Mar 29 2015

Learning to Fight…To Win

I haven’t had time to write. I’ve been going at 100 miles per minute, it seems. March has been an absolutely brutal month for me. I have worked no less than 80 hours a week for weeks and I am tired.

Since last December, many of us in Chicago have been engaged in a renewed fight for reparations for those tortured by Jon Burge and his fellow officers. I’ve tried to document several parts of the struggle. It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update.

The most important recent news is that the reparations ordinance finally has a hearing in the City Council finance committee on April 14th. This is one of the key demands in the current campaign. We are organizing for the hearing. Those of you in Chicago can help in many ways including by calling supportive members of the committee to ask that they attend the hearing on the 14th.

I am learning new lessons and re-learning old ones through this campaign. One issue that I continue to ponder is the definition of a “victory.” In a campaign born out of decades of struggle, such a definition can be stubbornly amorphous. I am trying to keep focused on those most impacted to gauge victory. If Darrell and Anthony and other torture survivors who I have the honor to know feel a sense of satisfaction after this campaign ends, then I will count it as a victory/win.

I can already say that one positive outgrowth of this campaign has been that so many new people are learning how to fight. This is a necessary precursor to learning to win. We are using traditional organizing methods and marrying those with new ones. We’ve organized protests and actions. We’ve had one on one meetings with various stakeholders. We’ve hosted community events. We’ve engaged individuals through traditional and social media. We’ve consistently relied on art in the campaign.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/15/15)

For example, we recently organized a pop up exhibition in front of Mayor Emanuel’s office at City Hall. This exhibition and teach-in engaged dozens of people throughout the day. It also pre-figured two parts of the reparations ordinance that we want to enact: 1. Teaching the history of Chicago Police torture in public schools; 2. Memorializing the legacy of police torture through some form(s) of art (a monument, site, etc…).

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/18/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/18/15)

photo by Tom Callahan (3/18/15)

photo by Tom Callahan (3/18/15)

photo by Tom Callahan (3/18/15)

photo by Tom Callahan (3/18/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/18/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (3/18/15)

My friend Kelly storified some of the tweets from this exhibition and teach-in which can be found HERE. Last week, the Chicago Sun Times editorialized about the Burge torture cases. They wrote:

We now know that, under Burge, men went to prison at least in part because of statements elicited through police torture. We need to get to the bottom of each case and ensure justice is done.

Exactly…

Mar 03 2015

Resisting the Blank Look of Defeat in the Second City

Last week, I stood beside a ‘peace’ table looking into the faces of some young Black men. I’m the featured speaker for a short Black history month program they’ve organized. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. All I know is that I have 5 to 10 minutes to fill. Sister Donna tells me to share inspirational words about Black culture. I’m at a loss. I wish that I had asked more questions about the event in advance. I rack my brain and decide to improvise. I talk about how I became politicized about the criminal punishment system. I tell a story.

As I talk, I stress the importance of affirming that Black is in fact beautiful. I talk a lot about resistance. I look into the eyes of some of the young men standing in a semi circle around me. I wonder if my words resonate. I end my speech with words written by Assata Shakur which have been popularized through the ongoing Black lives matter protests:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

We chant the words in unison. Our voices becoming progressively louder and stronger. I am finished. The young man who had introduced me then asks a question: “What stood out to you from Ms. K’s speech?” He quickly adds: “Or feel free to share any other thoughts.” He points to a talking piece on the ‘peace’ table and I hand it over to the young man to my left who promptly passes it on to the young man next to him like it’s a hot potato.

My stomach drops. I’m now silently dreading the responses. Then the young man holding the talking piece says that he appreciated my emphasis on the need to keep fighting to resist oppression. I feel my shoulders begin to drop from my ears. The tension in my gut dissipates as more people share their comments and thoughts. One young person says that he had never thought to connect Mike Brown’s body lying in the street for hours with lynching. He offered that dead bodies lie for hours in his neighborhood and that he would have a new perspective from now on. Another young man mentioned that he appreciates chanting Assata’s words which he has never heard before. More people speak. One young person says that he thought it was impossible to beat the system but that my opening story made him reconsider.

All of the young Black men in his group have been or are in conflict with the law. The program that they are part of focuses on using restorative justice as the basis for relationship-building and transformation. Some of the young men in the circle wear the blank look of defeat like a second skin. A few words won’t change that, I know. But I hope that a few sparks are ignited. I hope.

As I am driving North leaving Back of the Yards, my phone rings. It’s a voice that I know but can’t place: “It’s Jeff*,” the voice says. I’m taken back 3 years. Suddenly, I’m not in my car but sitting across from Jeff at Burger King. His sister is next to me. We’ve just come from the police station.

Jeff was arrested with a friend for basically being young and Black while standing on the street. When I arrive at the station with his sister, we’re told that he’s being released with an informal station adjustment. Those are still considered arrests that stay on one’s record. When we first see Jeff walking toward us, he appears to have shrunk two inches. Shoulders slumped and head bowed, he’s not looking at us. I ask if he is OK. He mumbles something indecipherable. I ask if he is hungry and he shrugs. I interpret this as a yes. As I stare at him across the table, he too wears the blank look of defeat. I wish that he would show a flash of emotion: anger, sadness, anything. But he just looks so tired, wrung out, resigned. He seems to have no fight left.

Jeff and the young men who I met last week are the victims of a police department in this city that routinely brutalizes and crushes black people. It’s the daily, relentless breaking of spirits and of people that is so routine it doesn’t garner a single paragraph in any local newspaper.

I am so happy to hear Jeff’s voice. I ask how he is doing and he replies: “I wanted to call to say that I’m not broken. I’m OK, Ms. K. I was thinking of you, I think of you often and I wanted you to know. I’m OK.” I’m on Lakeshore Drive and I need to pull over but I can’t. So I just sob on the phone. I tell him that I am so happy to hear his voice and to know that he is OK. We talk for a bit longer and promise to keep in better touch.

Yesterday, I stood in a semi-circle in the Chicago cold listening to mostly young Black people speaking about resilience, struggle, history, rage, and love. I look into their faces and there is no defeat in their eyes. I wish that the young men I spoke to last week were here, standing beside me. I wish they could hear Ethan’s clarion call of resistance. Shut it down, he shouts. We in the crowd yell back, Shut it down. We’ve gathered to protest ongoing Chicago police torture. We’ve come together to demand reparations for Jon Burge’s torture survivors.

This is beautiful resistance. Before we break for the night, we form two circles: one large one and one in the middle made up of those whose voices must be centered in this struggle (young black people, torture survivors, Native Americans, and more). We are holding hands and together we chant:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

photo  by Red Schulte (3/2/15)

photo by Red Schulte (3/2/15)

Feb 15 2015

‘We Must Love Each Other:’ Lessons in Struggle and Justice from Chicago

The national protests catalyzed by the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson last August continue even as many (including the mainstream media) have moved on. Some critics have suggested that the uprisings/rebellions are leaderless, lack concrete demands and/or are without clear strategy. Each of these critiques is easily refuted so I won’t concern myself with them here.

In Chicago, many have used the energy and opening created by these ongoing protests to re-animate existing long-term anti-police violence campaigns. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered at the Chicago Temple to show our love for police torture survivors on the day after Jon Burge was released from house arrest.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/14/15 @ Chicago Temple)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (2/14/15 @ Chicago Temple)

The gathering was billed as a people’s hearing and rally in support of a reparations ordinance currently stalled in the Chicago City Council. Politicians, faith leaders, and community activists spoke at the event. Poets exhorted the crowd. But the most impactful, poignant and powerful words came from the Burge torture survivors themselves.

Burge Torture Survivor Darrell Cannon (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 2/14/15)

Burge Torture Survivor Darrell Cannon (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 2/14/15)

Read more »

Jan 30 2015

New Resource: The Knotted Line Curriculum

I just received a free hard copy of a new curriculum guide co-created by Evan Bissell based on the terrific online resource “The Knotted Line.” It’s terrific.

The Torture of Mothers by Elizabeth Catlett (1970)

The Torture of Mothers by Elizabeth Catlett (1970)

The Knotted Line Curriculum looks to support critical analysis of the dynamics that justify the PIC and the shifting line of free/unfree by creating opportunities for inquiry into “the infinity of historical traces” that have led to the present. The research projects in this curriculum connect current and past systems of oppression, and movements of self-determination through creative mediums and outcomes.

For example, inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, the Historical Fiction Time Travel project develops a series of letters between different time periods that share context, challenges and strategies in their respective times. Additionally, nine workshops engage critical analysis and research skills in exploring concepts of power, media, and freedom. These workshops are designed for use individually, integrated in unit plans or as part of the Knotted Line projects.

All of the materials are also available online, but if you would like a full-color print version of the curriculum, please fill out this form. If you are part of an institution that would like copies, donations help extend the distribution of free copies. So please consider a donation if you can afford it.

Jan 25 2015

Chicago #TrainTakeOver For #BlackLivesMatter

If you read this blog with any regularity, then you will be unsurprised at young Chicagoans’ consistent and constant creativity in protests. Over the past few months, young people in Chicago have led several protests against state violence.

On Friday, some of these young people organized a #TrainTakeOver. Below is a terrific video by Kuumba Lynx documenting the action.

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

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.

Jan 15 2015

For the Living…

This morning on Dr. King’s birthday, I’ll be joining friends and comrades at City Hall to sing in for reparations. This action is the third one in a month and is focused on pressuring Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. Over half of the council has expressed their support for the ordinance, the Emanuel administration is the current obstacle to passage.

My Goddaughter recently asked why it is important to pass this reparations ordinance. I gave a number of reasons having to do with fairness, restitution, decency, morality and more. Above all though, I told her that it would be one way to concretize the meaning(s) of #BlackLivesMatter. As political philosopher. Joy James has said: “Black lives matter because we make them matter.” Insisting that black people who are tortured by the state be compensated for this harm is one way that we can make Black lives matter.

As protesters around the world have taken to lying down in public spaces, staging “die-ins,” I’ve been uncomfortable and mute. I’ve been screaming inside though: “The system already wants us dead. Living is resistance.

I saw a photograph on Twitter a few weeks ago. It was of a young black woman lying on train tracks as a “die-in” protest against police violence.

diein

The image has haunted me. I’m over dying in. I hate death.

But I have kept my mouth shut because who cares, really, about what I think of a particular protest tactic. There are plenty of tactics that I disavow but I don’t use my small platform to do so publicly. And besides, plenty of people think die-ins are symbolically effective.

For me, the reparations ordinance is a memorial for the living. The ordinance’s stubborn insistence that people (no matter what they have done) should be compensated for torture is a little earthquake. It shakes up and re-configures the normalization of punishment. To say that the state needs to formally apologize for harm done is important too.

At City Hall today, survivors of Jon Burge’s torture will once again speak of it loudly, publicly and with courage. And those of us who are there to listen and demand restitution will sing. It’s a live-in. Join Us.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/29/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/29/14)

Jan 06 2015

New Resource Available: Teaching About the PIC & Criminal Legal System

As classes have resumed this week for high school and some college students across the country, my organization, Project NIA, is making a new resource available to educators and organizers today.

My friend and long-time NIA volunteer Dr. Michelle VanNatta wrote and compiled an invaluable guide last year. “Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas” offers activities that can be adapted, shared, and transformed to meet the needs of different groups. These activities are offered as potential tools in the hopes they may be useful in sparking discussion and in the development of more curricula.

Anyone who is interested in the guide can complete a short survey below to receive the link to download a copy at no cost.

The guide is in no way meant to provide a comprehensive look at issues in the prison industrial complex or criminal legal system. This is not a systematically developed, integrated group of exercises intended to provide a thorough view and analysis of all the critical issues about the prison industrial complex that communities, students, and activists need to learn about. Rather, it’s a set of tools intended to be adapted and integrated into curricula, popular education, or training efforts by teachers, organizers, and community builders.

I want to thank Michelle for her generosity in creating this resource and making it freely available. I also thank my friend Jacqui Shine for lending her design talents.

Finally, while this guide is offered at no cost to those interested, it is not “free.” Lots of time and effort went into creating the resource. Project NIA is a small organization that relies heavily on individual donors to do our work. If you want to contribute to the work, you can mail a check to us here. In addition, you can read our 2014 year in review highlights here.

I hope that these resources are helpful in building knowledge about aspects of the PIC. Please feel free to share the link to the survey with others who might also like to download the guide. As a courtesy, we are asking that everyone first complete the survey before accessing the guide.

You can complete the survey below and then download the guide.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Dec 31 2014

Sights and Sounds of Chicago’s Struggle for Reparations…

Over the past couple of weeks, Chicagoans have intensified their calls for the City Council and Mayor Emanuel to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. The struggle for justice for Chicago’s survivors of police torture has spanned several decades.

On December 16 and December 29th, several organizations and individuals organized actions and marches to increase the pressure on elected officials to pass the ordinance. Below are some photos and video from both actions. You can support this organizing by contacting holdout alderpeople and demanding that they support the ordinance. Details for how to help are here.

December 16Holiday March and Action to Pass Reparations for Chicago Police Torture Survivors

Professor Adam Green, a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, opened the march with a few words setting the context of the struggle.

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

Read more »

Dec 29 2014

Thinking Through the End of Police…

Many people are more afraid of imagining a world without police than one without prisons. This seems especially true for people who consider themselves to be progressive. I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to write in depth about abolishing the police right now. But I’ve been asked a lot for ‘resources’ on the topic. To be honest, I’m crabby about offering those too. This is because what people usually mean by “resources” is a step-by-step guide or program. Well, that doesn’t exist because building a world without police is actually a collective project that will also mean that many, many other things will need to change too. That’s not a satisfying answer for people who don’t actually want to think and most importantly who think it’s “other people’s” responsibility to come up with “alternatives.”

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

by Shirin-Banou Barghi

Rinaldo Walcott offers a start for those looking for the right questions to ask about abolishing the police:

“We need broad based discussions about the future of modern policing and what it is really for.

We need to imagine a time when police are not needed. In the interim we need to disarm the police.

We must require police to work in communities they live in and make them accountable to communities they police.

We need to work towards forms of being in community where conflict is resolved within communities and where resolution is not necessarily oriented towards punishment.

These ways of being are not beyond us, indeed these ways of being are shared by many among us.

We need only recognize and acknowledge that such knowledge exists and the practice is doable.

In essence, any moral and ethical society willing to confront the deeper reasons why policing exist at all would be working towards its abolition.”

On another day when I am feeling less tired and more generous, I might write something that summarizes my ideas and thoughts on the matter. But not today…

So for now, here are a very few readings to help those who are interested in abolishing the police to think more deeply about the possibilities…

Alternatives to Police (PDF) by Rose City Copwatch (2008)

Alternatives to the Police by Evan Dent, Molly Korab, and Farid Rener

The Avant-garde of White Supremacy by Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton

Broken Windows is On Hiatus: Community Interventions We Can Enact Now for Real Justice by Hannah Hodson

Can We Build an Anti-Policing Movement that Isn’t Anti-Police? by Radical Faggot

Citizens, Cops, and Power: Recognizing the Limits of Community by Steve Herbert

Feeling for the Edge of your Imagination: finding ways not to call the police

A New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Call the Police by Mike Ludwig

Not Calling the Police by Prison Culture

Origins of the Police by David Whitehouse

The Other Side of the COIN (PDF) by Kristian Williams.

Policing is a Dirty Job, But Nobody’s Gotta Do It: 6 Ideas for a Cop-Free World by Jose Martin

Policing Slaves Since the 1600s by Auandaru Nirhan

The Shanti Sena ‘peace center’ and the non-policing of an anarchist temporary autonomous zone: Rainbow Family peacekeeping strategies (PDF) by Michael Niman

Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People by Sam Mitrani

We Don’t Just Need Nicer Cops. We Need Fewer Cops by Alex S. Vitale

What Does It Mean to Be Anti-Police? by Alex S. Vitale

Where abolition meets action: women organizing against gender violence (PDF) by Vikki Law