Aug 12 2015

“The Outrage in North Carolina:” The Savage Brutalization of Phillis

When I was creating the No Selves to Defend exhibition last year, I knew that it would have two anchors: the stories of Celia and of Marissa Alexander. As I began to conceptualize a new exhibition about Black women and state violence (with several friends), I remembered the story of Phillis, a newly emancipated young Black woman. I knew that she would be an anchor of ‘Blood at the Root.’

Harper’s Weekly described how Phillis was brutally and savagely beaten by a group of men in North Carolina in 1867.

Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1867 (From My Collection)

Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1867 (From My Collection)

Below is an excerpt from the Harper’s story tiled “The Outrage in North Carolina.” TW: It is very difficult to read.

“There has been no minor incident of late occurrence at the South which has caused a more general expression of indignation throughout the country than the whipping inflicted by a set of ruffians in North Carolina on a poor, defenseless, colored girl who had fallen into their power. No single act of inhumanity has more clearly indicated the animosity yet existing in Southern hearts against the former slaves; or shown how unwise it would be to trust the government of these people in the hands of their former masters.

The order of General Daniel E. Sickles approving the sentences inflicted on the perpetrators of the outrage, reviews the evidence and furnishes the following history of the affair. The General says:

“The evidence in the foregoing cases discloses a deed of lawless and inhuman violence. It appears that the daughter of one of the prisoners, having attempted to beat a young colored girl, met with resistance which became successful, and resulted in the chastisement of the white by the black. This unlooked-for reversal of a long-accustomed relation filled the neighborhood with consternation and rage. Couriers passed to and fro from farm to farm inflaming the temper of the people, and concerting measures to produce terror among the negroes. A meeting of citizens convened at a school-house near the residence of the parties. The accused were among those assembled. The magistrate, Jenkins, was invited to lend the sanction of his presence, and did so. Phillis, the young freedwoman, was sent for. Dragged before the self-constituted conclave of angry men, whom she had been accustomed since infancy to call masters, some of whom she now heard urging her incarceration, while one swore she should be hung, and all agreed she must be imprisoned and whipped, the frightened girl exclaimed that she had rather be whipped than go to jail. This was taken as the expression of assent which they desired. Some sort of writing was drawn up, called an indenture, by which Phillis having signed it, was made to bind herself as apprentice to one Mrs. Harmon, who thereupon consented that her so-called ward should be flogged. Quite enough was thought to have been thus conceded to the mockery of legal formalities, and the impatient assemblage, consisting of all the prisoners who have been convicted except the magistrate, hastened to execute the penalty awarded.

Phillis was conducted into an adjacent wood, where, at a spot some sixty yards remote from any road, she was halted and told to take down her dress. She not obeying with alacrity, one of the prisoners snatched it off her shoulders. Stripped to her waist, except of her chemise, she was then whipped by five of these men in succession, by whom, according to the testimony of one of them, one hundred and twenty-six (126) lashes were inflicted upon her half-naked body with rods three feet long and one-half to three-eighths of an inch thick. Her garment was cut through and through; blood run from the wales raised on her lacerated back; one gash in her flesh three days after showed four inches in length; the heavy blows fell upon her person at random; she was pushed, she was pulled, she was kicked in the abdomen; till at last it seems that one of the accused, an applauding by-stander, not utterly insensible to the sufferings and the sex of the wretched victim, was so far touched by the spectacle of her torture that the cry was wrung from him: ‘Boys don’t hurt her breast!’

Having satiated their savage vengeance, her tormentors, fatigued by their exertions, withdrew: not, however, without considering the proposal of one of the number to return and give her ten more lashes each to stop her screaming. Finally the poor child, wounded and groaning, was permitted to make her way to the house of her mistress, where for days she suffered, scarcely able to crawl to her unremitted task, or even to wear her clothes without pain.

In the revolting crime thus briefly outlined all of these prisoners are shown to have been eager participants. In the interest of outraged justice it is to be deplored that the perpetrators have been adjudged to undergo punishment so inadequate to the enormity of their offense.”

The sentences were as follow: Jenkins, the magistrate who authorized the whipping, was removed from his office, fined $25, and confined at hard labor for one month; Dunning, Cook and James and John Early were confined for two months at hard labor and fined $25 each; the other guilty participant, George Mitchell, was fined heavily and imprisoned for three months, the common jail at Plymouth, North Carolina, being designated as the place of confinement.

Phillis’s story is remarkable for two reasons: 1. it was published in a popular newspaper; 2. the men who were responsible for her savage assault were actually made accountable in some way.

On Friday, Blood at the Root will open. I hope that you will come out to see the exhibition. You’ll get to see an original copy of the newspaper article about Phyllis and much more. RSVP HERE.

Jun 01 2015

Chicago Youth Try to Make Sense of Violence

Once again, the conversation about interpersonal violence in Chicago has turned into a debate about the moniker of “Chiraq.” Spike Lee is making a film called “Chiraq” and this has sparked editorials and endless commentary. I’ve received some calls from the press asking for my opinion. Since I’ve already discussed this issue ad nauseum, I’ve declined to offer more words.

Young people in Chicago have been commenting on the violence that they experience for years. They have been making art about that violence too. Recently, my friend Daphne, a Chicago Public School teacher, worked with her students on a series of audio and visual pieces about interpersonal violence. One video that was entirely shot, edited and produced by some of her students is below.

In a community-based program at the YMCA, one of my colleagues helped young people produce a series of audio stories about their experiences of violence. You can listen to all of them below:

One particular story about the trauma caused by interpersonal violence really stood out to me.

May 11 2015

Image of the Day…

photo from the Manifest Justice exhibition  credit Gary Schmitt

photo from the Manifest Justice exhibition
credit Gary Schmitt

Details about Manifest Justice here.

May 07 2015

Police Torture, Reparations and Echoes from the ‘House of Screams’

photo by Kelly Hayes (5/6/14)

photo by Kelly Hayes (5/6/14)

Yesterday, the Chicago City Council passed historic legislation to provide reparations for Burge police torture survivors. The package that was approved includes:

“a formal apology for the torture; specialized counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and their family members on the South Side; free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for survivors and family members (including grandchildren) as well as prioritized access to other City programs, including help with housing, transportation and senior care; a history lesson about the Burge torture cases taught in Chicago Public schools to 8th and 10th graders; the construction of a permanent public memorial to the survivors; and it sets aside $5.5 million for a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims that will allow the survivors with us today to receive financial compensation for the torture they endured.”

Chicago is the first municipality in the U.S. to legislate reparations for survivors and victims of racist police violence. This victory was an improbable one. In his book “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People” published in 2000, journalist John Conroy offered a bleak assessment of the city’s response to allegations about Burge and his henchmen’s torture:

“The citizens of Chicago were unmoved. The clergy showed no leadership; with the exception of a few mostly low-ranking ministers, religious officials were silent. In the absence of any clamor, politicians showed no interest. Reporters, hearing no complaint, conducted no investigations, and editorial writers launched no crusades. State and federal prosecutors, feeling no pressure from the press or the public, hearing no moral commentary from the religious quarter, prosecuted no one. Judges, seeing no officer indicted and hearing no officer speak against his comrades, could therefore comfortably dismiss claims of torture, and with few exceptions, they did.

I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country (p. 240).”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/6/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/6/15)

Fifteen years later, I listened from the third floor of City Hall as the Mayor and members of the City Council apologized for the torture endured by over 118 Black people at the hands of Burge and his henchmen. It was a miraculous moment.

What changed between Conroy’s description of an apathetic public response to allegations of Burge’s torture and yesterday’s Council vote on reparations? I actually think that Conroy was too dismissive of the organizing that took place in the 1990s. He thought that the protests were mostly insignificant and small. It’s a reminder, I think, that our perspectives on historical moments that we inhabit can sometimes be myopic. Conroy could not have known that the organizing in the 90s would serve as a foundation and a road map for efforts into the future. He was right that the political class, the 4th estate and most of the public were generally apathetic about the allegations of police torture. But I think that he also underestimated the importance of the sustained resistance led by groups like Citizens Alert, Black People Against Torture, the People’s Law Office and more. There were small victories along the way. Our historic achievement yesterday is owed to those hard-fought wins. The organizing and activism that began in the late 80s took the form of protests, advocacy, litigation, and storytelling (including Conroy’s powerful investigative journalism). Struggle and organizing matter. Change is too often slow. But sometimes we do win.

I became immersed in the Burge reparations campaign last Fall. Over the past six months, a coalition of individuals and groups organized tirelessly to pass this legislation. We held rallies, sing ins, marches, light actions, train takeovers, exhibition-ins, and more. The price of being immersed in this struggle is to be a witness to unspeakable acts of cruelty committed against other human beings. Burge and his fellow police officers electrocuted, beat, suffocated and generally tortured dozens of people over two decades. The rooms where Commander Jon Burge and his fellow officers tortured and forced confessions from suspects were called the “House[s] of Screams.” Those screams echoed in my head yesterday as I heard the Chicago City Council vote on the reparations legislation for survivors of Burge’s torture. Slowly those screams became whispers: thank you for believing us and for refusing to forget, they seemed to say.

To focus on such harms is painful and can lead to despair. Yet by organizing for some justice for torture survivors, I’ve seen and experienced incredible kindness, selflessness and compassion. This is what sustains my hope. I’m convinced that injustice and oppression will not have the last word. Last night, I attended a gathering of friends and comrades who have in their own ways contributed to this struggle. Some have spent the better part of 3 decades fighting to bring some justice to the torture survivors. I was asked to say a few words and I had difficulty expressing my feelings and thoughts. As I reached for my words, I was overcome at seeing the now old Black men standing before me. A couple had been brutalized in the early 1970s. I wasn’t eloquent last night but my words were heartfelt. I held it together but when I got home, I cried. They were tears of relief, gratitude, and most of all of love.

There will be time in the coming days and weeks to reflect and to find my words. But for today, let it be known that here in Chicago, we were determined not to forget the atrocities committed in our names by the police. We resisted the violence of fading memories and fought to preserve the knowledge of atrocities for which we all bear some responsibility. We struggled with survivors of torture and yesterday, we won.

May 05 2015

Some Words About Genocide by Ossie Davis

The 1970 edition of the “We Charge Genocide” petition included a preface by Ossie Davis. I recently re-read it and there was much that resonated with me. I’ve decided to re-publish his words not because I agree with every point that he makes or with all of the analysis but because I think that the essay echoes in our current historical moment. I’ve re-typed it faithfully.

Preface by Ossie Davis

by Micah Bazant (2015)

by Micah Bazant (2015)

This is not the first time the black people of the United States have issued a warning. W.E.B. Du Bois himself said it plain in 1900: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”

We say again, now: We will submit no further to the brutal indignities being practiced against us; we will not be intimidated, and most certainly not eliminated. We claim the ancient right of all peoples, not only to survive unhindered, but also to participate as equals in man’s inheritance here on earth. We fight to preserve ourselves, to see that the treasured ways of our life-in-common are not destroyed by brutal men or heedless institutions.

We Charge Genocide! indeed we do, for we would save ourselves and our children. History has taught us prudence — we do not need to wait until the Dachaus and Belsens and the Buchenwalds are built to know that we are dying. We live with death and it is ours; death not so obvious as Hitler’s ovens — not yet. But who can tell?

Black men were brought to this country to serve an economy which needed our labor. And even when slavery was over, there was still a need for us in the American economy as cheap labor. We picked the cotton, dug the ditches, shined the shoes, swept the floors, hustled the baggage, washed the clothes, cleaned the toilets — we did the dirty work for all America — that was our place, the place where the American economy needed us to be.

As long as we stayed in that place — there at the bottom — we were welcomed to love and work in America. The murder practiced against us then was partial and selective. A limited genocide meant not so much to exterminate us — America still had a job for “good niggers” to do — as to warn us, to correct us, to use those of us who would not submit as examples of what could happen to the rest of us. Those who objected to being kept in their “place” at the bottom were beaten or killed for being uppity. Those who challenged our racist overlords, claiming for themselves and for us our rights as men and as citizens, were burned for being insolent; lynched to teach the rest of us always to stay in our “place.”

But a revolution of profoundest import is taking place in America. Every year our economy produces more and more goods and services with fewer and fewer men. Hard, unskilled work — the kind nobody else wanted, that made us so welcome in America, the kind of work that we “niggers” have always done — is fast disappearing. Even in the South — in Mississippi for example — 95 per cent and more of the cotton is picked by machine. And in the North as I write this, more than 30 per cent of black teenage youth is unemployed.

The point I am getting to is that for the first time, black labor is expendable, the American economy does not need it any more. What will a racist society do to a subject population for which it no longer has any use? Will America, in a sudden gush of reason, good conscience, and common sense reorder her priorities? — revamp her institutions, clean them of racism so that blacks and Puerto Ricans and American Indians and Mexican Americans can be and will be fully and meanfully included on an equal basis?

Or, will America, grown meaner and more desperate as she confronts the just demands of her clamorous outcasts, choose genocide? America, of course, is not an abstraction; America is people, America is you and me. America will choose in the final analysis as we choose: to build a world of racial and social justice for each and for all; or to try the fascist alternative — a deliberate policy on a mass scale, of practices she already knows too well, of murderous skills she sharpens each day in Vietnam, of genocide, and final, mutual death.

We Charge Genocide — not only of the past but of the future. And we swear: it must not, it shall not, it will not happen to our people.

August 17, 1970.