I’m in the midst of a major life transition. After over 20 years of living and working in Chicago, I’m moving back home to NYC in a few days. As such, I’ve had no time to blog. I am hoping to get back to more regular blogging in mid-summer once I’m settled.
On Friday, I celebrated the one year anniversary of Chicago passing reparations for police torture survivors with friends and comrades. To commemorate the milestone, Kuumba Lynx released a short video that I had the honor of narrating.
This is how they describe it:
Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the Reparations Ordinance being passed for the Chicago Police Torture Survivors, which is the first time Reparations has been given for Police terrorism in the history of the United States. Our youth created documentary series “Journey to LTAB” begins in the summer of 2014 when the nation was exploding with police brutality after the Mike Brown and Eric Garner murders. After an unjust police search and arrest happens to one of the members of Kuumba Lynx, the youth within Kuumba lynx took the streets with their city to fight police brutality within the streets of Chicago. Using their art as a vehicle for activism, KL searches for their 3rd LTAB title. Taking the city by storm and putting light on issues that wouldn’t have been before. Throughout the year leading up to LTAB 2015, our work became connected to the fight for Reparations in Chicago, which “is the product of decades of activism, litigation and journalism and the culmination of a concerted six-month inspirational, intergenerational and interracial campaign co-led by Amnesty International – USA, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Project NIA and We Charge Genocide,” and was driven by the Police Torture Survivors themselves, family members, Black People Against Police Torture and countless other organizations and communities’ work. We want to share this piece of our series that highlights this historic movement narrated by Reparations Now! organizer Mariame Kaba and the role Kuumba Lynx was honored to play in it.
This is the first sneak peak of the series we have released because of the importance of today’s anniversary. As we look back a year later, we look forward to debuting this 13 episode online series June 1st on KL We Get Free Media platforms. Please tune in and share to support Youth Powered Media.
It’s been months and I still haven’t watched the video of Laquan McDonald’s execution. I never will. Like a lot of people, I know that he was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke. I know that he was walking away when he was gunned down. I know that he is dead and that’s enough for me.
Love and Struggle photos (3/14/16)
I’ve been angry at people since the release of the video last November. My anger has been simmering and unexpressed. I’m hurt that it took this particular video to motivate some people to care about police violence against Black people. I’ve been suffering from a self-diagnosed low grade depression. Lots of things have contributed to this. One of them is despair that Laquan’s death will be adjudicated through a court system that cannot deliver any actual justice. I want to get off the merry-go-round. I want to escape from groundhog day. But I feel strangely trapped, maybe imprisoned by the limits of other people’s imaginations and their demands for ‘justice.’ I don’t want us to fail Laquan like we have Tamir and so many others.
photo by Kaleb Autman (3/10/16)
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit directing my strangled anger at Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. She waited 400 days before bringing charges against Van Dyke and only did so after a judge mandated the release of the videotape. But the truth is that my antipathy for her dates back years. She is the embodiment of a “tough on crime” prosecutor and I’ve wanted to see her out of office for the past 7 years.
I decided months ago that I would do my part to help defeat Alvarez during the primary. I’ve spent part of that time gently prodding others to join me. A confluence of forces catalyzed by the delayed release of the Laquan McDonald execution video has made it possible that Alvarez might lose the primary today. It’s not a given but it’s possible because a variety of individuals and organizations have worked both autonomously and collectively to educate, incite and mobilize Cook County residents to oust her from office. Some of these individuals and groups are politicians, PACs and unions that have endorsed a particular candidate. But what’s been different about this State’s Attorney contest is that people and groups that don’t usually engage in electoral politics (for various reasons) have joined the effort to unseat Alvarez.
photo by Kaleb Autman (3/10/16)
My friend Kelly Hayes specifically writes about young Black Chicago organizers co-leading a grassroots #ByeAnita campaign in a Truthout article:
“Young Black organizers in Chicago, who have helped claim victories as historic as winning reparations for survivors of police torture and securing a trauma center for Chicago’s underserved South Side, made a decision in the weeks that followed the traumatic release of dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death: They wanted Anita Alvarez out of office.”
The #ByeAnita #AlvarezMustGo campaign of the past few weeks is unique. The lead groups and individuals involved did not work in coordination with any particular candidate or officially endorse one (much to some people’s consternation). Instead groups and individuals organized an outside political education campaign that relied on direct action, teach ins, traditional canvassing and social media. Actions were both autonomous and also strategically planned/coordinated. Four local youth-driven groups, Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Black Lives Matter Chicago (BLM Chi), planned and executed over a dozen direct actions in less than a month.
“With a budget of less than $1,000 scraped together for their efforts, the coalition of grassroots groups and organizers has staged more than a dozen actions in the last month.
These tactics, aimed at keeping grievances against Alvarez from falling from the public’s mind before Election Day, helped keep the record of the embattled state’s attorney in the spotlight, but according to Morris Moore, the campaign has also provided other benefits to its architects.
“In the beginning, the Bye Anita campaign felt like harm reduction, and like therapy in a sense,” said Morris Moore, noting that “Anita Alvarez was involved in a horrible tragedy that is still being felt in the Black community by young Black people. And even if the mainstream media isn’t paying attention to it anymore, we’re still feeling it.” But by bringing direct action to the campaign trail, and consistently ambushing their politically vulnerable target, Morris Moore says she found something that she needed in this political moment. “These actions have allowed me to recreate a way to be involved in politics,” she said. “I don’t have to support a candidate. I can say I don’t support this candidate, and this is why.”
Veronica Morris Moore gives voice to a different form of engagement that has in some ways provided a catharsis for a community of exhausted and depleted organizers. I include myself among those organizers. While I am tired from working to defeat Alvarez while managing all of my other work and life commitments, I have found inspiration in the persistence, commitment and creativity of younger organizers.
Yesterday, for example, members of Assata’s Daughters supported by allies staged an ambitious action across the city. They created and then unfurled 16 banners in communities across Chicago. As reported in Chicagoist:
“Blood on the ballot,” reads one banner hanging over the Kennedy Expressway at Irving Park. “Justice for Rekia, no votes for Anita, reads another hung over the Nicholas Bridge of the Art Institute of Chicago. “#AdiosAnita 16 shots and a cover up,” reads another on Western Avenue near 18th Street.”
photo collage by Monica Trinidad (3/14/16)
In a statement, Assata’s Daughters explained the rationale for the action:
“Final voter engagement before the March 15th Primary in Chicago is taking to the sky today as airplanes are set to fly with banners highlighting the link between Hillary Clinton to the unpopular Rahm Emanuel and the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, with whom he covered up Laquan McDonald’s murder during his own re-election campaign. This is one of a series of 16 banners that will be released throughout the city all pushing the messaging that Anita Alvarez must go.”
Unfortunately the weather didn’t allow for the planes to fly the banner so they will try again today. However, the group did successfully drop all 16 banners across Chicago. I’m trying to keep the images of those 16 banners in my mind to replace the echoes of the 16 shots that continue to reverberate loudly in our community. And if Alvarez is defeated tonight, I’ll take a deep breath and pray that some of the despair I’ve been feeling about Laquan will dissipate. I’ll hope that Laquan is resting a bit easier. I’ll whisper words of gratitude for all of those whose efforts will have made her defeat a reality. I won’t confuse Alvarez’s defeat with systemic transformation. I’ll go back to work to abolish prisons, police and surveillance and to build a world that doesn’t need them. But I will do so satisfied that our collective action removed an awful elected official from office and that we now have more space to create the world in which we hope to thrive.
There are more components of the #ByeAnita campaign and many others (including me) who’ve been involved at various levels but that’s a story for another day. For today, I want to lift up the efforts, labor and leadership of the young Black Queer women and femmes who have planned and executed the bulk of the #ByeAnita campaign direct actions. They have been the life-blood of this campaign. I offer my appreciation and my love. I hope that anyone reading this who can vote in Cook County will use their ballot to say #ByeAnita in Laquan’s name.
I haven’t been able to blog regularly so far in 2016. I’d hoped to have more time to do so. Life and work are both kicking my ass though. In my “free time,” I’m currently focused on grassroots organizing to defeat one of the worst prosecutors in the U.S.: Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Meme by Bria Royal
In the past few months, Anita Alvarez has come to national notoriety because of her handling of the Laquan McDonald case. Against all evidence of a cover-up, she still maintains that she’s handled the case appropriately. Many of us in Chicago have spent years documenting her various failures and problems as a prosecutor. It’s gratifying that more people are paying attention to Alvarez and her misdeeds. On Wednesday, the Chicago Suntimes editorialized about Alvarez’s bungling of the Rekia Boyd case:
“If the Justice Department hopes to get to the bottom of how justice runs aground in Chicago, it will extend its probe to include City Hall’s law department and the state’s attorney’s office. Chicago’s failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct cannot be blamed on the Police Department alone. Our city’s criminal justice troubles are more widely systemic.
As detailed Tuesday by Sun-Times reporters Mick Dumke and Frank Main, based on an examination of emails from the state’s attorney’s office, there is strong evidence the law department and county prosecutors in the Rekia Boyd case again slow-walked an investigation into police misconduct.”
Love and Struggle Photos (2/13/16)
Prosecutors play an outsized role in the criminal punishment system and receive very little public scrutiny. Writing at Seven Scribes, Josie Helen explains that the prosecutor’s role in mass incarceration deserves attention if viable solutions are to be developed:
“For years, prosecutors have managed to avoid responsibility for a system they’ve largely created. Many of them are up for primaries in early March. If you don’t know who’s on the ballot, find out. If you weren’t planning on voting, show up. Prosecutors have an outsized amount of power, but they are subject to the democratic process just like any other elected official. It’s about time we held them accountable.”
In Cook County, Anita Alvarez is up for re-election in a primary against two other Democratic opponents. This is a helpful voting guide that provides information about all three candidates. There are many reasons why Alvarez must be defeated. You can find some at a site that I created here.
I am not a person who believes that voting will lead us to liberation. I do however think that it’s critical to apply pressure where we can in order to make space for collective action and organizing that can help us build power to move our issues. In the case of Anita Alvarez, she is an active block to many of the changes that could lead to decarceration in Cook County. She needs to go.
On Wednesday, a group of young activists of color made it known that #AlvarezMustGo and on March 15th Cook County residents will have the opportunity to defeat her at the polls.
If you are a Cook County voter, you can keep up with information about the #AlvarezMustGo campaign on Facebook.
Students from the Village Leadership Academy in Chicago did some research on the use of tasers by police. They produced the following video that tasers are in fact lethal weapons. They suggest that Chicagoans call Mayor Rahm Emanuel to insist that he not invest millions of dollars to outfit CPD as a “reform” to oppressive policing.
I wrote a piece published in the Guardian a couple of days ago. Here’s an excerpt:
“There was dancing in front of Chicago police headquarters at 35th street and Michigan Avenue on Tuesday evening.
People were celebrating, in part, because Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired earlier that day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel – who had spent days expressing confidence in his police chief – stood in a hot briefing room in front of the press corps and announced that McCarthy had become “a distraction”. Emanuel looked like a man undergoing a root canal without anesthesia.
After days of mass protests – including a shutdown of Michigan Avenue on Black Friday that cost retailers up to 50% of their sales – the mayor had apparently decided to cut his losses and throw McCarthy overboard to save himself.”
Below is a short video shot in front of CPD Headquarters the night of McCarthy’s firing.
I don’t begrudge those in the streets in fact I am grateful to many of them for not going gently into the quiet night of apathy. My disgust and rage at the fact that the video was publicly released over the objections of Laquan’s family won’t let me engage in the ways that I regularly would.
As I’ve watched the many opportunists vie for facetime over the past few days, it’s become more urgent to narrate a history of continued protest and refusal regarding police violence in Chicago. There are people who have been consistently in the streets in this city for months now. This is a love letter to the incredible anti-police violence and anti-criminalization organizers/activists in Chicago.
For decades, Chicagoans have been organizing against the brutality and impunity of the Chicago Police Department. In the months since the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, young people of color from across the city have consistently organized demonstrations, protests and actions to underscore the violence of the CPD. These protests are the visible outgrowths of grassroots campaigns that have sought and won reparations for police torture survivors, are calling for community control of the police, are insisting on an end to stop and frisk, are demanding a Federal investigation of the Homan Square police facility, are organizing for redirecting funds from police to other social goods, and are seeking individual justice for Damo, Roshad, Rekia, Ronnieman and more.
In other words, day in and day out in this city, we are resisting police violence. The press in Chicago largely ignores this ongoing grassroots organizing but they are quick to jump on moments like the release of the tape depicting Laquan McDonald’s execution to condescend to, moralize against, and incite Chicagoans who are working toward justice. We resist the local press’s continuing efforts to demonize and pathologize young people in this city (especially those who identify as Black and Brown). We are sick of it. We reject their depictions.
So my friend and comrade Tom Callahan and I collaborated on this visual love letter to Chicago organizers. We hope you appreciate it. If you, please share it with others who want to better understand Chicago’s resistance to criminalization and police violence.
In Chicago, in this historical moment, groups of people are relying on creative organizing to envision and struggle for a radically transformed world where policing and the violence it produces are abolished. This fight is inherently connected to a vision of a world where housing is affordable, quality education is accessible, and health care is available to all. The organizers, activists, artists, and community members engaged in the daily struggle for a more just world under a #BlackLivesMatter umbrella in Chicago keenly understand that poetry, visual art, and other modes of creative expression are important in, as Angela Davis has written, “provoking new understandings of persisting social problems.” Together, we’ve been actively experimenting with different ways to lay out the core issues related to criminalization and social transformation.
A key aspect of organizing is storytelling and here in Chicago, some of us have been relying on multiple methods to tell stories about the police. Over the past few weeks, members of a group that I am part of called “We Charge Genocide” (WCG) has narrated a story about how policing dominates the city budget to the exclusion of social goods. 39% of Chicago’s operating budget is devoted to the police. We want every person in Chicago to know this fact. As such, we’ve been engaged in a kind of guerilla political education project that relies on social media, dramatizations, train takeovers and traditional organizing methods.
When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a series of community budget townhalls, members of WCG got to work by creating a set of memes that would encourage our supporters and other Chicagoans to attend these meetings.
We also encouraged people to let the Mayor know that they were unhappy with the priorities expressed in the budget by circulating memes on social media.
On September 22, members and supporters of WCG (including a few middle school students from Village Leadership Academy) planned an action outside City Hall to coincide with the Mayor’s unveiling of his 2016 budget proposal. WCG members and allies held a banner that visualized how our money has been spent in Chicago–the biggest portion by far going to CPD.
On April 20th, I was getting on a plane headed back to Chicago from Nashville when my phone started ringing. Friends who were in the courtroom as the judge acquitted officer Dante Servin for killing Rekia Boyd were calling to share the news. Martinez Sutton, Rekia’s brother, was so gutted that he couldn’t contain his pain. He and others were temporarily detained by police. Rekia’s family, friends and community were devastated. Dante Servin was free. How long before he would again patrol the streets with his gun? How long before he might kill someone else? How long before the next Rekia? How long before Rekia’s mother could finally sleep soundly through the night?
I was not surprised that Dante Servin was acquitted. After all, it took months and years of community agitation and organizing to get him indicted in the first place. By all accounts, the prosecution’s heart was not in the case. More than that, as most now understand, police officers are rarely indicted and almost never convicted.
Rekia was still dead and Dante Servin still had his job and pension.
Martinez Sutton at a Vigil for Rekia at Depaul (5/12/15) – photo by Sarah Jane Rhee
A couple of days later, about 11 people representing several organizations including BYP 100, Project NIA, BLM Chicago, WAPB, FURIE, ISO, We Charge Genocide, and Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls & Young Women met on the Southside to brainstorm and discuss next steps in the struggle for justice for Rekia. Those in attendance identified as abolitionists, progressives, socialists and anarchists. Our goal was to develop a strategy to keep Rekia’s name alive and to continue to support her family.
It was unlikely that the country would come to know her by her first name: Rekia. She was young, Black and a woman. Of those identities, being a woman is a distinct disadvantage in the political economy of public memorialization. The names that we lift up (when we memorialize Black life at all) are usually attached to cisgendered heterosexual men: Sean, Mike, Eric, Rodney, Amadou… And yet, here we now are, also saying Rekia’s name alongside theirs. This didn’t happen by chance. Her family and local organizers have insisted that her life mattered. The meeting we held after the Servin verdict was a declaration that Rekia would not be forgotten and that her family would not be abandoned.
photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (8/14/15)
By the end of the meeting, we had agreed to collectively organize several events and actions through the spring and summer. Groups and individuals volunteered to bottom line several projects. Project NIA & the Taskforce took responsibility for organizing a legal teach-in about the case that would take place the next week. That event sent Depaul Law School and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) into a panic. On the heels of the Baltimore uprisings, they deployed dozens of police officers to surveil and monitor attendees. Project NIA also took responsibility for coordinating a month-long series of events under the banner of “Black August Chicago.” These events, actions and interventions would focus on state violence against Black women and girls (trans and non-trans) and contextualize these experiences historically. Most of the groups at the meeting committed to organize an event/action/intervention during Black August.
image by Caira Conner
BYP 100 committed to reach out to national groups to organize a National Day of Action for Black Women and Girls on May 21st. BLM Chicago, We Charge Genocide and WAPB decided to attend the next police board meeting to demand the firing of Dante Servin. Since that board meeting would be on May 21st, it worked out that the BYP 100 National Day of Action for Black Women and Girls local event would dovetail with the effort to #FireServin.
photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (5/21/15)
Since May, BYP 100 along with the other groups mentioned have consistently attended police board meetings to demand the firing of Rekia’s killer. The most recent action happened this past Thursday. The beautiful video below offers some highlights.
As a by-product of the community’s organizing, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) this week recommended the firing of Servin. CPD Superintendent McCarthy now has 90 days to offer his recommendation which would then go to the Police Board for a final vote. So there are more steps and work ahead. In the meantime, the relationships between individuals and groups organizing to #FireServin and against police violence more generally are deepening and the number of people joining the mobilizations is growing.
#FireServin (8/20/15) photo by Sarah Jane Rhee
There has been some criticism about the strategic value of a campaign focused on firing one police officer. Isn’t this simply individualizing harm? Shouldn’t we be taking a systemic/structural approach to addressing police violence? These are certainly valid questions. After all, Chicago is a city where Black people (in particular) are killed by police in the highest numbers and with impunity. We are a city where the parents of young Black people shot by police have to crowdfund to buy a headstone for their sons and daughters. We are a city where grief stricken family and community members are arrested for disrupting the courtroom after a judge dismisses the charges against a killer cop. We are a city where the press ignored allegations of police torture for decades and continue to do so into the present. We are a city where the county prosecutors don’t hold killer cops accountable.
None of the organizers leading the #FireServin actions believe that his dismissal from the force will end police violence. Servin is buttressed and backed by a culture of impunity and by a history of Black-deathmaking in this city. He is one brick in a reinforced wall. Just a brick. Organizers know this. So why focus on Servin at all? I’ll share some reasons below:
1. The demand to fire Servin is consistent with abolitionist goals in that it addresses the issue of accountability for harm caused.
2. The demand to fire Servin is in response to the desire of a devastated family and community to see a modicum of justice for their daughter, sister, friend and fellow human being.
3. The demand to fire Servin exists within a broader set of mobilizations and actions that are about MAKING all #BlackWomenAndGirlsLivesMatter.
4. The demand to fire Servin has an origin story rooted in collective brainstorming and organizing. It has provided a tangible way to build power through the mobilizations.
5. The demand to fire Servin has provided an opportunity for some individuals and groups to collaborate more closely and to get to know each other in ways that will only strengthen our broader local struggle. If we learn to fight together, we can win together.
6. The demand to fire Servin has not and does not preclude others from pursuing and taking on their own campaigns to end police violence. Moreover, campaign organizers themselves are involved in more than just efforts to fire Servin.
In Rekia’s name, organizers in Chicago have launched a sustained mobilization seeking justice for all Black women and girls (trans and non-trans). It’s remarkable, really. All of the #SayHerName & #JusticeForRekia actions and mobilizations that happened across the country on May 21st had their roots here in Chicago. It has been rare in U.S. history to effectively organize at the intersection of race and gender. And yet, in part because of our work seeking #JusticeForRekia, there is some energy behind a focus on state violence against all Black women and girls. And this matters a great deal. The recent attention paid to Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna and the ongoing killings of trans Black women is partly owed to this mobilization.
photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (9/17/15)
A focus on how women and girls experience violence by the state pushes us to consider more than lethal force as harmful. We have to consider sexual assaults by police (inside prisons and in the streets). We have to include how women who are victims of interpersonal violence are criminalized by the state for defending their lives. Our lens becomes wider. Hence, the #FireServin campaign has not simply been about holding one officer accountable. It’s also been about making visible the neglected forms of violence experienced by Black women and girls across this country and beyond. By calling for CPD to #FireServin, organizers in Chicago have centered the state violence experienced by all Black women and girls and shone a light on what my friend Andy Smith accurately describes as an “entire system of harassment and surveillance that keeps oppressive gender and racial hierarchies in place.”
It’s been a struggle to write lately. Words feel at once constraining and overwhelming. Kalief Browder’s suicide has left me flattened. I’ve been moving through the world but in an emotional fog that won’t lift. I’ve been thinking of Jamal (not his real name) who I’ve written and talked about before.
Jamal was 15 when we met. He was brilliant and funny. I would regularly see him standing in front of the EL station on my way to work in the mornings and suggest that he should be in school. He would tell me that standing in front of the EL was much more educational than school. Shortly afterwards, I gave him a book. Over the next couple of years, we became reading buddies. Jamal would come over on some Sundays to pick up new books. We would talk about life. I treasure those days.
Then the trouble came. In 2007, I didn’t see or hear from Jamal for a month. That was unusual. I asked some of his friends in the neighborhood where he was and what happened to him. There was radio silence. Finally one evening in October, I got a phone call from Jamal. He was at Cook County Jail and he needed my help. “What can I do,” I asked. “Do you need a private lawyer, I have friends who could help? Money for items from the commissary…” I was going on and on and he finally stopped me when he could get a word in. “Ms. K he said, please tell them to send me to prison now…just get me out of here.” Cook County Jail was and is still hell.
By 2012, Jamal was dead by his own hand. I was and still am devastated. Jail and prison kill. This, I know for sure. I’ve never written about Jamal’s death. I’ve started to several times. The words won’t form. I haven’t recovered from his loss. I never will. It’s been 3 years but it might as well be 1 day. I remember his smile but it’s always so fleeting, so ephemeral. I knew that he was broken by prison. I didn’t know how to unbreak him. That’s my unending nightmare.
Once again, the conversation about interpersonal violence in Chicago has turned into a debate about the moniker of “Chiraq.” Spike Lee is making a film called “Chiraq” and this has sparked editorials and endless commentary. I’ve received some calls from the press asking for my opinion. Since I’ve already discussed this issue ad nauseum, I’ve declined to offer more words.
Young people in Chicago have been commenting on the violence that they experience for years. They have been making art about that violence too. Recently, my friend Daphne, a Chicago Public School teacher, worked with her students on a series of audio and visual pieces about interpersonal violence. One video that was entirely shot, edited and produced by some of her students is below.
In a community-based program at the YMCA, one of my colleagues helped young people produce a series of audio stories about their experiences of violence. You can listen to all of them below:
One particular story about the trauma caused by interpersonal violence really stood out to me.