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.
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.
William C. Anderson wrote a short essay about CeCe McDonald for the No Selves to Defend anthology which I share below.
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.
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?).
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?
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.
— Free Marissa Now (@freemarissanow) July 31, 2014
— Free Marissa Now (@freemarissanow) July 31, 2014
— Free Marissa Now (@freemarissanow) August 1, 2014
— Free Marissa Now (@freemarissanow) August 1, 2014
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.
It was a far cry from the mug shot photograph that first caught my attention. Shanesha Taylor stood smiling flanked by her attorney Benjamin Taylor (no relation) after accepting a deal from prosecutors that will eventually lead to the dismissal of felony charges against her.
I wanted to wait until Shanesha had spoken publicly before writing again. When I wrote about her plight in March, Shanesha was in jail and silenced. I wanted in my own small way to show her as human rather than tragic. So I used the information that I had gathered to write about her plight and to encourage others to take action in support of her.
I wish that the charges were unconditionally dropped but that is not to be. I believe that Shanesha should not have been criminalized in the first place. I rue the robbing of human dignity that permeates our criminal punishment system. Still, Shanesha is relieved and grateful to everyone who has supported her. She’s looking forward to “better days to come” and to being fully reunited with her beloved children.
And so I find myself thinking (again) about black mothers. My thoughts are with the thousands who are spending their nights locked behind bars, separated from their children. As I recall Shanesha’s mugshot, I am reminded of their tears too, invisible to most of us. Cecily McMillan has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that lays bare the torture and brutality that women incarcerated at Rikers Island prison routinely endure. Offering one example, she writes:
Inmates are routinely denied basic medical treatment. I saw a woman soiled with vomit and sobbing for hours. We other inmates were afraid and concerned. We didn’t know what was happening, or what we could do. Finally, at the insistence of a few inmates, she was taken to the hospital. She never came back. Her name was Judith. She had befriended me before she died.
Acknowledging the tears and the pain, I also admire and know of incarcerated women’s resilience, strength and boundless love for their children. In other words, like all of us, they are complex and multi-dimensional people. Within this culture, black mothers are either “bad” or cruelly “self-sacrificing.” As Evelyn C. White (1990) has written: “the images and expectations of black women are actually both super- and sub-human (p.94).” We are caricatured as Sapphires and Jezebels. We are Mammy and Matriarch. We are Superwomen and “Mules of the World.” The missing description always is quite simply: human. It’s that humanity with all its attendant flaws and beauty that I claim for all black women.
I’m happy for Shanesha and I wish only good things ahead. While I celebrate with her, I am conscious of the many, many other unjustly criminalized black women who are languishing in prison, fighting charges, or tragically dead. I am thinking about Debra Harrell, Marissa Alexander, and Nimali Henry (just to name a few).
So for Shanesha and all of us, I dedicate this poem to our humanity as black women.
by Opal Palmer Adisa, For Audre Lorde
ain’t so bad
each other better
to one another
all of us
are too often
to get over
we be coming
ending our silence
space and pace
the most valuable
that which is
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 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.