Jan 25 2015

Chicago #TrainTakeOver For #BlackLivesMatter

If you read this blog with any regularity, then you will be unsurprised at young Chicagoans’ consistent and constant creativity in protests. Over the past few months, young people in Chicago have led several protests against state violence.

On Friday, some of these young people organized a #TrainTakeOver. Below is a terrific video by Kuumba Lynx documenting the action.

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

photo by Todd St. Hill (1/23/15)

Jan 18 2015

“Free Us All:” Love in Action in Chicago

It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday on Thursday and Chicago was in the mood to celebrate through study, action and protest. As part of an effort to #ReclaimMLK, Chicagoans demanded reparations for police torture survivors, gathered to discuss the radical roots of the Black Freedom Movement, called out a list of the system’s crimes against those most marginalized and finally marched by the hundreds in solidarity with a youth-led protest on the near Westside of Chicago.

Listen to these words offered by Kaleb Autman, a 12 year old student at Village Leadership Academy & co-organizer of the ReclaimMLK march and by Page May, a young organizer with We Charge Genocide who helped VLA students bring their vision to fruition. Listen to their words to better understand the current rebellions led mostly by young people of color taking place across the country.

I was invited to speak at Thursday’s rally and march. I had jotted down a few words but when it came time for me to speak I decided to focus on what was in front of me rather than on what I had planned to share. You see, by the time I was called to speak, we were in front of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (Chicago’s youth jail) and I could hear the children who were locked in cells insistently pounding on their windows.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

Their message to us on the outside was urgent and unequivocal: “Free Us.”

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez  (1/15/15)

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez (1/15/15)

I turned and looked to my right. I saw my friends of the Chicago Light Brigade holding light boards spelling out “Free Us All” as they projected the words “Indict the System” on the side of the courthouse. I struggled to hold back tears.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

It was the vision of a group of Black elementary school students that we march 2.5 miles from their school to the juvenile jail to underscore how close they are to being funneled through the pipeline to prison. My friend Kelly Hayes, who helped organize the march, wrote beautifully about the proximity of incarceration for these students:

VLA student Jakya Hobbs told us, “It is this system that keeps us from the world.” Her use of the word “us” was very intentional in this context. These student organizers see no distinction between themselves and the incarcerated, and rightly believe that as long as black and brown children are criminalized and caged, no young person is truly free. In elementary school, they understand what it took me decades to comprehend: Prisons don’t simply confine prisoners. They confine hopes and ambitions, and dampen the faith of those who might otherwise dare to believe in better things. Living as a black or brown person in a country where the prison industrial complex cages over two million of our brothers and sisters means walking through the world with the knowledge that, while you may have eluded the slave catcher, many of your people will not.

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Over 600 people braved the Chicago cold to march alongside the young organizers of the protest. I was so proud to live in this city as people of all ages, genders, class backgrounds and races responded to their call to action. I felt hopeful.

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

One of the children in the jail scrawled out the words “I <3 You” on his window. It read crystal clear to those of us standing outside of the jail. People responded by calling out and signing their love in kind.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

Thursday’s #ReclaimMLK march was a manifestation of love in action. It’s that simple and that complex. If these uprisings and rebellions are to develop into a movement, love will have to be centered alongside power. This is a truth gleaned from past movements and leaders:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Source: pp. 324-325 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998).

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

In the end though, I will remember three words from this action: “Free Us All.”

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

These words will ring out as we continue to struggle and fight for a more just and peaceful world. “Free Us All” is our North Star helping us to find our way in our journey toward liberation.

Dec 31 2014

Sights and Sounds of Chicago’s Struggle for Reparations…

Over the past couple of weeks, Chicagoans have intensified their calls for the City Council and Mayor Emanuel to pass a reparations ordinance for police torture survivors. The struggle for justice for Chicago’s survivors of police torture has spanned several decades.

On December 16 and December 29th, several organizations and individuals organized actions and marches to increase the pressure on elected officials to pass the ordinance. Below are some photos and video from both actions. You can support this organizing by contacting holdout alderpeople and demanding that they support the ordinance. Details for how to help are here.

December 16Holiday March and Action to Pass Reparations for Chicago Police Torture Survivors

Professor Adam Green, a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, opened the march with a few words setting the context of the struggle.

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

photo by Page May (12/16/14)

Read more »

Dec 14 2014

Free Lookman, Kidnapped by Chicago Police…

Update: Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing this post. I have just returned from bond court and have some “good news” regarding Lookman and his case. His charges were dropped to two misdemeanors (battery and resisting arrest). The charges remain bogus and will be fought in court. Lookman will be represented by my friend Joey Mogul in his next court date. For now, we are told that he will be released later today on a $10,000 I-bond. The money raised so far will go towards the legal fees that will accrue. But for now, Lookman should be home later today. Thank God and thank all of you for your support.

On a related note, two other young people of color were arrested at yesterday’s protests. One was badly beaten by the cops and taken to the hospital before being returned to jail. They too were represented by Joey and Molly Armour of the National Lawyers Guild today. Unfortunately, they are still charged with felonies. They have a $150,000 bond between them so they will need $15,000 to be bailed out. Some of their supporters are currently working on an online fundraiser for this. I will share the link once I have it.

Update #2: Lookman is out of jail. However, two other young men remain locked up on felony aggravated battery charges on a police officer, a felony. One of those young men was badly beaten by the police and had to be taken to the hospital. They are without resources for bail. Here is their bail fund. Please help them get out of jail as soon as possible. Any amount helps and please share the link with others. Thanks.

It’s his smile that draws you in… Mischievous and precious because it isn’t bestowed to everyone. You have to earn it because his ‘unlucky’ life has offered little to smile about. To bask in that smile is a gift.

I was at a visioning and strategy session about how to end police violence yesterday when I heard that Lookman was arrested.

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

photo by Yolanda Perdomo (12/13/14)

He was protesting police terror along of hundreds of other Chicagoans. As soon as I heard that he was snatched by CPD, my heart dropped. I knew that he was close, so damn close, to getting off probation for a nonviolent offense. I knew that nothing good would come of this. Nothing.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the police station last night, I heard that he was being charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony. Witnesses who saw the entire episode unfold say that he did no such thing. These are trumped up charges. We will fight them starting today in bond court.

Lookman is a young black man living in Chicago. As such, he is a walking target. This takes its toll over the course of a young life. Along with the relentless police surveillance and harassment, Lookman was a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline. Listen as he shares his experience of getting into fights at school which eventually landed him behind bars at the young age of 15.

When Lookman talks about his time in the “Audy Home,” he means the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). Below is a photo of a cell at the juvenile jail. Lookman talks in the audio clip about looking out of the window in order to feel “human again,” you can see what that window looks like.

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center by Richard Ross (Juvenile-in-Justice)

In Chicago, we lock black boys up to cage the rage but it doesn’t disappear, it only grows. To heal the walking wounded, we cling to anything that we can find. We beg them to talk, to express, to let go. We have almost no resources. The state is allocating those to the military and to build more cages. Some of them like Lookman channel their feelings in spoken word. “I’m tired,” he says.

Over the years, Lookman has grown as a person within a leadership development program that my organization incubated for many years called Circles and Ciphers. Lookman has traveled across Chicago leading peace circles in schools and other community spaces.

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

Lookman leading a peace circle last month (photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)

He spends most of his time these days looking for ways to bring more justice and some peace into this world. For this, he should be respected and uplifted. The Chicago Police department is hell bent on harassing, targeting and destroying him instead. We will not allow them to kidnap and disappear Lookman. He has a family and community that loves him. We want him back. He has work to do in the world. He has a life to live. We will not stand for this injustice. Please help us fight.

We need to raise money to bail Lookman out of jail. Click HERE to donate (this link will be updated with information after today’s bond hearing, we are just getting a head start). Thank you in advance for your support and help.

Dec 01 2014

To Damo, With Our Love…

Damo, we still speak your name…

The news came on Friday. I wasn’t able to hear it as it broke. Later when I checked email, I read the excited comments. The United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) had released its concluding remarks. Among many references to the brutality and impunity of U.S. policing, they wrote:

“The Committee is concerned about numerous, consistent reports that police have used electrical discharge weapons against unarmed individuals who resist arrest or fail to comply immediately with commands, suspects fleeing minor crime scenes or even minors. Moreover, the Committee is appalled at the number of reported deaths after the use of electrical discharge weapons, including the recent cases of Israel “Reefa” Hernández Llach in Miami Beach, Florida, and Dominique Franklin Jr. in Sauk Village, Illinois. While taking note of the information provided by the State party on the relevant guidelines and available training for law-enforcement officers, the Committee observes the need to introduce more stringent regulations governing their use (arts. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 16).”

I took a deep breath as the words blurred. So much of what we do in the name of the dead is really for us the living. It’s so we can try to make sense of the senseless. It’s so we can carry on and move through our grief. It’s so we don’t follow the dead into their graves. In May, when I wrote about your killing by the CPD, I didn’t know how your friends (how our community) would come together to ensure that your death wouldn’t be another unremarked upon, unnoticed but to a few, routine occurrence.

We Charge Genocide (WCG) was born from the tragedy of your killing. However, through WCG, many of us have re-membered to hope. WCG member Sarah Macaraeg beautifully captured the essence of the UN delegation’s trip earlier this month:

“By the time the delegates left, they had staged both a walk out and a silent protest inside the United Nations when “US representatives responded to…questions regarding police use of tasers by claiming police are properly trained to use them and that they aren’t lethal,” according to a group statement.

In two days, they changed history. The story of Dominique Franklin Jr. has now been covered around the world, affirming the belief that his life mattered, as all young Black lives matter. Questions of police impunity, militarization, excessive force, and patterns of discrimination are now among the forefront of those posed by U.N. members to the U.S.” –

Your friends made sure your name was entered into the record when they charged genocide for your killing and those of other black people in Chicago. They stood fists raised, then tired arms raised, some holding your picture for 30 minutes. They didn’t need words to convey their solidarity and love. Their protest embodied both.

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

We Charge Genocide at UNCAT

wcggeneva5

On Friday the UN guaranteed that your death, your tragically unnecessary death, will serve as a platform for future organizing and change. All of us who have been involved in this effort are committed to continue the work of creating a more just world in your name and those of the others lost to us through state violence.

Your friend Malcolm, who was/is gutted by your killing, was among the delegation that traveled to the UN in Geneva. He and the other delegates carried your story and those of many others with them. They took the task incredibly seriously. You would be proud.

We struggle out of profound love. It’s a love that sustains and strengthens us. It’s a love that convinces us that we will eventually win. I close with Malcolm’s words about you, Damo, because they are so eloquent. Malcolm urges that “no matter what life you lived, you deserved to live it!” This is the epitome of unconditional love that refuses any justifications for your killing. We should all strive to meet this test. I have no more words. All I will say is that you are written; we’ve spelled your name into eternity. We carry on. Rest in power, young man, rest in peace.

Nov 28 2014

Palante Young Leaders, Siempre Palante…

Dear young revolutionaries the world over, I love you. If no one has told you so today, I’m glad that I did.

These are exciting and uncertain times everywhere. I am a witness to young people’s activism and organizing in Chicago on a daily basis.

It fills me with immense hope and a lot of joy to be able to contribute in various ways to supporting some of these wonderful human beings. But I admit to also sitting with worry. I worry about violence that can be/has been directed at these young activists. I worry about their physical, emotional, spiritual health and well-being. I worry about whether they can sustain the fire of social justice without being incinerated. I worry…

I began to take action around the conditions of my oppression(s) as a teenager. That was a very long time ago now. I’m not a particularly reflective person but I have decided today to look back in order to look forward. It’s been 30 years since I attended my first protest on my own. Ironically, the action was called after an incident of police violence in New York City. Earlier this week, I stood in the cold in front of Chicago Police Department (CPD) headquarters speaking at a protest that I had co-organized partly in response to Darren Wilson’s nonindictment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

In the intervening years, I learned that social change and transformation is a long, hard slog. Howard Zinn is right that: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” There are setbacks mixed with some terrific highs. What’s most important though is that we act. Alice Walker puts it well:

“I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.”

I agree in large part with Walker’s words about the importance of action (however one defines it). I believe, however, as Audre Lorde has written that: “Despair is a tool for your enemies.” The key to life-long activism and organizing, in my opinion, is to rededicate oneself daily to hope. As has been said, hope is a discipline. In his life-giving essay “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn underscores the value and importance of hope in movement-building. I often share this essay with young people who ask me for advice about how to stay awake in the world when it would be easier to be complacent. Zinn writes:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

“The future is an infinite succession of presents…” I relate deeply to these words. To transform the conditions of our oppression(s), we can only do what we can today, where we are, in the best way that we know how. Ethical action as part of our daily lives is an important path to social justice. Mistakes are a given. Disappointments are many. But we keep moving forward. Palante young leaders, Siempre Palante!

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Chicago, 11/24/14)

Nov 04 2014

Heading to Geneva…To Charge Genocide

On Saturday, a group of eight young people of color (ages 19-30) from Chicago will board a plane to Geneva. There, they will present a report about Chicago police violence against young people of color to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. It’s been difficult to articulate my thoughts and feelings about this trip and this delegation of incredible young people. I have too many emotions wrapped up in the endeavor.

As I type, I remember the sense of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me when I saw and heard Damo‘s friends pour out their grief at his killing by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in May. I also admit to being scared of the chain reaction of pain and hopelessness that this loss could engender in our close-knit community. As I considered ways to honor Damo’s life and to transform our grief into healing, I turned as I often do to history. I was still a young person when I first read “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.” The petition and especially the story of how much was overcome to actually present it to the United Nations have stayed with me for years. Wading through grief, fear and anger, I returned to “We Charge Genocide” as a vehicle that could be retooled and reinvigorated in this historical moment. The organizing that my initial call has engendered is incredible and I claim no credit for it. The group of people involved in this effort are committed, selfless, smart and talented. The outpouring of community support has been inspiring.

There have of course been critics and that’s to be expected. Critique is good, cynicism is not. Some delegation members have been told that the UN is a toothless, corrupt and/or useless institution. To be sure, there are many legitimate criticisms that can be leveled against the UN. I have my own. All institutions should and can be critiqued. And yet, many of the critics miss the import of this trip for the delegation heading to Geneva and for our communities. Some of loudest and most cynical people about this effort have been white. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence. For too many white people, representation matters little. They are not invisible. They are always centered in all narratives. Whiteness has the power to invisibilize and consume everything in its path. So for some white people, it means nothing that this is the first time that a delegation of young people of color will appear before the UN Committee against Torture to make a case against police violence. But I promise that it means a lot to the young delegates that they have an opportunity to be “seen” and “heard” on the international stage if only for a few minutes. To be clear, a number of white people have supported the delegation and its efforts (including being members of WCG) but it’s been instructive that the most vociferous critics have also been white. White critics have also taken issue with the name “We Charge Genocide” but that’s for a future post.

Beyond representation, the WCG delegation is carrying the stories of many young people in Chicago who have for the first time publicly shared their experiences of being targeted and tortured by the police. These stories were previously buried and the pain, though real, remained bottled up for too many. At the August youth hearing where WCG collected some of these stories, many young people thanked us for the opportunity to share and as one young man put it: “to finally let it all out.” WCG delegation members are acutely aware that it is a sacred trust to carry and then share these stories.


Poet Kevin Coval writes that “[e]very institution in Chicago fails Black youth.” And he is right. Thousands of young people of color in Chicago are being failed on a minute by minute basis. We must condemn and hold accountable the systems and institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and well-being of young people in this city. Going to the UN to demand that they call out the Chicago police for its torture of young people of color is an outside/in strategy to insist on accountability. It is just one strategy but we have to rely on all available tools and resources at our disposal if we want to transform our conditions. This has always been part of our history as black people in particular.

It matters too that WCG delegates are making an international claim. It’s an acknowledgement that this struggle for justice is a global one. For this trip, a number of the delegates applied for their first passports. For many, it will be the first time they’ve ever been outside of the U.S. and this too matters. Sometimes, one can only understand their country by leaving it and seeing it again through outsiders’ eyes. There will be delegates at the UN from countries all over the world. This will offer an invaluable opportunity to learn from them about their struggles and to make some connections that can enhance the work here.

Finally, I return to Damo. It’s difficult to express how much it means to members of the WCG delegation that they will be able to invoke Damo’s name and share his story at the UN. Since I don’t have the words, I’ll let his friend Ethan speak the final ones:

Oct 25 2014

Damo, We Speak Your Name: Resisting Police Violence in Chicago

Dominique (Damo) Franklin, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life mattered. Look at what you’ve inspired…

In May, I wrote about the death of a young man known to his friends as Damo at the hands of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Months later, answers about his killing are still elusive. To conclude my post about Damo’s death, I wrote:

“He was managed throughout his life through the lens of repression, crime, and punishment. And now he is dead and those of us left behind must find a way to heal while building more justice. We’ll continue to fight in Damo’s memory because we won’t allow his death to have been in vain…”

We are keeping our promise. On Wednesday, hundreds of people participated in manifestations of Damo’s legacy.

Damo, in a couple of weeks, your friends and peers are on their way to the United Nations in Geneva to tell your story that of countless others who have perished and been tortured at the hands of the CPD.

Your death has inspired this song though we would rather have you alive and here with us. The telling of police torture is a mourning song. But the protest on Wednesday evening reminds me that it is also a freedom song.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life matters.

At Wednesday’s protest, your friends and peers invoked your name; placing it alongside Roshad, Deshawn, Rekia and Mike’s.

“Protect and serve that’s a lie, you don’t care when black kids die.”

I am really tired and I am incredibly inspired. I am still struggling to find the words to express my feelings. So I am going to rely on photos taken by friends and comrades to end this post. I am privileged and humbled to organize with a wonderful group of people. I wish Damo was here to join us.

Damo, we speak your name. Your (imperfect) life still matters… In your memory, we will continue working to shut down oppression.

Read more »

Aug 22 2014

Artistic Interventions About Events in Ferguson…

Wherever there is injustice and protest, you will also find art. That’s the case with respect to the killing of Mike Brown and the Ferguson protests.

Below are a few samples of art that I have seen in various media platforms.

Jasiri X wrote a song called 212 degrees about the events in Ferguson.

Black bodies being fed to the system
Black American dead or in prison
Love for the murderer never the victim
Dead kids cant beg your forgiveness

We are at war
What you telling me to be peaceful for
When they break the peace by firing the piece now the peace gets tore
I don’t give a fuck about Quik Trip’s store

I saw the illustration below on Twitter. It’s by Sandra Khalifa. I’ve begun to curate other visual art related to the events in Ferguson here.

by Sandra Khalifa

by Sandra Khalifa

A few singers/rappers have produced music about Mike Brown and/or the Ferguson protests. Here are some of those:

Mar 20 2014

Image of the Day: #NoMoreJails

From the YBCA Young Artists At Work:

YBCA Young Artists' At Work (December 2013)

YBCA Young Artists At Work (December 2013)

“The youth of San Francisco will be at the helm of shaping the future of the Bay Area. In response to the proposal for a new SF jail we created a mugshot photo booth to show the faces of SF’s future. San Francisco has enough jails and building a new one will only lead to increasing the numbers of youth, folks of color and long term city residents that are incarcerated. We say no to the new jail. #nomorejails”