Jun 22 2017

Criminalizing Survivors of Violence: New Video Resources

I’m excited to share three new videos which are a collaboration between the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Survived & Punished (an organizing project that I co-founded). These very short videos tell part of the story of three criminalized survivors of violence. They are intended to provide a historical context for the criminalization of survival in the case of Joan Little, to highlight an example of a successful contemporary campaign to free a criminalized survivor in the case of Marissa Alexander and to introduce people to the case of a current criminalized survivor who needs community support and action in the case of Paris Knox.

I just got back from Detroit where I co-organized and participated in a national convening about the criminalization of survivors titled “No Perfect Victims.” I was overjoyed to finally meet Marissa Alexander in person. It was an amazing experience to see her free from prison and house arrest. She was grounded, smart and full of great ideas about how to support other women like her who were and continue to be punished for surviving. She has launched the Marissa Alexander Justice Project and I can’t wait to see what she does in the future.

Please watch the videos and share them with your networks. In particular, Paris Knox needs our support as she prepares to be retried. Paris Knox is a 38-year-old Black mother who, in 2007, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for killing her abusive ex-partner when he attacked her in her home in 2004. In early 2017, her conviction and 40-year sentence were vacated. Now, though presumed innocent and awaiting trial, her bail has been set at $500,000 with a $50,000 bond that she cannot afford. Today she remains in prison and separated from her mother, sister, and child, who is now 14 years old.

Like many other Black women, Paris is in prison for self-defense.

Expressing solidarity is an integral way to support survivors and reduce the isolation of prisons. Write Paris a letter of support and encouragement at the address below. For tips on letter writing to people in prison, check out the letter writing section in the #SurvivedAndPunished toolkit.

Paris Knox
Inmate No: 20170120230
P.O. Box 089002
Chicago, Illinois 60608

Criminalization of Survival and Defense Campaigns for Freedom:
From Joan Little to Marissa Alexander

In 1974, Joan Little was charged with first degree murder after she stabbed a prison guard who sexually assaulted her at Beaufort County jail. Joan’s case became a national cause for prison abolitionists, prisoners’ rights advocates, feminists, anti-violence activists, and people advocating against the death penalty and for racial justice. Protests in support of her case were widespread and global. After a five week trial, the jury, made up of both Black and white people, deliberated for less than 90 minutes before acquitting Little.

Joan Little was the first woman to be acquitted of murder on the grounds of of self-defense against sexual violence.

Marissa Alexander is a survivor of domestic violence who, in 2012, was sentenced to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for firing a single warning shot into the ceiling when her estranged abusive husband attacked her. Just over a year after Marissa was sentenced, George Zimmerman was on trial for the brutal, racist murder of Trayvon Marton and tried to invoke the stand-your-ground defense that Marissa was denied. After a one month trial, he was acquitted on self-defense. This put the workings of a racist criminal legal system on full display, and support for Marissa’s case surged.

Marissa’s supporters helped publicize her case, held protests and events, raised funds for her legal defense, and supported her through her probation. Eventually grassroots organizing and good legal defense led to Marissa’s case being overturned.

But State Attorney Angela Corey decided to retry her case, threatening Marissa with 60 years in prison for defending her life. In November 2014, Marissa accepted a plea deal for time served plus 65 more days in jail and 2 years of probation under house arrest. After serving a total of 5 years, Marissa Alexander was finally released on January 27, 2017.

I am grateful to Hope Dector, Dean Space, Cece McDonald and Lewis Wallace for their work in creating these terrific videos. Special thanks to all of the artists who contributed their work as well.

Jun 21 2017

New Assata Shakur Zine Available!

My latest collaboration with my friend artist & organizer Monica Trinidad is a zine about Assata Shakur. We are releasing this publication in time for Assata’s birthday in July. It includes an interview with Assata about her treatment by police and prison guards when she was arrested in 1973. The short zine features artwork by Billy Dee, Ariel Springfield, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, and Monica.

You can view the zine online here. You can download a PDF version of the zine here.

May 10 2017

Defense Campaigns as Abolitionist Organizing

I wrote an essay that was published in the New Inquiry on Monday. Here’s an excerpt:

How do we free millions of people currently caged in prisons and jails in the United States? As an abolitionist, who believes that we must create the conditions for dismantling prisons, police, and surveillance, I’m often asked how to build new institutions that will ensure actual safety. My answer is always the same: collective organizing. Currently, there are a range of decarceral/anti-carceral strategies being employed across the country to free prisoners, individually and collectively. People are organizing for bail reform, taking on individual parole support for prisoners, engaging in court watches, launching mass commutation campaigns, and advocating for laws that will offer new pathways for release.

Another important strategy to secure the freedom of criminalized people is participatory defense campaigns. These are grassroots efforts to pressure authorities, attend to prisoner needs, and raise awareness and funds. This essay argues that defense campaigns for criminalized survivors of violence like Bresha Meadows and Marissa Alexander are an important part of a larger abolitionist project. Some might suggest that it is a mistake to focus on freeing individuals when all prisons need to be dismantled. The problem with this argument is that it tends to render the people currently in prison as invisible, and thus disposable, while we are organizing towards an abolitionist future. In fact, organizing popular support for prisoner releases is necessary work for abolition. Opportunities to free people from prison through popular support, without throwing other prisoners under the bus, should be seized.

Read the whole essay here.

Apr 26 2017

Listen: A Very Good Consideration of the War on Drugs

I generally hate most reporting about the War on Drugs. The following piece by On the Media however is excellent and I highly recommend listening here.

Mar 18 2016

#Justice4Rekia: Chicago Organizers Make #BlackWomensLivesMatter

On Monday, we mark four years since Detective Dante Servin killed Rekia Boyd in North Lawndale. I first learned about her death from a friend’s Facebook post. As part of the early organizing efforts by Crista Noel of Women’s All Points Bulletin and Rekia’s family, I was invited to speak about Rekia’s killing on a panel in April 2012. The panel included former police officer and local activist Pat Hill and Rekia’s brother Martinez Sutton. Since then, Martinez has been a fixture in the efforts to seek justice for his dead sister. He has crisscrossed the world including speaking at the United Nations in Geneva to keep Rekia’s name alive and to pressure local authorities to hold Servin accountable for the harm and pain he’s caused.

After a judge dismissed all charges against Dante Servin (on a technicality) in April 2015, I was uncertain that Rekia’s name and story would remain central to our local organizing efforts against state violence. In fact, Rekia has never been more visible in our actions and protests to end police violence.

Since last May, a coalition of groups including BYP100, We Charge Genocide, BLM Chicago, Women’s All Points Bulletin,and Chicago Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, has been packing Chicago Police Board meetings to demand Dante Servin’s firing and that he be stripped of his pension. There’s been progress: In September, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) recommended his termination and former police superintendent Garry McCarthy concurred in November 2015. Last month, the police board finally set dates for Servin’s hearing to determine his future employment status.

I’ve despaired at times over the past four years. I was disappointed, for example, when I arrived to the first day of Servin’s trial and only found a small group gathered at the courthouse. I wrote about my feelings:

“I’ll admit that I am currently battling demoralization. I arrived to a pre-trial rally/gathering for Rekia Boyd during a downpour today. The skies opened and the rain came down mirroring my mood. I arrived late because I was supporting a young person who is on trial in juvenile court this morning. I ducked out and drove to Criminal Court to support Rekia’s family for a few minutes.

It was a small group when I arrived. Martinez Sutton, Rekia’s brother who has been steadfast in fighting to bring his sister’s killer to court, had just finished speaking. People held signs and images of Rekia and other women killed by police.”

Partly in response to my words and as a balm for my and others’ demoralization, some friends and comrades organized a beautiful show of support and solidarity for Rekia. My friend Kelly, one of the organizers of the light action, wrote:

“But tonight, after a great deal of discussion and reflection, my friends and I decided to offer what we could to those who are mourning, discouraged, and in need of hope. We decided to offer a bit of light and action, in the hopes that seeing a message for Rekia projected in the night sky, in the heart of our city, might make them feel a little less disheartened, and a little less alone. It’s a small offering, to be sure, but it is one that is made with love, and with a great deal of hope.”

Seeing Rekia’s name in lights on the surface of the Art Institute of Chicago reminded me not to erase the presence and participation of those who do show up consistently for Black lives even if the numbers aren’t large. There is a lot of pain and anger about the invisibility of Black women, trans and gender-non conforming people in struggles against state and interpersonal violence. Rightly so. It hurts to be erased and overlooked. But it’s important, I think, to simultaneously recognize those who do, in fact, insist on making these lives matter too. It’s always both/and.

I feel like I’ve gotten to know Rekia so much better since that panel in 2012. She feels like family. We owe immense gratitude to Women’s All Points Bulletin and to Rekia’s family for their insistence that her life mattered. In the more recent past, a multi-racial and intergenerational coalition led by young Black organizers has raised the stakes and issued an urgent demand to #FireServin.

On the occasion of the 4th anniversary of Rekia’s death, I offer this short video which is a collaboration with my friend and co-struggler Tom Callahan. The video illustrates some of the recent organizing and struggle to achieve some #Justice4Rekia. Tom and I offer this to Rekia’s family, friends and community with love and gratitude for their efforts which uplift and inspire us.

Thanks to my friend Sarah Jane Rhee for documenting so much of our organizing in Chicago through her photography. Thanks to the young people of Kuumba Lynx for their video documentation of several actions. Thanks to everyone who has struggled to make Rekia’s life matter over these years. Special thanks to the incomparably talented artist/singer Jamila Woods for allowing us to use her anthem Blk Girl Soldier for the video. In Chicago, art is a critical part of our resistance and struggle.

We demand #Justice4Rekia. Onward.

Mar 15 2016

#ByeAnita and #Justice4Laquan

It’s been months and I still haven’t watched the video of Laquan McDonald’s execution. I never will. Like a lot of people, I know that he was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke. I know that he was walking away when he was gunned down. I know that he is dead and that’s enough for me.

Love and Struggle photos (3/14/16)

Love and Struggle photos (3/14/16)

I’ve been angry at people since the release of the video last November. My anger has been simmering and unexpressed. I’m hurt that it took this particular video to motivate some people to care about police violence against Black people. I’ve been suffering from a self-diagnosed low grade depression. Lots of things have contributed to this. One of them is despair that Laquan’s death will be adjudicated through a court system that cannot deliver any actual justice. I want to get off the merry-go-round. I want to escape from groundhog day. But I feel strangely trapped, maybe imprisoned by the limits of other people’s imaginations and their demands for ‘justice.’ I don’t want us to fail Laquan like we have Tamir and so many others.

photo by Kaleb Autman (3/10/16)

photo by Kaleb Autman (3/10/16)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit directing my strangled anger at Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. She waited 400 days before bringing charges against Van Dyke and only did so after a judge mandated the release of the videotape. But the truth is that my antipathy for her dates back years. She is the embodiment of a “tough on crime” prosecutor and I’ve wanted to see her out of office for the past 7 years.

I decided months ago that I would do my part to help defeat Alvarez during the primary. I’ve spent part of that time gently prodding others to join me. A confluence of forces catalyzed by the delayed release of the Laquan McDonald execution video has made it possible that Alvarez might lose the primary today. It’s not a given but it’s possible because a variety of individuals and organizations have worked both autonomously and collectively to educate, incite and mobilize Cook County residents to oust her from office. Some of these individuals and groups are politicians, PACs and unions that have endorsed a particular candidate. But what’s been different about this State’s Attorney contest is that people and groups that don’t usually engage in electoral politics (for various reasons) have joined the effort to unseat Alvarez.

photo by Kaleb Autman (3/10/16)

photo by Kaleb Autman (3/10/16)

My friend Kelly Hayes specifically writes about young Black Chicago organizers co-leading a grassroots #ByeAnita campaign in a Truthout article:

“Young Black organizers in Chicago, who have helped claim victories as historic as winning reparations for survivors of police torture and securing a trauma center for Chicago’s underserved South Side, made a decision in the weeks that followed the traumatic release of dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death: They wanted Anita Alvarez out of office.”

The #ByeAnita #AlvarezMustGo campaign of the past few weeks is unique. The lead groups and individuals involved did not work in coordination with any particular candidate or officially endorse one (much to some people’s consternation). Instead groups and individuals organized an outside political education campaign that relied on direct action, teach ins, traditional canvassing and social media. Actions were both autonomous and also strategically planned/coordinated. Four local youth-driven groups, Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Black Lives Matter Chicago (BLM Chi), planned and executed over a dozen direct actions in less than a month.

Again Kelly offers valuable context about these direct actions:

“With a budget of less than $1,000 scraped together for their efforts, the coalition of grassroots groups and organizers has staged more than a dozen actions in the last month.

These tactics, aimed at keeping grievances against Alvarez from falling from the public’s mind before Election Day, helped keep the record of the embattled state’s attorney in the spotlight, but according to Morris Moore, the campaign has also provided other benefits to its architects.

“In the beginning, the Bye Anita campaign felt like harm reduction, and like therapy in a sense,” said Morris Moore, noting that “Anita Alvarez was involved in a horrible tragedy that is still being felt in the Black community by young Black people. And even if the mainstream media isn’t paying attention to it anymore, we’re still feeling it.” But by bringing direct action to the campaign trail, and consistently ambushing their politically vulnerable target, Morris Moore says she found something that she needed in this political moment. “These actions have allowed me to recreate a way to be involved in politics,” she said. “I don’t have to support a candidate. I can say I don’t support this candidate, and this is why.”

Veronica Morris Moore gives voice to a different form of engagement that has in some ways provided a catharsis for a community of exhausted and depleted organizers. I include myself among those organizers. While I am tired from working to defeat Alvarez while managing all of my other work and life commitments, I have found inspiration in the persistence, commitment and creativity of younger organizers.

Yesterday, for example, members of Assata’s Daughters supported by allies staged an ambitious action across the city. They created and then unfurled 16 banners in communities across Chicago. As reported in Chicagoist:

“Blood on the ballot,” reads one banner hanging over the Kennedy Expressway at Irving Park. “Justice for Rekia, no votes for Anita, reads another hung over the Nicholas Bridge of the Art Institute of Chicago. “#AdiosAnita 16 shots and a cover up,” reads another on Western Avenue near 18th Street.”

photo collage by Monica Trinidad (3/14/16)

photo collage by Monica Trinidad (3/14/16)

In a statement, Assata’s Daughters explained the rationale for the action:

“Final voter engagement before the March 15th Primary in Chicago is taking to the sky today as airplanes are set to fly with banners highlighting the link between Hillary Clinton to the unpopular Rahm Emanuel and the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, with whom he covered up Laquan McDonald’s murder during his own re-election campaign. This is one of a series of 16 banners that will be released throughout the city all pushing the messaging that Anita Alvarez must go.”

Unfortunately the weather didn’t allow for the planes to fly the banner so they will try again today. However, the group did successfully drop all 16 banners across Chicago. I’m trying to keep the images of those 16 banners in my mind to replace the echoes of the 16 shots that continue to reverberate loudly in our community. And if Alvarez is defeated tonight, I’ll take a deep breath and pray that some of the despair I’ve been feeling about Laquan will dissipate. I’ll hope that Laquan is resting a bit easier. I’ll whisper words of gratitude for all of those whose efforts will have made her defeat a reality. I won’t confuse Alvarez’s defeat with systemic transformation. I’ll go back to work to abolish prisons, police and surveillance and to build a world that doesn’t need them. But I will do so satisfied that our collective action removed an awful elected official from office and that we now have more space to create the world in which we hope to thrive.

There are more components of the #ByeAnita campaign and many others (including me) who’ve been involved at various levels but that’s a story for another day. For today, I want to lift up the efforts, labor and leadership of the young Black Queer women and femmes who have planned and executed the bulk of the #ByeAnita campaign direct actions. They have been the life-blood of this campaign. I offer my appreciation and my love. I hope that anyone reading this who can vote in Cook County will use their ballot to say #ByeAnita in Laquan’s name.

Mar 03 2016

AAHS Publishes Laura Scott’s Story…

March is Women’s History month. It’s fitting that the Afro-American History Society (AAHS) has published my essay on Laura Scott in its spring newsletter. I am so excited that Laura’s story will be read by a whole new group of people.

You can read the newsletter HERE

Bertillon Card of Laura Scott (1908) - from my collection

Bertillon Card of Laura Scott (1908) – from my collection

 

Jan 29 2016

Marissa Alexander: One year later

I don’t have time to blog anymore. I’m working all of the time and my life is in transition. I miss the daily practice of blogging. I hope to get back to it in a few weeks.

This Wednesday marked the 1 year anniversary of Marissa Alexander’s release from prison into a 2 year sentence of home confinement/probation. She has one more year to go before she can claim more freedom. For the occasion, Marissa recorded a message to her supporters to update us on how she’s been faring. Watch her message below.

Regular readers of this blog know that I spent many months working to help #FreeMarissa as part of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), a group that I co-founded. As a way to honor Marissa and to lift up the organizing of CAFMA, my friend Tom Callahan and I produced a short film that we released on Wednesday afternoon. Watch it below.

I am so grateful that Marissa is out of prison. I look forward to next year when she is free from home confinement and probation. I am grateful to the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign and to everyone who came together to make sure that Marissa could be with her children and family. Thank you.

Dec 26 2015

Video: Blood at the Root Exhibition

I spent part of this year co-curating an exhibition titled “Blood at the Root: Unearthing Stories of State Violence Against Black Women & Girls.” The exhibition focuses our attention on the fact that all #BlackWomensLivesMatter and all #BlackGirlsLivesMatter. Relying on various artifacts, we narrate the experiences and resistance of Black women and girls (trans and non-trans) who have been brutalized, imprisoned and killed by the state and its agents.

Special thanks to my friend Gretchen Hasse for documenting Blood at the Root which closed at the end of October.

Dec 15 2015

Video: Struggling with Re-entry

This week Root and Rebound launched a 3 minute video which highlights the struggles of currently and formerly incarcerated people navigating the reentry process. You can watch it below.

Letters From Inside from Margaret Katcher on Vimeo.

The video highlights a myriad of legal issues and discriminatory practices that people face upon release—including employment discrimination, denials of public benefits, exclusions from housing, and misapplied parole and probation rules. Root and Rebound has also launched a campaign called Reimagine Reentry: Disrupting Cycles of Poverty and Incarceration, to engage and educate the public, and expand its base of support.