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Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
On February 7, 2010, I was nearly beaten to death by the Chicago police.
That night, along with a colleague of mine from the University of Chicago, I was brutally assaulted by police officers in an unprovoked attack. The tremors the experience provoke still remain with me today. But as a survivor, I have striven to take hold of them, to commit to the positive remains of a night that is forever etched in my soul.
Chicago media aired basic facets of the ordeal when the case was publicly revealed in a federal civil rights lawsuit, filed by us against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department. The city and police aggressively fought us through a variety of means. For three years, we were committed to fighting our case in court, putting in thousands of combined labor hours between the two of us. Then at the last moment, just weeks before the expected March 2014 trial, we were cornered into a settlement.
In the days immediately after the incident — before the battered and bruised post-assault photos were released into the public, tying us by name to an attack by police — I was tremulous, faced with the prospect of standing up in a University of Chicago classroom, where I was a PhD candidate, in front of my students. I would also have to attend faculty staff meetings. This was all after just having been brutally beaten by police.
In the aftermath of that assault, I went from being a historian and lecturer in a prestigious university to a police violence victim. The latter identity was one that I wanted nothing to do with for a while. It was one that I had difficulty accepting.
Would I be able to teach my social theory course? In two days, I was to begin teaching Michel Foucault’s renowned book on the birth of the prison and the modern institutionalization of discipline and control. How would I explain the broken nose, a stitched up lip, and the cuts, scrapes and wounds all over? Were my experiences with the contemporary violent force of power somehow Foucaultian or anti-Foucaultian, or neither? How could I explain the veritable nightmare my life had suddenly become, filled with nurses, doctors, specialists, surveillance videos, lawyers and police investigators, who dealt in fear and intimidation?
The reality was one I had to accept: I was a victim of police brutality.
On the advice of an advisor, I told my students at the time that I was assaulted, but did not mention cops. I missed one class, and then was back in the classroom for the following lecture, battered and bandaged. I didn’t know how I managed to hold it together then, and even now when I look back, I’m still amazed.
I developed protective measures in the face of real and serious threats. I suddenly started looking over my shoulder whenever I was outside, which became less and less often. I started getting rides from friends whenever I could, to be less conspicuous.
But there was no way I was going to cede my students to another teacher. There was no way I was going to let the cops take that from me — the classroom and the students that I love, and which shape my identity, my identity from before the night of February 7th. It was the element of my life that provided an intellectual avenue by which to make sense of my ordeal and which gave me hope for a return to normalcy.
After my second class back, after lecturing again on Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” and his theory of a panoptic society, I found two of my students waiting for me outside the classroom. It wasn’t for the usual after-class questions on the midterm, or Marx’s theory of alienation, or Freud’s work on sublimation.
The students handed me an envelope. Inside was a card and a shiny metal pendant with an engraved quote by French critic Hippolyte Taine. Students together shared their sympathies with notes of encouragement and support to help me heal in the aftermath of February 7th.
For all that I read about today’s youth and the “me” generation, this example of collective action and solidarity would soon serve as the basis for my own healing. More than therapy and more than the legal system, organizing would later satisfy my thirst for justice.
At first, organizing was about retribution. Upon learning that my case, though unique, was one of tens of thousands, it quickly became an expression of love in the face of the purveyors of violence and death. It was no longer just about my case; it was for the victims of police violence and economic injustice globally.
I realized that all of the social theory in the world wouldn’t change the fact that I was beaten by police officers. I was suddenly confronted with the everyday reality of social injustice, and not just through the literature I presented in class.
My first protest experience was in April 2011, advocating for a desperately needed trauma center on the South Side of Chicago. I marched through the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, holding a sign demanding the institute in what was, and unfortunately remains, a desert of care for the underprivileged, predominantly African-American residents of that community. There was a strong police presence at that protest. I was defiant, yet afraid that the cops would recognize me from my interviews on TV just weeks earlier. I had already experienced some renewed intimidation tactics around my media appearances. I felt at risk, like any cop could detain me out of the march, and beat me arbitrarily as they had done before.
At a second protest on the trauma center campaign in August of that year, an all-night campout in front of the UChicago medical center, my anxiety around the heavy police presence grew too much: I left the protest early. Those I knew involved with organizing the event were highly sympathetic. “You only do as much as you can do,” I was told.
In May 2012, I was filled with sadness and rage as I watched a video showing six Fullerton, CA policemen murdering an unarmed homeless man named Kelly Thomas. But soon after I began to feel incredible strength. Watching the video, I thought how I too could have been murdered by my armed police attackers. But I was not. I dedicated my breath and my voice to give people like Kelly Thomas the breath and voice that were stolen from him.
Then I began to lose the fear. And I knew what I had to do: I had to organize.
It wasn’t easy, though. With organizing came fear that I would be attacked again, victimized by a justice system that predetermines those beaten by police to be “bad guys.” I yearned to find other people like me. Other victims. Only they could understand. Only together could we be strong enough to stand up and create change.
I knew only too well that organizing around issues of policing would present new and original challenges. By and large, those most affected by police crimes are simultaneously the most fearful of exercising their right to protest for transformation of police practices, as a direct result of their experiences.
And when it came to the disparate, singular victims of police violence, organizing and mobilizing those individuals collectively would take on new importance.
In June 2012, upon the advice of colleagues, I joined up with the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression’s new Stop Police Crimes campaign in Chicago. I found myself addressing the Occupy Chicago General Assembly in Congress Plaza to talk about police crimes and to build solidarity for our People’s Hearing on Police Crimes in July. I found myself in halls, assemblies and even Daley Plaza speaking with a bullhorn or a microphone to hundreds of people about my incident and connecting it to the larger issues of police brutality.
I found myself with others creating an open dialogue for the general public, elected officials, clergy and community leaders to hear the accounts of survivors and the families of deceased victims, accounts mostly silenced or reported by the mainstream media with information produced by the very same perpetrators of the illegal acts — the police themselves.
In spite of everything I did, I wanted to do more. I was determined to be proactive in the face of tragedy.
I found myself at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis with several Chicago civil rights organizers and the brother of Rekia Boyd. Rekia was an innocent young woman killed by an off-duty Chicago police officer who, after a long struggle for justice, was recently charged with manslaughter. In our time in Memphis, Rekia Boyd’s brother and I walked together on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where MLK was gunned down. On the balcony, visitors and tourists celebrated the victories and mourned the tragedies of historic civil rights struggles. And here we were, a living reminder of the tragedies in our midst and the struggles ahead.
I knew what compelled me to be there; I knew I had to keep going. I had to organize.
With a coalition of groups, I organized and attended many more protests and forums, including a Second People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, this one at the University of Chicago, as well as a mass march on Chicago City Hall. I marched in Chicago’s Bud Billiken Parade with the Stop Police Crimes contingent, alongside the parents of police victims who were never coming back.
In my organizing work I never claimed to speak for those alongside me — mostly African-Americans from Chicago’s South Side. I felt that as a survivor I needed to help create a collective space where each could speak to their own unique experience, yet share in the struggles of others.
Now I simply hope that speaking about my case more candidly and more publicly can help to put a spotlight on the phenomenon of police violence for more eyes to see.
There was indeed no better way than through love and collective solidarity against forms of violence and repression, the importance of which I learned by way of my own students.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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