Nov 04 2014

Heading to Geneva…To Charge Genocide

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.


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:

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 »

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

Jun 25 2014

‘I do as I am bid’ or why we can’t reform policing…

The ACLU released a new report about the increasing and excessive militarization of the police. Radley Balko offers a good summary and analysis of the report here. He concludes that this issue is raised every few years, covered by the press, but leads to no useful reforms:

“The mass media seem to find renewed interest in this issue every five or six years. The problem, as the ACLU documents well, is that none of that coverage has generated any meaningful reform. And so the militarization continues.”

I think a lot about policing and violence. I always have. Currently, I am in the early stages of collaborating with several other people to organize around police violence against young people in Chicago. If I am honest, I’m not sure that it is actually possible to meaningfully ‘reform’ policing in the context of an oppressive society. I just don’t know. I engage in reform work mainly as harm reduction but I think we need to just start over from scratch. I don’t know how we do that but I am committed to investing time and resources to figure out how to abolish the entire PIC (policing, surveillance, and prisons).

One of the reasons I am pessimistic about prospects to reform policing is related to testimony that I read some time ago from a police officer during the era of American chattel slavery. The testimony underscores the actual function of the police which is and has always been to protect PROPERTY and the interests of the powerful. I mean this was clear in the 19th century and remains true today. How do we ‘reform’ the function of policing?

Below is an excerpt from the testimony I referenced. I think that it is instructive for a number of reasons including the collusion between police officers and slavemasters, the profit-making associated with law enforcement, the reliance on corporal punishment rather than long-term detention, and more…

I Do as I Am Bid
[John Capehart provided a special service for slaveholders. In his testimony before a court, he explains his job.]

Q: Mr. Capehart, is it part of your duty, as a policeman, to take up colored persons who are out after hours in the streets?
A. Yes, sir.
Q: What is done with them?
A. We put them in the lock-up, and in the morning they are brought into Court and ordered to be punished — those that are to be punished.
Q: What punishment do they get?
A. Not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.
Q: Who gives them these lashes?
A: Any of the Officers. I do, sometimes.
Q: Are you paid extra for this? How much?
A. Fifty cents a head. It used to be sixty-two cents. Now, it is only fifty. Fifty cents for each one we arrest, and fifty more for each one we flog.
Q: Are these persons you flog Men and Boys only, or are they Women and Girls also?
A. Men, Women, Boys, and Girls, just as it happens.
Q: Is your flogging, confined to these cases? Do you not flog Slaves at the request of their Masters?
A. Sometimes I do. Certainly, when I am called upon.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, are the Negroes sent to you? Have you a place for flogging?
A. No; I go round, as I am sent for.
Q: Is this part of your duty as an Officer?
A. No, sir.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, do you inquire into the circumstances to see what the fault has been, or if there is any?
A. That’s none of my business. I do as I am bid. The Master is responsible.

Source: Geo. W. Carleton, The Suppressed Book About Slavery (New York, 1864), pp. 193-195

May 23 2014

Image of the Day: Lynching

[Lynching, Russellville, Kentucky] by Minor B. Wade (1908)

[Lynching, Russellville, Kentucky] by Minor B. Wade (1908)

“This photograph is brutal testament to racial terrorism in America. The facts of the case are drawn from a small article that appeared in the “New York Times” on August 2, 1908, the same day the photograph was made by a local journalist. On the previous night, one hundred white men had entered the Russellville, Kentucky, jail and demanded that four black sharecroppers who had been detained for “disturbing the peace” be turned over to them. The men were accused by the mob of expressing sympathy for a fellow sharecropper who, in self-defense, had killed the white farmer for whom he worked. The jailer complied, and Virgil, Robert, and Thomas Jones and Joseph Riley were taken to a cedar tree and summarily lynched. The text of the note pinned to one of the bodies was also inscribed on the verso of the photograph: “Let this be a warning to you niggers to let white people alone or you will go the same way.” (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection)

May 15 2014

Scared Straight Doesn’t Work And Still Won’t Die…

Marie Smith doesn’t want her eight-year old son, Scott, to miss a particular exhibit that has dropped into the Colonial Park Plaza shopping center. She lets him gaze at it a moment, then delivers her message. “See,” she whispers, “it doesn’t pay to be bad.” (Source: Machalaba, Daniel, Wall Street Journal, 11/27/78)

Marie and her son Scott had just seen an electric chair that was part of a traveling exhibit called “Jail on Wheels.” In the late 1930s, a local sheriff named J. Edward Slavin came up with an idea. He wanted to create a mobile exhibit that would prevent juvenile delinquency. Thus “Jail on Wheels” was born in 1947. The specially-designed bus included ‘crime prevention’ equipment such as handcuffs, fingerprinting kits, weapons, tear gas, grenades, bulletproof vests, a resuscitator, and a “drunkometer.” The “Jail on Wheels” also featured a jail cell and a replica of an electric chair and gas chamber. Sponsored by the J. Edward Slavin Foundation, “Jail on Wheels” was popular through the 1970s. Millions of people toured the mobile exhibits over the years across the United States.

1940s Jail on Wheels Bus

1940s Jail on Wheels Bus

“Jail on Wheels” was the precursor to the modern “Scared Straight” prison programs. Over the past couple of weeks, I seen some articles about the enduring popularity of Scared Straight programs despite empirical evidence that they are in fact harmful.

Critics have long pointed out that these programs are detrimental likening them to “horror shows.” Yet parents across the country have been undeterred. I guess it just “feels” like it should “work.” Aaron MacGruder famously satirized Scared Straight in his animated series ‘The Boondocks’.

I’ve previously written about my aversion to taking black & brown children on prison field trips. I’ve also underscored the cruelty of subjecting black and brown children to gruesome emergency room field trips too. These strategies DO NOT WORK. They only serve to traumatize children while dehumanizing prisoners.

The programs need to die.

May 13 2014

Infographic: Chicago Police Torture

chicagotorture

Learn more about how you can TAKE ACTION.

May 03 2014

Documenting the State Murder of Clayton Lockett

On Tuesday, we tortured a man to death in Oklahoma:

“What was supposed to be the first of two executions here on Tuesday night was halted when the prisoner, Clayton D. Lockett, began to writhe and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious and called out “oh, man,” according to witnesses.

The administering doctor intervened and discovered that “the line had blown,” said the director of corrections, Robert Patton, meaning that drugs were no longer flowing into Mr. Lockett’s vein.

At 7:06 p.m., Mr. Patton said, Mr. Lockett died in the execution chamber, of a heart attack.”

My thoughts about the death penalty are clear. I think that state-sanctioned murder is barbaric and inhumane.

A study by Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State University released earlier this week found that: “at least 4 percent of people who get sentenced to death when they’re convicted would ultimately be exonerated if their cases were closely examined for the next 21 years.”

The study authors suggest that this is a conservative estimate. This news has generally been met with a collective shrug of Americans’ shoulders. And we should be disgusted with ourselves.

The state of Oklahoma has released a detailed timeline of the torture and murder of Clayton Lockett. Read the complete timeline here. An excerpt is provided below:

timelineexecution

I noticed that Clayton Lockett was offered a “food tray” twice on the day of his torture. He refused it both times. I’ve been reading recently about death row prisoners’ last meals. Mostly, I’ve been curious about the origins of the ritual. There are many theories about how and why prisoners who were condemned to death began to receive “special meals” on the eve of their executions. All that’s certain is that by the end of the nineteenth century the tradition of “last meals” for the condemned in the U.S. was a firmly established ritual.

Writing in the Journal of American Folklore, Michael Owen Jones (2014) suggests that commentators have offered contradictory explanations for the ritual of last meals:

Karon (2000) suggests that providing a special last meal might be “to sugarcoat what remains a grim act of violence by the state [executing the criminal] to redress a previous wrong.” Focusing on the bureaucratization and routinization of the “new penology” that dehumanizes prisoners turning them into docile automatons, LaChance (2007) contends that the state allows the condemned to choose whatever they wish for a final meal and to speak freely before dying in order to demonstrate that they possess autonomy and agency; as volitional beings who committed heinous crimes of their own free will, they deserve the punishment meted out to them. To sustain the emotional satisfaction required to uphold the death penalty, “[t]he state turns its offenders into self-made monsters” (LaChance 2007:719). In contrast to this interpretation, Gordon (2006) proposes that the ritual of the last meal constitutes “both an implicit call for forgiveness on the part of the citizens of the state” and “a demonstration of forgiveness as well, in that it shows kindness to the condemned and a recognition of their humanity and our shared humanity.”

Regardless of the state’s intentions and ours, Clayton Lockett rejected his ‘last meals’ and this is apparently fairly common. On Tuesday, we tortured a man to death and this too is common…

Apr 07 2014

On Police Torture, Bearing ‘Witness’ and Saving Ourselves…

I misjudged the weather. I didn’t dress appropriately. It’s cold and gray. Perhaps this is fitting.

Standing outside the Daley Center & across from City Hall, on Friday, about three hundred people chant: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”

Over one hundred people (118 to be exact) hold black banners/flags on wood sticks with the names of Jon Burge and his police officers’ torture victims. They called themselves the “midnight crew.” For over 20 years, they tortured an estimated 118 people, all of them black. 118 black bodies tortured in plain sight. The names are written in white on the black flags. Perhaps this is fitting too.

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

photo by Alice Kim (4/4/14)

Most of the people who carry the banners are attending the Amnesty International 2014 Conference. They are mostly young and white. When the names are read out loud from the stage, they move over to stand in formation, silently acknowledging the sins of white supremacy. I wonder if they think of it this way; as atoning for a legacy of white terrorism. It strikes me again that the past is not past.

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

photo by Toussaint Losier (4/4/14)

Nineteen men who were tortured by Burge still languish behind bars — their confessions extracted through electrocution, suffocation, and vicious beatings. I wonder if people know about this Guantanamo in Illinois or more accurately our Illinois in Guantanamo.

Read more »

Mar 19 2014

Poem of the Day: “If Only”

IF ONLY (by Lolita Stewart-White)

for Willie Edwards

If only it hadn’t been 1957
in a wooded area near Alabama, but it was;
or missing black folks hadn’t been looked for less
than missing shoes, and they weren’t;
or if only those Klansmen hadn’t gathered,
intent on finding a black man, and they were,
or if only they hadn’t stopped him on that gravel road,
or beaten him until they could see the white beneath his skin,
or marched him at gun point onto that bridge, and they did;
or if only they hadn’t said, “Bet this nigger can’t swim,”
or hooted and hollered as he fell from fifty feet,
or laughed as he vanished in the river’s moonlight, but they did;
or if only his death hadn’t been ruled suicide, and it was,
or his murderers hadn’t been set free, and they were,
or the daughter he left behind hadn’t had to live her life without him,
but she did.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets

Listen to the audio HERE