Jul 23 2014

Musical Interlude: What Ya Life Like…

Jul 22 2014

“No Selves to Defend” Exhibit & Marissa Alexander…

I’ve been incredibly busy and too tired to post anything here for a few days. Yesterday came the news that Marissa Alexander was denied a “stand your ground” hearing. She will be retried in December. I am not surprised (after all as I’ve maintained, black women have no selves to defend). Still I am disappointed for her and her family.

This weekend was jam packed with events including the much anticipated (for me) opening of the “No Selves to Defend exhibition at Art in these Times. Over 200 people packed the gallery for a first look at the exhibition.

photo by Daniel Tucker (7/18/14)

photo by Daniel Tucker (7/18/14)

As my friend and co-curator, Rachel Caidor and I envisioned the exhibition, we decided that we would anchor it with the stories of Celia (a 19th century enslaved black woman) and Marissa (a 21st century unjustly prosecuted black woman).

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14) - portrait of Celia by Bianca Diaz

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14) – portrait of Celia by Bianca Diaz

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

In between those stories, we wanted to share the experiences of other women of color who have been criminalized for invoking self-defense.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

We also decided to underscore the resistance against this criminalization by highlighting the work of various defense committees throughout history.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (7/18/14)

There are many interactive opportunities built into the exhibition and opening event. My friend Sarah Jane Rhee ran a “Prison Is Not Feminist” photo booth at the opening. You can see some of those photos here. Below is one of my favorite of the images.

Antonia poses with the sign she designed (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 7/18/14)

Antonia poses with the sign she designed (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 7/18/14)

There’s of course more to the exhibition including a space to hear the voices of some of the women featured and to consider the rise of carceral feminism.

It will probably take a few days before I can adequately reflect on my experiences of curating and organizing the exhibition. It’s hard to think critically while in the midst of the work. I always need some distance before I can evaluate what went well and what needs to be improved. Overall, however, I am really proud of the exhibition and I hope that many people will visit. Art in these Times is open Mondays through Fridays from 10 to 4:30 pm. Stop by to visit! The exhibition will run until September 20th.

Jul 17 2014

On the Eve of The ‘No Selves’ Exhibition Opening…

It’s been a long and exhausting week so far. I haven’t gotten home before 9 p.m for three days straight. There’s a lot happening. I am excited that the “No Selves to Defend: Criminalizing Women of Color for Self Defense” exhibition opens at Art in these Times tomorrow evening.

I spent Tuesday evening into the night with my friends Rachel, Billy, and Ash putting the finishing touches on the exhibition. I am very proud of what we’ve created. The “No Selves to Defend” exhibition is an outgrowth of the anthology by the same name.

Both projects were inspired by Marissa Alexander. More specifically, they are inspired by her consistent and constant admonition to also focus on the cases of other women who have been and are currently criminalized for invoking self-defense against violence. As I thought about her desire to lift up other women’s stories, the idea to create a document that would highlight other cases was born. The exhibition is simply an extension of this idea.

A lot of people are responsible for making both the anthology and exhibition a reality. I look forward to the opportunity to thank them all at Friday’s opening.

For those who visit the “No Selves” exhibition, you’ll see that it opens with the story of Celia.

On June 23 1855, after enduring five years of sexual violence, Celia, a 19 year old Missouri enslaved woman killed her master, Robert Newsom. Newsom was a 60 year old widower who purchased Celia when she was 14. On the day of her purchase, he raped her on the way to his farm.

By the time she killed Newsom, Celia already had two of his children and was pregnant with a third. She had started a relationship with one of Newson’s male slaves named George who became her lover. George insisted that she end her sexual liaison with Newsom if they were going to continue in their relationship.

Celia approached his daughters and implored them to ask their father to end the sexual assaults. No one could or would protect her and so she confronted Newsom herself when he came to force yet another sexual encounter. She clubbed him to death and then burned his body in her fireplace.

Her court-appointed defense lawyers suggested that a Missouri law permitting a woman to use deadly force to defend herself against sexual advances extended to slave as well as to free women. In spite of this vigorous defense, the court disagreed with the argument and Celia was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

After an appeal of the case failed, Celia was hanged on December 21, 1855.

Reading Celia’s story many years ago, I began to crystallize my thoughts about the fact that women of color (black women in particular) have never had “selves” to defend. It is fitting then that Celia would introduce the exhibition.

I asked my friend the supremely talented artist Bianca Diaz to create a visual interpretation of Celia for the exhibition. Since there are no photographs of Celia, Bianca had to rely on her imagination. Below is what she created which will be on display. It is haunting and beautiful.

Celia by Bianca Diaz

Celia by Bianca Diaz

So, if you find yourself in town tomorrow at 6 pm, you are invited to the opening of the ‘No Selves to Defend’ exhibition. It will run until mid September at Art in these Times located on the second floor of 2040 N Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60647. The gallery is unfortunately not wheelchair accessible. Looking forward to seeing some of you on Friday!

Jul 13 2014

Cecily McMillan Describes the Violence of Prison Searches…

The excellent journalist Sarah Jaffe interviewed formerly incarcerated Occupy activist Cecily McMillan.

image by Molly Crabapple

image by Molly Crabapple

There’s a lot worth considering in the exchange but I wanted to particularly underscore McMillan’s description of the violence of cell searches at Rikers.

Any particular stories about what it was like there that you’d like to share?

Maybe the best way that I could explain is through describing a search. Our dorm gets randomly searched at least twice a month, more if they want to set an example or if somebody has been smoking in the bathroom or if there have been rumors that somebody had some sort of contraband.

They use this space more or less to haze the new [correctional officers]. Two or three captains, 10 or so officers file into your dorm in full riot gear, the whole Plexiglas panel that’s surrounding their body, the masks and a huge wooden bat. Another set of officers file into the bathroom and stand in a line facing the stalls that don’t have doors. The first time they did the search I was using the restroom and had to finish my business right in front of them. They direct everybody to get down on the beds face down with your hands behind your back, after you put on your uniform and your ID badge. In Rikers you become a number. I’m 3101400431.

A third set of officers file in through sleeping quarters. Sometimes they bring in dogs. They call you row by row into the bathroom to strip down completely naked, do a deep knee bend forward, a deep knee bend backward, then have you open your mouth and shake out your hair and lift up your breasts.

After that the row files into the day room, and they have you face the wall standing throughout what can take up to a three or four hour process. Again you have three or so different captains, yelling “Miss, Miss,” and if you turn around they’re like, “I said turn around and face the wall! You want me to take your good days away?” You don’t know who’s giving orders where. They direct you into the entrance room where they make you sit down on a metal-detecting chair to check your body for any objects that you may be concealing. You have to put your cheek on a similar body metal detector device.

Then they bring out the women row by row again to our beds where they have flipped your bedding over, and you’re made to stand there and hold your mattress off the ground. These old women up to 80 years old having to stand there for hours and then hold their mattresses up like this. They page through everything. They turned to me at one point and said, “McMillan! Why do you have so many books?” I was like, “Because I’m a grad student! Are you looking for cigarettes or are you looking for radical literature?”

If a CO isn’t being humiliating enough, a CO will come over and ravage through your things even more. They can take anything away. These little soap hearts – this inmate would crush down soaps and reform them into hearts and put little pictures from magazines on them. Anything besides two pairs of pajamas – shoes that you got medically cleared, any commissary, if you have more than one shampoo and conditioner, pens. It takes like two weeks to get one of those.

After that you’re all marched back out and whatever doesn’t fit on your bed becomes trash. They will have another set of inmates come in – this is the real dirty part – and sweep up all of your belongings into these big trash bags and when you’re let back into your room, the closest thing I can describe it to is growing up in southeast Texas and coming back home after a hurricane to return with your community to put your life back together again.

All sorts of things can go wrong. My bunkie, the woman next to me, had very serious asthma and they woke her up like this; she had a very severe asthma attack, to the point that she nearly collapsed and they said, “Stand up, why are you sitting down?” I said, “She has asthma,” and they yelled, “shut the fuck up!” and I said, “You’re going to have a lawsuit on your hands unless you get her her inhaler,” and they asked her, “Which bed are you?” and she couldn’t talk. I said, “She lives right next to me, I can get her inhaler,” and they said, “Shut the fuck up!” and then she started wheezing and they’re like, “OK, McMillan, go get her inhaler, quick!” and I trot off, and they yell, “Don’t run, walk!” This woman ended up having to go downstairs to get a steroid shot.

That’s a normal experience at Rikers, something you have to accept. They can come at any time, any day, during any set of services, 3:00 AM, doesn’t matter.

No matter what anyone tells you jail and prison are NOT country clubs. They are violations and violence. Read the full interview here.

Jul 12 2014

Musical Interlude: The Prisoner by Gil Scott Heron

Jul 08 2014

Image of the Day

The wonderful Jenna Peters Golden contributed to the terrific Radicalphabet poster project.

Image by Jenna Peters-Golden

Image by Jenna Peters-Golden

Jun 29 2014

Restorative Justice is about ‘Being Seen’

I spent a good chunk of my week at a gathering of local restorative justice practitioners. There were nearly 100 of us in attendance at this three day event. There’s a lot to say about the gathering but unfortunately I don’t have time to say it all. It was re-invigorating, challenging, and affirming.

My journey toward restorative and then transformative justice was organic. In fact, I was a restorative justice practitioner even before I read about the idea and became trained in the philosophy. One aspect of restorative practice that sustains me is that in circle, for example, we are all “seen.”

I correspond regularly with several prisoners. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. Recently, I mailed a blog post to one of my newest pen pals Tristan. I met Tristan when I taught a class at Stateville Prison last month. He told me that he appreciated my writing and so I started sending him some posts that I thought might be of interest.

In commenting on the recent post that I sent, Tristan wrote:

“You mentioned something that caught my attention though and I related to it so well. It was the scene where you asked the brother that was with you on the EL to keep his voice down and he basically said something to the effect of: ‘they need to know that I was here.’

Oh sister… This spoke volumes to me! A lot of us in our madness out there in those city streets strive to leave a memory if not a legacy that’ll proceed us long after we’re gone. Because in reality, most of us will never become a Malcolm or Martin or Maya but we still feel this sense of letting the world know that we once walked this earth too. And with this, coupled with the fact that we try to out shine the ones who did it before us, we do a lot of ignorant an devilish things. So sister as you can see it’s not a certain type of person that we need to target and lock out of society but a mindset that we need to rid our people of. We must create an atmosphere where our people are in love with information and education because without it, we are being destroyed!”

I think a lot about our need to ‘be seen’ and I think it’s mostly a desire to be acknowledged and validated as human. ‘Look at me, see me, I’m here and deserving of your care.’ This is an unspoken plea from many of the young people with whom I work. I wrote about this a bit in a post about a circle that I facilitated with a teacher-friend and her student. Here’s a relevant passage about 14 year old Jamal* addressing his teacher:

“Jamal’s eyes were dry until he responded to the question of what he was thinking when he pushed his teacher. “I was thinking that from the first day of school,” he said, “you looked at me like you know I ain’t shit.” You could hear a pin drop after he expressed these sentiments. He had the talking piece in hand so he had the floor. He continued by telling us that he believes that Ms. P is afraid of him. “In my head, I said if she already be thinkin’ I’m a scary black man, then I’m gonna be that – a scary black man,” he continued.”

During the 3-day gathering that I attended, we discussed race, trauma, oppression and healing. I think all of these play out in restorative justice. But as I’ve kept circles (in particular) over the years, I’ve been most struck by the ability of those participating to listen, to hear, and to “see.” Circles are not a panacea and I don’t think that they are for everyone. I do think, however, that we can all do better at “seeing” others as human.

Until this spring, my organization incubated a program called “Circles & Ciphers.” Now the group is standing on its own as an independent intergenerational project. I could not be more proud of the excellent work that all of the members and the co-founders of Circles & Ciphers have done. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

One of the young leaders of Circles, Ethan Viets VanLear, discussed the value of restorative justice at a forum earlier this year. In under four minutes, he explains why I find restorative justice to be a powerful philosophy and approach for addressing harm. The first step is about ‘being seen’ and respected. The rest flows from there…

Jun 27 2014

Reproductive Justice & The Criminalization of Black Women: Some Remarks

Last night, I was privileged to attend an event titled “Breastfeeding and Incarceration: A Panel Discussion on Maternal Rights in Prison and Criminalization of Black Mothers” organized by the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), Moms United against Violence and Incarceration and Black on Both Sides. It was a wonderful, infuriating, and moving event.

breastfeeding & incarcerated mothers panel (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/26/14)

breastfeeding & incarcerated mothers panel (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee, 6/26/14)

My friend Ayanna Banks Harris who is a co-organizer of CAFMA was on the panel. I thought that her remarks were excellent and asked for permission to publish them. They are below for all of you to read and consider. My thanks to Ayanna for allowing me to share her words here.

Breastfeeding & Incarcerated Mothers
Remarks by Ayanna Banks-Harris
26 June 2014

I am very grateful for this opportunity to share the stories of two mothers who are just a miniscule representation of the thousands of mothers whose stories go untold and voices go unheard.

Before our discussion opens to insuring breastfeeding rights of mothers who are incarcerated, we must examine how and why our society is caging mothers at increasingly exponential rates and why we’ve become comfortable with so many children being ripped from the loving care of their mothers who are more often than not nurturing, loving, caring and providing.

Exactly four years ago, a pregnant woman and already mother of two fled the marital home she shared with her second husband as she had been physically abused multiple times by him. Being pregnant did not ward off the violent attacks of her husband, the father of her unborn child. Six weeks prior to her scheduled delivery date, she gave birth to a daughter who would remain in NICU for weeks following her birth. Nine days post-partum, the now mother of three was once again attacked and threatened and has been in a battle for the right to live her life freely ever since.

She is Marissa Alexander.

In August 2010, just nine days after giving birth, Marissa briefly left her daughter’s side to return to her marital home to retrieve necessary documents at a time she knew her estranged husband wouldn’t be home. While there, he did return home along with two of his children from another relationship and began invading her privacy by going through her phone. In a jealous rage, he confronted her while she was in the restroom, assaulted her, shoved her, strangled her, threatened her and held her against her will preventing her from fleeing. Once she was able to leave, she headed to the garage where her car was parked but left behind her keys and phone.

Upon realizing she’d left her keys and she attempted to open the garage door but could not.

Trapped, she retrieved her gun for which she has a permit and re-entered the home with her gun down at her side for the sole purpose of obtaining her phone and keys and leaving through another exit.

Upon hearing her reenter the home, her estranged husband entered the kitchen. He became further enraged upon seeing the weapon at her side, lunged at her while yelling, “Bitch, I will kill you.” It was at the moment of him lunging at her did Marissa raise her arm with weapon in hand to fire one shot in an upwards direction that neither hit him nor anyone else. Marissa was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, each of which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.

Marissa went from asserting her right to live by defending herself against her husband to asserting her right to live by defending herself in a fight against a system that seeks to imprison her for 60 years for interrupting the violence inflicted upon her.

Marissa Alexander is just one of thousands of women who are incarcerated for warding off abusive partners as violence inflicted against women and girls puts them at greater risk for incarceration because their survival strategies are often deemed criminal.

Domestic violence is just one precipice from which mothers, specifically those of color, fall into the criminal justice system

Earlier this year, another mother of three had to make a decision no mother, no person should have to – leave her children in the car that she could attend an interview that would catapult her and her family out of homelessness (housing insecurity) and poverty or be a no-show.

It’s not that Shanesha Taylor hadn’t diligently coordinated the day so that she wouldn’t have to make such a decision as she had already arranged a caretaker for her two youngest children. When she arrived at the home of the caretaker on her way to the interview, no one answered the door. Literally having no other options, Shanesha made the difficult decision to leave her kids unattended in the car for an hour. She made every attempt within her power to alleviate the dangers involved with doing so – cracking the tinted windows and leaving keys in the ignition with the engine off but allowing the fan to continue to blow air. Upon returning to the car following her interview – an interview she says went extremely well and resulted in a job offer – Shanesha discovers her car is parked in the center of a crime scene. The two children who were in the car were taken to the hospital and were immediately released as they had not been harmed. Shanesha was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse. Though only two of her children were in the car, both unharmed, all three of her children have been removed from her custody. She faces upwards of seven years in prison.

What is solved by imprisoning Shanesha for seven years?
What is solved by caging Marissa for 60 years?
How are these families, these children, made better by their mothers being incarcerated?
How are our communities any safer as a result?
Why is such behavior even deemed criminal?

Though the manner in which Marissa and Shanesha were catapulted into the judicial system and separated from their children are vastly different, a similarity is glaring -both of these mothers, women of color, have been incarcerated, face years of further incarceration, are no longer their children’s primary caretaker/guardian not for having actually done harm, not for having an intent to do harm, but because of a hypothetical harm that COULD HAVE been done. We are punishing mothers in desperate situations against impossible odds for NOT inflicting harm on their children or others.

It is past time that we demand to live in a society that is less concerned with being punitive for every reaction and obsessed with ensuring solutions for all, that no person – no mother – is cornered in perilous situations with no options.

Jun 25 2014

‘I do as I am bid’ or why we can’t reform policing…

The ACLU released a new report about the increasing and excessive militarization of the police. Radley Balko offers a good summary and analysis of the report here. He concludes that this issue is raised every few years, covered by the press, but leads to no useful reforms:

“The mass media seem to find renewed interest in this issue every five or six years. The problem, as the ACLU documents well, is that none of that coverage has generated any meaningful reform. And so the militarization continues.”

I think a lot about policing and violence. I always have. Currently, I am in the early stages of collaborating with several other people to organize around police violence against young people in Chicago. If I am honest, I’m not sure that it is actually possible to meaningfully ‘reform’ policing in the context of an oppressive society. I just don’t know. I engage in reform work mainly as harm reduction but I think we need to just start over from scratch. I don’t know how we do that but I am committed to investing time and resources to figure out how to abolish the entire PIC (policing, surveillance, and prisons).

One of the reasons I am pessimistic about prospects to reform policing is related to testimony that I read some time ago from a police officer during the era of American chattel slavery. The testimony underscores the actual function of the police which is and has always been to protect PROPERTY and the interests of the powerful. I mean this was clear in the 19th century and remains true today. How do we ‘reform’ the function of policing?

Below is an excerpt from the testimony I referenced. I think that it is instructive for a number of reasons including the collusion between police officers and slavemasters, the profit-making associated with law enforcement, the reliance on corporal punishment rather than long-term detention, and more…

I Do as I Am Bid
[John Capehart provided a special service for slaveholders. In his testimony before a court, he explains his job.]

Q: Mr. Capehart, is it part of your duty, as a policeman, to take up colored persons who are out after hours in the streets?
A. Yes, sir.
Q: What is done with them?
A. We put them in the lock-up, and in the morning they are brought into Court and ordered to be punished — those that are to be punished.
Q: What punishment do they get?
A. Not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.
Q: Who gives them these lashes?
A: Any of the Officers. I do, sometimes.
Q: Are you paid extra for this? How much?
A. Fifty cents a head. It used to be sixty-two cents. Now, it is only fifty. Fifty cents for each one we arrest, and fifty more for each one we flog.
Q: Are these persons you flog Men and Boys only, or are they Women and Girls also?
A. Men, Women, Boys, and Girls, just as it happens.
Q: Is your flogging, confined to these cases? Do you not flog Slaves at the request of their Masters?
A. Sometimes I do. Certainly, when I am called upon.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, are the Negroes sent to you? Have you a place for flogging?
A. No; I go round, as I am sent for.
Q: Is this part of your duty as an Officer?
A. No, sir.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, do you inquire into the circumstances to see what the fault has been, or if there is any?
A. That’s none of my business. I do as I am bid. The Master is responsible.

Source: Geo. W. Carleton, The Suppressed Book About Slavery (New York, 1864), pp. 193-195

Jun 24 2014

Poem of the Day: To Timberly, From Her 16 Year Old Daughter

by Amaryllis Moleski

by Amaryllis Moleski

Dear Mom,

I love you very much, even though we haven’t had the greatest relationship.
I sometimes get angry when I think of all the years we have been separated.
I love you very much and wouldn’t trade you for anything.
I know it’s not your fault and I don’t blame you.
I just hope and pray that I will be able to spend more time than once or twice a year with the mom I love and adore.
Always remember I love you and never forget it.
And when you are in rehab and you feel like no one cares and you are not going to make it just remember what I am writing in this letter and I love you.

Love, your daughter,
Latoya

Source: Writers’ Block: The Voices of Women Inside (Women and Prison Program, Beyondmedia Education)