Nov 25 2014

Free Marissa and All Black People…

“What if she goes to jail again? How will you feel?”

The questions bring me up short. My goddaughter hasn’t previously expressed an interest in Marissa Alexander. She knows that I’ve been involved in a local defense committee to support Marissa in her struggle for freedom. But up to this point, she hasn’t asked any questions. Her mother, however, tells me that Nina (not her real name) has been following my updates on social media.

I’m still considering how to respond and I must have been silent for too long because Nina apologizes. “Forget about it, Auntie,” she says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

It’s interesting that she thinks I am upset. She knows that I have no faith in the U.S. criminal legal system and perhaps assumes that I am pessimistic about Marissa’s prospects in court. I tell her that while I have no faith in the criminal punishment system, I am hopeful for a legal victory in Marissa’s case. I say that while the system as a whole is unjust, in some individual cases legal victories can be achieved. I tell her that this is particularly true for defendants who have good legal representation and resources. Money makes a difference in securing legal victories. I explain that this is why I have worked so hard to fundraise for Marissa’s legal defense.

“But how will you feel if she’s convicted again though?” Nina persists.

“I’ll definitely be sad for her and her family,” I respond.

“I think that you’ll be a lot more than sad,” she says.

Does sadness have levels? I guess so. I’m not sure what “more than sad” feels like so I keep quiet.

A friend, who has spent years supporting Marissa Alexander through the Free Marissa NOW National Mobilization Campaign, recently confided that she was unable to contemplate another conviction for Marissa at her retrial in December. Many of us who’ve been supporting Marissa have been bracing ourselves. Each of us trying to cope as best we can. Over the past few weeks, I’d taken to asking comrades if they believed that Marissa would be free. Some answered affirmatively without hesitation but they were in the minority. Most eyed me warily and slowly said that they were hopeful of an acquittal. I don’t think that they believed what they were saying.

The U.S. criminal punishment system cannot deliver any “justice.” Marissa has already served over 1000 days in jail and prison. She spent another year under strict house arrest wearing an ankle monitor costing her family $105 every two weeks. Marissa fired a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband and no one was injured. For this, she was facing a 60 year sentence if convicted in her re-trial. True justice is not being arrested and taken away from her children, family and friends. Justice is living a life free of domestic abuse. Justice is benefiting from state protection rather than suffering from state violence. Justice is having a self to defend in the first place.

Yesterday morning, I got news that Marissa had agreed to a plea deal. A couple of hours later, the news broke on social media. I saw a mix of people celebrating this outcome and others expressing their anger that Marissa was forced into a Faustian ‘choice’. I got calls, texts and emails from friends and family checking in on me. I appreciated everyone’s concern but I was unfortunately thrust into action when I heard that the grand jury in St. Louis would be announcing their indictment decision in the killing of Mike Brown later in the day. It was a mad rush to make arrangements to combine solidarity events since we already had one planned for Marissa yesterday evening.

The parallels between Marissa’s unjust prosecution/imprisonment & Mike Brown’s killing by law enforcement are evident to me. Yet, I am well aware that for too many these are treated as distinct and separate occurrences. They are not. In fact, the logic of anti-blackness and punishment connects both.

In the late 19th century, a remark was attributed to a Southern police chief who suggested that there were three types of homicides: “If a nigger kills a white man, that’s murder. If a white man kills a nigger, that’s justifiable homicide. If a nigger kills a nigger, that’s one less nigger (Berg, 2011, p.116).” The devaluing of black life in this country has its roots in colonial America. In the book “Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America,” Manfred Berg makes a convincing case that: “The slave codes singled out blacks for extremely cruel punishment, thus marking black bodies as innately inferior (p.11).” Berg argues that: “Colonial slavery set clear patterns for future racial violence in America (p.11).”

“Innately inferior” bodies can be debased, punished and killed without consequence. The twist is that black people have always been considered dangerous along with our disposability. Mike Brown’s (disposable) body is a lethal weapon and so he is justifiably threatening. Marissa’s (disposable) body is deserving of abuse and is incapable of claiming a self worth defending. Mike Brown was described by his killer, Darren Wilson, as a “demon” and called an “It.”

The doctrine of pre-emptive killing and preventative captivity finds expression in the daily lives of all black people in the U.S. Black people are never ‘innocent.’ That language or concept doesn’t apply. We are always guilty until proven something less than suspect or dangerous.

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Oct 20 2014

Walking in Lawndale For Marissa and Other DV Survivors

It was another busy weekend. On Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the 2nd Annual Domestic Violence Awareness Month Walk organized by my friends at A Long Walk Home. This year, they chose to honor Marissa Alexander.

Below are some pictures from the march taken by my friend Sarah Jane Rhee.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

“Who are we? Families”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

“What do we do? Stop The Violence.”

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (10/18/14)

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Oct 06 2014

Domestic Violence, Poetry and ‘Giving Name to the Nameless’

First, I love poetry and Nikky Finney is one of my favorite poets. So I was over the moon a few weeks ago when I read her new poem dedicated to Marissa Alexander titled “Flare.” October is domestic violence awareness month and we very much want to keep Marissa in mind. A couple of weeks ago, I emailed Ms. Finney and asked if she would participate in the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander’s campaign which is asking people to send video submissions of them reading the poem “Flare” or another poem of their choice. So far, we have received wonderful submissions which you can find here. I asked Ms. Finney if she would participate too. And guess what???? She said yes!!!! So today, I am thrilled to share her video reading of Flare with all of you.

Audre Lorde was right (as usual) when she wrote in the essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” that: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

I use poems a lot in my teaching and in my work with young people. When young people see something of themselves in a piece of literature, identify with the work, reflect on it, and undergo some emotional experience as a result of that reading, I consider that to be the basis of a successful anti-violence intervention. For years, I have been collecting poems about gender-based violence that I have used with young women (in particular) in various settings. Some of these poems can be found in a poetry guide that I created a few years ago titled “Giving Name to the Nameless: Using Poetry as an Anti-Violence Intervention with Girls.” A PDF of the guide is available at no cost to those interested in a copy. Details are here.

Life comes full circle as one of the poems that I use a lot with young women & girls is Nikky Finney’s “The Girlfriend’s Train.” I included it in the guide and am featuring it below in honor of DV awareness month. As a bonus, I am including some questions that you can use if when you are discussing the poem with girls and young women.

Note: While the guide was created with young women and girls in mind (I have the most experience facilitating poetry circles with them), the information and poems included can certainly be used with young men, trans young people and also with adults.

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Sep 25 2014

October 16: Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence, and Antiracist Feminisms in the 1970s & ’80s

I am excited to co-organize and participate in an upcoming event. Historian Emily Thuma will present a talk titled “Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence and Anti-Racist Feminisms in the 1970s and 80s.” Her talk will explore the relationships between U.S-based anti-violence against women activism and the expansion of the prison nation in the early neoliberal era.

Emily is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her teaching and research focus broadly on the cultural and political histories of gender, race, sexuality, and empire in the United States. She is currently completing a book about feminist activism against violence in the context of the politics of crime control, policing, and imprisonment in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s.She has also long been active in LGBTQ and feminist anti-violence and prison organizing efforts.

After her talk, Emily and I will engage in a conversation that will seek to link the past to our present era when carceral feminism is ascendant. I am excited for this conversation because it connects to the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition that I co-curated and to the anthology about the criminalization of women of color who invoke self-defense that I edited. It’s fitting that this event will take place during domestic violence awareness month and the month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation.

RSVP for the event on Facebook. If you are in Chicago on October 16th, I hope to see you at the event.

You can read Emily’s latest essay ‘Against the ‘Prison/Psychiatric State': Anti-violence Feminisms and the Politics of Confinement in the 1970sHERE (PDF).

Lessons in Self Defense Poster FINAL

Sep 21 2014

Happy Birthday Marissa!

Last Sunday, I organized a gathering to celebrate Marissa Alexander‘s Birthday. My friend Debbie made a short video that captured some statements of support and solidarity offered to Marissa. You should watch it! It’s profoundly moving.

Don’t forget to support Marissa’s legal defense fund. You can also support her by purchasing items at the Free Marissa Store.

Sep 12 2014

Image of the Day: Prisons Break Apart Families

The following is an image made by Meredith Stern which is available for purchase at Just Seeds Cooperative for $10. Stern explains why she created the image:

This is a redo of an image I made over ten years ago when the incarceration rate had already skyrocketed and the trend has tragically continued as a direct result of harsh and disproportionate racial profiling, targeting and sentencing of communities of color for non-violent drug related behavior. For starters, we must end mass incarceration, the criminalization of undocumented migrants, and the war on drugs. It is incredibly damaging for families, for communities, and our entire society to be putting such a large portion of our population in detention centers for non-violent behavior.

The Sentencing Project has incredibly eye opening data on the current state of affairs.

For anyone interested in learning more about the current state of affairs:
“This House I Live In” is a documentary about the “War on Drugs” in the US which I highly recommend.

For book readers I recommend “Race to Incarcerate” and “The New Jim Crow.”

I purchased a couple of the prints.

by Meredith Stern

by Meredith Stern

Sep 06 2014

Cece McDonald Teaches About the PIC (with video)

William C. Anderson wrote a short essay about CeCe McDonald for the No Selves to Defend anthology which I share below.

by Micah Bazant

by Micah Bazant

Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald is a trans woman whose bravery in the face of injustice has changed lives and perceptions in the United States. On the night of June 5, 2011, CeCe was out with friends when she was attacked. Three people began harassing her and her friends outside a bar by deriding them with racist and transphobic slurs, before attacking them physically.

CeCe fought for her life; when the dust settled one of her attackers lay dead. CeCe survived the attack, but was arrested by the police. After receiving 11 stitches to her cheek, she was interrogated without counsel and placed in solitary confinement. CeCe was charged with second-degree murder for defending herself. Rather than face trial by a jury that would not likely sympathize with her, she accepted a plea deal to the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.

Read more »

Aug 22 2014

Erasing Fannie Lou and Other Black Women Victimized By Police…

Another man/boy shot (not again). Unarmed (his black skin is weaponized). Killed by cops (since slavery). The terrible ever-expanding litany of names: Amadou, Sean, Oscar, Rodney, Trayvon, Michael… We’re on a first name basis (excruciatingly familiar). Collective mourning and grief ensue (my tear ducts are dried out; there’s only rage). Calls for justice in the black community (justice is prosecution and prison). #BlackLivesMatter on a social media loop (numbing). We are trying to convince ourselves that it’s true (we don’t fully believe it). Please make it true (it’s a symbolic prayer).

In the background, a faint sound (a whisper). Aiyanna, Tyisha, Renisha, Rekia (background noise). Woman/girls shot (do they shoot black girls & women?). Unarmed (her skin is a bullet magnet). Killed by cops (since slavery). They are not household names (excruciatingly unfamiliar). A few people mourn (silently). Some calls for justice (more prosecutions and prison). #BlackLivesMatter? (But which ones?)

You’re so selfish. This isn’t the right time, the voice intones. Is that voice in my head? I can’t tell. There never seems to be a ‘right’ time to remember the names of murdered black women (never). Sadness and grief threaten to overwhelm (so tired). Stubbornly I remember (an act of defiance).

In 1999, Tyisha Miller was on her way to a party with her cousin when her car got a flat tire. They pulled into a gas station in downtown Riverside, California. Her cousin went to get help and left Tyisha who had been drinking alone in the car. Miller apparently passed out with the doors locked. She had a handgun on her lap.
A few minutes later, four Riverside police officers (all of them white) who had been called to the scene tried to wake Tyisha to no avail.

They smashed the driver’s side window and chaos ensued. At least one of the cops thought that he saw Tyisha reach for her gun. The officers fired 27 shots into the car and Miller was hit 12 times. She died.

Black people are always reaching for guns…

In the mugshot photo, Fannie Lou Hamer has her arms up in the universal surrender pose (or is it universal?).

fannielou

The photo circulates on social media. Re-purposed and remixed for a new generation to memorialize a 21st century police execution. The sampled track of a new freedom song. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” the protesters chant.

Fannie Lou stares back at us from behind the lens (hands up, don’t shoot?). What percentage of people who see the mugshot (without the explanatory text) know of Mrs. Hamer, let alone her abuse by police? (15%).

The monster is insatiable and needs to be constantly fed. More images from black struggle, more trafficking in black death (blackness is property; we don’t belong to ourselves). Hungry for more… to consume and exploit. Black suffering erased again. Fannie Lou’s suffering invisible and (un)felt. Mrs. Hamer warned us: “A black woman’s body was never hers alone.” Our bodies are common property still; no boundaries bound to be respected. The cause is bigger than individual pain (right?).

Tell us what happened to you in Winona, Mrs. Hamer? (can the dead talk?). Danielle McGuire tells the story:

After being arrested with other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists for desegregating a restaurant, Hamer received a savage and sexually abusive beating by the Winona police. “You bitch,” one officer yelled, “we going to make you wish you was dead.” He ordered two black inmates to beat Hamer with “a long wide blackjack,” while other patrolmen battered “her head and other parts of her body.” As they assaulted her, Hamer felt them repeatedly “pull my dress over my head and try to feel under my clothes.” She attempted to pull her dress down during the brutal attack in order to “preserve some respectability through the horror and disgrace.” Hamer told this story on national television at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 and continued to tell it “until the day she died,” offering her testimony of the sexual and racial injustice of segregation.’”(p.910)

Some say that you purposely underplayed the sexual violence associated with the beating that you received in jail, Mrs Hamer (were you ashamed? you did nothing wrong). Black women are also victims of police violence. The beat goes on. Is it the right time to bring this up yet?

Aug 01 2014

Beyond the Case & the Cause is A Person: #FreeMarissa

Marissa Alexander is a person. She is also fighting a case and that case illuminates a greater cause. But she is a human being. This is something that can be overlooked. It’s easy to do for a number of reasons. Most defendants are advised by their attorneys to keep quiet while facing charges. This creates a vacuum. If the defendant is lucky, others step in to speak for them and to act as their surrogate filling in the gaps in their story. This is the position in which Marissa finds herself.

And so it falls to others to find ways to keep her name and her story in the public’s mind. It falls to others to devise creative ways of engaging new supporters. It falls to other to convince people that they should care about the defendant and that they should offer material support for a prisoner.

One of the important lessons that I’ve learned in my years of prisoner defense committee work is how isolating and lonely the criminal legal process is. This is particularly true for detainees who find themselves jailed while awaiting trial or a plea deal. It is difficult to make peace with the loss of your freedom when you haven’t been convicted. Letters and other communications are lifelines for those who find themselves in such a predicament. The knowledge that people on the outside care about you, haven’t forgotten about you, and support you is encouraging. Often it makes the difference between giving up and staying hopeful. That line is an excruciatingly thin one.

Yesterday, the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign delivered several #SelfiesForSelfDefense directly to Marissa. Below are some of the tweets describing her reaction.

Marissa Alexander is a human being and she needs our support. Please donate to her legal defense or purchase an item from the Free Marissa online store (all proceeds go to the legal defense fund).

Jul 28 2014

#ChicagoForMarissa

I am incredibly grateful to everyone who organized and took part in the excellent Chicago Community Gathering in solidarity with Marissa Alexander on Saturday. The gathering was the culmination of a very busy month of events that members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA) organized initially anticipating that her trial would kick off today. CAFMA later learned that the trial was postponed until December and used the events to continue to educate Chicagoans about Marissa’s case and to fundraise for her legal defense.

This month, hundreds of people attended a teach-in about Marissa’s case, the opening reception of the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition, a screening of the film “Crime after Crime” followed by a panel discussion, and finally the community gathering on Saturday.

For myself, it’s a true blessing to organize with my fellow CAFMA members. We are all fully committed to supporting Marissa in her fight for freedom. I hope that others in Chicago will join in the fight. You can see Chicago’s contribution to Free Marissa NOW’s http://www.freemarissanow.org/selfies-for-self-defense.html project here.

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

#selfiesforselfdefense taken at Community Gathering and Pre-Trial Rally for Marissa Alexander organized by CAFMA on 7/26/14 in Chicago (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)