Apr 07 2014

On Police Torture, Bearing ‘Witness’ and Saving Ourselves…

I misjudged the weather. I didn’t dress appropriately. It’s cold and gray. Perhaps this is fitting.

Standing outside the Daley Center & across from City Hall, on Friday, about three hundred people chant: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”

Over one hundred people (118 to be exact) hold black banners/flags on wood sticks with the names of Jon Burge and his police officers’ torture victims. They called themselves the “midnight crew.” For over 20 years, they tortured an estimated 118 people, all of them black. 118 black bodies tortured in plain sight. The names are written in white on the black flags. Perhaps this is fitting too.

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

Most of the people who carry the banners are attending the Amnesty International 2014 Conference. They are mostly young and white. When the names are read out loud from the stage, they move over to stand in formation, silently acknowledging the sins of white supremacy. I wonder if they think of it this way; as atoning for a legacy of white terrorism. It strikes me again that the past is not past.

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

Nineteen men who were tortured by Burge still languish behind bars — their confessions extracted through electrocution, suffocation, and vicious beatings. I wonder if people know about this Guantanamo in Illinois or more accurately our Illinois in Guantanamo.

Read more »

Apr 05 2014

Musical Interlude: One Love…

An all time classic…

Mar 23 2014

Action Needed: Please OPPOSE HB 4775 & its Amendment

If you are reading this and live in IL, please take the next logical step and actually FILE A WITNESS SLIP to OPPOSE HB 4775 (observing from the sidelines is not really helpful at this point, thanks).

HB 4775 – Being called a NO-BRAINER BILL:

This bill permits students to be “pushed out” from the traditional school setting for a mere arrest. A basic tenet of the U.S. justice system is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. In essence, it disregards due process protections any accused individual is guaranteed.

This violation may result in an expulsion lasting to 2 calendar years at the discretion of individual school administration.

Discretionary application of school discipline code has been found —and continues to be observed — to have disparate impact on youth of color.

Amends the School Code. Allows a school board to suspend or authorize the superintendent of the district or the principal, assistant principal, or dean of students of a school to suspend a student for a period not to exceed 10 school days or to expel a student for a definite period of time not to exceed 2 calendar years, as determined on a case-by-case basis, if the student has been charged with a violent felony and the charges are pending or if the student has been convicted of a violent felony. Defines “violent felony”. Effective immediately.

Please file a witness slips in OPPOSITION to HB 4775 HERE.

1. Under Section I, fill in your identification information.
2. Under Section II, fill out your organization if you are representing one or write “self” if you are representing yourself. You can also just fill out N/A.
3. In Section III, select the “Opponent” button (for BOTH the original bill and the amendment).
4. In Section IV, select “Record of Appearance Only.”
5. Agree to the ILGA Terms of Agreement
6. Select the “Create Slip” button.

Slips can be submitted until tomorrow, March 26 at 8:00 a.m.

Mar 18 2014

Prison Reform’s In Vogue & Other Strange Things…

What a strange moment we’re in… Prison ‘reform’ is in vogue.

prison Last week, Buzzfeed published an article citing “bipartisan optimism” about prison reform. This weekend, the New York Times editorialized that out of this dysfunctional Congress “there may come one promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.” On Monday, it was USA Today’s turn to deliver the ‘good news’ of reform. It appears then that folks in the Beltway and in the media are currently optimistic about criminal legal reform. The optimism has also spread to states like Louisiana, New York and Texas.

Last fall, a lot was made of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announced guidelines to reform federal drug sentencing. But as was pointed out by several commentators including the ACLU:

“…federal prosecutors already have the discretion to do what Mr. Holder is directing them to do. The trick will be getting them to do it. In other words, actually reducing the number of people subject to outdated and overly harsh mandatory minimums is totally dependent on prosecutors following Mr. Holder’s lead.”

Marijuana legalization for adults is proceeding in Colorado and Washington, with more states considering doing the same. Yet with every action, there is a reaction and last week the House of Representatives passed a bill “to force President Barack Obama to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana in any form.”

Nevertheless, the excitement is palpable about conservative organizations like “Right on Crime.” Since such groups are now willing to publicly criticize the criminal legal system as fiscally unsustainable, some hope that a window for decarceration is open. Books have been published this year suggesting that the era of the “punishment imperative” has ended (in fact that it actually ended in the early 2000s). Several words have been repeated in articles, conferences, media and legislatures across the country: fiscal responsibility, discretion, disproportionate minority contact, mass incarceration and reform.

As someone who has devoted years of her life to the work of first reforming and then later abolishing prisons, one might think that I would be excited about recent developments. In fact, my natural skepticism is now at its peak mainly because I am a student of history. The prison itself was born out of a reform movement and since its inception in the U.S. in the late 18th century, we have been tinkering towards imperfection. With every successive call for ‘reform,’ the prison has remained stubbornly brutal, violent and inhumane. A report titled “Struggle for Justice” published in 1971 put it this way:

“More judges and more ‘experts’ for the courts, improved educational and therapeutic programs in penal institutions, more and better trained personnel at higher salaries, preventive surveillance of predelinquent children, greater use of probation, careful classification of inmates, preventive detention through indeterminate sentences, small ‘cottage’ institutions, halfway houses, removal of broad classes of criminals (such as juveniles) from criminal and ‘nonpunitive’ processes, the use of lay personnel in treatment – all this paraphernalia of the ‘new’ criminology appears over and over in nineteenth-century reformist literature.”

Read more »

Mar 15 2014

Musical Interlude: Just A Friendly Game of Baseball

Today is the international day against police brutality…

Mar 11 2014

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failed #25

First, the Drug Policy Alliance hosted a conversation with Michelle Alexander which is well-worth listening to here.


Over 50 percent of inmates currently in federal prison are there for drug offenses, according to an infographic recently released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (see chart below). That percentage has risen fairly consistently over decades, all the way from 16 percent in 1970.

The second-largest category, immigration-related crimes, accounts for 10.6 percent of inmates. This means that people convicted of two broad categories of nonviolent crimes — drugs and immigration — make up over 60 percent of the U.S. prison population.


More in the Huffington Post.

Mar 10 2014

Black/Inside: Some Facts About Black Incarceration

My friend Billy Dee and I collaborated on a very short zine focused on some facts about black incarceration. The publication is a thank you for those who contributed to our fundraiser to make Black/Inside into a traveling exhibit. We’ll be mailing printed copies this week.

Below are some pages from the publication.

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Read more »

Mar 05 2014

Poem of the Day: So Quietly

“So Quietly”
by Leslie Pinckney Hill

News item from The New York Times on the lynching of a Negro at Smithville, Ga., December 21, 1919: “The train was bored so quietly…that members of the train crew did not know that the mob had seized the Negro until informed by the prisoner’s guard after the train has left the town… A coroner’s inquest held immediately returned the verdict that West came to his death at the hands of unidentified men.”

So quietly they stole upon their prey
And dragged him out to death, so without flaw
Their black design, that they to whom the law
Gave him in keeping, in the broad, bright day,
Were not aware when he was snatched away;
And when the people, with a shrinking awe,
The horror of that mangled body saw,
“By unknown hands!” was all they could say.

So, too, my country, stealeth on apace
The soul-bright of a nation. Not with drums
Or trumpet blare is that corruption sown,
But quietly — now in the open face
Of day, now in the dark — when it comes,
Stern truth will never write. “By hands unknown.”

Feb 16 2014

The Ghastly Ritual: Death, Pain, and Love

It’s sad really, this ghastly ritual. Black people waiting for the courts to deliver some justice for our murdered children. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The jury deliberates. Tick, tock, tick, tock. We stand vigil demanding that the law affirm our humanity. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Anxiety rises. Words like unbelievable, depressing, angry, and scared proliferate. Tick, tock, tick, tock. If the hoped for conviction comes, what next? Another black child killed? Tick, tock, tick, tock. We hold our collective breath. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The verdict is read: betrayal, devastation, anger, tears, recriminations, quiet acceptance, rage, numbness, tuning out, silent prayer, unmitigated pain… We knew. We hoped for different. But we know…better.


What will we tell our children? The cry rises again. Perhaps this is a question without an answer asked by a person who doesn’t really want one. It’s a question to verbalize helplessness and to convey anguished love.

Read more »

Feb 15 2014

Image of the Day: Scottsboro Boys

“This 1936 photograph—featuring eight of the nine Scottsboro Boys with NAACP representatives Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Laura Kellum, and Dr. Ernest W. Taggart—was taken inside the prison where the Scottsboro Boys were being held. Falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train in 1931, the nine African American teenagers were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, in what became a sensational case attracting national attention. Eight of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death; the trial of the ninth ended in a mistrial. These verdicts were widely condemned at the time. Before the young men eventually won their freedom, they would endure many years in prison and face numerous retrials and hearings. The ninth member of the group, Roy Wright, refused to pose for this portrait on account of his frustration with the slow pace of their legal battle. (Source: Smithsonian)”

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell (1936)

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell (1936)