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.”
I’m on the outside looking in and I’ve held my tongue…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a week I’ll be standing in front of the committee at the UN, and with me will be all the pain me and my people have felt from the police
— #ChiCopWatch (@EthosIII) November 4, 2014
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:
And I know damo will be in the heavenly cut telling me to turn up on these Geneva folks
— #ChiCopWatch (@EthosIII) November 4, 2014
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.
It was another busy weekend. On Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the 2nd Annual Domestic Violence Awareness Month Walk organized by my friends at A Long Walk Home. This year, they chose to honor Marissa Alexander.
Below are some pictures from the march taken by my friend Sarah Jane Rhee.
“Who are we? Families”
“What do we do? Stop The Violence.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
A number of Chicagoans responded to the call to come to St. Louis and Ferguson for a weekend of resistance as part of Ferguson October. I attended a march in St. Louis on Saturday and several other friends from Chicago spent all or part of their weekends in Ferguson. I am still sorting out my thoughts and feelings but I asked some friends to share theirs if they were willing. This week, I will post the responses that I receive. Today, my friend Sarah reflects on her experience through words and her photos.
It’s Sunday morning, 8am, and my daughter Cadence and our friends Pidgeon and Mika are slowly waking up in our hotel room in St. Louis. I decide to use this time before we check out to edit my photos from the night before taken at the vigil at Mike Brown’s memorial and the subsequent protest at the Ferguson police station. While I wait for the photos to download onto my laptop, I read Mariame’s post from Friday, and see this video of Ethan, a young person I care very much about, and my heart cracks as I recall the events of the previous night when I watched him unleash his anger and pain in the faces of the Ferguson police officers lined up in front of the protesters. I then return to my downloaded photos, and the very first one I see is that of Mike Brown’s mother and family leading the march after the vigil to the police station, and that’s when my already cracked heart breaks wide open and I start weeping.
The night before at the Ferguson PD protest, I witnessed several young men from Chicago whom I care about very much passionately and furiously express their anger and pain at the police officers who were lined up in front of them a few feet away, separated from them only by a thin yellow police tape that poorly represented the chasm between these two groups.
As I watched, I was worried for their safety because I knew these officers could care less about the lives of these young Black men, that they may as well all be Mike Brown or nameless. I also recognized these young people’s need for an outlet for the feelings of anguish and rage that I don’t have adequate words with which to describe them.
It’s been a long week. Actually, it’s been a long few weeks. I have been working nonstop and I feel myself coming down with a cold.
Yet tomorrow I’ll be on a bus at 5 am heading to Ferguson Missouri with several comrades and friends. I’ll be participating in the mass march taking place on Saturday.
I wrote a few words recently about marching as protest and refusal so I won’t revisit the topic. I’ve said before that I didn’t expect to still be participating in such protests in my 40s for a variety of reasons. But here I am and I feel grateful that I am in good enough physical and mental health to do so.
So I will march tomorrow for the many young people, young black people in particular, who I love and want to be free from violence and oppression. I will march for my father who reminds me through his actions and his example that in the face of injustice one must always stand and be counted. I will march for myself, to remind myself that other people oppose genocide too.
Tonight, I saw a video of a young man who I have gotten to know and love over the years. He traveled to Ferguson from Chicago to participate in the weekend of resistance. I watched the video and felt gutted. But I am grateful that I saw it before boarding the bus to Ferguson.
I never forget that these protests are about real people and about our collective survival. I can’t forget because I am confronted almost daily with the raw pain and devastation that black evisceration engenders. So tomorrow, I am heading to Ferguson with Ethan’s anguish in my heart and on my mind. I’ll march in the hope that future young people will be spared.