Aug 29 2014

Shanesha Taylor Regains Custody of Her Children…

I am happy to share that Shanesha Taylor regained custody of her three children yesterday.

Last week, I wrote about the criminalization of black mothers with a particular focus on Shanesha’s case in the Nation Magazine.

In the United States, the ‘bad mother’ is usually poor and almost always black. Popular representations of black women are shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class and more. Black women exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. We are preternaturally “strong” and feel no pain therefore justifying harsh and punitive treatment by the state.

It’s a small miracle then that some people were able to overcome our collective socialization to express compassion for Shanesha Taylor and for her children. But it isn’t nearly enough for us to care about black mothers and their children or to simply acknowledge their suffering; we must change policies that are destroying their lives. We must end the war on drugs. We must provide free or low-cost childcare options. We must create living wage jobs. And we must end racist mass criminalization.

I am very happy for Shanesha who I know loves her children dearly.

Aug 01 2014

Beyond the Case & the Cause is A Person: #FreeMarissa

Marissa Alexander is a person. She is also fighting a case and that case illuminates a greater cause. But she is a human being. This is something that can be overlooked. It’s easy to do for a number of reasons. Most defendants are advised by their attorneys to keep quiet while facing charges. This creates a vacuum. If the defendant is lucky, others step in to speak for them and to act as their surrogate filling in the gaps in their story. This is the position in which Marissa finds herself.

And so it falls to others to find ways to keep her name and her story in the public’s mind. It falls to others to devise creative ways of engaging new supporters. It falls to other to convince people that they should care about the defendant and that they should offer material support for a prisoner.

One of the important lessons that I’ve learned in my years of prisoner defense committee work is how isolating and lonely the criminal legal process is. This is particularly true for detainees who find themselves jailed while awaiting trial or a plea deal. It is difficult to make peace with the loss of your freedom when you haven’t been convicted. Letters and other communications are lifelines for those who find themselves in such a predicament. The knowledge that people on the outside care about you, haven’t forgotten about you, and support you is encouraging. Often it makes the difference between giving up and staying hopeful. That line is an excruciatingly thin one.

Yesterday, the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign delivered several #SelfiesForSelfDefense directly to Marissa. Below are some of the tweets describing her reaction.

Marissa Alexander is a human being and she needs our support. Please donate to her legal defense or purchase an item from the Free Marissa online store (all proceeds go to the legal defense fund).

Jul 29 2014

Sliced Shoes, Mary Mitchell & Fighting Violence with More Violence

According to Mary Mitchell, “gun-toting teenagers in Chicago are practically laughing at police.” Her solution is for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to implement New York City’s recently ended stop and frisk policies and practices as a violence prevention measure.

What a sad and pathetic ‘solution’ to interpersonal violence. Mitchell suggests that citizens should willingly forfeit our civil rights and be subjected to more violence in order to decrease interpersonal violence. It makes no sense and is a destructive idea. Mitchell is advocating that Chicagoans cede even more power to a police department that is renowned for its corruption.

On Sunday, I sat in a peace circle with Jaime Hauad’s mother, Anabel Perez. Ms. Perez spoke about her son’s tortured confession secured by CPD. She showed us a copy of that day’s Tribune which had a front page story on her son’s experiences.

“Jaime Hauad was 17 and in the middle of two days of questioning — and alleged torture — by Chicago police investigating a double murder when he saw his chance, his attorneys say.

There, in a hallway as he was led to his second lineup, were his white Filas, gym shoes that he alleges police took from him after they lowered the blade of an office-grade paper cutter over his shoes, while he wore them, slicing at the tips and threatening to cut his toes to try and coerce a confession.

Hauad said he quickly grabbed the shoes — the tips had by then been completely removed — and quietly asked another arrestee, whom he knew from his Northwest Side neighborhood, to switch shoes with him. Take the Filas to my mom, Hauad urged as he took his pal’s Nike Scottie Pippen-edition shoes, and tell her they are trying to get me to confess to a murder.

The shoe switch 17 years ago didn’t prevent Hauad’s conviction and life sentence, as he had hoped, but it was documented in two Chicago Police Department lineup photo arrays, providing “before and after” views that persuaded the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to conclude that Hauad’s torture story was credible and his case worthy of review.”

This is the department that Mitchell advocates be allowed to randomly stop and frisk people across this city. Last week, someone on Facebook posted a video of the Chicago Police Department chasing down and then arresting a 9 year old boy in North Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago.

Watch the video and notice how tiny that little boy who they are arresting is. Notice how many cops there are around him. Imagine how scared he was. Then imagine giving even more license to CPD to stop and harass 9 year old black boys across this city. I refuse. So do many others living in Chicago.

This Saturday, August 2 the We Charge Genocide working committee will launch a project in Chicago by hosting a youth hearing on police violence at Roosevelt University. From 1 to 2 PM, Chicago’s youth will put the system of police violence on trial, breaking their silence to confront the targeted repression, harassment and brutality disproportionately faced by low-income people and young people of color.

Youth aged 25 and under are invited to share their experiences. Personal and community stories of police violence will be told, such as the recent incident where a young man named Damo by the police, hit his head, and later died.

One of the organizers of “We Charge Genocide,” 19 year old Richard Wilson explained the reason for organizing a youth hearing:

“If you’re young and poor and black or brown, the police see you as a criminal. Young people are the future of this city, but you wouldn’t know it by the way we’re treated. Police violence and harassment are a reality in our neighborhoods but we aren’t powerless, we’re putting the system on trial.”

We Charge Genocide is a grassroots, intergenerational effort to center the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago. The name “We Charge Genocide” comes from a petition filed to the United Nations in 1951, which documented 153 racial killings and other human rights abuses committed mostly by the police.  

We Charge Genocide seeks to address this tradition of violence by offering a vehicle for needed organizing and social transformation through documentation of youth experiences with the Chicago Police Department, and through popular education both about police abuses of power and about youth-driven solutions and alternatives to policing.

Everyone is invited to attend the youth hearing on Saturday. Details are here.

Jul 28 2014

#ChicagoForMarissa

I am incredibly grateful to everyone who organized and took part in the excellent Chicago Community Gathering in solidarity with Marissa Alexander on Saturday. The gathering was the culmination of a very busy month of events that members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA) organized initially anticipating that her trial would kick off today. CAFMA later learned that the trial was postponed until December and used the events to continue to educate Chicagoans about Marissa’s case and to fundraise for her legal defense.

This month, hundreds of people attended a teach-in about Marissa’s case, the opening reception of the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition, a screening of the film “Crime after Crime” followed by a panel discussion, and finally the community gathering on Saturday.

For myself, it’s a true blessing to organize with my fellow CAFMA members. We are all fully committed to supporting Marissa in her fight for freedom. I hope that others in Chicago will join in the fight. You can see Chicago’s contribution to Free Marissa NOW’s http://www.freemarissanow.org/selfies-for-self-defense.html project here.

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Jul 24 2014

Shanesha Taylor & “Better Days To Come”

It was a far cry from the mug shot photograph that first caught my attention. Shanesha Taylor stood smiling flanked by her attorney Benjamin Taylor (no relation) after accepting a deal from prosecutors that will eventually lead to the dismissal of felony charges against her.

shanesha2

I wanted to wait until Shanesha had spoken publicly before writing again. When I wrote about her plight in March, Shanesha was in jail and silenced. I wanted in my own small way to show her as human rather than tragic. So I used the information that I had gathered to write about her plight and to encourage others to take action in support of her.

I wish that the charges were unconditionally dropped but that is not to be. I believe that Shanesha should not have been criminalized in the first place. I rue the robbing of human dignity that permeates our criminal punishment system. Still, Shanesha is relieved and grateful to everyone who has supported her. She’s looking forward to “better days to come” and to being fully reunited with her beloved children.

And so I find myself thinking (again) about black mothers. My thoughts are with the thousands who are spending their nights locked behind bars, separated from their children. As I recall Shanesha’s mugshot, I am reminded of their tears too, invisible to most of us. Cecily McMillan has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that lays bare the torture and brutality that women incarcerated at Rikers Island prison routinely endure. Offering one example, she writes:

Inmates are routinely denied basic medical treatment. I saw a woman soiled with vomit and sobbing for hours. We other inmates were afraid and concerned. We didn’t know what was happening, or what we could do. Finally, at the insistence of a few inmates, she was taken to the hospital. She never came back. Her name was Judith. She had befriended me before she died.

Acknowledging the tears and the pain, I also admire and know of incarcerated women’s resilience, strength and boundless love for their children. In other words, like all of us, they are complex and multi-dimensional people. Within this culture, black mothers are either “bad” or cruelly “self-sacrificing.” As Evelyn C. White (1990) has written: “the images and expectations of black women are actually both super- and sub-human (p.94).” We are caricatured as Sapphires and Jezebels. We are Mammy and Matriarch. We are Superwomen and “Mules of the World.” The missing description always is quite simply: human. It’s that humanity with all its attendant flaws and beauty that I claim for all black women.

I’m happy for Shanesha and I wish only good things ahead. While I celebrate with her, I am conscious of the many, many other unjustly criminalized black women who are languishing in prison, fighting charges, or tragically dead. I am thinking about Debra Harrell, Marissa Alexander, and Nimali Henry (just to name a few).

So for Shanesha and all of us, I dedicate this poem to our humanity as black women.

Shanesha Taylor hugs Kathryn McKinney as Rev. Jarrett Maupin Jr. looks on

Shanesha Taylor hugs Kathryn McKinney as Rev. Jarrett Maupin Jr. looks on

Sister Outsider
by Opal Palmer Adisa, For Audre Lorde

we
women black
are always
outside
even when
we believe
we’re in
but being
out side
ain’t so bad
cause
we be
learning
to love
each other better
we be
learning
to listen
more closely
to one another
we be
learning
to allow
all of us
our humanity

sisters
are too often
out side
fronting
trying
to get over
but
we be coming
to gether
coming
together
ending our silence
transforming
space and pace
searching
and finding
the most valuable
is often
that which is
overlooked us

Jul 23 2014

Musical Interlude: What Ya Life Like…

Jul 22 2014

“No Selves to Defend” Exhibit & Marissa Alexander…

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

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

photo by Daniel Tucker (7/18/14)

photo by Daniel Tucker (7/18/14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 17 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celia by Bianca Diaz

Celia by Bianca Diaz

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

Jul 13 2014

Cecily McMillan Describes the Violence of Prison Searches…

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

image by Molly Crabapple

image by Molly Crabapple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 12 2014

Musical Interlude: The Prisoner by Gil Scott Heron