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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nate Parker and Predators of Faith



By Sikivu Hutchinson

A man of deep faith.  That is the lofty mantle actor/director Nate Parker has self-righteously ascribed to himself in a Facebook post written in response to the firestorm around his alleged rape of a fellow student at disgraced Penn State University in 1999. 

The details of the incident involving the unnamed victim, Parker and his Birth of a Nation writing partner Jean Celestin, have rocked the Internet.  Celestin was initially convicted but the ruling was overturned on appeal four years later.  Parker was acquitted partly because the jury concluded that the victim couldn’t have been raped because she had had “consensual sex” with him prior to the attack.  According to court documents, Parker and Celestin harassed and stalked the victim.  After attempting suicide she sued the university, alleging that it had not protected her from the harassment.  In 2012, she died by suicide after battling PTSD and depression, reportedly due to the sexual assault.

Parker's and Celestin’s status as athletes at a university which has a history of complicity in sexual assault is an especially ugly irony.  Their commodity value to Penn no doubt shielded them from the long jail sentence that almost certainly would have been slapped on two ordinary young black men charged with raping a white woman.   

Yet, the phrase “man of faith” resonates with many black audiences. In this instance it’s designed to elicit an unquestioning cultural solidarity that Parker does not deserve.

The implication that “faith” defines morality is the gospel for a majority of the American public in general and African Americans in particular.  Expressing regret for his youthful “carelessness”, Parker wrote that “there is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in [that] situation”. Presumably a “man of faith”, one who adheres to the bible (with its prescriptions for the subordination and rape of women, damnation of gays, and murder of infidels) would have held himself to a higher standard of conduct.

For sexual assault survivors, the phrase is both bludgeon and vise.

How many times has a “man of faith” used his position as a respected community leader to sexually abuse a child?  How many times has a black girl been told by a man of faith that her life, her voice, her body, are less than zero in the face of violent male domination and control? And how many times have queer youth been gutted by the tale that men of faith can’t rape amoral gay, lesbian and trans folk?

Parker’s cynical manipulation of this term is repugnant, an affront to all of the sexual abuse victims who have been crushed, silenced by its use. His retrospective plea for “empathy” to his younger self is a politically expedient smokescreen.  It banishes all those who’ve been brutalized into submission because the adults in their lives—mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, law enforcement, counselors and other authority figures—have told them it’s improper to question the moral authority and righteousness of “men of faith”. 

In his statement Parker also invokes his identity as a father and husband.  But would he look the other way if one of his five black daughters—in a nation where approximately 40% of young black girls are raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust—were victimized by a man who trotted out his faith as a cover for his actions?

According to early reviews, The Birth of a Nation includes a scene depicting the graphic rape of Nat Turner’s wife. Commenting on the glut of Negro slave and servant movies a few years ago, bell hooks remarked that she was “tired of the naked, raped black female body” being used as a space of projection for white and black male subjectivity. Here, black women’s bodies become vehicles for exploring what really matters; the boundlessness of black male pain.  Thus, it is profoundly troubling, but not surprising, that Parker would depict the brutal institutional rape of African American women under slavery then have the gumption to philosophize about his faith-inspired empathy for the dead rape victim he stalked, harassed and victim-shamed.  This ardent man of faith has not connected the dots between his own patriarchal privilege, heterosexism (Parker has stated in the past that he would not play a gay character in order to “preserve the black man”) and American rape culture. In light of these revelations, his Nate Turner retelling will be read by many of us survivors as yet another instance in which cis-het black men are redeemed as proper stewards, keepers and protectors of defiled black femininity in that epic time of “celluloid slavery”—one which allows good black men of faith in contemporary America to deflect on their own complicity in normalizing sexual violence.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Khans and the Masters of War



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1919, Wilbur Little returned home to Blakely, Georgia after serving in World War I.  Instead of being heralded as a hero he was savagely attacked in public by white thugs.  The mob forced him to take off his uniform and strip to his underwear. When he refused to obey the mob’s demand that he never wear his uniform in public again he was lynched.

Little was murdered during the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919 when race riots instigated by whites swept the nation, fueled by postwar tensions over jobs, housing and the wave of African Americans moving to Northern cities. Isabel Wilkerson recalls the irony of his lynching in her landmark work on the Great Migration The Warmth of Other Suns. Instead of being treated like heroes, black World War I veterans were subjected to white hostility and outright terrorism. "America the Beautiful" hypocrisy was never more so than in its treatment of soldiers of color hoodwinked into believing Jim Crow violence would magically dissipate with military service. 

During World War I, families who’d lost relatives in combat were dubbed Gold Star families.  Because Wilbur Little was lynched on American soil, his family never received this designation, his death due to one of the longest wars the U.S. has waged—one against its own black “citizens”.
Decades later, this paradox still resonates when it comes to the fraught question of African Americans and other people of color serving a “democratic” war machine—to paraphrase conscientious objector Muhammed Ali—based on inhumane, imperialist militarism towards nations of color.   The recent flap over the Khan family’s DNC speech—parents of slain Gold Star soldier Humayan Khan, viciously maligned by Donald Trump and catapulted into the national arena as symbols of Muslim Americans’ unappreciated sacrifices to “flag and Country”— highlights the divide between the aspirations of immigrants of color and the homegrown reality of white Christian supremacy.  No matter what the “good” upstanding immigrant/person of color does to meet the litmus test of American patriotism they will never be validated by the dominant culture as human/citizen/hero—especially in times of nativist backlash. In his DNC speech, as well as during his TV appearances, Khizr Khan trumpeted the exceptionalist line, invoking the Constitution and proclaiming (in response to the outpouring of support the couple received after Trump’s tirade) that “every step they [the U.S.] take, the world emulates it.”

Throughout the GOP and Democratic conventions, both parties predictably trafficked in flag waving bombast and paeans to American exceptionalism.  Awash in “Greatest Nation” platitudes, the DNC was capped by Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s repeated invocations of the slaveholder-rapist founding fathers. 

Of course, one of the most eloquent (semi) antidotes to this propaganda came when Michele Obama referenced the slave legacy of the White House’s construction.  The First Lady thoughtfully summoned the image of her daughters romping on a lawn that black folk tending to antebellum plantations could only have dreamed of.  It was a subtle, albeit unintended, rebuke of the rabid Christian fascism spewed by Ben Carson the week before when he proclaimed that secular progressives are “antithetical” to the principles of the founding fathers.  In true lunatic fringe mode, Carson went off the rails about the Dems being in league with Lucifer, while Michele Obama highlighted the subtext of America’s New Jim Crow reality in which the descendants of the White House builders are in another kind of bondage, one cosigned by the Clinton/Obama administrations.
For his part, president Obama sounded the theme that everyone on the planet strives to emulate the U.S.  “American democracy works”, Obama declared.  “Gone” were the record numbers of black and brown inmates incarcerated in American jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities during his time in office. “Gone” were the drones that his administration has unleashed on thousands of Middle Eastern civilians marked for death in the name of American democracy.


Against this backdrop of imperialist devastation, the Khan’s display of patriotic heartbreak was tragically ironic and all too familiar.  Similar appeals touting the heroism and basic decency of Muslim-Americans were made in the wake of 9/11’s anti-Muslim backlash.  Whether viewed through the lens of 1919 or 2016, when it comes to the sacrificial bodies of people of color, this message of patriotic “redemption” is just another narrative that the “Greatest nation” will always manipulate to sugar coat its sin of endless occupation.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Black Women’s Film Confronts the Whitewashing of Jonestown



By Sikivu Hutchinson

For most people, the story of the 1978 Jonestown massacre is "simple"—a bunch of gullible Kool Aid drinking “cultists” from San Francisco followed a crazy manipulative white man into the jungle “Heart of Darkness” style and were systematically killed in the largest mass murder-suicide in American history.  For decades, a succession of Jonestown productions, most notably the 1980 TV film “Jim Jones: The Guyana Tragedy”, and countless books authored by white people, have focused squarely on the lethal charisma of the Reverend Jim Jones, leader of the infamous Peoples Temple church which emigrated to Guyana in the 1970s.  Mainstream history’s “Jones ‘jones’ “ whitewashes the fact that black people comprised over 75% of the church and that the majority of those who died in Jonestown were black women motivated by the utopic promise of a black paradise.  In the turbulence and disillusionment of the post civil rights, post-Vietnam era, Jonestown was supposed to be an antidote to the racial strife, economic inequality and segregation of the U.S.  For black women and black people looking back, one of the profound lessons of Jonestown is that these conditions have only intensified in a nation in the twilight of a black presidency.   

My 2015 novel and new film White Nights, Black Paradise are a corrective to the devaluing of this history.



I decided to produce, write and direct a short film treatment of the novel with an all-black crew and predominantly black cast of insanely talented actors out of frustration with the parade of white savior/redeemer/villain representations of Jonestown.   The short film will be a springboard for a feature length treatment.  Over the past few decades, films like Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, Django Unchained and, most recently, the cartoonish Stonewall, have used charismatic white leads to tell histories that should revolve around black folk.  Recent portrayals of Jonestown marginalize black women and omit the intersectional gender politics, queer identities and socio-historical context of the Peoples Temple movement.  Even African American documentarian Stanley Nelson’s otherwise on point 2006 film The Life and Death of Peoples Temple fails to amplify black women’s pivotal role in and contribution to the church’s activism.

Ernestine (Camille Lourde Wyatt) & Ida (Janine Lancaster) 




Doing a film adaption was also an opportunity to showcase underappreciated and underrepresented multigenerational black actresses. Many of the cast hail from screen and stage via Los Angeles’ acclaimed Black theatre company the Robey Theatre, which was founded in 1994 by actors Ben Guillory and Danny Glover.

As adapted from the book, the film production centers on black women characters partly modeled on real life Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown.  Theatre pro Camille Lourde Wyatt plays Ernestine Markham, a character based on Christine Miller; the only person recorded challenging Jones’ command that the community commit mass suicide on the so-called “Death Tape”.  Because there is so little known about Miller’s background I wanted to provide her fictional counterpart with a rich back story.  In White Nights, Black Paradise, Markham/Miller is an English teacher, politically conscious “race woman” and Temple loyalist who speaks out when the corruption and abuse in the church become impossible for her to ignore.

Hy (Aba Arthur), Jess (Dionne Neish) & Taryn (Tiffany Coty)


The diversity of belief systems in the church is reflected in the atheist and agnostic world views of lead protagonists and sisters, Taryn and Hy Strayer.  Played by electric actresses Tiffany Coty and Aba Arthur, the often contentious pair becomes involved in the Temple out of a commitment to social justice in the Bay Area.  This was the unifying theme in the lives of many surviving Temple members who lost family in Jonestown—black women and women of color like Jordan Vilchez, Juanell Smart and Leslie Wagner-Wilson (the only black woman to pen an autobiography on the tragedy*) were all motivated to stay with the Temple because of family ties and the church’s commitment to progressive politics.

The rich gender and sexual diversity of the church is reflected in the characters Taryn, Devera Medeiros and Jess McPherson.  Devera is a transwoman and writer cultivated by Jim Jones while Jess is a holistic therapist involved in an intense, often co-dependent love relationship with Taryn.   As played by Latonya Kitchen (making her film debut) and the riveting Dionne Neish, both exemplify the ways in which strong, accomplished black women became ensnared by and complicit in the Temple’s culture of persecution and terror. This dynamic is also illustrated by the role of Zephyr Threadgill, an aerospace engineer incisively rendered by Robbie Danzie, who serves as Jim’s “prosecutor” in a pernicious Salem Witch trial-esque interrogation scene. In her role as co-conspirator, Danzie is ably matched by veteran actor Darrell Philip, who nails Jones’ brooding megalomania.

Zephyr Threadgill (Robbie Danzie) & Jim (Darrell Philip)


In tackling the key role of Taryn, Chicago-native Tiffany Coty said she was attracted to the film because of the dearth of meaty, complex roles for black women in the industry.  Black actresses past the sexist “prime” of ingénue must fight tooth and nail for limited opportunities in the Hollywood pipeline.  Mainstream film has no use for older black women beyond the obligatory self-sacrificing mothers, white women sidekicks, or austere, Talented Tenth one-scene courtroom procedural judges.
In our film, black women emerge as powerful historical actors representing the entire spectrum of religious belief, “apostasy” and agency. They also have pivotal roles as documentarians of the church’s politics and power struggles.  Most fictional portrayals of Peoples Temple have avoided focusing on the complex role of the Black press in the church’s rise.  White Nights, Black Paradise highlights the influence of Carlton Goodlett, firebrand publisher of the once prominent Sun Reporter black newspaper chain as well as the Peoples Forum newspaper.  In the book and film, Goodlett’s unwavering support of Jones and the Temple is offset by the critical presence of Ida Lassiter, a fictitious investigative journalist and activist.  As played by actress and former reporter Janine Lancaster, Ida spars with Lourde’s righteous Ernestine over the emigration of the church to Jonestown and her checkered past with Jim Jones.



The limitations of interracial “sisterhood” and second wave feminist solidarity are epitomized by the divisive figure of Carol, played by Allison Blaize. Modeled on Carolyn Layton, a white Temple lieutenant, chief strategist and mother of one of Jones’ children, Carol represents one of the biggest paradoxes of the church.  White women, often sexually manipulated, were installed as “gentle” enforcers and authority figures by Jones.  The tacit conflict between black and white women over leadership upended the image of socialist egalitarianism the movement attempted to project in public. These kind of politics—all too real in this era of Clintonian white corporate feminism--are conspicuously absent from the white gaze of historical fiction. 

In White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is a space of projection for black women’s dreams, ambitions, and struggles for self-determination in apartheid America.  As Robbie Danzie (Zephyr) notes, “The novel reminds those of us passionately committed to organizations (spiritual or not), that our participation must be based on inquiry and self-study, as opposed to heightened emotion and blind faith or trust stirred by others.  Even today, there are those of us roused to action, sometimes tragically, by leaders of churches and/or political organizations, who've become intoxicated by increased money and power.”

*Jonestown survivor Hyacinth Thrash narrated her life story to an autobiographer for the book The Onliest One Alive


Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of White Nights, Black Paradise and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.  The film will be released this fall.

Friday, July 15, 2016

From Eulia Love to Redel Jones, LAPD’s Murderous Reign




By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1979, they handcuffed Eulia Love while she was dying on her front lawn.  In 2015, they handcuffed Redel Jones and let her die on a public street as a throwaway woman with no rights a white man was bound to respect.

On Tuesday, hundreds of demonstrators from Black Lives Matter, the Youth Justice Coalition and other organizations packed the Los Angeles Police Commission meeting to protest the officer-involved killing of Jones, a young African American woman murdered in cold blood last year after allegedly advancing on officers with a knife in a Baldwin Hills alley.  According to the LAPD, the confrontation with Jones occurred after a suspect “who fit her description” committed a robbery.  Eliciting widespread outrage, the Commission egregiously ruled that the killing of Jones was “within policy” because officers were in “fear of their lives”.  Contradicting the police’s grotesque default narrative of the violent black predator, one eyewitness to the killing stated that Jones was moving away from the officers.  The Commission did not disclose why it was necessary to use deadly force to subdue a woman wielding a knife.

Jones’ murder last spring marked the flowering of the #Sayhername campaign, the national call for justice in resistance to the terrorist victimization of black women under state violence.  Her murder, and the community response thereafter, is hauntingly similar to that of Eulia Love, a 39 year-old African American woman who was murdered at her South Los Angeles home by LAPD officers on January 3, 1979.  Love was alleged to have rushed the officers with a knife during a dispute precipitated by an earlier confrontation she’d had with a utility worker. The officers who killed her fired approximately twelve rapid fire shots at a range of eight and twelve feet.  Her murder elicited mass community protests and was initially ruled to be within policy by the LAPD’s “Shooting Review Board”.  This determination was later challenged by the Police Commission, which concluded that Love’s shooting “failed to meet departmental standards”.  In the aftermath of the killings, the notorious Chief Daryl Gates claimed that the white officer who shot Love was “just as much a victim of this tragedy as (she was).” Gates, the nemesis of the African American community, was a sneering law and order fascist who presided over a police department nationally renowned as the standard for state sanctioned racial terrorism and suppression. Under Gates, the department’s “pioneering” forays into militarization were institutionalized, as use of battering rams, SWAT teams and riot gear became the norm for police departments across the nation.
Love’s murder represented a turning point in the deep history of black LAPD murder victims. Weeks after her death, her killing initially generated little more than an obscure paragraph in the L.A. Times.  But in order to fully honor and SayHerName it’s important to acknowledge her wholeness.  Before she was killed, she was a mother of three daughters and a recent widow struggling to survive on a limited income. She lived in a single family home in a neighborhood abutting what is now the 105 freeway; one that had weathered the turbulence of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the downward economic spiral of South Los Angeles.  Her anxiety over paying an overdue gas bill was almost certainly exacerbated by these factors, and the appearance of a male Gas Company representative in her backyard to shut off service.  According to an Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) report filed by the representative, Love hit him with a shovel to keep him from shutting off her service. The rep then called the police, who drew their guns shortly after arriving, tragically, while Love’s young daughters were in the house.
In the case of white assailants, it’s standard for law enforcement to use extensive de-escalation techniques—including negotiating with suspects, bargaining for time, retreating, using tasers and other non-lethal strategies.  As evidenced in mass shootings like those in Aurora, Colorado, Charleston, South Carolina and the 2015 Colorado Springs abortion clinic shooting (as well as with the recent Oregon National Wildlife Refuge standoff involving domestic terrorist Ammon Bundy), it’s pro forma for even the most violent white assailants to be captured alive despite brandishing military style weapons.
The 1980 Police Commission report on the Love case concluded that LAPD officers Edward Hopson (who was black) and Lloyd O’Callaghan (who was white) talked to Love for a scant two-three minutes (rather than the seven minutes erroneously reported by the LAPD Shooting Review). Contrary to the Shooting Review report, the Police Commission concluded that the officers had not been prompted to use deadly force due to concern for the wellbeing of Love’s daughters; nor had they come to arrest Love for the alleged assault of the Gas Company worker.  Rather, they perceived Love as an a priori threat, one that was disproportionate to the situation. 
Departmental policy stated that “officers should not draw their weapons based on a mere feeling of apprehension”.  Although Love was wielding a knife, she was retreating from Hopson and O’Callaghan when they opened fire on her.  The report further states that techniques for disarming an individual with a knife include kicks and baton hits. Moreover, “In choosing a technique, the relative size of an individual and his or her mental state” are also primary considerations.  In both the Jones and Love cases, none of these factors apparently informed the police’s decision to use deadly force.  Because Hopson and O’Callaghan emerged from the police vehicle with their guns drawn, escalation of Love’s already agitated emotional state was virtually a foregone conclusion.  In the final moments of the confrontation, Love allegedly hurled the knife at the officers.  However, “By advancing on Ms. Love as she attempted to retreat, they put themselves in a situation of increased danger”.  Use of deadly force became a self-fulfilling prophecy which robbed Love of her live and shattered those of her young children.
In his testimony to the Police Commission, Redel Jones’ husband Marcus Vaughn spoke eloquently about how she was a caring mother and compassionate woman who always sought to help others.  While “crazy” armed white women elicit sympathy, psychoanalysis and humanizing back stories (ala the white Texas woman who recently shot and killed her two daughters after years of police service calls to their home with no arrests), the narrative of the psycho black woman with a weapon is always a cut and dried case of criminality.
After Hopson and O’Callaghan pumped twelve bullets into Eulia Love’s body they rolled her over and handcuffed her on the grass of her own front yard.

After Redel Jones was murdered she lay in a morgue for two weeks without her family being notified, Vaughn told the Police Commission. 


“Her blood is on you, my children’s tears are on you.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Straight Privilege Kills: Criminalizing Queer Youth of Color

GSA Washington Prep HS


By Sikivu Hutchinson

As the world continues to condemn and mourn the terrorist murders of queer folk of color in Orlando what messages are being sent to queer youth of color about their dignity, worth and agency?  The Orlando shooter has been characterized as self-hating and closeted, his rampage allegedly driven by internalized homophobia. While the massacre has rightfully become a mobilizing force for queer communities, it has also been exploited as a convenient symbol of pc solidarity for straight hypocrites on all sides of the religious spectrum. In the week since the tragedy, Christian fundamentalists have repeatedly marginalized the unrelenting violence that queer, trans and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. face.  Notorious homophobe-transphobes like Christian fascist Ted Cruz self-righteously slam “radical Islam” for demonizing LGBTQ folk, yet traffick in their own anti-gay venom.  Cruz (aka “at least we don’t throw our gays off of buildings like the radical Islamists”) and his ilk are the most visible purveyors of heterosexist violence.  Yet, after mainstream outrage about Orlando recedes, how many who’ve railed against the intersection of domestic terrorism and homophobic violence will actually step up on systemic discrimination against LGBTQ youth of color?

State violence against queer youth of color is reflected in the disproportionate rates of harsh school discipline and incarceration that they experience. According to Aisha Moodie-Mills and Jerome Hunt of  the Center for American Progress, of the “approximately 300,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year (more) than 60 percent are black or Latino.”  Further, “Many gay and transgender youth leave their homes of their own accord to escape the conflict and emotional or physical abuse that can ensue—26 percent report leaving their homes at some point—but more often, they are pushed out and into the juvenile justice system by their own families.” 
Because there are so few supportive resources for queer black youth, a significant number wind up homeless and on the streets.  In L.A. County, the homeless capital of the nation, queer youth comprise forty percent of the homeless youth population—a majority of which are African American.  These gaps in social welfare mean that homeless and foster care youth are more likely to become incarcerated.  In a weekly young women’s leadership class that I co-teach with my colleague Josh Parr of The Beat Within at Camp Scott and Scudder juvenile camp in Santa Clarita, virtually all of our students identify as lesbian, bi, trans and gender non-conforming.  Many speak of navigating the intolerance of ultra-religious families, dealing with physical and sexual abuse and harsh discipline as they cycled through multiple schools.   

Nationwide, queer youth of color are more likely to be targeted by school staff and faculty for gender non-conformity.  They are more likely to be suspended, expelled and pushed out of school because of biased notions about how they should behave relative to their perceived gender and sexual orientation. In over-policed schools in which “acceptable” feminine behavior constitutes being more ladylike, docile and compliant, black girls are targeted more harshly than Latina and white girls, while black boys are hampered by racist stereotypes about black hypermasculinity.  In her work on the criminalization of black girls in schools, educator Monique Morris argues that the burden of conforming to heteronormative behaviors has especially dire consequences for black girls.  According to Morris: “There is an important point of departure between the conditions affecting Black females and males with respect to the role of discipline and educational attainment in the ‘pipeline’ between schools and carceral institutions…the behaviors for which Black females routinely experience disciplinary response are related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity, for example, by their dress, their profanity, or having tantrums in the classroom.”  Bucking white hetero-norms, black girls are often penalized for not being sufficiently “ladylike” or deferential to authority, a dynamic that is especially traumatic when they’re victimized by physical and sexual abuse. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, these insidious expectations and gender norms played a big role in the bullying-related suicides of boys of color like Carl Walker Hoover and Jahem Herrera.  Hoover’s 2010 suicide—as well as that of Herrera, a Latino boy who was also harassed at school because he was suspected of being gay— both went under the national radar.  Conversely, bullying-related suicides involving white gay youth are more widely publicized and seized on as national calls to action.  These cases were highlighted in magazines and on cable TV and network news.  Town halls were convened, experts were tapped, and bullying prevention became the mantra in public schools.  Yet the mainstream view that youth of color aren’t deserving victims prevents them from getting the mental health intervention and social reinforcement that they need.

The dearth of culturally responsive curricula and instruction that addresses the social history of queer communities also leads to prison pipelining. Despite the passage of California’s SB48, a bill requiring textbooks and high school history courses to include the contributions of gays and lesbians, school districts across this “liberal” blue state have made few investments in training and professional development for school staff and faculty. The bill was passed with much fanfare on the promise that it would provide greater visibility for LGBTQ communities of color and the struggle for social justice.  Yet, in most high school curricula, cultural inclusion of prominent gays and lesbians of color rarely goes beyond tokenized/sanitized portrayals of Langston Hughes or James Baldwin.

In the shadow of Orlando, pushing for transformative schools and culturally responsive education is still a matter of life and death, both for queer and straight youth of color.  In families, classrooms and schoolyards, homophobia, transphobia and the toxic, criminalizing straight privilege that they represent, continue to kill.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

#FreeJasmine Abdullah Richards: Political Prisoner, Freedom Fighter


By Sikivu Hutchinson
In 1900, human rights activist Ida B. Wells said, “Our nation’s national crime is lynching.”  Wells fought her entire life to stop the atrocity of lynching and bring white supremacist terrorism into public consciousness.  For this, she was maligned and marginalized, not only by the Jim Crow political establishment but by conservative African Americans leaders who initially weren’t convinced lynching was worthy of national mobilization and challenged Wells’ fierce leadership.
On June 1, Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizer Jasmine Abdullah Richards was convicted of attempted “felony lynching” for trying to prevent a Black woman from being detained by the police during a BLM peace march in Pasadena, California.  Jasmine is set to be sentenced for her “crime” on June 7th by Judge Elaine Lu.  Like the persecution of Wells, Jasmine’s conviction brutally exemplifies how state violence is used to preserve the imperial immunity of law enforcement.   
As Color of Change notes, this conviction is “a perverse misapplication of a 1933 California law intended to stop lynch mobs from forcibly removing detainees from police custody and engaging in public murders of Black people.” Under California penal code, “lynching” is defined as “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer” and can carry a prison sentence of up to four years. Enacted in 1933, after the lynching of two white men in San Jose, the law was viewed as a “consolation” for the federal government’s persistent refusal to enact a national lynching law to protect black lives. 
Under California law, a person who is involved in a group altercation in which they are taken into, and then removed from police custody, can even be charged with “lynching” themselves. Over the past decade, the law has consistently been used to suppress radical-progressive protestors, immigration activists and black liberation organizers. In February 2015, activist Maile Hampton was arrested and charged with felony lynching after a confrontation with a police officer. The charges against Hampton were subsequently dropped.
Charging activists of color with felony lynching is a gross miscarriage of justice that effectively stifles peaceful public assembly and protest among the disenfranchised communities of color the law was designed to protect.  As Jasmine’s attorney Nana Gyamfi contends, the law is intended to “stop people from organizing and challenging the system.  There’s a political message that’s being sent by both the prosecutor and the police and the jury.”
That said, it’s not shocking that such outrageous ironies—to paraphrase Black Lives Matter L.A. activist and organizer Dr. Melina Abdullah, Jasmine’s mentor—are legally enshrined in a state and county whose top prosecutors—notably Kamala Harris and Jackie Lacey, the first African American women to hold the attorney general and L.A. district attorney positions respectively—refuse to go after killer cops.

People of conscience who oppose the racist criminalization and victimization of activists like Richards should press the California State Legislature to repeal this draconian application of California penal code and stand in solidarity with Jasmine in her court sentencing today in Pasadena.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Woke Feminist Men: Engaging Black Men and Boys on Sexual Violence Activism



WLP MDR session boys presenting 2015
By Sikivu Hutchinson

In American classrooms, where black children are never granted the luxury of being thinkers, brainy dreamers and nerdy eccentrics, invulnerability becomes their default mode and safe space; protective armor from the criminalizing gaze of school police, administrators and teachers.  Inundated with racist pop culture images of violent black masculinity and hyper-sexualized black femininity, black boys in particular often struggle to define manhood in ways that aren’t based on hardness and controlling black girls and women. Black male feminist allies like Kevin PowellByron Hurt and Mark Anthony Neal have long championed linking anti-violence work on sexual assault, intimate partner violence and misogynoir with civil rights and social justice activism.  Powell calls for a progressive men’s movement to deprogram men and boys.  Yet, making sexual violence relevant to young men of color is hampered by legacies of anti-feminist “gender warfare”, epitomized by scorched earth attacks against forerunning womanist/feminists like Alice Walker, Michele Wallace and bell hooks. As a result, it is a persistent challenge to connect young black men to this work in their schools, communities and everyday lives.

How, then, do black feminist educators work with boys of color to redefine masculinity and engage a new generation of “woke” feminist young men?

When students in my all-black Young Male Scholars’ (YMS) high school program are asked to identify mainstream media examples of men of color being vulnerable, or expressing emotion that isn’t violent, objectifying and/or “turnt up”; most are at a loss.  Throughout the course of the school year, YMS students collaborate with Women’s Leadership Project students on sexual violence prevention peer education—co-coordinated with youth activists Issachar Curbeon and Brandon Bell from health justice organizations Black Women for Wellness and Wisdom from the Field— that unpacks sexist hetero-norms and attitudes about gender roles, gender identity and male bonding around violence. Critiquing the way rape culture influences public policy and media is key as many black youth don’t see themselves meaningfully represented outside of violent dehumanizing imagery. In addition, black boys are programmed to view racist victimization as the primary issue confronting black communities, unaware of their own privilege and the ways black women and girls are subject to systematized sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence.
YMS WLP rise up
WLP and YMS youth educators, 2016
The influence of this erasure runs deep.  According to a 2005 Justice Department study, “black victims reported sexual assault at much lower rates than white victims, [and] while 44 percent of white victims report sexual assault, only 17 percent of black victims did”. Black women and girls continue to be the most vulnerable and most targeted populations when it comes to sexual violence and sex trafficking.  Moreover, public agency interventions that address the sex trafficking of minors are often not culturally responsive. Time and again white folk who believe they are on the “frontlines” of "rescuing" trafficking victims are ignorant of the context of black girls navigating poverty, misogynoir, sexual abuse and school push-out.  Sexual violence victimization is a key factor affecting the mental health and wellness of black girls K-12 schools.  And for youth of all genders and sexualities, prevention resources and education are virtually nonexistent.  Compounding matters, black girl survivors are often explicitly or implicitly told to just get over it and soldier on. In ultra-religious black communities they may be encouraged to seek therapy through patriarchal hetero-normative faith based institutions that view women’s sexuality as “the problem” and not American as apple pie rape culture.

The Los Angeles-based Media Done Responsibly (MDR) organization has been a leader in educating youth to push back against the prevalence of sexist media violence. The organization promotes media literacy and advocacy by training youth of color to become aware about and challenge toxic media images/lyrics that they consume. MDR founder Shaunelle Curry works in schools and universities across Los Angeles County using a culturally responsive arts curriculum. MDR engages youth in media advocacy which targets the multinational corporations that promote and profit from sexist, misogynist images of women of color.  In addition, the organization trains young men of color to be facilitators at its partner schools and to commit to
Sexual Assault forum: MDR, WLP, Black Women for Wellness
Sexual Assault forum: MDR, WLP, Black Women for Wellness, 2016
challenging rape culture and the normalization of sexual assault and sexual harassment. For example, working with young men, Curry and MDR do “a ‘Woman of Honor’ lesson plan in which students have to name a woman who’s been influential in their life that they love." According to Curry,  "We then hand out objectifying, misogynistic lyrics. We have them read them out loud and insert the name of the woman they honor and hear their name in this misogynistic language.  Some can’t do it.  This gives us a place to start the discussion.  Many of them just listen to the beat not the lyrics.  We also look
WLP MDR, 2015
WLP/MDR Media Advocacy, 2015
at why this is the predominant way black and Latino women are represented in media culture.  In this respect, they begin to deconstruct how women are just there for male pleasure and desire; while understanding how this impacts the cycle of violence, abuse and degradation of women.”

Recognizing young men and boys as violence victims/survivors is also a crucial piece.  Gender violence prevention educator Clifton Trotter, formerly of the anti-violence prevention organization Peace Over Violence, has worked directly with young black men on its Engaging Men project (in partnership with the L.A.-based Brotherhood Crusade).  He spoke recently with YMS and Women's Leadership Project students about the initiative, which leads young men through a ten-week violence prevention education program that focuses on hypermasculinity, violence in dating relationships, sexual violence and black fatherhood.  After the training, youth participants develop confessionals, reflections, personal narratives and poetry into a dynamic performance piece that can be used in classrooms and community outreach.
Engaging Men, Peace Over Violence 2016
Engaging Men, Peace Over Violence 2016
Trotter notes that male entitlement is one of the biggest challenges to developing young men as allies when it comes to addressing the normalization of violence against women. He says, “This is especially true for young men and boys who haven’t been exposed to this paradigm shift because there is already a defensive posture. It’s important to convey to our young men that it’s not an indictment and [that this issue] is bigger than you.”
Recently Kandee Lewis, executive director of the Positive Results Corporation, which focuses on teen violence prevention, organized a multi-generational male conference in Los Angeles that explored male trauma and healing. Lewis maintains that “Most young men are confused because of the images they are exposed to and the trauma from the
PRC conference on Redefining Manhood, Love and Violence Prevention
PRC conference on Redefining Manhood, Love and Violence Prevention, 2016

violence they may have seen or experienced at home.  In relationships too often young men feel they have to prove how much of a man they are, and that includes the way they speak to women and behave around women.” All of the male conference presenters spoke from their experiences with domestic and sexual violence.  Far too often, homophobic and transphobic norms dovetail with racist stereotypes to shame, marginalize and victim-blame black male sexual violence survivors into silence. Reflecting on the impact of the conference, two young men who attended said, “Young men need to know that it’s ok to be different, to subscribe to non-violence…to not succumb to peer pressure, and to not feel obligated to” be complicit in behavior that dehumanizes girls and women.  In an age of mass black resistance, this continues to be one of the most radical propositions.
Media Done Responsibly will host a fundraiser and awards ceremony honoring artist-advocates for diversity on June 2nd.  Click for more information

Sikivu Hutchinson is founder of the Women's Leadership Project, a contributing editor for TFW and author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise. twitter @sikivuhutch