So Donald Trump discovered that he wasn’t welcome in Chicago, and some people have a lot of feelings about it. Some of those people hail from the most predictable of corners – Trump supporters, Fox News fans, my friend’s uncle who thinks protests are stupid and too damn loud, etc. Honestly, as someone who was out there protesting on Friday, I would think we’d done a poor job if these types weren’t displeased. I’m not writing these words because I want to respond to their critiques, because there’s no point in arguing with such people.
But the leftists who are shaming protesters?
Your behavior is a special kind of shameful, and you need to find some seats.
From Hillary Clinton to sanctimonious columnists, leftist equivocation in the face of fascism abounds. A full spectrum of people who reject fascism held the line Friday night. Students marched. Young Black leaders staged imagery and action. Church groups, antifa and young people from around the city turned up. I saw artful expression, righteous indignation, and a refusal to be shoved back by bullying fascists.
At an intersection where young Black protesters were connecting their rejection of Donald Trump to other upcoming electoral issues, like getting rid of States Attorney Anita Alvarez, I watched those who held the line get attacked by Trump fans and pummeled by police. They were brave. It was not their duty in that moment to, as Hillary Clinton prescribed, melt the hearts of white supremacists. It was their right to stand their ground and push back if necessary to defend their lives and dignity.
Equating the violence of the oppressor with the actions of those who defend against that violence is a willfully blind indulgence of white supremacy.
As we’ve seen, time and again, in recent history, marginalized people in the United States will no longer accept the idea that they must politely endure violence and humiliation, simply to prove that they are above such things and deserving of better treatment. And when they are staring down racist cops and people who actually “Heil Hitler,” they aren’t going to stop to contemplate whether what they are doing is consistent with your hollow, incremental vision of change.
As for the arguments that Trump’s base will only be further energized by these protests, I’m going to have to ask for a reality check. What energized these people in the first place? A Black president? A movement for Black lives? The highly controversial assertion that those lives matter? Anything marginalized people do to affirm the value of their lives and liberty will inflame those who are threatened by the prospect of equity. Should Black and Brown people quietly play along with a society that has been built in opposition to our well being, because doing otherwise might excite some racists? Should we quiet down about not wanting to be killed or deported en masse as well? Should we stop making accomplishments that might make white people feel threatened?
Or should you perhaps do a better job organizing against fascists, rather than talking smack from the sidelines?
Read history. Backlashes happen. Every time a society moves forward or swings left, you’ll get push back from those whose privilege has been imperiled. If your solution is to tell marginalized people to be quieter, because they might rile up the bigots, you may want to look up the tactical history of the word “appeasement.”
In any case, I will have more to say about Friday, but I’ll probably say as little as I can moving forward about the critiques I’ve referred to, because they’re ridiculous, and I’m actually a little embarrassed for some of these “free speech” crusaders, who don’t seem to know the difference between being outlawed and being unwelcome.
The podium of a filthy rich fascist is a pretty silly place to park your concerns about “free speech,” but in truth, there was no denial of expression here. Your right to free speech, as protected by the first amendment, is not a license to speak without being talked over or told to go away. The first amendment addresses issues of governmental interference, and rightly so. Because while the government has no right to shut down political expression, I have every right to tell a fascist to shut the fuck up. That may hurt his rich, white male feelings, but the absence of accommodation is not a violation of one’s rights.
I understand why some privileged individuals might find that distinction of fact confusing. The world generally allows them to expect the kind of accommodation that others are denied. When you’re used to getting your way, inconvenience can feel like injustice and oppression – and whining and tantrums often follow.
The truth is, no one prevented Trump from taking the stage Friday night, in a physical or legal sense. He was simply put in a position where, for once, it wouldn’t have been him, hundreds of fans of fascism, and one or two people of color to kick around. Like most bullies, Trump’s bravery didn’t match his bluster. When faced with a loud and lively crowd from a city that wants nothing to do with him, the man simply cowered.
To be clear: a fascist felt too unwelcome to speak in Chicago. That’s not a failure of liberty. That’s a sign that, for all our failings, Chicago still has some greatness to speak of. It means that we, as a city, have a spine that can stiffen in the face of fascism, and really, I hope the whole country figures out how to do the same, because we’re living in frightening times.
But to those who’ve hopped on soapboxes about Trump being “no platformed” and whatever else: stop and take in what’s actually happened. Someone awful, whose rise to power is already a threat to the safety of a great many marginalized people, had a bad night. If you can’t call that a just outcome, then just find a way to move on. Because crying a river and hurling insults over Trump’s failure to appear doesn’t make you righteous. It makes you ridiculous.
So if you want to be taken seriously in this world, stop blaming protesters for the cowardice of a preening egotist. Fascism is owed no welcome mat.
Today is International Women’s Day, and I expect to see a great many posts about women who have changed the world. And even though I am sure there will be an unfortunate tendency to lift up accomplished, American white women, at the expense of militant freedom fighters, trans women and Black and Brown women, I know that the people I am fortunate enough to share space with online will present me with some quality reading material that will leave me more knowledgeable by the day’s end, and I am grateful for that.
But today, I can’t seem to turn my mind to celebration, to the extent that I would like to.
Today, I can’t stop thinking about the names that we won’t find in our social media timelines and newsfeeds. I am thinking about murdered trans women of color, Black women criminalized for defending their bodies from harm, and of missing an murdered Indigenous women.
But more than anything, I am thinking of a 4 year-old Native girl, whose name I don’t know. Kidnapped, raped and nearly strangled, all I know of her is that, in another life, she could have been my daughter, my sister or me. I know she suffered horribly at the hands of a man – a man who has now allegedly been apprehended, and who has been thrust into a system that has nothing to do with Native justice, Native healing or what’s best for this battered child.
Like all of our children, she will live her life as a survivor of the traumas we have survived as a people, and like too many of our women, she will live her life as a survivor of sexual violence. But today, she is four years old, and already facing the world as a survivor of her own journey through hell – a journey that will likely color the rest of her childhood, if not the rest of her life.
I do not say this to diminish the truth of this young girl’s resilience. Her blood carries the strength of a people who survived the massacre of a hundred million. Her very existence is a triumph against colonialism, and I believe in the power of a young Native heart to conquer all things. I myself have done a great deal of surviving, but I have also done many of the things survivors do when forced to walk wounded through this world. I have, at various times in my life, buried my heart and mind in drugs and alcohol, lost myself in abusive relationships, and walked a lonely path through my anger in despair.
If I myself had disappeared, during those dark days, those who knew me may have been scarred by my loss, but they would not have been shocked or even surprised. Because for years it seemed unlikely that my life’s journey would lead me to old age, health or happiness. Prison, death and a cycle of abuse from without and within were foreshadowed in chapter after chapter of my life, until a brighter day finally dawned.
On that day, I summoned the strength of my ancestors, and began a process of personal healing. No longer content with mere, survival, I started on a path toward something fuller, that had the potential to lift my voice and heal my soul.
And don’t we all deserve more than survival?
I, of course, was one of the lucky ones. Few of our women fall as far as I did and get back up. And when I see the harms that many Brown women and girls wear on their sleeves, I am frightened for them. I want them to find the kind of healing and hope that pulled me back from the abyss. I want them to find it much sooner, and without further tragedy in their lives. I want them to know their strength and their greatness, and to remember that one need not be spiritual to know that we carry both the impact of our ancestors trauma, and the power of their survival in our blood.
We are made of the stuff that survived the decimation of nations.
We are the flame that could not be snuffed out.
We are survival itself.
So when I think of this child, who I will likely never meet, I wonder, what can we do for her? What can we build in her name – a name we’ll likely never know – and in the names of all the women and children whose stories will remain untold?
Well, if you care to venture down this road of aspiration with me, I’d ask that you consider the following.
Self-Defense is Liberation
Both Black and Brown women are chronically criminalized for acting in defense of their own bodies. Countering this practice requires social transformative, but transformation takes time, and we have a right to survive, unviolated and free from harm, here and now.
We have a natural right to defend our bodies and the lives and well being of our children, by any means necessary.
I won’t delve into matters of self-defense too deeply here, as I have elaborated on such matters elsewhere, and I believe it is a topic worthy of separate discussion, but it is a subject that must be mentioned in any dialogue about what it means for us to survive, because if our women, girls and non-binary community members are going to survive a world that supports and facilitates their destruction, they must be allowed to be warriors in that world.
We must be allowed and even encouraged to take up whatever means of defense best protects us.
In Chicago, I helped found a collective called Lifted Voices. We are a group of Brown and Black women and non-binary people who organize in defense of women and non-binary people of color. Our vision of self-defense is cultural, political and personal, and we hold weekly self-defense classes to better equip our members, and our allies, to defend themselves in a world of racist, patriarchal violence.
The forces that destroy Black and Brown lives, and ravage the lives and bodies of women of color are unapologetic, and so are we. As organizers, we function within an abolitionist, transformative framework, that does not embrace the trappings of this system of justice, but our collective repudiation of punitive justice does not mean that we act gently in matters of survival and bodily autonomy. Our safety and dignity are paramount, and we believe that owning our ability to defend our own bodies is crucial to our fight for freedom.
It is important that we lift up the efforts of women and non-binary people who pursue militant and physical means of self protection. Our bodies have been under attack, under colonialism, since Columbus began sexually enslaving the women and children of the Taíno people. We must be supported in our efforts to beat back sexual violence – violence that we most frequently suffer at the hands of non-Native people.
But in any discussion of self-defense, it must be understood that whereas violence is destructive, defense is creative. Because while the act of meeting a raised fist with one’s own fist may at times repel the forces that seek to harm us, not everyone has the ability to meet physical violence with reactive force. Many are too old, too young, or simply lack the physical ability to strike back in their own defense. And for those of us whose able-bodied privilege may at times allow us to evade harm, such moments must be understood as battles within a larger war.
A series of moments in which we evade harm will not dismantle the mechanisms that inform those harms. We must therefore defend our lives more broadly, and with a creative eye toward transformation.
Native Justice Must Be Transformative
While there has been much discussion of reclaiming criminal jurisdiction over those who harm Native women, there has been far less discussion of reclaiming tribal mechanisms of justice.
At least 1 in 3 of our women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, and in 86 percent of those cases, the perpetrator will be of non-Native descent. Given that most women and children, across racial and ethnic lines, are victimized by members of their own communities, this statistic powerfully communicates the ongoing legacy of colonialism. While Native communities certainly generate their own manifestations of misogyny and patriarchal violence, our women and girls remain a group that is largely acted upon by outside forces, enabled by the social and political disposability of our people.
Disturbing statistics, however, have at times limited our focus to issues that fail to strike at the heart of what’s killing us.
Given that any violation of a major crimes act on a reservation falls within the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, many have turned their thoughts to matters of legal sovereignty. Federal authorities have shown a predictable disinterest in pursuing cases against those who rape Native women, and efforts to enable tribal courts to prosecute non-Native domestic abusers continue even today, despite legislative victories. But the theft of Native justice is not grounded in our lack of access to colonial constructs of crime and punishment.
In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a long and tragic process of eroding what was left of our Native systems of justice. In spite of the violence of colonialism, many of our people had managed to hold onto restorative processes that aimed to address harm in a constructive manner. While various penalties for harm certainly existed, many Natives sought to address harm through a lens of healing and restoration, rather than using the extremity of one’s punishment as a metric of justice. Those who did embrace such ideas were ultimately robbed of their expression by the same government that’s sought to erase and destroy all things Native, throughout the course of its history.
So what does it mean to reclaim justice? Does it mean reclaiming jurisdiction? Certainly. We cannot decide for ourselves what justice looks like while living under the absolute power of colonial authority. But when we bring justice home, what does that justice look like? Is it the localization of white justice? Or should we perhaps learn from the failures of the larger American system – one that is grounded in punishment, violence and the re-institution of slavery? Why would we, as survivors of colonial violence, seek to refashion American “justice” into something that might suit our own needs?
The trappings of a system that is grounded in our annihilation can only further that system’s original intent. The very idea of America is built upon a false narrative of noble discovery and proud settlement. This narrative requires the erasure of Native peoples ground under colonialism, and the assimilation of all those who would benefit from colonial constructs. Our survival cannot be dependent upon the social and legal mechanisms that have and continue to crush and kill us.
Efforts like the Hollow Water First Nations Community Holistic Healing Circle, which aimed to bring restorative solutions to communities ravaged by alcoholism and sexual abuse, provide a glimpse at what community based solutions for Native people may look like, but unlike colonial law, such solutions do not come in hard-and-fast, one-size-fits all packages. Developed most extensively in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, recent incarnations of Native restorative circle practices have in fact sprung up in Native communities throughout North America, without a singular rule book to govern their implementation. This autonomy is crucial to any re-evolution of Indigenous justice, because the needs of our people are as varied as the lands we live on, and we must be allowed to pave our own paths forward.
These efforts must be supported both on and off of what is legally recognized as Native land. Because while reservations are undeniably microcosms of the larger spectrum of colonial violence, Native women and children who do not live on reservations are not exempt from the statistics that quantify our struggles. Thus, we must build culture, on and off of what is recognized as Native land, because every inch of this continent is in fact Indigenous land, and although our numbers have been greatly reduced by genocide, we continue to walk these lands, from shore to shore. We must have the power to build with Natives, and non-Natives, to create systems that transform communities, making the harms that shatter so many lives increasingly unthinkable, rather than simply addressed through punishment.
It is well established that merely punishing a crime does not address the root issues that facilitated the harms involved in that crime. And truly, how could the act of punishment accomplish such a thing? How could perpetuating a cycle of colonial violence – one that includes every layer of Native suffering – create spaces where such harms fail to exist in recur?
We will not save ourselves by owning the tools of our oppressors. Our cultures – those that endure, those that have been reborn and those that are being fashioned and refashioned in real time – are more beautiful than anything that has sprung from the dominant culture of the United states. Assimilation and death are not forces of creation, and therefore cannot yield anything life-giving in this world.
Colonial violence and mechanisms of “justice” mark far too many pages of our histories. A future in which that young Native girl, whose name I will never know, can heal, and where others like her are less likely to experience the trauma of rape, and other forms of brutality, must be built by those who believe in transformation. It must be built from love, with the hopes and values of our communities woven into the fabric of its justice. It must be built not in the image of this system, but in opposition to it. Because whether we are confronting the violence of rape, toxic water or police violence, everything that is destroying the lives of our women and girls flows from the heart of this system. And everything that will free us must flow from us.
On December 15, I was one of a group of 16 protesters who went to jail for an act of civil disobedience at a protest demanding the resignations of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Our demands were largely symbolic, given that neither Emanuel nor Alvarez has ever been moved by cries for justice or calls for decency. Deeply embedded in the monied, Democratic establishment, Emanuel and Alvarez are both quite accustomed to dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and emerging when the onslaught has ceased, more smug and destructive than ever.
But in the wake of the scandal surrounding Laquan McDonald’s death, there was a sense of hope in the air, amid the sadness and rage of those who’ve tangled with the likes of Alvarez in the past – a hope that maybe, this time, the rest of the county might see her as clearly as we do. And while any opportunity to oust Emanuel seems either far-fetched or far off, Anita’s looming reelection fight offered an opportunity for the public to approach the polls with fresh memories of her complicity with police violence.
Chicago, of course, has become something of a national focal point in discussions of police violence. The familiar “a few bad apples” argument that is often invoked to defend police in general is now being applied at a national level, with police supporters characterizing Chicago’s entire department as a “bad apple” that doesn’t reflect the standards of other major cities.
While this argument is obviously reductivist, and erases the harsh realities of policing on a national scale, widespread coverage of our city’s police brutality scandals has brought meaningful attention to conflicts between police and Chicago’s most marginalized communities. Our city’s police are now widely recognized as being representative of what the Civil Rights Movement, in all its greatness could not overcome – and of the injustices at the heart of the current movement for Black lives.
The grievances at the heart of a movement that has electrified streets in cities across the country are written on the walls of our city’s police departments. Murder, corruption and a hardened indifference to Black life and death are the hallmarks of “law and order” in Chicago. But in late 2015, something changed. For what may well be a fleeting moment, the mainstream media has actually begun writing headlines that match the stories unfolding in our communities. For once, those most affected by anti-Blackness aren’t the only ones demanding consequences for police violence. And the names Black-led groups have been lifting up for months and years, of young people like Dominique Franklin and Rekia Boyd, are part of a larger chorus with a clear demand: that someone actually be held accountable for this violence.
But as we’ve seen, accountability doesn’t come easy when it comes to police violence. With few indictments leveled against police who kill, and even fewer convictions, police simply aren’t subject to the laws they are meant to enforce. And regardless of our various takes on issues of police brutality, we all know that cops very rarely answer for their crimes. Even those who support and defend police know full well that their acts of brutality go unchecked. In general, such people are simply willing to accept – or even support – such actions, as being the price of “safety” in an unkind world. Because regardless of how they might publicly represent their positions, many Americans embrace the characterizations of primetime police procedurals that portray police as protectors and avengers who sometimes have to cross ethical boundaries to keep us safe. This is a standard, mainstream perspective, propped up by glorified, fiction-driven stereotypes and illusions born of a need for the world to be divided into heroes and villains. Believing that criminals endanger us, and police protect us, allows us to accept the brutality that goes on around us as being, at worst, an unfortunate product of necessity. But, in truth, this perception is the last stronghold of those this system is actually designed to protect and comfort, because in 2016, the city I love, and plan to call home for the rest of my life, is riddled with enough bullets to shatter such illusions.
Chicago, perhaps more than any city in the country, proves that allowing police to operate outside the law does not keep communities safe. While police officials have steadily blamed a lack of community cooperation for their inability to close cases, their rank and file make the alienation of those communities a daily practice. For Black youth, police harassment is a standard expectation, and police violence a tragic fact of life. And Chicago’s street violence, which has become the stuff of Spike Lee films and late-night comedy routines, has raged on, at best unaffected by the presence of police, and at worst, compounded by it.
But how does a community confronted with such an intractable source of harm fight back? In Chicago, young Black people – and young Black women in particular – have led campaigns demanding accountability, but those waging these battles face formidable bureaucratic obstacles. Whether the demand is reparations for police torture, or the firing of a killer cop like Dante Servin, these are complex struggles that can drag on for years, fatiguing and testing the will of all those who care enough to fight.
But there is someone who can be held accountable, here and now, and in the simplest manner our system affords. Anita Alvarez can be voted out of office.
Alvarez, who has not merely failed to hold police accountable for their crimes, but actually participated in cover-ups and the prosecution of whistleblowers, is an elected official. That means that our city and county are actually afforded a very basic opportunity, on a semi-regular basis, to co-sign or reject her behavior. And while no number of feet on the streets can dislodge a killer cop if the system refuses to bend, Alvarez is wholly vulnerable to the will of the people.
But do enough of “the people” really care?
The young Black people spearheading the #ByeAnita campaign certainly hope so. They have lashed out against the beleaguered State’s Attorney, interrupting one reelection event after another, and propelling Alvarez’s dubious record into the national spotlight. But will those who don’t reap the daily consequences of her actions show up to defend Black lives?
As I stood at the intersection of Clark and Congress on the 15th of December, waiting to be arrested with my friends for shutting down traffic, I knew we were inconveniencing a great many people. I knew that, amid the cacophony of car horns blasting all around us, a great many commuters were thinking, or even declaring, “Sure, Alvarez and Emanuel are bad, but what have I done to deserve this?” And while I felt for good people, with good values, who may have been delayed on their way to do something that mattered, my feelings on the subject are largely less generous.
The “what have I done to deserve this” attitude about the inconvenience of protest is a common one, but for many who would say such things, I simply have to ask, what have you done to deserve peace? What have you done to defend the lives of those murdered and ground under by this system? And when have you made the slightest effort to correct the course of this racist society?
Do you believe, as J. Edgar Hoover once said, that “justice is merely incidental to law and order,” or do believe that we have a duty to demand that right be done in our names? And if you don’t believe that this system should be held accountable for the murder and abuse of people of color, how dare you speak at all?
If you are a resident of Cook County who believes that the trappings of this democracy have any value at all, you have a fateful decision to make that speaks to both your character and the character of the place you call home. You have an opportunity to do more than shake your head over tragic headlines or acknowledge that protesters might have a point. You have a chance to show up and make a single declaration for the sake of justice that will help shape the experiences of those who are subject to this system.
You have a chance to prove that, unlike Alvarez, you are not complicit with the violence that has been committed in your name.
A vote for Alvarez is plainly and simply a vote for anti-Blackness. It is a vote for the status quo of police violence and for the climate of fear in our city streets. And if you believe in voting at all, failing to show up for young Black people, for Black lives and for the very idea of justice means you have no right to open your mouth about violence, corruption, racial tension or anything else that’s tearing our city apart.
If you believe in the ballot, but choose to throw away this most basic of opportunities to affirm the value of Black lives, you deserve every inconvenience you are subjected to. And if you don’t help to displace Alvarez, please don’t expect me to care the next time I hear your car horn blasting as we shut down a city street. Because if you don’t care about justice, then you don’t deserve peace.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.