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 08 2014

Image of the Day…

Orlando (Florida) Prison (1938) by Ralston Crawford

Orlando (Florida) Prison (1938) by Ralston Crawford

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…

Apr 02 2014

No Selves To Defend #2: Some Upcoming Projects…

Whew, it’s been an incredibly busy few days and it hasn’t slowed down yet for me!! For those who want ongoing updates about Shanesha Taylor’s case, I put together a blog titled “Justice For Shanesha.” As I learn information, I’ll post there. So if you are on Tumblr, do follow the blog. The latest updated information that I have is posted there today.

I am swamped with tons of other work (believe it or not, I run an organization too) so I will be taking a blogging break for the rest of the week. I hope to be back to regular blogging soon. In the meantime, I am excited about two projects that I am currently working on, both relate to the Marissa Alexander case.

First, I am blessed to be working with a group of writers and artists to create a publication featuring stories of women of color who have been criminalized for self-defense over the years. The publication will feature portraits and short narratives. We will print a limited number and use the proceeds to support Marissa’s legal defense. I am in debt to my friends and co-strugglers who have come together on short notice to make this project a reality. Stay tuned for more information soon. And as a preview, I am excited to share one piece of art from the project; it’s a portrait of Lena Baker drawn by my extraordinarily talented friend Bianca Diaz.

Lena Baker by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Lena Baker by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Secondly, I am excited that I will be co-curating a new exhibition titled “No Selves to Defend: Criminalizing Women for Self-Defense.” The exhibition will run here in Chicago in July and August at Art in these Times. My thanks to my comrade Daniel Tucker for facilitating this opportunity. The exhibition will feature various artifacts from my collection as well as art from the project mentioned earlier. The Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander is planning a series of events leading up to Marissa’s trial at the end of July. I’ll share more about the exhibition as it comes together.

Have a peaceful next few days!

Mar 29 2014

“I Love Being A Mommy!!!” On Shanesha Taylor & Black Motherhood in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Every day in this country some women are coerced or forced by circumstances into doing things they don’t want to do. For many women, it is the only static condition of their ever changing lives: to regularly feel required to make hard choices among, at times, very poor options.” – Beth Richie, Compelled to Crime (1996).

You people are Ridiculous for supporting this woman!! What she did was almost kill her two babies!! How many other times has she done this. Ot is not okay to leave ur kids in a car regardless even in winter in Arizona. I can tell from ur post EXACTLY what kind of mothers u are…” – Tamara Carlstrom, Commenter on this blog (2014).

By now, you’ve likely seen the ubiquitous mug shot photo. Shanesha Taylor with tears streaming down her face and a look of fear & devastation in her eyes. This photograph introduced me to Shanesha’s case and galvanized me into action on Tuesday. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. I know that I am not alone. Friends have expressed their feelings using similar words. One friend, however, confessed that she felt ‘uneasy’ when she saw the photo. As we talked, she admitted that she was ‘embarrassed’ and she wondered if it was exploitative for a stranger’s mug shot, in particular a black woman’s, to be plastered on various media platforms across the country and maybe the world. After all, there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere.

After the initial wave of sympathy that I felt for Shanesha, I got angry. A homeless mother was so desperate that she left her young children in a car while interviewing for a job. She was then arrested and incarcerated. How could jail be the solution for what was obviously (to my mind) a consequence of poverty and a lack of resources? Of course, I worried about the children’s safety but most of the time removing a child’s primary caregiver doesn’t improve their future outcomes. So I wanted to know more and to find a way to support Shanesha and her children.

I took to social media to find people local to the Scottsdale area who might be able to help her. I reached out to the young woman, Amanda Bishop, who had established an online fundraiser to benefit Shanesha and her family. I was interested in verifying the authenticity of the effort so that I could help to boost it. When I first started sharing the link to the fundraiser, people had contributed $2,200. Since that time, the case has garnered much more attention. The last time I checked, nearly $39,000 had been donated to help cover Shanesha’s bail, legal fees, and perhaps other expenses. Eventually, through Twitter, I connected with two people (one of whom lives in Arizona) who helped me gather more information about Shanesha. I heard from a member of her family a couple of days ago who provided a short update and thanked everyone for their outpouring of concern for Shanesha and her children. He was truly overwhelmed by the support. It was unexpected…

I mentioned earlier that there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere. I have written about this in many different ways over the past few years. Because most black women expect to be maligned and demonized when we are not being erased, I immediately understood my friend’s trepidation. What would the mass media and all of us do to a homeless black mother who seemingly ‘neglected’ her children? What pernicious tropes would circulate within the public sphere and be internalized like lashes from a whip by all of us as black women? Because rest assured that only delusional black women maintain that we are seen as individuals rather than as members of a morally suspect and undesirable group in the U.S. We’ve always been treated as less than human.

Throughout history and still today, we exist as caricatures in the minds of too many. The popular representations of black women are reflected and shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class, and more. We exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We are preternaturally ‘strong’ and feel no pain so the image of a black woman in tears in public must be jarring indeed. Society is generally inoculated against black women’s tears. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. And for some of us, when these reductive lies about who we are seem to be reflected back to us (maybe through a mug shot photo), we become embarrassed and ashamed. Then we hate ourselves for it.

Read more »

Mar 28 2014

Image of the Day: Women Prisoners, 1860s

Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison.- Pach, G. W. (Gustavus W.), 1845-1904 -- Photographer

Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison, 1860s.- Pach, G. W. (Gustavus W.), 1845-1904 — Photographer