Dec 14 2014

Free Lookman, Kidnapped by Chicago Police…

Update: Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing this post. I have just returned from bond court and have some “good news” regarding Lookman and his case. His charges were dropped to two misdemeanors (battery and resisting arrest). The charges remain bogus and will be fought in court. Lookman will be represented by my friend Joey Mogul in his next court date. For now, we are told that he will be released later today on a $10,000 I-bond. The money raised so far will go towards the legal fees that will accrue. But for now, Lookman should be home later today. Thank God and thank all of you for your support.

On a related note, two other young people of color were arrested at yesterday’s protests. One was badly beaten by the cops and taken to the hospital before being returned to jail. They too were represented by Joey and Molly Armour of the National Lawyers Guild today. Unfortunately, they are still charged with felonies. They have a $150,000 bond between them so they will need $15,000 to be bailed out. Some of their supporters are currently working on an online fundraiser for this. I will share the link once I have it.

Update #2: Lookman is out of jail. However, two other young men remain locked up on felony aggravated battery charges on a police officer, a felony. One of those young men was badly beaten by the police and had to be taken to the hospital. They are without resources for bail. Here is their bail fund. Please help them get out of jail as soon as possible. Any amount helps and please share the link with others. Thanks.

It’s his smile that draws you in… Mischievous and precious because it isn’t bestowed to everyone. You have to earn it because his ‘unlucky’ life has offered little to smile about. To bask in that smile is a gift.

I was at a visioning and strategy session about how to end police violence yesterday when I heard that Lookman was arrested.

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

He was protesting police terror along of hundreds of other Chicagoans. As soon as I heard that he was snatched by CPD, my heart dropped. I knew that he was close, so damn close, to getting off probation for a nonviolent offense. I knew that nothing good would come of this. Nothing.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the police station last night, I heard that he was being charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony. Witnesses who saw the entire episode unfold say that he did no such thing. These are trumped up charges. We will fight them starting today in bond court.

Lookman is a young black man living in Chicago. As such, he is a walking target. This takes its toll over the course of a young life. Along with the relentless police surveillance and harassment, Lookman was a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

When Lookman talks about his time in the “Audy Home,” he means the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Below is a photo of a cell at the juvenile jail. Lookman talks in the audio clip about looking out of the window in order to feel “human again,” you can see what that window looks like.

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

In Chicago, we lock black boys up to cage the rage but it doesn’t disappear, it only grows. To heal the walking wounded, we cling to anything that we can find. We beg them to talk, to express, to let go. We have almost no resources. The state is allocating those to the military and to build more cages. Some of them like Lookman channel their feelings in spoken word. “I’m tired,” he says.

Over the years, Lookman has grown as a person within a leadership development program that my organization incubated for many years called Circles and Ciphers. Lookman has traveled across Chicago leading peace circles in schools and other community spaces.

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

He spends most of his time these days looking for ways to bring more justice and some peace into this world. For this, he should be respected and uplifted. The Chicago Police department is hell bent on harassing, targeting and destroying him instead. We will not allow them to kidnap and disappear Lookman. He has a family and community that loves him. We want him back. He has work to do in the world. He has a life to live. We will not stand for this injustice. Please help us fight.

We need to raise money to bail Lookman out of jail. Click HERE to donate (this link will be updated with information after today’s bond hearing, we are just getting a head start). Thank you in advance for your support and help.

Dec 09 2014

On Toys, Incarcerated Moms and Solidarity…

Over the past few weeks, my friends at Moms United Against Violence & Incarceration and Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers have sponsored a holiday gift drive for children with incarcerated mothers and mothers in recovery. I have been heartened to witness the outpouring of support for this gift drive.

UPDATE: As of this evening, there were 1430 gift donations to incarcerated moms to their children. It’s just astounding!!! I asked friend and comrade Holly Krig for some reflections and words about the drive. Holly’s words are below. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to making this drive such a success! If you are in Chicago, please connect with Moms United and CLAIM’s work.

by Amaryllis Moleski

by Amaryllis Moleski

For Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, the toy drive has been part of an ongoing collaboration with groups committed to developing some balance of advocacy, as well as education and organizing around the issue of mass incarceration. The idea to do the drive itself started with Alexis Mansfield, attorney with CLAIM/CGLA and Colette Payne, of their support group, Visible Voices. CLAIM’s founder, Gail Smith, and Olivia Chase of Lutheran Social Services IL, eagerly joined the partnership from the jump. In terms of the gift goal itself, I was cautiously optimistic, Sabrina Morey, (my co-organizer at Moms) figured we could triple our goal, easy.

And, she was right. The drive has been hugely successful, well beyond our original goal of 400 gift donations for the mothers of Logan Prison to give to their kids. The incredible generosity of donors from around Chicago and around the world, and of all the people who joined us in the call for donations, challenged us to raise the goal several times. Just 3 weeks into the drive, we have collected 1,368 of the 1,375 donations needed for moms at Logan and Decatur Prisons, Division 17 of Cook County Jail, and transitional facilities in Aurora and Chicago (Haymarket, Women’s Treatment Center and Grace House). In dollars, that is conservatively $27,000, if we account for some folks paying shipping too.

So, I should stop right there and say: THANK YOU. Thank you to all the folks who donated what they could afford, every box of markers or clay helps. Thank you to people like Mariame Kaba who leveraged her good name, her long-time commitment to the fight against the Prison Industrial Complex to help us raise donations. Also, Maya Schenwar, Suey Park, Kelly Hayes, so many more. Every box of markers or legos or soccer ball may as well have your names on them too.

Of course, the holidays aren’t only about gifts, and neither is this. It is profoundly important to support the relationship of mothers and their kids during this time of traumatic separation, which is especially painful over the holidays. And, for moms who are released while their kids are minors, simple things like gifts can concretely demonstrate to the courts that there has been ongoing contact between kids and parents, and help moms as they fight for what they have waited so long for: to be reunited with their kids. The success of the drive has also helped us deepen relationships with staff inside the facilities, which will hopefully create more opportunities to support inmates and their families from outside.

So, this toy drive is about moms and kids, but it is also about the people who donate. It is about raising the visibility of the millions of people disappeared in jails and prisons to people who may not think about incarceration, who may not have a personal connection. We hope the toy drive has initiated a personal connection for many, and reaffirmed a commitment for others, and, maybe, just felt like love to those who are already personally connected. We hope to maintain contact with the many people who have reached out to us to grow that base of people who will advocate for inmates’ rights, support harm-reducing efforts, and who will also join us in the fight for community based alternatives to mass incarceration, for all–juveniles, women, men.

We hope more people who supported this effort in any way will reach out to us at holly.krig@gmail.com (Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration). For people in and around Chicago, we invite people to celebrate the success of the toy drive, and learn more about the on-ongoing organizing at our “Holiday Party in Solidarity with Incarcerated Moms and their Kids” on Saturday, Dec 13th, 2-5pm, UE Hall, 37 S Ashland. Details on Facebook HERE.

Dec 08 2014

Video: Claudia Rankine’s ‘Stop & Frisk’

This is a must listen to…

Nov 29 2014

Send White People to Jail: Protest in the Era of Black (Mass) Incarceration

On Tuesday, young people from BYP 100‘s Chicago chapter organized and led an occupation of City Hall. Sitting and standing in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offices, members of Chicago BYP 100 chanted, facilitated teach-ins about the PIC, staged a die-in and kept healing circles.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/25/14)

BYP 100 members were joined in this action by dozens of supporters of all ages, races, genders and more. By all accounts, it was a beautiful and affecting action for those in attendance.

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

The protesters intended to stay at City Hall for 28 hours to dramatize the fact that “every 28 hours in this country, a black person is killed by a police officer, security officer or a self-appointed vigilante.”

City Hall closes officially at 5 pm. During the entire day beginning at 9 am, protesters were monitored by police officers who guarded the entrance of the Mayor’s offices.

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (Chicago, 11/25/14)

Read more »

Nov 28 2014

Palante Young Leaders, Siempre Palante…

Dear young revolutionaries the world over, I love you. If no one has told you so today, I’m glad that I did.

These are exciting and uncertain times everywhere. I am a witness to young people’s activism and organizing in Chicago on a daily basis.

It fills me with immense hope and a lot of joy to be able to contribute in various ways to supporting some of these wonderful human beings. But I admit to also sitting with worry. I worry about violence that can be/has been directed at these young activists. I worry about their physical, emotional, spiritual health and well-being. I worry about whether they can sustain the fire of social justice without being incinerated. I worry…

I began to take action around the conditions of my oppression(s) as a teenager. That was a very long time ago now. I’m not a particularly reflective person but I have decided today to look back in order to look forward. It’s been 30 years since I attended my first protest on my own. Ironically, the action was called after an incident of police violence in New York City. Earlier this week, I stood in the cold in front of Chicago Police Department (CPD) headquarters speaking at a protest that I had co-organized partly in response to Darren Wilson’s nonindictment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

In the intervening years, I learned that social change and transformation is a long, hard slog. Howard Zinn is right that: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” There are setbacks mixed with some terrific highs. What’s most important though is that we act. Alice Walker puts it well:

“I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.”

I agree in large part with Walker’s words about the importance of action (however one defines it). I believe, however, as Audre Lorde has written that: “Despair is a tool for your enemies.” The key to life-long activism and organizing, in my opinion, is to rededicate oneself daily to hope. As has been said, hope is a discipline. In his life-giving essay “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn underscores the value and importance of hope in movement-building. I often share this essay with young people who ask me for advice about how to stay awake in the world when it would be easier to be complacent. Zinn writes:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

“The future is an infinite succession of presents…” I relate deeply to these words. To transform the conditions of our oppression(s), we can only do what we can today, where we are, in the best way that we know how. Ethical action as part of our daily lives is an important path to social justice. Mistakes are a given. Disappointments are many. But we keep moving forward. Palante young leaders, Siempre Palante!

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

Nov 25 2014

Free Marissa and All Black People…

“What if she goes to jail again? How will you feel?”

The questions bring me up short. My goddaughter hasn’t previously expressed an interest in Marissa Alexander. She knows that I’ve been involved in a local defense committee to support Marissa in her struggle for freedom. But up to this point, she hasn’t asked any questions. Her mother, however, tells me that Nina (not her real name) has been following my updates on social media.

I’m still considering how to respond and I must have been silent for too long because Nina apologizes. “Forget about it, Auntie,” she says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

It’s interesting that she thinks I am upset. She knows that I have no faith in the U.S. criminal legal system and perhaps assumes that I am pessimistic about Marissa’s prospects in court. I tell her that while I have no faith in the criminal punishment system, I am hopeful for a legal victory in Marissa’s case. I say that while the system as a whole is unjust, in some individual cases legal victories can be achieved. I tell her that this is particularly true for defendants who have good legal representation and resources. Money makes a difference in securing legal victories. I explain that this is why I have worked so hard to fundraise for Marissa’s legal defense.

“But how will you feel if she’s convicted again though?” Nina persists.

“I’ll definitely be sad for her and her family,” I respond.

“I think that you’ll be a lot more than sad,” she says.

Does sadness have levels? I guess so. I’m not sure what “more than sad” feels like so I keep quiet.

A friend, who has spent years supporting Marissa Alexander through the Free Marissa NOW National Mobilization Campaign, recently confided that she was unable to contemplate another conviction for Marissa at her retrial in December. Many of us who’ve been supporting Marissa have been bracing ourselves. Each of us trying to cope as best we can. Over the past few weeks, I’d taken to asking comrades if they believed that Marissa would be free. Some answered affirmatively without hesitation but they were in the minority. Most eyed me warily and slowly said that they were hopeful of an acquittal. I don’t think that they believed what they were saying.

The U.S. criminal punishment system cannot deliver any “justice.” Marissa has already served over 1000 days in jail and prison. She spent another year under strict house arrest wearing an ankle monitor costing her family $105 every two weeks. Marissa fired a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband and no one was injured. For this, she was facing a 60 year sentence if convicted in her re-trial. True justice is not being arrested and taken away from her children, family and friends. Justice is living a life free of domestic abuse. Justice is benefiting from state protection rather than suffering from state violence. Justice is having a self to defend in the first place.

Yesterday morning, I got news that Marissa had agreed to a plea deal. A couple of hours later, the news broke on social media. I saw a mix of people celebrating this outcome and others expressing their anger that Marissa was forced into a Faustian ‘choice’. I got calls, texts and emails from friends and family checking in on me. I appreciated everyone’s concern but I was unfortunately thrust into action when I heard that the grand jury in St. Louis would be announcing their indictment decision in the killing of Mike Brown later in the day. It was a mad rush to make arrangements to combine solidarity events since we already had one planned for Marissa yesterday evening.

The parallels between Marissa’s unjust prosecution/imprisonment & Mike Brown’s killing by law enforcement are evident to me. Yet, I am well aware that for too many these are treated as distinct and separate occurrences. They are not. In fact, the logic of anti-blackness and punishment connects both.

In the late 19th century, a remark was attributed to a Southern police chief who suggested that there were three types of homicides: “If a nigger kills a white man, that’s murder. If a white man kills a nigger, that’s justifiable homicide. If a nigger kills a nigger, that’s one less nigger (Berg, 2011, p.116).” The devaluing of black life in this country has its roots in colonial America. In the book “Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America,” Manfred Berg makes a convincing case that: “The slave codes singled out blacks for extremely cruel punishment, thus marking black bodies as innately inferior (p.11).” Berg argues that: “Colonial slavery set clear patterns for future racial violence in America (p.11).”

“Innately inferior” bodies can be debased, punished and killed without consequence. The twist is that black people have always been considered dangerous along with our disposability. Mike Brown’s (disposable) body is a lethal weapon and so he is justifiably threatening. Marissa’s (disposable) body is deserving of abuse and is incapable of claiming a self worth defending. Mike Brown was described by his killer, Darren Wilson, as a “demon” and called an “It.”

The doctrine of pre-emptive killing and preventative captivity finds expression in the daily lives of all black people in the U.S. Black people are never ‘innocent.’ That language or concept doesn’t apply. We are always guilty until proven something less than suspect or dangerous.

Read more »

Nov 21 2014

Video: The Truth About Police by Molly Crabapple

I really appreciate this video about police violence by artist Molly Crabapple. It opens with these words: “On August 9th, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot a black teenager named Mike Brown. Since then, the city has been protesting. The police did not react well.”

Nov 16 2014

Indicting A System Not A Man….

I’m on the outside looking in and I’ve held my tongue…

by Sandra Khalifa

by Sandra Khalifa

Everyone I know is on edge. Will a grand jury in St. Louis indict or not? How will residents of Ferguson react if (as many expect) the grand jury advises against an indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Mike Brown? What will be the response of the St. Louis and Ferguson police? Photos of MRAPs and boarded up businesses proliferate on social media. Articles suggest that St. Louis police have been recently stockpiling riot gear and military grade weapons. It’s war but that’s not new. Everyone is holding their breath.

On the other hand, what’s next if the grand jury does decide that Wilson should stand trial? So much psychic, emotional, and spiritual energy is focused on a successful indictment. I imagine the sighs of relief. I anticipate the countless social media posts crying out “justice!!!!” I imagine that many exhausted protesters will decide that their work is done. I fear a return to our seductive slumber and to complacency.

I’m not invested in indicting Darren Wilson though I understand its (symbolic) import to many people, most especially Mike Brown’s family and friends. Vincent Warren of the Center on Constitutional Rights speaks for many, I think, when he writes:

“Without accountability, there can be no rule of law. If Wilson is not indicted, or is under-indicted, the clear message is that it is open season on people of color, that St. Louis has declared that Darren Wilson is not a criminal but that the people who live under the thumbs of the Darren Wilsons of this country are. It would say to the cry that “Black lives matter” that, no, in fact, they do not.”

I understand the sentiment that Warren expresses. Yet I don’t believe that an indictment of Wilson would be evidence that Black lives do in fact matter to anyone other than black people. Nor do I think his indictment would mean that it was no longer open season on people of color in this country. If we are to take seriously that oppressive policing is not a problem of individual “bad apple” cops then it must follow that a singular indictment will have little to no impact on ending police violence. As I type, I can already feel the impatience and frustration of some who will read these words.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

It feels blasphemous to suggest that one is disinvested from the outcome of the grand jury deliberations. “Don’t you care about accountability for harm caused?” some will ask. “What about justice?” others will accuse. My response is always the same; I am not against indicting killer cops. I just know that indictments won’t and can’t end oppressive policing which is rooted in anti-blackness, social control and containment. Policing is derivative of a broader social justice. It’s impossible for non-oppressive policing to exist in a fundamentally oppressive and unjust society. The truth is that as the authors of Struggle for Justice wrote in 1971 “without a radical change in our values and a drastic restructuring of our social and economic institutions” we can only achieve modest reforms of the criminal punishment system (including policing).

The pattern after police killings is all too familiar. Person X is shot & killed. Person X is usually black (or less frequently brown). Community members (sometimes) take to the streets in protest. They are (sometimes) brutally suppressed. The press calls for investigations. Advocates call for reforms suggesting that the current practices and systems are ‘broken’ and/or unjust. There is a (racist) backlash by people who “support” the police. A very few people whisper that the essential nature of policing is oppressive and is not susceptible to any reforms, thus only abolition is realistic. These people are considered heretic by most. I’ve spent years participating in one way or another in this cycle.

Knowing all of this, what can/should we do to end oppressive policing? We have to take various actions in the short, medium and long term. We have to act at the individual, community, institutional, and societal levels.

For my own part, I start by never calling the cops. I hope more people will join me in that practice. It demands that we feel for the edge of our imaginations to stop relying on the police. It takes practice to do this. As such, we need popular education within our communities about the need to create alternatives to policing.

I vocally and actively oppose any calls for increased police presence as a response to harm in my community and in my city. At budget time, I pay attention to how much money is allocated to law enforcement. I press my local elected officials to oppose any increases in that amount and to instead advocate for a DECREASE in the police department’s budget. I support campaigns for reparations to police torture & violence victims. I support elected civilian police accountability councils and boards (knowing full well that they are bandaids). I believe that we need grassroots organizations in every town & city that document and publicize the cases of people who have suffered from police violence. These organizations should use all levers of power to seek redress for those victims and their families.

I list these actions with the understanding that together they aren’t enough to end oppressive policing. They will lessen the harm to be sure but only building power among those most marginalized in society holds the possibility of radical transformation. And that’s an endless quest for justice. That’s a struggle rather than a goal. Only movements can build power. We need a movement for transformative justice.

To the young people who have taken to the streets across the country and are agitating for some ‘justice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Ferguson indictment decision. Don’t let a nonindictment crush your spirit and steal your hope. Hope is a discipline. And frankly, the actions you have and are taking inspire so many daily. On the other hand, a decision to indict Darren Wilson isn’t a victory for ‘justice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indictment won’t end police violence or prevent the death of another Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must organize with those most impacted by oppression while also making room for others who want to join the struggle too as comrades. As Kwame Ture often said: “We need each other. We have to have each other for our survival.” Take this admonition seriously. We should use the occasion of the indictment announcement to gather and to continue to build power together. This is how we will win.

Nov 10 2014

Broken Bonds, Un-Broken Cages: Some Thoughts on Locked Down, Locked Out

In her new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, Maya Schenwar writes heartwrenchingly and unsparingly about the ravages wrought on human beings by the prison industrial complex. She tells a personal story of how her sister Kayla’s repeated encounters and contacts with the criminal punishment system have impacted her and her family’s lives.

Prison12_sized What I appreciated most about the book is the consistent emphasis on the need for connection between people. Locked Down understands that relationships matter greatly. Connection and relationships are the very things that prisons excel at destroying.

Maya correctly identifies that the logic of the PIC “is all about subtraction.” She writes:

“Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they can’t poison us—so we don’t even have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.

The surprise pops up when the broken seams are revealed—the way that incarceration rips open new holes in the social fabric of families and communities outside, severing intricate networks strung together in ways that are observable only upon their breaking. Instead of eggs, we are tossing away people’s mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, partners, friends.”

Locked Down is unrelenting in reminding us that the people who are funneled into the PIC are HUMAN and not widgets. Even when they no longer have ties with loved ones, prisoners are human beings deserving of our care. From the opening of the book, we are thrust in the middle of Kayla’s pain and her struggle with addiction. Maya is unflinchingly honest about her exasperation with her sister’s repeated arrests and her prison terms. In fact, Maya and her family decide against bailing Kayla out of prison in her latest brush with the law because they believe that jail “may be the only place that can save Kayla’s life, staving off her burning dependency on heroin.” Maya and her family are at their wits end. She writes honestly about the tension between her desire to save her sister’s life and her anti-PIC politics: “How could I reconcile my wholehearted opposition to the prison-industrial complex with a desire to see my own sister locked up?”

The entire book, however, is a rebuke to the idea that prison can “save” anyone’s life. Maya quotes Angela Davis: “Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” The first half of Locked Down tells of Maya and her family’s refusal to allow Kayla to be disappeared by the PIC.

The book also debunks myths about conjugal visits in prison, lays bare the ways that businesses gouge and exploit the family of prisoners through charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, highlights the importance of letters for and to prisoners, describes the deplorable treatment of pregnant and parenting mothers, underscores that “re-entry” for most prisoners is exceedingly difficult because of the barriers they face and more.

Locked Down would be worthwhile if it simply focused on these issues. But what sets it apart from other books about the mass incarceration epidemic is its focus on how people in communities across the country are working to address the problem(s). Maya features individuals, programs and organizations that are either doing reformist or abolitionist work. For example, she describes the efforts of Umoja Student Development Corporation in North Lawndale as it tries to interrupt the school to prison pipeline on a local level through the use of peace rooms and restorative justice. She shares the work of organizations like Black & Pink that run successful pen pal programs. She underscores efforts to decarcerate state prison populations and to create transformative justice models in local communities across the country. These are concrete examples and they are welcome.

Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Maya for the book and we are friends who organize together with the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. However, I would have the same thoughts about Locked Down if these weren’t true. I would recommend the book if I had no connections to it or its author.

In important ways, Locked Down gives voice to those who are left behind after their loved one is caged. I remember an email that I received from a prisoner’s wife a few years ago. Tina (not her real name) wrote in her note to me: “I am the other side of ‘Prison Culture’. I am the one left behind.” She wrote of love; the abiding love that she feels for her incarcerated husband. She wrote about loneliness. Loneliness that she says is worse than the kind she felt when her mother passed away a couple of years earlier. “Knowing that my mother is no longer on earth actually means that she is beyond reach to me, my husband is not dead, he is still on this earth, but beyond reach to me.” She wrote that no one in her circle truly understands what she is going through and that they are not sympathetic to her situation. She felt isolated. She was tired. She was stressed. Money troubles threatened to derail her already fragile family. Locked Down gives voice (in part) to the struggles of women like Tina and if only for that reason, it is a necessary book and an important contribution to the literature on how mass incarceration has destroyed our communities.

Throughout the book, Maya asks herself questions that are ones with which we as readers must grapple too. They are questions about whether restorative/transformative justice can encompass those who have committed terrible harm. They are questions about whether a prisoner can ever really be “free.”

I’ll end with a quote by anti-prison activist Barbara Fair because I think that Locked Down ultimately insists that we need radical interventions to end the prison industrial complex. Fair is quoted in the book as saying: “I have worked so hard at reform, and saw so little change, that I have come to the conclusion that revolution might be the only response to what is occurring in America relative to criminal justice and the prison industry it feeds.” I think that Fair gets it right and so does Locked Down. You should read the book.

If you live in Chicago, the book launch is this Sunday November 16. Details are here. In addition, all proceeds from this first week of book sales will be generously donated to Marissa Alexander’s legal defense fund.

Nov 04 2014

Heading to Geneva…To Charge Genocide

On Saturday, a group of eight young people of color (ages 19-30) from Chicago will board a plane to Geneva. There, they will present a report about Chicago police violence against young people of color to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. It’s been difficult to articulate my thoughts and feelings about this trip and this delegation of incredible young people. I have too many emotions wrapped up in the endeavor.

As I type, I remember the sense of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me when I saw and heard Damo‘s friends pour out their grief at his killing by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in May. I also admit to being scared of the chain reaction of pain and hopelessness that this loss could engender in our close-knit community. As I considered ways to honor Damo’s life and to transform our grief into healing, I turned as I often do to history. I was still a young person when I first read “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.” The petition and especially the story of how much was overcome to actually present it to the United Nations have stayed with me for years. Wading through grief, fear and anger, I returned to “We Charge Genocide” as a vehicle that could be retooled and reinvigorated in this historical moment. The organizing that my initial call has engendered is incredible and I claim no credit for it. The group of people involved in this effort are committed, selfless, smart and talented. The outpouring of community support has been inspiring.

There have of course been critics and that’s to be expected. Critique is good, cynicism is not. Some delegation members have been told that the UN is a toothless, corrupt and/or useless institution. To be sure, there are many legitimate criticisms that can be leveled against the UN. I have my own. All institutions should and can be critiqued. And yet, many of the critics miss the import of this trip for the delegation heading to Geneva and for our communities. Some of loudest and most cynical people about this effort have been white. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence. For too many white people, representation matters little. They are not invisible. They are always centered in all narratives. Whiteness has the power to invisibilize and consume everything in its path. So for some white people, it means nothing that this is the first time that a delegation of young people of color will appear before the UN Committee against Torture to make a case against police violence. But I promise that it means a lot to the young delegates that they have an opportunity to be “seen” and “heard” on the international stage if only for a few minutes. To be clear, a number of white people have supported the delegation and its efforts (including being members of WCG) but it’s been instructive that the most vociferous critics have also been white. White critics have also taken issue with the name “We Charge Genocide” but that’s for a future post.

Beyond representation, the WCG delegation is carrying the stories of many young people in Chicago who have for the first time publicly shared their experiences of being targeted and tortured by the police. These stories were previously buried and the pain, though real, remained bottled up for too many. At the August youth hearing where WCG collected some of these stories, many young people thanked us for the opportunity to share and as one young man put it: “to finally let it all out.” WCG delegation members are acutely aware that it is a sacred trust to carry and then share these stories.


Poet Kevin Coval writes that “[e]very institution in Chicago fails Black youth.” And he is right. Thousands of young people of color in Chicago are being failed on a minute by minute basis. We must condemn and hold accountable the systems and institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and well-being of young people in this city. Going to the UN to demand that they call out the Chicago police for its torture of young people of color is an outside/in strategy to insist on accountability. It is just one strategy but we have to rely on all available tools and resources at our disposal if we want to transform our conditions. This has always been part of our history as black people in particular.

It matters too that WCG delegates are making an international claim. It’s an acknowledgement that this struggle for justice is a global one. For this trip, a number of the delegates applied for their first passports. For many, it will be the first time they’ve ever been outside of the U.S. and this too matters. Sometimes, one can only understand their country by leaving it and seeing it again through outsiders’ eyes. There will be delegates at the UN from countries all over the world. This will offer an invaluable opportunity to learn from them about their struggles and to make some connections that can enhance the work here.

Finally, I return to Damo. It’s difficult to express how much it means to members of the WCG delegation that they will be able to invoke Damo’s name and share his story at the UN. Since I don’t have the words, I’ll let his friend Ethan speak the final ones: