Friday, December 29, 2017

Bad As She Wants To Be: An Interview with Black Guitar Visionary Malina Moye

By Sikivu Hutchinson 

When Eric Clapton declared recently that “maybe the guitar is dead” he clearly didn’t consult Malina Moye, the maverick left-handed axe slinger who is inspiring new generations of electric guitar players to rock on.  Featuring her signature fusion of rock, funk and blues, Moye’s eagerly awaited new album, “Bad As I Wanna Be”, is set to drop in March 2018Over the past decade, Moye has received acclaim for her trailblazing work and was named one of “The Top 10 Female Guitarists to Know”, by Guitar World Magazine.  In a career that’s spanned the globe, she’s performed for the Queen of England, played in the Experience Hendrix Tours, and been featured at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's tribute concert for music pioneer Chuck Berry.  Her “Led Zeppelin meets Sly and the Family Stone, with a little bit of Hendrix thrown in”  2014 record “Rock & Roll Baby” (which featured funk icon Bootsy Collins and was dubbed “insanely good” by Guitar Magazine) garnered three Billboard charting singles on various charts in the Top 40.

Moye describes her upcoming album as acelebration of self [and the cover] image personifies an empowered woman who is her own super hero.”  As one of the only internationally renowned African American women rock guitar players, Moye is acutely aware of the role racism, sexism, and white supremacy play in stunting the careers of women of color in the music industry.  Despite posthumous acknowledgment of the influence of rock guitar pioneer Rosetta Tharpe, there are no black women or women of color on Rolling Stone’s “Top 100” guitar players list.  And for the largely white male gatekeepers of RS, only a few white women merit inclusion in the pantheon of blues and rock “gods” who have sold mega millions, influenced scores of musicians, and indelibly shaped global pop culture.  As Moye notes, “Because of where we are as a nation, it’s obvious there are still underlying prejudices in America's DNA. I feel sometimes it's important to start a conversation about issues like the absence of diverse women in certain areas of the music industry. It’s about redefining the status quo and being unapologetically you.”

In a hyper-segregated industry that has long thrived on ripping off black folks’ invention of rock music, Moye is constantly innovating, collaborating, and wrecking respectability politics. During our recent interview about her new album we discussed her upbringing as a musical prodigy, the need to mentor black women and girls of color, and the perennial question of “Why (it) is that our people feel rock is not part of our black culture?”

How did you start playing electric guitar and what messages did you receive about playing this “male” instrument when you were growing up?
 My mom and dad were big influences.  I grew up in a musical family and my dad gave me a guitar at seven years old but I didn’t really take to it until nine.  He gave me a right-handed guitar, but that didn’t work for me because I was left-handed, so I flipped it over and learned how to play it upside down because it felt more natural.  My technique is rare. I actually play with the guitar strung in reverse (upside down) like Albert King famously did in the 60s, and like today’s Eric Gales and Doyle Bramhall, who are also upside-down lefties, on the Experience Hendrix tour.

Even in the beginning, I was so focused at nine years old.  I was walking my own path and following my own beat.  I told my parents that I wanted to do music, turned professional at twelve, and started a band with my brothers.  I was told that I was obsessed, but, in my mind, this was just normal.  My cousins wanted to watch cartoons and they said I was always like, ‘hey, we have to rehearse’.  We would perform at night with the band and go to school in the morning. 

I was born in Ohio but grew up in Minnesota in the late 80s.  The Minneapolis sound merges funk, rock and soul and it is my DNA as a musician, especially growing up listening to Prince.  In Minneapolis, the musicians would add distortion to the guitar which followed funk rhythm and bass lines, with elements of synth-pop. I remember my mom driving my band to one of the Minneapolis clubs as kids where I asked one of Prince’s horn players to record on my album.  The guy was so blown away that he brought his entire horn section to the studio and I had all the horns play on my album. That’s what made me realize everything is possible—when people responded positively to what I was doing at such a young age. Growing up as one of the only black kids in school and in the community, I learned how to embrace being different than everyone else while going after what I wanted. This alone has helped me navigate in the current rock music industry and I’m thankful for it.

Who were some of your superheroines growing up? My mom Scelesteen is no joke.  She didn’t take shit from anybody and she told me that you can do anything in this world that you want to do.  She was ruthless, amazing, and full of love, but she went through so much in life. If the house was burning down she would say ‘we can have a pity party for five seconds’ and then we would have to keep it moving. My grandmother was also another major influence in my life.  She made sure that everyone ate and everyone knew love.  We were never made to feel like we were poor and didn’t have anything.  I also admire Sheila Nevins, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and any woman who actually stands up for herself and makes something work. 

Who are some of your primary artistic influences? Growing up with musical parents, I listened to an eclectic palate of music spanning several decades. At home, we played Mahalia Jackson, Prince, Tina Turner, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Michael Jackson. Recently, I’m loving Eminem and Bruno Mars.

What challenges have you encountered in the music industry vis-à-vis racism and sexism?
Certain avenues are not available to you when you’re the first person doing these things.  But one of the great things is now folks can create and control their product.  Money gives you access to do certain things.  Take Rosetta Tharpe, who was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is now being considered the actual architect of rock music. There are few black women in rock overall and even fewer who are playing electric guitar. For instance, some great players who should be recognized more are Kat Dyson, Diamond Rowe, and Jackie Venson. We have to redefine the status quo.  I want to play my part and help folks rethink how black women are perceived in entertainment.  Ask yourself, which women, let alone black women, are in the top twenty on the rock charts? I want to encourage mainstream rock artists to diversify by putting other unique artists in front of their shows as support acts whom their audiences ordinarily wouldn’t see. That [kind of exposure] trickles down to playlists and to radio; and maybe it will make the old guard rethink their programming.  It’s important to start a conversation about the lack of opportunities and representation to provide vehicles for girls of color to play music.  They’ve cut arts out of schools and underfunded music training. In order to make those avenues happen we need to educate and force the conversation. So, with Rosetta Tharpe being inducted, maybe now black women and women in general will start to be included in the rock genre much more.

What advice would you give to young women of color about navigating the racism and sexism of the music industry? I really take to heart what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about your life’s blueprint: “[you should have] a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own ‘somebodiness’. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”  Everything that you do, do it in truth and try to be the best at what you do, and just know that God will always make a way.  There are other people ahead of you who’ve made their way, which sometimes shows you that you can at least grasp an opportunity.  It’s important to mentor and raise up young people that are coming up.  If you see other kids that are killing it, highlight them, put them on your Instagram, because that is the new medium. Find like-minded individuals and don’t let anybody make you feel like you don’t matter. The hardest thing in the world is to ignore what people think—good or bad. Do what you know you are put here to do and show up.  When they tell you that you can’t do it, still show up.  Make “No” fuel you, and accept all of those life lessons which are part of your journey.  If you see me with my axe doing me, that means you can do you too. My mantra is, ‘Discover your super power and celebrate yourself.’

Malina Moye’s album “Bad As I Wanna Be” will be released in March 2018.  For more information check out

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the novel and play White Nights, Black Paradise, on Black women, Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Her forthcoming novel Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe, is due Summer 2018.

Monday, December 25, 2017

#MeToo in Our Schools? Hearing Black Girls in the Sexual Abuse Backlash

Dorsey High School, December 2017

By Sikivu Hutchinson and Ashunda Norris

In 1991, African American law professor Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas transformed her into a feminist icon in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace.  Building on Hill’s legacy, women in corporate America, state and federal government, college campuses, and the entertainment industry have exposed perpetrators, challenged victim-blaming, and mainstreamed a #MeToo movement that was initiated by Tarana Burke, a black woman. Yet, when we turn on the TV and see debates about this brave, new heightened consciousness, the faces and voices of black women and girls are often missing.  This is despite the fact that approximately 34-50% of African American girls have experienced child sexual abuse.

As educators and mentors in Los Angeles schools, we see how they have become fertile ground for unchecked sexual harassment and sexual violence.  In an informal survey conducted at three South L.A. high schools by the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a majority of girls of color felt unsafe on campus and had experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Some felt victimized by a jock culture that encourages boys to openly rate girls’ bodies, sex partners, and desirability, spilling over into toxic social media attacks.   As a result of these experiences, respondents said that they felt less confident about themselves and did not feel supported at school.  For many girls, going to school in an environment where sexual harassment is normalized can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and self-harm.

Dorsey HS, December 2017

Sexual harassment in schools often takes the form of catcalling, touching, ogling and being called out of one’s name.  Terms like “bitch”, “ho”, “ratchet”, “thot” (that *h* over there) are frequently used to demean African American girls in ways that echo their specific history of institutionalized rape and dehumanization in the U.S. under slavery.  As a form of sexual harassment, use of these terms reinforce a violent culture and climate that is normalized by a “boys will be boys” mentality. This mentality is often cosigned by teachers and administrators.  As a result, girls find that simply walking around campus becomes a minefield fueled by widespread ignorance about behaviors that qualify as harassment.      

Shania Malone, a member of the WLP, and a senior at Dorsey High School who is openly bisexual, says that she has been harassed by a female student. Malone also shared that she attempts to take preventive measures to curb sexual comments. "I usually wear my backpack really low to cover my butt. I also wear clothes to cover up my shape and curves."  Serenity Smith, another senior at Dorsey, related that she has been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at school. Young men frequently joke about her body. "They think they can say stuff like: 'I'll blow your back out, your ass is looking mighty fine today, and your pussy is showing today' and not get into trouble because their behavior is justified."

The sexualization of black girls at very young ages contributes to an atmosphere where sexual violence against them is viewed as inconsequential.  If black girls are stereotyped as “unrapeable”, then everyday sexual harassment is something that “they bring onto themselves”.

A recent Georgetown University study on cultural perceptions about black girls concluded that they are widely viewed as more mature, less innocent, and less in need of protection than white girls. Racist, sexist perceptions such as these contribute to higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and incarceration among black girls.  According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are routinely overpoliced in public school environments. On a national level, black girls are suspended nearly six times more than white girls, and are more harshly disciplined for lesser or similar offenses than white girls. Further, the Human Rights for Girls advocacy organization has concluded that exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” These factors, coupled with a culture that condones sexual violence against them, make many black girls feel that they have nowhere to turn when they are victimized.

Dorsey senior and WLP member Tayah Hubbard stressed that many black girls feel like they won’t be believed if they tell someone they’ve been sexually harassed or abused.  For Hubbard, “black girls are told ‘oh you’re strong and you can get through it.” Hubbard sees a connection between the dearth of social services, after school programs, and counselors in predominantly black and Latino schools and the high numbers of students who are pipelined into prisons instead of college. 
Hubbard and her peers in the WLP recently led sexual harassment prevention workshops with classmates of all genders.  But although new sexual harassment policies are being touted on Capitol Hill and in the State Legislature, sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention education that speaks to the specific circumstances of girls of color is not part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The #MeToo movement has disrupted the national status quo of silence and invisibility around sexual harassment, yet, when it comes to validating the experiences of girls in communities of color, the silence is still deafening.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist high school mentoring program for girls of color
Ashunda Norris is a filmmaker, poet, community builder and teacher whose most recent work as a filmmaker has screened internationally, including Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. Her writing has appeared in The Rush Magazine, L.A. School Report and DC Metro Theatre Arts

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

White Nights, Black Paradise: A Staged Reading

"A remarkable novel about a fascinating history...The book does justice to the survivors and victims of Jonestown by forcing the reader to recognize what mainstream discourse has gotten terribly wrong about the tragedy. I encourage anyone who cares about history and the truth to read this book as it goes beyond what existing scholarship would have you believe!" Anita Little, Religion Dispatches
"White Nights, Black Paradise" renders visibility to everyday black women's struggle with race, gender, religion, morality and poverty. The stories of Taryn and the other black members of the Peoples Temple that Hutchinson vividly brings to life makes it clear that while many blacks submitted to the ideal salvation of the racial utopia Jim Jones pushed, this submission of sorts represented black peoples' epic struggle and fight with finding a voice and life in a racially hostile homeland. This is an important and beautifully written story that restores the humanity of the followers of Peoples Temple." Kamela Heyward-Rotimi, Duke University

"Brilliantly woven." African Americans on the Move Book Club

"Hutchinson not only provides perspectives underrepresented in the history of the Peoples Temple, she crafts a compelling piece of historical fiction that will grip you until the very end...She has written a valuable work for anyone interested in the intertwined histories of religion, the left, and the African-American Freedom Struggle in this country, one providing important insights for anyone concerned for the future of the progressive movement in America.David Anderson, LA Progressive

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Andrea Jenkins' and Phillipe Cunningham’s Victories Are a Triumph for Trans Youth of Color

Councilmembers Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When Black trans activists Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham made history by winning seats on the Minneapolis City Council on November 8th it was not only a symbol of the power of the anti-Trump backlash but a victory for trans youth of color everywhere.  Jenkins and Cunningham’s wins, (along with those of white trans Virginia state legislator Danica Roem and several other openly transgender candidates nationwide) were a collective bird flip to the Trump regime’s transphobia and misogynoir. Musing on the implications of her success for future generations, Jenkins said, “Wow, if a Black transgender woman can get elected to the Minneapolis City Council, [maybe] I can too.”

How many queer, trans or straight youth have seen positive, reinforcing portrayals of trans people of color in mainstream media?  How many have been programmed to believe in the myth of cis/straight normalcy due to the dominant culture’s voyeuristic representations of trans folk as pathological, tragic, and hypersexual?  Trans of color activists and actors have long fought against the film and TV industry’s fixation on one-dimensional caricatures of “sassy” trans sidekicks or sex workers who provide exotic backdrop to the plot lines of cis/straight protagonists.  A recent video challenging Hollywood’s transphobic casting practices featured Black trans actors Jazzmun and Alexandra Grey.  The actors noted that “For many young and closeted trans people, film and television are the only time they see themselves.” And while mainstream white LGBTQI organizations strongly advocate that queer youth come out for greater visibility, being out has graver consequences for queer, trans and non-binary folks of color.  Writing in the journal “A New Queer Agenda”, homeless youth advocate Anjali Mukarji-Connolly argues that “The national LGBTQI organizations working on youth issues emphasize issues such as education and sexual health, but largely neglect the violence and isolation that young people face in homeless shelters and foster care agencies, or the challenges they face when confronting the police and negotiating with johns on the street.  When substantial resources are directed toward college campuses in support of ‘coming out’ activities…The mainstream movement often fails to analyze the intersections of class and race within the broader LGBTQI community, and tends to ignore the experience of poor queer youth of color in particular.”

For many trans folk, sex work, survival sex, homelessness, and the constant threat of violence are cold realities precisely because of the lack of opportunities in America’s segregated workplaces.  Because trans people of color are less likely to have access to living wage jobs with benefits and health care they have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ declaration that trans workers are not eligible for federal civil rights protections underscores how trans workers in all professions continue to be vulnerable to employment discrimination tacitly sanctioned by the federal government. 

The victories of Jenkins and Cunningham are also significant with respect to the transphobic and homophobic policies of the U.S. Education Department under conservative Christian zealot Betsey De Vos.  In June, De Vos released new guidelines that ran counter to Obama administration policy requiring that transgender students be allowed to use the restroom of their choice, as well as pronouns and other markers that correspond to their gender identity.  Undermining the Obama administration’s stance on transgender equity, the new guidelines reinforce the Trump administration’s position that Title IX does not require “access to sex-segregated facilities like restrooms and locker rooms based on gender identity.”  According to Catherine Lhamon, who wrote Obama’s transgender rules, the new letter “says [the Department of Education] has jurisdiction over sex discrimination and sex stereotyping, but here’s how you could dismiss it…They can’t have it both ways.”  The murky guidelines are part of a “broader effort to scale back civil rights investigations of all kinds.” 

While the DOJ and the Education Department are hellbent on stripping trans and non-binary students and workers of civil rights, the new crop of trans public figures can bolster efforts to make schools more culturally responsive to LGBTQI youth. The absence of openly trans politicians, teachers, and other public figures has a negative impact on the self esteem and psyches of trans youth.  High rates of suicidal ideation and suicide among trans youth are directly related to toxic levels of violence in trans folks’ lives but are also reinforced by the invisibility of queer role models.  Moreover, harassment of trans and non-binary youth often goes unaddressed at schools that are already inadequate if not openly hostile to providing culturally specific support resources for queer youth. For example, according to the Human Rights Campaign, bisexual, lesbian and trans youth are more likely than cis/straight youth to be raped or sexual assaulted.  According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, in K-12 school communities, “24 percent of transgender American Indians, 18 percent of transgender people who identified as multiracial, 17 percent of transgender Asians, and 15 percent of Black transgender respondents experienced sexual assault– much higher rates than students of other races.” And when trans or non-binary students attempt to defend themselves against bullying and abuse they may wind up being harshly disciplined and pushed out of school.  These conditions, coupled with the lack of support from parents and caregivers, may lead to homelessness and incarceration.  It’s estimated that between 20-40% of homeless youth are LGBTQI, while queer youth of color are overrepresented in juvenile jails.

While it remains to be seen how Jenkins, Cunningham, and other trans politicians will impact policy on LGBTQI communities and youth, Jenkins is clear on her charge: “I want that to be the outcome, I want people to step up and be willing to be a representative for our communities and be a voice standing up for progress, standing up to patriarchy, standing up to sexism, standing up to white supremacy.”

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Memory Thieves: Beyond the White Gaze of Jonestown*

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lourde once said, “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Lourde was one of the most fiercely eloquent champions of the revolutionary right of black women to witness and speak their truths in resistance to silence.

Her words resonate deeply as the fortieth anniversary of the Jonestown massacre approaches. Black women lived, loved, struggled, and died in disproportionate numbers in Jonestown.  Their belief in the revolutionary promise of the settlement was a testament to their long legacy of activism and organizing in the face of erasure. Renewed public interest in the tragedy will no doubt elicit another round of questions about the Peoples Temple community, its politics, and its status as a historical “curiosity”.  In an effort to counter the marginalization of black women in these spaces, I have tried to bring black voices to the page, stage, and screen, through adaptations of my novel White Nights, Black Paradise.  As a piece of speculative fiction, White Nights, Black Paradise is interested in troubling the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction” in order to expose how myths about Jonestown were constructed over time through multiple interpretations, voices, and memories. Throughout the adaptation process, I have been acutely aware of the ways in which black experiences in Jonestown are often appropriated for mainstream consumption; taken out of context and depoliticized.  In an era in which black folk continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racialized sexual violence, the prevailing narrative of hoodwinked black women without agency has become an insidious cliché. 

In response to these issues, I organized a black women survivors’ panel discussion at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora this summer in conjunction with the screening of my short film on White Nights, Black Paradise.  The panel featured Leslie Wagner Wilson, Jordan Vilchez, Yulanda Williams, and Rebecca Moore.  The packed audience included other members of the Peoples Temple community from the Bay Area.

Building on the film’s themes, the panel was designed to elevate black women’s experiences and stories.  Leslie’s powerful book Slavery of Faith chronicles her life in Peoples Temple and her dramatic escape from Jonestown hours before the 1978 massacre.  Jordan and Yulanda were both involved with the Temple at a young age and left Jonestown prior to the massacre.  Rebecca, the only white woman on the panel, lost several family members at Jonestown and has published three books on the settlement.

The discussion ranged from the women’s personal accounts of being in Jonestown to the internal divisions that belied the movement’s veneer of multiracial harmony.  Leslie and I have critiqued the racial and gender hierarchy that existed in the movement’s leadership, and the degree to which Jones’ white women lieutenants were complicit in its escalating climate of intimidation, abuse, and harassment.  During one exchange, Leslie and Yulanda took issue with Rebecca’s characterization of power and authority in Jonestown.  While Leslie and Yulanda recalled that African American members had little official authority in Jonestown, Rebecca made reference to the diverse work assignments that black folks fulfilled.  Leslie and Yulanda vividly recalled the harsh living conditions in Jonestown and compared it to being in a slave camp.  What came through most powerfully in these exchanges was the differing “class” positions Jonestown members had within the compound’s power structure; with younger white women being the most privileged and favored.  Leslie and Yulanda also emphasized the pivotal role Jones’ whiteness played in eliciting support and adulation in the black community. 

As I have argued in previous articles, Jones’ minstrel-like ability to evoke both white savior-hood and black nationalism—in order to appeal to African Americans—is a familiar theme in American politics and pop culture.  Some on the panel likened Jones’ appeal to that of the charismatic, benevolent white Jesus figure force fed to blacks under slavery.  Panelists also highlighted Jones’ status as a power broker in the Bay Area political establishment, emphasizing how this made public officials more willing to cosign the Temple’s activities despite widespread allegations of abuse and exploitation within the church.  Some of this abuse and exploitation was directed toward LGBTQ members of the church due to Jones’ (who often went on homophobic tirades yet engaged in sex with men) internalized homophobia.   As moderator, I contextualized the way in which the African American community of Fillmore was primed to embrace Jones’ “radical” social gospel ethos in light of poverty, job discrimination, state violence, and the mass displacements that rocked Fillmore as a result of the region’s “urban renewal” regime.

Why did it take nearly forty years for this kind of discussion to take place?  The comments we received after the event indicated that there is high interest in the rich social history of black Jonestown.  One audience member commented that they were moved by “The courage, power and heartfelt words of wisdom, and that (they) did not know the majority of membership were black women.”  Another related that they were interested in “The hierarchy of the Jonestown system (and) was so honored to hear survivors”, while being “unaware of the escapees & survivors (thinking) all had perished.”

These comments underscore the need for more black feminist literary and scholarly appraisals of the black diasporic experience in Jonestown vis-à-vis religion, black women’s self-determination, and the event’s contemporary significance.  In adapting White Nights, Black Paradise as a stage play, I hope to extend the conversation.
The play brings the media construction of Jonestown narratives into greater focus—foregrounding the divide between the lived experiences, dreams, ambitions, and politics of its black women protagonists and mainstream fascination with the “perversity” of the massacre.  The play opens with the character of a night watchwoman at the Dover Delaware Air force Base (the military morgue where the bodies of Jonestown victims were shipped after the massacre) banging on an old TV as the sound of a newscast about the event echoes overhead.  The banging is an allusion to the throwback practice of hitting old TVs to get a clearer picture.  The distorted cultural picture that the public has been provided of Jonestown and Peoples Temple is a recurring theme throughout the play, which is “presided over” by a Greek chorus of black women who give commentary on the play’s events.  The chorus is critical to the play’s meta-analysis of the invisibility of black women’s lives, voices, and social histories in the popular imagination of Jonestown.  It is also an artistic device that seeks to problematize reductive notions of black female selfhood, identity, and religious ideology (for example, throughout the play the chorus critiques organized religion and respectability politics). In the play, as in the book, the fictional character of black activist journalist Ida Lassiter pursues an “investigation” into the Temple’s dealings and becomes personally embroiled in relationships with Jones, other members and the black press.  As a once revered independent journalist, Lassiter represents the ambivalent relationship the black and mainstream press had with Peoples Temple and Jim Jones.  Although the real life African American activist/publisher and physician Dr. Carlton Goodlett bankrolled the Peoples Forum, there has been little exploration of the black press’ role in either promoting or critiquing Peoples Temple pre-Jonestown.  Hence, I was interested in exploring the political influence the (critical) black press had on the movement, highlighting tensions between Lassiter and Hampton Goodwin, the Carlton Goodlett character.  The mass removals in the Fillmore community, and the socioeconomic challenges confronting African Americans during the post civil rights and black power eras, also take center stage in the play.

Ultimately, it is my hope that these artistic explorations lead to more platforms for survivors and scholars of color—in resistance to the white gaze “crunch(ing) us into other peoples’ fantasies.”

*This article originally appeared at Alternative Considerations of Jonestown

The first staged reading of the play adaptation White Nights, Black Paradise, will be on December 14th at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Controlling Bodies: An Interview with Author-Activist Andrea J. Ritchie on the Intersectionality of Policing, Black Women, Women of Color, Queer and Trans Communities

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From The Humanist 

In her groundbreaking new book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Black lesbian activist attorney Andrea J. Ritchie builds on Angela Davis’ vision of feminist abolitionism to provide a commanding analysis and indictment of the gendered regimes of power and authority that shape the U.S.’ carceral state.  Ritchie documents the emergence of contemporary police departments in eighteenth century slave patrols.  She powerfully unpacks the nexus of sexual violence and policing—a cornerstone of white supremacist control over Black bodies during slavery.  Beginning her book with a short overview of the role race, gender, and sexuality played in colonial occupation of Indigenous lands, she underscores the degree to which heterosexist gender binaries informed the terrorist origins of American nationhood.  Throughout the book, she critiques commonly held views which center Black masculinity in discourse about and policy reform on the U.S.’ policing regime.  She also calls out mainstream civil rights organizations for failing to address the intersection of police violence and sexual violence with respect to Black women.  Ritchie faults the hetero-normative respectability politics that inform much traditional civil rights discourse privileging straight Black male victimhood.  In this regard, “controlling narratives” about gender, sexuality, race, disability, and age have always shaped the way Black women and girls and women of color are treated by law enforcement.  These controlling narratives, coupled with a multi-billion dollar militarized police apparatus that diverts social welfare from communities and schools, makes law enforcement a grave public health threat to communities of color in general and to trans, queer, gender non-conforming and cis women of color in particular.  Ultimately, “white supremacy demands such complete control of Black women and women of color that it takes very little to perceive us as out of control”. Given these realities, it doesn’t matter how much “implicit bias training police receive or how many police reforms” are put in place.  As Ritchie argues, this regime of “complete and total control” means the only feasible solution to the police state is abolitionism.

Andrea Ritchie (By W.C. Moss)

Question number five in the interview was provided by activist and organizer Yuisa Gimeno, of the Freedom Socialist Party.

1.     At the beginning of the book you discuss personal experiences with police sexual assault and harassment which made you conscious at a very early age that police are not protectors. You also emphasize throughout the book that there is no national data on sexual assault and rape committed by law enforcement.  Certainly, mistrust of the police, and fear of police targeting men of color, have contributed to low rates of sexual assault reporting among Black women.  How does this “Catch-22” strengthen the police state and undermine attention to Black sexual violence victims?  Sexual violence against Black women has been part of the global historical fabric since 1492.  Historians have placed this within the context of the diaspora, Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  Police officers’ response to violence in the community is part of this seamless web.  This plays out in how police sexual violence remains unseen in the broader movement.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police has said that law enforcement doesn’t see communities really clamoring for action around these issues.  How are we as movements that challenge police and state violence—particularly in this reinvigorated moment of struggle around state violence—continuing to abandon Black women who experience violence at the hands of the state in the same way we continue to abandon individual Black women who experience violence in the community? The question of individual Black women coming forward and telling their stories is important but the answer is obvious.  If the people you’re told to report to are the police and they are the ones raping you then obviously the incentive to do that is quite low.  In the book, I talk about women who do come forward and are re-victimized and are put on trial for the violence that has been perpetrated against them, while the officer who assaulted them is not held accountable.  I think we need to shift away from the question of why aren’t women coming forward; or why aren’t we collecting the data, to what are we doing about it?  There is research showing that police get caught in an act of sexual violence every five days! And, of course, that is just those that get caught.  People in law enforcement acknowledge it and call it law enforcement’s “dirty little secret”.   So now it’s really on us to put the lie to statement by The International Association of Chiefs of Police and start demanding action on it.

2.     You reference numerous cross-generational, regional examples of Black women who have been murdered by law enforcement.  What role do toxic cultural constructions/notions about Black femininity and respectability play in state violence against Black women?  These controlling narratives inform every police interaction and shape how Black women and girls are seen in any given situation. I drew on Black feminist theories and applied them to police interactions.  For example, there was a case where a twelve year-old Black girl stepped out of her house and police officers who were responding to a complaint about three white women engaged in prostitution proceeded to arrested her.  The arrest of this young twelve year-old reinforced controlling narratives associating Black girls with prostitution; narratives that are as old as this nation. The police charged her with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.  Georgetown University recently came out with a study about how these narratives age Black girls and make them seem older than they really are. A twelve year-old child was construed as a physical threat.  That was an example to me of how deep these narratives run and how they control every police encounter with Black women and girls.

3.     On page 40 you note that, “Actual or perceived deviation from gender and sexual norms has served as a basis of criminalization since the colonial period…constructing a gender-normative nation.”  Your book puts a much needed spotlight on the specific ways queer folk of color are dehumanized by draconian policing policies.  How do homophobia, transphobia and misogynoir inform the way trans, queer and gender non-conforming folk of color are treated in the criminal justice system? It ends up being an amalgamation of these controlling narratives.  For instance, when police are interacting with Black trans women they are acting on these controlling narratives that frame Black women as engaging in prostitution and being sexual deviants.  They are also reading gender non-conformativity as deviant and engaging in criminalized sexual conduct; as well as being mentally unstable, fraudulent, deranged, and threatening.  For example, this consequence is manifest in the case of Tawana Johnson where police arrested her for walking around because they perceived her as “being a potential prostitute”.  They called her the wrong pronoun, labeled her a “faggot”, and assaulted her. That’s how that controlling narrative merged into a single incident.  The trans community came out to support Tawana but the local civil rights community did not. While mainstream civil rights organizations conceded that they did not agree with law enforcement’s response they also said “we do not agree with who she is”.  Trans youth are often kicked out of school for defending themselves. They are pushed out by criminalization and gender non-conformativity. Trans youth are under constant surveillance by police on the streets.  When I was researching the Amnesty International report in L.A. in the early 2000s, many trans folk expressed the fear that they can’t exist on public streets and that there is nowhere to go without cops surveilling and harassing them. Police officers routinely target women who they think the Black community won’t stand up for—i.e., those who are poor, mentally ill, in the sex trade—both queer and cis, who don’t conform with Black bourgeois respectability politics.  That is how Daniel Holtzclaw gets away with assaulting at least thirteen Black women and girls.  Holtzclaw was not challenged by any major civil rights organization.  With respect to mainstream civil rights organizations, it’s one thing to make that central to your agenda rather than just sending out a press release.  They are not taking up the issue of police sexual violence as central to their platform because it requires standing with women, trans and not trans, that are not conforming to their notions of respectability politics.  Even though there is more conversation about police sexual violence now than there was twenty years ago people are still writing books that exclusively explore policing through the lens of Black men’s experiences, period.  We need to be serious about examining police sexual violence through the lens of Black queer experiences, Black trans experiences, and Black cis women’s experiences.

4.     You discuss the connection between military violence and police violence, occupation, colonialism, and racialized gender violence toward Indigenous women.  Native and Indigenous women have some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the nation yet are routinely “invisibilized” when it comes to mainstream discussions about “proper victims” of sexual assault.  What are the dynamics of state violence toward Indigenous women with respect to federal imposition and jurisdiction on Native lands?  There is still the notion that it’s about an infringement on sovereignty.  Indian nations don’t have the power or jurisdiction to hold folks who come on Indigenous land accountable for sexually assaulting Indigenous women.  Once it gets to the federal level it’s not their “priority”.  Their “priority” apparently is prosecuting someone who has an ounce of weed in D.C.!  This is a legal problem of jurisdiction that was set by the Supreme Court and needs to be overturned.  People have been trying to figure out how to overturn it by legislative means for some time but I think ultimately it requires more than a legislative shift, it requires us to confront the epidemic of sexual violence and state violence against Indigenous women.  This is not a relic of a distant past that can be “addressed” by commemorating Wounded Knee and historical instances of assault and rape and genocide.   

5.     What would you recommend government agencies and community groups do to grapple with these issues? What do you think are some initial concrete steps?  I just released a report that outlines policy changes municipalities can make to reduce criminalization and deportation and increase safety for Black women, girls, gender nonconforming folks and fem(me)s: . Ultimately, the first step for both policy makers and community groups is simply to expand their understanding of profiling, policing, police violence, and criminalization to incorporate an analysis of the experiences of Black women, girls, gender nonconforming people; when developing agendas for reform, simply ask yourself how this will play out for women/in the contexts where women tend to come into contact most with the police. If you don't know, ask women of color who are directly targeted by police, seek out the input of organizations who work with them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The LAUSD's Multi-Million Dollar Police State: End Random Searches Now

Students Deserve Rally, May 2017
By Sikivu Hutchinson
It’s Thursday morning and a line of students snakes out of the door of an English classroom and into the breezeway of a South Los Angeles high school. Their backpacks have been dumped on the ground and wrenched open, notebooks spilling out underfoot as school security personnel pace around the students barking out orders. A “random” mandatory search has begun, and students mill about agitatedly, rousted from instruction for a virtual “perp” roundup that wouldn’t be out of place on an A&E reality cop show.
This is the not so new normal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation and one of the few to conduct so-called random mandatory searches on its campuses. Implemented in 2015, the policy requires wand and metal detector searches of students on all LAUSD secondary campuses (including charter schools and span schools that have students in the 6th-12th grades). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the use of random searches in schools declined from 7% in 2000 to 4% in 2014. Bucking this trend, the LAUSD stubbornly clings to searches as its police apparatus has ballooned out of control. In a recent UCLA study, the majority of the district’s college counselors reported that they have insufficient time with students. As a result, students often receive less college assistance than they need. The study also reaffirmed that college-preparedness, college-going and completion rates among Black and Latinx students consistently lagged behind that of white and Asian students. Thus, while students of color fight for quality time with the few programming counselors and college counselors there are, school police at South and East Los Angeles LAUSD campuses are in full force, patrolling school grounds and harassing students for minor dress code violations that disproportionately target Black and Latinx youth.

Nationwide, the pervasiveness of police on school campuses has become a touchstone for student- teacher activism and coalition-building. Outraged by the increasing criminalization of LAUSD youth, the city-wide Students Deserve (SD) coalition has brought together a broad cross-section of students, teachers, parents, activists (including Youth Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter L.A.) and civil rights groups to challenge the District’s overemphasis on suppression at the expense of funding for counselors, support resources, ethnic studies and culturally responsive education. As SD staff organizer Maricela Lopez notes, a big part of that battle is engaging parents who may believe that searches are a lesser evil. Ultimately, she says, the question becomes, “Who are you the parent of? Are you the parent of a young Black student that’s being targeted the most? These searches are not random and they’re happening to a specific group of students.”

Dorsey High School senior and SD member Tayah Hubbard has experienced the searches firsthand and feels that they undermine her pursuit of a quality education. Last spring, Hubbard took part in a demonstration at the LAUSD School Board in which hundreds of students criticized the impact of searches on the climate of their schools. As she notes, “Police take away Sharpies and highlighters and white out on the grounds that people will tag but there isn’t any tagging.” She also maintains that “Black girls are targeted for wearing scarves or head wraps.” She has personally been told that she would be given detention for doing so, and believes that Black girls are unfairly singled out for not conforming to school policies that penalize them for their body types and cultural traditions.

Sexist, racist and homophobic targeting and harassment of African American girls in schools has been well documented. Nationwide, African American girls have some of the highest rates of suspension and expulsion next to Black boys and are six times more likely than white girls to receive harsh discipline. Compounding matters, Black girls are more likely to experience a high level of “interpersonal violence” from peers, family and community members. Indeed, according to the African American Policy (AAPF) Institute, “In environments in which discipline is emphasized over counseling, girls who struggle with trauma and other unmet needs may come to the attention of school personnel only when their behavior leads to punishable offenses”. Here, climates with harsh discipline dissuade Black girls from coming to school and may even “exacerbate the vulnerability of girls to harassing behavior because it penalizes them for defending themselves against such acts”.

Although District policy states that “No student or persons shall be selected to be searched based solely upon their gender, race, ethnicity, physical appearance, manner of dress, or association with any particular group of persons” the practice of singling out Black girls for wearing head wraps and scarves belies this. Moreover, Black female students in the LAUSD have reported that they receive more scrutiny and discipline for wearing clothes that are considered to be too “tight” or “revealing”. Gardena High School Women’s Leadership Project students Zorrie Petrus and Kendra Taylor reported that boys are seldom called out for wearing ripped jeans to school but girls are frequently hauled into the dean’s office. This pattern of selective discipline is evidenced in other school districts where Black female students have been singled out and harassed for wearing braided hairstyles, locks and natural hair.

Dorsey High English teacher Ashunda Norris echoes Hubbard’s concern about race and gender disparities. Norris first encountered the search policy when she was giving her students a test. School police came into her classroom and made students put their hands on their desks. This invasive experience motivated Norris and colleague Sharonne Hapuarachy to become get involved with Students Deserve. Hapuarachy, a twenty year English teacher, said that the random search experience “was really frightening. They don’t tell teachers ahead of time. It was very destructive and it was hard to refocus and move on.”

Students Deserve is calling for an end to all searches, in addition to a pilot study which would evaluate schools that have successfully implemented restorative justice initiatives toward the broader goal of transformative justice (which focuses on dismantling the structures of oppression and inequity that perpetuate community violence). Restorative justice is a holistic approach to discipline that relies upon relationship-building, community-building and dialogue rather than referrals, detention and suspension. Victims and perpetrators engage in a collective process in which they publicly address the impact of harmful acts on both the victim and the community at large. Restorative justice is designed to allow school-communities to devise culturally responsive solutions that redress the criminalizing outcomes of zero tolerance policies. Some teachers and other critics argue that it is a palliative approach that has been poorly implemented in a district reeling from the consequences of coddling disruptive students. Some point to the District’s ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” (a charge that was disproportionately used to target and discipline Black students) as leading to classrooms where “anything goes”. The LAUSD was the first major urban district to end willful defiance suspensions after years of community agitation. Yet, although the number of suspensions has dropped in the district, African American students are still disproportionately suspended and culturally responsive alternatives to punitive discipline have not been widely adopted.

Indeed, the district’s support for restorative justice programming has been piecemeal. Over the past several years it has been slow to fund restorative justice counselors, only increasing the number of positions from five to twenty five as a result of community pressure. Dorsey High’s Sharonne Hapuarachy noted that although her school “had a restorative justice counselor [coverage] wasn’t consistent and staff as a whole hadn’t bought into the practice”. One former LAUSD restorative justice professional I spoke to said that, “As soon as a school is doing well [with implementing restorative justice] it seems that the funding is gone. I was only able to do a limited amount of trainings because there was not a commitment. Restorative justice is about institutionalizing a culture of caring and consistent affirmation of students’ backgrounds and cultural knowledge. But veteran teachers may subscribe to a punitive mindset, and it’s difficult to convince some that restorative justice is worthwhile.”

The majority of the district’s high schools do not have restorative justice counselors. And the overall LAUSD budget for restorative justice is around $10.8 million.

By contrast, the district has allocated millions more to school police, weaponry and surveillance systems. In 2016, the school board approved a 14% increase in funding for police, bringing its pot to $67 million. According to the L.A. Schools Report, the increases were due to “salary, healthcare benefits and pension payments”. Nonetheless, the district claims to be dedicated to a full rollout of restorative justice programming by the 2019-2020 school year. Pushback from local schools highlights both the inadequacy of the district’s outreach efforts and the tenuousness of its stated long term goal. In the meantime, Students Deserve is pressuring the seven-member school board and Superintendent Michelle King to stop criminalizing students and make good on the lip service they’ve given to restorative justice, culturally responsive education, and college prep opportunities. In a region that has the largest juvenile incarcerated population in the nation, the district’s complicity in upholding state violence can no longer be ignored.