I’ve been incredibly busy and too tired to post anything here for a few days. Yesterday came the news that Marissa Alexander was denied a “stand your ground” hearing. She will be retried in December. I am not surprised (after all as I’ve maintained, black women have no selves to defend). Still I am disappointed for her and her family.
This weekend was jam packed with events including the much anticipated (for me) opening of the “No Selves to Defend exhibition at Art in these Times. Over 200 people packed the gallery for a first look at the exhibition.
As my friend and co-curator, Rachel Caidor and I envisioned the exhibition, we decided that we would anchor it with the stories of Celia (a 19th century enslaved black woman) and Marissa (a 21st century unjustly prosecuted black woman).
In between those stories, we wanted to share the experiences of other women of color who have been criminalized for invoking self-defense.
We also decided to underscore the resistance against this criminalization by highlighting the work of various defense committees throughout history.
There are many interactive opportunities built into the exhibition and opening event. My friend Sarah Jane Rhee ran a “Prison Is Not Feminist” photo booth at the opening. You can see some of those photos here. Below is one of my favorite of the images.
There’s of course more to the exhibition including a space to hear the voices of some of the women featured and to consider the rise of carceral feminism.
It will probably take a few days before I can adequately reflect on my experiences of curating and organizing the exhibition. It’s hard to think critically while in the midst of the work. I always need some distance before I can evaluate what went well and what needs to be improved. Overall, however, I am really proud of the exhibition and I hope that many people will visit. Art in these Times is open Mondays through Fridays from 10 to 4:30 pm. Stop by to visit! The exhibition will run until September 20th.
It’s been a long and exhausting week so far. I haven’t gotten home before 9 p.m for three days straight. There’s a lot happening. I am excited that the “No Selves to Defend: Criminalizing Women of Color for Self Defense” exhibition opens at Art in these Times tomorrow evening.
I spent Tuesday evening into the night with my friends Rachel, Billy, and Ash putting the finishing touches on the exhibition. I am very proud of what we’ve created. The “No Selves to Defend” exhibition is an outgrowth of the anthology by the same name.
Both projects were inspired by Marissa Alexander. More specifically, they are inspired by her consistent and constant admonition to also focus on the cases of other women who have been and are currently criminalized for invoking self-defense against violence. As I thought about her desire to lift up other women’s stories, the idea to create a document that would highlight other cases was born. The exhibition is simply an extension of this idea.
A lot of people are responsible for making both the anthology and exhibition a reality. I look forward to the opportunity to thank them all at Friday’s opening.
For those who visit the “No Selves” exhibition, you’ll see that it opens with the story of Celia.
On June 23 1855, after enduring five years of sexual violence, Celia, a 19 year old Missouri enslaved woman killed her master, Robert Newsom. Newsom was a 60 year old widower who purchased Celia when she was 14. On the day of her purchase, he raped her on the way to his farm.
By the time she killed Newsom, Celia already had two of his children and was pregnant with a third. She had started a relationship with one of Newson’s male slaves named George who became her lover. George insisted that she end her sexual liaison with Newsom if they were going to continue in their relationship.
Celia approached his daughters and implored them to ask their father to end the sexual assaults. No one could or would protect her and so she confronted Newsom herself when he came to force yet another sexual encounter. She clubbed him to death and then burned his body in her fireplace.
Her court-appointed defense lawyers suggested that a Missouri law permitting a woman to use deadly force to defend herself against sexual advances extended to slave as well as to free women. In spite of this vigorous defense, the court disagreed with the argument and Celia was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
After an appeal of the case failed, Celia was hanged on December 21, 1855.
Reading Celia’s story many years ago, I began to crystallize my thoughts about the fact that women of color (black women in particular) have never had “selves” to defend. It is fitting then that Celia would introduce the exhibition.
I asked my friend the supremely talented artist Bianca Diaz to create a visual interpretation of Celia for the exhibition. Since there are no photographs of Celia, Bianca had to rely on her imagination. Below is what she created which will be on display. It is haunting and beautiful.
So, if you find yourself in town tomorrow at 6 pm, you are invited to the opening of the ‘No Selves to Defend’ exhibition. It will run until mid September at Art in these Times located on the second floor of 2040 N Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60647. The gallery is unfortunately not wheelchair accessible. Looking forward to seeing some of you on Friday!
The stars dwindle
they will not reward me
even in triumph.
It is possible
to shoot a man
in self defense
and still notice
how his red blood
decorates the snow.
The excellent journalist Sarah Jaffe interviewed formerly incarcerated Occupy activist Cecily McMillan.
There’s a lot worth considering in the exchange but I wanted to particularly underscore McMillan’s description of the violence of cell searches at Rikers.
Any particular stories about what it was like there that you’d like to share?
Maybe the best way that I could explain is through describing a search. Our dorm gets randomly searched at least twice a month, more if they want to set an example or if somebody has been smoking in the bathroom or if there have been rumors that somebody had some sort of contraband.
They use this space more or less to haze the new [correctional officers]. Two or three captains, 10 or so officers file into your dorm in full riot gear, the whole Plexiglas panel that’s surrounding their body, the masks and a huge wooden bat. Another set of officers file into the bathroom and stand in a line facing the stalls that don’t have doors. The first time they did the search I was using the restroom and had to finish my business right in front of them. They direct everybody to get down on the beds face down with your hands behind your back, after you put on your uniform and your ID badge. In Rikers you become a number. I’m 3101400431.
A third set of officers file in through sleeping quarters. Sometimes they bring in dogs. They call you row by row into the bathroom to strip down completely naked, do a deep knee bend forward, a deep knee bend backward, then have you open your mouth and shake out your hair and lift up your breasts.
After that the row files into the day room, and they have you face the wall standing throughout what can take up to a three or four hour process. Again you have three or so different captains, yelling “Miss, Miss,” and if you turn around they’re like, “I said turn around and face the wall! You want me to take your good days away?” You don’t know who’s giving orders where. They direct you into the entrance room where they make you sit down on a metal-detecting chair to check your body for any objects that you may be concealing. You have to put your cheek on a similar body metal detector device.
Then they bring out the women row by row again to our beds where they have flipped your bedding over, and you’re made to stand there and hold your mattress off the ground. These old women up to 80 years old having to stand there for hours and then hold their mattresses up like this. They page through everything. They turned to me at one point and said, “McMillan! Why do you have so many books?” I was like, “Because I’m a grad student! Are you looking for cigarettes or are you looking for radical literature?”
If a CO isn’t being humiliating enough, a CO will come over and ravage through your things even more. They can take anything away. These little soap hearts – this inmate would crush down soaps and reform them into hearts and put little pictures from magazines on them. Anything besides two pairs of pajamas – shoes that you got medically cleared, any commissary, if you have more than one shampoo and conditioner, pens. It takes like two weeks to get one of those.
After that you’re all marched back out and whatever doesn’t fit on your bed becomes trash. They will have another set of inmates come in – this is the real dirty part – and sweep up all of your belongings into these big trash bags and when you’re let back into your room, the closest thing I can describe it to is growing up in southeast Texas and coming back home after a hurricane to return with your community to put your life back together again.
All sorts of things can go wrong. My bunkie, the woman next to me, had very serious asthma and they woke her up like this; she had a very severe asthma attack, to the point that she nearly collapsed and they said, “Stand up, why are you sitting down?” I said, “She has asthma,” and they yelled, “shut the fuck up!” and I said, “You’re going to have a lawsuit on your hands unless you get her her inhaler,” and they asked her, “Which bed are you?” and she couldn’t talk. I said, “She lives right next to me, I can get her inhaler,” and they said, “Shut the fuck up!” and then she started wheezing and they’re like, “OK, McMillan, go get her inhaler, quick!” and I trot off, and they yell, “Don’t run, walk!” This woman ended up having to go downstairs to get a steroid shot.
That’s a normal experience at Rikers, something you have to accept. They can come at any time, any day, during any set of services, 3:00 AM, doesn’t matter.
No matter what anyone tells you jail and prison are NOT country clubs. They are violations and violence. Read the full interview here.
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
Regular readers are aware that I am a data geek. A few years ago, at a library used book sale, I picked up an old report about U.S. prisoners in 1904. I’ve used it only a couple of times since I bought it but I thought that some of you might be interested in this information. These numbers include both the prison and jail populations. In addition, these are numbers of prisoners who were committed during the 12 months of 1904. Anything surprising to you in these numbers?
Prisoners in 1904
Source: Prisoners and Juvenile Delinquents in Institutions 1904 (Bureau of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, 1907)
1. Number and ratio of prisoners committed during 1904, classified by sex
Number per 100,000 of pop
Number per 100,000 of pop
Number per 100,000
During 1904, a total of 149,691 prisoners were committed on term sentences and the table below shows that 23,698 of these were “Negro.” On June 30, 1904, there were 81,772 prisoners locked up in the U.S. (We can assume that this represents the average number on any given day).
Comparatively in 2012, there were 2,228,400 prisoners in state, federal prisons and local jails in the U.S. and the incarceration rate was 710 per 100,000 people as opposed to 184.1 per 100,000 in 1904.
[I have included incarceration RATES to pre-empt those who will INEVITABLY complain about using aggregate numbers. So please save those complaints. Through the rates, you can now make apple to apple comparisons accounting for population growth.]
2. Distribution of prisoners committed during 1904, by sex, color, race and nativity
|Total Number||%||Total Number||%||Total Number||%|
** I’ve broken out Negro which is a subset of colored
Of the male prisoners shown in Table 2, 20,865 or 15.3 percent were Negro and of the female prisoners 2,833, or 21.3 percent were Negro. So what’s interesting to note is that in 1904 black women were disproportionately imprisoned compared to their male counterparts.
This is the last story from the “No Selves To Defend” anthology that I will be posting here. This one focuses on the case of Cassandra Peten. Her portrait was created by Molly Crabapple and the essay is by me.
By Prison Culture
In April 1978, Cassandra Peten, a young mother and shipyard worker in San Francisco, left her abusive husband after nearly three years of marriage. During that time, she had been emotionally and physically assaulted. Peten had escaped her husband twice before; she left the third time, after he threatened to kill her.
She left her young son in her mother’s care and fled the state in search of employment. Peten had been working up to 70 hours a week while also studying to become a court reporter before being forced to flee.
On May 2nd, she returned to San Francisco to sign a $1500 income tax refund check, agreeing to split the money with her husband. At the bank, her husband only gave her $95 instead of the $750 that she was expecting. They argued, her husband raised his fist intending to hit her and she shot him, slightly wounding him in the leg.
Peten was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, assault with intent to do great bodily harm and illegal use of a firearm. A Cassandra Peten Defense Committee was established to support her and it estimated legal costs “of as much as $10,000.” Demonstrations and fundraisers were organized in Peten’s support, led by organizations like the National Association of Black Feminists (NABF). One of the slogans was “Clear Cassandra Peten! Defend The Right of Women to Protect Themselves from Physical Abuse.” A flyer advertising a benefit dinner for Peten explained her plight:
“Cassandra Peten, trying to make her marriage work, took her husband’s mental and physical abuse. Then, in just one incident, human instinct made her stand up for herself. Cassandra is now charged with attempted murder and a number of other charges, all in connection with that one incident, in which she shot and injured her husband. For her normal human response to an intolerable
situation, Cassandra is now facing seven to ten years in prison.”
In 1979, she was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. The judge suggested that Peten was a danger to herself and the community. He revoked her bail, and sent her to the California Institute for Women for a 60 to 90 day ‘observation’ period pending sentencing. She faced up to 10 years in prison.
Surprisingly, after her ‘observation’ period, the judge sentenced Peten to the time that she had served and released her on parole. This was considered a major victory for Cassandra, her Defense Committee, and battered women.
An entry in the radical feminist publication “No More Cages” put it this way:
“Cassandra’s victory should be celebrated. But the other thousands of women who are victimized by their husbands must not be forgotten. Total victory will come only when no woman has to live in fear of physical and emotional brutality.”
I Am Human
by Tammica Summers
I am an inmate
The result of a mistake
But I am human first
This is not my fate
The effects make me shake
But it could always be worse
I am real just like you
Even though I wear blue
I have eyes I can see
My soul cries and my spirit is free
I am just as human as you are
It might be a stretch of your imagination
But can you try to reach that far?
I bleed like every human does
And sometimes I cry just because
Some days I have are good
And some days are bad
Some days I wish I could
Have a better life than what I had
I am an inmate
But I am human like you
I am now property of the state
But was once free like you
I am not an animal in the zoo
I am human just like you
When I’m scared I long to be held
And in so many ways I am frail
Man has sentenced me to shame
And put me in this Hell
And branded with this name
That you think you know so well
But do you really know me?
I’ve been conveniently moved from society
Forced into this virtual reality
But until I die I will always be
A human like you — part of humanity
Source: Bound Struggles, Number Seven (Chicago Books to Women in Prison)
There are a number of reasons why the current discourse about privacy and surveillance leaves me cold. I started to write a little about these in the past. I haven’t had time or (maybe more truthfully) the motivation to write more. I don’t think that those who are currently most vocal and public about their anti-surveillance state critiques have much in common with me or my concerns. I’m certain that my views and ideas are meaningless to them. Finally, with some exceptions, I think that many current critics of the surveillance state are uninterested in doing the movement-building work that it would take to change the current state of affairs. So I just keep it moving, doing my own work.
My colleague Grant recently emailed a few audio pieces that he worked on with young men of color. I was particularly struck by Marquise Paino’s audio story titled “Eyes On Me.”
Marquise reminds the listener that young black men in Chicago are constantly and consistently ‘watched’ by the state, by businesses, and by community members. For him, there is no neat distinction between the watchers and the watched. It’s all of a piece. A question to ask Marquise is whether it feels different to be watched by the cops, the storeowners, and the gangs. Is there more or less fear and anger depending on who is doing the watching?
I’d be interested to know how privacy advocates and some civil libertarians might discuss the concept of surveillance with a young man like Marquise. What’s the meaning of bulk data collection by the NSA to a young person who lives under constant scrutiny already? Would Marquise be surprised or disturbed that the cops are looking for ways to more easily access cell phone information? I don’t know the answer to these questions but it would be interesting to know.