Apr 16 2014

Poem of the Day: Rape

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…

Rape
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
come here”
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

Apr 14 2014

“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.

Apr 10 2014

Poem of the Day: ‘I Am Somebody’ by Joan Little

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 time

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)

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 »

Apr 06 2014

On Desperate Acts & Social Context: The Story of James Hickman

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week about the intersections and connections between individual acts of desperation and the social structure within which we live. In particular, I’ve been thinking about James Hickman.

On January 16, 1947 in a Near West Side building in Chicago, a fire broke out in the attic and took the lives of 4 children: Lester (14), Elzina (9), Sylvester (7), and Velvina (4).

On July 16, 1947 James Hickman, the father of those children, shot and killed his landlord/building manager, David Coleman.

On December 16, 1947 James Hickman walked out of court, a free man, after a jury could not reach a verdict on his murder charge and prosecutors offered a plea deal to a lesser one. Writer and activist Joe Allen recounts Hickman’s story in his 2011 book “People Wasn’t Made To Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.”

James Hickman was part of the migration of Southerners who moved North to improve their lives. Hickman, a sharecropper, moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1944. He came without his wife and younger children at first. He lived with his older married daughter and her family for 10 months while working at Wisconsin Steel. He planned to save money and find a place to live before sending for his family. The search for adequate living quarters was long and fruitless. Hickman found some apartments but they didn’t want children. Others took his money but never actually rented him an apartment.

In January 1946, he thought that he had a place to live and sent for his family to join him in Chicago. When the family arrived, the rental fell through so Hickman, his wife Annie, and children had to stay with the older daughter. Her landlord found out and insisted that the family had to move out.

Out of desperation, Hickman located a dilapidated apartment at 1733 West Washburne. David Coleman, a young African American budding entrepreneur, was their landlord. Hickman and his family were living in a tiny kitchenette apartment that was inadequate to their needs. It was a one room attic apartment for six and sometimes seven people. Chicago was suffering from a crisis of overcrowding for black people due to racial covenants and redlining. Many fires were also raging throughout black communities; some attributed to terrible maintenance and others to suspected arson by unscrupulous landlords.

James Hickman complained to his landlord, Coleman, about the awful conditions in his building. He wanted his $100 deposit back so that he could find another place to live. The landlord refused to comply. After several more complaints, David Coleman threatened to “burn [Hickman] out.” Annie and James reported the threat and the terrible building conditions to the police. They took out a warrant for Coleman’s arrest but nothing actually happened. The police never arrested him.

Read more »

Apr 02 2014

No Selves To Defend #2: Some Upcoming Projects…

Whew, it’s been an incredibly busy few days and it hasn’t slowed down yet for me!! For those who want ongoing updates about Shanesha Taylor’s case, I put together a blog titled “Justice For Shanesha.” As I learn information, I’ll post there. So if you are on Tumblr, do follow the blog. The latest updated information that I have is posted there today.

I am swamped with tons of other work (believe it or not, I run an organization too) so I will be taking a blogging break for the rest of the week. I hope to be back to regular blogging soon. In the meantime, I am excited about two projects that I am currently working on, both relate to the Marissa Alexander case.

First, I am blessed to be working with a group of writers and artists to create a publication featuring stories of women of color who have been criminalized for self-defense over the years. The publication will feature portraits and short narratives. We will print a limited number and use the proceeds to support Marissa’s legal defense. I am in debt to my friends and co-strugglers who have come together on short notice to make this project a reality. Stay tuned for more information soon. And as a preview, I am excited to share one piece of art from the project; it’s a portrait of Lena Baker drawn by my extraordinarily talented friend Bianca Diaz.

Lena Baker by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Lena Baker by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Secondly, I am excited that I will be co-curating a new exhibition titled “No Selves to Defend: Criminalizing Women for Self-Defense.” The exhibition will run here in Chicago in July and August at Art in these Times. My thanks to my comrade Daniel Tucker for facilitating this opportunity. The exhibition will feature various artifacts from my collection as well as art from the project mentioned earlier. The Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander is planning a series of events leading up to Marissa’s trial at the end of July. I’ll share more about the exhibition as it comes together.

Have a peaceful next few days!

Mar 21 2014

George Fujii and The Travesty of Japanese Internment

I spent a good deal of 2013 reading and educating myself about Japanese internment and incarceration. I still have a lot to learn. Today, I wanted to highlight George Fujii who I only recently learned about.

Photograph, George Fujii (on right) at Poston, Arizona, January 4, 1943 Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority National Archives, Records of the War Relocation Authority, Record Group 210 (National Archives Identifier 536627)

Photograph, George Fujii (on right)
at Poston, Arizona, January 4, 1943
Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority
National Archives, Records of the War Relocation Authority, Record Group 210 (National Archives Identifier 536627)

Mr. Fujii was interned along with thousands of other Japanese Americans after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942.

George Fujii was interned at the Colorado River Relocation Center in Poston, Arizona. He learned that he and his fellow interned Japanese American men were required to register for selective service. In response, “Fujii posted handbills around the camp discouraging draft-age men from cooperating. He was tried for sedition.”

See a copy of the handbill that he posted at the camp here.

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 16 2014

Louder Than A Bomb 2014: Chicago Youth Have Their Say…

The voices blared from loud speakers as hundreds listened raptly at the Cadillac Palace last night. It was the team finals of the 2014 Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and I was a judge. Young men incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) were reading from the zine “The PIC Is” created by my organization.

The prison industrial complex tears families apart,” one voice shared. “The prison industrial complex is where you spend your ‘best years’ just trying to survive,” said another.

Some young men tripped over their words; it didn’t matter. The audience was attentive, sporadically interjecting with appreciative sounds and fingersnaps. The stage was empty except for the DJ tucked in a corner and four microphone stands. I heard the experience described as “haunting.”

Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (3/15/14)

Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (photo by Nick Weaver, 3/15/14)

The disembodied voices cascaded over the crowd, emphasizing that the young people who were speaking the words were absent. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and surreptitiously dabbed by eyes. I was trying to contain my rage.

Perhaps the stark contrast between the empty stage and the voices that we were listening to was haunting. But it was also a reminder that the mostly black & brown young people who had graced the stage for most of the night prior to the JTDC performance could easily have been on the other side of the wall. The membrane that divides those performing on stage and the ones speaking through the loud speakers while caged behind bars is porous. The capriciousness and unfairness of the injustice system are a cruel reality. So I was furious.

Before and after the JTDC spoken word piece, young people took to the stage to share stories and experiences of racial & gender discrimination, adultism, addiction, family strife, suicide, gun violence, capitalist greed, and political corruption. Such large scale gatherings organized to simply listen to the truths and lived experiences of black and brown youth in Chicago are rare. I tried to take in the moment. I listened as young people of color buried the pernicious lie that they are disposable and challenged the world to “see” and “hear” them. ‘We are not who you say we are.’ ‘To those who fear and malign us, we are not violent and depraved predators and to those who say they care for us, we are not child soldiers.’ ‘We are human and we matter.’ These were, to my mind, some of the overarching statements of the night. And last night, the voices of the young people on both sides of the wall were indeed ‘louder than a bomb.’

Note: You can support the Free Write Jail Arts Program that works with incarcerated youth at the JTDC here and Louder Than A Bomb here.

Mar 15 2014

Musical Interlude: Just A Friendly Game of Baseball

Today is the international day against police brutality…