Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Darby Tillis: Meaningful Solidarity in Action

This morning I will be attending the Chicago City Council hearing along with dozens of other Chicagoans in support of the Reparations Ordinance for Chicago police torture survivors. If passed, this ordinance would set aside $20 million in financial compensation for Burge police torture survivors; establish a psychological center on the South Side of Chicago; and provide job training and free tuition at Chicago City schools along with an official apology from the City and a memorial dedicated to the survivors. Although it is impossible to make up for the torture and forced confessions that lead to convictions and years behind bars for over 110 mostly African American men tortured by former police Commander Jon Burge and his midnight crew of white Chicago police officers, the Reparations Ordinance would offer a “measure of justice” for the survivors and their families as Darrell Cannon said last week at our Sing-In for Reparations at City Hall.

Today is also the 28th anniversary of Darby Tillis' release from Illinois' death row. Darby was formidable:  a survivor of the death house, five trials, two hung juries and nine years, one month, and seventeen days caged in the penitentiary. Standing over six feet tall, always dressed in black, his boots, pants, dashiki, cap, and a thick gold chain with a Jesus crucifix, his medallion, Darby was dauntless and his presence palpable wherever he was. And he was everywhere. Resisting the system was a way of life for Darby. He took part in and helped to organize countless marches, protests, town hall forums, press conferences, and sit-ins.

Moving beyond traditional organizing tactics, Darby wrote and performed music for the masses, original songs like Bags, a confession about the tears he cried doing time for another man’s crime. He created a one-man show, “Death Row Blues,” a theatrical performance that gave a glimpse into his existence on death row. He was the architect of guerrilla street theater actions like the Death Row Shuffle where he led a group on the streets of Chicago and in front of City Hall dressed in an orange jumpsuit and a chain around his waist shouting out to passersby, “We’re introducing today, a new dance that’s gonna sweep the nation that’s called the death row shuffle.” Darby didn’t have a fancy name for what he was doing and he wasn’t funded by foundations or grants; he did what compelled him. He acted on his calling by unleashing the radical imagination of his heart and soul. We lost Darby last November, and I wish he were here to attend the hearing with us. 

In Illinois, the movements against the death penalty and torture coalesced in the late nineties and into the next decade. Instinctively, death row survivors and torture survivors knew that their struggles were intertwined, their fates the result of a system that was intended to ensnare black and brown lives. Though Darby was not tortured by Burge, he took up the fight to win justice for the Death Row 10 and all of Burge's victims. 

Darby led a life of meaningful solidarity in action. Despite the personal challenges and demons he faced – Darby suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a result of his time on death row – he showed up for friends and strangers alike. “I will never be free of death row,” Darby often said.

There was a time when I thought Darby and I were unlikely friends; he became a co-conspirator, a comrade, a confidante who I grew up with in my twenties, my thirties, and in to my forties. I met Darby when I was in graduate school; back when I first came into activism against police brutality and the death penalty. Back then I never would have guessed that we would travel to dozens of churches and college campuses on the East and West Coasts on truth-telling missions; that we would march down Michigan Avenue countless times to abolish the death penalty, win justice for torture survivors, and shut down Tamms; that we would celebrate his birthday along with my sister’s at my house with family and friends; that he would be the person I would call to take me to get my car from the pound in the middle of the night on a cold blistering day; that we’d eat salads together on the 7th floor of Macy’s on State Street as we schemed our next steps.

This morning, as we demand a hearing for the Reparations Ordinance and call for its passage, I want to remember Darby, our beloved caped crusader for justice. It is an indictment of the system that Darby never received any financial compensation for a lawsuit because the statue of limitations had passed. Darby, along with his co-defendant Perry Cobb, were the first to be exonerated from Illinois’ death row back in back in 1987 before wrongful convictions were making national headlines. It is an indictment of the system that the Reparations Ordinance has been stalled in the Finance Committee of Chicago’s City Council for the last year and a half.

Every year, Darby organized an event on the anniversary of his release as a call to action for all the “foot soldiers of the movement.” On this day, let’s honor Darby’s legacy by standing up for a “measure of justice” for Chicago police torture survivors.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Real Life Superhero: An Interview with Mark Clements and Bernardine Dohrn

I’m a sucker for super heroes and the endless stream of Hollywood movie remakes offering me a thrilling escape where justice is always served. But this weekend -- as torture survivor Mark Clements celebrated his four year homecoming anniversary, as Whittier parents stood their ground as the City of Chicago demolished the school’s field house turned community center, as the people of Egypt continued to face violence and repression to defend the democratic aims of the revolution they made -- I was starkly reminded of our real life superheroes, the freedom fighters who struggle every day for a better world.

On this day, four years ago Mark Clements won his freedom from twenty-eight years of wrongful conviction. As a sixteen year old, he was tortured by Chicago police, forced into confessing to a crime he did not commit, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Behind bars, he worked relentlessly for his freedom. His superhero power was his sheer determination alongside his uncanny ability to maintain hope against hope. And his special weapon was the stacks of paper that he was known for carrying around on the inside – papers that might convince “someone to listen.”

Last week, I sat down with Mark and Bernardine Dohrn, a long-time freedom fighter who met Mark in her efforts to abolish juvenile LWOP. I’ve known Mark and Bernardine for years – I’m proud to call them my good friends – and they have an amazing story that I wanted to capture in their own words. Here’s a glimpse of our conversation - my questions merely act as a catalyst to illuminate the forging of a beautiful friendship and a shared commitment against the criminalization of Black and Brown youth.

conspiring for a better tomorrow -- Bernardine, Mark, Alice 

AK: You were sixteen years old when you were arrested, tortured, and wrongfully convicted. Who were you back then?

MARK: When I was sixteen years old, I was an uneducated kid. I wouldn’t say misguided – but without education. I was a paperboy. I was just a kid. I was the skinniest kid you could ever imagine. My mother used drugs then, and I would go find her. My brother would be like, she’ll come home. But I’d go find her and bring her home. I would say that this put choices and responsibilities on us that should not have been on us as young children. But neither one of us made any irrational decisions that should have amounted to a prison sentences.

I didn’t see the violence of this world. I didn’t see the racism of this world. Even though I knew that racism existed, I always had a habit of treating people the way that I would want to be treated. Despite the fact that maybe their views may not be on my same level.

Do you think that people are born racist or want to be racist? No. So I always looked at that fact that perhaps it was their father or mother or their generation that kind of like caused them to be this way. But I personally never knew anything about Jon Burge or anything about torture upon African Americans until it happened to me. I haven’t made it a secret – but without Bernardine, I’d still be in prison.

BERNARDINE: I don’t think that’s true. My piece is such a small piece. I’ve never met anybody – and I’ve had a long life of knowing people who are prisoners and done a little bit of jail time myself – who worked as hard and as relentlessly at their own freedom and to prove their own innocence. He deserves 100% of the credit for his freedom. He wrote people relentlessly who would work for his freedom.

AK: How did you learn about Mark’s case and what stood out to you about it?

BERNARDINE: About 10 of us drove down to Pontiac to interview juveniles with LWOP. I had Mark’s file – and I think it was given it arbitrarily. It was a very thin file of information that we had. It said quadruple homicide, 16 years old, mentally retarded. And that’s about it. Based on the file, my expectation of him couldn’t have been more off.

Mark had a stack of paper higher than him. We were going to give him an explanation of who we were…but he already knew exactly who we were. He knew the other juvenile LWOP people. He was so far ahead of us. He was so obviously self-educated, literate, not retarded, and a passionate, creative organizer on the inside.

There was no forensic evidence against him – just the confession. So all I did was make the phone calls to get him the kind of investigative team who would be able to put the money into looking up an old case like this and getting the case in front of the special prosecutor. I simply was a catalyst in this thing. Mark really organized for his own freedom.

MARK: She took the initiative – and for that I will always be grateful to Bernardine.

BERNARDINE: Mark’s case was startling to me not only because he was innocent but because of who he became in prison. I think that this is important. Some of the JLWOP prisoners are innocent or at the most, played a very minor role in a murder, and some of them actually committed the murders and became somebody else. You have a range of culpability, but what you have in common is their youthfulness, that they were children at the time And as the Supreme Court has said, children are categorically less culpable. In this sense Mark is quite a unique organizer and activist. His own innocence makes him fierce about other people’s innocence. He also recognizes that people change and that these sentences are draconian because they don’t take into account people’s ability to mature and come into their own humanity. That combination of factors is what Mark represents. People grow and develop. I hope I still do.

MARK: You learn every day. When you stop learning, you’re dead. And as long as we stereotype young kids – I don’t care what color they are – you’re going to have police go out and falsely arrest people. For young people to be stereotyped as some type of criminal, I have a problem with that. This society today is very dark. We’ve made great strides in reforming the criminal justice system, but what good is reform if we still have people in prison who are innocent? There are Burge torture victims you never hear about because they never confessed to the crime. These are some of the tough issues that we must try to expose as activists.

Chi4Trayvon Rally -- Nathson Fields, Mark Clements, Alice Kim, Darby Tillis

BERNARDINE: I was just in California working with the hunger strikers a pelican bay. And I’m in California – a progressive state where white people are the minority – and you say, well in Illinois we abolished the death penalty and we closed TAMMS (I’m comparing TAMMS to Pelican Bay) and we closed three prisons last year. I just want to note what’s been accomplished because when you’re in another state and you look at it – it’s kind of amazing and dramatic – even as we have a long way to go to unravel what’s been built since the 80s in terms of a carceral state.

AK: Can you talk about the efforts to abolish juvenile LWOP?

BERNARDINE:  JLWOP was prohibited by international law…the US is the only country in the world that has such a sentence for children who commit crimes. It’s a proxy that shows everything wrong with how justice for youth works. It’s wildly racially disproportionate, 80% of the hundred men in prison in Illinois are African American and Latino. There’s one woman who has a campaign for her freedom that Amnesty International has taken on. She’s a changed person and she’s done 20 years already. All of these guys were tried as adults. If they had been born with a Glencoe address (well there’s one from that area but he’s an anomaly) but everyone else has a South Side or West Side address. No consideration was given to their youth, to their role in the crime, and they had no chance to show who they’ve become. It shows you how vengeful as a culture we are toward children and toward children of color.

AK: Can you share some of the joys and challenges that you’ve experienced since you’ve been out?

MARK: The biggest joy for me was walking out of prison and having my daughter pick me up and actually leaving without any chains. I wanted to get completely off of these people’s property. Let’s go. I would say the second biggest joy was watching Burge be sentenced even though he was not really found guilty of torture. What I would like to see achieved by 2014 is for Governor Patrick Quinn to sign legislation that outlaws juveniles from being sentenced to natural life.

For me, the most hurtful thing is seeing mothers suffer who still have torture victims locked up or seeing any mother suffer. I was at least able to spend two homecoming anniversaries with Mom before she passed. Mom used drugs well into her thirties but she abandoned using and I saw a difference in her character and her drive to fight for me. I will always be thankful for my mother because if it was not for my mother I would not have had a voice and people would not know about my situation. She worked with the People’s Law Office and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression when most people were weary of getting involved in the fight.

I have a vision of my moms – I take her everywhere I go – she’s in my heart. Now, seeing the mothers of the torture victim – their anguish, their tears, their hurt, their disappointment in trying to get their son’s home – it motivates me to fight harder. Without these mothers, I might have left this a long time ago – there’s a lot of stress involved with this – but I take my hat off to the mothers and ask them to be strong.

Whenever I talk to Mark, I’m astonished by his compassion and determination. He and the other torture survivors have every reason to be bitter and angry, yet they are a testament to our humanity. There’s so much we can learn from him, the survivors, the mothers, and each other. As he said, “when you stop learning, you’re dead.” Today, I take my hat off to Mark Clements, a real life (super) hero in his own right.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Prayer From An Atheist

Dear God, this is a prayer
from an atheist who wants to believe
in the higher power of humanity
and herself. She wrote this poem in a dream.
When she woke she could
only remember this beginning.

She went on with her day.
A morning walk with her dog.
Another day at the office.
Meetings, lunch, emails.
A rap session at a west side barber shop.
Talking to strangers, that’s her job.
Seeking absolution and to forget,
after work she went to the beach.
It was a glorious Friday night.
Her small black dog pranced around gleefully.
The cool sand felt goopy against her bare feet.
After sunset, a moment before dark, she captured
a glimmer of serenity in a photo she posted on Facebook,
a pic that belied the impatience she felt.

Next came red wine, organic burgers, sweet potato fries.
Sweet comfort of gossip and girlfriends.
Filled momentarily, her eyes drooped. Then she recalled
the unwritten poem from her 6:00 a.m. dream.
Her body chilled. And she left.

Lids drooping, an ache in her shoulders, she drove home.
Heat turned on full blast, too hot, she opened the window.
Like Goldilocks. She strained her brain for the sleep-inspired 
cadence that chose and choked her.
By the power divested from her,
fourteen hours later, this poem still escaped her.

Troy Davis: It Could Have Been Me

Earlier this month, I spent a Saturday evening with Darby Tillis, Delbert Tibbs, Ronnie Kitchen, Nathson Fields, Dicky Gaines, Mark Clemens, Marvin Reeves, Darrel Cannon, and Montell Johnson. In other circumstances, some might call these men thugs. I call them my heroes. Each of these men were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. After years behind bars for crimes they did not commit, these men have every reason to be bitter and filled with hate. Instead, they press on as survivors of injustice, as men who refuse to accept the inhumanity of the new Jim Crow incarceral state of things.

We came together along with family members of torture survivors, others with loved ones who are incarcerated, community activists, and artists who wanted to remember and honor Troy Davis. A year ago today, Troy was executed by the state of Georgia. Just shy of his forty-third birthday, Troy had spent nearly half his life, that's twenty years, on death row when he was killed by lethal injection. He refused to place a last meal request, a morbid death row tradition in which death row prisoners are afforded a last wish meal of their desire before they are executed. And, he refused the institution's meal tray comprised of cheeseburgers, oven brown potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw, cookies and grape beverage, the details of this meal an odd focus of the mainstream media at the time of his execution.

On the eve of Troy's execution, as I gathered with hundreds of others at the Federal building here in Chicago hoping against hope for a last minute stay of execution, I remember wondering what Troy was doing and thinking at that exact moment, and how torturous the last minutes of his life must have been for him. At one point, when the execution was delayed for several hours, we thought Troy's life may have been spared. But this short reprieve was misleading. In the end, the State of Georgia chose to disregard overwhelming evidence of Troy's innocence and proceeded with their execution later that evening.

In the days following his execution, I was listless and hopeless. In Illinois, we had successfully abolished the death penalty that same year, but in Georgia the death penalty was alive and well and despite an international movement to save his life, Troy was dead. Although I had never met Troy in person, I talked to him, just once, on the phone. His sister, Martina Correia, was in town for a conference and a group of us were having dinner with her at my place. When Troy called, she put him on speaker phone and we all got to talk to him. It was a magical moment. My little sisters in the movement, FM Supreme and Deja Taylor were in the house, and they spit a piece for him. This inspired Troy to spit a poem he had written back to us. That night, we were filled with promise and possibility.

I'm grateful to Darby Tillis for insisting on an evening of remembrance in Troy's honor. "It could have been me," he said, and aptly named this tribute to Troy. Darby, who I like to call the caped crusader for justice (because he sometimes dons a black cape), also Illinois' first exonerated death row prisoner and a blues musician, performed new songs for Troy. The exonerated gave testimonials in Troy's name. And poets FM Supreme and Kevin Coval shared pieces they had written for Troy and his sister. Martina, Troy's most steadfast advocate, had been fighting a personal battle against breast cancer and died within several months of her brother's execution. On this evening of remembrance, we honored brother and sister, and in remembering their courage and resilience, together as a community, in this sad place we found joy and hope.

Today, on this one-year anniversary of Troy's execution, I choose to believe in humanity.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dreaming of Sushi

Jiro Ono dreams of making sushi. But he doesn't just dream about it. He does it -- for the last sixty years of his life, seven days a week with the exception of national holidays. Making sushi. It's his ecstasy, his obsession, his raison d'etre. The movie about him, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, makes you want to eat sushi. Not just any sushi, but the mouthwatering delectable bites of sushi meticulously prepared by Jiro and his team. The art of making sushi is both laborious and beautiful. I was mesmerized by images of hands massaging an octopus for fifty minutes, the pressure cooking of rice with a lid so heavy it takes two hands to carry, and the slicing of raw fish in exacting proportions. All this and so much more to create a masterpiece mouthful of sushi. After seeing this movie last night, I want to go to Japan just to eat at one of the ten seats in Jiro's restaurant.

But the movie isn't just about sushi. It's about making and choosing a life. It's about survival. It's about the art of every day. Jiro's parents abandoned him when he was nine. The movie doesn't tell us what he did to survive, but we know that somehow through his own relentlessness, he did. When he was nineteen, he got a job at a sushi restaurant, and he never stopped, although he managed to get married and have two sons. We don't see Jiro's home life and we never meet his wife. He tells us he wasn't much of a father when his sons were growing up. 

When his sons graduated from high school, they wanted to go to college, but Jiro urged them to help him at his restaurant instead. They followed in his footsteps, and he says that he was hard on them during their apprenticeships. It takes ten years to become a chef at his restaurant. Before prepping any food let alone touching a piece of fish, an apprentice must first learn how to properly wring a boiling hot hand towel, an effort that usually takes several weeks at least. Both his sons endured, and now his younger son owns his own sushi restaurant while his elder son, Yoshikazu, still works under him, in line to take over his world-class restaurant when he can no longer work. It's not clear what Jiro's demons are, only that his passion for sushi is what defines him. 

I'm always curious about what makes people who we are: what moves us, what paralyzes us, what inspires us. I want to know why we make the choices we do, what compels us to change (or stay the same), what gives us strength, what connects us. In one of the few scenes outside the restaurant, Jiro visits his parents' grave site with Yoshikazu. After a brief moment of silence with their heads bowed down, Jiro says "I don't know why I'm here. My parents didn't take care of me." I'm paraphrasing here, but his words stayed with me. Jiro doesn't live in the past, but he hasn't forgotten it either. 

For Jiro, sushi is a way of life. His fastidiousness in all things sushi -- his unyielding (even ruthless) quest for perfection -- is how he makes his life matter. It gives him something to hold on to and pass on. It's not for the fame or the glory or the money, he tells us this himself. What I learned from Jiro is that passion is about process, practice, and the act of creation. I think it's also about love. His devotion to his discipline is how he loves this world even its hard places. It's what nourishes him. It's how he nourishes others. It's what makes him extraordinary. It's also what makes him human. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Man on State Street

I can’t stop thinking about him, this man I saw on State Street. I almost didn’t notice him as I hurried by with envelope in hand, anxious to get to the post office to mail my request for a tax extension by tax day deadline.

He was Asian like me, older than me, sitting on the corner, wearing a blue windbreaker, holding the neck of an instrument - black and worn - with just a few strings. It looked like a violin (an instrument I own and once played regularly) without its typical wooden body or what’s technically called a bout. His ghost-like eyes peered out at passersby, but I don’t know if he saw any of us, as he held his bow moving it wearily back and forth across the strings.

The glorious sound of what sounded like an ancient lullaby beckoned me, and I paused momentarily. I looked down at a worn duffle bag on the ground where the music seemed to be emanating. I couldn’t tell if the bag was hiding a boom box or an amp. Was he really playing or was he faking it and why did I care? I suddenly felt embarrassed for him, and I quickly walked on, away from this stranger (or this brother) of mine who might be as old as my father if my father were still alive.

The other night over pate and wine, I talked with a friend about being intentional about shaping the culture we want, what it means to contend with an Asian American identity, and how writers of color might assert themselves more aggressively in the literary cultural scene. He offered his thoughts on a synthesis of politics and culture that’s been lost in the current state of Asian America. I agreed that a reclaiming of a rich radical tradition among Asian Americans was necessary. This conversation, and the possibilities it alluded to, excited me.

But where does this man, who I noticed only fleetingly, who plays or pretends to play a stringed instrument on State Street fit in? What's his story and what are his dreams? I hope I see him again. I hope that I'll stop to listen to him. And even though talking to strangers can be hard for me -- I hate to admit it because I organize public conversations for a living -- maybe, I'll ask him his name and have a conversation with him. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

A thought (or two) about the Hunger Games

I was planning to see Hunger Games when it first came out, but life intervened. I finally saw a matinee show last Saturday, and I have a few thoughts. For me, the Hunger Games resonates with these times because it is about hope in the face of hopelessness and humanity in the face of barbarism. It's about a 1% that lives in opulence and luxury while the 99% are forced to compete with each other for their very survival as they struggle to subsist and live with dignity. 

I was a huge fan of the books. Enthralled, I couldn't but my Kindle down, and I read the trilogy over the Christmas holiday (one per day over three days). Book one is better than the movie, hands down. But I was drawn in by the movie too, even though it was less action-packed than I thought it would be. Usually, I'm so impatient to get to the end (I like to know what happens in movies before I see them). Perhaps, because I already knew the ending, I could just sit back and soak it all in. 

The very premise of the movie is based on the fierce love that Katniss Everdeen demonstrates when she volunteers to take the place of her little sister in the Hunger Games. To be honest, I didn't picture Katniss to be so lily white when I read the book, but I was won over by Jennifer Lawrence's phenomenal acting. As Katniss fights for her own life, debased and forced to kill, she responds to impossible situations with acts of love. When our heroine mourns the death of her newfound ally Rue, a young black girl who unexpectedly saves her life, her grief and pain are palpable. 

But Katniss is not a martyr; she is a survivor. Although she acts with compassion, she acts shrewdly too. Together, she and Peeta, the boy from District 12, put on a show of star struck lovers to win a popularity contest with the Hunger Games audience. Big Brother is always watching in the Hunger Games arena, and Katniss and Peeta give the audience something to watch. As the two young lovers care for each other, it’s hard to know what’s for show and what’s not. Can true love be born out of tragedy, desperation and need? 

As Peeta says on the eve of the Games: "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not....I keep wishing I could think of a way the Capitol they don't own me. That I'm more than just a piece in the Games." Perhaps, love is the very act of rebellion that Peeta is seeking. By saving each other, Katniss and Peeta ultimately save themselves. 

No doubt, the Hunger Games can be seen as an allegory for today, the 1% percent versus the 99%, as I mentioned previously. But more than that, this surprising and fantastical and familiar story acknowledges the vulgar acts of violence that surround us; and, in spite of this (or perhaps because of this) asks us to always seek our own humanity.