Jan 18 2015

“Free Us All:” Love in Action in Chicago

It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday on Thursday and Chicago was in the mood to celebrate through study, action and protest. As part of an effort to #ReclaimMLK, Chicagoans demanded reparations for police torture survivors, gathered to discuss the radical roots of the Black Freedom Movement, called out a list of the system’s crimes against those most marginalized and finally marched by the hundreds in solidarity with a youth-led protest on the near Westside of Chicago.

Listen to these words offered by Kaleb Autman, a 12 year old student at Village Leadership Academy & co-organizer of the ReclaimMLK march and by Page May, a young organizer with We Charge Genocide who helped VLA students bring their vision to fruition. Listen to their words to better understand the current rebellions led mostly by young people of color taking place across the country.

I was invited to speak at Thursday’s rally and march. I had jotted down a few words but when it came time for me to speak I decided to focus on what was in front of me rather than on what I had planned to share. You see, by the time I was called to speak, we were in front of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (Chicago’s youth jail) and I could hear the children who were locked in cells insistently pounding on their windows.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

Their message to us on the outside was urgent and unequivocal: “Free Us.”

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez  (1/15/15)

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez (1/15/15)

I turned and looked to my right. I saw my friends of the Chicago Light Brigade holding light boards spelling out “Free Us All” as they projected the words “Indict the System” on the side of the courthouse. I struggled to hold back tears.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

It was the vision of a group of Black elementary school students that we march 2.5 miles from their school to the juvenile jail to underscore how close they are to being funneled through the pipeline to prison. My friend Kelly Hayes, who helped organize the march, wrote beautifully about the proximity of incarceration for these students:

VLA student Jakya Hobbs told us, “It is this system that keeps us from the world.” Her use of the word “us” was very intentional in this context. These student organizers see no distinction between themselves and the incarcerated, and rightly believe that as long as black and brown children are criminalized and caged, no young person is truly free. In elementary school, they understand what it took me decades to comprehend: Prisons don’t simply confine prisoners. They confine hopes and ambitions, and dampen the faith of those who might otherwise dare to believe in better things. Living as a black or brown person in a country where the prison industrial complex cages over two million of our brothers and sisters means walking through the world with the knowledge that, while you may have eluded the slave catcher, many of your people will not.

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Over 600 people braved the Chicago cold to march alongside the young organizers of the protest. I was so proud to live in this city as people of all ages, genders, class backgrounds and races responded to their call to action. I felt hopeful.

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

One of the children in the jail scrawled out the words “I <3 You” on his window. It read crystal clear to those of us standing outside of the jail. People responded by calling out and signing their love in kind.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

Thursday’s #ReclaimMLK march was a manifestation of love in action. It’s that simple and that complex. If these uprisings and rebellions are to develop into a movement, love will have to be centered alongside power. This is a truth gleaned from past movements and leaders:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Source: pp. 324-325 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998).

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

In the end though, I will remember three words from this action: “Free Us All.”

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

These words will ring out as we continue to struggle and fight for a more just and peaceful world. “Free Us All” is our North Star helping us to find our way in our journey toward liberation.

Oct 06 2014

#NoSchoolPushout: The Girl to Prison Pipeline

Much of the discussion about the school to prison pipeline focuses on the plight of young men of color (particularly black boys).  This is understandable given the dire statistics that illustrate how susceptible they are to being pushed out of school into future incarceration.  The most often cited statistic is that 1 out of 3 black boys born in 2001 is likely to spend part of his life in prison.

However young women are also impacted by the school to prison pipeline.  Their trajectory is different.  Incarcerated girls are often victims of sexual and physical abuse in their early lives, and this is often neither recognized nor identified by school officials or other adults.

Sociologist Beth Richie has made the case that a key to understanding and responding to women as offenders is understanding their status as crime victims[1]. Laurie Schaffner (2007) extends this argument by suggesting that “young women adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court report suffering inordinate amounts of emotional, physical, and sexual trauma in early childhood and adolescence.”[2] She contends that “a disproportionate number of girls come into the juvenile justice system with family histories of physical and sexual violence and emotional neglect” (p.1229).

Many of the problems that young women face that relate to school failure and potential future incarceration stem from physical and sexual abuse.  This has led some to characterize the experience of interpersonal violence as a “Girl Prison Pipeline.”  In order to interrupt the girl prison pipeline then, particular attention must be paid to the physical and sexual abuse histories of young women.

Over the last few years, black girls in particular have been increasingly subjected to harsh disciplinary policies that push them out of school. A new report, Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity, released a couple of weeks ago suggests that:

“In the 2011-12 school year, 12 percent of all African American female pre-K-12 students were suspended from school, six times the rate of white girls and more than any other group of girls and several groups of boys – despite research showing that African American children do not misbehave more frequently than their peers.”

Girls of color and particularly black girls are increasingly pushed out of school and criminalized. But this story is not a new one. You can read about a young woman named Dorothy Young’s story here, for example. Also watch this video about Kiera Wilmot’s more recent incident:

Further Reading and Resources

Disciplining Violence by Connie Wun

Girls in the System by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)

Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls by Monique Morris (2012)

School to Prison Pipeline for Girls: The Role of Physical and Sexual Abuse by Sandra B. Simkins, Amy E. Hirsch, Erin McNamara Horvat, and Marjorie B. Moss


[1] Research on Women and Girls in the Justice System: Plenary Papers of the 1999 Conference on Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation – Enhancing Policy and Practice through Research, Volume 3. (September 2000). Office of Justice Programs. NCJ 180973.

[2] Schaffner, Laurie. 2007. Violence Against Girls Provokes Girls’ Violence: From Private Injury to Public Harm. Violence against Women, volume 13 no. 12. Pp.1229-1248.

Oct 03 2014

#NoSchoolPushout: Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

dscposter2014-page-001 Tomorrow kicks of the 5th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout. This year, my organization will join with youth, parents, teachers and community members in over 40 cities to resist school pushout and policing. Project NIA released a short paper this morning documenting the gains and challenges in the fight to end Chicago’s school to prison pipeline. I hope that those interested in these issues will read the paper authored by my friend, Dr. Michelle VanNatta.

I thought that I would use the occasion of the week of action to offer an introduction to the school-to-prison pipeline for those who might be new to the concept. I’ll also provide some resources for those interested in further study.

Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)

In an article that we wrote earlier this year, Erica Meiners and I defined the STPP in this way:

“Less a pipeline than a nexus or a swamp, the STPP is generally used to refer to interlocking sets of structural and individual relationships in which youth, primarily of color, are funneled from schools and neighborhoods into under- or unemployment and prisons.

While the US public education system has historically diverted non-white communities toward under-education, non-living wage work, participation in a permanent war economy, and/or incarceration, the development of the world’s largest prison nation over the last three decades has strengthened policy, practice, and ideological linkages between schools and prisons. Non-white, non-heterosexual, and/or non-gender conforming students are targeted for surveillance, suspended and expelled at higher rates, and are much more likely to be charged, convicted, and removed from their homes, or otherwise to receive longer sentences.”

Facts and Figures

To help provide some context for the scope and impact(s) of harsh school disciplinary policies, Project NIA created a short quiz to test your knowledge. Thanks to @cronehead and @MuffMacGuff who digitized this quiz. How do you fare?

Critique of the STPP Concept

Dr. Damien Sojoyner (2013) has challenged the concept of the school to prison pipeline. The abstract of his paper titled “Black Radicals Make for Bad Citizens: Undoing the Myth of the School to Prison Pipeline (PDF) summarizes his main argument:

“Over the past ten years, the analytic formation of the school to prison pipeline has come to dominate the lexicon and general common sense with respect to the relationship between schools and prisons in the United States. The concept and theorization that undergirds its meaning and function do not address the root causes that are central to complex dynamics between public education and prisons. This paper argues that in place of the articulation of the school to prison pipeline, what is needed is a nuanced and historicized understanding of the racialized politics pertaining to the centrality of education to Black liberation struggles. The result of such work indicates that the enclosure of public education foregrounds the expansion of the prison system and consequently, schools are not a training ground for prisons, but are the key site at which technologies of control that govern Black oppression are deemed normal and necessary.”

Others have offered other critiques of the STPP concept pointing out, for example, that we need think of the process of educational and societal marginalization as one that in fact begins from the cradle or even the womb.

Activism and Advocacy

The past decade has found increasing numbers of policy makers, advocates, academics, educators, parents, students, and organizers focusing explicitly on the relationships between education and imprisonment. A lot of organizing has happened around the issue of school pushout. The Dignity in Schools Campaign (organizers of the National Week of Action) brings together over 75 organizations across the country who are working to transform school discipline policies.

Just this week, advocates and organizers in California presided over Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of a bill to limit “school administrators’ use of an offense called “willful defiance” to suspend students in California schools.” This was the result of a long-term organizing campaign. Earlier, I referenced our newly released paper that documents some of the gains made by Chicago and Illinois organizers in the fight to interrupt the STPP.

Here are some organizations and projects advocating and organizing to end the STPP.

Teaching Youth About STPP: Curriculum Resources

We at Project NIA have developed several resources that can be used by educators and organizers to discuss the STPP with young people in particular. These resources have also been used by many people to lead discussions with adults as well. Others have also developed useful tools for teaching about the STPP.

Curriculum: Suspension Stories

Curriculum: NYCLU School-to-Prison Pipeline Workshop

Comic: School to Prison Pipeline by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

One page comic with discussion questions: Sent Down the Drain

Find many other audio, video, etc… resources at Suspension Stories

Further Study 

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline Edited by Bahena, Cooc, Currie-Rubin, Kuttner and Ng (2012)

From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline Edited by Nocella, Parmar and Stovall (2014)

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios (2011)

There is a list of other reading here and here.

Over the course of this next week, I will be posting information about the specific components that make up the STPP. Stay tuned!

Jun 08 2014

Poem of the Day: Why I Cry

Why I Cry
by Sharee M (Free Write Jail Arts Program)

I cry because so many thoughts
go through my mind.
I cry when I feel that I have been mistreated
I cry so that someone could come and comfort me
I cry so that things could go my way
I cry when I feel that everything’s over
I cry when I think about what I should have done
instead of doing time
I cry for a second chance
so that I could be something
I cry when I think about
when would I see my family again
I cry because I have not found myself
I cry for the family who lost a loved one
I cry for not going with my first mind, the right one
I cry because bricks surround me
I cry because I am in a box
I cry because I am not free

(Source: Big Dream I’m Chasing, Free Write Jail Arts Anthology Vol 6)

Jun 03 2014

Collateral Consequences of Criminalizing School Discipline…

The Advancement Project is out with a good short video that updates Kiera Wilmot’s case. Kiera is a Florida high school student who was arrested and charged with two felonies for a botched science experiment. The Advancement Project video speaks to the collateral consequences of criminalizing school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.

May 21 2014

More Sights From Locked Up & Locked Out March & Action

So many wonderful images from Monday’s Locked Up and Locked Out action and march keep coming in and I also couldn’t include all of the photographs in yesterday’s post

by Tommy Callahan (5/19/14)

by Tommy Callahan (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Holly Krig (5/19/14)

by Holly Krig (5/19/14)

by Sehar Sufi (5/19/14)

by Sehar Sufi (5/19/14)

Read more »

May 20 2014

Banging on Windows: Protesting Against Youth Incarceration in Chicago

by Richard Ross (JTDC Cell with high window)

by Richard Ross (JTDC Cell with high window)

They are banging on the windows…

At first, I can’t place the sound. Then I look up and I see arms waving from behind darkened windows. They must be standing on their beds straining to see us. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that they might see or hear us outside. This is after all mainly why we are here.

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/19/14)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/19/14)

Over 200 of us (or more) are standing outside of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). We’ve walked over 2.5 miles from Paderewski Elementary, one of fifty schools that Rahm Emanuel closed last year. As we march, there are energetic chants, waving signs, a colorful banner, cars honking, neighbors looking out of their windows and others rushing over to ask what we are all about. It doesn’t feel somber though we’re here to resist the criminalization of young people. We are joining together to kick off the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/19/14)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/19/14)

Our group is an intergenerational one – from babies and toddlers to teenagers and college-age young people to those of us in middle-age and grandparents. We are black, white, latin@, asian and a mix of all of these. We are cis-gendered and trans*. We are able-bodied and differently-abled. It’s an incredibly diverse group and this matters if we are to build a mass movement to end prisons.

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/19/14)

by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Monica Trinidad (5/19/14)

by Monica Trinidad (5/19/14)

Read more »

May 19 2014

#NoYouthInPrison: Kicking Off National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth

If you’ve read this blog even once, you know that I am against prisons. I am particularly against incarcerating children. Today kicks off the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.

nationalweekofaction

I write a lot about the prison industrial complex (including the juvenile punishment system) and last year I published a paper with my friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta about alternatives to youth incarceration in Chicago. In the paper, we provided a brief literature review about juvenile detention and incarceration. I am republishing that part here to buttress the case against incarcerating young people.

Read more »

May 02 2014

May 19: Chicago Action and March Against Incarcerating Youth

Apr 28 2014

New Interactive Map on Youth Incarceration

The W. Haywood Burns Institute has released an interactive map that breaks data down by state according to racial disparities and non-violent offenses. The map is based on federal data for 2011 is the most recent information available. In 2011:

—75 percent of all youth are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

—Two-thirds of those youth are of color.

—Black youth are 4.6 times as likely to be incarcerated than white youth.

—Native American youth are 3.2 times as likely.

—Latino youth are 1.8 times as likely.

Check out the maps yourselves to see how your state fares.