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.

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 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.

Oct 25 2014

Damo, We Speak Your Name: Resisting Police Violence in Chicago

Dominique (Damo) Franklin, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life mattered. Look at what you’ve inspired…

In May, I wrote about the death of a young man known to his friends as Damo at the hands of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Months later, answers about his killing are still elusive. To conclude my post about Damo’s death, I wrote:

“He was managed throughout his life through the lens of repression, crime, and punishment. And now he is dead and those of us left behind must find a way to heal while building more justice. We’ll continue to fight in Damo’s memory because we won’t allow his death to have been in vain…”

We are keeping our promise. On Wednesday, hundreds of people participated in manifestations of Damo’s legacy.

Damo, in a couple of weeks, your friends and peers are on their way to the United Nations in Geneva to tell your story that of countless others who have perished and been tortured at the hands of the CPD.

Your death has inspired this song though we would rather have you alive and here with us. The telling of police torture is a mourning song. But the protest on Wednesday evening reminds me that it is also a freedom song.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life matters.

At Wednesday’s protest, your friends and peers invoked your name; placing it alongside Roshad, Deshawn, Rekia and Mike’s.

“Protect and serve that’s a lie, you don’t care when black kids die.”

I am really tired and I am incredibly inspired. I am still struggling to find the words to express my feelings. So I am going to rely on photos taken by friends and comrades to end this post. I am privileged and humbled to organize with a wonderful group of people. I wish Damo was here to join us.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life still matters… In your memory, we will continue working to shut down oppression.

Read more »

Oct 18 2014

Guest Post: ‘Not Made for TV:’ Ferguson Reflections by Kelly Hayes

Continuing the series of reflections by local Chicago organizers who traveled to St. Louis and Ferguson last weekend is my comrade Kelly Hayes. I am so happy to feature Kelly’s words and photos today.

It’s been about three days since I returned from Ferguson October, and my body and mind are finally starting to settle back into the life I know. A number of people have asked me about what I saw and experienced there, and I’ve generally responded with simplistic, vague statements like, “It was intense.” I’ve done this partly because I haven’t fully processed all that I saw and heard out there, and partly because I know that as soon as I start to speak, I’ll be walking a fine line between bearing witness and co-opting someone else’s narrative and struggle. Because while I am a person of color, I am not black, and I do not live in a community where my life has been deemed utterly disposable. Were my partner and I to have children, I would not spend my days wondering if some police officer would imagine their cellphone was a weapon, or simply gun them down out of a blind contempt for all things black.

This disposability of blackness is not my daily reality, so I know I must take care in how I explain what I saw and experienced on those streets, amongst those brave people.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

I arrived in St. Louis on Saturday. The atmosphere was much as I expected it to be, with props and banners and high spirits. There were smiles. There was laughter. There was spectacle. I was glad I walked with those people, some of whom traveled great distances just to participate in that march, before hopping back on their buses for the long trip home. I was glad I was there, but even as we marched, I thought, “This is the gentle part.” And it was.

photo by Kelly Hayes

photo by Kelly Hayes

Mike Brown means, we’ve got to fight back!

That night, I arrived at the scene of Mike Brown’s murder around 7:00pm. A small crowd had formed. I took photographs and talked to a few people. The scene was calm. Then, out of the relative quiet, I heard chanting, as hundreds marched up the street to the memorial. At that point, the scene became infused with an energy I can hardly describe. Despite my exhaustion and my bad back, I could only feel what was being expressed all around me: uncertainty, heartbreak, rage, and an aching need for some kind of justice. But there was something else in the air. Ferocity. These young people meant it when they chanted, “We’re young! We’re strong! We’re marching all night long!”

The crowd moved fast, and I’m not actually as young and strong as I used to be, but I had no trouble keeping up that night. The energy of the march pulled me away from myself. All I could think was, “Take pictures, tweet, get this out there.” It seemed like the one thing that I could do that was of any real value. I could bear witness, and try to show people, in real time, just how powerful these moments were.

And they were powerful.

Read more »

Oct 16 2014

Guest Post: From St. Louis, On Peace & Protest by Page May

This post is by Page May who is an organizer with We Charge Genocide and will be part of the youth delegation traveling to Geneva in November 2014. I am so happy to be able to feature Page’s brilliant voice here.

I am still processing my thoughts on the brief time I spent in St. Louis. I was deeply moved by the energy, love, and intensity of the protestors, particularly the many young people leading the march.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

After the rally, a White Missourian approached me asking what I thought. We shared enthusiasm for the day’s events but our conversation ended when she said she “only hopes it stays peaceful…that some people have broken windows and started looting…which ruins it for everyone and takes away from the whole thing.” When I returned to Chicago, I tried to stay updated by following #FergusonOctober. I found myself similarly frustrated by the pattern of outrage over the police using such excessive force on “peaceful protestors.”

There is nothing peaceful about having to fight for your people’s lives and nothing surprising about police violence against Black people. This White, liberal, insistence on “peaceful protest” and what qualifies as such is at best misunderstanding and at worst inherently antagonistic to Black struggle.

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

photo by Page May (St. Louis, 10/11/14)

While processing my thoughts on this, I’ve found myself referring to one of my favorite poems, by Ethan Viets-VanLear- a co-organizer in We Charge Genocide and fellow UN delegate.

And the police of the block that got a vendetta on every Black boy child;
The perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed!
I was born on the gutter
handcuffed on the curb.
I was born in a dungeon,
medicated and shackled,
smothered so I couldn’t speak.

I find so much wisdom here in Ethan’s words. His recognition that what- as well as who/when/where/how- is defined and understood as “peace” is a fabrication that normalizes an anti-black status-quo. Moreover, that the construction of “the peace” is not only exclusionary of Black people, but positioned in fixed opposition to us: We are implicitly (as Black people who exist) and explicitly (as Black people who resist) in disturbance of “the peace.” And as those enlisted to serve and protect “the peace,” the police have always been tasked with keeping Black people in our place- as slaves, criminals, deviants, and dangerous. The police are, as Ethan describes, “the perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed.” They have always been at war with us. Our history in this country is one of captivity and genocide- dungeons and shackles.

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

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

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Oct 13 2014

Guest Post: Visiting Sammy by Liz Alexander

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

-Billie Holiday

I approach my first check point before entering the prison. I present my license and inform the guardsmen that I am visiting from out of town. I park my car and join the long line of predominantly Black and Brown women and their children. I recognize familiar faces from the last couple of times I’ve been here and we greet each other with ours eyes and a smile. As I approach the window, I take his inmate number out, ready to recite it on command in order to avoid frustrating the officer behind the glass. Unlike the other women, I have not memorized it yet. In fact, I refuse to do so. Even after eight years. I have made a commitment to maintain his humanity, regardless of the circumstances.

… “ After 18 hours of deliberations, a jury convicted Sammy Cooper, 21, of aggravated manslaughter in the death of 27-year-old Mike Rhodes, of East Orange, and using a steering-wheel lock to strike 14 blows to his head and face. Cooper, who faces 10 to 30 years in state prison, was also convicted of unlawful possession of a weapon late Tuesday in Newark Superior Court….Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Frederick Elflein said a taped police confession the day of the March 17, 2007, incident provided strong enough evidence to make this a clear-cut case. “The jury paid very close attention,” he said. “Even though in the confession (Cooper) said it was an accident and didn’t intend to kill (Rhodes), it was pretty chilling.”

On Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 7:25pm, The New Jersey Star Ledger published an article, “East Orange man guilty of killing man with steering-wheel lock.” What the article failed to mention is that Sammy Cooper was abandoned by his father after his parents’ divorced when he was six years old; when he was twelve he was falsely incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and was bullied and harassed by the arresting officers. He was later acquitted. What the article failed to mention was that when he was fifteen, his mother died unexpectedly and he, the only one out of his siblings became a ward of the state. What the article failed to mention was that he had a mental illness and up until this incident, he himself was a victim. Is still a victim. No, this does not justify his actions or excuse him from accountability however what I find to be “pretty chilling,” is the lack of space for the acknowledgement of these other truths; the lack of space to be humanized.

Read more »

Sep 25 2014

October 16: Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence, and Antiracist Feminisms in the 1970s & ’80s

I am excited to co-organize and participate in an upcoming event. Historian Emily Thuma will present a talk titled “Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence and Anti-Racist Feminisms in the 1970s and 80s.” Her talk will explore the relationships between U.S-based anti-violence against women activism and the expansion of the prison nation in the early neoliberal era.

Emily is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her teaching and research focus broadly on the cultural and political histories of gender, race, sexuality, and empire in the United States. She is currently completing a book about feminist activism against violence in the context of the politics of crime control, policing, and imprisonment in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s.She has also long been active in LGBTQ and feminist anti-violence and prison organizing efforts.

After her talk, Emily and I will engage in a conversation that will seek to link the past to our present era when carceral feminism is ascendant. I am excited for this conversation because it connects to the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition that I co-curated and to the anthology about the criminalization of women of color who invoke self-defense that I edited. It’s fitting that this event will take place during domestic violence awareness month and the month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation.

RSVP for the event on Facebook. If you are in Chicago on October 16th, I hope to see you at the event.

You can read Emily’s latest essay ‘Against the ‘Prison/Psychiatric State': Anti-violence Feminisms and the Politics of Confinement in the 1970sHERE (PDF).

Lessons in Self Defense Poster FINAL