Holding Down the Intersection: From #FireDanteServin to #FightforDyett

Dyett hunger strikers take center stage when an action for Rekia Boyd converged with a vigil for Dyett High School Thursday night in Chicago. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Dyett hunger strikers take center stage when an action for Rekia Boyd converged with a vigil for Dyett High School Thursday night in Chicago. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Thursday night, hundreds of Chicagoans gathered at police headquarters at 35th and Michigan to once again demand that police officer Dante Servin be fired for the fatal, off-duty shooting death of Rekia Boyd. Servin, who many say avoided a homicide conviction on a technicality, has been the focus of a local manifestation of the national #SayHerName rallying cry, which highlights the stories of Black women and girls killed by police.

Thursday night’s action was a multi-staged event, and sprawled across several locations. While protesters rallied outside police headquarters, some organizers and supporters entered the building to sit in on the monthly police board hearing. Inside, police were clearly on high alert, ready to halt any disruption after Black Youth Project 100 successfully shut down last month’s meeting in an inspiring spectacle of resistance and indignation.

Activist attendance has driven police board hearings to capacity in recent months, turning both the inside and the outside of Chicago’s police headquarters into staging grounds for those challenging police violence and impunity.

Thursday night, one police board member chose to pre-emptively scold the crowd, warning that board hearing proceedings called for “civility,” and smugly adding that she “would hate to have to take action” due to any disruption. Another official, who stood in for no-show police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, took a different approach, praising the protesters in attendance, telling them that Chicago’s activist scene is uniquely peaceful, “eloquent” and “respectable.” His commentary drew jeers from the crowd as the stand-in speaker suggested that Chicago’s protesters were somehow a different breed than those who’ve taken to the streets in Baltimore or St. Louis in the past year. In an all too typical allusion to Martin Luther King Jr., he urged those present to behave like the activists “who are most remembered” for their work. Amid the calls for him to “get on with it” and “stop talking,” I could hear a young person audibly mutter, “Fuck your respectability.”

During public comments, police torture survivor and anti-death penalty activist Mark Clements addressed the board, saying, “All of you have some kind of responsibility,” for seeing that police who torture and kill are discharged from their positions and stripped of their pensions. Clements proceeded to call out the names of both victims of police violence, and police officers who have yet to be punished for their crimes.

Martinez Sutton, Rekia Boyd’s brother, who one board member clumsily referred to as “Mr. Boyd,” told the board that he did not trust the next stage of the process to determine Dante Servin’s fate. While The Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which rarely finds fault with police who kill civilians, has recommended that Servin be fired, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy now has three months to consider the matter before making his recommendation to the police board. Martinez reminded the board that McCarthy has never demonstrated any belief that Servin’s actions were either criminal or unprofessional, despite the superintendent’s familiarity with the evidence that led to Servin’s case going to trial, and to IPRA coming to its uncharacteristic conclusion that Servin should be terminated.

At the end of the hearing, as the last speaker, who was not connected to the campaign against Servin, went on a strange, anti-Semitic rant, the young organizers in attendance decided that the proceedings had gone on long enough, and rose to their feet, revealing contraband signs demanding justice for Rekia Boyd. They marched from the space together, pulling nearly the entire audience from the meeting room, and rejoined those rallying outside, where speeches and performances had occupied those who hadn’t attended the hearing.

Once the crowd from the meeting had rejoined those rallying outside, Martinez thanked the crowd for supporting his family, saying, “I love each and every one of you. You’re my fuel.” Organizers then announced that a march to Dyett High School, where the Dyett hunger strikers and other community members were holding vigil, would soon be underway.

For 34 days, over a dozen #FightforDyett hunger strikers have refused to eat, demanding that their community’s high school remain open, and that the city honor a community generated plan to make Dyett a green technology high school. The community’s plan has been widely praised by both policy makers and educators, with many noting that the plan is much more thoroughly developed than most charter school plans that receive approval in the city of Chicago. But so far, the only “compromise” the mayor has offered has been to keep the school open as a community arts school. But as Brother Jitu told Democracy Now! after the mayor’s proposed solution was announced, “People in Bronzeville said they wanted a global leadership and green technology high school, that’s part of a sustainable community school village, a system of education.”

While keeping the school open is major gain for the #FightForDyett hunger strikers, organizers argue that the mayor’s plan is merely meant to placate the community, and quell dissent, rather than provide a sustainable solution that benefits area youth.

Dyett is a profound example of the city’s ambivalence toward Black youth. When the city chose to slate the school for closure despite exceptional academic gains and visionary community involvement, a community led movement forcefully rose to its defense. The campaign escalated over time, from awareness raising events and meetings with politicians to sit-ins and even a lock-down at City Hall, where protesters chained themselves around a statue of George Washington. While these efforts did garner headlines, they did little sway city officials. But during the last month, the Dyett hunger strike has gained national, and even international attention. In the face of increasing demands that he resolve the situation, Mayor Emanuel did something he has rarely done during his tenure as Chicago’s mayor, even when lives have been on the line – he gave ground.

While the solution proposed by the mayor does not satisfy the needs of the community, the proposal shows movement on the part of the city’s leadership, which many have taken as a sign of hope. Still, as the hunger strikers entered their 33rd day without food on Thursday, many, including a chorus of medical professionals, were expressing concern for their health and welfare.

With those concerns fresh in the minds of those in attendance last night, seeing hunger striker Anna Jones stand alongside young organizers outside the police station, as the destination of the march was announced, was incredibly heartening. I was told that the march route easily spanned 20 blocks, not taking into account any twists and turns that might be caused by clashes with police. I wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t sure if I could make it.

Then, I saw that hunger striker Anna Jones would be making the journey on foot, with the rest of the protesters, and I knew I had to do the same.

The march was intense, fueled with righteous anger and a fiercely expressed love for Chicago’s Black community. The names of women and girls killed by police were repeatedly called out, as police clashed with protesters each time strategic moves to take the streets played out. Protesters were struck, and in some cases slammed by police bicycles, as officers attempted to keep the march from seizing control of any city streets. But the protesters persisted, re-organizing and redoubling their efforts each time they were repelled. The tension continued to rise, but the marchers would not be contained. Eventually, they claimed and held the street for the remaining duration of their march to Dyett.

Once we reached the school, the crowd formed a circle at the intersection of 51st and Lawrence, shutting down both streets for the duration of the speeches and song that followed. In my mind, it was the perfect ending to a night of resistance: the shut down of two roads, one for Rekia, and one for Dyett, while we stood in a circle, centering speakers who lifted up the struggles that had brought us together. At that literal intersection of struggle, we heard from hunger striker Brother Jitu Brown, who reminded the crowd to believe in possibility, saying, “They said we couldn’t have a trauma center, and what did we do?”

Veronica Morris Moore, an organizer with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) also joined the hunger strikers in the center of the circle, saying that the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has been a central force in the fight for Dyett, had offered longstanding support for FLY’s recently triumphant campaign for an area trauma center.

Just before the night ended in song, Brother Jitu led the crowd in a call and response, shouting the words, “We are today! We are tomorrow! We are Forever!”

In some moments, anything seems possible. I am grateful for the people who bring those moments into the world.

Lifted Voices Speaks Out: Concerning Self Defense

(Image: Jackie Fawn)
(Image: Jackie Fawn)

In this guest piece, writer and activist Crystal Vance Guerra speaks to the self defense based philosophy of a new feminist organization in Chicago. Lifted Voices is an organization grounded in the cultural, political and personal self defense of women and non binary people of color. In this piece, Crystal also addresses the larger need for an organizing praxis grounded in the defense of our own bodies and lives. As one of the co-founders of Lifted Voices, I am proud to share Crystal’s thoughts on these matters.

The body is the site of all history and all language. It was through these bodies that humanity first experienced and expressed art and anger, love and oppression. And it is the body that, for all that is said about the ‘end’ of racism and sexism and all the -isms, continues to relive injustice, experience breaking through all this air-thin talk of equality.

Maladjusted, we understand that experience is conditioned on systems of power and exploitation and we refuse to assimilate. We understand that this nation was built and continues to stand on the broken backs of millions of black and brown and yellow and red peoples and even green and blue (mother earth). And we understand that liberation is a physical as well as a mental and spiritual process.

Every civilization before and apart from capitalism had physical rituals as part of their self and community strengthening. Yoga, dance and even fighting were sacred acts, always within a larger cosmology of harmony and being in this world. We recognize our bodies, our muscles, our balance as necessary focal points of exploration and development in order to learn about our selves, our selves who have always been denied anger, resistance, existence. How can we say to know ourselves when our very bodies have been torn from us.

The interpersonal violence we face in our everyday as women of color and non-binary peoples finds its systemic reproduction in the State violence we denounce daily. The State, and particularly the U.S. government and corporations have a monopoly on ‘legitimate violence’. They can kill without (or, perhaps better said, with) discrimination, mask cruelty with innocence and entitlement and destroy community in the name of national security. As women of color and non-binary peoples systematically subjected to all forms of ‘legitimate violence’, we see clearly that we must denounce, challenge and transform this contradiction with our bodies as well as our minds.

The world is structured so that we cannot walk, laugh, dance, eat, grow, live safely, which is to say freely, expressing the freedom always already within us, so it becomes our duty to train.  Oppression and abuse are unapologetic and so are we.

Self-defense, the only possible form of ‘legitimate violence’, is a reclaiming of our bodies. It is a praxis (among many) through which we can begin to reconnect that which has been divided: the body, mind and spirit. It is the cathartic, directed release of rage transformed into self-love, which is also love of our communities. Every time we step on the mat to begin training we bow, giving thanks to all those who have fought before us and, without knowing, for us. Comprehending with every quickened heart beat that it is our duty to fight. This land, no matter how much concrete is re-poured every how many years, will always remember the blood, sweat and laughter that brought each of us to this present moment of history. Radical self-defense pulls from a long organizing tradition, born from the need to make material our critique of the very physical violence we experience.

The etymology of radical is radix, root, and means forming the root. Unlike extremist positions of white supremacy, our critique, both physical and analytical, addresses the root, the history, of our exploitation and our liberation. We denounce the police, the KKK, the minute men, the military and all other forms of State sanctioned ‘self-defense’ groups as false flags, as truly violent, unjust and irreparable due to their root and participation in the reproduction of the ‘original’ violence structuring the modern world: colonialism, slavery and capitalism.

Direct action can take many forms but it should always be rooted in the understanding that violence is destructive and self-defense is creative. Every act of resistance directed towards liberation will always be considered violent by the status quo no matter how ‘nonviolent,’  thus it is not a question of violence/nonviolence (an absurd either/or anyway considering how violence impacts us at every level of our existence) but of creativity.

Treated as criminal, we have always been improvisers, fighters, bruxas, locas, defying statistics and rationality with our existence/resistance and imagination. No coincidence anarchists, terrorists, gang members, and (statistically) all non-white peoples are always categorized as threats to the State (yellow peril, black power, alien invasion, etc).

And when we announce our presence the State acts so surprised, didn’t we kill you all off with colonialism, slavery, prisons, police, rape and foreign invasions? Yet they know they depend on us, and our submission. Abolition is the only response to these systems that continue to cut our wings.

The Hummingbird Commando is not a new idea but a continuation of the long history of self-defense in our radical traditions. Unapologetic self-defense, rooted in a militant, abolitionist critique and response to abuse, is the fusion of practice with vision, of justice and liberation.

Why do we train? To transform study into practice, dreams into experience and create the spaces in which we can lift our bodies and our selves, whole and free.

 

When Not to Listen to a Columnist: The Dyett Hunger Strikers Must Be Heard

Last week, Eric Zorn, an op-ed columnist and daily blogger for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a piece criticizing the tactics and aims of Chicagoans who have gone on a hunger strike to save Dyett High School. Today, Alan Mills, the Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, responds to Zorn’s commentary.

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Tuesday night, community members gathered with the Dyett hunger strikers for a vigil outside the Tribune Building in downtown Chicago. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

A dozen activists are slowly starving themselves, now entering the third week of a hunger strike demanding that the mayor and the Board of Education save Bronzeville’s only community high school. Hunger strikes have a long history, dating back to feudal times. The mythology is that if a man starved himself to death on the offending party’s doorstep, then his demands had to be met—because who would starve themselves to death for an unjust cause?

Hunger strikes have a storied history in more recent years as well. Mandela embarked on a lengthy hunger strike shortly after being imprisoned by apartheid South Africa. The prisoners at Guantanamo are currently engaged in a year-plus hunger strike—kept alive because the U.S. government straps them down daily and force-feeds them. Perhaps most dramatically, the Irish, in their battle lead by Bobbie Sands against British occupation , started a rolling hunger strike that continued until ten political prisoners died. These cases are remarkable not just for the dedication of the hunger strikers, but because in each case the hunger strike arose from, and was an integral part of, a larger organizing effort. The Dyett hunger strikers continue this tradition.

Despite their willingness to sacrifice their time, health, and perhaps very lives, the city and members of the press have dismissed the hunger strikers, labeling them as “hostage takers” trying to force the city to provide a “particular type of new school” in their community. This cavalier dismissal of the hunger strikers’ commitment, and the very serious issues facing the community, reeks of middle-class White privilege.

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Tuesday night’s vigil began with a call and response version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Bronzeville is a neighborhood with a rich cultural history, located in the heart of Chicago’s “black belt,” where Black people were forced to live as they moved to Chicago during the Great Migration in the early 20th century. Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Louis Armstrong all called Bronzeville home. Today, the people who live in Bronzeville remain overwhelmingly Black. The neighborhood contains an eclectic mix of elegant single-family homes, rehabbed apartments converted to condominiums, new construction, and run-down rental units, with vacant lots scattered throughout.

The city has engaged in massive disinvestment from Bronzeville. By one count, the city has closed 16 elementary schools in Bronzeville since 1998. These closings have left gaping holes in the neighborhood. Students have been shuffled from school to school, and any sense of neighborhood schools has been destroyed. Today, Bronzeville has exactly one community high school left—Dyett. This is the school the hunger strikers are trying to save.

The hunger strike did not come from nowhere. Rather, it is the culmination of five years of intense grassroots community organizing to rebuild its community-based education system that Chicago’s powers that be have worked so hard to destroy. Lead by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (commonly known as “KOCO”), parents and community leaders created a plan which called for an educational continuum, where grade schools, middle schools, and Dyett High School all worked together on a common curriculum, where each grade prepared students for the next grade—whether that grade was in the next classroom, or in an entirely different school. This effort brought the community and the schools closer together, involving parents and community residents directly in the schools. Instead of places where kids involuntarily sat for six hours a day, the schools began to fulfill the role they were always intended to fill—forming the center of a vibrant community. Children from different blocks would get to know each other by going to school together year after year, parents would know other parents and their children through school activities, and the community would see the schools as education centers for the entire community.

Hunger striker Brotha Jito declared to the crowd,
Hunger striker Brotha Jito declared to the crowd, “We won’t let them turn the lights out at Dyett!” as the Chicago Light Brigade lifted up the school’s name in lights. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

For those like me, who grew up in solidly middle–class, largely White areas, neighborhood schools were taken for granted. I didn’t know of any kids on my block growing up who did not attend the local elementary school with me. A few of my friends went to religious schools after they finished elementary school, and a very few went off to private school, but almost everyone headed to the local middle school, and then to the local high school. But this has not been the historical experience for many Black families in the U.S. Before school desegregation, many Black students were bussed past their local (all-White) schools to a far-off Black school. In Chicago over the last decade, the city has increasingly developed a two-tier educational system: one system of elite schools for the select 10% or so of the very best students; a few charter or other selective-enrollment schools (some great, some good, many terrible); and run-down, neglected schools for everyone else.

The grassroots movement in Bronzeville to revitalize its public schools was sabotaged by the city and the Chicago Board of Education (whose members are all appointed by the mayor). Four years ago, the city announced that Dyett would be closed in 2015. The Board of Education stopped enrolling new students, but allowed current students to finish. Last Spring, the final class of 13 students graduated. Again, the community did not accept this decision quietly. The community formed the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School and worked to produce a proposal. Working with partners from University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education, the Chicago Teachers Union, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and other not-for-profits, the community produced a plan for “The Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School.” The plan called for rehabbing the building to become LEED-certified for green technology, and developed a curriculum focused on science, taking advantage of the school’s location next to a park.

In 2014, the city rejected the community’s proposal, but did agree after intense pressure to accept proposals from private organizations to operate the school on behalf of the district. The community submitted its proposal, and by the deadline, one other proposal had been submitted—by a failing local charter school operator who proposed a school focused on arts and entertainment. After the deadline, a third proposal was submitted, focused on athletics, not academics. Note the subtle racism here—are Black children really only fit to entertain, whether through arts or sports? The city announced it would hold a hearing and make a decision on August 10th.

To the casual observer, these may all seem like similar proposals, but they are not. The community proposal is for an open enrollment, community-based school. Every student who lives in the attendance area is automatically eligible to attend. No one has to apply, pass a test, or be selected. If you live in Bronzeville, Dyett would be your high school. Neither of the other proposals do this. Both are selective enrollment schools. Students need to apply. They would NOT be community schools, open to any child from the neighborhood.

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Parents of Chicago Public students who have already lost their schools under the Emanuel administration were in attendance at Tuesday night’s vigil. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

At the last minute, the city cancelled the August 10th hearing. This means Dyett would not open this Fall.

It was then that the Dyett 12 began their hunger strike. Their demand is simple: the community has worked for five years to produce a quality plan to save Dyett High School; the community held innumerable meetings and public forums. The proposal is academically rigorous, and focuses on science—one of the areas in which jobs are expected to be widely available for decades, as technology continues to develop at an unprecedented pace. There is no need for additional lengthy hearings. The community needs, and deserves, a community school.

The hunger strikers are now entering their third week without eating. Hunger strikes have serious consequences to people’s health, and this protest was not undertaken lightly. For the first three days, the body largely survives off of stored glucose. After three days, the body begins to live off of stored fat. After three weeks, the body begins to “mine” nutrients from muscles and organs. At this point, the body can begin to break down bone marrow, and cell walls can begin to thin. Eventually, one of the vital organs stops working, or cell walls become so thin they implode, no longer able to carry oxygen and nutrients through the bloodstream. Either effect can be fatal. After four weeks, death becomes increasingly likely.

Last night, after his community budget hearing was constantly interrupted by protesters demanding he meet with the Dyett hunger strikers, the mayor spent a few minutes with them. However, according to reports, he committed to nothing, and claimed he needed more time.

Do we really have to wait until the first of the hunger strikers dies before the city will agree to provide Bronzeville with what most people take for granted: a neighborhood school?

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Alan Mills is the Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization that fights for the rights of tenants, disabled people, and prisoners in Illinois.