If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about policing. The cops are the gateway to the prison industrial complex and the gatekeepers of state power. In addition, as I’ve often written, the young people I work with want to talk about the police. Their material experiences of feeling and being oppressed usually revolve around how they are treated by cops.
Recently a young person who I love named Richard released a new music video for his song “Cops and Robbers.” You can and should watch it below.
I asked Richard about his inspiration for the song and his response was as follows:
“So the idea of the song actually was nothing planned. I was on the Greyhound coming back from a very short spring break and I had just started to re-read Assata Shakur’s Autobiography and I listened to the beat right after I read the first chapter and the first thing I could think of was Cops and Robbers, and how Assata was portrayed and accused and related to my experiences growing up in Chicago.”
I also asked about how he views the role of police in communities like the one he grew up in. His response was that they were “overseers” of the community. I thought that this terminology was instructive and harkens back to the slave patrols which were America’s original police forces.
Recently my comrade Francesco de Salvatore shared his collaboration with a group called the Young Fugitives about policing in Chicago. The project titled “Growing Up With CPD” is a set of audio interviews with young Chicagoans about their experiences with law enforcement. Below is one story.
“Growing Up With CPD” follows on the heels of a similar project that my organization undertook a couple of years ago called “Chain Reaction.” I think that what all of these projects have in common is a desire to surface the voices of young people who feel oppressed by policing in the hope that people will come to rely less on cops as the solution of violence. I hope that people will heed young people’s calls for true justice.
In 1954, 90 year old Mary Church Terrell, a lifelong activist, declared: “I’m going back to Georgia.” Terrell, chairwoman of the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice, was announcing a “Mother’s Day crusade” that she and other women would lead to once again advocate for the release of Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons. By this time, all three had already spent the better part of six years in prison.
I am thrilled to report that the project I’ve been working on for the past few weeks was handed over to a friend to design. I’ve gotten a sneak peak of the publication and it’s beautiful. On short notice, many people came together and came through. With only a few snags along the way, it was a joy to work on this project. If you’ve read this blog even just once, you’ll recognize how much history matters to me. I very much wanted to put Marissa Alexander’s case in historical context in an accessible way. I think that we achieved this goal. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the project and am looking forward to unveiling the finished product(s) soon.
As a preview, I am sharing Rosa Lee Ingram’s story along with art created especially for this project by my friend Billy Dee. The project includes eleven other stories of women of color (including Marissa) who were criminalized for self-defense. Along with the publication which we will use to raise funds for Marissa’s legal defense, we are also planning an exhibition here in Chicago in July. I look forward to sharing more soon.
In 1948, Rosa Lee Ingram, a widowed mother of 12 children, was convicted and sentenced to death along with her two sons, Wallace & Sammie Lee, for killing a white man in self-defense. Ingram, a sharecropper, lived on the same property as 64 year old John Stratford, also a sharecropper. She had endured years of harassment by him.
On November 4 1947, an argument that allegedly began because Stratford was angry that some hogs had crossed into his property quickly escalated when he tried to force Rosa Lee into a shed to have sex with him. She fought back. Ingram’s 16 year old son Wallace heard the commotion and ran to help his mother. He warned Stratford to “stop beating mama” and when he did not, Wallace picked up a gun and slammed it on his head. He and his mother left Stratford lying on the ground unaware that he was dead.
After Rosa Lee, Wallace, and another son named Sammie Lee were convicted of first degree murder on January 26 1948 in a one day trial, they were sentenced to die in the electric chair on February 27. There was immediate outrage at the conviction and death sentence. Family members of the Ingrams, including Rosa Lee’s mother Mrs. Amy Hunt, asked religious and other organizations for funds to support an appeal. The NAACP and the Georgia Defense Committee pledged their support and contributed money.
Supporters across the country organized protests. The widespread public pressure worked: in March 1948, Judge W.M Harper set aside the death penalty and commuted the family’s sentences to life in prison. Wallace was 16 years old and his brother Sammie Lee was only 14.
While the NAACP actively raised money and provided legal support during the case, Black women actually drove the campaign to free Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons from prison. In 1949, a group of Black women formed the National Committee for the Defense of the Ingram Family. In addition to Mary Church Terrell who served as its national chair, the group included luminaries like Maude White Katz, Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Charlotta Bass.
The committee organized an action in spring 1949, sending 10,000 Mother’s Day cards and a petition with 25,000 signatures to President Truman insisting that Mrs. Ingram be freed.
The Ingram Defense Committee also reached out for international support in its campaign. In September 1949, members asked W.E.B. DuBois to write a petition to the UN Commission on Human Rights asking that it debate her case.
For years afterwards, contingents of women continued to organize diligently insisting that the Ingrams be paroled and freed from prison. They organized “Mother’s Day crusades” which included visits to local politicians asking them to intervene in securing the release of the Ingrams. Georgia finally released Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons on August 26 1959 after 12 years of incarceration. This would not have happened if not for the consistent agitation and organizing on their behalf by thousands of people across the world, and particularly Black women. It was that organizing that saved their lives.
A few weeks ago writer & artist Molly Crabapple considered the theatrical nature of court proceedings:
“Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.”
I had the pleasure of talking with Molly a bit about my experiences of sitting in numerous courtrooms over the years. As she points out in her essay, most trials are not high drama or high profile. They are mostly rote and often very boring. Yet the public is weaned on television courtroom depictions and mistake “Law & Order” for real life.
There are, however, individual high profile trials that can take on the character of high drama. Billy Holiday’s 1949 drug trial fits the bill. Sara Ramshaw (2004) writes about it in an essay titled “He’s my man!”: Lyrics of Innocence and Betrayal in The People v. Billie Holiday. A number of accounts have been written about the trial. They all vary but one thing is consistent: Holiday was found not-guilty. This was seen as a surprise given the fact that she was allegedly caught in possession of narcotics by a well-respected FBI agent named George H. White. Additionally, in an era where black defendants were subject to ‘legal lynchings’ even celebrity was not a get out of jail free card.
Ramshaw (2004) addresses how “the racist, heterosexist, and classist violence and victimization [Holiday] had experienced throughout her life was brought to the fore and highlighted in order to support her trial narrative (p.88).” Billie Holiday proclaimed her ‘innocence’ at trial and an all-white jury found her credible. She was acquitted on June 3 1949.
Holiday’s attorney, Jake Ehrlich, suggested as a defense that she had been set up by her boyfriend John Levy. Yet Ramshaw contends that “Erlich’s position had obvious deficiencies…Nonetheless, the jury appears to have accepted Ehrlich’s argument (p.100).” Why did the jury believe Holiday’s defense? Ramshaw explains: “The reason for this decision, I suggest, lies in the blurring of Holiday’s personal and public lives and the credibility her celebrity persona lent to her narrative of innocence and betrayal in the courtroom (p.100).”
The defense sought to play up Billie Holiday’s public image as being ‘unlucky in life and love.’ Ramshaw describes how they relied on and constructed this image:
“To begin, Holiday entered the courtroom on 31 May 1949, looking uncharacteristically ‘unkempt in a beige suit.’ Her eyes were puffy from crying and one eye was bruised and swollen. She told a reporter in the courtroom that Levy had hit her. ‘You should see my back,’ she stated: ‘He done it Friday night. It looks better now than what it did. He went off Saturday night – even took my mink – eighteen grand worth of coat…I got nothing now, and I’m scared.’”
Holiday was probably telling the truth about being abused by Levy. He was not the first boyfriend to have allegedly assaulted her. But Ramshaw makes clear that Holiday and her lawyers chose to underscore her victimhood and to marshal the public’s perceptions of her to their benefit. They succeeded in this; overcoming racism and turning misogyny to their advantage. The entire article by Ramshaw is fascinating and worth reading.
In the conclusion to the article, Ramshaw offers the following assessment of Holiday’s courtroom ‘performance:’
Holiday’s “My Man” routine, otherwise referred to as her “unlucky in life” public persona, was configured in United States popular culture on the basis of myths and stereotypes regarding black women and their sexuality. Throughout Holiday’s trial, issues regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality were either implicitly or explicitly highlighted in order to direct attention back to Holiday’s “unlucky in life” persona. This persona, in turn, filled gaps and resolved contradictions in the evidence. The heightened authenticity that her “unlucky in life” public persona lent to her trial narrative of innocence and betrayal gave Holiday’s testimony the quality of truthfulness needed to get a jury to overlook the evidence (or lack thereof) in front of them (p.105).
When I read Molly’s article, I remembered Ramshaw’s account of Holiday’s 1949 trial as a good example of how theatricality can manifest in courtrooms (especially in high profile trials). Take a few minutes to enjoy this poignant performance of “My Man” by Lady Day and think about how she marshaled the lyrics of this song, connected them to her personal experiences, and convinced a jury of white people to acquit her on drug charges in 1949.
I love Jayne Cortez. I love hearing her read this poem… It’s explicit. She’s gone now but her work lives on. Rape is a poem about Joan Little and Inez Garcia. I’m immersed in a current project that also focuses in part on them…
by: Jayne Cortez
What was Inez Garcia supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body
the man who carved a combat zone between her breasts
Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass
kiss every pimple on his butt
blow hot breath on his big toe
draw back the corners of her vagina and
he haw like a California burro
This being war time for Inez
she stood facing the knife
the insults and
her own smell drying on the penis of
the man who raped her
She stood with a rifle in her hand
doing what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the man started grunting and panting and
wobbling forward like a giant hog
She pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of shaking flesh
Sent it flying to the Virgin of Guadelupe
then celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else was she supposed to do?
And what was Joanne Little supposed to do for the man who declared war on her life
Was she supposed to tongue his encrusted
toilet stool lips
suck the numbers off of his tin badge
choke on his clap trap balls
squeeze on his nub of rotten maggots and
sing “god bless america thank you for fucking my life away?”
This being wartime for Joanne
she did what a defense department will do in times of war
and when the piss drinking shit sniffing guard said
“I’m gonna make you wish you were dead black bitch
Joanne came down with an ice pick in
the swat freak motherfucker’s chest
yes in the fat neck of that racist policeman
Joanne did the dance of the ice picks and once again
from coast to coast
house to house
we celebrated day of the dead rapist punk
and just what the fuck else were we supposed to do
“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.
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 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)
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?”