A Runoff Means Open Season on Mayor 1%

Tonight, activists, organizers, and change makers around Chicago are celebrating a surprising turn of events. A mayor who has dealt devastating blows to some of the most marginalized members of our city was unexpectedly held accountable for his actions, and has been pushed into an electoral runoff with his most popular opponent, Chuy Garcia. Organizing for electoral campaigns has never been part of my movement building praxis, and that’s not about to change, but I did vote for Chuy today, because sometimes, in defense of our lives, our children, and our sick and wounded, I believe we simply need to do whatever it takes to bring down a target.

I feel sure that this is one of those times.

So, what does a runoff mean for an organizer like me, whose work isn’t specifically focused on electoral politics? It means it’s open season on a mayor who has closed our clinics, shuttered our schools, refused to push back against police violence, and who has left our most vulnerable neighbors to twist in the wind. Many of us have organized against this mayor for years, and we are still fighting for those who have died, and for those who are yet living. Our respective battles have now been met with an unforeseen window of opportunity, as this mayor has never been more vulnerable.

In other words, it’s time to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

Mass arrest during the campaign to prevent Rahm Emanuel from closing 50 schools, 80% of which were located in black communities. The schools were subsequently closed, despite months of protest. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Mass arrest during the campaign to prevent Rahm Emanuel from closing 50 schools, 80% of which were located in black communities. The schools were subsequently closed, despite months of protest. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Those of you who follow my group’s work know that I have been sinking a lot of time and energy into the fight for reparations for CPD torture survivors. I have previously discussed my reasons for doing so, and will not dig deep into that reasoning here, except to say that justice is long overdue, and that we’ll never address the violence and abuse that plagues our communities until we hold this city accountable for the darkest deeds of its police. Granted, this would only be one potential victory in a much larger fight, but it’s an important one.

This campaign has never been closer to success than it has been in recent months, and this runoff only improves the situation for those waging this fight.

A recent living memorial for victims of police torture under Jon Burge lined an entire city block. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
A recent living memorial for victims of police torture under Jon Burge lined an entire city block. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

In short, for those of us doing grassroots work, news of this runoff is a memo that reads, “Game on.” It’s also a call to action to all those who believe in this cause who haven’t yet dug their heels in on this fight. This ordinance has the support of the UN, the majority of the City Council (although there’s a lot of sorting out to do there, with regard to aldermanic wins, losses, and runoffs), and the campaign for its passage has resonated with many Chicagoans. It has particularly struck a chord with members of communities that are deeply affected by Rahm’s crippling austerity measures and indifference to police violence. That should mean something to everyone in this city who believes that black and brown lives matter.

This mayor believed he could harm and ignore the most marginalized members of our communities without consequence by catering to his billionaire cronies. He believed that the multi-million dollar war chest he was handed by his wealthy out-of-town fans would mitigate the harm he had done here at home. He’s now been made to realize that things aren’t going to go his way that easily. So, let’s show him what the communities he doesn’t give a damn about are really made of. Let’s make sure he knows no peace in the next six weeks, and bring this haughty politician low. If tonight proves anything, it’s that we have that power.

I also want to take a moment to extend my most heartfelt thanks to everyone who has already joined this fight. Your efforts have made a difference, and will continue to do so. Many of us don’t work on electoral campaigns, but we still help drive the course of politics. When those politics are a matter of life and death for our friends, allies, and neighbors, I am a big believer in harm reduction. Together, I know we can reduce the harm in our communities, and bring more of our allies and potential allies together to form a united front. I believe in us, and I believe that we will win.

For updates on events and organizing related to the reparations ordinance, follow the hashtag #RahmRepNow on Twitter.

A Message in Motion: Reparations Now!

A group of young women who joined protestors at the 95th Street Station after hearing organizers explain the reparations ordinance. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
A group of young women who joined protestors at the 95th Street Station after hearing organizers explain the reparations ordinance. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Last night, a group of activists and allies took to the subway in Chicago to make some noise about this week’s election and the much discussed reparations ordinance. The ordinance, which would provide care and compensation to individuals tortured by Chicago police under Jon Burge, will not be on the ballot, but the man who has prevented it from getting a hearing before the City Council will be: Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The majority of the City Council supports the ordinance, but in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, such details aren’t really relevant. Emanuel has never seen police torture victims, or other victims of police violence, as a political priority. Given this mayor’s overall treatment of communities of color – shuttering dozens of schools and clinics in black communities – his failure to prioritize the safety and dignity of those most affected by police violence is unsurprising.

Chicago Light Brigade member Cairá Lee Conner discusses the reparations ordinance with commuters on the Red Line. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Chicago Light Brigade member Cairá Lee Conner discusses the reparations ordinance with commuters on the Red Line. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

The horrors of the Burge years aren’t the kind of thing Rahm Emanuel factors into his day to day, high powered cronyism. Addressing the harm done to people of color who were coerced into confessions, after being held at gunpoint, suffocated, terrorized, and subjected to genital electrocution, doesn’t put money in any millionaire’s pocket. It doesn’t feed any ongoing scheme pick our pockets as we travel through the city, and it doesn’t privatize any public services. It’s also a fairly disturbing and complicated subject, and therefore not the kind of feel-good sound byte opportunity that a mayor up for re-election might hope for.

In truth, this mayor probably never had what it took to do right by these victims. Emanuel knows their stories, and he knows that police torture in Chicago didn’t end when Jon Burge was shut down. He knows that rather than receiving care and compensation, Burge’s victims watched as their city spent $20 million to defend the man who tortured them.  He knows that the United Nations Committee against Torture has called on Chicago to reign in its ongoing police violence, and to pass this ordinance. And he knows that while he has brushed this issue aside, a culture of state violence, intimidation, and impunity has not only continued to fester in our city, on our streets and in our police interrogation rooms, but has actually spread beyond the borders of our country, tying our city to the international horror story of torture at Guantanamo Bay.

Last, week Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian told the story of Richard Zuley, a Chicago detective who tortured suspects in Chicago for years before he and his tactics were exported to the interrogation rooms of Guantanamo Bay. As I read Ackerman’s report, I thought about the Senate torture report, and the public disgust that it provoked. I wondered how many Americans realized that some of these tactics were developed in their own backyards, and used to extract false confessions from their own neighbors. In any event, Zuley is just one example of a reality our current mayor will never acknowledge: from Chicago to Guantanamo, agents of the state are not required to treat people of color as human beings.

Another commuter rejects Rahm Emanuel in support of the reparations ordinance. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Another commuter rejects Rahm Emanuel in support of the reparations ordinance. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

A politician who refuses to address such realities is, at best, complicit in the horrors perpetrated against people of color. Change can’t come without a reckoning, and power rarely holds itself accountable.

So what does accountability look like? Many of us will be voting against Rahm on Tuesday. Electoral politics is not my area, but I will be showing up, as I hope many of you will, because this mayor is an enemy of the marginalized, and I believe that his reign over our city must be challenged. But an election only lasts a day, and regardless of the outcome, there will be more to build in the days that follow.

Movement building work doesn’t really have a slow season. In good times, we join hands, celebrate, and create, and in dark times, we lock arms and live in resistance. We are aware that even when we aren’t staring down the Rahm Emanuels of the world, we are still staring down a system that devalues and dehumanizes us. So, we fight.

Last night, I saw some of that fight. I saw strangers connecting with my friends and allies on train cars and el platforms, telling their stories, and sharing their hope. I saw people gladly hold a mock ballot expressing support for reparations, and rejecting Rahm Emanuel. I saw people fill the subway with song and poetry and chants. One young woman, who we had never met, asked if we would chant for her fallen partner. I will never forget the expression on her face as a train car full of people she’d never met lifted up the name of her lost love, yelling, “JUSTICE FOR JOSH! JUSTICE FOR JOSH!”

This is who we are, and this is what comforts me before elections, after elections, and in the long in between where most of our work happens.

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

So, if you’re showing up to vote on Tuesday, I just might see you at the polls. Either way, I hope I’ll see you in the streets.

Chicago Torture: Freedom for Jon Burge Can’t Be the Last Chapter

Torture victim Aaron Patterson was always maintained that he was suffocated with a plastic bag until he confessed to a crime he did not commit. Days after his confession, this message was found scraped into a metal bench at the police station where he had been questioned.
Torture victim Aaron Patterson has always maintained that he was suffocated with a plastic bag until he confessed to a crime he did not commit. Days after his confession, this message was found scraped into a metal bench at the police station where he had been questioned.

Freedom came early today for former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. It was expected that Burge would begin his parole tomorrow, on Valentine’s Day, but it appears the system would rather not attend to such matters on a Saturday. So, rather than make Burge wait it out through a long weekend, the system cut this confirmed torturer yet another break, and gave him a head start on his new life.

And so it goes.

As an abolitionist, I do not expect justice from carceral solutions. But like anyone who values black and brown lives, I am always pained by the disparities that manifest themselves within this system, not because indictments or prison sentences heal societal wounds, but because the disproportionate administration of carceral penalties is a constant reminder that, under this system, some lives matter, while others are deemed utterly disposable.

The reparations ordinance that would provide relief to Jon Burge’s victims has not been passed, and yet his new life has begun. I cannot begin to imagine the pain that Burge’s victims and their families are feeling tonight, knowing that 23 years after Burge’s reign of terror came to an end, and less than four years after he received any punishment for his crimes, this city still hasn’t seen fit to afford them any measure of justice. Burge will apparently live out his days in sunny Florida, and collect a city pension, while his victims haven’t been afforded any of the compensation or comfort that their own recovery would necessitate.

Victims tortured by Burge and his “midnight crew” were electrocuted, suffocated, beaten, humiliated, and psychologically terrorized, and yet this city has made no significant effort to make them whole again. Our mayor, who publicly agrees that something should be done for these victims, would prefer to table the matter for further consideration. That consideration has lasted decades. Meanwhile, Burge wasn’t even forced to sit through a long weekend to wait out his time in a halfway house.

(File that contrast away for later use, the next time someone tells you that we don’t live in a racist system.)

One of the reasons I have played an active role in supporting this ordinance is that it is not simply about monetary compensation. I would support any effort to secure financial compensation for Burge’s victims, but I have actively thrown myself into this effort because we are talking about much more than that. We are talking about embedding the truth of what happened into our public schools, memorializing the harm done, and giving Burge’s victims some of the tools they need to heal and move on.

According to Joey Mogul, an attorney at The People’s Law Office who has worked on behalf of the torture survivors for years, “The fact that the ordinance calls for the creation of a community center on the South Side of Chicago alone is valuable, particularly in light of the closing of the mental health clinics here in Chicago. The fact that the ordinance provides for psychological services, education, vocational training to all of those directly affected in an attempt to help them all heal and develop sustainable coping strategies is valuable to several communities.”

Scratched into a metal bench by torture victim Aaron Patterson: "Aaron 4/30 I lie about murders / Police threaten me with violence / Slapped and suffocated me with plastic."
Scratched into a metal bench by torture victim Aaron Patterson: “Aaron 4/30 I lie about murders / Police threaten me with violence / Slapped and suffocated me with plastic.”

This day passing without justice for Burge’s victims is heartbreaking, but the story isn’t over. Chicagoans still have the power to write another chapter. Tomorrow, community members will rally at The Chicago Temple to demand passage of the reparations ordinance. We will hold a People’s Hearing to represent the hearing that this ordinance has been denied, in spite of having the support of the majority of the City Council. Afterward, we will collectively create imagery to launch on social media to further this message.

Truth and justice are decades behind schedule, but they are still within reach. These victims are closer than they’ve ever been to getting some measure of justice, but righting this wrong will require us all to stand up. Your hands, your hearts, and your voices are needed. Justice needs you. Help us lift up the names of these victims, the truth of their struggle, and demand the future be written differently than the past.

We must hold this system accountable, heal our wounded, and build a future where harms such as these become more and more unthinkable with each passing year. We can do that, but to see it through, we’ll need each other.

It starts here.

It starts now.

Let’s make sure tomorrow isn’t the same as yesterday.

At Rahm Emanuel’s Doorstep: On Reparations, Police Torture, and Moving On

Outside Rahm Emanuel's house demanding reparations for CPD torture survivors. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Outside Rahm Emanuel’s house demanding reparations for CPD torture survivors. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Last night, members of The Chicago Light Brigade, Project NIA, and Chicago Torture Justice Memorials gathered with friends and allies outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house to demand reparations for acts of torture committed by former police Commander Jon Burge and his “midnight crew.” An ordinance that would provide $20 million in compensation to Burge’s victims has the support of the majority of the city council, but as a matter of political convenience, the measure has been left to languish in the Finance Committee.

It is no secret to anyone involved in this fight, from victims to activists to politicians, that with the mayor’s support, this ordinance would move forward.

The torture that occurred under Jon Burge did not happen on the current mayor’s watch. Like many issues that arise before a mayor’s time, it was left at his doorstep. And each day that he’s been in office, Rahm Emanuel has stepped over this issue, apparently hoping that if he simply ignored it long enough, the horrors of the Burge years would simply be forgotten. So, with his eyes averted, he has attended to his own priorities, and ignored the suffering of those affected. When Emanuel was finally cornered on the subject of reparations for these survivors in 2013, he said that Burge’s crimes were a stain on the city’s reputation, but that it was time to “move on.”

It’s the idea of moving on that I want to address here.

People of color who want some measure of justice for harms done are frequently told to “move on.” Whether the wrongs being discussed are centuries old, decades old, or mere months old, the response remains the same: It happened. Move on. Whether you are talking about slavery, Ferguson, or justice for CPD torture survivors, white people in positions of power have their own priorities to attend to, and they would really rather you just moved on.

But for victims of police torture who were beaten and suffocated with plastic typewriter covers, and whose genitals were electrically shocked until they told police what they wanted to hear, there is no moving on without justice. I will not write a detailed list here of all of the acts of torture and terror perpetrated by the midnight crew. Those stories have been written. But I do want to address what it means to ask someone who has suffered a horrible wrong to simply “move on.”

For individuals who cannot pursue financial redress in the courts, because the statute of limitations has run out, or because they were bullied into accepting a minor settlement while still in prison, some monetary compensation would be a good first step toward moving on. $20 million dollars may sound like a lot of money, but considering the scope of the harms done, and the number of people affected, this number is beyond reasonable. It is also the amount that the city deigned to spend defending Jon Burge’s reign of terror in the courts. It only seems reasonable that the city should invest as much in this ordinance as it did in defending a man who committed acts of torture on its behalf.

The proposed ordinance would also provide all torture survivors and their families with tuition-free education at City Colleges; create a center on the South Side of Chicago that would provide psychological counseling, health care services and vocational training to those affected by law enforcement torture and abuse; and require Chicago Public Schools to teach about these cases and sponsor the construction of public torture memorials. It would also require the city’s leaders to issue a formal apology to those who were tortured and their communities.

If you want a formula for truth, reconciliation, and moving on, Mr. Mayor, I believe you’ve been handed one.

Next week, we will be presented with another example of what moving on looks like. Jon Burge, who perpetrated and oversaw the torture of those now seeking justice, will begin his parole. For Jon Burge, moving on means freedom and a city pension. While many of his victims remain incarcerated, and while survivors of his torture continue to cry out for compensation and a broader acknowledgment of what was done to them, Burge will move on, at the tax payer’s expense.

Burge’s parole begins on February 14, 2015. For Rahm Emanuel to allow that day to pass without having first delivered justice to Burge’s victims is unthinkable, and he must be made to understand as much.

For that reason, we gathered last night outside Rahm’s home. After the many meetings, petitions, and protests that have been organized behind this demand, we decided it was time to bring our message to Emanuel’s house, to remind him that he cannot ignore what’s been left at his doorstep. It is in his power to call on Alderman Ed Burke to give the ordinance a hearing, and to ask the city council to give the measure their full support. He has the power see to it that victims are able to do what he insists the whole city must. He has the power to allow Burge’s victims to move on. And until he does, this campaign for truth and justice will continue to escalate.

After holding up their message directly in front of Rahm Emanuel's home, activists crossed the street to make sure the mayor could clearly read the light banner from his window. Lights went on at the front of the house during the protest. Rahm Emanuel was reportedly home at the time. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
After holding up their message directly in front of Rahm Emanuel’s home, activists crossed the street to make sure the mayor could clearly read the light banner from his window. Lights went on at the front of the house during the protest. Rahm Emanuel was reportedly home at the time. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Guest Post – Challenging Our Visions of Abolition: An Open Letter to the Students of Village Leadership Academy

The Village Leadership Academy students marching from their school to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center on January 15, 2015. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Village Leadership Academy students marching from their school to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center on January 15, 2015. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

It’s an honor to bring you this guest post by my friend Maya Schenwar. Maya is the editor-in-chief of Truthout and the author of “Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.”

Before January 15, my associations with the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center were memories I wish I didn’t have.

I remember when my sister was locked up there at 15—the sharp weight that hit my stomach when I realized definitively that the “Audy Home,” as it was called casually, was really a jail.

I remember a letter I received a couple of years later from an incarcerated 13-year-old girl, in which the first line read, “I feel like my life ended the second I stepped in the door.”

I remember a press conference I attended as a young reporter, in which the youth jail’s superintendent announced that big changes were coming: They’d soon provide incarcerated kids with pajamas and pillows. He said the items would provide much-needed “comfort to a child who is scared and alone.” Authorities may have decided that the mostly Black and Brown youth behind the jail’s walls were worthy of pillows—but they apparently did not see them as worthy of the basic right to exist in the world.

But since January 15, I’ve been blessed with some beautiful new memories. These memories make me believe, deep down, that the youth jail’s days are numbered—and that abolition, more broadly, is happening. And that is thanks to you.

I now remember your signs, as I walked toward the Reclaim MLK Day rally: “Freedom,” and “The universe is on our side,” and the Assata Shakur quote: “If I know anything at all, it is that a wall is just a wall. It can be broken down.” Plus, of course, the phrase that became the rallying cry of the evening: “Free us all.”

These messages contained a sureness, an energy, a knowledge that abolition is rising.

I now remember the chanting, on the path to the jail, of the names of Black people who have recently died at the hands of the state (including those of whom are still not chanted as often as others): “We do this for Tanisha.” “We do this for Rekia.” “We do this for Damo.”

Death is silence. Prison is silence, too. These chants were refusing to let the silence set in.

I now remember the messages of the youth inside the jail that day, written in soap on the windows: “I love you,” and, “Free us!” And the crowd shouting back, led by you: “We love you!” “Free us all!” This acknowledgement—that freedom and love are inextricably tied, much as prison tries to crush them both—felt like such a central truth of abolition.

The hope and inspiration in the air that night wasn’t just about ending the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (though that was certainly part of it). What I heard that moved me so deeply was a broader incarnation of justice: One filled with love and life. When Kaleb Autman said, “We want justice to be served,” he defined that justice as the end of the criminalization of Black and Brown youth—and also an educational system that lifts up and supports youth of color and more jobs in Black and Brown communities. He described a wide-open future—and a wide-open present; a present where anything can happen. That, too, is what abolition is about.

Village Leadership Academy Students deliver composition books they helped collect in the run up to their Reclaim MLK event. (Photo: Holly Krig)
Village Leadership Academy Students deliver composition books to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. The students worked with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and members of the Chicago Light Brigade to collect the books in the run up to their Reclaim MLK event. (Photo: Holly Krig)

At an event last week geared toward discussing how to talk with children about incarceration, Project NIA director Mariame Kaba (aptly dubbed a “high priestess” by Malcolm London at the rally) mentioned that sometimes, it is a lot easier to talk with young people about abolishing prison and policing than it is with adults. This is because, often, conversations with adults are riddled with doubts and gripes and fears about what’s possible. Adults think they know the world and its limits. They think they are being “realistic,” when really they are caging themselves in a trapped version of what “freedom” could be. Youth often know that something larger and better and freer is possible.

Last year, I wrote a book about the deadening effects of the prison-industrial complex, and the need for abolition. I wish I would’ve written it a year later. This is because I wish I could have included the recent work of We Charge Genocide and the Village Leadership Academy students here in Chicago: youth-led work that is raising the stakes for what we ask for, when we ask for a freer world. The work that you are doing is not only pushing this movement forward, but also challenging and opening up our visions of what abolition looks like.

You have reminded me that the goal at the heart of this movement, to “free us all,” is wholly possible—and that we should say nothing less.

In love and solidarity,

Maya Schenwar