Building Together: Why Chicago Light Brigade Needs Your Help

From "For Our Fallen" - a tribute to those we lost to violence in 2014, and a protest against police brutality. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
From our “For Our Fallen” event in December. The program and light display were a tribute to those we lost to violence in 2014 and a protest against police brutality. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

We’ve accomplished some beautiful things together in the last year, and 2015 appears to hold even more promise for our radical community. We have big dreams, and with your help, we believe we can make them a reality. To move forward with those plans, we need your support. Today is the last day of our winter fundraiser, as we need to lock down our commitments for the coming months, so I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why getting some help from our community today is so important.

Some of our hopes for this year include:

– The launch of the radical education project. Working in concert with We Charge Genocide and other supportive allies, we will soon begin staging a series of advanced trainings to prepare young organizers for skill sharing efforts in their communities. Highly skilled trainers will be brought in to hold workshops in prop making, nonviolent direct action, and other topics of interest. This project will require a community asset map and significant funding to bring in trainers and secure supplies. The goal is to spread advanced skills far and wide and eventually build a radical education infrastructure in our communities.

– Repairing our damaged equipment and acquiring new tools to create complex light actions and other creative displays for protests around the city. In rain, snow, and high winds, we protest (with some expensive equipment in tow), and that means a lot of maintenance. We also want to continue to expand our creative options. This requires financial support from the community.

– Covering transportation costs. Transportation of equipment has been one of the most unpredictably difficult elements of our work. We need to be able to get our props from point A to point B, cover parking costs, and cover any citations our drivers get for doing their good work. We also spent a great deal last year on getting young people travel assistance to attend our youth nonviolent direct action trainings. This year, thanks to a generous member of our group, we should have steady use of a truck, but we will also be responsible for all costs associated with our use of that vehicle.

We are not a 501(c)(3) organization and we do not have a steady list of funders. We tend to raise money project by project, but in this case, we are asking for support to lift up a series of projects in the coming months. As a grass roots organization, we are only as strong as your support. So, please be a part of this work, and help us bring in the funds we need in the next ten hours.

We are very grateful for your love and support, and as ever, we’ll see you in the streets.

(Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)
(Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)

Marissa Alexander and the Price of “Freedom”

Image: DignidadRebelde.com
Image: DignidadRebelde.com

On a cold night in November, many of us stood outside police headquarters in Chicago awaiting news that would cause a great deal of pain in our communities. Those of us who had organized an emergency response to the announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case never expected an indictment. And while I don’t believe that the punitive nature of our judicial system offers even the potential of justice, I know that each non indictment and acquittal of a murderous police officer is yet another painful reminder of who matters in this system, and who does not. From the very beginning, it was clear that another reminder was pending in that case.

What most of us didn’t see coming that day was another reminder in the form of a resolution in the case against Marissa Alexander.

Forced to choose between an absurd admission of guilt, and the possibility of spending decades in prison, Marissa chose to accept a sentence of 65 days in the Duval County Jail (after having already served nearly three years), and two years of probation. Marissa’s movements will be greatly restricted upon her release, and she will be forced to wear an ankle monitor, at her own expense. Why is this sentence being imposed on Marissa, a mother with no history of violence, who fired a warning shot in self defense?

Because she is a black woman who had the audacity to defend her own life.

Throughout this country’s history, the white power structure has consistently punished people of color who have defended their own lives. From prison sentences and lynchings to the destruction of entire communities, acts of self defense have always carried penalties for black and brown Americans. This violence, of course, is rooted both in an awareness of the harm inflicted upon black and brown bodies, and an ever present fear of reprisal. Just as plantation owners feared slave insurrections in the Antebellum south, whites who continue to benefit from systemic racism fear their black and brown neighbors. After hundreds of years of oppression, and with millions imprisoned in a highly racialized, profit driven prison industry, white people continue to fear black and brown liberation. While largely unstated, that widespread fear continues to drive public policy.

If the normative assumption that white lives are valuable, while black and brown lives are disposable, were concretely undermined, the entire power structure, such as it exists, would be destabilized. Thus, devaluation isn’t simply a reality. It is a violently enforced reality. And in a society where the lives of black and brown people are assigned little value, our freedom is assigned even less.

In Marissa’s case, her act of self defense, which harmed no one, was a crime against the power structure. A black woman raising a weapon to assert the value of her own life is an affront to the social, political, and economic hierarchy of our society. The marginalized cannot be allowed to push back against harm, ever, because the harm done to them is so ubiquitous that the larger white consciousness cannot fathom the consequences of a larger push back. Of course, wide reaching efforts to assert the value of black lives, in recent months, have largely taken the form of peaceful protests, but even those protests have been characterized as acts of war by the enforcers of state sanctioned racism.

The reason for that mislabeling is clear: liberation and the overthrow of oppressive systems begins with the assertion that we have a natural right to defend ourselves and our people against violence and oppression. Such an assertion threatens the very fabric of oppressive systems, which is why the system must make an example of those who resist the societal limitations and routine violence imposed upon them.

And thus, Marissa Alexander had to be punished. She had to be held up as a reminder that it is unacceptable for any black person to take drastic action in defense of their life or liberty, under any circumstances. For attempting to free herself from the oppression and violence of domestic abuse, Marissa was forced into the oppressive and violent grip of the state. She had to accept an unjust deprivation of liberty, and upon her release, will continue to live her life under state surveillance – surveillance she must pay for out of her own pocket.

Like an escaped slave dragged back to the plantation by a slave catcher, Marissa has been horribly punished, and will only be allowed to move under the watchful eyes of those who’ve asserted ownership of her life and freedom. She has been held up as example for all those who might likewise deem themselves worthy of defense and protection.

Fortunately, she has been held up as an example by others as well. Following the long tradition of forming defense committees around women whose cases are representative of the state’s perpetuation of violence against women of color, many activists and community members have taken up Marissa’s cause. Through teach ins, exhibits, fundraisers, and online dialogues, her supporters have raised awareness about her case and what it represents, and with Marissa’s release date only a week away, they are very close to covering the cost of Marissa’s home monitoring. Such efforts give me hope that resistance will not, in fact, be silenced by the brutality of state reprisal and incarceration, for as long as we continue to love and protect one another, and live in resistance to the harms imposed upon us, there is always hope.

For Marissa, survival and freedom from abuse have carried a heavy price, just as living in a less brutal state of confinement will carry a hefty price tag, but she is alive, and she is loved. Let’s remind her that we are grateful for her life, and value her freedom, by lifting the financial burden of home monitoring from her shoulders. Let’s remind everyone that no one should have to pay a price for life or liberty.

Our value as human beings is self evident, even if the state seeks to deny it.

UPDATE: As of this afternoon, the cost of Marissa’s home monitoring device, for the entire two years of her probation, has been covered.

Guest Post – Reclaim MLK: Free Us All

(I’m proud to feature this inspiring guest post from Chicago organizer Page May in which she shares her thoughts on the significance of last week’s Reclaim MLK event in Chicago.)

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity.”

— MLK, Aug. 28, 1963

“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

– MLK, 1967

On January 15th, Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthday, myself and friends held a march called Reclaim MLK in Chicago. It was explicitly abolitionist, intentionally organized by people of color, and centered around the Black elementary students of the Village Leadership Academy (VLA).

Over 600 people came out to join our march from the VLA school to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where we held a rally and noise demonstration. As young people of color, we shared our visions for change, celebrated the unsanitized legacy of MLK and the wider Black Freedom movement, and called out the injustice of the “justice” system.

I won’t go in to too much detail since this story has been beautifully documented already by Kelly Hayes in earlier posts (see Part I and Part II). I do wish to speak on what I think is the broader significance of this action as a part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Why We March

“We do this for Marissa.

We do this for Tanesha.

We do this for Mike Brown.

We do this for Rekia.

We do this for Damo.

We do this til we free us!”

-A BYP 100 protest chant featured at the march

These names and the stories behind them represent the truth of the “justice” system: The police will see an unarmed, young, Black man and describe him as a “demon.” They will shoot him six times, twice in the head, in broad daylight. They will leave his body to bleed out in the street for 4.5 hours- traumatizing his neighbors and loved-ones. And when his community cries out their grief and righteous anger, they are invaded with increasingly militarized forces. The police will investigate but conclude no one acted wrongfully- that Black death is unavoidable.

So we march. We march for Mike Brown. We march for Rekia, and Stephon, and Damo and all those murdered by the police. And we lift up Mike’s story because what happened to him represents the truth of the system.

The truth, but not the totality.

In fact, most Black people are not killed by the police. However, I challenge you to find a Black person who doesn’t have at least one story of police abuse. And this too, is why we march. When we look beyond the spectacle of these state-sanctioned lynchings, there is an equally outrageous brutality in the mundane of policing:

“We’re sitting in a house playing video games and we hear a banging on the door. Before we know it, the door is kicked down and there’s five special-ops officers with their huge M16s drawn, pointed at us: Three 15 year olds playing video games. And they tell us get on the ground. They say if we move they are gonna kill us. “Don’t look at me, we’ll fucking kill you in a second!” Pointing their guns at us. Then they don’t find anything. They let us all go, they laugh, try to joke with us, apologize, then leave out. And we’re sitting there like, “What just happened?” They tear up the house. They stole money.”

-From the We Charge Genocide UN Shadow Report

The murder of Mike Brown has incited many Black people to protest and declare #BlackLivesMatter, but what unites us and, I think, fuels this movement is the day-to-day terror of the police: patrolling our communities, assuming our criminality, invading our bodies and homes, disappearing millions of our loved-ones into jails and prisons, the slurs, the hypocrisy, the stares, the threats, the guns in our faces, the batons on our backs, the cameras on our block, the constant reminder that we’re each one misstep away from being another name on a protestor’s cardboard sign… the overwhelming totality of it all.

We are so over-exposed to and saturated in police violence, that we almost become numb to it: We accept it as normal, natural, or inevitable. The murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner have shaken us awake. But as our eyes adjust, I insist we look at the totality of our surroundings.

(Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)
The Chicago Light Brigade brings a lighting element to the noise demonstration outside the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility. Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)

The system responsible for this violence will not bring our people any justice. It is not enough to call for the indictment of a few “rogue” cops, a few “bad apples”: We must completely dismantle the edifice that produces the Darren Wilson’s of the world: We must abolish the Prison Industrial Complex and White supremacy. We must re-build new models of accountability, re-imagine what safety means, and re-construct systems of justice where no is expendable, no one is condemned, and where Black lives matter.

“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” –

 — MLK (1964 at funeral service for three of the children killed in 1963 Birmingham church bombing)

This is why we reclaim Martin Luther King Jr.- an intellectual, Black, radical who inspires us to disobey and dream and declare our Black humanity.

Who Are Your People?

Seeing our protest below, the youth contained in the detention center banged on windows, jumped up and down, and wrote out messages with soap like “I Love You” and “Freedom.”

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Incarcerated youth bang against their windows and hold up messages during the Reclaim MLK noise and light demo at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Our Reclaim MLK march grew out of our belief, as young people of color, that our voices and visions must be at the center of this movement.

There is no path to freedom that the current power structure will not try to co-opt or corrupt. Our best defense is to make sure our movement is radically inclusive of and accountable to those most marginalized. We must lift up and center those who experience intersectional oppressions along race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc. These marginalized perspectives offer the most critical analysis of the nature of oppression and most liberatory vision of progress.

Listen to Kaleb, one of the youth organizers of our march, explain what justice actually looks like from his perspective as a 12-year-old Black youth:

“We want justice to actually be served: We want a school system that helps youth of color get jobs. We want jobs, not jails. We want books not bullets. We want education not incarceration. We want Black and Brown students, Black and Brown mothers, Black and Brown aunts to come together and be unified. We want more Black and Brown businesses…We want to end the school-to-prison pipeline. We want to end the criminalization of Black and Brown youth, especially Black and Brown young men. We want to tell the government, tell the State, that our lives actually matter. We should not be put in a position where we have to tell people that our lives matter. We matter!”

Ella Baker was known for asking, “Who are your people?” For me, this is a question about accountability and leadership: Who do you listen to? Who guides you? Who do you support? Who keeps you in the struggle? Those fighting against police violence must answer “young people of color,” and particularly those further marginalized by gender, sexuality, and ability.

Until we- young people of color- are free, nobody is.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Free Us All

“White Supremacy is the enemy!

Shut it down! Shut it down!”

– Protest chant

However, ours is not the only struggle. And this was something we tried to emphasize at our Reclaim MLK march. In addition to youth and anti-police violence organizations, we reached out to a wide coalition of networks that included labor, environmental, and LGBTQ groups. Our speakers included representatives from the Palestinian Youth Collective of Chicago, activists fighting against deportations and the missing Ayotzinapa students, as well as Jon Burge torture survivors who are currently demanding reparations.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

It is not that we are insisting on some kind of shared, homogenous victimhood: We understand that our struggles and experiences are distinct. We believe in solidarity, however, between our communities to dismantle the broader forces of capitalism, colonialism, and empire.

To do this, we must build relationships, form strategic alliances and campaigns, and self-reflect on how we are complicit in each other’s oppression.

Let Us Begin

I understand the magnitude of the situation. But believing in and demanding revolutionary change does not mean that I am naive or idealistic.

Howard Zinn said, “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.”

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

At present and throughout history, I see monstrous violence and oppression. Yet, as much as I recognize this horror, I also see people surviving, their courage, their love for each other, their sacrifices, and incredible resistance. That is where I come from, out of that history. And that is what gives me the strength and conviction to hold hope and insist we act.

Step-by-step we continue to move forward. Brick-by-brick we tear this system down and stone-by-stone we build alternatives. And change will come. We don’t have to be on the brink of utopia to believe in and fight for a better world.

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late… We must move past indecision to action… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”  -MLK

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Willing to Live for Our People

Young leaders from the Village Leadership Academy. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Young leaders from the Village Leadership Academy. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Last night, over 600 people marched behind some of Chicago’s brightest and most politically conscious elementary school students as they rallied to reclaim the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speakers touched on a spectrum of issues, reflecting numerous intersections of struggle, but the words that may have best summarized the night came from a powerful young organizer named Kaleb Autman, when he told the crowd, “I am willing to live for my people.”

Kaleb is a powerful speaker, organizer, and leader in his community. He’s also twelve years old.

The march, rally, and visuals employed last night were created around the vision of Village Leadership Academy students who sat in meetings for weeks with teen organizers and adult allies, shaping their ideas into a concrete plan of action. Students as young as seven sat in meetings that stretched on for hours, debating imagery, messaging, and making sure their narrative was properly captured. Some aspects of the plan were flexible, but the essential elements were tightly outlined in our group conversations: after a day of solidarity actions (carried out by supportive allies around the city), we would meet outside the Village Leadership Academy, rally the crowd, and then march to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where the main program of the event would unfold.

Village Leadership  Academy students leading the march. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Village Leadership Academy students leading the march. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

On the evening of the march, we gathered at the school. After opening remarks from young leaders from VLA, We Charge Genocide, and Black Youth Project 100, the students led the way. They marched through the snow, from a house of learning to a building that imprisons children. They walked as living symbols of all those who are pushed through the school to prison pipeline each year, with their fists and their voices raised high. Years from now, those of us who had the honor of standing with them will remember well that on January 15, 2015, we marched through the darkness with children who brought light to a prison and demanded freedom for their people.

The Chicago Light Brigade using the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center as a backdrop for the night's message. (Photo: @MinkuMedia)
The Chicago Light Brigade using the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center as a backdrop for the night’s message. (Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)

Actually being heard by prisoners inside a detention facility is always a concern at a noise demonstration, so we planned some imagery that we were confident wouldn’t be missed. With light boards and a projector, and over the objections of police, we spelled out the words “free us all” and “indict the system.” We could hear the incarcerated youth pounding on their windows as the scene outside unfolded. We could see their silhouettes as they jumped up and down and waved to the crowd. Kaleb and other young organizers led the crowd in chants of love and solidarity as the youth responded to our presence.

Kaleb Autman leads the crowd in a chant of solidarity with the incarcerated youth. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Kaleb Autman leads the crowd in a chant of solidarity with the incarcerated youth. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
The youth in the facility responding to the chants, light boards, and projection. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
The youth in the facility responding to the chants, light boards, and projection. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Eventually, some of the imprisoned youth began to scrawl messages on their windows with soap. As words like, “I love you” and “free us all” began to appear on the glass, I had to step away from the speakers to allow myself a moment to weep. Surrounded by the bright, beautiful faces of young people of color, while looking up at children whose faces were hidden in shadows as they cried out for freedom, I was overwhelmed.

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.

Amid that painful awareness, Kaleb’s words should ring powerfully in our ears: “I am willing to live for my people.”

In a society that deems your life and freedom wholly disposable, where your oppressors are championed as heroes, the path to revolution is not one of martyrdom. To fight against a system that seeks to diminish or even extinguish your humanity means living in opposition to that system. It means living in the pursuit of a dream that many will claim has already been realized. It means demanding freedom for every person that might be denied it, and building toward transformation.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Dr. King once said that, for activists, a “calling to speak is often a vocation of agony,” but building an event alongside these young people, and lifting up their vision and voices, has been one of the most life affirming undertakings I’ve experienced as an organizer. I am deeply grateful to have stood with them, and to have shared such a powerful evening with such a beautiful community.

On the Eve of Reclaim MLK

Chicago's installment of the National Moment of Silence, August 2014. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Chicago’s installment of the National Moment of Silence, August 2014. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Great revolutionary movements are built from a place of love, and the same is true of great moments of transformative activism. As organizers we’re always striving to build moments that have a profound impact on others. For me, that means pouring my heart and soul into the creation of spaces where love, rage, and community can coexist, and where those who join hands and lock arms can build movements with deep roots.

I live my life in the pursuit of those moments, and all that I hope they might bring into the world.

Tomorrow, Chicagoans who care about social justice, youth empowerment, and the legacy of a great Civil Rights leader will come together in common cause, and lift up the voices of a new generation of freedom fighters. It’s a very exciting day for the community, but also for me personally, as I have had the privilege of playing a role in the organizing of Chicago’s Reclaim MLK Day event. I’ve written previously about the evolution of this event, and how I found myself working with elementary school students to help craft their vision for the reclamation of Martin Luther King’s radical legacy. What I haven’t mentioned is that, in addition to being Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, tomorrow is also my own birthday.

I’ll be 34 years old.

Last year, my friends celebrated my birthday with a raucous party and a solidarity action for the NATO 3. That was a complicated time for me, but I do cherish the images of solidarity we generated that night.

Tomorrow, I will celebrate my birthday by attending a sing in for reparations, a theatrical protest, and the Reclaim MLK Day march. The first two actions will be amongst at least five solidarity events being held at the request of the young organizers of Reclaim MLK. It’s been amazing to see people rise to that call, and I’m grateful that I will be able to attend some of the actions groups have planned for this occasion.

My thirty-third year was a mixed bag – beautiful, heartbreaking, and full of both love and rage. As a depressive person, my ability to experience the beautiful aspects of my life, as fully as I should, is often compromised. Perhaps that’s part of my hunger for extremes.  But regardless of where I’ve been in the last year, or how I’ve felt about it, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate being alive than to stand in love and resistance with my community.

I have so many emotions tied up in this day, and so much respect for the young organizers involved, and for the radical legacy that they are reclaiming, that I’m a bit more nervous than I usually am before an event. There are a lot of moving parts to this thing, and a lot of reasons to get it right, but I know I’m working with some of the best and brightest radical minds in the city, and that what matters most is that we create a space to lift up the voices of our young leaders.

I believe we’re doing that.

So, I would like to thank everyone who has come together to support these young people, and to aid us in creating a space for their words and vision. I hope you’ll be able to stand with us tomorrow, but either way, I hope you will join us in the coming weeks and months as we fight to make sure the demands of our youth led Reclaim MLK coalition are met. One of those demands is that the City Council hold a hearing on the reparations ordinance before the February elections, which I’ll say more about soon.

In the meantime, I hope you will join some of the Village Leadership Academy’s bright students on Twitter tonight at 9pm (CST) as they host a chat about youth activism using the hashtag #‎VLAStyle. Follow @kaleb2202 , @jakayahobbs7902 , @brandonwilkins, and @TenAHman to get in on the conversation.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d like to invite you to check out this video compilation of photos from protests that have been organized in Chicago since the Black Lives Matter movement began in August. It includes a lot of my own photos, a few from movement photographer Sarah Jane Rhee, and music from activist and hip hop artist David Ellis, who will be among the artists joining us tomorrow at Reclaim MLK. I put the video together in the run up to this event as a reminder of the fierce, creative energy that has carried us to this moment. I hope you will find its imagery and David’s music as inspiring as I do.

If you’re coming out tomorrow, please remember to dress warmly. For now, I’m going to watch this video one more time and remind myself how lucky I am to be part of such a brave and beautiful community.

I’ll see you in the streets, friends.

A New Generation Reclaims MLK Day

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

The Black Lives Matter protests have moved at such a swift pace in recent months that’s it’s hard for me to be certain when I first heard that a national call had been issued, and that January 15th would be a day of action aimed at reclaiming the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What I do remember clearly is what a young black organizer said as it was brought up in my presence for the first time: “If we’re reclaiming his radical legacy, I’m in.”

Chicago’s young black organizers, who have mobilized with great speed and ingenuity since nationwide protests erupted in August, have been especially creative in their tactics and radical in their messaging. While some of the language employed in their chants and speak outs has included talk of indicting police officers like Darren Wilson, youth organizers from BYP 100 and We Charge Genocide, among others, have also broadened the dialogue around police violence to include the language of de-incarceration, transformative justice, and calls for an all out systems change.

Local activist and teacher Jerica Jurado, whose students have been involved in a number of protests in recent months, credits an already active community of young people for having brought their vision to the front lines. “This isn’t improv,” she said recently, as we discussed the maturity and power of the young activists of color we’ve stood with since August. “They were already out there, organizing for their lives. So, when lightening struck, they were ready.”

I have grown so accustomed to building with these bright young adults that I was expecting more of the same when I was invited to a somewhat clandestine meeting at a Chicago school last month. I was told very little in advance. A friend said my assistance had been requested, and that we would be meeting with a group of students who wanted to organize an action around police violence.

When I arrived at the address I was given, I realized it was a school I’d previously visited for an event hosted by Project NIA. The Village Leadership Academy is an independent elementary school that rejects the standard euro-centric learning model employed at most schools in favor of a culturally inclusive curriculum that emphasizes socially just decision making. Even after I realized what building I was walking into, I still somehow expected to see a room full of teenagers and young adults. I was instead greeted by a joyful group of grade school students who were dancing and clapping as they sang, “We are the children of Africa!”

Photo: Kelly Hayes
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

It took a moment for the reality of the situation to fully register. We were, in fact, planning an action with middle school and junior high students. I had missed the first meeting of this budding project, so I wasn’t even sure how such a thing could have developed, but to hear We Charge Genocide organizer Page May explain it, the evolution of the collaboration made perfect sense.

“We were frustrated,” she said. “As young people of color, we didn’t feel like most of the marches taking place in the aftermath of the Eric Garner non-indictment had anything to do with us. We marched in the crowds, but felt like we were still on the margins. So we decided to create our own space, as young activists of color.” As the group invite expanded to include Palestinian youth, and activists from BYP 100 and the Chicago Light Brigade, Page decided to reach out to her contacts at The Village Leadership Academy.

The VLA students Page had interacted with at social justice events had expressed interest in attending protests, in recent months, but their parents had felt the climate of most action oriented events was unsafe for children their age. “I wanted them to help us understand how we could build an event where people their age would feel welcome and safe,” she explained, “but we quickly realized that the VLA students offered more than any of us had hoped for. They had the radical, bold vision and analysis our group needed. In the span of one meeting, they became the heart, voice, and center of our effort.”

The project quickly centered itself around the words and ideas of the VLA students, and what began as a conversation about a simple action in December expanded into a dialogue between the students about why we should organize a march around the Reclaim MLK call to action.

Twelve year old VLA student Kaleb Autman may have explained it best when he told us, “The government made this ploy holiday as a pacifier. This is 2015 and black and brown lives still don’t matter to them.”

Amazed, we sat back and listened for hours, weighing in occasionally with explanations of the mechanics of organizing in certain venues. At first we were hesitant to encroach upon their vision, but over time, we pieced together a process of working in concert. They were the innovators, and we were their helpers and advisers. When their ideas didn’t fit the conditions we knew we’d encounter on the ground, we brainstormed modifications, or other methods of achieving similar ends. Eventually, we realized that we could follow their lead and produce something amazing: a march where even the youngest people of color present could feel safe, speak radically, make demands, and be heard.

Youth organizer Jakya Hobbs works alongside adult allies to create signage for Chicago's installment of Reclaim MLK.  Photo: Kelly Hayes
Youth organizer Jakya Hobbs works alongside adult allies to create signage for Chicago’s installment of Reclaim MLK. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

After a great deal of discussion, the youth reached consensus on a march destination that held great significance to them: the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. At first, the details of how we would get there were scattered. There was talk of feeder marchers and after school actions. At first, the only things the group could agree upon were the destination, and the first chant they would call out upon their arrival: free us all.

Eventually, the group agreed that we would ask allies to carry out solidarity actions during the day, and march to the detention center in the evening as one group from a single location. “We should march from here,” one of them said as we sat in a meeting at their school, and the profound narrative of the action was suddenly and perfectly clear. These young people were going to lead us down the path that so many youth of color have been forced to walk, from classrooms and cafeterias to cages built to deprive children of their liberty. We would walk there together, join hands and call out to the crowd, the public, and the system itself, “Free us all.”

Photo: Kelly Hayes
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Today, we made signs for Thursday’s event. We centered our imagery around themes the youth had stressed were of great importance to them: emphasizing the role of women in struggle, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, and demanding freedom for youth incarcerated at the detention center.

At the sign making event, young people, who have split into teams to address various elements of the event, from visuals to the list of invited speakers, checked in with one another, painted, sang, and continued to share their vision.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
A batch of painted signs, included one inspired by the BYP 100 chant, “We do this for Marissa! We do this for Tanesha! We do this for Mike Brown! We do this for Rekia! We do this for Damo! We do this till we free us!” (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

When an ally who was supposed to bring some rip stop nylon for banners was unable to make it, we decided to use one of the drop cloths we’d brought to protect the floors to make a banner for the event. Three of us worked on projecting, tracing, and painting an image of MLK onto the rough canvas surface, while both youth and adult allies used colored markers to write their favorite MLK quotes freely across the banner. Like the entire collaboration, it surpassed our intentions, and blossomed into something beautiful and unexpected.

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One of the action’s young organizers, from Village Leadership Academy, Kaleb Autman, works on a banner for the event. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

I’m honored that these youth have trusted my friends and I to play a role in what they’ve imagined, and are now bringing to fruition. I was astonished at how many of my own beliefs, that took me many years to develop, are already part of the praxis that they are building together. There is no place in their movement for a sanitized version of MLK’s radical legacy, and with a thousand RSVPs and counting, it’s clear that their vision will define the day.

On Racism and Selective Commemoration

Occasionally, I wind up writing about topics that I don’t believe actually fit the focus of my overall work. This generally happens because an issue is crowding out other dialogue in the spaces I move in, or because a failure to speak means leaving a serious wound untended. This is one of those times.

Yesterday, a terrible tragedy played itself out in Paris. Twelve people were killed. Some were law enforcement officers, one was a maintenance worker, but most were employed by a satirical newspaper. In the wake of their deaths, many have felt compelled to lift up their work, as if supportive hashtags and the reposting of images that offend the religious sensibilities of others will somehow prevent the victims of this tragedy from having died in vain.

Allow me to save you the trouble: their deaths were senseless.

I detract nothing from their humanity by saying this. They did not deserve to die for their racist cartoons any more than the building’s janitor, whose name was Frédéric Boisseau, deserved to die for reporting to work that day. But I haven’t noticed anyone holding up his life and work as something that somehow has greater value because his life was taken. And for that matter, I don’t see much of anyone holding up the lives and work of all the young people we lost in Chicago last year, deifying them to justify a sense of collective mourning.

That kind of deification is reserved for certain demographics, and most of our fallen children don’t fit the mold.

For those who may not have noticed, there were 456 homicides in Chicago in 2014. That’s right. We all lost 456 members of our community. And in nearly every case, an analysis of the details would leave us grasping for some way to make sense of it all. But whether they fell because they had enemies, or because of their artistic expression, or because they walked to the store at the wrong time, or because they were black or brown at the wrong time, it’s all senseless.

Many of their stories went untold in the media, but some of them made headlines. Did you try to defend what mattered to them? Did you take up the cause of assigning meaning to whatever got them killed? Did you change your Twitter avatar or Facebook profile picture to honor their loss?

Did you feel the need to take any action whatsoever to mourn their deaths?

If you average out the murder rate in Chicago last year, it breaks down to about one murder every nineteen hours. Seventeen of those people were killed by our own police. And yet, we didn’t pause every nineteen hours to lift up the names and work of those people. Why the disparity? And why is being robbed of the freedom to speak, and to move, and to live so much more noteworthy when those who died made their living as curators of racism?

And while it’s not often that people take up the cause of our fallen young people, I do want to acknowledge the work of one group of people who did just that in 2014. We Charge Genocide responded to the death of Dominique Franklin, who was brutally murdered by the Chicago police, by creating their own front in the fight against police brutality. They compiled data, took their findings to the United Nations, and convinced the UN to point an accusing finger at the Chicago police, bringing a call for police accountability to a world stage.

The We Charge Genocide Geneva delegation, and W.A.P.B. Geneva delegate Monica James held a community report back upon returning to Chicago. Photo: Kelly Hayes
The We Charge Genocide Geneva delegation and W.A.P.B. Geneva delegate Monica James at a community report back about their trip.
Photo: Kelly Hayes

That is what deriving meaning from loss looks like. And it didn’t happen because Dominique was perfect. Like any of us, he was flawed. And when he was pursued by police, he wasn’t doing anything heroic. Like many young people before him, he was attempting to steal a bottle of liquor. Petty theft isn’t an action we publicly praise in our society, but most would agree that it doesn’t warrant a death sentence.

Do you see how that works? Someone can do something you don’t feel the need to celebrate, and you can still believe that they had every right to live.

I could write all day about how our own culture embraces the same punitive attitudes that leave people everywhere ready to kill each other over harms large and small. I could spend the rest of the day explaining that most of the people reading this live in a country that more or less eats its own on the basis of such attitudes. I could talk about what I believe: that if we don’t create and embrace a more transformative means of addressing harm, we will be killing each other over cartoons, liquor bottles, and lost love until humanity meets its end. I could, but for now, I am going to step away from anything related to this topic, because I have so much work to do. And so do you.

Pictured here: one of the instances where a large group of people actually took the time to honor the memories of the young people our city lost last year. Each paper lily represents a person who fell to violence, and each of the colored paper lanterns represents an individual who was killed by the police. We Charge Genocide Geneva delegates were along the speakers at this event. Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Pictured here: The December 17th “For Our Fallen” memorial and protest was one of the rare instances where a large group of people actually took the time to honor the memories of those our city lost to violence last year. Each paper lily represents a person who fell to violence, and each of the colored paper lanterns represents an individual who was killed by Chicago police. We Charge Genocide Geneva delegates were among the speakers at this event.
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee