Co-Director Shaketa Redden’s 2019 Hiatus Letter

I began on a journey to build something new with some dope folx a few years ago- Black Love Resists in the Rust. A political home for Black and Brown folks that didn’t fit into the conservative or progressive spaces that already exist in Buffalo. The amount of labor expended when starting a new organization is difficult for anyone, especially those of us who live with an autoimmune disease. It if for this reason that I have decided to take a year away from the work and focus on healing physically, mentally and spiritually.

It is a common phrase amongst organizers that you can’t be a prophet if your own land. I would argue this is not true in the sense that it is meant.  Most folx involved in movement would say a “hometown organizer” can’t fight the power they face with folx who have known them since they were children. The difficulties of organizing at home come with all of the responsibilities with being a woman of color and living in the same city as your family and loved ones.   

I moved back to Buffalo the summer of 2012 and started organizing in the fall of 2013. During this time I have had many deaths in my family; my grandma Janie who was my constant, and my 18-year-old cousin who was murdered on Fillmore Ave. Both shook me hard- one making me question my confidence and the other made me question the work or the way I was engaged in the work.

I know that the work will continue powerfully by  leadership at Black LoveResists and their commitment to our liberation. While I am away I ask that you all send me love, light, and the space that I need to heal and reflect during this year.

Sending love,

S.

Erie County Needs A New Sheriff

The following is a press statement we released July 18/ 19th in response to India Cummings’ death being ruled a homicide due to medical neglect at the Erie County Holding Center. Reader, you should know that the report and the Buffalo News article are graphic.

The report from the Commission of Corrections’ Medical Review Board released Monday declaring India Cummings’ death a homicide is devastating and further enforces that Sheriff Howard and his administration should not be in charge of the Holding Center or the County Jail. Since Howard became Sheriff in 2005 there have been 24 deaths in the facilities he is charged with. The Medical Review Board’s Report, as well as testimony from inmates, prove a culture of neglect, mishandling, incompetence, aggressive force and overall disregard for the lives of those held at the Holding Center and the County Jail. Erie County needs a new Sheriff and need to enact policies and practices that protect inmates and meets their needs.

It is devastating to read about the conditions India Cummings was in; like sitting in her own urine and feces, before she was allowed medical attention, that was ultimately too late. India was obviously suffering and instead of attention, care and treatment she accrued more charges for her “behavior”. Marielle Smith, a Black Love Resists // Just Resisting member who has been vocal about Buffalo’s policing problem, thinks that “blaming a ‘mental health crisis’ negates the fact that poor Black and Brown folks are being actively attacked by the police state that refuses to value us and see us as human beings deserving of any type of protection or care.

Black Love Resists insists on a new administration in charge of the Holding Center and the County Jail- Sheriff Howard needs to go. Additionally, we need a serious allocation of resources and services at the county and city level- law enforcement should never be the first responders to a mental health crisis and housing individuals in penal facilities should never be the procedure. Dollars allocated to providing much needed services are severely low. It is time for Erie County to implement a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program and shift their budget’s priorities so that individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, like India, would be placed into harm reduction treatment programs whose goals are to treat and care for the whole person instead of charging them with a crime.

It is obvious India was not receiving the care and medical attention she needed and deserved and that she was penalized for suffering the way she was. Howard and his administration are responsible for the death of India Cummings as well as 23 others, and conditions at the Holding Center and the County Jail; we need better conditions and services that meet our needs, incarceration is not a solution.
India Sticker

Community,

This ask is late. Too late. Too late to undue harm. But hopefully in time to hit pause.

It is fairly common knowledge, in our tiny town of Buffalo, that Desmond, a member of our activist/ organizing community, committed sexual violence towards another in our activist/ organizer community.

These words are hard to write, to read, but not as hard as experiencing the acts. Hard to maneuver, to navigate, to move forward from. Hard for individuals and for communities to figure out what to do with. We’re failing. Failing real good and have been for a long time. We don’t know how to support victims or survivors* or how to hold the ones doing the harm accountable or how to undue the structures that enable assault and rape to happen. For forever. Always.

What we are really practiced in is shaming, isolating, shunning and demonizing. We are really practiced in denial, blaming the victim or survivor, accusing them of lying or exaggerating, offering support that is void of empathy, acting on behalf of the survivor or victim without their awareness or consent, and having no interest in getting really hella messy and figuring out what long-term interventions and solutions look like. Forever. Always.

I’m asking that we hit the pause button. That you grant us some patience as we try to figure all of this out. As we figure out what Emily needs in order to feel supported and safe. What she may need in order to move closer to healing, to wholeness, or something as close to it as possible if that’s what she wants. As we figure out what accountability and healing looks like within a transformative justice process.

Throwing someone away; putting someone in a cage and in a system, we know is dehumanizing; throwing them out of spaces, kicking them out of groups, of meetings, shows, events; pushing them to get fired, putting them in danger of homelessness, of harming themselves; shaming and demonizing them in front of people they respect; outing them on Facebook; isolating them so their only option is to move, are not solutions. We can do better. We should do better. We need to be doing better. It won’t be easy. It’s a lot easier to institutionalize or incarcerate them, to wave them away and put them in a box marked ‘not my problem’ until it gets dusty and you forget about it.

This is all of ours to sit with. Obviously, what has been happening nationally lately is proof of how prevalent this is, how embedded sexual assault and rape is/ are in our fabric.

Throwing someone away, ejecting them from groups and public spaces may keep us “safe” for that hour, maybe even longer; but let’s not kid ourselves into believing it is ridding our spaces, our communities, our society of harm. We move closer towards safety when we work on undoing rape culture.

We are all harmed by rape and sexual assault. We are all responsible for rape culture. And for undoing it. This ask is for patience. We are in the middle of a process that we (individuals, community, society) have less practice in; undoing and accounting for harm and moving towards restitution. A process that does not center vindication.

Transformative Justice is a process where all individuals are given an opportunity to address and repair the harm. The other stuff we’re really practiced in (incarceration, shame, isolation) does not repair harm, many times it does the opposite. Transformative Justice shifts power towards collective liberation, it shifts our response to violence to one(s) where we are supporting survivors, victims and Emily’s self- determination. And supporting individuals, like Des, to shift their harmful behaviors. It also asks that we all, community, do the work. I’ll say that again:

It asks that we ALL, this community, do the work.

It is work we must engage in if we want to support victims and survivors, give them what they need to feel held and safe and move towards community support and accountability. It is work we must engage in if we don’t want to hand our folx over to the state, if we’re serious in the belief that people don’t belong in cages, and most importantly, if we want to dismantle the social fabric that holds and enables harm to keep happening, again and again and again.

Community, let’s be patient and do our part in preventing [further] harm and let’s figure this shit out together.

*words survivor and victim are used even though some people experiencing harm may not identify with either of these terms.

In the hopes of a world we want to live in.

It is clear that we need something different. That we need to figure out a way to engage residents into voting, caring about the moves of their electeds, holding those in office and in power accountable, that we need to mobilize beyond marches/ vigils/ demonstrations and rallies.

It’s clear that we are beyond frustrated. That we can’t imagine a reality other than the one we’re in. That a different reality has not been presented/ shown to those that need to see it most.

And it is clear that we are, and have been, out organized. Or in denial of what the pulse is that is moving certain people into action and keeping most of us at home.

Not everyone.

It is clear we are getting close.

For 10 months our partners in resistance, SURJ Buffalo, have incredibly skilled up, what I imagine (because I don’t have their numbers) is more than 50 WNY residents to work to fire an elected official. An experiment in the type of impact a large group of un-paid canvassers and phone bankers coupled with public demonstrations could have on a county-wide sheriff’s race without having to endorse a candidate.

This fight is not a new one. Because of public demonstrations and organizing by the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition (BARC) and BLACK from Rochester to lift up India Cummings, who died after sustaining injuries from being at the Holding Center in February of 2016, the conditions at the Holding Center, and the officers who work there, are once again being discussed publicly.

Prisoners are People Too (PRP2) have been advocating for better conditions and treatment of inmates at the Holding Center for decades.

Efforts to #FireHoward focused on the now 25 deaths (the latest was a “cardiac arrest” of a 53 year old man at the Alden Correctional Facility two days before the election) that have occurred since Howard has been in office-  2005. In addition to sexual harassment claims against Howard and a lawsuit by the Department of Justice over “deathly conditions” at the Holding Center, how could we not want something completely different?

It is clear we live in county where it is acceptable for the sheriff to be at a rally organized by white supremacists standing in front of a confederate flag in uniform in the middle of downtown Buffalo.

It is clear we live in city in deep partnership with the police. Where there have been 2 deaths caused by police this year and there is no real race for mayor, instead we have an incumbent who urges residents to have “coffee with a cop” weeks before election day. Where a memorial honoring a man killed by the police in May is taken down by neighbors and the council representative of that district calls those same officers heroes. Where a Facebook threat to officers gets you stalked by four officers and over a year sitting in the Holding Center awaiting sentencing. And organizations hesitate to sign on to a lawsuit against the BPD because of what it means for their relationship with Brown.Where an officer is lifted up as a hero after dying from equipment failure and residents have no choice but to “remember Officer Lehner” for almost four (4!) weeks, and counting.

To be clear: It’s tragic that someone is dead after missing in the Niagara river for five days. Condolences to his family and friends and those who loved him. But he did not die “serving our community”. He died because of equipment failure. He was not saving a life, “fighting a crime”, preventing bodily injury to another human being- it was an unfortunate accident. Shutting down several streets surrounding the Key Bank Center and the entire length of Delaware Avenue, from Niagara Square to Forrest Lawn Cemetery,  for most of the afternoon on October 25th was extravagant, and I imagine costly. He was honored at a Bills game, a puppy was named after him, blue lights shone at City Hall and the Home Depot gave away hundreds of blue lightbulbs so that residents can display their feelings publicly.

And at the same time we have had stark inaction over two men the police killed this year. There have been no elected officials demanding answers, no local investigation into the acts of the officers involved. Our District Attorney was all too willing to hand the investigation over to the Attorney General’s Office with the quickness. And still, none of those in power have been calling for a speedy investigation or for the AG to release their results so that the families may have answers. The mayor made a five minute phone call to Grandma Davis and that was it.

What arrangements have been made for the families of Jose Hernandez- Rossy and Wardel “Meech” Davis? Who was allowed to attend their funerals; to pay their respects free from the prying eyes of the media and the problematic herding usually done by the Peace Keepers wherever they are dispatched, free from patrol cars parked outside the church? And who did the burden of those services fall on? Which elected officials attended the funerals of these two men killed by Strike Force officers? Have they even been mentioned on their mouths since Meech’s death in February and Jose’s death in May?

What was heard, what was felt, what was demonstrated is that there is a hierarchy of whose lives matter. Whose death is deserving of mourning.

We live in a place and time where our neighbors elect a Sheriff for four more years who has had 25 deaths in his facilities since 2005; where our neighbors elect a mayor who ran on “tough on crime” policing and instituted a Strike Force unit in 2006; and where almost 28% of the City’s $500 Million budget is promised to the police department- a percentage that increases every year.

We hear you loud and clear.

There was hope on election day. Hope that voters would elect a new Sheriff, a new county clerk and comptroller. Hope and spirit that my body forgot the feeling of. Hope I fear may be squashed by our defeats.

It is clear our local Democratic party is failing us- that it is flailing; floundering in this moment, in this movement. It is clear they are aligned with the status quo and are not putting in any real effort to change anything dramatically for who it matters most for. It is clear our media wants us to believe Democrats won on Tuesday, as meek as those wins are.

I hope that we don’t lose sight of our impact amidst our losses- of what was built: the political homes, of the shifts, ideologies, the sheer numbers of individuals who are equipped to fight in this moment.

It is my hope that we take this momentum; proof that organizing works, proof that it’s working and as inspiration for what the building of Us is capable of.  What are we creating for ourselves? What are we sustaining for ourselves. Let’s not fall back into searching for answers from structures currently in establishment but lean forward into building what we know we need and now know is attainable.