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.

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