Lives That Matter

By Elizer Darris

Eli Darris is a BRIDGE partner who is incarcerated at Stillwater Correctional Facility. 

I lost one of my closest friends to suicide back in 2008. Like me, he was certified as a juvenile by a court to serve a life sentence in the adult prison system. Like me, he had no previous record but he participated in one of the worst decisions of his life which led to a man losing his life. He regretted that day intensely. For years he and I walked prison halls together. We laughed together, we struggled together, we cried together, we dreamed of freedom together.

And then he was gone.

The morning that I found out about his death began as indistinct as any other day I had served. The prison officials opened the cell doors for industry work as they would have on any other day. There was no mention of death. There was no acknowledgement of any incredible loss. I overheard a group of inmates speaking about a death that had occurred on the top tier in our unit. I shook my head and proceeded to prepare for the day. I felt bad for whoever lost their life but I was certain I didn’t know him.

Then I heard a name that froze me in my place. My heart jumped.

Sammie.

I raced up the stairs to the fourth tier, past dodging inmates, beyond the objections of “correctional” officers. I didn’t stop until I came face to face with an imposing “Yellow Board of Death.” The board covered his entire room. “Sammie,” I whispered. I touched the board and closed my eyes. My friend, Sammie Lamont Johnson, took his life in the wee hours of the night. He was 26 year old.

The night of his death many of us who he left behind were heartbroken. Sammie was well loved. The “world” may have seen him as a criminal but to us he was a brother, friend, teammate, confidant, and peacemaker. As I sat in my cell reminiscing on Sammie’s life, officers came to my door and ordered me to put my hands behind my back in order to be handcuffed. When I asked them why, they responded that they didn’t know.

Although I was confused, I complied.

I was taken to an isolation cell, stripped naked, and told to wait. After a few minutes I began noticing others brought into other holding cells. They were all Sammie’s friends. After a long wait, a sneering lieutenant came outside the cells and barked, “What seems to be the problem.” I closed my eyes and held my tongue. He approached my cell and pounded on the Plexiglas. I opened my eyes and whispered “What,” between my teeth. He said “My officers tell me that a group of you guys are upset. What seems to be the problem?”

I fought to hold my rage.

My friend’s body wasn’t even cold yet and he was already being treated as un-noteworthy. We were both being treated like things. We were being treated like clogs with no more purpose than to hold steady in our functional place and keep everything moving. As things we were not supposed to wobble or teeter or even feel our humanity. We were to bottle up our emotions, go out to our prison industry job, turn out a good product for “massa,” and do everything again the next day. These people don’t see our humanity. They see inmates. They see numbers. They see faceless things. They don’t see lives that matter. “Take… me … back… to… my … cell,” I whispered again and turned my back. The lieutenant chuckled nervously and walked out of the holding cell area. After an hour we were returned to our unit and “allowed” to mourn our friend in peace. I realized that while it was true that I missed him, I was also glad that he was free from the dehumanizing existence that prison life had become for him.

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Youth Organizer Spotlight: Jocelyn

Youth Organizer Spotlights offer a chance to learn more about the youth who participate in our Youth Cultural Organizing Training (YCOT) — and be inspired by the energy, power, and wisdom they bring to our racial justice organizing community.

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Name: Jocelyn Hernandez
Age: 18

How do you self identify?
I’m Mexican, indigenous too, and a cis-gendered woman

How is your story or the story of your community connected to why you organize?
I come from a community that has survived on being united. My community has been exploited and oppressed for 500 years and I carry those ancestors on my shoulders. I think they are the ones who give me the passion to organize for justice. I also feel like I owe it to my community to fight for them because I have enough class privilege to be able to do so. I’m lucky enough to not have to work two jobs. I have more energy to spare and I use that to organize, many don’t have that privilege. Seeing and experiencing the trauma that my people have faced and continue to face, compels me to seek justice and the regaining of humanity for my people. Our survival is based on fighting injustice.

What does building power mean to you?
I think building power means building relationships and building community because I think if you don’t have community how are you going to have more power?  Definitely teaching people, educating them, and empowering them to educate themselves and others, and giving them the ability to take out what’s already inside of them—the leadership skills that they already have and their ability to lead.  It’s sort of bringing out what people already have I think, it’s about building intersectional liberation.

What were some of your expectations coming into the training?
I expected to be in a good space, in a safe space, where I could challenge if I needed to, I could step back if I needed to, and I knew that that would be respected.  I wouldn’t have to give up pieces of myself  that I didn’t want to or that I wouldn’t have to stress myself to the point that I didn’t feel like I could.  You know, I just knew that it would be safe and that because of that it would be a really good learning experience.  When we started talking about having different mentors, I knew that that would be really awesome, like building solidarity and seeing things through a different intersectional lens.   I was really excited.

What are some things that surprised you?
The amount of youth I think.  Because for me, not being in high school any more, and the high school I went to I didn’t see a lot of youth leaders or any leaders interested in the movement, wanting to build power, wanting to you know, fight for liberation, so that was really surprising.  Seeing young Muslim people, that are always seen as on the margins, they’re made invisible in the movement, I think a lot of times.   But now, a lot more young Muslim people out there fighting anti-blackness, fighting Islamophobia and I think it’s really awesome.  When I saw that going down I thought, this is great and these are really awesome people.  And they truly are really amazing.

What was your biggest take-away?
I think my biggest take away was how beneficial this kind of training is, because I realized in comparison to others I’ve been a part of, I felt safer.  I think I use this training as a foundation for the space that I build anytime I’m talking about social justice issues or going into the community, or teaching, I always look back to this training, the guidelines that were set.  The exercises that we did to just open the space…were really beneficial and to close the space-I use them on a daily basis at my job or when I’m talking to people about sensitive subjects.

What do you think is the role of art in organizing and movement building?
I think it’s vital, like I always think back to the 1960s and the early 70s and how everything kind of changed so suddenly.  And it was because of music, it was because of art that it changed so suddenly. You know, when we’re talking about chants during protests and everyone knows the black panther chants that were going on at that time, and the songs that were going out with the Chicano movement, with the Farmworker’s movement, with the Young Lords–You know, every single movement had their own like, signature style of music, their own band that everyone knew was part of that.  Like the American Indian Movement–a lot of American Indian artists started coming out and they would sing about Wounded Knee.  Even if you think of cinema as being art, Marlon Brando came out and said “well I support the American Indian Movement, I’m going to deny this award until you guys are treating our American Indian folks at Wounded Knee with respect and dignity.”  I just feel like art is what’s central to movement building, and it’s also healing, but that’s what makes real impactful change that everyone can relate to.

What do you think makes art healing?
Well I mean if you’re an artist, making art is healing.  And if you’re not an artist, seeing that love that people have for art, and kind of like seeing it from their perspective and seeing the beautiful things that can come out, or the sad things that can come out from being in the movement or seeing these things you know?  I also think it breaks the fake things that are put in place to separate us, because art is universal, you don’t have to know a different language to feel art.

How are you able to reach people in a different way through art?
I mean art can be put anywhere, with graffiti or with posters. For example, Ricardo Levins Morales, his art is so straight forward but at the same time there are so many aspects that go into it.  There are all these posters of his that are just a big picture, but if you look at the background it says even more.  I think you get to touch at people’s experiences, everyone’s experiences without excluding anyone.

Whats the most challenging part of organizing?
I would say two things, the first one being taking care of yourself which I’m struggling with right now.  It’s so hard, especially because the past movements that came before me, before anyone right now,  all those movements have been…people were not taking care of themselves, they were short lived.  They did many incredible things, but by the end, people were like, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this, I’m dying, I gave up everything.  There were people that were giving up their families, people who were giving up their children, like they didn’t see their children anymore, because they were so dedicated to the movement.  And also dealing with the people in your own community that don’t believe in what you’re doing, but I’m doing this for you.  I could leave, and could go somewhere, but I’m doing this for you, for your children, for my brothers, for my sisters, for everyone in the future.  How can you not respect me, how can you not respect me and love me in the way that I love you even though I don’t know you?  I’m spending all this time, I’m hurting myself almost, I’m going through all this trauma so you can get free, but you’re telling me I’m stupid for doing this.  Or that I’m too serious, that I’m doing too much.

How do you engage that?  What are your boundaries?
I try my best to constantly engage people, but it’s something I should be figuring out right now, I can keep pushing and trying to engage, but some people just don’t want to move.  Which is understandable, because doing this work is not easy, it’s not happy go lucky all the time, let’s have fun, wow this is great.  It’s really hard and I can understand why people want to close their eyes to it and I think when I stop engaging is when they start insulting me as a person, saying that I’m this or I’m that.  I don’t know yet though, I’m not sure what my boundaries are just yet.

Whats your favorite part of organizing
I think it’s seeing that light that comes out in people’s eyes when they see things, and when they get it, when it clicks in their brains and they know there’s something that we can do about it.  Especially with youth organizing.  Organizing on my college campus, empowering students to demonstrate or have meetings with the president, and know they have just as much power as the president and there is power in people, and there is power in being a student-you have a lot more power than you think you do, and seeing all that click.  When we start talking about the Black Panther party and talking about their ancestors how amazing all the things that you carry inside of you are.  They get it and that passion comes out, and the love for their people comes out.  That’s probably my favorite part of organizing.

What does power mean to you?  When do you feel most powerful?
I guess I’ll start off with when I feel most powerful that will help me get my own definition.  I feel powerful when people put trust in me, when my community puts trust in me and says I want you to be the spokesperson for this, I want you, give me your advice–I feel powerful in that sense because I’m trusted.  Powerful is such an ugly word sometimes the way the society has made it, so it’s kind of hard to say that, but yes I feel powerful when my community trusts me with the things that I know are going to really affect them?  I guess power means ..that’s so hard because I’m stuck on the ugly part of power.

What makes power ugly?
Power, when we’re talking about people who can move people in really bad ways.  See power is kind of shared, because you can’t have power without having people.

So lets think power with, versus power over.  Talk to me about power with…
Power with, that’s when you have power with community, you have Black Panther, all power to the people kind of power.  It’s not just yours, you have to feed off of other people and other people have to feed off of you.  You have to share that good energy, that love, to have that power, in order to have that trust between people.  And then power over is fear–people are scared of you and so that’s why they listen to you.

How do you practice self-care?
I’m actually an introvert, so I like being alone.  There are moments in time when I just need to be alone and usually it’s with my dog.  I guess reading, watching films, listening to Marvin Gaye, and also sometimes if I’m not drained with social interaction, self-care to me looks like talking to people.  And even just listening to people tell me what they’re going through to me makes me feel good.  Sometimes we need to take a step back and realize that we’re not the only ones, that there are other people that feel this way and we can talk to them.  It depends.  Sometimes it looks like being alone, laughing, grounding myself and loving myself.  Other times it manifests itself in building friendships with people.

What is our responsibility to the movement, to our community, to include healing spaces in organizing?
I think it’s a huge responsibility, I think it’s central to organizing, because if you don’t open those spaces and if you don’t have that time to process, you can literally be killing people.  You could literally hurt someone, you could hurt their family, you hurt people by doing that.  You’re doing them a disservice and you’re sort of exploiting them if you’re using them to do demonstrations, if you’re using them to do actions, and then you’re not with them in that time of healing, in that time of processing, you’re kind of disposing of them.  You’re seeing them as disposable, because you’re using them and if you’re not processing you’re letting them alone to go through the trauma they’ve been inflicted with.  So that’s a huge responsibility that kind of goes hand-in-hand.  You can’t organize without helping your people process, you’re not helping your people, you’re using your people.

What does solidarity look like in organizing?
I think it looks like knowing your own privileges and using those privileges in ways that are going to help the movement, but also always remembering whose voices are being centered and whose struggles are being centered in the movement.  You know, you have to acknowledge the ways that your struggles play into their movement, but you can’t let that override it.  It’s being in the movement, but also being outside of it.  You can’t put yourself in the middle of it, you can’t go to a Black Lives Matter meeting as a brown person and say “I think that you guys should move the direction towards this.  I don’t think you guys should focus on police brutality.”  My community is affected by it in a different way.  It’s difficult, it’s almost like being within and without.  Helping when needed, you’re providing your resources, your putting your body on the line with another community but you can’t center yourself.  You can’t make it about your people if it’s not supposed to be about your people.  At the same time you have to always be conscious about how your struggle intersects with theirs.

What do you need from other people trying to build solidarity with you?
Not trying to tell me how to do it, and not telling me, oh this person is bad don’t talk to them.  You know, letting me, trusting me that I’m smart enough, that I know what to do, that I know what I’m doing.  Also standing up for me when I’m not there especially.  Always thinking of me in the space.  You’re thinking of me and doing something to protect me even when I’m not there, so it’s not for show, it’s because you truly believe it.  You truly know that, you truly see how your own trauma and your own pain is similar to mine.

How are you implementing pieces of what you learned this summer during the training into your own organizing work?
I think with what my college, North Hennepin Community College, has been doing on campus with the Diversity and Equity office with the students there, and the work we’ve been doing with the president, we presented a list of demands at the start of the school year and when I was organizing students to do those kinds of things I always made sure to open spaces and close spaces.  When everything around Black Lives Matter and the 4th precinct started happening, we would have conversations about that in the office, because we have a lot of young black students.  A lot of them from North Minneapolis, and that healing space we had in this training (YCOT) I modeled in there.  Setting guidelines, really talking about things, structural racism and how that works–different parts of it.  Showing people really what’s going on.  Showing them the reality of what’s going on and also having them talk about that, giving them a voice, giving them a space to show their voice.  But especially an emphasis on healing is something I’ve been trying to do, and this training was definitely a foundation for that as well as allowing people to really take leadership of their own abilities.  Sometimes we’re like this is what you should do, but having them learn these things, and having them make the decision of what they want to do, not pushing them too far, but agitating them enough so that they’re moving.  I use things every day from this training, and the people that I met through it I carry with me.  Having the youth in this cohort be my peers, but also learn from them, and still be learning from them is so cool.

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