#FreeBresha: Bresha Meadows is in prison for saving her family from domestic violence

A specter haunts the United States, and she is a 15-year-old Black girl named Bresha Meadows, who sits in an Ohio prison today for having saved her mother and two siblings. Bresha’s mother, Brandi Meadows, calls her daughter a hero. Martina Latessa, Bresha’s aunt on her mother’s side and also a Cleveland police officer who specializes in domestic violence cases, says that Bresha was “born into a nightmare” and that Bresha had come to her aunt begging for help from the extreme violence of her father, Jonathan Meadows. Bresha’s cousin, Ja’Von Meadows-Harris, reports that when, as a child, he lived with the Meadows, he was severely, regularly beaten by Jonathan Meadows. In July 2016, then 14-year-old Bresha Meadows ended the violence when she took her father’s gun and fatally shot him. She was arrested that day, and charged with aggravated murder, which could have resulted in a life sentence. She has spent the last ten months in the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center. Her family and friends think she’s a hero; the State throws her into a cage, potentially for life.

On Monday, Bresha Meadows “pleaded `true’ — the functional equivalent of a guilty plea — to a charge of involuntary manslaughter, accepting the terms of a settlement deal that her lawyer said will allow her access to psychiatric treatment and the eventual possibility of a clean record.” Bresha Meadows will not be “allowed access to psychiatric treatment.” She will be institutionalized for six months, treatment for which her family will have to pay. That “eventual possibility of a clean record” only occurs after two years of probation.

While the family and Bresha’s lawyer are relieved, they also recognize that this plea deal means two more months in jail and then six months in a different sort of confinement. As Mariame Kabe, one of the organizers of the #FreeBresha campaign, explained, “What’s important is how they’re feeling and how she’s feeling … The position of the #FreeBresha campaign is that plea deals are coercive and they’re a violent means of social control … We’re committed to supporting Bresha’s freedom, and she’s not free yet.” The #FreeBresha campaign stated, “The #FreeBresha campaign is infuriated that 15-year-old domestic violence survivor, Bresha Meadows, has been forced by Ohio prosecutors to submit to a plea deal that would keep her in juvenile detention for a full year (which includes 10 months of time served) and an additional 6 months of incarceration in a `treatment facility.  Though an earlier version of the plea deal would have released Bresha to the `treatment facility’ today, the final plea deal has increased Bresha’s time in juvenile detention for another two months. Prosecuting Bresha, including the pointless punitivity of adding time in juvenile detention, should be condemned by all who care about the well-being of children.” The State just couldn’t let Bresha Meadows out immediately, and that inexplicable two months is criminal justice for Black girls and women in this country.

After a lifetime of enduring and witnessing excruciating and extreme violence, of begging for help from family, friends, the State and strangers, a Black girl-child stood up and on her own saved her family. Language matters, and we should tell Bresha Meadows’ story in the language her family uses. She is a hero. News media have continually headlined and framed Bresha Meadows’ story as one of “fatal shooting.” That is not the story. The story is Bresha Meadows’ saved her mother and her two siblings and herself. “The #FreeBresha campaign will continue to push for Bresha’s freedom until she is truly free.” We should all do the same. We should treat our children and our heroes with dignity, reverence, and love. #FreeBreshaMeadows

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Grio) (Photo Credit 2: Verso Books)

Calling On White People to Organize Other White People

For many white folks the news that Donald Trump would be the 45th President of the United States elicited shock, disbelief, confusion, and outrage. Conspicuously missing was the realization that the impossible had long been possible and that many of us either weren’t aware of or didn’t want to acknowledge that. For many waking up in a Trump America, it was never in doubt as to whether or not the seemingly impossible was possible. The country was founded on stolen land and genocide, whose system was designed from the start to protect the interests of the wealthy, landed, slave-owning white males who created it; centuries later that system continues working as planned. Deeply ingrained in the fabric of the United States are biases, prejudices, rationalities and tools of white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and more. They were here long before the 2016 election, and won’t be addressed by voting in a new administration. So, where do we go from here?

With the holidays upon us, many articles are suggesting how to avoid the ‘difficult’ conversations with family members at the dinner table, how to sidestep `those’ issues. What we need now is not a guide on how to sidestep conversations, but rather a path for engagement. The answer lies in organizing.

Bob Zellner, son and grandson of members of the Ku Klux Klan, recently shared his experience organizing for civil rights deep in Mississippi in the 1960s. When he and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were told, “You can’t organize in Mississippi,” they replied, “Okay, that’s where we’re going, we’re going to Mississippi, because yes we can organize there and we’ve got to take this terror of lynching away from the enemy. We’re not afraid, we know that we may die, but we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway.” Using a model of organizing he was taught by Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer, Zellner recounts, “So we were working with [Ms. Hamer], and she says to us, ‘Well a lot of these people you have to work with them on a material basis: They need a job, and they need their kids to be taken care of. And so whatever they feel about race, that’s secondary to whatever they need.’ We extrapolated that to, if people need a good union, a good strong union, they’re going to have to work Black and white together to get that.”

This isn’t new, and doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. Organizers have long been implementing strategies to organize in spaces that are often written off as impossible to reach or too entrenched in their ways. Having a strategy, being able to actively listen, drawing connections between shared experiences, speaking to matters of material needs, and allowing others to engage critically with what you’re discussing rather than turning the conversation into a tirade or a lecture can plant a seed. Instead of responding, particularly in anger, delegating the response back to the person you’re speaking with can allow them to articulate their positions – maybe for the first time – and reflect. Challenge them to see how their story connects on a broader scale with stories from communities of color and other marginalized communities.

A key point of differentiation to focus on then is, how do you benefit? For instance, white neighborhoods get better public services, more affordable housing and less segregation could threaten that. Are you willing to give that up for your vision – of more affordable housing, quality education, healthcare, or whatever the issue may be? We don’t have all the answers yet, but we know that our communities need to be radically different than they are at present and that much work needs doing. In the era of the endless election cycle, it can be hard to break free of the idea that a candidate for elected office will be able to deliver sustained and meaningful change for a community. More than ever, we need to be affirming that movements for justice and dignity are not leaderless, but as Barbara Ransby says, leader-full and that we are the vanguard of change we seek for our futures.

Mariame Kaba, an organizer, educator, and writer whose work focuses on ending violence, dismantling the prison industrial complex, and supporting youth leadership development writes, “I really am 100% in favor of white people stretching their hands out in love & solidarity with their white cousins. Please go to it. What you should not expect is for me to do this? It makes no sense. A Black Muslim woman traipsing to West Virginia to organize white folks there is bonkers. It doesn’t make sense at all. White folks, yes.”

Building these relationships is most effective when done on a local level, addressing something issue-specific, and where a relationship is preexisting. While the work of engaging white people on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ability, and so much more can be mentally exhausting, emotionally damaging, and physically perilous, white folks are in a unique position to leverage the privileges and powers that we have been the beneficiaries of under white supremacy to engage with the difficult work of organizing our own communities. If it’s a starting point you need, look to your own community, be it municipal, familial, faith communities, student organizations, coworkers, or other forms of association.

This is a call to engagement, not disengagement; to strategic action; and most importantly, to organizing. Begin educating yourself and those in your community on the building blocks of organizing. Attend trainings – and if there aren’t trainings available where you live, collaborate to bring them there. White folks, we need to be doing the hard work of organizing our families, our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers – regardless of who won in November – the work has always been there, and continues to call us to do it.

 

(Photo Credit: Kairos Center)

Criminalizing Black Women: Mom Jailed For ‘Stealing An Education’ for Her Children

I have not written about the Kelley Williams-Bolar case previously because I did not have the words to describe how I felt about it. When I first read about the case, I immediately started to tear up and my emotions were in turmoil. I didn’t understand the strong feelings and then I realized that the case recalled ancestral memories of slavery for me. Kelley Williams-Bolar was being accused of “stealing an education” for her children.

Here is some brief background on this case…

Prosecutors in Ohio brought criminal charges against Kelly Williams-Bolar of Akron and her father. The state accused the pair of “allegedly falsifying residency records of two of the woman’s children formerly enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn City Schools.” The most serious of the charges brought against Ms. Williams was tampering with records which is a “third-degree felony carrying potential penalties of one to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.” Her 64-year old father was charged with “one count of grand theft for aiding and abetting his daughter in her alleged deception to obtain educational services from Copley-Fairlawn schools.”

Bolar-Williams said her two girls were enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn school system four years ago — in August 2006, according to court records — over ”safety issues.”

During the trial, several pieces of evidence were presented supporting Ms. Williams’ claims that she was in fact living with her father when she enrolled her children in the suburban school district. However what was also made clear was the lengths to which the school district went to “prove” that she was in fact not a resident in their catchment area:

School officials, according to trial testimony, hired a private investigator in an attempt to document the activities of Williams-Bolar on more than a dozen school mornings.

In several hours of the videotaped surveillance — much of which was shot under cover through a wrought-iron fence — the jury saw Williams-Bolar dropping off her children at a school bus stop within a short walk of her father’s home on Black Pond.

However, when Williams-Bolar took the stand in her own defense on Friday, O’Brien introduced evidence showing that she had 2008 and 2009 W-2 statements from her employer, Akron Public Schools, sent in her name to the address of her father in Copley Township.

Williams-Bolar works as a teaching assistant with special-needs children at Buchtel High School.

The defense also produced 2005 mailed correspondence to Williams-Bolar — more than a year before her children were enrolled in the schools — from the Copley-Fairlawn district. It, too, was sent to her father’s home.

More specific details about the trial can be found here. On January 15th, Ms. Williams was convicted by a jury after 7 hours of deliberation. She was sentenced by the judge to 10 days in jail, three years of probation and community service for falsifying residency records. As if this were not enough, here is more from the judge in this case:

Cosgrove noted Williams-Bolar faces another form of punishment.

Williams-Bolar, a single mother, works as a teaching assistant with children with special needs at Buchtel High School. At the trial, she testified that she wanted to become a teacher and is a senior at the University of Akron, only a few credit hours short of a teaching degree.

That won’t happen now, Cosgrove said.

”Because of the felony conviction, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today,” the judge said. ”The court’s taking into consideration that is also a punishment that you will have to serve.”

Williams-Bolar addressed Cosgrove briefly before being sentenced, saying ”there was no intention at all” to deceive school officials.

She pleaded with Cosgrove not to put her behind bars.

”My girls need me,” she said. ”I’ve never, ever gone a day without seeing them off. Never. My oldest daughter is 16.

”I need to be there to support them.”

Williams-Bolar’s two girls, now 16 and 12, are attending schools elsewhere. They left the Copley-Fairlawn district before the 2009 school term.

Ms. Williams-Bolar was interviewed later and expressed stunned disbelief that she would be jailed for this offense. She believed that if she were convicted she would be sentenced to probation at most.

Kelley Williams-Bolar took an extended pause, pondering as she sat in jail Thursday.

Tears came to her eyes as seconds ticked away. She’s a single mother of two daughters in the middle of a 10-day jail term — a convicted felon — all because of the school the girls attended.

Years ago, she said she took her daughters from Akron’s public housing after their home was burglarized and placed them with their grandfather in Copley Township.

Take a step back to consider everything that is at play in the story of Ms. Bolar-Williams. Here you have a black single mother who was living in public housing with her two daughters. After a traumatic incident of their home being burglarized, she moved her daughters to their grandfather’s home so that they could be safe and attend a good school. A school district spent thousands of dollars to hire a PI to investigate this black woman and her children. Why exactly was this? Are public schools in Ohio so flush with extra cash that they can afford such luxuries? If Ms. Williams and her children had been white would the school have gone to this trouble to expose them as supposed ‘criminals?’ I think that any fair-minded observer would have to say ‘no’. Now we have a tragedy on our hands with lives being destroyed. A 40 year old woman who was putting herself through college to become a teacher is having that dream dashed. What lesson do you suppose her daughters are learning in all of this? Are they learning that America is a just society? Are they learning that they can ‘be anything that they want to be’ when they become adults?

I would say that they have learned a bitter lesson about American INjustice and oppression. This is a form of state violence that the Williams family has been subjected to. Ms. Williams has been accused of defrauding the district for over $30,000 in educational costs because her daughters did not meet the residency requirement. At least four lives have been destroyed over $30,000? Surely that cannot be just!

Apparently this case is causing a lot of controversy in Ohio as well it should. Reporter David Scott writes about some of the reaction. However, I want to point to the words of commentator Boyce Watkins who wrote this:

This case is a textbook example of everything that remains racially wrong with America’s educational, economic and criminal justice systems. Let’s start from the top: Had Ms. Williams-Bolar been white, she likely would never have been prosecuted for this crime in the first place (I’d love for them to show me a white woman in that area who’s gone to jail for the same crime). She also is statistically not as likely to be living in a housing project with the need to break an unjust law in order to create a better life for her daughters. Being black is also correlated with the fact that Williams-Bolar likely didn’t have the resources to hire the kinds of attorneys who could get her out of this mess (since the average black family’s wealth is roughly 1/10 that of white families). Finally, economic inequality is impactful here because that’s the reason that Williams-Bolar’s school district likely has fewer resources than the school she chose for her kids. In other words, black people have been historically robbed of our economic opportunities, leading to a two-tiered reality that we are then imprisoned for attempting to alleviate. That, my friends, is American Racism 101.

This case is a textbook example of how racial-inequality created during slavery and Jim Crow continues to cripple our nation to this day. There is no logical reason on earth why this mother of two should be dehumanized by going to jail and be left permanently marginalized from future economic and educational opportunities. Even if you believe in the laws that keep poor kids trapped in underperforming schools, the idea that this woman should be sent to jail for demanding educational access is simply ridiculous.

In her own words, Ms. Williams said from jail:

”If I had the opportunity, if I had to do it all over again, would I have done it? . . . ,” she said. After almost a half-minute of silence, she answered her own question.

”I would have done it again,” she said. ”But I would have been more detailed. . . . I think they wanted to make an example of me.”

Yes indeed, the state of Ohio wanted to make an example of a black single mother trying to find a way to ensure a successful future for her children by giving them a chance to have a good education… Welcome to America in the 21st century, still racist and unjust.!

Mariame Kaba, http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/.

(This first appeared here at Prison Culture. Thanks to Mariame Kaba for writing it and for sharing it with Women In and Beyond the Global.)