• The Amnesia Issue

    Fight Like Hell for the Living

    The Amnesia Issue
    Nieto dickens mitchyll 2016 4 web

    All photos by Luis Nieto Dickens

    Mitchyll Mora and Reina De Aztlan are two members of F2L working tirelessly to support prisoners – they fundraise to stack commissaries, visit people in prison, and organize ‘pack-the-courts’ among other efforts.

    Fight Like Hell for the Living

    While being held at Riker’s Island for defending herself on the subway, Merci Chrisette, a black trans woman, was told she had visitors. “I was like, who is visiting me right now?” Merci later recalled. The CO told her that one of them had green hair.

    Her visitors were two people she’d never met before. Mitchyll and Reina not only made the trek out to Riker’s, they also obtained a lawyer and raised thousands of dollars almost overnight. When they came face-to-face the first thing Mitchyll said to Merci was “Do you want to get out today?”

    Merci Chrisette is one of many queer and trans people of color facing criminalization in New York State. Others are Edwin Faulkner, a black queer man, and CiCi Martinez-Herrera, an undocumented trans Latina, who were sentenced 25 years to life in prison after being convicted for the murder of a sex work client who died during a kink session. Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin, a 42-year-old gay black man, was sentenced to nine years in prison for defending himself against Jonathan Snipes, a 33-year-old white gay man who attacked El-Amin. These are all cases Mitchyll, Reina, and other members of the support network Freedom 2 Live (F2L) organize around.

    F2L show up for people targeted by the state in a myriad of ways: rapid crowdfunding, emotionally supporting people as they navigate the system, visiting people who are incarcerated, writing letters and sending care packages, coordinating legal teams, and attending court dates. This work is exhausting and often comes with lots of bad news. We spoke with Mitchyll and Reina about how they stay focused in the face of crisis, what they always have to have in their bags, and how they keep themselves nourished despite their busy schedules.

    Where do y’all hail from?

    Reina: I’m from Northern California, which is where I grew up, in a little town called Union City. It’s between Oakland and San Jose. The only thing really significant on the Wikipedia page for the area I grew up in is that a Chicano activist shot a police officer at the main church.

    Mitchyll: I was born in Ohio, and then left as a teen, and I was in a lot of places for a while. I moved to New York when I had just turned 19, and have been here since.

    How did you two meet?

    Mitchyll: We met online, and then in person at a conference about…

    Reina: ...white gay activism.

    Mitchyll: I think we had a threesome the first night we met?

    Reina: Yeah.

    Mitchyll: We met at Creating Change [Conference].

    Reina: It’s embarrassing! We met last February at the conference, I started coming to New York to visit in June. After a lot of back and forth, me coming to New Yorker every month, flying Mitchyll out one month, I thought, if I’m spending so much time trying to see this person maybe I should just move to New York and be closer to them. Eventually I lost my job because I was missing so much work and then Mitchyll offered to let me come live with them indefinitely.

    Recently, you got news that Cici and Edwin were both granted their appeals, but then in the same week, Bayna was sentenced to nine years in prison. How are you feeling about this news?

    Reina: I think the fact that Cici and Edwin’s appeal was granted really speaks to the reality that neither of them should have been sentenced, they should not have to be in there at all. I think it’s really great. I’m looking forward to it. But the Bayna thing is just like – I don’t understand why he got so much time. It is a mess. It’s obviously racist.

    Mitchyll: Last night I was up late doing research and found that 15 percent of people in federal prison are serving ten plus years sentences and then around five percent are serving 30-year sentences or more. And a large percent are serving five years or more. They shouldn’t be behind bars to begin with. I think this happens to trans and queer people of color a lot. It’s not at all what we were hoping for. We were hopeful that Bayna could get the minimum. At the same time,the judge was completely racist, and he knew that.

    I heard that Bayna’s lawyer was also saying really racist stuff about Bayna in court on September 15.

    Mitchyll: He was extremely bad. He's an 18b lawyer [An 18b attorney is a private attorney acting as a public defender –ed.] 18b lawyers have private practices and do contracted work for the courts so there's less accountability. That’s what we’ve seen with the cases we’ve worked on. The lawyer didn’t at all use the fact that the courtroom was filled with people in support of Bayna to help his arguments. He mentioned it, but it’s a really powerful thing that rarely happens, for people to fill a courtroom for someone. He didn’t quote any of the hundreds of letters of support, he didn’t even mention them. He didn’t even bring up any of the actual facts of the case. The lawyer just totally failed to represent Bayna adequately, given all the resources and support surrounding his case.

    What do the next steps look like in terms of support?

    Mitchyll: Support looks like fundraising. Continuing to get the case in the media. Building a base of people who are responsive to his case and the things he needs. And supporting a longer-term legal strategy – if that’s fundraising for a lawyer or, finding lawyers to take this on, and calling for an appeal.

    Tell us more about your organizing with F2L. What keeps you motivated in the face of shitty news like Bayna’s sentencing?

    Mitchyll: F2L really comes out of our love for each other and us pushing each other to give our time and our resources even when we honestly have very little. We have both been homeless, both of us have traded sex for shelter, for coins... Both of us are drug users, and are generally criminalized. But we are still pushing ourselves to care for the people around us and the things we see happening in our community. I know that a lot of people hear of Edwin and Cici's case and it feels so wild to them but for us, back in November when we started going to Rikers, it was just so real to us. What if we needed to trick again? What if we did it together? What if that trick died? Our organizing comes out of being tired but knowing people need us. It feels really big but it's also very tangible – stuff like raising money or visiting somebody or writing a letter. Ultimately, we’re figuring out as we go along. For media strategy, for instance, we’re just looking up all the people who do writing about this kind of stuff and messaging them about the cases we’re supporting people on.

    Reina: What motivates me to continue doing this type of work is knowing that all of us have the capacity to do something to have a meaningful impact on other people's lives in a way that is genuine and not for the sake of a grant or someone else's salary. That's what I like about F2L, that all of the money we have raised has literally only benefited the people F2L is supporting.

    Mitchyll: It feels important to mention that F2L is not a non-profit and that we are actively trying to stay outside of the non-profit system. We are a network of queer and trans people, a lot of us are poor, giving our time and resources to make this happen. Not being a nonprofit is creating some issues for us. I was at a nonprofit for four years called Streetwise and Safe, under the leadership of Andrea Ritchie. Me and my coworkers were told that we were all paid the same but it wasn’t true. In fact, Andrea was making five to 15 dollars more an hour and collecting litigation fees while pretending to struggle like us. Young people in the organization were given a 45-dollar stipend and the two permanent youth staff, including myself, were part time for years, being promised a full time job that actually never came. I was constantly working for free because I was being told that there wasn’t funding for my work and it wasn’t true. As the organization kept growing, the young people started demanding more transparency and we had more power collectively to make that happen because some of the adult staff started to stand with us. In the end, the board stood by her. I spoke up about my experience and I’ve been shut out of a lot of social justice spaces since. It was extremely painful. This is one of the main reasons I am working so hard to try and figure out a way for F2L to remain a network, one that moves mad coins, and not a nonprofit. The nonprofit structure itself is not set up to build movements, it is set-up to build careers and usually for people who aren’t even from our communities.

    What does your day-to-day look like?

    Reina: Currently, I work at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center doing HIV prevention work. So, that takes up the majority of my time. I work every day, five days a week, sometimes six. Besides work, I do what I can to support F2L stuff with Mitchyll, things like doing prison visits, or sending care packages. But most of my time is spend cooking and making food, and finding ways to survive on a budget. I spend a lot of time in our very small, cramped kitchen.

    Both of your work is extremely exhausting, and it takes a lot to stay energized and nourished. I know that Reina is really into food, where does your love of food come from?

    Reina: When I was in the Bay I lived at was a house called Oakland Sol. It was a queer-and-trans-people-of-color housing cooperative where we had a huge urban garden in the back and would grow all the food that we ate. We had chickens. We would buy locally from black and brown and indigenous food producers and advocate for less industrialized food systems. I learned a lot from that experience. I was actually separated from my family through the foster care system when I was younger. One of the ways I was able to deal with being separated from my family was by cooking a lot and cooking things they had taught me to cook. I think sharing food is a really important thing to do.

    What’s your favorite thing to cook?

    Reina: I really like making Mexican food, especially making rice and beans because really it’s the only thing you need to survive. We’re convinced in late capitalism that we need to eat something very distinct every single day and that’s just not the case. I really like making Chilaquiles, which is really easy to make. Tacos out of everything except hard yellow shells.

    What does your weekly meal plan look like?

    Reina: At the beginning of the week we make sure the first thing we buy before anything else is groceries.

    Mitchyll: We spend a certain amount on food every week so that we don’t eat out.

    Reina: Yeah and I plan out what we’re gonna eat: grains, some kind of chicken dish … We’ll buy a few things that are already made from Trader Joe’s that you can just heat up on the days I work late and don’t wanna come home and cook. We look up stuff on Youtube for good recipes, which is the best for finding out how to make stuff. The meal plan is literally just planning out breakfast, lunch, and dinner so that we can also have leftovers for the next several days – like black eyed peas and lentils. All those good things that help you survive. Mitchyll also likes to make a lot of juice and smoothies.

    What’s your favorite kind of smoothie, Mitchyll?

    Mitchyll: Oh, I don’t know!

    Reina: Yes you do! Ginger!

    Mitchyll: With Tequila! Or Vodka! We do a lot of Pineapple, strawberry, blueberry.

    Reina: Mitchyll also really loves green, earth-flavored juice. With beets in it so it looks like blood.

    Mitchyll: It’s kinda sadomasochistic, it’s fine!

    What do you two like to do for fun, if and when you have any free time?

    Mitchyll: We used to party until 7:00 am, and then go straight to Rikers to visit somebody. Reina would be taking a nap at the club and I would be a thot on top of them. But now we don’t really go out because a lot of our time has gone to F2L stuff.

    Reina: But when we do go out…

    Mitchyll: We like to go to The Spectrum. We like house music, techno, stuff that’s cunt.

    Reina: We really love dancing.

    Given your schedules and all that you’re working on, I imagine that you two probably leave the house in the morning and don’t come home until the wee hours of the night. What do you absolutely have to have in your bags to be prepared for the day?

    Mitchyll: I love the story of how I got my backpack, honestly. I was on drugs with my partner at this white girl's house, who always had a ton of drugs, in the West Village. We were going to go steal some groceries because we were broke and she was like, hey you can use this bag. And then I don't know, we never went back. I still use it like seven years later. People are always like, get a new bag! The stuff that's in there: maybe a weapon or something to defend myself because I get harassed all the time. Metrocard. A novel. Cigarettes. A photo of Reina. I always have a notebook and something to write with. Makeup, like eyeliner, some lip gloss that Merci gave me.

    Reina: I definitely always have poppers. My glasses, my calendar. A snack. Something like gummy worms or bears. I always have stuff that you could find in a first aid kit. Gloves, gauze, bandages. A few years ago, I did a workshop with People’s Community Medics, which was a workshop that came out of the death of Oscar Grant, because one of the things we know about Oscar’s death in the subway station at Fruitvale in Oakland is that he could have lived if people on the subway were prepared to press on his wounds. He died of loss of blood. I think it’s really important to have stuff in your bag for if you’re on the street at somebody has a gunshot wound or other injuries. Having gloves on you can really make a difference in that situation so you can give care to people who are bleeding. It’s a really valuable skill especially if you are vulnerable to violence, and you know that an ambulance is not going to turn up if you call.

    Y’all both have active social media presences, both as a means of doing organizing and resource sharing and also putting forward your own confessional narratives. What’s your favorite social media platform?

    Reina: Most of my 4000 friends on Facebook are in the Bay Area so it’s not as useful for organizing in New York City. However, when I made a fundraiser to bail out somebody we are supporting through F2L, it blew up. But a lot of that was because Mitchyll and other people with social media presence shared it. It’s been difficult to figure out how to use Facebook these days because my network is so concentrated on the West Coast. It’s shitty that Facebook will censor you for saying stuff like “white supremacy.”

    Mitchyll: I’m not in the non-profit system in New York anymore so [the Internet has] become the main way I’ve been organizing. I like and don’t like that because I just wanna turn my Facebook off and not talk to anybody. Now I just can’t do that, I will let people down if I do. Sometimes it’s scary to post about wanting to do drugs or shit like that but I do that anyways, I persevere. But for Instagram … I definitely feel more comfortable, I post pictures of myself naked, of me dancing, general hoetry.

    Reina: I think a lot about what it would mean if any of these social networks shut down and how it could ruin a lot of our organizing, or the ways we sustain ourselves. If we lost Facebook, or if they did something that prevented us from doing bail stuff, what would that look like? What if we had to go back to organizing without these networks? Do we go back to door-to-door? It’s scary to think about being locked out of our accounts for political stuff. So, what would it look like to have our own social media networks?

    What are some of the most important things that you’ve learned from F2L organizing and supporting people facing time in prison?

    Mitchyll: You don’t just have to watch someone be sentenced, you don’t just have to watch this stuff play out. That’s been a huge learning experience for me. A lot of the stuff we’ve been doing we’re still just figuring out. We can do that because we’re not incarcerated. A huge part of what’s taken from people when they’re locked up, when they’re not given bail, is the time and space to advocate for themselves. It feels like our work is an extension of people’s own advocacy. Like when Bayna feeds us information from the inside and we do what he asks of us.

    We’ve had to learn how to bail somebody out of jail, sign people’s [bail] bond [contract] – I knew nothing about that process before. Often we’re just drowning and making it work. I learned about the night bus system to get upstate to visit people in prison from people who were waiting outside of Riker’s, and also by calling a number listed on a government website where the person on the other line was sympathetic and told us to wait for the night bus at a certain time on a street corner in the Bronx. The information isn’t available online, you have to just talk to the people who do it every day. I mean, this stuff is real, we lost our housing because we were supporting somebody who had gotten out of prison. We couch surfed for two month, which was really hard because we both have our own experiences of being homeless. That was the first time I was in that situation and when I asked for help on Facebook people were receptive and supportive, saying that we could stay with them. So, that was nice but that was also really, really hard. People in my life have said: Should you be doing this work when you’re not stable personally? Or people questioning whether supporting these people is the most important political work we could be doing. And that’s one thing I’ve learned: yes, we are the people who should be doing this work.

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