Aug 30 2014

Blackness, Churning Oppression and Militarized Urban Space

This is adapted from a previous post in light of recent and current events in Ferguson…

who anointeth the city with napalm? (i say)
who giveth this city in holy infanticide?
– “Elegy” by Sonia Sanchez

That justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
– “Justice” by Langston Hughes

[Are you raging still?]
– “Untitled” by Mariame Kaba

For too many people it probably felt like a movie. We are used to seeing paramilitary troops riding down city streets on the big screen. Most of us, however, would be surprised to witness such a scene in our neighborhoods. But starting on August 10, 2014 and lasting several days, many watched in horror as Ferguson, Missouri police launched repeated tear gas attacks against civilians followed by piercing LRAD sounds and rubber bullets. The victims of these police attacks were mostly peaceful protesters with a very small number accused of ‘looting’ local businesses.

by Corina Dross (http://corinadross.com/2014/08/19/ferguson-fundraising/)

by Corina Dross (http://corinadross.com/2014/08/19/ferguson-fundraising/)

For those of us who pay attention to policing in the U.S., these images were awful but unsurprising and certainly not new. It was infuriating and painful to watch the police assault from afar without recourse. I wasn’t sure if I was a witness or a voyeur as time passed. Maybe there isn’t a clear delineation between the two. I was glued to social media; it made me feel less lonely and alienated. Others were seemingly as angry and disgusted by what they were seeing as I was and that gave strange comfort.

My Godson had questions. He asked if the police were going to “attack” his city next. Reflexively, I replied: “No of course not?” and he was relieved. As the words left my mouth, I wanted to call them back. I knew that I was lying and for good reason. I want to protect him and to reassure him that he is and will be safe. I know that I can’t promise these things but it doesn’t stop me from lying. The truth is I know that the police certainly have and will continue to deploy all available weapons against an increasingly cowed populace because they can. It’s that simple. In fact, law enforcement has been training for such eventualities right under some of our noses for years.

On March 21st, 2013, some residents of the Ida Yarbrough Apartments experienced firsthand the increased militarization of their local police force. Residents were frightened and traumatized when police officers in camouflage pants and blue jackets fired blank ammunition and threw flash grenades as part of a training exercise near their homes. Some residents in the soon-to-be demolished housing project were not informed of the drill in advance. The training exercise even included fake blood.

One resident spoke to the local newspaper about the ordeal on condition of anonymity:

“We wake up to the sound the next morning of literally small bombs,” said an Ida Yarbrough resident and state worker, who spoke only on condition she not be identified. “All you could hear was ‘pop, pop, pop’ of an assault rifle, police screaming ‘clear!’ I really thought I was in the middle of a war zone — and I have a four-year-old.”

Another resident, Lauren Manning, took to Facebook to air her grievances:

This is the Albany Housing Authority, APD, US Marshals et al. letting me, my family, my neighbors, my community and every other poor or minority person know we don’t matter. Apparently they have been given permission to “train” right outside my house complete with full gear assault weapons tear gas flash grenades and marshal law. I live my life in such a way that my 2 children should never have to experience a raid. But through no other fault than living in housing we have been subjected to pretend warfare. Y don’t they train for urban warfare in Adam’s Park or the Crossings in Delmar. Or in their communities? I AM ENRAGED. AND U SHOULD B 2. This is not over. Atrocities happen when good people stay silent. Additionally the residents/guest of residents who wandered outside as usual were told to stay in their homes under threat of arrest for trespass where they hold leases or were invited by the leaseholder thus enforcing marshal law or at the very least unlawful imprisonment. #WAKEUP….WE R NOT EACHOTHER’S ENEMY!

Ms. Manning launched a petition asking HUD for redress in this matter. The police chief apologized for being “insensitive” and suggested that they chose the location for training because it was “realistic.”

As I’ve written before, the idea of black communities as “occupied territory” is not new. In her essay titled “Militarizing the Police: Officer Jon Burge, Torture, and War in the ‘Urban Jungle’” which appears in Stephen Hartnett’s edited volume Challenging the Prison Industrial Complex, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann (2011) suggests that: “Americans, as domestic political unrest and the war in the jungles of Vietnam intensified during the late 1960s, increasingly referred to ‘urban jungles’ to organize their comments about the homefront (p.48).” Furthermore, she adds important information to our understanding of the history of law enforcement militarization:

“Urban areas had long been constructed as foreign, racialized spaces; once they were in open revolt, their struggles with state authority were easily interpreted with the same rhetorical devices used for insurgent populations abroad. Thus, it is not surprising that over time, more and more voices called for the state to use the same tools and techniques employed overseas to subdue allegedly dangerous spaces. And so, by the mid-to-late 1960s, domestic law enforcement agencies had begun to interpret the conditions in inner cities as wars and had begun to turn for answers to military training, technology, and terminology (p. 48).”

In the past, I’ve suggested that some rappers in the 1980s and 1990s likened their communities to “war zones” and the police to “an occupying force.” What I did not originally consider in my analysis was that these characterizations pre-dated them. Hausmann quotes Inspector Daryl Gates of the LAPD as saying that “the streets of America had become foreign territory” during the 1965 Watts rebellion. It turns out that modern rappers were responding to the conditions in their communities engendered by a war that had been declared decades earlier by the state. Around the same time that Inspector Gates was making his comments about Watts, black nationalists and other activists were describing themselves as inhabiting “colonies” within the United States and being “occupied people.” Here is a quote cited by Hausmann from Black Panther David Hilliard in his autobiography illustrating this concept:

“we’re a colony, a people with a distinct culture who are used for cheap labor. The only difference between us, and, say, Algeria, is that we are inside the mother country. And the police have the same relation to us that the American Army does to Vietnam: they are a force of occupation which will stop at nothing to keep us under control.”

Interestingly, the representatives of state power and their targets reinforced each other’s message that the inner city was “foreign territory.” Sadly by echoing the idea that the “ghetto” was a war zone (which reflected the perceived truth of their daily experiences in these communities), marginalized people were unintentionally reinforcing entrenched oppression. Within this context, it’s not difficult to imagine what happened in Albany, NY or in Ferguson, MO as being perfectly normal. It makes sense then that the police chief would consider the blighted housing projects of Albany as a “realistic” space to stage his training exercises. Where else would our militarized police forces “fight” their wars but in the ghetto inhabited by black & brown “enemy combatants?”

In an editorial in the New York Times about a lawsuit against stop & frisk in public housing, the presiding Judge suggested that these practices “had taken an emotional toll on many innocent tenants.” The editorial goes on to say:

She cited the testimony of Reginald Bowman, the president of a public housing resident leadership group, who compared life in the public housing projects under stop-and-frisk to a “penal colony” where law-abiding parents are set upon by the police while going to the store to get milk and cookies for their children.

Two days ago, at the ongoing NYC stop & frisk trial, State Senator Eric Adams testified that police commissioner Ray Kelly said that cops targeted black and brown people in particular because they wanted to keep guns off the streets. Kelly also “stated that he targeted or focused on that group because he wanted to instill fear in them that any time they leave their homes they could be targeted by police.”

All of these incidents convey that black people are threats that need to be controlled. They also belie our disposability. We are still non-persons, unhuman.  We live precariously. But what is also palpable in these incidents is fear: white people and the state’s fear of unruly/undomesticated/weaponized black bodies and also the fear that a history of terrorism has engendered in black bodies themselves. We are always unsafe living in our skin in this country. It’s a permanent condition.

This insecurity has historical roots dating back to slavery when “masters” used psychological control and torture as one of the primary tools for subjugating and pacifying black enslaved people. Limiting enslaved people’s ability to travel, to assemble, to move freely, these were among slaveowner’s obsessions. White masters feared that we would rise up in insurrection or that we would run. Both were unacceptable outcomes because as Walter Johnson pointed out in the New York Times, slaves were extremely valuable commodities. Our bodies had value to the white “Lords of the Land.” Our bodies underpinned their entire capitalistic enterprise. But today, black bodies are redundant labor. We are superfluous and are therefore expendable. After all, the unemployment rate for black male high school dropouts is now over 50%.

So our people are stopped, we are frisked, we are criminalized, we are targeted, we are invaded, we are jailed and we are killed. It’s all of a piece. It’s part of the ongoing “slow motion genocide” that shows no signs of abating. The machine grinds on and we struggle to identify one culprit but there isn’t just one. So many of us are afraid to speak the word. We are afraid to lay claim to it. It’s too awful to believe. No. It sounds too conspiratorial, too pessimistic, too alienating, too (something)… Yet there it is, at the forefront of our minds and on the tip of our tongues. When we are feeling brave and safe among those we love & trust we sometimes whisper the words: genocide…genocide… GENOCIDE.

Aug 28 2014

Video: Hands Up #Ferguson

“As a global week of action demands justice for Mike Brown, young people from Ferguson, MO and their activist allies detail what #handsup means to them.”

Aug 26 2014

Hope in the Struggle: Chicago’s Young People Resist…

One of my touchstones, the brilliant scholar-activist Barbara Ransby, tweeted something yesterday that I agree with completely.

I write about the activism and organizing of young people in Chicago a lot. I do so because my work and purpose are focused on supporting young people to make their lives more livable. It’s been a long-term commitment. So when other adults persistently disparage and discount ‘young people these days,’ I can’t relate. The young people who I am privileged to know are some of the most talented, creative, dedicated and intelligent activists I’ve ever encountered in my now-over 25 years of organizing. This is a fact, lost on many to be sure, but true nonetheless.

Over the course of this summer, I’ve been engaged with several young people in a group called “We Charge Genocide” and I’ve paid close attention as they have taken the lead in writing a report, in creating workshops and trainings, in using social media to convey the message that oppressive policing must end, and in generously sharing their stories and talents. The source of my hope for the future is rooted in their gifts. We will win because of them.

I call out the young people of BYP 100, We Charge Genocide, Chicago Freedom School, Circles and Ciphers, Fearless Leading By the Youth, VOYCE, Chicago Students Union, Students for Health Equity, Black and Pink Chicago and many, many more that I am leaving out but are doing important work.

In just the past few weeks in Chicago, young people have spearheaded & co-organized a local National Moment of Silence vigil to commemorate the killing of Michael Brown and to stand in solidarity with the Ferguson community.

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Bob Simpson, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Bob Simpson, 8/14/14)

Read more »

Aug 16 2014

Last Words: A Visual Tribute to Men Killed By Police

Shirin-Banou Barghi created a series of graphics as a tribute to those killed by police officers.

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

Read more »

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.

Jul 01 2014

Image of the Day: Samuel Green – Criminalizing Reading

Read about Samuel Green’s case here.

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

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

Jun 29 2014

Restorative Justice is about ‘Being Seen’

I spent a good chunk of my week at a gathering of local restorative justice practitioners. There were nearly 100 of us in attendance at this three day event. There’s a lot to say about the gathering but unfortunately I don’t have time to say it all. It was re-invigorating, challenging, and affirming.

My journey toward restorative and then transformative justice was organic. In fact, I was a restorative justice practitioner even before I read about the idea and became trained in the philosophy. One aspect of restorative practice that sustains me is that in circle, for example, we are all “seen.”

I correspond regularly with several prisoners. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. Recently, I mailed a blog post to one of my newest pen pals Tristan. I met Tristan when I taught a class at Stateville Prison last month. He told me that he appreciated my writing and so I started sending him some posts that I thought might be of interest.

In commenting on the recent post that I sent, Tristan wrote:

“You mentioned something that caught my attention though and I related to it so well. It was the scene where you asked the brother that was with you on the EL to keep his voice down and he basically said something to the effect of: ‘they need to know that I was here.’

Oh sister… This spoke volumes to me! A lot of us in our madness out there in those city streets strive to leave a memory if not a legacy that’ll proceed us long after we’re gone. Because in reality, most of us will never become a Malcolm or Martin or Maya but we still feel this sense of letting the world know that we once walked this earth too. And with this, coupled with the fact that we try to out shine the ones who did it before us, we do a lot of ignorant an devilish things. So sister as you can see it’s not a certain type of person that we need to target and lock out of society but a mindset that we need to rid our people of. We must create an atmosphere where our people are in love with information and education because without it, we are being destroyed!”

I think a lot about our need to ‘be seen’ and I think it’s mostly a desire to be acknowledged and validated as human. ‘Look at me, see me, I’m here and deserving of your care.’ This is an unspoken plea from many of the young people with whom I work. I wrote about this a bit in a post about a circle that I facilitated with a teacher-friend and her student. Here’s a relevant passage about 14 year old Jamal* addressing his teacher:

“Jamal’s eyes were dry until he responded to the question of what he was thinking when he pushed his teacher. “I was thinking that from the first day of school,” he said, “you looked at me like you know I ain’t shit.” You could hear a pin drop after he expressed these sentiments. He had the talking piece in hand so he had the floor. He continued by telling us that he believes that Ms. P is afraid of him. “In my head, I said if she already be thinkin’ I’m a scary black man, then I’m gonna be that – a scary black man,” he continued.”

During the 3-day gathering that I attended, we discussed race, trauma, oppression and healing. I think all of these play out in restorative justice. But as I’ve kept circles (in particular) over the years, I’ve been most struck by the ability of those participating to listen, to hear, and to “see.” Circles are not a panacea and I don’t think that they are for everyone. I do think, however, that we can all do better at “seeing” others as human.

Until this spring, my organization incubated a program called “Circles & Ciphers.” Now the group is standing on its own as an independent intergenerational project. I could not be more proud of the excellent work that all of the members and the co-founders of Circles & Ciphers have done. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

One of the young leaders of Circles, Ethan Viets VanLear, discussed the value of restorative justice at a forum earlier this year. In under four minutes, he explains why I find restorative justice to be a powerful philosophy and approach for addressing harm. The first step is about ‘being seen’ and respected. The rest flows from there…

Jun 23 2014

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

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

Prisoners in 1904

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

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

Male

Female

Number

Number per 100,000 of pop

Number

Number per 100,000 of pop

TOTAL Number

Number per 100,000

Continental U.S.

136,365

328.7

13,326

33.5

149,691

184.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jun 16 2014

Image of the Day…

[Prison Work Crew (ca. 9 Members) Digging Trench and 1 Guard] by Doris Ulmann ( Date: 1929–30, printed 1934) - Metropolitan Museum of Art

[Prison Work Crew (ca. 9 Members) Digging Trench and 1 Guard] by Doris Ulmann ( Date: 1929–30, printed 1934) – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jun 15 2014

Surveillance Embodied: “I Live In A Place Where Everyone Watches You Everywhere You Go”

There are a number of reasons why the current discourse about privacy and surveillance leaves me cold. I started to write a little about these in the past. I haven’t had time or (maybe more truthfully) the motivation to write more. I don’t think that those who are currently most vocal and public about their anti-surveillance state critiques have much in common with me or my concerns. I’m certain that my views and ideas are meaningless to them. Finally, with some exceptions, I think that many current critics of the surveillance state are uninterested in doing the movement-building work that it would take to change the current state of affairs. So I just keep it moving, doing my own work.

My colleague Grant recently emailed a few audio pieces that he worked on with young men of color. I was particularly struck by Marquise Paino’s audio story titled “Eyes On Me.”

Marquise reminds the listener that young black men in Chicago are constantly and consistently ‘watched’ by the state, by businesses, and by community members. For him, there is no neat distinction between the watchers and the watched. It’s all of a piece. A question to ask Marquise is whether it feels different to be watched by the cops, the storeowners, and the gangs. Is there more or less fear and anger depending on who is doing the watching?

I’d be interested to know how privacy advocates and some civil libertarians might discuss the concept of surveillance with a young man like Marquise. What’s the meaning of bulk data collection by the NSA to a young person who lives under constant scrutiny already? Would Marquise be surprised or disturbed that the cops are looking for ways to more easily access cell phone information? I don’t know the answer to these questions but it would be interesting to know.