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.

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