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

Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.

There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.

I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).

Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.

The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.

Read more »

Mar 03 2014

Still Torturing Children…

New York is banning solitary confinement of children under 18 along with implementing other reforms. But as the Center on Investigative Reporting points out:

“…the rule does not apply to city and county jails, like New York City’s Rikers Island, which houses hundreds of minors as young as 16. Although most of them have not been convicted, they still can be punished as adults for breaking jail rules. That often means weeks or months in solitary confinement.”

Some of you reading this might be surprised that any state would use such a practice at all. A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a wrenching report about the scope and impact(s) of solitary on children. Basically, they reaffirmed that the practice amounts to physical and psychological torture. HRW produced the video below to accompany the report.

Solitary confinement or what many prisoners call “the hole” can only accurately be considered torture. Charles Dickens recognized as much in the 19th century. Too often, however, the practice is either ignored or discussed euphemistically. America has ALWAYS been pro-torture of certain people. I offer as exhibit A the spectacle lynching of black people in the U.S. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that we still torture so many people in prison through the use of solitary as well as other forms of physical, psychological, and emotional brutality. CIR produced an excellent animated video to illustrate how solitary confinement is experienced by children. I recommend that everyone watch it.

We should end solitary confinement in general as a practice in our prisons. We should abolish prisons.

Dec 28 2013

10 Creative Ways That Chicagoans Addressed Violence in 2013

** This is my final recap of 2013…

Chicago has been in the spotlight over the past few years as the epitome of urban violence. The city has been dubbed the “murder capital of the U.S.” even though this is actually untrue. I’ve written and will continue to write about the various organizing and advocacy efforts by Chicagoans to address interpersonal and structural/systemic violence. Lots of people in this city are working to address violence; many in very creative ways.

Today, I want to focus on some of the creative interventions to address violence in Chicago that I’ve either been part of or have otherwise come to my attention in 2013. Thousands of people were engaged through these projects. There were of course many other efforts that I left off this list. I invite you to submit your suggestions in the comments section. Think about how you can contribute to ending violence in your own communities and then get to work!

1. 500campaign

From NBC 5 Chicago:

After the murder totals in Chicago started racking up after January of this year, South Side native Bryant Cross decided he’d seen enough.

The 28-year-old speech communications professor started thinking of effective ways to spread an anti-violence message and came up with the 500campaign, head shots of Chicagoans with the slogan “Angry Because Over 500 Youth Were Murdered in Chicago.”

**Note: The 500 youth number cited is not at annual number. Over the course of 5 years about 500 young people under 20 years old were victims of homicide in Chicago. One is too many but it’s important to be clear about what these numbers represent.

500campaign (2013)

500campaign (2013)

See more photos on pinterest or instagram.

Below is the founder of the 500campaign, Bryant Cross, talking about his campaign:

2. How Long Will I Cry? A Play and A Book

According to the Steppenwolf Theatre website:

“Woven together from interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University, How Long Will I Cry? provides raw, truthful insight into the problem of youth violence. By giving voice to those who know the tragic consequences of violence first-hand—families of the victims, residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods and especially young people—How Long Will I Cry? inspires all of us to join together in search of a solution.”

The play was performed for a month earlier this year and the stories have now been compiled into a book that is available for free to Chicagoans.

“The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.”

How Long Will I Cry – Book Trailer from Big Shoulders Books on Vimeo.

3. Uproar Chicago: A Community-Curated Audio Collage About Chicago Violence

I initiated this project and solicited support and help from friends to execute it. We asked Chicagoans to summarize their feelings about violence in one sentence. We used a central hotline to gather responses from people across Chicago. The responses were assembled into audio collages. In late April, community members gathered to listen to the audio collage and to participate in a peace circle where we could discuss our experiences and the impacts of violence in our lives.

I talk more about the project here. Below is the main audio collage.

Visit Soundcloud to listen to all of the audio from this project.

Read more »

Dec 25 2013

Image of the Day: Faces of Lynching Victims #1

I’m still trying to figure out how to present all of the information that I have collected and learned over the past five years of my intensive reading and research about lynching in the U.S. I haven’t yet figured out what to do but for now I will periodically feature the names and faces of lynching victims throughout next year. I’ll start with Paul Reed and Will Cato below.

Paul Reed; Will Cato; Negroes lynched by being burned alive at Statesboro; Georgia.

Paul Reed; Will Cato; Negroes lynched by being burned alive at Statesboro; Georgia.

Nov 27 2013

‘Defend Black Women & Die’: Racial Terrorism, Misogyny & Pregnant Silences

I think and write about terrorism against black people. As such, I’ve been very interested in the origins and history of the KKK. Below is an image from 1872 that I came across while doing research about the Klan. I like to examine it periodically. I did so again a few days ago after experiencing another deluge of casual and consistent misogynoir.

Visit of the Ku-Klux; A drawing by Frank Bellew in Harper's Weekly,(February 24 , 1872)

Visit of the Ku-Klux; A drawing by Frank Bellew in Harper’s Weekly, 24 February 1872. (February 24, 1872)

When you look at this image, what do you see? What or who stands out to you? My eyes are immediately drawn to the little girl and older woman who are facing the fire. They dominate the scene, targets of the klansman’s rifle. It appears that he has both of them in his sights. The adult man in the house looks to be seated, he is smaller than the older woman, perhaps she is shielding him from view with her body.

Read more »

Nov 17 2013

Image of the Day: Lynchings by the Numbers, 1906-1907

I think that numbers aren’t enough to convey the horror of racial terror & violence but I think that they help provide some context. Pay particular attention to the reasons cited for the lynchings. You’ll notice several accusations of rape which as Ida B. Wells noted were usually trumped up charges leveled against black men.

Source: Following the color line; an account of Negro citizenship in the American democracy, by Ray Stannard Baker.

Source: Following the color line; an account of Negro citizenship in the American democracy, by Ray Stannard Baker.

Oct 12 2013

‘The Perfect Victim’: A Film about Criminalizing Women Who Fight Back

I watched a documentary called “The Perfect Victim” early this morning.

The film focuses on the lives of four women incarcerated in Missouri for killing their husbands. It opens with Shirley Lute talking to an interviewer in 2002. She is 70 years old and has spent 22 years already behind bars. She was sentenced to 50 years to life for allegedly paying her son to murder her husband. We hear Shirley describe the years of abuse that she and her children endured at his hands. “I was the one who was being tortured,” she says at one point, “I missed my entire life.”

When Lute was on trial, battered women’s syndrome was not yet accepted as a legal basis to explain the “learned helplessness” that can lead some victims of repeated abuse to stay in their relationships. [Incidentally battered women's syndrome is a controversial concept on all sides.] Shirley Lute was also encouraged by her attorneys not to bring up the abuse she suffered at trial because they feared that this would be seen as motive for the murder.

“The Perfect Victim” features the work of the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition which took on the cases of 11 domestic violence survivors who were convicted of murdering their partners & given very long sentences.

In 2004, the Coalition secured pardons for two women (including Shirley Lute who wasn’t actually released until 2007). After Lute is released, the documentary follows her. We see the difficulty that Lute has in adjusting to life on the outside. At first, she spends most of her time in her room and asks for permission to do almost everything. She is an institutionalized woman. Eventually, she meets a man who she quickly moves in with and eventually marries.

Another woman in the film is Carlene Borden who was sentenced to 50 years to life for the death of her husband (who was shot by Borden’s boyfriend). She had already left her husband when he found her, threatened her, and then was shot by her boyfriend. She was 14 when she married and the abuse started a couple of years later. Her husband was also abusive to her children. During a particularly poignant moment in the film, Borden says that she has 7 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren who she has “raised in the visiting room” of the prison. The Clemency project tries several times to secure a pardon for Borden. Finally, after having spent 32 years in prison, Carlene is granted parole. The documentary follows her adjustment to life after prison.

The film gets its title from the words of an attorney for the Clemency project who explains that parole boards are “looking for the perfect victim.” He adds that this victim is usually white and must be submissive at all times. When survivors fight back, then they aren’t seen as victims anymore. At one point in the film, this same attorney suggests that counseling and other supports would have served all of these women better than prison. The audience is left to agree with this assessment.

Tanya Mitchell, another survivor & incarcerated woman featured in the film, explains that: “People just don’t understand the fear that you go through with an abuser.” I think that this is fundamentally true. It’s important to understand that the nature of women’s violence is often different from men’s violence. Mark Totten writes that “the literature suggests that women’s use of violence is qualitatively different from that of men: whereas male violence tends to be more frequent, serious, and utilitarian, female violence is more often contextualized in significant factors related to self-defence, anticipation of upcoming physical or sexual assault, and prior victimization by physical and sexual abuse.” Sexism, oppression and a misunderstanding of the roots of women’s violence often lead to disproportionately severe sentences for women who defend themselves or others from violence perpetrated by abusive men. In the stories of Shirley, Carlene, Ruby, and Tanya, we can see the fallacy & tyranny of the concept of a “perfect victim.” Through the documentary, the audience must consider the profound unfairness of a criminal legal system that punishes victims of violence for defending their lives. “The Perfect Victim” will be of interest to anyone concerned about justice and ending violence.

Note: This week is a crucial one in the case of Marissa Alexander who is currently incarcerated for attempting to defend herself from her husband’s abuse. Please take action to help FREE HER. You can find details HERE.

Sep 29 2013

Image for the Day: Lynching…

They used to advertise…

Lynching announcements. (June 26, 1919) - NYPL Digital Collection - Source: The Crisis. / 1919-1921

Lynching announcements. (June 26, 1919) – NYPL Digital Collection – Source: The Crisis. / 1919-1921