To Baltimore with Love: Chicago’s Freedom Dreams

Black Youth Project 100 organizer Breanna Champion leads a moment of silence as hundreds of protestors shut down 55th Street on Chicago’s South Side Tuesday night. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

As protests continued in Baltimore on Tuesday, hundreds of Chicagoans rallied and marched in solidarity with those who’ve taken to the streets in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police. Local organizers passionately defended Baltimore’s protestors, who have repeatedly been characterized as “thugs and criminals” by both politicians and media figures. Speakers also drew connections between the death of Freddie Gray and a number of community traumas in their own city, including the death of Rekia Boyd, and the recent acquittal of her killer, Chicago police detective Dante Servin. I was able to speak to two of the event’s organizers about their intentions in planning the event, and the larger struggle their groups are currently engaged in. Page May is a prison abolitionist and an organizer with We Charge Genocide. Aislinn Sol is an organizer with both We Charge Genocide and Black Lives Matter Chicago. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the intended message of Tuesday night’s event in Chicago?

Aislinn Sol:
The message was to send a physical and visible show of support to the protesters of Baltimore and reiterate that this fight to hold police accountable, to end police killings of our people, is a national fight.

A child sits beside 111 black pinwheels, planted in the ground outside Chicago police headquarters. Activists arranged the display to show solidarity with protestors in Baltimore, where police have killed 111 people since 2010. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

With all the media coverage and social media attention the protests have gotten, what do you, as Black organizers resisting police violence, feel is being lost in the shuffle?

Aislinn Sol: The most important factor continually lost in the mainstream reporting is that the lives of Black people have been destroyed, battered and taken as a result of rampant police violence. It’s now being estimated that Black people are being killed by police every 8 hours. That proves that justice is not found in the police system in this country and that if we want justice, if we want to end police violence and end a system which protects police violence with impunity, then we must seize the opportunity by grabbing justice at its helms, and creating that justice ourselves.

Page May: Within the media, and even within some social media circles, I’ve noticed an emphasis being placed on the question of, “what are we going to do to restore trust between communities and police?” When in reality, there has never been a moment when Black people and police have had any kind of harmony or peace. Police are, in fact, an example of anti-Blackness manifested. I am part of a movement that I think is actually about building up and affirming a collective distrust of police, in order to question the nature and inevitability of policing, and to begin to imagine an alternative to policing.

Police fail to contain the crowd as the march spills out into the street Tuesday night on Chicago's South Side. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Police fail to contain the crowd as the march spills out into the street Tuesday night on Chicago’s South Side. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

How do these events fall into the larger historical moment we are living in? How do you see these events effecting the Black Lives Matter movement?

Aislinn Sol: Mike Siviwe Elliot of Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression made the connection at the rally that slave patrols and the current police both operate similarly in that their role is to occupy and suppress our communities. There is a direct link between the establishment of professional police systems in the United States with the patrolling systems that maintained the business of human bondage in chattel slavery. That direct link reveals the historic relationship of the state to Black people as one of containment by force and oppression, from enforcing forced labor through legislated state terror that included marching over millions of people by foot in coffles and chains from the northeast to the western parts of this country, to the school to prison pipeline today, and the current epidemic of mass incarceration and systemic police terror and killings now.

Palestinian Activist Rasmea Odeh holds a sign outside police headquarters on Tuesday. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Palestinian Activist Rasmea Odeh holds a sign outside police headquarters on Tuesday. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Page May: I think it’s important to understand what brings us here, and to understand that people have always been pushing back against these oppressions. And if we understand that the past is never closed, that allows us to, first of all, have a deeper and more complicated analysis of what is wrong, and also  inherit all the momentum of our past ancestor’s struggles. It allows us to understand that we are fighting the same fight – the abolition of social death – that Martin Luther King was fighting for, that Ella Baker was fighting for, that enslaved Black people were fighting for. When we start to recognize the continuity of our struggles, I think what we do means more. Because we’re not just fighting for Dante Servin to get fired. This is one of many, many days of struggle that Black people have been engaging with for centuries that are about a much larger fight for the complete transformation of society.  It’s a fight for a society that recognizes Black humanity, that actually re-imagines humanity, in a lot of ways.

Organizer Page May reminds the crowd to honor Black women killed by police, as well as Black men. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Organizer Page May reminds the crowd to honor Black women killed by police, as well as Black men. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

What should non Black allies be doing right now to get on the right side of this moment in history?

Page May: Stop trusting the police. Show up for Black led events and actions and use non Black institutional power to challenge the police. Recognize that police do serve white people in real ways, and decline those services.

If you could write out next steps, here in Chicago, what would they look like?

Page May: One of the things I am most excited about right now is the Radical Ed Project. I think this is so essential because people are outraged, and they’re ready, but we need the skills. If we don’t do this work with the knowledge, that is out there and exists, we can wind up making vulnerable people even more vulnerable. I think we have a responsibility as organizers to be sharing this knowledge, and building up the knowledge of others in our communities, so they feel equipped to be the leaders of their own events, and the sharers of their own skills. To build a network of people who can share these skills – I think that’s so critical.

A 14 year old poet name Jalen performs outside police headquarters before a crowd of hundreds. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
A 14 year old poet named Jalen performs outside police headquarters before a crowd of hundreds. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Another thing I am really excited about in the coming months is working around stop and frisk here in Chicago. Because I see it, time and time again, the way we abandon our young people in our fights against police violence. We’re talking about twelve year olds getting stopped by police, and most of the people who are killed by police are young. We need to make sure we’re centering around young people, so in working on this campaign for an ordinance addressing stop and frisk, some of us are focusing in on bringing in high school students. Making sure they know this is happening, making sure they know what it might mean for them. We want them to have a chance to give feedback, and to know about how to have a role in the movement, if that’s something they want.

In this struggle against Black death and the police state, what does winning look like?

Page May: Some days, I think it’s the complete abolition of carceral systems and social death, but that’s huge, and that takes generations, right? Other days, I think winning just looks like Black, Brown, and Indigenous people having hope, and having a love for themselves and their people that’s strong enough that they’re willing to fight for their people. On the hard days, that’s the most I can hope for – that we can keep creating spaces where people feel hopeful, where people feel like they matter, even if the world isn’t ready to live up to that. We need to inhabit our history, but we also need to inhabit our dreams.

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

Flowers Between the Bars

Skill sharer Cairá Lee Conner assists elementary school students who are learning to make protest art. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Skill sharer Cairá Lee Conner assists elementary school students who are learning to make protest art. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

This morning, I left my apartment with four bags slung over my shoulders and caught a ride across town to help lead a workshop at the Village Leadership Academy. It’s Saturday, and I certainly didn’t want to get out of bed. I actually haven’t wanted to be around people much at all this week, but I knew this afternoon would bring me some healing, and it did. And even if this feeling passes within a day, I will still be grateful for it, and grateful that I am able to do work that can make me feel this way. Because right now, the world’s a little brighter, a little more colorful, and a little less flat than it was when I left my apartment this morning.

Today, The Radical Education Project led an afternoon-long event for elementary students called “Storytelling in Action.” The day focused on understanding campaigns and direct actions as storytelling exercises, and included an exploration of these ideas in the stories that the young people in attendance were passionate about. Three of our young organizers also led an interactive lesson on the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement. To give the day an artful element, we worked with participants to create protest props that told a story. For me, seeing the children present assemble those props was everything, and I needed it.

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

We were looking to potentially support two actions with the props, because there are two deeply important events in Chicago in May that touch on some similar themes. On May 6, organizers are hopeful that the reparations ordinance for survivors of police torture will be passed by Chicago’s City Council. The ordinance is an extraordinary document, so transformative in nature that it’s only hope of being written into law was the momentum of a movement. In recent months, that bold fight found its momentum, and a victory few thought possible is now within reach. On May 20, activists will honor and celebrate the life of Dominique Franklin, whose murder at the hands of the Chicago police moved his friends and their supporters to create the organization We Charge Genocide. Both of these stories begin with tragic acts of state violence, and both have demonstrated the power of transformation. Rather than giving into despair, organizers, torture survivors, and those who lost Damo have all shown us how to build power and community from a place of tragedy.

Torture and murder at the hands of police are an ongoing reality in this country. In Chicago, such occurrences barely register as news. Some years ago, a young Black woman I shared a jail cell with told me that she’s never discouraged, because she never expects anything to change, and is therefore never disappointed. I understand that response to harm. Hardening and shutting down – the total evacuation of hope. I get it. I’ve nearly been there myself. But I am always grateful for the people who teach me, and re-teach me, that we can rise out of the darkest hours of our darkest days to heal the wounded, heal each other, and create life giving fronts of resistance.

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

The looms the young people made are cut from cardboard. They were painted black and woven with yarn. The black cardboard and yarn represent a jail cell – a universal symbol of state violence. The flowers students wove into the yarn represent all of us – the resistors, the organizers, those who survive the violence of the state, and those who support the survivors – and the communities, achievements and relationships that we have built in struggle. They represent the changes that will be brought by the ordinance when that fight is won – including forcing the truth of Chicago Police torture under Jon Burge into the CPS curriculum. The flowers emerging from between the bars are what we build in spite of the state, and in defense of our own humanity. They are a manifestation of what my friend Mariame Kaba would call the discipline of hope.

As a person who struggles with depression and trauma, hope isn’t something I can ever afford to lose. But as an activist, I’m rarely able to root my hopes in any short term gain. It’s a marathon, we’re told, not a sprint. But as someone who has done a fair amount of long distance running, I’ve always thought there was something funny about that comparison – the idea that people mean it as a form of encouragement. Anyone who has ever run more than 15 miles in a stretch can recognize the slow signs of collapse that come when you’ve exceeded your limits. That moment when the endorphins wear away, and you can feel every jarring motion. Your body becomes not only heavy, but wobbly. Balance requires concentration, and you begin to feel as though you could trip over your own feet. I know that feeling, both in running and in organizing, and I find the comparison laughably disheartening at best. Because I get tired. I get very, very tired. And I’ve been tired this week.

But today I got to spend the afternoon with young people who were excited to talk about protest. Some of them had never had a real conversation about the subject before in their lives, and I heard them use words like “inspired” and “energized.” I got to watch them create art to send, with love, to the front lines of struggle and celebration. I saw them build.

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

I am more grateful than I can say for those young people, for their families, and for the educators who made space for my friends and I to learn and build with their students today. We learned as much as they did, and possibly much more. We will take the lessons of the day and use them to improve the workbook we are developing about direct action. We test drove the first draft today and I couldn’t be more pleased with how well it went. Our first outing with this new tool was a small one, but once we’ve developed the workbook and the lesson plan a bit more, we will be hosting another installment of this workshop, and I look forward to it with a very disciplined sense of hope.

The Radical Education Project is a collaborative project organized by We Charge Genocide and The Chicago Light Brigade that aims to de-consolidate resistance building skills in our communities.

On Surviving

This post is going to fall short of what it should be, because I’m tired. I’m tired, and frustrated, and not at all the person I want to be this week.

And I don’t really write poetry anymore, but in thinking about writing something for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, my mind kept rewinding to the days when I would pound out my pain at the keyboard, trying to create some semblance of art from the mess. So, for whatever it’s worth, these are my words for this moment and this month, and for everyone who survives.

On Surviving

You can’t say it’s over, she reminded me
You can’t say, “You survived,” because we have to keep doing it
all over again
every day
We have to get up and survive

Just like we have to keep brushing our teeth
and washing our hair
Because every day we have to choose
to live
to try, to breathe, to trust
even ourselves
Because trust isn’t something that happens of its own accord

Not again or anymore

The violation of our bodies is compared
to everything
To deforestation and unpaid debt
To stolen ideas and the fucking rent
The denial of my humanity, the interruption of my safety
The theft of my physical agency
is everything
and therefore nothing
to those who use “rape” as another word for “unfair”

And no
You are not being raped by your student loans

It’s a word that has many meanings
For those who’ve never had to own it
to admit that you’ve lost control
to admit that it’s not your fault
Because if it were, you could reclaim self and safety
So quickly
you could just never do that thing again
that “why the fuck did I” moment
that thing on which we hang the unimaginable
like a coat on a rack

But there are no rewrites
And whether you carry the memory close to your chest
or in some loose corner of your backpack
or on your sleeve
You are not the property of your past

You do not belong to the memory of harm

You are surviving
every day
even when your toothbrush is heavy
and interaction is intolerable
You are still choosing
life and air

And there can be days when that’s all you do
and that’s alright
because those days are yours
those days
and the rest of whatever life you choose to write
Because you took back the pen and wrote the next scene
and you haven’t put it down

You are still here
You are still writing

And you are surviving

Reparations in Chicago: The Homestretch

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

Yesterday was a historic day in Chicago. The movement for reparations for survivors of police torture is on the brink of a tremendous victory, as Chicago’s City Council now stands ready to pass the first legislation in U.S. history that provides reparations, including financial compensation, for police violence.

Afters years of campaigning, and months of heavy protest, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has now signed off on a version of the ordinance. With the mayor’s backing, passage of the ordinance, which already had the support of the majority of the City Council, seems highly likely.

While the negotiated version of the ordinance provides less compensation to individuals tortured under Jon Burge than was originally demanded, it retains much of what led people like myself to join this fight. It remains, as organizer Mariame Kaba has said, “a transformative document.”

According to Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, the final version of the ordinance will include: “a formal apology for the torture; specialized counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and their family members on the South side; free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for survivors and  family members; a history lesson about the Burge torture cases taught in Chicago Public schools; a permanent public memorial to the survivors; and it sets aside $5.5 million for a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims that will allow the Burge torture survivors with us today to receive financial compensation for the torture they endured.”

(Image: Project NIA)
(Image: Project NIA)

Last night, I had the privilege of sitting in a room with organizers and community members who have spent months, and in some cases years, working to pass this ordinance. Organizers with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Project NIA, Amnesty International, We Charge Genocide, The Chicago Light Brigade, and unaffiliated members of the community shared a meal and heard each other’s thoughts on the day’s progress. Having only joined the fight myself last winter, I was grateful to share space with so many devoted change makers last night, and to hear their reflections on how far this fight has come. In listening to those who had waged this fight the longest, I noticed a recurring theme: the importance of naming harm.

Flint Taylor, of the People’s Law Office talked about the early days of the fight against Burge, when he was working to defend those who had been charged and imprisoned after being tortured by Burge’s “midnight crew.” He explained that there was significant push back against referring to what had been done to the victims as “torture.” Despite the ghastly nature of the harms done to the prisoners, including near suffocation and repeated genital electrocution, “People wanted to call it police brutality,” Taylor explained. “But we knew we needed to call it what it was. We knew we needed to call it torture.” Taylor likened the debate over referring to what happened to the survivors as torture to the debate over whether the ordinance could be referred to as “reparations,” back when the campaign for this form of restitution began. “I have the same respect for calling this reparations as I did for calling what happened torture,” he said.

These ideas repeatedly emerged, as people who built early support for the ordinance talked about how they were told the word “reparations” would alienate a mainstream audience. As I listened, I thought about why these debates over words had played out the way they did. It is easier for people who experience a significant amount of privilege in this society to concede that police can at times be “brutal,” than it is to acknowledge that torture is carried out in their names, in their backyards, by agents of their own government. It is likewise easier to acknowledge the need for a “settlement” for harms done, than to imagine that one lives in a society that owes actual reparations for the oppressive conditions it has imposed.

In this country, the word “reparations” is a direct challenge to white supremacy. In Chicago, it is a demand that the city be held accountable for the actions of the greatest purveyors of white supremacy within its boundaries: its own police. It is no coincidence that Burge’s detectives specifically targeted Black men, and it is not surprising that not one of them was ever brought to trial for the acts of torture they committed. Both the anti-blackness that informed their crimes, and the torturous nature of their actions were consistent with the origins and overall practice of policing in this country.

It is worth remembering, and in fact should never be forgotten, that after Jon Burge was fired, amid torture allegations, the Fraternal Order of Police attempted to create a parade float in his honor.

Thus, to pretend that these events were extraordinary, and an affront to the norms of our culture, denies the past as well as the present. To give either the harms or the remedies mundane names dulls a discourse that should, in fact, be painful. The realization of what is normalized in this country should ring as harshly as the word “torture” in the ears of those who have chosen not to hear the voices of the afflicted. Those who make excuses for police, talking about the “split second” they have to make decisions about their own safety, should be confronted, in very real terms, with what the disposability of Black and Brown lives looks like in the United States.

One of the groups I work with is an organization called We Charge Genocide. As a young group, that has existed for almost a year now, we have likewise encountered push back over word choice. People applaud the work our group has done in the community. They applaud our data collection efforts, and praise the young people we sent to the United Nations to present a shadow report on police violence in Chicago. But even as the United Nations Committee Against Torture agreed with our findings, and pointed an accusing finger at the Chicago police for their racist, abusive practices, some have chosen to focus on our name, and argue with us about what the word “genocide” really means.

People often resist words that disturb their peace, but those who are denied peace are often armed with little more than words as they resist oppression. So, even when it meant a more uphill battle, the organizers and attorneys behind the ordinance chose the word that summed up what was actually needed: reparations. And in doing so, they have given the proper name to a historic moment.

As someone who has been primarily involved in the action building aspect of the campaign in recent months, I am in awe of those who have waged this struggle for years, in courtrooms, in meetings, and in countless spaces where the voices of those most affected by this violence were lifted and heard. Chicago Torture Justice Memorials has created a blueprint for this kind of effort, and all who believe in justice are in their debt today. I am also more inspired than I can say by the resolve of the survivors, like Darrell Cannon, Anthony Holmes, and Mark Clements, who have consistently found the strength to tell their stories, not simply for their own sakes, but because they believe the world can do better. As Mario Venegas, a survivor of torture under Pinochet in Chile, observed last night, “It is very difficult to contain yourself, when you talk the way they talked today. To tell those stories.” Mario added that listening to the torture survivors testify in City Hall brought back memories of his own torture in Chile, where some of the same techniques, including electrocution, were used.

Mario went on to stress how important it is that we show up in numbers on May 6, 2015, when the ordinance comes to a vote, and I couldn’t agree more. This victory is not yet official, but even when it becomes so, the fight will be far from over. While attempts to co-opt this struggle are already underway, the real danger at hand is that this progress could be seen as a final chapter.

This is not a happy ending.

This is not closure.

This is a crack in the wall of the establishment.

It is an opening, where grassroots organizers and torture survivors have forced truth and some amount of justice into the workings of the system.

By forcing a major city to pay reparations for police torture, activists have blasted a hole in the illusions of those who would ignore victims of state violence. But a victory that includes writing the truth of police torture into our public school curriculum requires a great deal of follow through. Who will write that history, and in whose voice will these stories be told? To drive this fight forward, and to continue the work of transformation, we must take what strength we can from our wins, as they are few and far between, but we must also treat moments like this one as beginnings, rather than endings.

I’ll see you all May 6th, at City Hall, when we come together to pass this thing. And after that, I’ll see you in the streets.

Chicago organizers raising a glass to the struggle, and to the day's progress. (Photo: Brit Schulte)
Chicago organizers raising a glass to the struggle, and to the day’s progress. (Photo: Brit Schulte)

We Do This for Rekia

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Chicago Light Brigade action at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

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! – BYP 100 protest chant

This week, the trial of Dante Servin began in Chicago. Of the many people who are shuffled through our courts each week, Servin has the unlikely distinction of being a Chicago police detective who was actually charged with a crime after gunning down a Black woman. No reasonable person could question the egregiousness of Servin’s behavior. Upset about the amount of noise he claimed a group of young people were making in a nearby park, Servin recklessly fired over his shoulder at a crowd while sitting in his car. Rekia Boyd died less than 24 hours after being struck in the head by one of the five rounds Servin fired.

It is important to note that even these circumstances, by themselves, would not have been enough to bring Servin to trial. It has taken years of advocacy and struggle on the part of Rekia’s family, and their supporters, to bring this matter to the brink of some legal resolution. Their dedication in pursuing this case has been unwavering, but even with the facts and the law on their side, they have entered this stage of the legal process knowing that facts and the law are rarely enough to convict a police officer. All the same, they remain steadfast in their commitment to taking their fight, waged in Rekia’s name, the last mile of the way.

Not long before the trial began, some of us spoke to Rekia’s brother, Martinez, about how his family was coping, and how we could best honor their struggle. “My sister was murdered,” he said. “Murdered right behind the detective’s house. And the only thing that they can tell us is that she’s innocent. It hurts every time we talk about it because we miss her so much. She was such a lively and vibrant spirit.”

Yesterday, I read a piece by my friend Mariame Kaba, who had attended a rally for Rekia earlier in the day, just before Servin’s trial began. Her words struck a painful chord with me, and with many who organize around issues of police violence:

“There is in fact a hierarchy of oppression as Black women, Black trans and gender nonconforming people have even less access to limited sympathy than do cis heterosexual Black men. To deny this is to be a liar. When we call out ‘who will keep our sisters?’ too often we are greeted with one or two lone voices in the wilderness but usually with silence.”

As an indigenous woman, whose murdered sisters are far too easily forgotten, and as someone who worries daily for my Black friends in this city, I felt those words deeply. I wanted to reach out to Mariame, and offer her some words of comfort. I wanted to say something to comfort us all, as we continue to process so much violence and resist so much forgetting. But I could not. If there were any words for such a moment, they weren’t mine to say.

But tonight, after a great deal of discussion and reflection, my friends and I decided to offer what we could to those who are mourning, discouraged, and in need of hope. We decided to offer a bit of light and action, in the hopes that seeing a message for Rekia projected in the night sky, in the heart of our city, might make them feel a little less disheartened, and a little less alone. It’s a small offering, to be sure, but it is one that is made with love, and with a great deal of hope.

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

We know our friends and allies are tired, and that our shared struggles can strain even the most resilient among us, but we also know that what we are doing together matters, and must continue. As Black Youth Project 100 so poetically reminds us, “we do this till we free us.”

A Freedom Ride for Stephon

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

It’s election day in Chicago, and until it’s over political types here are unlikely to write about much of anything else. Since I’ve always tended to work against the grain, I’m going to go ahead and pen an exception to that trend, because tomorrow’s going to come, and regardless of who takes (or keeps) the reins here in our city, there’s a whole lot that’s not going to change.

Whether Wednesday’s headlines declare that there’s a new mayor in town, or that we’ll be bunking with the King of Neoliberalism for another four years, the sun will rise over Chicago tomorrow, and determined young people will still be organizing for their lives. Racism and ableism will continue to manifest themselves in the form of police violence, and the school to prison pipeline will continue to consume our children. Those of us organizing against state violence will continue to stand up, build alternatives, and reduce harm where we can.

Communities will continue to insist on a premise so basic that they should have never had to rise up to express it – that their lives matter.

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

I had the privilege of spending last Saturday with young people who are, themselves, engaged in that expression. I’ve now had the opportunity to work with students from the Village Leadership Academy (VLA) on multiple occasions, at times providing advice and assistance, and at times simply following their lead. On April 4, I was grateful for the opportunity to be a stage hand of sorts, weaving through the background of their beautiful event – a Freedom Ride to a southeast suburb of Chicago, in honor of Stephon Watts, an autistic child who was shot dead by Calumet City police while clutching a butter knife.

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
VLA student Jakya Hobbs speaks out on the lawn of the Calumet City police station. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

The event was born out of the students’ Reclaim MLK event, which was held on Martin Luther King’s birthday in January. That day, students marched through the snow on poorly shoveled sidewalks, leading a crowd of hundreds from their school to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. That night, VLA students  cast themselves as living symbols of the school to prison pipeline, and demanded freedom for all incarcerated youth. The event led to conversations between the Watts family and organizers of the Reclaim MLK event, and ultimately, to a march that led to the Calumet City police station on the 47th anniversary of MLK’s assassination.

I wasn’t feeling well at all at the end of last week, but I dragged myself out the door Saturday morning because I wanted to support the VLA students. We’ve been on a great path together, and I’m grateful for their trust and collaboration. I also wanted to show up for the young people involved with The Radical Education Project, who had spent the previous afternoon helping the VLA students screen print hundreds of t-shirts for the action.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
We Charge Genocide organizer and Radical Education Project participant Page May collaborated with VLA students to plan Saturday’s event. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

When we arrived in Calumet City, we were greeted by members of Stephon Watts’ family and their supporters. After some opening remarks, including an emotional prayer, we began our march from an empty lot to the suburb’s police station. With elementary school students at the head of the march, and members of the National Lawyer’s Guild in attendance, one would hope that police would stand down, but we weren’t sure what to expect. We had been told that a previous protest for Stephon had been poorly received by police, who surveilled and menaced those in attendance. But on a sunny spring day, numbers appeared to make all the difference, with police taking a hands off approach, even as we took the streets and protested on police property.

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

It was an emotional afternoon, and there were moments when I was very grateful that I didn’t have an organizing role, or any need to remain visible. When I needed to, I would shelter myself from view for a moment, and allow myself to shed a tear. One of those moments was spent sitting behind a banner with young organizer Kaleb Autman, as we shared my external battery to prevent our phones from powering down. “I love you,” he said with a smile. I smiled back, and told him that I loved him too, but in truth, I was feeling a heavy mix of emotions that I couldn’t begin to express in that moment.

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Outside the Calumet City police station, Stephon’s mother, Danelene Powell-Watts proclaims, “We’re here to get justice for us all!” (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

I do love Kaleb, just as I love Jadyn, Jakya, and the rest of their classmates. As an organizer, I never set out to work closely with elementary and high school aged students, but that seems to be where my life has led me, and I am grateful for that. But like many people who work with Black and Brown youth in urban environments, I find my affection for them is accompanied by a heightened sense of fear. Most of us want to protect the people we care about, particularly when they are young and unfairly targeted. But these young people are teaching us all valuable lessons about their ability to act in their own defense. By carrying their own banner, and the banner of other marginalized youth, they are forcing a confrontation of ideas, and bringing names and faces to the front lines of their own struggle.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
VLA students carried signs bearing the names and images of neuroatypical and mentally ill individuals who have been killed by police. The students have made a project of studying the relationship between ableism and police violence. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

It’s sometimes hard for me to fathom how children so young can organize so far beyond their years, but there’s no questioning results.

After we rallied in front of the police station, we once again took the streets to march back to our buses, but before we boarded, we shared another moment that I won’t soon forget. Stephon Watts’ father, Steven Watts, whose arrival at the event was delayed by transportation issues, addressed the crowd. Listening to him describe Stephon’s death at the hands of police, I was overwhelmed. “I see my son dying, every day, and for what?” Stephon’s father went on to explain that he is dying of cancer, and that the police who took his son have crushed his will to live. “I just want to be with my son,” he said.

Those words burned themselves into my mind, and I was filled with a sense of sadness and rage that was only tempered by another moment that happened in that field shortly before we left. Literally centering those most impacted by state violence is quickly becoming a tradition at Chicago protests, with attendees holding hands, and chanting back and forth to one another. As the crowd formed a circle in that field, several visiting activists, including Kaleb, joined Stephon’s family at the center. With love in their eyes, they sang Stephon’s favorite song to his family.  I have been organizing for some years now, and I can honestly say that I have never experienced another moment quite like it. The focus was exactly where it needed to be – on Stephon’s loved ones and young Black people who staged a Freedom Ride to honor their loss, and to demand justice.

Visiting activists sing Stephon's favorite song to the Watts family. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Visiting activists sing Stephon’s favorite song to the Watts family. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

I have never been more grateful for the activists and organizers who made that moment happen, and that’s saying a great deal, because they are beautiful people, and I am always grateful for them.

Riding back to Chicago, I climbed aboard a bus that was mostly occupied by VLA students. As I tried to bounce back from the emotional journey we had just taken together, I was glad I had chosen to ride with them. Their resilience helped lift my spirits and soothe my sadness.

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

As I said before, regardless of what happens in electoral politics today, the work at the center of my life will continue to follow the same rhythms. I will work to support the efforts of young people of color, whose hopes and aspirations are at odds with the violent norms of this system. I will continue to love them and to build with them, and work to amplify their demands. I, along with many others, will continue to march behind them, and I believe that we will win.

What We Bring Home

Marissa Alexander joined the "No Selves to Defend" panel at Color of Violence 4 via Skype. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Marissa Alexander joined the “No Selves to Defend” panel at Color of Violence 4 via Skype. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Last weekend, I attended the Color of Violence 4 conference in Chicago. According to the event’s website the project was organized “to mark INCITE!’s fifteen years of engaging in grassroots organizing projects, critical conversations, national actions, transnational campaigns, and community building strategies to end colonial, racial, and gender-based violence against women of color, trans and queer people of color, and our communities.”

I have seen the event both praised and critiqued by those who attended, and I have no illusions about this post’s ability to capture the totality of what people experienced in that space. But in an effort to share what some of us thought and felt, I asked a couple of people that I respect to share a few thoughts about what they’re bringing home from the conference.

These are their thoughts, and a few of my own.

Ejeris Dixon

As I walked into the Hyatt I noticed I was already preparing myself to be at a conference.  It’s a habit now where I scope out good places to hide from people with folks I feel safe around.  I think about how I will emotionally manage the hurtful aspects of call out culture.  And I pre-plan responses for the invasive or annoying questions from people I may meet.  Then I realized wait, I’m at the Color of Violence, this is my space.  I relaxed and became more comfortable.  COV4 was an incredible opportunity to feel centered as a cisgender queer black woman.  And it’s something I rarely feel.

At COV4 I experienced the ability to co-facilitate, build analysis, de-escalate violence, and laugh really really hard with some of the folks I admire most throughout the country.  And I have to say the part that was the most inspiring and replenishing was the laughter.  The fact is that for once in a long while I was at a conference and my guard was down.  I am deeply thankful to the conference organizers for creating this space, and I know its not easy.

I also bring back a sense of loss and a recognition of my privilege within the conference.  While INCITE has worked hard and shifted significantly in the last fifteen years towards building a more trans-inclusive space, it was palpable how much work is still needed.  I’m excited for a Color of Violence Conference that goes beyond working for inclusivity for trans and gender non-conforming people to centering the experiences of TGNC people of color.  If we truly believe that centering the experiences of the most marginalized people within our communities creates freedom for all of us, then our next step toward freedom would be for all the plenaries, conference title, and programming to center trans and gender non conforming people.  I think it’s possible and that we’re already on our way.

Ash Stephens

We are only a few days removed from the INCITE! Color of Violence 4 Conference, and I am still digesting the week. I was very excited, humbled, and honestly worried when I was invited to be on the local Chicago organizing committee. Folks from both the Chicago and National committees have been organizing conferences and workshops for years, on top of having tons of experience with anti-violence work, for women and girls of color and queer and trans* people of color. I wanted to find my position amongst this group of amazing organizers, and also learn as much as I could and develop relationships with people coming to the conference.

For me, COV4 felt extremely powerful. As a young Black trans* masculine boi, who is also new to organizing and continuing to develop my activist praxis, I was very excited to share space with everybody. The thought of a bunch of radical people of color discussing Black feminism, healing justice, trans* issues, anti-violence work, sex work, transformative justice, and a bunch of other workshop discussions felt very good to be apart of. More specifically, it felt great to have these conversations in a space that was affirming of my gender identity and expression, as well as the ways that is complicated by my race and age. I am situated in a world that often renders me hyper-visible (especially in terms of incarceration and experiences of state violence) and also invisible. COV4, in conjunction with the National Trans Anti-Violence Convening organized by Transgender Law Center and several other organizations, placed all of this work under one house for four days. Especially on the eve of International Transgender Day of Visibility (03/31/15), being able to listen to, talk with, learn from, and develop relationships with so many trans* and gender non-conforming people of color under one house for four days was priceless to me.

I left COV4 feeling like I really gained new community- from the local Chicago and National committee members, from people coming to the conference, and from people honored at the Trans100. I would say my excitement soared, my sense of humility towards everyone’s hard work is still felt, and my worry about my seat at the table of activism is still every-present. But, I also feel more affirmed that this seat is open for everyone who is committed to a politic that truly interrogates interpersonal and state violence against women and girls of color and queer and trans* people of color, that aims to go Beyond the State.

My Experience

As a queer, indigenous abolitionist living in the city of Chicago, I am very aware of the need to build the kind of spaces that we want to inhabit. As an organizer, I try to keep my work within those spaces grounded in a transformative framework.

But it doesn’t always play out that way.

We all move through life imperfectly, and like many who believe in community accountability processes, there are situations I struggle with, and times when I feel I have to leave people where they are, rather than meeting them where they’re at. That said, I believe in transformative justice, and that overall, it will help us get free. But my concerns and deviations often make me nervous about entering spaces where transformative justice is being taught or discussed. I worry that I’ll feel alienated or dismissed, or that my praxis won’t meet the expectations of those I respect.

Fortunately, that was not how I experienced Color of Violence 4.

On the first night of the conference, I attended the “No Selves to Defend” panel, which was moderated by Mariame Kaba. In a broad sense, the panel captured some of what I feel about transformative justice – that even though I want a world where we address problems through constructive processes, I will always celebrate and prioritize survival. I believe we can construct new ways of living, and build structures within the margins that grow, expand, and push their way into the wider world. But to do this, we must survive.

Seeing Renata Hill, Cece McDonald, Yvonne Swan and Marissa Alexander’s mother appear on the same stage was a profoundly hopeful experience for me, both as an organizer, and as a survivor. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their voices and their resilience. In a system that tried to strip away the value of their lives, their safety, and their dignity, they endured. They spoke of justice and resistance, and in some cases, the trauma of incarceration, but they also talked about hope, and what keeps it alive.

For me, the most emotional moment of the night was seeing Marissa Alexander’s face appear on a projector screen to join us via Skype. I saw a number of pictures of Marissa over the course of her legal battle, in which she was criminalized for choosing to survive an act of domestic violence, but I had never seen her smile.

Seeing a woman the state tried to crush with despair and deprivation, uncaged and full of laughter, is a revolutionary experience, and as I experienced Marissa’s laughter for the first time, I was celebrating. I was celebrating every teach-in, protest and artistic expression that I’d seen carried out in her name. I was celebrating every minute spent protesting in the cold to lift up her struggle. I was celebrating my friends, whose commitment to seeing Marissa freed has been as inspiring as it has been relentless.

As hundreds of us watched her speak, giggling each time one of Marissa’s children wandered into the frame, I felt like we were all celebrating survival, resilience, and transformation.

That moment was a gift, and I will carry it with me.


Ejeris Dixon is an organizer and political strategist with 15 years of experience working in racial justice, LGBTQ, anti-violence, and economic justice movements.  She currently works as the Founding Director of Vision Change Win Consulting where she partners with organizations to build their capacity and deepen the impact of their organizing programs.  From 2010 – 2013 Ejeris served as the Deputy Director, in charge of the Community Organizing Department at the New York City Anti-Violence Project where she directed national, statewide, and local advocacy efforts on hate violence, domestic violence, and sexual violence.  From 2005 – 2010 Ejeris worked as the founding Program Coordinator of the Safe OUTside the System Collective at the Audre Lorde Project where she worked on creating community based strategies to address hate and police violence.

Ash Stephens is a PhD student at The University of Illinois at Chicago in the Criminology, Law & Justice Department. Ash is also a member of the Chicago organizing team for the Color of Violence 4 Conference and a member of Love & Protect, formerly the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander.