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We Charge Genocide: The Emergence of a Movement

The plan was to challenge police violence against youth of color in Chicago, and charge the US with genocide.

A still from the We Charge Genocide film, For Damo. (Photo: Ethan Viets-VanLear)

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Dominique Franklin Jr. was killed by Chicago police in May 2014. He was 23 years old and Black. He was loved, and people called him Damo.

Following his death, a group of Damo’s friends, friends of his friends and local Chicago activists came together. In the room were young poets of color, longtime local organizers, lawyers and others, all coming from differing vantage points but connected by their opposition to the oppressive system of policing and prisons. In the context of a Black person being killed by police every 28 hours, our project was to declare that there is nothing normal about a system in which racist death and violence is routine and to prove that we will not treat it as such.

With young organizers of color at the forefront and mentors to ground us, we decided to create a new project: a reiteration of an effort of a group of Black activists who in 1951 took a petition to the United Nations. The petition, called “We Charge Genocide,” cited over 150 police killings of Black people in the United States. We decided to compile a similar report about police violence against youth of color in Chicago and to send a delegation to Switzerland to present the report to the UN Committee Against Torture.

Using the name We Charge Genocide and centering Damo’s story in our work, our undertaking was rooted in the connections between history and our contemporary realities. Our adopted name recalled parallel tactics from a moment in time in which conversations about anti-Black violence were being brought to a world stage, specifically in relation to anti-colonial movements in Africa, and there was a more broad-based political basis for global and diasporic Black solidarity.

A member of our group, Ethan Viets-VanLear, created this video to tell Damo’s story:

Mariame Kaba, a Chicago-based organizer and educator, has described the emergence of our group in this way: “Out of the despair of his friends, a social and political quilt to resist racist policing was created. Damo’s friends and peers traveled to Geneva to charge the U.S. with genocide.”

Delivering Our Petition to the UN

There’s a long legacy of organizers, revolutionaries and leaders taking their stories and struggles to the United Nations. Our decision to bring our report there was not a unique one; it was knowingly building upon the work of those before us.

By grounding and naming ourselves with that history, we contextualized our struggle against police violence. This history not only gave us more momentum, but also helped prepare us for pushback. We learned about the repression and harassment William L. Patterson received as he attempted to deliver the original We Charge Genocide petition to the United Nation in the 1950s. We saw how Paul Robeson was completely blacklisted from history books for telling the world about the genocide of Black people in the United States. An acknowledgement of this history was critical in building upon the efforts to end an unremitting war on Black people.

While the idea of taking our report on police violence against Black and Brown youth in Chicago to the United Nations was not distinct, sending eight young people of color to share this report was. Eight young artists, poets, organizers, leaders and activists of color made up our unique delegation that would tell the world what the Chicago Police Department did to Dominique Franklin Jr.

We owe it to ourselves to build a world in which we all get to be whole.

We knew going into the trip that delivering this report to the United Nations was not our end goal. Our expectations for any substantial results in accountability measures being implemented in Chicago as a result of this trip were very low. The power of this trip to the United Nations was not held in the formalities. It was not held in the system. It was not held in the two minutes allotted to us to speak on an entire community’s destruction at the hands of the state. We brought the power with us to the table. We brought personal narrative to a space that is often overpowered by data and cold numbers. We brought a delegation of young people of color, many of whom have experienced police violence firsthand, into a space of representatives and advocates. We brought truth. We brought powerful narrative. We brought unconventional action.

We made connections with other groups testifying about police violence in their own cities. We made a very public and critical connection between the repressions our Black and Brown communities face every single day and the ways the state uses violence to maintain that repression.

We took this to the United Nations because we wanted to amplify the incredible work that young people of color are already doing in Chicago to challenge and interrupt police violence and impunity.

We took our petition to the United Nations because it was what we had to do after the police killed Damo. Mariame Kaba captured this truth in her Prison Culture post, “To Damo, With Our Love …“:

So much of what we do in the name of the dead is really for us the living. It’s so we can try to make sense of the senseless. It’s so we can carry on and move through our grief. It’s so we don’t follow the dead into their graves … They (we) have done all of this in Damo’s name … We struggle out of profound love. It’s a love that sustains and strengthens us. It’s a love that convinces us that we will eventually win.

Our Debt to the Dead

How do we honor our debt to the dead?

Every new name we are forced to swallow – not to mention those who are killed by police but never make the headlines or appear in our social media timelines – adds unbearable weight to the responsibility. The reformist pathways suggested by the current “justice” systems offer little hope of rest: They are merely old logics, wrapped up in new politically correct rhetoric and fancy technology.

Police violence is and always has been state-sanctioned violence. We must understand police violence to be rooted in historical and systemic anti-Blackness that seeks to control, contain and repress Black bodies through acts of repeated violence. As our delegation stated during our two-minute testimony before the US government during the civil society consultation in Geneva:

There is no legitimate mechanism for pointing to the police as source of violence and what that tells us is that violating our bodies does not count, that our safety does not matter. This narrative goes back to enslavement of Black people in the US, a history of Black Codes – laws that rendered Black people criminal for doing anything and nothing at all, to the state-sanctioned lynching and rape of Black bodies as spectacle and as sport.

The US legal system has since functioned to uphold hierarchies and justify criminalization, police and punishment … We are in a perpetual state of crisis that cannot be fixed from within the system. We need a rethinking of how safety can be achieved. We need power to be shifted from y’alls police to our people.

Our struggle for justice demands much more than any single indictment. It cannot be litigated, legislated or bought into existence. And there is no amount of money that could make up for the lives and human dignity lost to police and state violence against our communities. Instead, if we are to truly honor the magnitude of injustice, we must commit ourselves to nothing less than the complete transformation of society.

We owe it to Damo to imagine a world beyond police and prisons. What happened to him reveals the true function of the police (to serve and protect the interests of property).

We owe it to ourselves to build a world in which we all get to be whole. This requires us to center the leadership of those most affected by state violence: those of us who have been deemed undesirable, disposable or inferior. Only by centering those at the margins (of race, gender, sexual orientation, class and ability) can we actually dismantle and transform our social relationships and institutions to be radically inclusive.

We owe it to all of us, lost and living, to engage in the ongoing struggle to transform the world, ourselves and our relationships to each other.

Rest in power, Damo. May you know you are remembered. Out of your life and death, revolution is growing.

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