• The It's Over Issue

    Joan Little, Tewkunzi Green, and the Crime of Fighting Back

    The It's Over Issue

    With a decade of organizing experience corresponding with and providing support for incarcerated folks, Neal Shirley gives us the scoop on struggles on both sides of the wall with Prisons are for Burning.

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    Neal Shirley has been involved in a range of (anti) prison related groups for about eight years. Most recently he’s been involved with a project that corresponds with prisoners and solicits and disseminates their news and analysis across North Carolina's prison system. He co-authored the book Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. He makes a living doing food service work and teaching mixed martial arts to kids of all ages, and spends his free time fighting in cages and scheming new ways to deep-fry southern delicacies.

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    Art by Jenny Marks

    Prisons are for Burning

    Joan Little, Tewkunzi Green, and the Crime of Fighting Back

    I recently learned from a friend about Tewkunzi Green, a young black woman from Peoria, IL, serving a 34-year sentence for killing her child's father, Montral Fleming. During an argument on June 5, 2007, Fleming pushed Green up against the kitchen sink and began to choke her, while she was holding her infant son. Green grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed Fleming, who later died of his wounds. The jury found Green guilty of murder.

    At some point, I just stop being shocked when I hear these kinds of stories. Green's story is hardly unique – we could slightly adjust the details and would have the story of Cece McDonald, Marissa Alexander, Niara, Cierra Finkley, Paris Knox, Naomi Freeman, or a hundred other women of color facing or doing time for defending themselves from their attackers. Most of these stories never see the light of day as household names or trendy hashtags. But the history nerd in me is reminded of one similar story out of our collective past that did, for a while, create a household name.

    On August 27, 1974, Joan (pronounced “Jo-anne”) Little, a black woman being held for burglary in the Beaufort County Jail of eastern North Carolina, fought off an attempted rape by a white jailer named Clarence Alligood. Alligood had declared upon entering her cell, “It’s time that you be nice to me ’cause I been nice to you.” Other prisoners testified that abuse by the jailer was common, but in this case Little managed to wrestle away the ice pick Alligood was holding to her head, and stabbed him eleven times. The jailer bled to the death in the cell with his pants around his ankles, as Little escaped.

    Believing she would eventually be arrested, Little chose to turn herself in and take her chances in court. The ensuing trial was a national media circus, but also a lightning rod for anti-racist and feminist groups around the country. Ultimately moved to Raleigh from Beaufort County, the trial attracted large, constant protests by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Feminist Alliance Against Rape, the Rape Crisis Center, the Black Panthers, the National Organization for Women, the National Black Feminist Organization, and a wide variety of churches and other local organizations. Sweet Honey in the Rock wrote a song about Little; everyone was talking about it.

    The trial took place in a state where a white judge had recently gone on record as saying, “I don’t believe black women can be raped.” But the massive wave of outside support, and the changing political winds of a country shaken by hundreds of urban riots and powerful liberation movements, had an effect. After courageous testimony by the defendant, and a brilliant legal defense by attorney Jerry Paul, in August 1975 Joan Little became the first American woman to ever be acquitted of murdering her rapist. Her trial took place just a short drive away from the women's prison in southeast Raleigh, and coincided with a five-day revolt at that facility during which women prisoners fought off guards with sticks and concrete blocks, and succeeded in permanently closing the despised prison laundry.

    We live in a time in which these stories are seeing more amplification than perhaps ever before. Tewkunzi Green, with the help of an attorney and local organizers, is working to file a clemency petition, which will ask the governor for a commutation of her sentence in 2016. I hope folks write to Green and support her struggle in any way they can. I draw inspiration from those kinds of individual support efforts, and from the story of Joan Little, but I'm also skeptical.

    Let's be real. This world was designed to police, control, possess, and violate black women, not enable their self-defense. Accordingly, we should expect no freedom in any court, no “accountable” police, no new domestic violence statute that solves this problem, no police chief or mayor to be better than the one they hastily replaced. For every Joan Little acquittal, there will be a hundred Christina Lopez and Ralkina Jones. This is the world we live in – a world of unbridled misogyny, capitalism, white supremacy, and state authority – and it can only be destroyed by efforts situated firmly against those systems. Attempts to contain the mourning and rage of these moments to the legitimate political discourse of reform, elections, and “justice” will at best fail, at worst betray.

    Each new hashtag and each new tragedy now seems to wash over into the next, threatening one large sustained outpouring of grief, rage, and fury in the streets. I hope that outpouring never ceases, that it finds its own power and grows into a rebellion that never ends. Let it destroy every vestige of authority and leave not one of us unchanged.

    You can learn about some of the many women facing or doing time for attacking or defending themselves from their abusers at survivedandpunished.org.

    People can write to Tewkunzi and Paris:

    Tewkunzi Green

    Paris Knox

    Both at
    P.O. Box 1000
    Lincoln, IL 62656

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