A Celebration of Women Academics Doing Activist Work for and with Students Incarcerated
Jessa Shortridge, One Book Ambassador
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
On the afternoon of March 31, a group of 55 members of the Northwestern community joined together virtually for an event entitled "Scholars of Service: A Celebration of Women Academics Doing Activist Work for and with Students Incarcerated." The speakers were Dr. Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of African American Studies, as well as Ph.D. Candidates Charlotte Rosen (History) and Sanjana Subramaniam (Mechanical Engineering). Each speaker shared their experiences working with NPEP, the Northwestern Prison Education Program.However, each of the speakers pushed back against this title, emphasizing that this narrative of service and charity upholds racist and classist power systems which contribute to mass incarceration. All three of them preferred to center the conversation around the inmates rather than themselves. Dr. Pattillo spoke first, and she emphasized her discomfort with the accolades she receives for her work and service. This work, she attests, is simply a drop in the bucket of the systemic issues innate in the criminal justice system. She spoke about her motivations for working with NPEP - her love of teaching and learning from the students, and her responsibility to give back from the opportunities she has been blessed with.Next, Rosen spoke, and her main point was the importance of prison abolition and programs such as NPEP which cultivate a life-giving and creative space within the draining environment of prison. She described how telling it is that her path would never have crossed with the NPEP students if not for the program. This is due to the way society is thoroughly divided between poor and rich areas, and neighborhoods of predominantly one race or ethnicity. Subramaniam spoke next, and she focused on new expansion efforts of NPEP and how students can get involved. NPEP has a brand new program in the women's prison, Logan Correctional Center, which is their first time working with female students. She also mentioned correspondence tutoring, in which students can get involved by writing letters back and forth with inmates about their academics. In addition, undergraduate students can help by raising funds, attending events, and raising awareness in the Northwestern community.
The connections between this event and the themes in this year's One Book, Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, are evident. Both the Equal Justice Initiative and NPEP are efforts which address mass incarceration and the oppression of America's prison system. However, NPEP focuses on bringing education to the prisons, culminating in many cases in degrees which the inmates can use to secure earlier releases and find jobs upon reentry. It is an intellectual escape from the day-to-day of life in prison, and it creates a community of positivity and learning. The most important message each of the speakers wanted to leave the audience with was to see the hope in how far prison activism has come, and how many ways there are to get involved in the fight.
Women’s Center Live Streamed Interview with Chicago Community Bond Fund
Eleanor Ellis, One Book Ambassador
Friday, March 12, 2021
On Friday, March 12 the Northwestern Women’s Center hosted an event with Malik Alim from the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF). Concluding the Center’s Mutual Aid and Community Engagement interview series, Njoki Kamau and Aaliyah Berryman spoke with Alim about the CCBF’s mutual aid work and advocacy efforts to end the cash bail system in Illinois. Livestreamed on Facebook, the conversation was full of thoughtful reflections on mutual aid, incarceration, and organizing and activism in Chicago.
To start off the interview, Alim explained how the Chicago Community Bond Fund practices mutual aid. Since 2014, CCBF has used a “revolving fund” to get people out of pretrial detention by helping those who cannot afford to pay bond, which is often required to be released from Cook County Jail until their court date. People who cannot afford to pay court-ordered bail remain incarcerated indefinitely, sometimes for months or years. Alim explained how the revolving fund works: people donate money to CCBF, and the organization pays someone’s bond so they can go free. After that individual’s court date, the money is returned to CCBF, and they use these funds to pay someone else’s bail. The organization also provides mutual aid legal and post-release support.
The Chicago Community Bond Fund also advocates for systemic change, such as the abolition of the cash bail system. After their bond is paid, people have the opportunity to continue working with the organization and can choose to amplify their own stories to advocate for policy changes. These advocacy efforts, undertaken with a coalition of local organizations, led to the recent Pretrial Fairness Act which ends the cash bail system in Illinois. Beginning in 2023, no one can be held in jail because they cannot afford to pay their bond. Now, CCBF is shifting their work toward implementation of this policy, and Alim says the organization “hopes the revolving fund will be obsolete.”
An important theme of the interview was the emphasis on coalitions, solidarity, and abolition. Alim positioned CCBF’s work within the larger collective struggle and organizing community in Chicago, saying there is a “huge focus on coalition work, collaboration, and cross-pollination.” The Chicago Community Bond Fund is also a Black woman led and explicitly abolitionist organization. They hold that carceral systems are inherently violent and “don’t offer the necessary space to be able to heal.” Alim’s own experiences and CCBF’s work illustrate some of the key themes in Just Mercy, particularly the ways in which incarceration and injustice are shaped by race, class, and other inequities. Ultimately, the interview highlighted that people, working together, have the power to help their community survive and to fight for larger change.
This interview and the rest of the Women’s Center mutual aid series can be found here.
More information about CCBF and how to get involved can be found on their website.
Transforming Criminal Justice: Queer Incarceration
Andrew Young, One Book Ambassador
Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Trigger Warning - Sensitive subjects are discussed in reference to the topics covered by the panel, including themes of sexual violence, prison violence, solitary confinement, antisemitism, and homophobia.
On March 2, members of the Northwestern community gathered together to hear from 3 different speakers who presented as a part of a Queer Incarceration Panel put together by the Undergraduate Prison Education Partnership. Before an audience of about 40 people, the program’s founder Professor Jennifer Lackey introduced herself and talked a little bit about UPEP and NPEP (Northwestern Prison Education Program) which work to provide incarcerated students with a degree from the University. Afterwards, the three panelists gave their respective presentations. Up first was Evie Litwok, the founder and executive director of Witness to Mass Incarceration, a group that places LQBTQ+ folks at the forefront of the movement to end mass incarceration. Ms. Litwok described her past experiences as an incarcerated, lesbian, Jewish woman. Her parents were both Holocaust survivors and had a huge influence on her life. She highlighted the injustices she faced at the hands of the legal system and described the brutal and unfair treatment she received in prison as a direct result of the fact that she was lesbian, soemthing that also played a large role in her sentencing. She noted the inhumane process of solitary confinement, the horrendous behavior of guards, and abuse of women behind bars. When asked what she hopes for, she answered, “revolution.” The next speaker was Professor Stephen Dillon, a professor of Critical Race and Queer Studies at Hampshire College and the author of Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State. Professor Dillon discussed at length the intricacies involved in LQBTQ+ power movements, the role police play in society, and how activism has been professionalized throughout history. He discussed the fact that if the United States is capable of keeping anyone inside of the conditions present in prisons, nobody in society is truly safe. He discusses how the moments for LGBTQ+ equality largely forget incarcerated individuals and instead focus on “winnable battles.” He closed with captivating comments about the role of marginalization in society and the notion that prisons are part of the problem, but certainly not all of it. If prisons are abolished but the underlying marginalization behind them is not, nothing will ever truly change. The final speaker was Ilan Meyer, an American psychiatric epidemiologist, author, professor, and senior scholar for public policy and sexual law at the Williams Institute of UCLA. Professor Meyer presented a data-driven analysis of the demographics present in prisons concerning the LGBTQ+ community. One of the facts he mentioned noted that 10 times the percentage of LGBTQ+ people in the general population are incarcerated. He explained that LGBTQ+ individuals are punished more often, more harshly, and for longer periods of time compared to other prisoners. He also focused heavily on the issues surrounding missing data. He explained that he needed to hire a legal team just to find information that is “publicly available”; the effort still took 3 years. All of the speakers provided great insight into the drastic damages that are inflicted upon LGBTQ+ individuals in the legal system, problems that are clearly not being addressed enough in society.
In regards to a connection between this panel and Just Mercy, one clear point that all three panelists took time to focus on was the cyclical nature of the evil system that deprives so many LGBTQ+ victims of humanity and justice. The panelists talked repeatedly about the fact that the prison system includes profitable opportunities for those who run it, contributing to an endless cycle of injustice. One example is in L.A., where a separate prison for transgender inmates was recently created. While this may initially seem like a measure of reform, one must consider the fact that money must be raised for the prison, a staff must be hired for it, and inmates are needed to fill it. In order to fill it, more laws are enacted, and the cycle continues. This cyclic nature is ever-present in Bryan Stevenson’s book, one which highlights the harm done to marginalized individuals as wheels of continual injustice continually spin on.
You can visit Ms. Litwok’s site here: https://www.witnesstomassincarceration.org
COVID in Prison and the Challenges of Hitting a Moving Target: Successes and Failures
Bobby Read, One Book Ambassador
Thursday, February 11, 2021
On Thursday, February 11th, 2021, Alan Mills, Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), described the conditions of the Illinois prison system, including where it started, what happened in the past ten months, and what the future holds. With about 30 people in attendance, Mills went into detail regarding the Covid-19 outbreak in prisons and how, initially, this outbreak was primarily in prison systems. Since, the outbreak has spread tremendously, as it has in almost every corner of the country and world. Cook County Jail was one of the top ten hotspots when Covid first hit the United States in late Winter/early Spring 2020. After skyrocketing to almost 600 confirmed cases in the beginning, the positive cases tapered off until September after litigation was presented and enforced in the jail. After September, and after refusals to produce Covid tests for prisoners, cases skyrocketed yet again and reached a grand total of almost 1500 cases as of January 30th, 2021. And this was only Cook County Jail.
When speaking of the prison system in Illinois, the trends were very similar. Stateville Prison, which Mills focused on the most, was not doing a great job of tracking Covid cases and protecting people they imprisoned from the infection. That was until Mills led the way with Money v. Pritzker which fought for early release of prisoners and the introduction of better and more sanitation supplies and PPE. Mills went on to state that after reading some level of stability among the chaos in May, officials’ refusal to test prisoners and guards on a regular basis sparked another rise in cases in the Fall, around the same time Cook County Jail had their second major increase. Mills wrapped up his presentation by talking about the future and how vaccine distribution to the prison system was originally not on anyone’s priority list but has changed after being challenged by Mills and his colleagues. Now, guards, inmates, and all individuals that work in the prison system are scheduled to receive vaccines during Phase 1B here in Illinois and other places have similar initiatives in place. Only time will tell how effective these distributions will be and how the spread of Covid in prisoners will hopefully dissipate.
For the second half of the evening, listeners on the call were sent to breakout rooms to discuss a list of questions written by Mills. These conversations produced little concrete decisions but provided countless good thoughts regarding prisoners receiving vaccines, how the press plays a role in the vaccination process, and the overall effect of needing to isolate prisoners to further prevent the spread of Covid. Mills stated “Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy that being proximate to the problem is vital to solving it. In the prison world, that means going to see prisoners.” The themes of Just Mercy are clearly at play throughout this entire scenario and the discussions held in the breakout rooms. Rounding out the night with a final note from Mills, he encouraged people to educate themselves on the prison system and the impact Covid has created and to try to take action in a way we feel comfortable. Only then will we be able to help be a part of the solution.
Encore presentation of Wine in the Wilderness, by Alice Childress, directed by Jasmine B. Gunter
Iliana Schmidt, One Book Fellow
Friday, February 5, 2021
Beginning Friday, February 6, 2021 through the end of the weekend, the Wirtz Center for Performing Arts presented a 90-minute virtual showing of Alice Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness via Vimeo as part of the Visions and Voices series. Wine in the Wilderness follows a Black artist, Bill, as he paints a triptych centered around Black womanhood. At the start of the play, Bill has already painted two of the three pieces—the first, a portrait of a young girl titled “Black Girlhood,” and the second, “Wine in the Wilderness,” is a portrait of his idealized version of the beautiful woman “Mother Africa.” The third piece in the triptych, unpainted at the beginning of the play, is the “Lost Woman,” who Bill describes as “as far from the African Queen as a woman can get and still be female.” Bill’s best friend, Sonny-man, and Sonny-man’s wife Cynthia find a woman, Tomorrow “Tommy” Marie at a bar, who has just been struck by tragedy as her apartment burned down. Sonny-man suggests to Bill that he paint Tommy, who agrees after some hesitation because of her romantic interest in Bill. Bill and Tommy have a wonderful night where they get to know one another, and Tommy overhears Bill on the phone referring to “Wine in the Wilderness” and thinks he is speaking about her. The next morning, Bill’s friend Oldtimer comes to his apartment and exposes Tommy’s real role in the triptych, not as “Wine in the Wilderness” but as the “Lost Woman.” Tommy is angry at Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man for not telling her what her role was in the triptych and criticizes them for how they treat less educated African Americans as “others” and not part of the same community that face the same difficulties. Bill realizes his mistake and chooses to paint Tommy, Sonny-man, Cynthia, and Oldtimer as his new vision of the Black community and womanhood. This show, although not directly related to the legal themes of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, comments on the relationships between race and education, class, and womanhood, which are crucial relationships to understand as we reflect on the themes of Just Mercy.
A Few Short Plays to Save the World and What You Did by Steve Harper, directed by Tor Campbell
Jessa Shortridge, One Book Ambassador
Friday, January 22, 2021
Over the weekend of January 22-24, Northwestern's Wirtz Center for Performing Arts presented two short plays over a streaming platform. As part of the Visions and Voices Black Playwright's Reading Series, the plays A Few Short Plays to Save the World and What You Did by Steve Harper explore issues of race, the role of art in making a difference, and representation in media. All together, the video was only 40 minutes long, although the questions it raised are sure to provoke much broader and long-lasting reflections.
Although not directly tackling the themes of justice and mercy in the judicial system, these plays get to some of the core issues of race in this country which does figure into Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy. In A Few Short Plays to Save the World, three playwrights of color are tasked with representing the entire planet Earth in a plea to avoid being wiped out and colonized by aliens. Their diverse, creative voices are the only thing protecting humanity, just as organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves. In What You Did, two filmmakers confront questions of how race and representation in the media panders to mainstream audiences, and what kind of statement diversity in the arts can make. These questions are extremely relevant in this political climate, and fascinating to reflect on through the lens of theatre.
Zoom Talk-In with Keith LaMar from death row
Abigail Roston, One Book Fellow
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
The event “Zoom-in With Keith LaMar” was held on January 19th over Zoom. Around one hundred and fifty staff, students, and faculty had the privilege of hearing Keith LaMar tell his story and give a personal call to action. In 1989, Keith LaMar was sent to prison at the age of 19 for murder. Keith, at the time, was living in Cleveland, Ohio where he was selling drugs as his primary means of survival. On one life altering day, Keith was robbed at gunpoint and exchanged gunfire with his robbers. He was subsequently shot twice in his legs and hit one of the other men in the chest. The young man who was shot, once a childhood friend of Keith, passed away as a result of the gunfire. Keith pled guilty and was sent to prison for 18 years-to-life.
Yet, Keith’s primary plea for justice and collective action begins while incarcerated. Four years following his original sentence, Keith was attempting to put the pieces of his life back together and work for a second chance while serving out his time at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Keith and about 400 other men were outside exercising in the rec-yard on a Sunday in 1993 when commotion broke out. Keith, thinking quickly and decisively, made the decision to go inside and back to his cell. After securing his things, he and the others watched as the bodies of several men were dumped onto the yard. At day's end, the Ohio State Highway Patrol rounded up those on the yard and secured them into another part of the correctional facility. Prison records prove that Keith was among them. From this occurrence, an 11-day siege ensued. In the end, nine incarcerated people and one guard ultimately lost their lives.
Despite a complete lack of DNA or forensic evidence, the state needed someone to blame for the chaos that had taken place. Several incarcerated folks were enticed with the promise of early parole and/or dropped charged if they would give a name. Keith explains this as how he was wrongfully accused and later wrongfully sentenced to death.
While telling his story, Keith focused on one particular Bryan Stevenson quote. Specifically, Keith restated Stevenson’s words, “The opposite of poverty isn't wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice”. Keith is one of many living out the fears of Stevenson throughout his book Just Mercy. Stevenson describes and explains a criminal justice system which openly favors the wealthy over the poor, white over black, and oftentimes guilty rather than innocent. And yet, Keith embodies the resilience of the stories and themes of Just Mercy. Despite an impending death sentence, Keith is fighting for justice.
If you would like to get involved in taking action for Keith LaMar, please consider the following:
- Call Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and demand he release Keith (614) 466-3555
- “Hello, my name is ____ and I am calling regarding Keith LaMar, an inmate who has been unjustly sitting on death row in your state for nearly 30 years. Based on findings from the 2011 Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, Keith should never have been indicted in the first place. I, along with many others, demand that you release Keith. He has served his original sentence more than abundantly, and deserves to go home to his family and community, who desperately need and love him.”
- You can also use the above script to send an email to DeWine: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Visit KeithLaMar.org to learn more about the case, donate to his legal fund, sign his petition, buy his book “Condemned”, read his writing, and listen to his podcast interviews
- SHARE KEITH'S STORY! And follow @justiceforkeithlamar to stay updated on Keith’s case
DREAM Week 2021 Keynote with Mariame Kaba
Mikenzie Roberts, One Book Ambassador
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
On Wednesday, January 13, Mariame Kaba gave the 2021 MLK Commemoration Keynote address, part of Northwestern’s MLK Dream Week in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Kaba is a prison-industrial complex (PIC) activist, founder and co-founder of various grassroots organizations, and author. The zoom event was said to be attended by around 1,000 people. Kaba’s address was preceded by a performance by Northwestern Community Ensemble.
Kaba’s presentation, entitled “Lessons from King for 21st Century PIC Abolitionists,” connected the work of MLK to abolitionist work today. Mutual aid, “cooperation for the sake of the common good,” is a key aspect of both MLK’s organizing and PIC organizing today. Kaba showed the Montgomery bus boycott, a mutual aid project, as a precursor to the mutual aid projects seen today throughout the country.
Kaba discussed MLK’s encounters with police and the criminal legal system, noting that he was arrested 29 times in the course of his activism. Reading less-frequently cited MLK quotes, Kaba told the audience that MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech was also about police brutality against Black Americans. This version of MLK, the one critical of the United States government and its institutions, is the one that was assassinated, Kaba said.
The speech became even more specific to the Northwestern community when Kaba spoke about university policing. Kaba pointed out that university policing began around MLK’s time in response to student activism on campuses around the country. Policing, including university policing, was never about community safety, said Kaba. Citing recent events around Northwestern’s police department, Kaba praised NU Community Not Cops for doing “essential work” and called on students to join them in their efforts to abolish NUPD. In order for universities to take harm seriously, they must address the obvious harm perpetrated by police, Kaba said.
Kaba’s sentiments touch on the issues and themes of Just Mercy. Stevenson’s book details racism and other forms of violence against Black Americans in policing and prisons as well as the inhumanity and cruelty of the criminal legal system’s practices. The work of abolishing the prison-industrial complex and building communities based around practicing mutual aid as MLK did will prevent further harms like those detailed in Just Mercy.
In regards to action steps community members can take, Kaba cited nine solidarity commitments to the incarcerated community to complete in 2021. These commitments can be adjusted to create solidarity with any community for which one wishes to be a better ally. The nine solidarity commitments can be found here. Other resources can be found here.
Mercy at the Museum: Online Collection Tours
Iliana Schmidt, One Book Fellow
Friday, December 11, 2020
On Friday, December 11th, the Block Museum of Art hosted its third and final online tour of their collection as it relates to Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” At the event, museum curatorial assistant Melanie Garcia Sympson led the audience through the work of American photographer and activist Donna Ferrato, several of whose photographs the Block has in their collection. Ferrato spent over two decades photographing subjects related to domestic violence, many of whom ended up incarcerated after unfair trials. Ferrato has stated that she did not intend to dedicate her life and career to photographing domestic violence but grew close to one of the subjects of a different work and ended up observing and photographing an incident of intimate partner violence. She then went on to take photographs in Jefferson City, MO at the Renz women’s correctional facility as part of a series that was published in the book “Living with the Enemy” in 1991. The book includes case-study chapters as well as some capturing different institutions that play both positive and negative roles in situations of domestic violence: the police, batterers, incarceration, women’s shelters, and survivors. The Block Museum of Art houses Ferrato’s 1989 piece, “Women who Killed in Self defense serve 3 times longer than the Men who Killed their wives,” which was taken during a three-day visit to Renz women’s correctional facility in the long-term sentence block.
This piece in particular was chosen by The Block Museum’s staff for its relation to “Just Mercy,” namely the issues faced by women in the criminal legal system and the problems with the living conditions of the prisons. The specific photograph in question, “Women who Killed in Self defense serve 3 times longer than the Men who Killed their wives,” is a black and white, somewhat grainy photo that shows two women in one cell and one female guard outside looking in. One of the incarcerated women is staring back at the guard from the top bunk, and they seem to be having some sort of non-verbal exchange. Sympson emphasizes the two women as visual opposites—the photograph is very symmetrical and uses harsh contrasts of light and shadow to put the women in the cell in light and the guard in the dark. In addition to this photograph, Sympson shared another of the Block’s collection pieces. This photograph, another of Ferrato’s, shows a woman discussing with a police officer her story of domestic violence. This photograph shows the police officer in shadow in the foreground, with the woman in just a small portion of the left side of the photo.
Sympson emphasizes the importance of thinking about the ethics of Ferrato’s photos, especially those taken in the prison. Many of the subjects of her work are women in very vulnerable positions, and visiting a prison is not the same thing as being incarcerated. This leads Sympson to ask, “what is the appropriate role for a photographer witnessing violence?” She then drew attention to chapter twelve of “Just Mercy,” which is about the incarceration of women, and especially about the incarceration of mothers and gives readers a human dimension to understanding incarceration. Stevenson states that 70-80% of incarcerated women are mothers, and that the number of women sent to prison increased 646% between 1980 and 2010, which is 1.5 times higher than the rate for men incarcerated during the same period.
Mercy at the Museum: Online Collection Tours
Andrew Young, One Book Ambassador
Friday, November 20, 2020
On November 20th, the greater Northwestern community had the chance to virtually take part in a discussion led by Corrine Granof, a curator at the Block Museum. Through this series of discussions, the Block Museum creates manic connections between issues of race, equity, and justice and the objects in the museum's collection. As the museum celebrates its 40th anniversary these discussions are part of its efforts to continually reimagine the past. In front of a virtual crowd with participants residing everywhere from Florida to Colorado to Illinois, Ms. Granof presented the print “Scottsboro Limited” by Prentiss Taylor. Ms. Granof presented a brief overview of the historical case, one that focused on 9 black individuals who were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping 2 young white women on a train in 1931. In less than 3 weeks, an all-white jury found the men guilty and sentenced all but one of them to death. While non of the death penalty charges were carried out, the racism and obvious miscarriage of justice present in the case left a lasting impact on the individuals involved and society as a whole. The case got national and international attention as it was clearly racially charged and not credible. Prentis Taylor was a young, white artist at the time. He was a part of the John Reed Club, a communist organization also home to Langston Hughes; Ms. Granof explained how both men worked with the club to fight racism and social oppression. The image itself is 10-13 inches, was easily reproducible, and therefore easily distributable. Ms. Granof pointed out details in the work such as the modernist inflection with the figures, different angles, and the close proximity of the individuals as one unit. Seated on top of a train, telephone poles in the background make reference to lynchings and what could be impending electrocutions. The New Masses magazine and the Scottsboro Limited pamphlet were used to spread messages about the situations as well as raise money to fund the defense of the innocent men accused of the crime. The work of Taylor references the poetry of Langston Hughes and his talks of racialized justice; Taylor uses historical tropes to convey current events and give them a humanistic appeal. After explaining all of this in detail, Ms. Granof fielded questions about the art, the time period, and the inter-racial collaboration between Hughes and Taylor.
One clear connection that Ms. Granof points out in terms of the work and Just Mercy is seen in Chapter 8 of the book. In this chapter, Bryan Stevenson discusses harsh sentencing for minors, a lack of parole after their arrests, minors in adult prisons, the effects of solitary confinement, and the great injustice that occurs when minors are targets of the death penalty. In his writing, Mr. Stevenson makes direct reference to the Scottsboro case, highlighting it as an example that exemplifies the stark issues present in the justice system at the time, issues that are still so clearly present in our world today.
Annual Intergenerational Storytelling Event
Vivica Lewis, One Book Fellow
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a major emphasis on social distancing and following stay-at-home orders. However, this did not stop One Book from adapting our Annual Intergenerational Storytelling event to fit a virtual environment. On November 19th, myself and over 50 other Northwestern students and community members logged onto Zoom for an evening of storytelling. Going into it, each participant was told they could be a listener or a storyteller. I decided to be a listener, but I had a change of heart after hearing so many inspirational stories that I ended up volunteering to tell mine. In the beginning, there were brief introductions, and we were split into breakout groups to introduce ourselves and share a story about the best gift we have ever received. In my group, the answers varied from my personal necklace that had been passed down for generations to a baseball from a famous player of the past to the language that a daughter speaks to feel connected with her mother. It was beautiful! Afterward, everyone came back together to begin listening to the storytellers. Each story had to include some underlying theme connected to the main text, Just Mercy, like justice, mercy, equity, and forgiveness. A few of the stories stuck out to me, but they were all just so wonderful. One student shared about her friendship of many years with an older woman in her neighborhood that is a Holocaust survivor and how they cherish their time together sharing stories and bonding over common interests. Another student talked about the life lessons her mother, a kindergarten teacher, has taught her. A community member discussed a silly story of her childhood involving her aunt. After each story, the hosts invited everyone to share a comment in the chat thanking the storyteller and other comments. I felt so connected to the other participants as we shared, reacted, and connected over these intimate moments.
Chicago's Police Violence Epidemic
Mikenzie Roberts, One Book Ambassador
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
On Wednesday, November 18, OneBook hosted the event “Chicago’s Police Violence Epidemic” featuring a presentation and Q&A with sociology professor Andrew Papachristos. The event began with an overview of the history of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Papachristos stated that the police force in Chicago was created to quell labor strikes and essentially operate as a violent arm of capitalists. After connecting the origins of policing to capitalism, Papachristos discussed CPD’s long history of violence against Black Chicagoans, exemplified by CPD’s abuse of black men under the leadership of Jon Burge. He then introduced his own research on the networks of police officers within CPD and police misconduct.
The bulk of Papachristos’ presentation looked at his own research on how network science can be used to understand police misconduct. Papachristos used data from Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project to understand how police misconduct spreads within the Chicago Police Department. The data, which includes about 75% of CPD officers, demonstrated that exposure to colleagues using force increases others’ likelihood of using force. Interestingly, female officers tend to use less force, and the officers who work with female officers tend to use less force as well. The data showed that having women in your network is associated with less use of force. Papachristos used an infectious disease analogy, particularly COVID-19, to explain how use of force and police misconduct spread throughout police networks within departments.
Papachristos was adamant that no single reform will repair CPD’s history of harm to black communities, although he stated that some combination of reforms may have the ability to lessen the footprint of that harm. However, more research is necessary to understand which changes will reduce harm, he said. Potential fields such as street outreach and violence interruption interventions are neglected professions, currently under equipped to take on all of community safety. The lingering question is what do community centered visions of public safety look like and how can they be implemented?
Transforming Criminal Justice: In Illinois and Beyond (False Confessions)
Iliana Schmidt, One Book Fellow
Tuesday, November 10, 2020
On Tuesday afternoon, the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) held their fourth roundtable event of the “Transforming Criminal Justice: In Illinois and Beyond” series via Zoom. This event specifically highlighted the prevalence and life-altering effects of false confessions. In addition to NPEP director Jennifer Lackey, the event included panelists Steven Drizin, a William A. Trumball Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Laura Nirider, Clinical Associate Professor of Law. In addition to each of their teaching positions, Drizin and Nirider also serve as the Co-Directors of the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University.
To aid them in their discussion about their work on false confessions was Huwe Burton, who gave a coerced, false confession in 1989 for the murder of his mother and was exonerated in January 2019. In January 1989, 16-year-old Burton arrived home after school to find that his mother had been murdered in their home and her car stolen. After reporting this to the police and giving an initial interview of the events as he knew them, Burton endured an hours-long interrogation without a lawyer present that resulted in him giving a false confession for the murder of his mother. The police threatened Burton with a statutory rape charge in addition to the murder charge and maintained that he would be tried as an adult if he didn’t confess to the murder—if he did confess, he would be tried only in family court, as a juvenile, on just the murder charges. Seeing no way out, and with no family or legal counsel, Burton confessed to committing the murder accidentally after having an argument with his mother while high on crack cocaine. The police crafted this story and wrote a statement that Burton read in his confession—despite never using drugs and maintaining his innocence.
After the confession, the promises the police had made to Burton before he confessed were not followed through on—he had a criminal trial and was sent to Rikers for a period of time after being found guilty. Throughout this time and his time spent incarcerated, Burton maintained his innocence and never stopped fighting to clear his name. During this time, evidence that proved his innocence had been ignored—police found Burton’s mother’s car in the possession of one of their tenants, who knew details about the murder that implied involvement. Additionally, teachers at Burton’s school, after first claiming he wasn’t at school on the day of the murder, were later able to verify that he was present in school. These pieces of evidence for Burton’s innocence were not enough to exonerate him—he lost several appeals and was running out of options.
Burton began contacting Innocence Projects across the country, which ultimately led him to working with Drizin. With Drizin’s help, Burton’s legal team was able to prove that the detectives that had coerced a confession out of Burton had done so to other people, too. Burton’s youth, lack of interaction with police, and the psychological interrogation tactics used were all factors that contributed to Burton’s vulnerability to being coerced into confessing, Nirider said. Research showed that these tactics being used often created false confessions, and this information, along with the detectives’ track record for producing false confessions, allowed for Burton to be exonerated on January 24, 2019—about thirty years after the murder of his mother.
The event concluded with a short Q&A period where audience members could ask Drizin, Nirider, and Burton questions about false confessions.
CHETchat Spotlight Series featuring Xavier McElrath-Bey
Andrew Young, One Book Ambassador
Thurday, November 5, 2020
On November 5th, members of the greater Northwestern community were given the opportunity to virtually take part in a discussion led by Xavier McElrath-Bey, the Co-Executive Director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Northwestern’s Center for Health Equity Transformation (CHET) and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences collaborated in their efforts to bring Mr. McElrath-Bey to their CHETchat Spotlight Series. In front of a crowd of around 20, Mr. McElrath-Bey presented both personal and professional experiences in order to paint a vivid picture of the specific issues involved in criminal justice reform that impact youth. A formerly incarcerated youth himself, Mr. McElrath-Bey works to abolish “life without parole” for American children and has assisted in ending the practice in multiple states. After sharing powerful and personal narratives about his difficult childhood, Mr. McElrath-Bey talked about being sentenced to 25 years in prison at the age of 13 for gang-related murder. He transitioned from his personal story to that of the justice system in America and how it unfairly treats and sentences children, neurologically developing individuals who are treated like monsters. Mr. McElrath-Bey also delved into the racial issues involved in the legal process, one that disproportionately sentences black children to life without parole. After his powerful accounts, Mr. McElrath-Bey took questions from the group and was happy to stay afterwards and further discuss his experiences with individuals in the audience.
A palpable connection between Mr. McElrath-Bey’s presentation and Just Mercy is found in something Mr. McElrath-Bey said toward the end of his talk. He explained that kids who are put in situations such as his, labeled as criminals at such a young age, are far more than the worst thing they have ever done. This line directly corresponds to one of Bryan Stevenson’s most well-known quotes. Both Mr. Stevenson and Mr. McElrath-Bey stress the importance of understanding that children are still developing the ability to make decisions and understand the consequences of their actions. If we implement a system that labels these children as “incorrigible” and never give them a chance to become anything more than their worst mistake, we have despicably failed them. Mr. McElrath-Bey and others like him are living examples of why we need to focus more on fixing the system and less on severely punishing children for a mistake in their past.
To learn more about Mr. McElrath-Bey and his organization, please visit the link below!
CHET Conversation: Older Adults and Social Isolation Panel Discussion
Miles Lankford, One Book Ambassador
Monday, November 2, 2020
With the crisp autumn air, falling leaves, and some occasional early snowflakes, my thoughts turn to the upcoming holidays and gathering with family, including my 89-year-old grandmother. Then I snap out of it and remember this season won’t look or feel like a traditional Hallmark card. Instead, families across the country will seek creative ways to be physically distanced while socially together around the holiday table.The panelists for the CHET Conversations event on Monday, November 2, covered this very important topic and more, during their discussion titled “Older Adults and Social Isolation during COVID-19.” Experts Paula Basta, Director, Illinois Department on Aging; Diane Slezak, President and Chief Executive Officer, AgeOptions; and Louise Hawkley, Phd, Senior Research Scientist, NORC at the University of Chicago, provided insights about the unique challenges of this time, regardless of our age. They also offered a variety of practical suggestions on how we can exercise our social muscles by volunteering and increasing connections between generations during the pandemic.
To set the table for the discussion, Ms. Bastan shared a sobering statistic of how Illinois’ agencies on aging have quickly pivoted to find ways to keep older adults safely in their homes. She said that in the past nine months, her network of agencies has delivered more than a million meals a month to seniors at home. This, in comparison to past years, when it would take the Department an entire year to deliver one million meals.Ms. Hawley’s research focuses on the role of loneliness and social isolation in explaining individual differences in health and well-being in older adulthood. She described the difference between social isolation -- being along and not having people to interact with, versus loneliness – the feeling of isolation, how satisfying you feel your social interactions are. One of her tips for the holidays is to raise a glass of wine and share the experience of meals together virtually.
The panelists all agreed about the resilience of the older population, and they encouraged volunteering as a way young people can engage and show their concern. Ms. Slezak shared that there are many resources listed on her organization’s website as well as on the Illinois Department of Aging’s site with opportunities to engage including delivery meals and interacting online with residents at assisted living centers and nursing homes to cheer up someone’s day.
While none of these solutions are perfect, listening to this conversation did give me hope for the future, as well as for how to embrace the upcoming holidays and reframe our situation positively. I’m already planning how best to set the table for my Zoom Thanksgiving meal with my grandmother!
The Chicago 400 Alliance: Fighting Conviction Registries and Housing Banishment
Mikenzie Roberts, One Book Ambassador
Thurday, October 29, 2020
On Thursday, October 29th, the Center for Civic Engagement hosted The Chicago 400 Alliance, a group dedicated to supporting the 400-500 Chicagoans struggling with homelessness due to registry policies. Panelists included Northwestern undergraduate students, Chicago 400 Alliance coordinators, and a group of the Chicago 400 themselves. The event began with a presentation on registry policies and housing banishment laws. In Chicago, there are over 400 people on public conviction registries who are homeless. Current policy requires each individual on certain public conviction registries to register at a police station every single week. Weekly registering creates long lines and congestion at police stations, meaning registrants lose an entire weekday every week. This severely limits job opportunities for people on the registries. Multiple panelists spoke about losing their jobs or having to turn down crucial job opportunities due to the scheduling burden of weekly registering which contributed to their housing insecurity. Housing banishment laws refer to regulations which prevent people on certain registries, including the sex offender registry, from living in homes within 500 feet of schools, parks, day care facilities, in-home day cares, or any space which primarily provides services to children. These laws create hardships for people on the registries because the acceptable zones are small and change constantly. There are few housing options available for the Chicago 400. Even when registrants find appropriate housing, there is no guarantee that a daycare will not pop up next door, the panelists said. One of the Chicago 400 said that they were given one hour to vacate their home due to these policies. Other panelists said that these policies separate families. Multiple panelists could not live with their children either because the home they own is no longer in an acceptable area or because the people housing their children while they are facing housing instability live in a prohibited area.
One way the Chicago 400 Alliance is trying to support these families is by advocating for decreasing the distance of the housing banishment laws so that more housing options become available and legal. To help support the Chicago 400, they would like you to talk about them with your friends, family, and colleagues. If you are a part of an organization, consider inviting the Chicago 400 to talk to your group. Also, follow the Chicago 400 Alliance on social media @chicago400 or chicago400.net.
Walking in Bryan Stevenson’s Footsteps: Innovative and Fearless Racial Justice Advocates You Should Know, An Honorary Lecture Series
Vivica Lewis, One Book Fellow
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
On October 28th, the Northwestern community had the honor of hosting a Zoom interview with Xavier McElrath-Bey, a champion of human rights for incarcerated children and the co-executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Around 30 of us listened intently as Mr. McElrath-Bey shared his story. At only 6 years old, he had one of his earliest experiences with law enforcement as he watched his abusive father be taken away. Shortly after, he fell into the foster care system which was not much better. At 15 years old, he was convicted of first-degree murder after already having a record of 19 arrests, 7 previous convictions, and gang affiliation. His public defender fought so hard to remind the courts that Xavier was a child, but the judge still sentenced him to 25 years behind bars. The interview became increasingly emotional while learning about the terrible treatment of these children that are not born bad, but have made a mistake. Xavier describes how he realized that so many major milestones like graduating high school, finding joy with friends and young love, and just being a teenager were taken from him. He would grow up behind bars, serving 13 years. One part of his story that stood out was the year that Xavier spent in solitary confinement. He shared terrible stories of rationing food to get by and waking up to nothing every single day–it was truly rock bottom. But, one day, Xavier saw a man out in the courtyard by himself, and he got to know him. This man was on death row, but he carried himself differently, possessing hope and strength. Xavier decided that day that he would change his mentality, and he began to look beyond his current circumstances and picture the person he wanted to be once he was released. Today, Xavier McElrath-Bey is a leader in rights for incarcerated children and fighting to change the way that we view them. In his role as co-executive director for the Fair Sentencing of Youth Campaign, he works to dismantle the racial disparities, social injustices, and residual harms caused by the legal system and emphasizes that no child should spend life in prison.
It was truly amazing to hear Xavier McElrath-Bey’s story. His story highlights the various themes evident in Just Mercy like justice, forgiveness, mercy, and perseverance. It is a reminder to each of us to continue the fight for justice for those behind bars, specifically the group of incarcerated children, because as Xavier preaches, no child is born bad. If you are interested in learning more about Xavier McElrath-Bey and the Fair Sentencing of Youth Campaign, click here.
Stanger than Fiction: This is America - Virtual Artist Talk
Julia Friedman, One Book Ambassador
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
The Dittmar Gallery Fall 2020 exhibit highlights the striking and thought-provoking work of two artists, Ngyen Tran and Henry Sandifer. This past Wednesday, members of the Northwestern community were invited to a virtual artist talk with both Ngyen Tran and Henry Sandifer on the topic of the current social, political, and public health climate in the US. The dialogue was facilitated in partnership with the Dittmar Gallery and audience questions. During this discussion, Tran and Sandifer spoke about the inspiration behind the pieces in the Dittmar Gallery including racial inequalities, social unrest in the US, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Sandifer spoke about his use of pop culture iconography to create art that is easily digestible and speaks truth to power. Tran also highlighted how he appreciates the challenge of translating events into art for a diverse audience of all ages and varying levels of familiarity with the subject matter. Tran explained that he hopes his work elicits an action or response from the viewer and hopes that the content of his art can be an inspiration. Similarly, Sandifer hopes that the incorporation of easily recognizable images and figures will spark something in the minds of his audience. Both artists hope to create pieces in the near future that have a lighter and potentially comedic tone especially given the heavy tone and gloomy theme present in society due to the pandemic and recent social movements. Stay on the lookout for upcoming works of art from both artists!!Ngyen Tran specializes in digital art, particularly with photoshop technology, and Henry Sandifer is a fan of utilizing oil paint to make his images pop!This current exhibit, Stranger than Fiction: This is America is on display at the Dittmar gallery until November 15th. Check out a brief video of the exhibit here! For more information about the Dittmar Gallery and this exhibit, please visit their website here.
Writing in Prison
Eleanor Ellis, One Book Ambassador
Thursday, October 22, 2020
On Thursday, October 22nd, the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies (SPS) hosted a virtual lunchtime table talk on “Writing in Prison.” A collaboration with the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) and One Book, this Zoom webinar featured two professors discussing their experiences teaching NPEP students at Stateville Correctional Center. Playwright Rebecca Gilman and journalist Alex Kotlowitz shared how they became involved with NPEP, what their teaching processes were like, and why it is so crucial to teach writing to incarcerated individuals and create space for them to share their own stories. Both Gilman and Kotlowitz emphasized that the courses they taught to their students in NPEP were the same they teach to undergraduates on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. The men in her classes at Stateville were “some of the best students I’ve ever had,” Gilman said, mentioning how engaged and eager to participate they were each time the class met. Both panelists believe that NPEP classes are essential for students as a moment of escape from the intentionally dehumanizing and disorienting conditions and routines of incarceration. While teaching a class on criminal justice reporting to both Stateville students and several Medill students, Kotlowitz noted how the undergraduates built “profound relationships with the guys on the inside,” who always wanted to hear how their weeks had gone and what had been happening on campus. Because they had access to a wealth of resources that the other students did not, the Medill students would often do research for their classmates and try to find the books and articles they needed for their papers. The panelists also discussed Bryan Stevenson’s reminder in Just Mercy that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” For Gilman, NPEP’s classes are an “antidote to that” reduction of individuals to a single moment of their lives. She said Stevenson’s quote came up often in her classes—her students were not the same people they had been when first incarcerated, usually decades ago. Many of the plays they wrote were about what life would be like if they got out or what they would do differently if they could go back in time. Gilman reminded attendees that “prison is designed to dehumanize.” The way to resist and work against this violence is to see people as individuals, to hear their voices and listen to their stories. Read the plays and stories written by NPEP students in Stateville here and here.
On Forgiveness: Lisa Daniels in conversation with Alex Kotlowitz
Abigail Roston, One Book Fellow
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
The event “On Forgiveness: Lisa Daniels in Conversation with Alex Kotlowitz” was held on October 20th on Zoom. Around forty staff, students, and faculty had the privilege of hearing Lisa Daniels detail the experience she had as a mother losing her son, and her personal journey with restorative justice. Through an incredible move of compassion, empathy, and true belief in the human spirit to change, Lisa Daniels asked the judge to be lenient with the man who shot her son, Darren Easterling. Lisa now sits on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board whose mission it is to grapple with the notion of mercy.The event focused on a quote of Bryan Stevenson which Ms Daniels brought in at the beginning of the conversation to guide her talk— “Each of us is more than just the worst thing we’ve done”. Professor Kotlowitz engaged Ms Daniels on the victim impact statement she read at trial, the emotional tribulations and moments of challenge she has been through, and the lasting impact of her decision to ask for leniency in sentencing. Ms Daniels concentrated on the notion of abundance of life and her strong desire to help create life and possibility through a framework of restorative justice. When asked by Professor Kotlowitz if forgiveness is always possible, Ms Daniels responded by noting that, “for me, it's a choice and not everyone agrees with me about that...anything but this choice does not add life or give value”. Ms Daniel’s steadfast defense of restorative justice and her belief in individuals shined through the entirety of the conversation.
The connection between this event and Just Mercy is simple. The ideology that Ms Daniels exemplifies is the heartbeat of Just Mercy. Ms Daniels embodies the renowned, and extraordinarily challenging, belief in mercy that Bryan Stevenson advocates for throughout his book. Ms Daniels lived the harsh reality of losing a child but maintained her belief, like Mr Stevenson, that people are more than the worst thing they have done, and that supporting life is more valuable than any punitive measure. Lastly, much like Mr Stevenson, Ms Daniels continues to fight for the world she wants to build in actively restorative ways through her work on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Ms Daniels did not just fight for the legacy of her son and the man that shot him; instead, she continues to fight for and believe in others motivated by the belief that we are all interconnected through our humanity. It was a privilege to listen to someone as empathetic, caring, and resilient as Ms Daniels. From this event, I know that myself and all other attendees are taking with them an understanding of mercy and true, deep compassion for the people around us.
Teaching Just Mercy Through the Block’s Collection
Miles Lankford, One Book Ambassador
Friday, October 16, 2020
There’s a powerful new collection of artwork from the Block Gallery collection that debuted last Friday online as a kickoff to the Block’s collaboration with the 2020-21 One Book One Northwestern selection, Just Mercy. In a time when voices across the globe continue to fight together for justice, equity and a shared common destiny for the planet, this artwork provides a catalyst to investigate the timely themes, events and ideas from Just Mercy through a broader lens.
Each of the works by ten artists – from contemporary to historic – provides a distinct artistic perspective on the traumatic legacy of systemic racism and the failures of the justice system, and share similarities of evoking compassion and empathy. The artwork prompted me to speculate about how each subject’s personality and emotional state are portrayed. The images of brutality turn into persuasion – to portray the reality of racism in a way that many people hadn’t seen before. I came away broadened, deepened and more curious about how we can make the world a more equitable and just place for all.
Talking about these issues, although hard, is necessary – and these artworks can be a springboard to dialogue as well as an instrument of change. The collection will resonate with a broad audience including students, parents and educators who can view the works in the museum’s new collection database, learn more about their contexts, and download high-resolution images to support online teaching.
Even though we can’t visit these artworks in person, I encourage you to take some time to explore, learn and engage with the Block Museum’s “Mercy in the Museum” online collection – I guarantee it will empower your journey and inspire conversation.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II
Teresa Truong, One Book Fellow
The One Book selection for 2019-20 was Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, several events were cancelled or pushed back. This past Thursday, one of the rescheduled events took place as Liza Mundy did a talk on her book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. Even though it was not planned for the 2020-21 academic year, I felt as though it still connected to this year’s One Book selection because Mundy highlighted the work of underrepresented workers, specifically these women who broke codes and helped the military effort in the Pacific Ocean. In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative was largely unrecognized during its start.
One thing that stood out during Mundy’s talk was when choosing some of the first female students from women colleges, the government asked two questions: the first was whether they enjoyed crossword puzzles and the second is if they were engaged. Many of the women who were involved in the codebreaking actually lied on the second question because they wanted to be a part of the mission. This actually ties into a topic I covered recently in class about implicit hiring bias where women are less likely to be hired if it is assumed that they will take time off for pregnancy and childcare relative to men.
Overall, the event was eye opening and relevant to Just Mercy, despite not being a planned part of this year's programming.
CHETchat Spotlight Series featuring Mary Pattillo
Bobby Read, One Book Ambassador
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
On Wednesday, October 14, 2020, Mary Patillo, PhD gave a remarkable presentation on the effects of fines and fees and how they can negatively impact incarcerated individuals. Patillo is a Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University while also serving as the Chair of the African American Studies Department. This talk was sponsored by the Center for Health Equity Transformation, which regularly holds a CHETchat that highlights the equity work of invited speakers and fosters a dialogue about ways that attendees can engage in work that promotes health equity. Patillo started the presentation with the acknowledgement that fines, fess, and assessments are not the only monetary sanctions. Often, people forget about interest, penalties, restitution, program costs, forfeiture, and bail.
Many people were asked to respond to a study about the monetary impacts of the criminal justice system. It was discovered that people expressed that monetary sanctions are justifiable punishments; however, they soon realized that they are actually double punishments, a form of extortion, and impossible to pay due to poverty because of low incomes. Additionally, other findings of this research concluded that monetary sanctions do not really serve a purpose other than giving more money to a greedy state. In conclusion, Patillo discovered that monetary sanctions for poor and near poor people are often excessive and disproportionate to the crime and, oftentimes, beyond the defendants’ ability to pay. It is clear from this research that there needs to be some level of elimination in regards to monetary sanctions. We see this similar theme of oppressive sanctions and overreach of power in Just Mercy through the countless experiences expressed in Stevenson’s words. Wickedness is not the intended purpose of the modern criminal justice system, but as we see through this research and Stevenson’s Just Mercy, that is what it is becoming unless we decide to take a step back, re-evaluate our system of oppression, and make it better for all.
Activism: The Time is Now
Jessa Shortridge, One Book Ambassador
On Wednesday evening, nearly 30 participants hopped onto a Zoom panel discussion about activism, systemic racism, and Just Mercy. The event was moderated by Melissa Foster, the Faculty-in-Residence of the South Area. Three insightful panelists spoke: Rob Brown, Director of Social Justice Education here at NU; Christopher Paul Harris, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at NU; and Jeffrey Coleman, Associate Professor of Spanish at Marquette University.
The panel began with introductions, and then Melissa introduced the topic of activism and how it connects with the book Just Mercy. Coleman discussed how activism takes many forms, and for Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, this means representing the incarcerated. Harris argued that today social media can play a role in activism, by being an organizing force and circulating ideas and images. Brown added that it is important to hear from many diverse voices and allow diversity to be a connecting, intersectional force rather than a divisive one.
Foster brought up the concept of activism requiring bravery, and the panelists began discussing this. Coleman brought up an example from Just Mercy, when Bryan Stevenson was struggling with what his work really meant and whether it was making a real difference. Activism requires bravery, not just to stand up to injustice, but also to find value and purpose in one's work even when it's hard or the impact of one's actions are difficult to see. Bravery is also required to push out of one's comfort zone, Harris added. He reflected on his own experiences as a cisgender heterosexual man, having to learn to give more space to other marginalized voices, and admit when he was wrong. Bravery, as Brown stated, is in taking responsibility for what is happening in one's community and being open to the unknown. He discussed the current movement for police abolition, and how it takes bravery to construct an entirely new system that uplifts and supports the entire community.
At the end the panel was opened up for audience questions. The panelists discussed how to have difficult conversations with family members about racism. They encouraged the person whose question it was to approach the conversation from a place of respect and civility, and bring the "receipts" - the evidence and arguments already constructed by researchers and activists before us. They emphasized meeting people where they're at but also setting boundaries, and not tolerating hateful and hurtful speech. There are also resources on campus and on the internet about how to have these conversations, and the panelists encouraged audience members to keep learning and growing.
Foster closed out the panel by encouraging students to have hope. She said that doing anything is more helpful than doing nothing. Even if you make just one phone call, email one senator, defend one person, or donate to one organization, you are still making a difference. Activism is not a solo endeavor, and all panelists encouraged viewers to get involved in organizations and groups with the support structure to keep you motivated and excited about making change.
Transforming Criminal Justice in Illinois and Beyond: Solitary Confinement
Eleanor Ellis, One Book Ambassador
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
On Tuesday, October 13th, the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) held the second event in their roundtable series, “Transforming Criminal Justice.” Around 45 people attended this Zoom panel discussion on solitary confinement. The program began with a moment of acknowledgment for the thousands of incarcerated individuals currently in solitary confinement and the many more who have been further isolated since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Then, attendees had the opportunity to hear from three panelists: Anthony Gay, a solitary survivor, activist, and former prisoner; Maggie Filler, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center; and Daniel Greenfield, Supreme Court and Appellate Counsel for the MacArthur Justice Center.
In the first part of the event, Anthony Gay shared his story and explained why he is committed to using his voice to advocate for those still in the brutal conditions of solitary confinement. Incarcerated as a teenager, Gay spent over two decades in isolation. During the panel, he recalled how he lost his social identity—the prison officials saw him as a “monster,” not as a person deserving of care. He also shared that he, and others in solitary, would engage in increasingly serious forms of self-harm as a means to get any human interaction, whether being checked on by nurses or being moved to another location. Rather than provide mental health treatment, prison officials continually prosecuted Gay, until his term extended to over 101 years. In the face of this cruelty, violence, and dehumanization, however, Gay said, “I refused to give up because I knew somewhere in my heart that I was human. I was a person.” In an effort to maintain this sense of identity and his psychological wellbeing, he turned to writing. As he acknowledged his own pain, he also says that at the time he thought, “When I do get out, I’m gonna reach back.” Since being released, he has published a book, Rope of Hope, and has continued to advocate for people still in solitary.
After Gay shared his experiences, Filler and Greenfield provided a broader historical and legal context for the conversation. Filler emphasized how solitary confinement deprives people of any “meaningful human contact” and causes long-term harmful effects. This includes a condition known as “Post-SHU Syndrome,” which can negatively impact survivors even after they re-enter society. Greenfield then discussed the strategies legal advocates use to fight against solitary confinement, as well as the challenges they face, such as the increasing conservatism of the federal courts.
Like the stories recounted in Just Mercy, Gay’s experiences lay bare our country’s carceral response to mental health issues, the arbitrariness of sentencing, and the lasting harmful effects of incarceration—and solitary confinement in particular—on individuals. The program was not only a powerful reminder of the cruelties of the criminal justice system, but also a look to the future. Panelists urged attendees in Illinois to contact their representatives about the Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which is currently before the state legislature. They also shared how Northwestern students can take action now by becoming and remaining active participants in politics. In the closing moments of the event, Gay expressed his hope that his story will inspire people to stand up and speak out against solitary confinement. “It won’t stop until the people decide it needs to stop—and we are the people.”
Watch this and previous NPEP roundtables here.
Racial Disparity in Arrests Increases as Crime Rates Decline
Bobby Read, One Book Ambassador
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
On Wednesday, October 7, 2020, Beth Redbird and Kat Albrecht presented their research on racial disparity in arrests and the relation it has to crime rates. With roughly 30 people in attendance, Redbird started the presentation by posing various questions, notably “Is policing changing?” and “What is bias anyway?”. These questions made Redbird and Albrecht look at different municipalities to really find the evidence and data they needed to complete their research. It was discovered that crime and arrest rates are not related. In fact, there are tremendously more arrests, especially arrests of minorities, than crime occurs. The two researchers decided they had found evidence of bias and racial disparity in arrests however, how can they measure bias? The measure implemented by the two researchers captured the same measure that was discovered by the Department of Justice. In other words, the Department of Justice would go into different communities and investigate police departments and municipalities and determine whether or not there was bias present. If you look at the before and after measures in racial arrests for these communities, some have severe drops after the Department of Justice concluded their investigation and some stay pretty steady. The places where a drop is recorded were places in which the DOJ exposed bias behaviors and activities. The data collected by Redbird and Albrecht was consistent with the DOJ and produced the same trends that were recorded with the DOJ. Simply stated, bias in their measures drop in the year after the DOJ comes into municipalities and exposes the bias behaviors and activities.
In today’s society, it is becoming more and more obvious that policing needs to change. An increasing amount of studies are being conducted that investigate the racial disparities in not only arrests, but imprisonment and police brutality. This event helped emphasize the need for reform in America and explain, on an understable level, that there is in fact great bias in many municipalities across the country. Redbird and Albrecht do an amazing job of showing the racial injustice through their research, something that is very prevalent in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Readers see racial injustice in many of the cases that Stevenson focuses on; however, it is particularly salient in Walter’s wrongful conviction. The murder victim was white and Walter was black, a perfect case for a biased police department. But the racial injustice doesn’t end there. It is seen as Walter’s hearing is heard by a white judge and then passed on to a court where most likely the jurors would be white. This adds on another theme, which is the systemic power, oppression, and overall dehumanization that is both apparent in Just Mercy and the research discussed by Redbird and Albrecht. Society needs to begin paying attention to the data collected in regards to police bias and racial disparity in arrests because it won't get better until we decide that it needs to. As we have seen in 2020, change and reform is possible if we come together as one and speak out for those that are no longer able to speak for themselves.
America's Prisons: Legal Rights of the Incarcerated
Ella DeBode, One Book Ambassador
Monday, October 5, 2020
On Monday, October 5, 2020, nearly twenty students and faculty attended a talk by Deborah Golden, a prisoners’ rights lawyer, entitled, “America’s Prisons: Legal Rights of the Incarcerated.” As Ms. Golden shared stories from her work taking on prisons—including the Federal Bureau of Prisons—and illustrated what sorts of issues her clients face, both in the prisons and in the courts, it became clear that the “Legal Rights of the Incarcerated” are few in number.
Ms. Golden explained to listeners that her work filing conditions lawsuits, which address the conditions in which incarcerated individuals are held, positions her as “the person one gets to after being convicted and something worse happens to them within the walls of the prison.” ‘Something worse’ meaning being denied adequate conditions or having one’s rights violated. For example, a hearing-impaired client of Ms. Golden’s was repeatedly given disciplinary infractions for missing ‘count’—a routine instruction for incarcerated individuals to return to their cells to be counted by prison guards—simply because he could not hear the announcement and, even after explaining this, was told by prison guards that a hearing disability was not an excuse. Ms. Golden shared another example in which, despite a 2019 law requiring federal prisons to provide female inmates with free menstrual products, many incarcerated women still do not have access to pads and tampons and continue to be reprimanded for bleeding on their uniforms.
Just reaching Ms. Golden or lawyers like her to share conditions like these is a feat unto itself. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which was passed by Congress in 1996 to remedy the number of prisoner lawsuits clogging the courts, makes it virtually impossible for incarcerated individuals to bring a conditions lawsuit to court because the PLRA first requires inmates to exhaust any resources the prison may have to resolve the issue at hand. More often than not, those ‘resources’ create a situation where, unless incarcerated individuals can jump through three to four levels of complaints and appeals that are riddled with arbitrary deadlines—such as filing within 48 hours that an incident occurs—without help from an attorney, their case is barred from court.
Criminal justice reform is not limited to fighting unfair legislation like the PLRA. A key component of reform is, and will continue to be, addressing the issue of accessibility. The popularity of books like Just Mercy has helped to reveal the cruel reality of prisons and jails to the American public because, as of now, we often unknowingly “throw away too many people who have so much to contribute, and we like to pretend they’re not there.”
The program ended with concrete actions that we, as individuals, can take to change the way this country treats people who are incarcerated. Step one is to take a look at the website of the jail in your county and ask yourself, what are its policies? What does the jail charge inmates for making phone calls? Do they provide women with menstrual products? What policies are in place around the treatment of mental health issues? If answers aren’t straightforward, let alone provided, step two is to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Once you have the answers to those questions, step three is to start writing letters and making phone calls to county representatives expressing your frustration with policies denying incarcerated people mercy.
Solidarity is a Process: a conversation about cooperation and conflict
Grace Lee, One Book Fellow
Thursday, October 1, 2020
“There’s a growing conversation about solidarity between African Americans and Latinos,” Dr. Geraldo Cadava said as he opened the “Solidarity is a Process” discussion on October 1. “It’s a longstanding conversation in American history and the history of the Americas that gained increasing urgency this summer as we all watched the events unfold from June forward,” he said.
Dr. Cadava, an author, editor and professor at Northwestern’s history department, moderated the hour-long Zoom event, which featured three panelists and drew an audience of over 20 people. The event was co-sponsored by Public Books, Northwestern’s Department of African American Studies, Latina & Latino Studies Program, and One Book program. Speakers included Dr. Kelly Hernandez, professor and Thomas E. Lifka Chair of History at UCLA; Dr. Destin Jenkins, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of US History and the College at University of Chicago; and Dr. Josh Kun, Professor and Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication at USC.
Though from a wealth of different academic backgrounds, each panelist spoke to solidarity as a constant, complex goal to work toward. “Solidarity is not a thing—there’s no formula, no exact science,” Dr. Kun said, for example. He explained how standing alongside someone is not transactional, and in turn, how the process of solidarity is inherently “fraught with tension” between a sense “interbeing” and a sense of risk.
Panelists discussed historical examples of African American and Latinx communities navigating this tension and the challenges surrounding solidarity in the recent Black Lives Matter movement. They also connected ideas about vulnerability to Bryan Stevenson’s message about empathy and proximity in Just Mercy, once again highlighting the nature of solidarity as a continual process of working toward a challenging goal.
“You’ve got to practice it, so the muscle is ready when we live it,” Dr. Hernandez said.
Transforming Criminal Justice in Illinois and Beyond
Mark Berry, One Book Fellow
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
On September 29, Northwestern Prison Education Program hosted the first part of the “Transforming Criminal Justice” series. Focusing on Long-Term Sentencing and the cruelty of the criminal justice system, the panel sparked conversations around what work still needs to happen. About 30 attendees heard from panelists Jobi Cates, Founder and Executive Director of Restore Justice; Marc Mauer, Former Executive Director of the Sentencing Project; and Jennifer Soble, Founder and Executive Director of the Illinois Prison Project. Panelists spoke about their careers and work with their respective organizations, and then the space was opened up for a brief Q&A. Adapted impeccably to the Zoom format, the event provided all viewers with a deeper understanding of the Illinois prison system, with a focus on the injustices present.
Cates, a Northwestern graduate, spoke about her work as founder of the Restore Justice Foundation. According to Cates, when she established the organization, there were 103 people tried in juvenile court serving life sentences without parole, as well as thousands of others serving similar sentences with different verbiage. She told attendees about the dark underbelly of the criminal justice system. Her words were very striking, a stark reminder of the work that most be done to achieve restorative justice.
Cates recounted listeners with a story of six young boys who Restorative Justice have recently been working with. The boys had gone to Cook County to try and steal a man’s car. While attempting to steal the car, the man came out with a shotgun and shot and killed one of the six boys. Under the felony murder law in Illinois, all five other boys were to be charged with first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Restorative Justice is working to pass legislation to end the use of the felony murder law, an unjust relic of the past. The story was a haunting tale of the dangerous flaws of the criminal justice system, and a heartbreaking moment for all attendees.
Marc Mauer, Former Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, then spoke briefly about his work to eliminate 3-strike policies. The 3-strike policy is a system used to instill harsher sentences upon people who have been convicted of three or more crimes. Mauer gave two specific examples which spoke to the nature of 3-strike policies. First was a person who, due to the 3-strike policy, is currently serving 25 years to life, though they were tried for the theft of 3 golf clubs. Second, Marc shared the story of a person whose crime was stealing about $150 of videotapes. As it was their third strike, they were sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. 3-strike policies have frequently been used to slam minor crimes with long-term sentences.
This panel was an eye-opening glimpse at some of the many moral failures of our criminal justice system. Long-term sentencing is a tool which has been used to punish convicted people, rather than promote rehabilitation. Hearing from professionals actively fighting for change in the system was incredibly powerful.
“Our role is to not give up. Our role is to come back year after year…it’s to chug away at the pieces of this iceberg that are some of the most harmful, most bigoted, most egregious abuses in our society” - Jobi Cates
Stranger Than Fiction: This is America
Jessa Shortridge, One Book Ambassador
September 25-November 15, 2020
Nobody can deny that we are living in crazy times, and this art exhibit at the Dittmar Gallery showcases artworks by Henry Sandifer and Nguyen Tran which reflect and comment on the modern world. The exhibit "Stranger Than Fiction: This is America" is up from September 25-November 15 in the Dittmar Gallery within the Norris University Center. The artworks, bursting with color, make references to and commentaries on politics, news, and pop culture.
Nguyen Tran's artworks are created digitally, and many of the ones displayed in the Dittmar Gallery comment on the state of the world today amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. However, two of the artworks reference the Black Lives Matter movement. One, entitled "2020" is simply the number 2020, but with handcuffs standing for the two zeros. The other, entitled "Murder," is an image of four mugshots, but rather than people they are a police badge, a set of handcuffs, a gun in a holster, and a police hat. Although this image comments on the murder of George Floyd, it is also reminiscent of the mass incarceration of Black men addressed in Just Mercy.
Henry Sandifer's paintings tackle historical and modern Black experiences and criticize structures of capitalism, white supremacy, and social media culture in the United States. One painting in particular with direct ties to the themes of this year's One Book, Just Mercy, is entitled "Perception." It portrays iconic horror movie villains and standing amongst them is the Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by police in 2012 for walking in the evening with an iced tea and Skittles. This comments on the perception and characterization of innocent Black men in our society as dangerous villains and criminals, the likes of Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers.
"The Long Term" film screening with Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project panel discussionJulia Friedman, One Book Ambassador
On Thursday, September 24th, over 70 students, faculty, and Evanston community members attended a virtual live stream screening of “The Long Term” presented by the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP). “The Long Term” is a short, animated film created and voiced by incarcerated men in Illinois prisons who discuss long term sentencing and its issues. The short film concluded with two interviews, one with Marshan Allen, and the other with Julie Anderson.
Attendees were able to watch and submit questions to a panel after the filmed portion of the event concluded. The panel consisted of Sarah Ross and Damon Locks, PNAP co-directors, paralegal Eric Blackmon, and members of the PNAP teaching collective Northwestern Professor Miriam Petty, Jill Petty, and Audrey Petty.
An important part of the discussion revolved around the idea that the justice system operates under the prerogative of fairness. Despite this being a common assumption, the panelists expressed issue with it given the high number of Illinois prisoners set to die in prison and the legal policy enforcing this reality without the opportunity for parole or early release. One specific policy discussed is called Truth in Sentencing, Illinois’ response to the Three Strike Federal Crime policy. Under this policy, the state of Illinois requires the majority of violent offenders to serve between 85-100% of their sentences, even if the length of the sentences given amount to multiple lifetimes. Eric Blackmon discussed the importance of understanding policies like Truth in Sentencing on a local and state level. He advocated for focusing attention on early release programs as a way to address the number of inmates set to die in prison.
Additionally, Sarah and Damon discussed why they choose animation as the medium for the film and for communicating the experiences of Illinois inmates. They believe that drawing is a highly accessible art form to engage in, and they wanted the inmates’ engagement in art to not only stir emotions in the viewer, but also call attention to the issues discussed in the film.
**For those interested in further engaging in the discussion surrounding long term sentencing, there is a corresponding book to “The Long Term” film “The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences Working Toward Freedom” (LINK), edited by the PNAP team, that depicts additional stories of inmates in Illinois prisons.
A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom
On Thursday, September 24th, at an event hosted by the Family Action Network, Brittany K. Barnett, award-winning attorney and founder of the Buried Alive Project, Girls Embracing Mothers, XVI Capital Partners, and Milena Reign LLC was interviewed by Jeanne Bishop, Assistant Public Defender, Cook County Public Defender’s Office, and adjunct professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law about her newly released debut novel: A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. In the novel, Barnett details her own personal experiences with mass incarceration, both growing up and as an attorney, to draw attention to the defective and inhumane nature of America’s criminal justice system.
One of the most memorable parts of the interview was when Barnett talked about her formerly incarcerated mother, who was imprisoned because of a drug addiction. She described what it was like to visit her mom in prison, claiming that she could feel the “heavy weight of incarceration” and the trauma that it bred as soon as she walked inside. For Barnett, the feeling of seeing her mother locked inside such a place was like that of a “primal wound”. In telling her mother’s story, Barnett revealed the inhumane tendency for America’s prison system to criminalize drug addiction rather than treat it. Instead of receiving the help she needed to get better, Barnett’s mother, like so many others, was discarded by a system that should have protected her.
As the interview progressed, and Barnett shared more about her experiences as a lawyer with clients in similar situations to her mother’s, it became evident how fundamentally broken America’s criminal justice system truly is. With this devastating reality in mind, Barnett has dedicated herself to criminal justice reform to aid the people and communities targeted by mass incarceration and the war on drugs. She heavily emphasizes the necessity to humanize this epidemic. Like Bryan Stevenson, she believes in the importance of compassion and empathy in achieving true justice.
In her final comment, Barnett talked about the Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” that inspired the title of her novel, pointing to the moment where King says, “dawn will come”. Joyously overwhelmed by the activism currently occurring in the country, Barnett encouraged the audience to continue to use their voices and to always remember their worth.
Watch Barnett's full interview here.
Closing Youth Prisons: An Introduction to the Final 5 CampaignBobby Read, One Book Ambassador
On Thursday, September 17, 2020, the Final 5 Campaign hosted a virtual speaker series on Zoom and Facebook Live titled “Closing Youth Prisons: An Introduction to the Final 5 Campaign,” which produced an audience of roughly 130 people. During the first half of the event, we heard from many speakers, particularly young individuals who have experienced the current state of the youth incarceration system in Illinois. These speakers included Kosi Achife and Olivia Blocker, the Final 5 Campaign; Denzel Burke, the Final 5 Campaign and FreeWrite; and AnnMarie Brown, the Final 5 Campaign and Circles & Ciphers. These individuals shared stories, poems, freestyle rap, and above all, their words and emotions with the listeners. The meaning and passion that they delivered can be connected to the themes of mercy, empathy, and humanization present in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. The core of Stevenson’s book is the idea that everyone, no matter their background, is capable of making mistakes throughout their life and, at one point or another, will need mercy and forgiveness. Similar to Just Mercy, this panel, by sharing with the audience their own personal, raw experiences, was able to eliminate the barrier of “them” vs “us”. The words heard during the first part of this speaker panel demanded empathy and humanization in the eyes of a cruel society.
The second half of the program dove into restorative justice and what the Final Five Campaign hopes for the future. During this half, listeners heard from three panelists: Felipe Franco, former Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Youth and Family Justice in New York City; Dr. Keyria Rodgers, Director of Criminal Justice/Teen Justice Programs at Millikin University; and Bettina Johnson, Liberation Library. These three panelists presented a lot of statistics and data on the incarceration of young individuals, photo evidence of the conditions young members of society are condemned to, and many initiatives and processes that are currently underway to shut these last five youth prisons down for good. Each of these presenters illuminated a different aspect of the Final 5 Campaign and explained its importance to supporting the shutdown. The systemic power and oppression of legal structures in our society is reflected in these three panelists' words. We also see this exact theme in Just Mercy. Through historical research and political analysis, Stevenson exposes this cycle of poverty and racial inequality in the American society. This same cycle happens right here in Cook County and the greater Chicago area. This same cycle is happening at the last five youth prisons that the campaign is looking to put an end to. Even though the young people in these final five youth prisons may have made a mistake in their past, they, like everyone else, deserve a little mercy in their lives.
CHETchat Spotlight Series featuring Dorian OrtegaElla DeBode, One Book Ambassador
With complete sincerity, Dorian Ortega, a licensed clinical counselor and founder of FLY Radical Therapy, reminded those who logged onto Zoom for her CHETchat Spotlight Series on September 15th to take the time to “take a nap.” Speaking on “Challenging Privilege and Systemic Oppression on Mental Wellness of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC),” Ortega explained that “rest is resistance” against the systemic oppression that threatens the BIPOC community and their spiritual and mental wellbeing. Without rest, individuals are less likely to strategize and collaborate, which, unfortunately, makes social justice efforts more likely to be counterproductive.
Reflecting on the recent traumatic moments of violence and racial injustice projected in the media, participants questioned how to reconcile the importance of taking the time to rest with the inability to feel comfortable doing so amidst the copious amounts of work to be done in the social justice sphere. Ortega emphasized that one’s engagement in social justice work depends on one’s capacity, so the intersection of activism and mental health looks different for everyone. Witnessing a violent act against another person is defined as an ‘emotional trauma’ and evokes a survival response—flee, fight, or freeze—in many individuals. This is why some people, like the author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, are drawn to action when they witness racial injustice while other people are drawn inward, feeling numb or useless. Even going to therapy can be a revolutionary act of social justice for some, especially for those in the BIPOC community, because of the stigma surrounding therapy. With a broader definition of ‘social justice work,’ it may be easier to navigate the intersection of mental health and activism and to figure out what “first loving yourself” looks like for you as an individual, Ortega explained.
The series ended with a breathwork exercise, grounding students and professors alike before they embarked on the first day of an unusual Fall Quarter.
The Chicago Police Department: Historic Harms, the Current Crisis and the Possibility of Transformation
Professor Sheila Bedi
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
In response to the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and untold others as well as the long history of white supremacy, police brutality, and anti-Black racism that enabled these killings, the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) recently announced “Toward Transformative Justice: A Community Roundtable Series on Race, Racism, and Policing.” The roundtable series seeks to provide members of the Evanston and Chicago community with an inclusive space that bridges Northwestern research and community activism, sharing knowledge about the intertwinement of policing practices and racism in order to communally imagine a different future.
On Tuesday, June 9th 2020, the first installment of the series, attended by more than 110 participants, featured a talk by Sheila Bedi, Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School, under the title “The Chicago Police Department: Historic Harms, the Current Crisis and the Possibility of Transformation.” Professor Bedi opened her presentation by emphasizing the “power of proximity:” those most directly impacted by policing in Chicago and beyond often know most about both the impact of policing and the possibilities for creating a more just and less oppressive future; Northwestern’s incarcerated students, some of whom Bedi has taught through NPEP, thus provide invaluable perspectives on these questions as do local organizers.
Bedi’s overview of the history of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) drew a straight line from today’s crisis back to the protests and unrest in 1919 that followed the drowning and possible stoning of a Black young man in Lake Michigan at the hands of white Chicagoans. Numerous accounts of Chicago police’s abuse of force during those protests led to the production of a report that called for police reform and equally emphasized the importance of changing deeper economic and racial injustices. Neither of these demands for change were implemented. The ensuing pattern of “police violence-reform recommendations-failure to change,” according to Bedi, has structured the history of Chicago policing ever since, leading to the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969, the torture perpetrated by CPD commander Jon Burge and his associates in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, up to the police killing of Laquan McDonald in 2014, and the myriad instances of abuse of force witnessed during the 2020 protests. One reason for cautious optimism can be found in the recently established “consent decree” between the federal government and the City of Chicago that grew out of a Department of Justice investigation of CPD, the largest of its kind in the U.S., that delineates necessary changes to CPD. Bedi emphasized, however, how difficult enforcing this decree has been and detailed some efforts her own law clinic has pursued to strengthen the consent decree.
Speaking to the possibility of lasting transformation that would break the impasse of failed attempts to reform CPD over the last 100 years, Bedi proposed four demands, all centered on the notion that power needs to be shifted away from police towards the communities police are supposed to serve. First, the scope of police responsibilities must be reduced: mental health, addiction, schooling, domestic violence—police officers are poorly equipped, often by their own admission, to handle these challenges yet are supposed to intervene in all of these areas. Resources thus need to be reallocated to institutions that are better equipped to handle these challenges, shrinking the police budget in the process. Secondly, Bedi emphasized that a police officer’s main tool—arrests—is merely reactive instead of proactively protecting a community and simultaneously places a huge burden on Black and brown communities that are disproportionately affected by the enormous number of arrests for minor offenses. Arrests themselves should be understood as acts of violence and their number consequently be severely limited. Third, incentives for officers engaged in abuse of force, such as overtime pay triggered by arrests at the end of a shift, must be removed as part of a larger rethinking of the incentive structure inherent in policing. Lastly, in response to the failure of police to reform themselves and City Council to meaningfully alter police conduct, Bedi emphasized the need for robust civilian oversight, centered in those communities most affected by policing.
Professor Bedi’s talks was followed by comments by McKayla Stokes, Mariah Young, and Terah Tollner, three students from Professor Bedi’s law clinic who spoke about their experiences working with Black organizers in Chicago, especially Black women, as well as the importance of the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), a proposal currently under discussion in City Council that has the support of a broad alliance of Chicago organizers. An extensive Q & A session touched on a number of issues drawing out the implications of the talk: police unions as a major obstacle to reform; the possibilities of police and prison abolition; incarceration’s overall negative public safety impact; the public health consequences of policing; as well as the militarization of police in recent decades.
In the context of current attempts to radically alter the structure of public safety in the U.S., Bedi encouraged participants to pose the question: “What investments actually create healthy and safe communities?” That the police are not the answer to this question became increasingly clear as the roundtable event progressed.
Jonas Rosenbrück, Director of Volunteer Development, NPEP
Ph.D. Candidate, Comparative Literary Studies & German