Hidden African American Films

The popular film “Hidden Figures” tells a great story based on real figures, three important Black American women who work for NASA in key positions, as mathematicians and engineers, during the segregated 1960s. Contemporary audiences are celebrating this film that uproots stubborn stereotypes while reminding people that a severely divided America is nothing new, oppression and segregation have consequences, and with effort over time we may dismantle unjust barriers.

Black American culture has flourished sometimes far away from the limited view of the dominant culture, and this is certainly true of film. The purpose of this article is to highlight a small selection of excellent films by Black Americans that have remained hidden from many, but fortunately, not all.

Homage must be paid to the indomitable Oscar Micheaux, born in Metropolis, IL in 1884. After a stint as a Pullman porter in Chicago, he bought acreage in South Dakota and tried farming, and when drought led to crop failure, he wrote a novel about the experience and then in 1919 turned it into a movie, the first feature-length film by a Black American, The Homesteader. Micheaux was a pioneer in the production of films that were called “race movies.” Micheaux said, “Your self-image is so powerful it unwittingly becomes your destiny.” He understood well the influence of the movies.

Two eye-opening documentaries tell the story of race movies: “Midnight Ramble” (1994) and “In the Shadow of Hollywood: Race Movies and the Birth of Black Cinema” (2007). Get them on your radar. Required viewing is filmmaker Charles Burnett’s most notable film, Killer of Sheep. Burnett was born in Mississippi but moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and his film, set in Watts, shows us lives not often depicted on the big screen. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Killer of Sheep helps give it a neo-realist quality, meaning it feels authentic as it tells the story of a working-class family. The father works in a slaughterhouse, thus the title. It is not a horror film. Rather, through a series of vignettes, we experience the ordinary, yet deep, struggles faced by this family. Released in 1978, the film has recently been restored and its accolades accumulate. In 1981 the Berlin International Film Festival gave it its Critics Award; the Library of Congress declared it a national treasure in 1990, adding it to the National Film Registry; and The National Film Critics, in 2002, named Killer of Sheep one of The 100 Essential Films.

A second Charles Burnett film not to miss, also set in Los Angeles, To Sleep with Anger (1990), stars Danny Glover as an unexpected guest, an old friend from decades past and a world away who arrives from the Deep South to stay with a family and shows no signs of leaving. This trickster character brings superstitious discord with him and invades the comfort of modern ways emerging in the West. As one character tells him: “Harry, you know you remind me of everything that went wrong in my past.”

“Losing Ground,” the 1982 film by Kathleen Collins, described in 2015 by film critic Richard Brody as a “nearly lost masterwork,” is part of the Black independent film scene that included Charles Burnett. Unfortunately, the film did not receive theatrical release in 1982–showing once on PBS American Playhouse—but more recently has been made available on DVD thanks to Nina Collins, daughter of the filmmaker. (Sadly, Kathleen Collins died in 1988.) Ask your local library to add it to the collection as, masterwork though it may be, the film is hard to find, although it can be purchased. Described by critics as funny and brilliant, the story is about a marriage between Sara, a philosophy professor, and her husband Victor, an abstract painter. Collins, an author, filmmaker, film professor, and activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is getting renewed attention thanks to the efforts of her daughter and others. Her lost collection of short fiction, What Ever Happened to Interracial Love?, was published in 2016 to critical acclaim.

Below are three recommendations that feature coming-of-age stories well worth seeing.

The Learning Tree (1969), written and directed by Gordon Parks, is a semi-autobiographical story adapted from Parks’ novel of the same title, and recounts his experiences as a teenager growing up in Kansas in the 1920s and 1930s. Gordon Parks was a photographer for Life magazine and Vogue, and this beautifully shot first film of his—he went on to direct Shaft and others—makes clear we are in the hands of a master photographer. The film looks and feels nostalgic but the story is steeped in substance. Much to learn under this tree.

Crooklyn (1994), written by Spike Lee, his sister Joie Lee, and brother Cinque Lee, is a semi-autobiographical story about a family in Brooklyn with five children whose school-teacher mother (Alfre Woodard) grows ill and dies, leaving the jazz musician father (Delroy Lindo) as a single parent. Like all of Lee’s films, this one is vibrant with a great soundtrack and creative use of camera angles, and because of its closeness to Lee’s family history, this film has tremendous authenticity and warmth. Please note, in the section where the sister visits family in the South, her cultural and psychological displacement is highlighted by Lee with a distorted lens. No, there is nothing wrong with your screening device.

The Ink Well (1994), by Matty Rich, set in 1976 on Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, highlights class and political conflicts between two sisters and their husbands. One husband works as a social worker and was a member of the Black Panther Party. The other is a Republican who owns a fancy beachfront home on Martha’s Vineyard. The family with the McGovern sticker on their old car comes to visit the family with the Nixon portrait on the wall. The central character is the clever, odd (has a doll he talks to) 16-year-old son of the social worker, who learns teenage ways over the two-week visit and even (spoiler alert) loses his virginity to an older woman, quelling implicit fears that he might be gay, a dated aspect of this otherwise entertaining comedy-drama. The costumes and soundtrack designed to elicit 1976 culture are funky and fun. The title, The Inkwell, refers to a stretch of beach that has been popular with African Americans since the late 19th Century. The long history of African Americans living on Martha’s Vineyard is well worth researching. August 2017 will be the 15th annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. Who wants to go?


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Full Transcript of Evelyn Reynolds’s CU Women’s March Speech

I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak here today. None of today’s speakers can fully represent the array of magnificent women in our community. Many of which don’t hold public positions of influence or prestigious titles. Many of whom are disregarded because they are poor and without degrees. Women who refuse to speak imperial English, and use inflammatory language because they live inflammatory lives. Women transcend titles, labels, and organizations. Those just happen to be things that our capitalistic patriarchal society has selected as our most notable qualities, to further its own interests and agenda. But who are we as thinking, feeling, human beings?

As we stand here en masse, lifting up messages of “feminism” and “woman empowerment,” it seems disingenuous to me. Women allowed this very march to be planned by men! Women, neglected to stand up for themselves OR OTHER WOMEN, as important questions were asked by participants who wanted to ensure that this march was as inclusive and intersectional as possible. Women gave the A-OK to speaking at a bar that has created a drink called Nasty Woman in “our honor,” when WE KNOW that alcohol is key factor in most cases of rape and violence against women!

Where is the GRIT and GALL of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riviera, Fannie Lou Hammer, Ida. B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Jane Addams?! Individuals who recognized the intricate ways in which their sex assignment intersected with their race, class, and sexuality, and the various ways that they were oppressed because of them.

We talk a lot about feminine oppression from men. Which is real and active, always. But what are the ways that we oppress one another? I’m looking out into a sea of White women, who are today claiming to be in solidarity with Black women. White women are often the very purveyors of racist aggressions against Black women!

Where is your support and solidarity when Muslim women are getting their hijabs pulled off and being spat upon?! Did you rise up when 270 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped and disappeared?! Did you cry out when over 16 transwomen were murdered last year! No!

It is White women who fail to acknowledge me in the grocery store line, while greeting the person before and after me. It is White women who follow me around at retail stores with questioning glances at my purse and my pockets. It is White women who chose white privilege over gender in the last presidential election. And it is little white girls who are often the first people who call little black girls niggers. So you are also my oppressor!

Therefore, I ask,


When the dust settles, and the crowds and cameras disperse, THAT is when we need you.  That is when your true self is revealed.

I’ll end with a quote by bell hooks:

“The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labeling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.” 

Evelyn Reynolds is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Parkland College in Champaign, IL. She graduated with a Master’s of Science in Sociology from Illinois State University in 2009 and has taught college courses for 10 years. In the Fall of 2015, Evelyn co-founded Black Lives Matter: Champaign-Urbana, a chapter of the global #Blacklivesmatter Network.

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County Nursing Home Deserves and Needs Voters’ Support

Much attention has been given to the election of local officials on April 4, but there is as issue that is equally pressing. That is the fate of the Champaign County Nursing Home (CCNH). Voters will be presented with two referendum items. The first is whether or not to authorize the County Board to raise a property tax levy from its present 3 cents per $100 assessed value to the legal maximum of 10 cents. The second item asks voters whether or not to authorize the County Board to dispose of the nursing home, presumably either by selling it to a private nursing home company or some other private user, or just shutting it down. As one who has had a mother in the nursing home for almost four years and has been supportive of it since then, I urge voters to vote YES on the increased tax levy, and to vote NO on the authorization to dispose of the home.

Early History of this Venerable Institution

To fully understand the mission of the Champaign County Nursing Home and what it represents, and has represented, to the citizens of Champaign County, one must know something about its history, its evolution, and the longstanding commitment of the people of Champaign County to institutions that serve the most vulnerable among us.

This history goes back to 1859 when a County Poor Farm was established about four miles from the city of Urbana. The farm had both fields for the growing of crops and animals that sustained the most needy. A barn was created on the model of the round barns at the University of Illinois in Urbana. In 1866, the first building was constructed in Urbana at 1701 E. Main Street. The cost of this building was $7,664. It served the impoverished residents until 1910, when a new, two-story building was erected. The second story of the building was designated as the Champaign County Hospital.

In 1936, a west wing of the building was constructed to serve as a contagion unit. It was used mainly to isolate polio victims. In 1960, an east wing was added as a nursing home that could accommodate 198 senior citizens. In 1973, the building that preceded the existing one was built was built to accommodate both full-time and day residents.

The 2002 Referendum

By 2002, the building that had been erected in 1973 was experiencing severe deterioration, so severe that it was noncompliant with some of the codes established by the Illinois Department of Public Health. There were three possible options opened to the County Board: bring the 1973 building up to code and increase its efficiency, privatize it and let the new owners bring it up to code, or construct a new building. It was decided early on that modernizing the old building would not be cost-effective. While there was some support for privatization among members of the Board, it was decided to present two referenda items to the public. The first item asked the public for authority to issue $20 million in general obligation bonds to build a new building. The bonds would be paid by a property tax costing home owners 7 cents per $100 assessed value. The second item asked the voters to authorize a 3 cent per $100 assessed value to provide an operating subsidy for the maintenance of the nursing home. There was an intense campaign to educate the public on the value and need of the CCNH, a campaign in which this author was an active participant. Both requests were approved handily by the voters.

Several years after the 2002 referendum, some personnel and management problems arose. The County Board decided that these issues might be best dealt with by a private management company. So in 2008 MPA, a management company based in St. Louis, was brought in. At the same time, the County Board created a body called the CCNH Advisory Board of Directors. They were established as advisory to the County Board, its eyes and ears on how the home was doing under the public ownership/private management regime.

This worked relatively well so long as the state was processing Medicaid applications for CCNH in a relatively timely manner. The home is heavy on the Medicaid side, making up 62% of the residents. Being larger than any other nursing home in the area, it has the most Medicaid residents. However, as the financial situation of the state has degenerated, the state’s processing  of Medicaid applications has lagged very far behind  That imposes an incredible strain on the cash flow of the home. Some vendors are now hinting that they might stop servicing the home. So, through no fault of the CCNH, the situation has become dire.

A Lovely Facility and a Dedicated Work Force Meeting Community Needs

That one-story building has five wings. Three of them are skilled-care wings that serve both Medicaid and private pay residents, with, as already noted, a slight edge toward the former. Another wing is for people with dementia. The fifth is a rehabilitation wing. It houses short-term respite patients and offers physical, speech, occupational, and restorative therapies.

Our public nursing home is open to anyone who needs it and imposes no financial burden on the sons or daughters of its residents. Many of us have had parents or grandparents cared for in this facility and we have not had to pay for that care aside from the portion of our taxes that go for it. Its mission is to provide that care and to give us peace of mind that our loved ones are in a safe and clean environment. The fact CCNH has survived to this point, while most Illinois counties have not maintained that institutional tradition to public care and empathy for the most vulnerable among us, speaks to the shared values of our local citizenry and to the very special value of our caring public facility.

Back in 2002, the County Board could have asked the voters to approve the maximum 10 cents per $100, but chose to ask for less than a third of that. The urgency then was building deterioration, not a deterioration in the financial condition of the state. We got a state-of-the-art building thanks to voter support. What CCNH needs now is for voters to agree to the full permissible 10 cents per $100.

There are other efforts in the community to support the CCNH. Just last month, in January, a group called Friends of Champaign County Nursing Home, to which I belong, launched a campaign to create a Foundation for the Nursing Home. While it cannot hope to bring in enough to support the full operating support of the home, this manifestation of support by community members does aim to make a difference in the quality of life of the residents.

This is just one more indication of the gratitude of people whose loved ones have been cared for by the CCNH, which imposes no financial burden on anyone except the individual residents before they spend down their assets. If there was ever a public service that met the financial and psychological needs of those of us who have to deal with aging relatives and friends, it is this nursing home. When this is taken into account, the additional 7 cents in property tax per $100 assessed value is a pittance to pay for our peace of mind.

Again, please vote YES on the tax authorization, and NO on the authorization to close the CCNH.


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Upcoming Open Scene Workshops!

Open Scene is the IMC’s youth media project funded by a $50,000 NEA grant to re-imagine downtown Urbana and the IMC. The following are workshops with artists. The public can attend events for free! For details go to Open Scene Urbana on Facebook.

Andrea Perkins (March 10-12), a Native American writer based in Chicago who will host a workshop on storytelling.

Mother Nature (March 24-26), made up of T.R.U.T.H. (Tierney Reed), Klevah (Shasta Mathews) and Cii La’Cole, will teach a workshop on the four elements of hip hop centered around social and political issues.

Hill L. Waters (April 14-16), a Black feminist love praxis project that is a collaboration between Durell M. Callier, Lisa Fay, and Dominique C. Hill. They will lead a workshop for developing short theater pieces.

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Resist Art Show

Resist Art Show

Saturday, March 4, 2-7 p.m.

Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway, old Urbana post office

Resist/Resistance:the refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.

Throughout turbulent times in history, artists have responded to their world with art activism. Art can be a vehicle for both social justice and political change. Art can change the world.

Artists–Our time to respond is now!

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Malcolm X on The Media

Jason Patterson
Malcolm X Interviewed at Intermediate School 201,
Harlem, 1964
Fixed soft pastel on raw canvas,
under self leveling clear gel



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Des-Ordenes Presidenciales

Comenzamos con lo que en gran medida ha estado ausente en los llamados por los derechos de los inmigrantes: estamos asentados en tierras ocupadas como resultado de políticas de remoción y / o genocidio de los pueblos Nativo Americanos.

En un aumento dramático que envió ondas de choque a través de las comunidades de inmigrantes y sus aliados, cientos de personas han sido detenidas en ciudades como Atlanta, Austin, Charlottee, Nueva York, a lo largo del sur de California y otras ciudades del país incluyendo Urbana. De acuerdo a grupos de abogados y activistas muchas de estas personas probablemente serán retornadas a sus lugares de origen. Las incursiones de ICE ocurrieron siguiendo una serie de órdenes ejecutivas de la administración Trump, celebradas por grupos de supremacistas blancos y la derecha alt – o neo-racista – y están dirigidas a aquellos que carecen de las protecciones que la ciudadanía ofrece.

La colosalmente islamofóbica orden ejecutiva “Protegiendo a la Nación de la Entrada de Terroristas Extranjeros a la Nación” prohíbe a los inmigrantes y refugiados inmigrantes de Irak, Irán, Libia, Somalia, Sudán, Siria y Yemen – la entrada durante 90 días con el objetivo de proteger a la nación de la entrada terroristas extranjeros a los Estados Unidos. También impide la entrada refugiados en general durante 120 días, y prohíbe la entrada indefinida de los refugiados de Siria devastada por la guerra entre otras medidas bastante ofensivas, aunque gran parte de esta prohibición ha sido bloqueada en los tribunales. Cabe subrayar que nunca se han cometido actos terroristas en suelo estadounidense por ciudadanos de estos países, mientras que ciudadanos de otros países del Medio Oriente, donde el presidente tiene importantes intereses empresariales, si han cometidos actos terroristas. Pero, en lugar de pedir una  revisión o una “mejor” lista, hay que recordar que en los Estados Unidos se han perdido muchas más vidas por los terroristas estadounidenses, engendrados “en casa”, en particular los fanáticos de la derecha. De acuerdo a la revisión histórica el Instituto CATO señala que, “incluyendo a los asesinados en los ataques terroristas del 11 de septiembre de 2001 (9/11), la probabilidad de que un estadounidense muera en un ataque terrorista en territorio estadounidense cometido por un extranjero –dentro del periodo de 41años estudiado aquí- es 1 en 3.6 millones por año. El riesgo que suponen los extranjeros que entraron en diferentes categorías de visas varía considerablemente. Por ejemplo, la posibilidad de que un estadounidense sea asesinado en un atentado terrorista causado por un refugiado es de 1 en 3.64 billones por año, mientras que la posibilidad de ser asesinado en un ataque cometido por un inmigrante “ilegal” es astronómicamente diferente, 1 en 10.900 billones por año “.

Trump hizo una serie de acusaciones infundadas y flagrantemente islamofóbicas acerca de los musulmanes, una religión de unos 1.500 millones de personas en el mundo, a lo largo de su campaña presidencial. Esta orden recuerda el Acta de Exclusiones de China, que duró 60 años entre 1882 y 1943, en siniestramente muestra el desprecio hacia un grupo entero, pero también porque gran parte de la base legal de Acta de Exclusión china todavía se mantiene.

La segunda orden executiva explícitamente xenofóbica, “Mejorando la seguridad pública en el interior de los Estados Unidos”, es igual de peligrosa. Se basa en la infraestructura de detención y deportación echada andar por la administración de Obama sin embargo, esta orden acelera dramáticamente el proceso. Las ramificaciones para nuestra comunidad son profundas. Algunas de sus disposiciones más draconianas incluyen: el desmantelamiento de las ciudades Santuario, de las cuales Urbana es una; el restablecimiento de Comunidades Seguras, un programa que obliga a las fuerzas policiales locales a colaborar con las autoridades migratorias y que grupos comunitarios locales interrumpieron hace años.  “Mejorando la seguridad pública” también dicta que aquellos que carecen del privilegio de ciudadanía serán excluidos de las leyes federales de privacidad; establece una Oficina para las Víctimas de Crímenes Cometidos por los Extranjeros Removibles; y finalmente, pide que se creen y presenten “informes trimestrales sobre los efectos de la victimización por los extranjeros criminales presentes en los Estados Unidos”. También son alarmantes ciertos pasajes en la orden que llaman a priorizar la remoción de las personas que 1) no tienen el privilegio de la ciudadanía y que han sido condenados o acusados ​​de cualquier delito, 2) que estén involucrados en el “fraude o tergiversación de su identidad deliberada con relación a cualquier asunto oficial o solicitud ante una agencia gubernamental, 3) personas que “han recibido beneficios públicos, y 4) personas que a juicio de un oficial suponen un riesgo para la seguridad pública o la seguridad nacional. Esta orden ejecutiva impone una nueva ola de incertidumbre y temor a los no ciudadanos en los Estados Unidos, particularmente junto a una tercera orden ejecutiva que ordena la construcción de un muro entre Estados Unidos y México y aumenta de las medidas de seguridad fronteriza, incluyendo la adición de 10.000 nuevos agentes de inmigración y 5.000 agentes de aduanas y patrullas fronterizas.

Estas hostilidades hacia los inmigrantes y refugiados en estas órdenes coinciden con noticias de que Julie Kircher ex oficial de FAIR, grupo que ha sido caracterizado como un grupo de odio por el Southern Poverty Law Center, asesora a la Patrulla Fronteriza. Además, Kellyannye Conway, una de los principales portavoces de Trump, también trabajó con FAIR. Coincide con la noticia de que la base de Trump es abrumadoramente, blanca, masculina, y evidentemente está de acuerdo con burlarse de los discapacitados y con hombres “agarra-coños.”

Pero también ha habido otra oleada igual de fuerte: una oleada de movilizaciones y solidaridades en todo EU. Distintos grupos locales se están organizando y movilizando para responder a este nuevo escenario político. Organizaciones bajo la lógica de Santuario se han movilizado e iniciado importantes discusiones en ciudades y campus de todo el país, incluyendo Champaign-Urbana. Estudiantes, profesores, personal de UIUC y miembros de la comunidad de Champaign-Urbana están movilizándose para asegurarse de que la universidad pueda proporcionar un espacio para pensar críticamente sobre temas actuales y proporcionar también espacios seguros para inmigrantes, musulmanas, Queer, y la comunidad en general. Organizaciones como Champaign Urbana Immigration Forum están haciendo intervenciones críticas educando a la comunidad local sobre las importantes contribuciones de los inmigrantes. Además, están llevando a cabo la importante tarea de impartir talleres sobre los derechos de los inmigrantes, entre otras muchas tareas. Iglesias de todas las denominaciones y la mezquita local están celebrando reuniones comunitarias en solidaridad de refugiados y familias de inmigrantes. Los distritos escolares han sido claves en la difusión de información y recursos para la comunidad inmigrante. Los educadores y el personal han sido claves en proporcionar espacios para pensar y organizarse en torno a temas de inmigración. No estamos solos. No están solos.

En pocas palabras, las hostilidades antiinmigrantes que Trump ha desplegado nos recuerdan cómo las cuestiones de injusticia intersectan y afectan las distintas comunidades del área y de la nación. Organizaciones incluyendo la delegación local Black Lives Matters (Las Vidas negras Importan), con su liderazgo queer, también se movilizan para educar, organizar y proporcionar espacios seguros para pensar en nuestro momento actual. Carol Ammons, nuestra representante estatal, habla en una marcha mientras escribimos este artículo sobre como la Guerra Contra las Drogas afecta y criminaliza las distintas comunidades de color de Estados Unidos. La Marcha de Mujeres el 21 de enero y el movimiento por Nativo Americanos en contra el oleoducto en North Dakota (NoDAPL) exige que reconozcamos nuestras distintas y profundas historias de opresión, racialización y colonización para entonces poder iniciar un trabajo colectivo.

Caracol Autónomo Urbana-Champaign

Santuario Para el Pueblo


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Orange Crush: The Rise of Tactical Teams in Prison

Since Ferguson, there has been a public outcry over militarized police who shoot down African Americans on the streets of our cities, but less is known beyond prison walls about guards who regularly brutalize those incarcerated. In Illinois, there is a notorious band of guards called the “Orange Crush” who don orange jumpsuits, body armor and riot helmets to conceal their identity. They carry large clubs and canisters of pepper spray, which they use liberally. A recent lawsuit names a list of horrific abuses that includes strip searches, beatings and mass shakedowns of cells.

In the decades since the 1971 prison rebellion at Attica in New York, there has been a gradual build-up of these “tactical teams,” also known as “tac teams” or Special Operations Response Teams (SORTs). Today, they are routinely used for anything from fights to reports of contraband. Only within the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) have they earned the infamous name of “Orange Crush.” Anyone who has been incarcerated in the men’s state prison system has a story about these abusive guards.

These teams can number from half a dozen to as many as 100 officers. They perform what are described by Koger as “cell extractions.” Once individuals are removed, they perform “shakedowns,” or searches of all personal belongings, often confiscating property.

“Nuts to Butts”

A lawsuit against the Orange Crush was filed jointly in 2015 by Uptown People’s Law Center and Loevy & Loevy, two Chicago-based firms that fight for the rights of the incarcerated. A judge recently approved the suit to move toward discovery. It is filed on behalf of Demetrius Ross, a man imprisoned at Illinois River Correctional Center, as well as others at Menard Correctional Center, Big Muddy River Correctional Center and Lawrence Correctional Center, who describe similar abuses by the Orange Crush. All these prisons are located in downstate Illinois, far from Chicago where many of those incarcerated are from. A total of 232 officers are named as defendants. The suit, based on Ross’s testimony, describes a mass shakedown in April 2014 at Illinois River, where 2,000 men are kept.

Ross alleges that officers dressed in orange suits entered his wing yelling loudly, making “whooping” sounds, and hitting their batons on walls, tables and doors. Two guards stood in front of each cell screaming at those inside to “get asshole naked.” Once undressed, they had them exit the cell, turn around, bend over and spread their butt cheeks. The men were then asked to turn around and lift up their genitals for inspection. They used their fingers to open their mouths while guards looked for any contraband. According to Ross, some of the guards were women.

After the strip search, the men were allowed to get dressed, but told they could not put on underwear. Then they were lined up against a wall. The guards walked back and forth waving their sticks and chanting repeatedly “punish the inmate.” Anyone who looked at the guards had their face slammed against the wall and were told to “put [their] fucking heads down!” The suit claims this was to protect the identity of the Orange Crush guards.

The men were marched single file into the gym in a manner the guards called “Nuts to butts”—walking close together while bent over at the waist in a 90-degree angle. The guards yelled that they didn’t want to see “any fucking daylight” between the men. The suit describes this line-up as humiliating and sexually abusive, “one man’s genitals were in direct contact with the buttocks of the man ahead of him in line.”

When Ross lifted his head, his face was slammed into the man in front of him so hard that his glasses fell off and were broken. At one point, Ross was pulled out of line, forced to the ground, choked and jabbed in the back with batons. The march to the gym was “long and painful.”

The men waited in the gym without water or bathroom breaks while the Orange Crush searched through their cells. They returned to find their rooms “tossed,” leaving their belongings scattered about. Some claimed their property, including legal documents, were stolen.

Similar shakedowns occurred at other prisons shortly after, the suit alleges. These actions were, the suit claims, part of a “policy or practice implemented, overseen, and encouraged by IDOC supervisors.”

After Attica

In an interview with Truthout, Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in Illinois prisons and now works at the Uptown People’s Law Center, spoke about the Orange Crush, with which he is very familiar. These tactical teams, he said, were a response to the prison rebellion at Attica prison in 1971, as well as similar uprisings at Pontiac, Illinois in 1978 and the New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1980. Since then, Nelson said, there has been an “explosion of tactical teams to maintain control and go into prisons immediately.”

The attorney who helped write the suit against the Orange Crush, Alan Mills, of the Uptown People’s Law Center, confirmed this account. At the time of Attica, “prison officials relied on local police forces to put down prison rebellions.” After Attica, they saw a need to create their own tactical teams. Similar to the creation of SWAT teams, there was a militarization of law enforcement that happened “both inside and outside” of prisons.

One formerly incarcerated man, Charles Davidson, who resides in Urbana, recalled this turn from his own experience of spending many years in prison. He remembers the Orange Crush conducting strip searches and shakedowns in the early 1990s at Jacksonville Correctional Center where he was locked up. He was also in Pontiac during the 1960s and recalls, “I didn’t see them there.”

Taking Prisons Back From the Gangs

According to Mills, today’s Orange Crush emerged out of the 1996 campaign to rid Illinois prisons of gangs like the Vice Lords and Latin Kings, which ran many illicit operations with the full cooperation of prison authorities. It followed the media story of Richard Speck, who was convicted of mass murder. While he was in Stateville Prison, a video was released that showed him performing sex acts and snorting large quantities of cocaine that had been smuggled into the prison. The video was shown on the floor of the Illinois legislature, prompting outrage. Prison authorities imposed a yearlong lockdown of maximum security prisons in the state. The plan was to “take prisons back from the gangs,” said Mills. Teams of prison guards were “unleashed” upon the prison population. The Orange Crush went in to assert total control.

Now, the new lawsuit is trying to expose the Orange Crush and those who ordered the raids at four separate facilities in Spring 2014. The suit has thus far overcome a motion to dismiss by the IDOC. District Judge Staci Yandle concluded that defendants “purposely concealed their identities to evade responsibility for their actions.” Finding out those responsible was “impossible” without pretrial discovery. Although the suit moves forward, its claims of sexual abuse in violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) were dismissed.

Discovery documents show at least half a dozen men received medical attention, and another half dozen were sent to segregation as a result of the shakedown at Illinois River.

The reason why the Orange Crush conducted the sweeps is still unclear. The IDOC produced redacted copies of the operations orders revealing no information. There’s currently a legal battle over the purpose of the mass raids.

Mills said he disputes prison authorities who claim these are “necessary measures.” He believes the “pendulum has swung too far. Abusing people and treating [them] as less than human is never ‘necessary.’”

Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission. 

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The Extremes of Struggle at the Monster’s Heart: The Black Working Class and Socioeconomic Realities under Obama’s Neoliberalism

“International capitalism cannot be destroyed without the extremes of struggle. The entire colonial world is watching the blacks inside the U.S…We are on the inside. We are the only ones who can get at the monster’s heart…”  — George L. Jackson

The African-American working class lives in a perpetual state of crisis as our material and social conditions continue to deteriorate to their lowest points in our history. As Black Studies scholar-activist Sundiata Cha-Jua argues, this “New Nadir” is the result of the holistic nature of racial oppression: it operates at an institutional, individual, and cultural scale. All three levels, expanded through neoliberal capital accumulation, consistently produce living standards that negate basic human needs.

Our Current Moment

As of January 2017, the black labor force participation rate stands at 62.4%; thus, over 1/3 of the African-American population eligible to work is unemployed or no longer actively seeking employment. The wage gap between blacks and whites has widened to 26.7%, its worst rate in four decades. Over 25% of African Americans live in concentrated poverty (neighborhoods or tracts where 40% or more of the residents fall below the federal poverty threshold of $24,000 a year for a family of four), while many other blacks that average between $25,000 and $35,000 a year attempt to survive under similar economic constraints.

The 2007-2008 housing bubble resulted in black household net worth decreasing between 53% and 61%, with future generations facing very little chance of recovery. As public education embraces for-profit policies through charter school expansion, tuition inflation, and slashing programs, working-class people continue to be priced out of education unless they obtain devastating debt.

Socially sanctioned anti-black violence occurs at a higher frequency than lynchings during the first Nadir in the 1890s. Working-class black people and those that have fallen out of the class structure (lumpenproletariat) continue to be disproportionately surveilled, incarcerated, and murdered by state and private forces. We comprise 40% of the U.S. carceral state and over 33% of the civilians killed by police. This is where we are at the current moment.

Reactionary Robots: The Function of Liberal Reformism

Unfortunately, liberal reformists and pseudo-leftists promote identity politics to subdue criticisms of this apartheid structure. As a result, the dominant narrative of struggle in the United States follows five consistent strands: 1) devoid of criticism of the political economy, 2) hierarchal in approach to oppressed groups, 3) opposed to militant resistance tactics (urban rebellion, labor strikes, armed self-defense), 4) possesses no legitimate ties to international working class struggles against war and imperialism, and 5) is dedicated solely to electoral politics, symbolic protests, and capital investment as the solutions to social ills.

As scholar Adolph Reed Jr. argues, identity politics is inherently counterproductive to revolutionary principles, because it disguises objectively right-wing, neoliberal ideology with superficially “progressive” politics centered on social constructs like race, gender, and sexuality, rather than on material conditions and structuralism. This is not a condemnation of current movements for social equality; instead, I argue that liberal interpretations of the social realities of the oppressed actively suppress the role of the structure (i.e. capital accumulation) in creating and maintaining these social constructs. Race, gender, and sexual discrimination must be analyzed in a genuine intersectional manner, as inextricably linked to the material conditions of which they are constituted.

Liberal reformists also exonerate Barack Obama’s neoliberal agenda by propagandizing him as a symbolic icon for being the first black president. Although the United States has acted as the heart for neoliberal imperialism for decades, Obama played a pivotal role in expanding this dominance in the financialization of the global economy and the transoceanic exploitation and destruction of black and brown communities. As writer Joseph Kishore argues, Obama’s legacy is war and repression. He swelled George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to grotesque levels, unleashed bombing in Libya, bloodied Syria, supported Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, and issued drone strikes that killed over 3,000 people, with 80% of the murdered being untargeted civilians. Obama’s military forces were deployed in 138 nations, or 70% of the world!

Obama’s legacy must also include his contradictory stance on democratic rights. He often spoke favorably for democracy, but also stated that he had the authority to assassinate anyone, including U.S. citizens, without due process. He publicly criticized torture, but rewarded Bush torture proponents with positions in his regime. He prosecuted and imprisoned more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined, including Edward Snowden, who exposed the unconstitutional NSA spying program.

Obama recognized racial problems in policing, yet he expanded police militarization, upheld police brutality in court, and publicly demonized black rebels and activists as “criminals” for the 2015 Baltimore Rebellion. Lastly, Obama deepened class warfare through policies that extended both the power of the capitalist class and hardships for the working class.

Following the Great Recession, Obama refused to assist struggling homeowners; instead, he restored the wealth of the financial aristocracy by bailing out banks and corporations. Over his presidency, Obama oversaw a rise in aggregate corporate profits from $671 billion at the end of 2008 to $1.63 trillion in 2016 and in the wealth of the 400 richest Americans from $1.57 trillion to $2.4 trillion. Concurrently, the Obama administration replaced 95% of livable-wage, skilled, working-class jobs lost during the Recession with semi-skilled, part-time jobs. This results in workers falling out of the proletarian class and swelling the sub-working class, where wages are not enough to match rising costs of living. Finally, Obama’s Affordable Care Act provided substandard health services that people could not afford, shifted costs to individuals, and secured higher profits for insurance companies.

Consequently, these policies, alongside the Democratic Party’s alienation of black and white working class voters, and white supremacist Stephen K. Bannon’s populist, economic nationalism discourse, contributed heavily to the presidential election of fascist Donald Trump.

The Extremes of Struggle

The black masses at the heart of this monster must transition towards “the extremes of struggle.” In this new moment unseen in history, it is imperative that we develop a concise, working-class perspective and socialist principles to oppose not only Trump, but the system that produced him, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. We must treat the Trump regime not as an evil aberration in an otherwise democratic society, but instead as the outcome of widening socioeconomic inequality and repression under decades of Democrat and Republican rule. To transform the system, we must link anti-discrimination activism to the fight for equal living standards and the fight against exploitation, war, poverty, and state-sponsored violence. At the intellectual level, it is our responsibility to write and teach political education that emphasizes a critique of structure, capital accumulation, and the social constructs that protect capital. At the grassroots level, we must develop agency-laden institutions: spaces in the community that house organizational and cultural resources for collective action. Local leaders must utilize these institutions to train residents for survival programs, such as meal services, carpools, community banking, amenities-sharing programs, freedom schools, and self-defense. Within these workspaces, kinship networks develop between individuals, resulting in a natural inclination to build collectivity and generate ideas of self-emancipation.

Our pressing task is to abandon liberal reformist demands for recognition within the current system. We can no longer organize alongside factions like the Democratic Party whose interests clash directly with our interests. We must invest our time and resources in alternative political organizations and media that publicize our actual material realities. As Frantz Fanon stated, we, the masses, have to truly believe that everything depends on us, because there is no famous individual that will take responsibility; the ultimate goal is complete self-determination for us all.

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Fighting Mass Incarceration Under Trump: New Strategies, New Alliance

By James Kilgore

Yusef Shakur is a Detroit community organizer who spent several years in Michigan state prisons. “The prison-industrial complex has found the right person to feed it,” he said in response to the election results. “Trump is of the same cloth as Reagan, Bush and Nixon,” Shakur added, “I expect the worst in terms of patterns of repression.”

Among those working to end mass incarceration, Shakur’s perspectives are not unique. The Obama administration often provided wiggle room for reformers to occasionally win changes in policy. In New York and several other states, reforms yielded considerable drops in prison populations. Now any sense of a predictable shift toward reform is gone. A neo-fascist commander-in-chief is  unleashing his chain of repressive measures. His collection of reactionary cabinet ministers assures us the iron fist is the new reality,

New Policy Directions

Historian and Harvard African American Studies Professor Elizabeth Hinton contends that Trump will attempt to highlight crime problems to shift attention away from structural economic issues. As a chronicler of the rise of mass incarceration during the Nixon and Reagan years in her From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, she says Trump’s “rhetoric is very familiar” in promoting “a sense of chaos.”

Already Trump has targeted rollbacks of advances made under Obama. Policing will be one major focus. Over the years, resistance against state violence, largely sparked by the Movement for Black Lives, made enormous strides in changing popular consciousness about policing. As prominent scholar, activist and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore told Truthout, “We can expect more power to police, more police and fewer protections against violations of the constitution concerning criminalization.” The new administration’s main objectives may include not only bolstering the power of the police, but thwarting further development of the Movement for Black Lives and other social movements.

A second key area for rollbacks is reform legislation and policy changes, particularly sentencing reforms to roll back the racialized War on Drugs. The fate of this reform agenda remains unclear. A number of prominent ultra-conservatives, including the Koch brothers and ardent Trump backer Newt Gingrich, remain committed to criminal justice reform initiatives in the fiscal conservative vein. They may gain some influence. In any case, the new White House will usher in a much-reduced role for the progressive criminal justice-oriented think tanks that wielded considerable influence within the Obama administration.

The Wall

Trump has moved quickly on his immigration vision, waiting only a few days after inauguration to sign an executive order to build the infamous “Wall.” His immigration agenda also has deep ties to his desires to expand the role of private prisons. While private prisons remain small shareholders in the state and federal carceral market, they control over 60% of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention beds. If Trump wants to undertake massive deportations, the feds will need extra places to hold people who are being sent across the border. Private providers stand ready to fill the gap.

Ultimately, conservative intentions to reduce prison numbers may fit nicely with plans by the GEO Group and CCA to bolster their operations in “community corrections.” In recent years both companies have invested in user-funded post-release operations like day reporting centers, compulsory anger management classes and drug treatment programs, The GEO Group also owns BI, the nation’s largest provider of electronic monitors.

Finding Strategic Interventions

Responding to Trump’s agenda on mass incarceration requires action on two levels. First, there is a need to find areas where intervention can be effective. In terms of addressing immediate election results, an obvious priority is contesting the disenfranchisement of some 6.1 million people, especially those with felony convictions.

Beyond that, several possibilities appear. A starting point is recognizing that the criminal legal system is not a monolith totally under federal control. There are 50 state corrections departments and over 3,000 county jails. The laws and policies that govern these jurisdictions are made at the level of state legislature, county board or city council. While the feds control some funding flows to local law enforcement, the justice system is mostly financed via state and local taxes. As Ruthie Gilmore told Truthout, we need to set our sights on “local specificity” and recognize differentiation across the system. This means acknowledging differing realities both between and within states.

While developing local plans of action is crucial, many activists also advocate broadening the scope of the movement against mass incarceration. Elizabeth Hinton emphasizes the need to form “new alliances and coalitions on the ground.” She notes that opposition to Trump has “galvanized new groups of people” who can be drawn into action. New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, a long-time advocate of the need for a social movement to end mass incarceration, now argues that such a movement needs to be “multi-racial” and “multi-ethnic.”

Moreover, while most agree on the need for a coming together, the form of such solidarity may not ultimately be a single organization. Mariame Kaba, who played a key role in Chicago’s organizing against police torture,  cautions against false visions of one big tent: “What you need in particular moments are strategic alliances … that address the particular need or the particular thing you’re fighting.”

Moving Into Action

In Portland, Oregon, activists focused attention on the financial backers of differing systems of oppression. They targeted Wells Fargo Bank, not only for its support for private prisons but because of the bank’s role in financing the corporations involved in building the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Gilmore echoes the solidarity approach of those involved in the sanctuary movement and efforts to isolate banks.  She says this is a way of acknowledging that we “are clearly part of a bigger struggle.” She also adds that “internationalism is a must.”

Real News Network producer Eddie Conway agrees. Conway, a former political prisoner who spent over 43 years in prison on a fabricated murder charge, believes that the repressive actions of Trump will not only intensify policing but will also slash public benefits. This, he contends, will force people to develop counter-institutions as a mechanism of survival. However, he fears the coming of Trump will eliminate any chances of release for current political prisoners, and notes that “today’s organizers are looking at the prospect of becoming political prisoners in the future.”

Despite his concerns, Conway has not abandoned hope. He told this author the “seeds of a new movement are there.” He went on to urge activists to abandon notions of “American exceptionalism” and learn from the experiences of other countries that have endured regimes of repression and austerity. Conway draws inspiration from the food networks in Greece, the cooperative system in Spain, and the mineworkers in South Africa.

In Conway’s view, solidarity must undergird all our efforts. “Anti-fracking has direct relations to Black Lives Matter, immigration and gender rights,“ he said. These issues and movements “are not yet connected but they need to be … the only way is to develop alternative institutions,” he added.

Yusef Shakur agrees that such a change in mindset is essential for the long-term. We have been “functioning like the struggle was a forty-yard dash when it is a marathon,” he said. “It is time to build a critical mass movement … organizations need a unified voice to dismantle the system of white patriarchy.”

James Kilgore is an activist, researcher and writer based in Urbana. He is the author of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (New Press, 2015). He is active in local social movements such as Build Programs, Not Jails and FirstFollowers. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com or @waazn1 on Twitter.







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