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

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.