Aug 26 2014

Hope in the Struggle: Chicago’s Young People Resist…

One of my touchstones, the brilliant scholar-activist Barbara Ransby, tweeted something yesterday that I agree with completely.

I write about the activism and organizing of young people in Chicago a lot. I do so because my work and purpose are focused on supporting young people to make their lives more livable. It’s been a long-term commitment. So when other adults persistently disparage and discount ‘young people these days,’ I can’t relate. The young people who I am privileged to know are some of the most talented, creative, dedicated and intelligent activists I’ve ever encountered in my now-over 25 years of organizing. This is a fact, lost on many to be sure, but true nonetheless.

Over the course of this summer, I’ve been engaged with several young people in a group called “We Charge Genocide” and I’ve paid close attention as they have taken the lead in writing a report, in creating workshops and trainings, in using social media to convey the message that oppressive policing must end, and in generously sharing their stories and talents. The source of my hope for the future is rooted in their gifts. We will win because of them.

I call out the young people of BYP 100, We Charge Genocide, Chicago Freedom School, Circles and Ciphers, Fearless Leading By the Youth, VOYCE, Chicago Students Union, Students for Health Equity, Black and Pink Chicago and many, many more that I am leaving out but are doing important work.

In just the past few weeks in Chicago, young people have spearheaded & co-organized a local National Moment of Silence vigil to commemorate the killing of Michael Brown and to stand in solidarity with the Ferguson community.

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Kelly Hayes, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Bob Simpson, 8/14/14)

National Moment of Silence (photo by Bob Simpson, 8/14/14)

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May 29 2014

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failed #28

From the Chicago Sun Times:

“When it comes to punishment for pot, where you are matters more than what you do according to a recently released Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy report.

For example, Fuller Park has a higher marijuana arrest rate than any other Chicago neighborhood. In this mostly African-American, south-side neighborhood, police made 32 marijuana arrests for every 1,000 residents in 2013. That is almost ten times the typical arrest rate in the city.

The consortium claims Fuller Park’s extreme arrest rate is the result of the city’s patchwork legal system, which lets Chicago police choose whether to issue a ticket for pot possession under ten grams or make an arrest.”

Source: Chicago Sun Times

Source: Chicago Sun Times

May 18 2014

The Drug War: Still Racist & Failed #27

This is a video worth watching. It underscores how destructive the so-called “war on drugs” has been…

Next, TAKE ACTION.

May 09 2014

The Drug War: Still Racist (Sexist) and Failed #26

In 2006, 16 year old Rennie Gibbs delivered a stillborn baby. After an autopsy, the medical examiner found trace amounts of cocaine in the stillborn child and ruled that this caused the death. Gibbs was charged with “depraved heart murder:”

The grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs, then 16, faced life in prison.

A few weeks ago, a Mississippi judge finally dismissed the murder charge against her. However, prosecutors are suggesting that they may reconvene a grand jury to re-indict Gibbs for manslaughter.

Our failed and punitive ‘drug war’ has conspired to spike the U.S. prison population over the past 40 years. Between 1980 and 2010, the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.

Source: Washington Post (4/30/14)

Source: Washington Post (4/30/14)

The “war on drugs” has really been a war on people and its effects have been particularly devastating for black people like Rennie Gibbs. While blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and are consistently shown to use drugs at similar or lower rates as others, they comprise almost 1/3 (31%) of those arrested for drug law offenses and more than 40% of those incarcerated for violating drug laws.

Source: Washington Post (4/30/14)

Source: Washington Post (4/30/14)

A couple of days ago, the London School of Economics released a report declaring the ‘drug war’ to be a huge failure: having wasted money, destroyed lives, and caused more harm than good. They suggest that forty percent of the nine million incarcerated people who are incarcerated worldwide are locked up for drug-related offenses.

Apr 19 2014

Video: Why Are We Sending So Many Women to Prison?

This video is a good short explainer about women’s incarceration by Brave New Films… Also the Sentencing Project put out a useful report about rates of women’s incarceration here. Finally, here’s a short post about women’s incarceration and the “myth of small numbers.”

Apr 18 2014

Trials as Theater Redux: Billie Holiday Edition

A few weeks ago writer & artist Molly Crabapple considered the theatrical nature of court proceedings:

“Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.”

I had the pleasure of talking with Molly a bit about my experiences of sitting in numerous courtrooms over the years. As she points out in her essay, most trials are not high drama or high profile. They are mostly rote and often very boring. Yet the public is weaned on television courtroom depictions and mistake “Law & Order” for real life.

There are, however, individual high profile trials that can take on the character of high drama. Billy Holiday’s 1949 drug trial fits the bill. Sara Ramshaw (2004) writes about it in an essay titled “He’s my man!”: Lyrics of Innocence and Betrayal in The People v. Billie Holiday. A number of accounts have been written about the trial. They all vary but one thing is consistent: Holiday was found not-guilty. This was seen as a surprise given the fact that she was allegedly caught in possession of narcotics by a well-respected FBI agent named George H. White. Additionally, in an era where black defendants were subject to ‘legal lynchings’ even celebrity was not a get out of jail free card.

Ramshaw (2004) addresses how “the racist, heterosexist, and classist violence and victimization [Holiday] had experienced throughout her life was brought to the fore and highlighted in order to support her trial narrative (p.88).” Billie Holiday proclaimed her ‘innocence’ at trial and an all-white jury found her credible. She was acquitted on June 3 1949.

Holiday’s attorney, Jake Ehrlich, suggested as a defense that she had been set up by her boyfriend John Levy. Yet Ramshaw contends that “Erlich’s position had obvious deficiencies…Nonetheless, the jury appears to have accepted Ehrlich’s argument (p.100).” Why did the jury believe Holiday’s defense? Ramshaw explains: “The reason for this decision, I suggest, lies in the blurring of Holiday’s personal and public lives and the credibility her celebrity persona lent to her narrative of innocence and betrayal in the courtroom (p.100).”

The defense sought to play up Billie Holiday’s public image as being ‘unlucky in life and love.’ Ramshaw describes how they relied on and constructed this image:

“To begin, Holiday entered the courtroom on 31 May 1949, looking uncharacteristically ‘unkempt in a beige suit.’ Her eyes were puffy from crying and one eye was bruised and swollen. She told a reporter in the courtroom that Levy had hit her. ‘You should see my back,’ she stated: ‘He done it Friday night. It looks better now than what it did. He went off Saturday night – even took my mink – eighteen grand worth of coat…I got nothing now, and I’m scared.'”

Holiday was probably telling the truth about being abused by Levy. He was not the first boyfriend to have allegedly assaulted her. But Ramshaw makes clear that Holiday and her lawyers chose to underscore her victimhood and to marshal the public’s perceptions of her to their benefit. They succeeded in this; overcoming racism and turning misogyny to their advantage. The entire article by Ramshaw is fascinating and worth reading.

In the conclusion to the article, Ramshaw offers the following assessment of Holiday’s courtroom ‘performance:’

Holiday’s “My Man” routine, otherwise referred to as her “unlucky in life” public persona, was configured in United States popular culture on the basis of myths and stereotypes regarding black women and their sexuality. Throughout Holiday’s trial, issues regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality were either implicitly or explicitly highlighted in order to direct attention back to Holiday’s “unlucky in life” persona. This persona, in turn, filled gaps and resolved contradictions in the evidence. The heightened authenticity that her “unlucky in life” public persona lent to her trial narrative of innocence and betrayal gave Holiday’s testimony the quality of truthfulness needed to get a jury to overlook the evidence (or lack thereof) in front of them (p.105).

When I read Molly’s article, I remembered Ramshaw’s account of Holiday’s 1949 trial as a good example of how theatricality can manifest in courtrooms (especially in high profile trials). Take a few minutes to enjoy this poignant performance of “My Man” by Lady Day and think about how she marshaled the lyrics of this song, connected them to her personal experiences, and convinced a jury of white people to acquit her on drug charges in 1949.

Mar 11 2014

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failed #25

First, the Drug Policy Alliance hosted a conversation with Michelle Alexander which is well-worth listening to here.

Next…

Over 50 percent of inmates currently in federal prison are there for drug offenses, according to an infographic recently released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (see chart below). That percentage has risen fairly consistently over decades, all the way from 16 percent in 1970.

The second-largest category, immigration-related crimes, accounts for 10.6 percent of inmates. This means that people convicted of two broad categories of nonviolent crimes — drugs and immigration — make up over 60 percent of the U.S. prison population.

drugsfederalprison

More in the Huffington Post.

Nov 30 2013

Musical Interlude…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted musical interludes but I learned about this song through a Twitter follower yesterday & wanted to share it. It’s called “Parole” by Immortal Technique.

Sep 18 2013

The Drug War: Still Racist & Failed #24

According to ThinkProgress:

Drug offenses remained the single most common cause of arrest in 2012, mostly for offenses involving mere possession, according to newly released FBI estimates. Of the 12.2 million estimated arrests 1.55 million were for “drug abuse violations.” Some 82 percent of those were for possession offenses, and 42.4 percent for marijuana possession. That is the equivalent of a drug arrest every 20 seconds, and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, according to calculations by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who support the regulated legalization of drugs.

warondrugs

Also, North Country Public Radio produced a very interesting report discussing why some black leaders were initially supportive of the war on drugs. It worth listening to here.

Aug 27 2013

Guest Post: The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.

An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?

Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.

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