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.

Jun 14 2014

Musical Interlude: Life Behind the Walls

Jun 09 2014

Standing on a Soapbox, Calling Out the Cops…

I stood on a soapbox Saturday. I mean a real one.

Me on a soapbox (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/7/14)

Me on a soapbox (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/7/14)

On an overcast afternoon, on a concrete island at the intersection of Ashland, Milwaukee and Division, I joined a couple dozen people (mostly young) who were reading/performing poetry in opposition to state violence.

I was invited to say a few words, so I did. I shared words written by Langston Hughes and AI. I added a few of my own too.

On Friday, Damo was laid to rest. I planned to attend the funeral but in the end I was unable due to a previous commitment. It’s just as well. I hate funerals. I despise them especially when the person being buried is in his early 20s.

So I stood on a real soapbox and in memory of Damo & others who are victims of state violence, I shared two poems. Here are a few lines from one by Langston Hughes:

Three kicks between the legs
That kill the kids
I’d make tomorrow.

I’ll admit to actively suppressing any thoughts of a young man being tased (twice) and hitting his head so hard that he was basically brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. How does this happen? Then I remember the disposability and un-humanness of black and brown people. I know how this happens. I am a witness but I’d rather not be.

Ethan spoke before me. No, that’s not actually true, Ethan bled before me. I watched with others transfixed by his words and his pain. I hoped that it was catharsis towards healing. But I don’t know how young black men can heal in the midst of continuing, continual, unrelenting violence. Is this possible?

The title of the gathering organized by members of the Chicago Revolutionary Poets Brigade was ‘No Knock’ An Artistic Speak-Out Against the ‘American Police State.’ The title is inspired by Gil Scott Heron’s poem “No Knock.”

No knocked on my brother Fred Hampton
Bullet holes all over the place
No knocked on my brother Michael Harris
And jammed a shotgun against his skull

It is as it ever was. No knocked on Damo who is now six feet under ground.

Passersby stopped to listen as various people read poems about Guantanamo, police violence, prisons, surveillance, and more. Audre was right: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” There is magic in hearing voices speaking out for justice over the din of a bustling city. You had to be there to understand what I mean. Gathering as a collective to recite poetry can’t end state violence but it does keep our spirits up so that we can demand and fight for more justice. It does help to “give name to the nameless so that it can be thought.” And now more than ever we need the words and we need to be able to think through that which cannot be thought. These are revolutionary acts in our time.

Over the next few weeks, I will be working with others to strategize and organize around the epidemic of police violence experienced by our young people of color in Chicago. I don’t know what will come of our discussions but I am sure that nothing will change unless we change it.

I stood on a soapbox Saturday. I mean a real one. I read some poems including “Endangered Species” by AI.

At some point, we will meet
at the tip of the bullet,
the blade, or the whip
as it draws blood,
but only one of us will change,
only one of us will slip
past the captain and crew of this ship
and the other submit to the chains
of a nation
that delivered rhetoric
in exchange for its promises.

I hope that you find your own soap box. I mean a real one and read some poems, calling out the cops…

May 29 2014

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failed #28

From the Chicago Sun Times:

“When it comes to punishment for pot, where you are matters more than what you do according to a recently released Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy report.

For example, Fuller Park has a higher marijuana arrest rate than any other Chicago neighborhood. In this mostly African-American, south-side neighborhood, police made 32 marijuana arrests for every 1,000 residents in 2013. That is almost ten times the typical arrest rate in the city.

The consortium claims Fuller Park’s extreme arrest rate is the result of the city’s patchwork legal system, which lets Chicago police choose whether to issue a ticket for pot possession under ten grams or make an arrest.”

Source: Chicago Sun Times

Source: Chicago Sun Times

May 26 2014

Damo’s Dead & Other Reasons to Fight…

Dominique died last week…

He was 23 years old. The details of his death are in dispute but here’s how the Chicago Tribune described them:

A man has died two weeks after police used a Taser on him as he was arrested in the Old Town Triangle neighborhood.

Dominique Franklin Jr., 23, who had lived in the 21000 block of Olivia Avenue in Sauk Village, was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital at 4:49 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Franklin was taken to Northwestern in critical condition on May 7 after a police officer used a Taser while trying to arrest him for retail theft about 12:10 a.m. in the 200 block of West North Avenue, authorities said.

Witnesses said Franklin had started to run away from the officer and fell against a light pole after the officer Tased him.

I didn’t know Dominique or Damo as he was known to his friends. However, our lives intersected because he participated in a program that my organization incubated and until recently sponsored. He was a friend to several young people who I know and love. Their pain at his injury and then death has been devastating to witness. Their anger has been incandescent.

Watch as one of his friends, Ethan, performed a spoken word piece last Monday dedicated to Damo as he lay in a coma (start at the 10:50 minute mark).

Damo died the next day.

Hear the hurt, pain, and fury in Ethan’s words. Understand that Damo is part of a long legacy of death at the hands of police. The Chicago police shoot black people. In 2012, CPD shot 57 people and 50 were black. They also tase, target, torture, and kill people of color.

Dr. Delores D. Jones-Brown surveyed 125 high school African American males regarding attitudes toward and contacts with the police. Her findings unsurprisingly suggest that a majority of the males report experiencing the police as a repressive rather than facilitative agent in their own lives and in the lives of their friends and relatives. The young respondents in her study complained of being stopped because they were suspected of dealing drugs or because they were out past curfew or because they were in the “wrong” neighborhood.

Yet because young people like Damo are deemed disposable, they aren’t seen as deserving of love, care, and support. Damo was in fact loved and cherished by his chosen family but he was marked as a threat by society at large. He was managed throughout his life through the lens of repression, crime, and punishment. And now he dead and those of us left behind must find a way to heal while building more justice.

We’ll continue to fight in Damo’s memory because we won’t allow his death to have been in vain…

May 25 2014

Musical Interlude: Trapped

Who doesn’t love Tupac…