Apr 24 2014

The Young and Unmoored…

Ten days ago I got news that I didn’t feel ready to process until today. A young man I’ve known since he was a teenager was shot in Florida. I’ve come to dread phone calls at any time of day, most especially those that come late in the night. I’ve struggled to find the perfect ringtone to allay my anxiety. I’ve been unsuccessful.

So when my phone rang a few days ago and I saw that it was past midnight and that I didn’t recognize the number, I steeled myself for bad news. I answered with trepidation. It was the young man’s cousin and he said that Julian (not his real name) was shot while sitting in a parked car. It was a case of mistaken identity. After an uncertain prognosis, he recovered after surgery. A couple of days ago, I finally had a chance to hear his voice which was a relief.

I wrote about Julian a few years ago in this post:

I wanted to relay a story about a young man who I have been working with for the past few months. He has been struggling greatly since his release from prison in March of this year. He is ill-equipped for “life on the outside” as he likes to say. He is easily angered and raises his voice to make mundane points. Any suggestion is perceived as a criticism and a slight. His favorite word to use is “respect” and yet he has a difficult time showing any for others. I am not telling tales out of school since everything that I am writing about him, I have also expressed directly to him (more than once).

The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about integrity and grit from Julian. He chides me for being “too nice” and he worries that I’m going to get “run over” by people. I remind him that I am a grown woman in my 40s while he’s barely out of his teens. I can and do take care of myself. He says that he’s already lived two lifetimes. I don’t argue because I know something about the trials and struggles that he’s had to face and to try to overcome.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the young people who live in the world, unmoored. The ones who seem to be passing through and don’t have any expectations of staying for long. I’ve been thinking about the young people who resist ‘counseling’ because they know that their thoughts and behaviors are rational within the context of their worlds. Julian is one of the unmooored. And if I’m honest, I hold my breath for him every day, afraid that to exhale means he might disappear.

What do you do with a young person who resists the inspirational script of overcoming all adversity? What do you do with a young person who never had any bootstraps and won’t pretend that any amount of work on his part will provide them? What do you do?

We rode on the EL together once and Julian spoke with a booming voice throughout the trip. I asked him to lower his voice. He looked at me for a moment and kept loud-talking. I was embarrassed at his display and felt disrespected that he ignored my request. As soon as we got off the EL, his voice returned to its normal decibel level. Once I got over my anger, I asked why he spoke so loudly on the train. His response: “I want them uncomfortable and they need to know that I was here.” My anger dissipated and I’ve never forgotten his words. They are seared in my mind: “they need to know that I was here.” We’ve never spoken of what it’s like to feel “not here.” I don’t know how to broach the topic.

Julian is verbally gifted and I badgered him to write something that I could post here. He’s always resisted. When I asked him a few years ago what he might share with readers of this blog he answered succinctly: “Tell them that I am a human being.” He also shared a poem that he said best described his prison experience.

Julian is a human being who is passing through while contending with “not hereness.” He’s alive right now, lying in the hospital recovering. He’s alive and passing through. I am struggling to understand what this means for him and for me. I think back to a few lines of Julian’s favorite poem by M.A. Church that he says best captures his prison experience.

You ask what it’s like here
but there are no words for it.
I answer difficult, painful, that men
die hearing their own voices. That answer
isn’t right though and I tell you now
that prison is a room
where a man waits with his nerves
drawn tight as barbed wire, an afternoon
that continues for months, that rises
around his legs like water
until the man is insane
and thinks the afternoon is a lake:
blue water, whitecaps, an island
where he lies under pale sunlight, one
red gardenia growing from his hand –

After surviving that kind of an experience, it’s understandable that one would want to take up space in the “free” world, to ‘be here,’ and to remind others of our humanity. But I fear that the “free” world has no concern for those who return from this unspeakable place. So I’m still holding my breath for Julian, afraid that to exhale means he’ll disappear…

Apr 22 2014

Young People Continue To Talk About the Cops…

If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about policing. The cops are the gateway to the prison industrial complex and the gatekeepers of state power. In addition, as I’ve often written, the young people I work with want to talk about the police. Their material experiences of feeling and being oppressed usually revolve around how they are treated by cops.

Recently a young person who I love named Richard released a new music video for his song “Cops and Robbers.” You can and should watch it below.

I asked Richard about his inspiration for the song and his response was as follows:

“So the idea of the song actually was nothing planned. I was on the Greyhound coming back from a very short spring break and I had just started to re-read Assata Shakur’s Autobiography and I listened to the beat right after I read the first chapter and the first thing I could think of was Cops and Robbers, and how Assata was portrayed and accused and related to my experiences growing up in Chicago.”

I also asked about how he views the role of police in communities like the one he grew up in. His response was that they were “overseers” of the community. I thought that this terminology was instructive and harkens back to the slave patrols which were America’s original police forces.

Recently my comrade Francesco de Salvatore shared his collaboration with a group called the Young Fugitives about policing in Chicago. The project titled “Growing Up With CPD” is a set of audio interviews with young Chicagoans about their experiences with law enforcement. Below is one story.

“Growing Up With CPD” follows on the heels of a similar project that my organization undertook a couple of years ago called “Chain Reaction.” I think that what all of these projects have in common is a desire to surface the voices of young people who feel oppressed by policing in the hope that people will come to rely less on cops as the solution of violence. I hope that people will heed young people’s calls for true justice.

Apr 21 2014

No Selves to Defend #3: Rosa Lee Ingram

I am thrilled to report that the project I’ve been working on for the past few weeks was handed over to a friend to design. I’ve gotten a sneak peak of the publication and it’s beautiful. On short notice, many people came together and came through. With only a few snags along the way, it was a joy to work on this project. If you’ve read this blog even just once, you’ll recognize how much history matters to me. I very much wanted to put Marissa Alexander’s case in historical context in an accessible way. I think that we achieved this goal. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the project and am looking forward to unveiling the finished product(s) soon.

As a preview, I am sharing Rosa Lee Ingram’s story along with art created especially for this project by my friend Billy Dee. The project includes eleven other stories of women of color (including Marissa) who were criminalized for self-defense. Along with the publication which we will use to raise funds for Marissa’s legal defense, we are also planning an exhibition here in Chicago in July. I look forward to sharing more soon.

Rosa Lee Ingram by Billy Dee (2014)

Rosa Lee Ingram by Billy Dee (2014)

In 1954, 90 year old Mary Church Terrell, a lifelong activist, declared: “I’m going back to Georgia.” Terrell, chairwoman of the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice, was announcing a “Mother’s Day crusade” that she and other women would lead to once again advocate for the release of Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons. By this time, all three had already spent the better part of six years in prison.

In 1948, Rosa Lee Ingram, a widowed mother of 12 children, was convicted and sentenced to death along with her two sons, Wallace & Sammie Lee, for killing a white man in self-defense. Ingram, a sharecropper, lived on the same property as 64 year old John Stratford, also a sharecropper. She had endured years of harassment by him.

On November 4 1947, an argument that allegedly began because Stratford was angry that some hogs had crossed into his property quickly escalated when he tried to force Rosa Lee into a shed to have sex with him. She fought back. Ingram’s 16 year old son Wallace heard the commotion and ran to help his mother. He warned Stratford to “stop beating mama” and when he did not, Wallace picked up a gun and slammed it on his head. He and his mother left Stratford lying on the ground unaware that he was dead.

After Rosa Lee, Wallace, and another son named Sammie Lee were convicted of first degree murder on January 26 1948 in a one day trial, they were sentenced to die in the electric chair on February 27. There was immediate outrage at the conviction and death sentence. Family members of the Ingrams, including Rosa Lee’s mother Mrs. Amy Hunt, asked religious and other organizations for funds to support an appeal. The NAACP and the Georgia Defense Committee pledged their support and contributed money.

Supporters across the country organized protests. The widespread public pressure worked: in March 1948, Judge W.M Harper set aside the death penalty and commuted the family’s sentences to life in prison. Wallace was 16 years old and his brother Sammie Lee was only 14.

While the NAACP actively raised money and provided legal support during the case, Black women actually drove the campaign to free Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons from prison. In 1949, a group of Black women formed the National Committee for the Defense of the Ingram Family. In addition to Mary Church Terrell who served as its national chair, the group included luminaries like Maude White Katz, Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Charlotta Bass.

The committee organized an action in spring 1949, sending 10,000 Mother’s Day cards and a petition with 25,000 signatures to President Truman insisting that Mrs. Ingram be freed.

The Ingram Defense Committee also reached out for international support in its campaign. In September 1949, members asked W.E.B. DuBois to write a petition to the UN Commission on Human Rights asking that it debate her case.

For years afterwards, contingents of women continued to organize diligently insisting that the Ingrams be paroled and freed from prison. They organized “Mother’s Day crusades” which included visits to local politicians asking them to intervene in securing the release of the Ingrams. Georgia finally released Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons on August 26 1959 after 12 years of incarceration. This would not have happened if not for the consistent agitation and organizing on their behalf by thousands of people across the world, and particularly Black women. It was that organizing that saved their lives.

Apr 19 2014

Video: Why Are We Sending So Many Women to Prison?

This video is a good short explainer about women’s incarceration by Brave New Films… Also the Sentencing Project put out a useful report about rates of women’s incarceration here. Finally, here’s a short post about women’s incarceration and the “myth of small numbers.”

Apr 14 2014

“Stealing Chickens” & “Manifesting Prostitution:” Lizzy Williams, Monica Jones & Criminalizing Black Women

On Friday, Monica Jones was found guilty of “manifestation of prostitution.” I was unsurprised and upset. Unsurprised because the criminal punishment system is inherently racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, classist, ableist, & so on. Upset because I hate injustice. Jones is part of a long line of black women who have been unjustly targeted by the state. She vows to fight on and so should we all.

Black women in the U.S. have been excluded from definitions of ‘respectable’ and/or ‘proper’ womanhood, sexuality, & beauty. This matters when one considers how we’re treated within society as a result. Black women have also been constructed as always ‘publicly available.’ Think of how this played out for Monica Jones as a trans black woman (though repeatedly misgendered by authorities) and for other black women. If we are always ‘publicly available,’ then charging us with manifestation of prostitution is more likely. These ideological constructs have their roots in justifying slavery and our general subjugation. They are doing particular work and we see this work clearly ‘manifested’ in the historical criminalization of black women. Unfortunately, there have been few studies about the history of black women’s punishment and criminalization. Notable exceptions include work by Kali Gross and Ann Butler. So when I come across interesting stories about crime and punishment in Black women’s history, I try to document them.

In 1951, a black woman named Elizabeth (Lizzy) Williams escaped from an Alabama prison farm. She had served nine long years of a 218 year prison sentence. What could Ms. Williams have done to deserve 218 years behind bars? She was convicted by three all-white juries of lying to protect her boyfriend from a robbery charge for stealing chickens. Officially, she was convicted of one count each of unarmed robbery by three different Alabama juries (even though there was no evidence that she had participated in any robberies).

In 1942, Lizzy, the mother of a young daughter, was dating a man named Turner Washington. He came home one night and told her that he had stolen some chickens. As Lizzy recalled: “He said if you don’t tell them I was with you, they’re gonna burn me.” So she lied for him to law enforcement.

When asked about her trials, Lizzy, who quit school in the third grade, couldn’t recall them. She explained: “They was the judge and two or three men on the right of me…They talked between themselves and then they told me how much time they was giving me (Atlanta Daily World, 4/16/78).” No attorney represented her. Lizzy Williams didn’t stand a chance of a ‘fair trial’ in 1940s Alabama where black people were routinely sentenced to long prison terms for minor crimes.

After being forbidden from holding prayer services in prison, Lizzy fled to Detroit where she lived with family for the next 27 years. As a fugitive, she made a living as a maid, a seamstress, and by leading church revivals. She lived in poverty afraid to apply for any benefits in case she would be discovered. She recounted having to eat bug-infested food while incarcerated.

At 60 years old, Williams was arrested by local police after her sister informed them of her whereabouts. Lizzy and her sister Annie had argued so Annie alerted law enforcement of her outstanding warrant. Lizzy was jailed for eight days in January 1978. In March, officials in Alabama asked that she be extradited to serve the remaining 209 years of her sentence.

After an outpouring of community outrage, Michigan governor William Milliken refused to extradite Lizzy Williams stating that: “The ends of justice would not be served” by sending her back to Alabama.

It’s inconceivable to me that a white woman in Alabama would have been subjected to such racist treatment in the criminal legal system. Lizzy Williams, however, would not have had access to ‘proper’ womanhood as a buffer from harsh treatment. This, in part, explains how she could be sentenced to 218 years in prison for lying about some chickens.

I’ll be part of a discussion about the contemporary criminalization of black women and girls sponsored by the Black Youth Project this Wednesday at 6 p.m. Details are here and all are welcome.

Apr 10 2014

Poem of the Day: ‘I Am Somebody’ by Joan Little

Since I am in the middle of working on a project focused on the history of criminalizing women for self-defense, I am coming across a number of interesting pieces of information.

Here’s a poem written by Joan Little:

I AM SOMEBODY!
By Joann Little

I may be down today
But I am somebody!

I may be considered the lowest
on earth; but I am somebody!

I came up in low rent housing,
sometimes lived in the slums;
But I am still somebody!

I read an article where a black youth
was jailed, he stole some food, but got
15-20 years – he was somebody!

I killed a white in ‘self-defense’
but the jury doesn’t care – and when
he came for me to prepare trial –
he said she deserves the chair –

Every time

Every hurt and pain I feel inside,
Everytime I pick up the morning news
only to see my name on the front page –
I begin to wonder; they make me feel
less than somebody.

But in the end I will have freedom
and peace of mind. I will do anything
to help prove my innocence. Because
of one important fact above all…

‘I am somebody!’

Source: Save Joann Little (Women’s Press Collective, 1975)

Apr 09 2014

Video: Explaining Mass Incarceration in Under 4 minutes…

This new video is a useful primer about mass incarceration in the U.S. I would of course make a different video; one that explicitly addressed the RACIST, CLASSIST, and HETEROSEXIST nature of the system. But alas this is intended to be an introduction and it is palatable to a broad audience. I think that it would be a useful teaching tool and one question that you might ask students is: “What’s missing in this narrative?” Another would be: “How would a prison abolitionist present their case in under 4 minutes?”

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 06 2014

On Desperate Acts & Social Context: The Story of James Hickman

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week about the intersections and connections between individual acts of desperation and the social structure within which we live. In particular, I’ve been thinking about James Hickman.

On January 16, 1947 in a Near West Side building in Chicago, a fire broke out in the attic and took the lives of 4 children: Lester (14), Elzina (9), Sylvester (7), and Velvina (4).

On July 16, 1947 James Hickman, the father of those children, shot and killed his landlord/building manager, David Coleman.

On December 16, 1947 James Hickman walked out of court, a free man, after a jury could not reach a verdict on his murder charge and prosecutors offered a plea deal to a lesser one. Writer and activist Joe Allen recounts Hickman’s story in his 2011 book “People Wasn’t Made To Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.”

James Hickman was part of the migration of Southerners who moved North to improve their lives. Hickman, a sharecropper, moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1944. He came without his wife and younger children at first. He lived with his older married daughter and her family for 10 months while working at Wisconsin Steel. He planned to save money and find a place to live before sending for his family. The search for adequate living quarters was long and fruitless. Hickman found some apartments but they didn’t want children. Others took his money but never actually rented him an apartment.

In January 1946, he thought that he had a place to live and sent for his family to join him in Chicago. When the family arrived, the rental fell through so Hickman, his wife Annie, and children had to stay with the older daughter. Her landlord found out and insisted that the family had to move out.

Out of desperation, Hickman located a dilapidated apartment at 1733 West Washburne. David Coleman, a young African American budding entrepreneur, was their landlord. Hickman and his family were living in a tiny kitchenette apartment that was inadequate to their needs. It was a one room attic apartment for six and sometimes seven people. Chicago was suffering from a crisis of overcrowding for black people due to racial covenants and redlining. Many fires were also raging throughout black communities; some attributed to terrible maintenance and others to suspected arson by unscrupulous landlords.

James Hickman complained to his landlord, Coleman, about the awful conditions in his building. He wanted his $100 deposit back so that he could find another place to live. The landlord refused to comply. After several more complaints, David Coleman threatened to “burn [Hickman] out.” Annie and James reported the threat and the terrible building conditions to the police. They took out a warrant for Coleman’s arrest but nothing actually happened. The police never arrested him.

Read more »

Apr 05 2014

Musical Interlude: One Love…

An all time classic…