currently working on, both relate to the Marissa Alexander case.
First, I am blessed to be working with a group of writers and artists to create a publication featuring stories of women of color who have been criminalized for self-defense over the years. The publication will feature portraits and short narratives. We will print a limited number and use the proceeds to support Marissa’s legal defense. I am in debt to my friends and co-strugglers who have come together on short notice to make this project a reality. Stay tuned for more information soon. And as a preview, I am excited to share one piece of art from the project; it’s a portrait of Lena Baker drawn by my extraordinarily talented friend Bianca Diaz.
Secondly, I am excited that I will be co-curating a new exhibition titled “No Selves to Defend: Criminalizing Women for Self-Defense.” The exhibition will run here in Chicago in July and August at Art in these Times. My thanks to my comrade Daniel Tucker for facilitating this opportunity. The exhibition will feature various artifacts from my collection as well as art from the project mentioned earlier. The Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander is planning a series of events leading up to Marissa’s trial at the end of July. I’ll share more about the exhibition as it comes together.
Have a peaceful next few days!
From the YBCA Young Artists At Work:
“The youth of San Francisco will be at the helm of shaping the future of the Bay Area. In response to the proposal for a new SF jail we created a mugshot photo booth to show the faces of SF’s future. San Francisco has enough jails and building a new one will only lead to increasing the numbers of youth, folks of color and long term city residents that are incarcerated. We say no to the new jail. #nomorejails”
IF ONLY (by Lolita Stewart-White)
for Willie Edwards
If only it hadn’t been 1957
in a wooded area near Alabama, but it was;
or missing black folks hadn’t been looked for less
than missing shoes, and they weren’t;
or if only those Klansmen hadn’t gathered,
intent on finding a black man, and they were,
or if only they hadn’t stopped him on that gravel road,
or beaten him until they could see the white beneath his skin,
or marched him at gun point onto that bridge, and they did;
or if only they hadn’t said, “Bet this nigger can’t swim,”
or hooted and hollered as he fell from fifty feet,
or laughed as he vanished in the river’s moonlight, but they did;
or if only his death hadn’t been ruled suicide, and it was,
or his murderers hadn’t been set free, and they were,
or the daughter he left behind hadn’t had to live her life without him,
but she did.
—from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets
Listen to the audio HERE