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The Appeal Podcast: How Activists Brought Down the Most Powerful Man in Chicago

With writer Kelly Hayes.

Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Appeal Podcast: How Activists Brought Down the Most Powerful Man in Chicago

With writer Kelly Hayes.


Two pieces of news have rocked Chicago: the announcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that he will not seek a third term and the conviction of a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the killing of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. Both events were the result of years of activism, work that often goes unseen and unsung. This week’s guest, writer Kelly Hayes, talks about the lessons Chicago holds for activists throughout the country. Read her story here.

The Appeal is available on iTunesSoundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter

Transcript:

Adam Johnson: Hi. Welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can follow us @TheAppealPod on Twitter.com, you can follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main website and of course you can always subscribe and rate us on iTunes. Recently, two big events happened in Chicago out of a culmination of years of activism. The announcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that he will not seek a third term and the conviction of a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the killing of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, in 2014. While these may seem random they very much aren’t. They are the result of a decade of activism and pressure by city organizers that often goes unseen and unnoticed. Today’s guest writer, Kelly Hayes, is going to talk about this tireless activism and what other cities across the country can learn from Chicago.

[Begin Clip]

Kelly Hayes: Emanuel orchestrated the whole thing to make the police look good. They were just super polite about how they arrested people in front of the cameras and of course not so polite behind the scenes, um, people were treated pretty horribly in jail. He crafted the narrative really well to look like he was different than the other mayors around the country. Chicago is a resistance town. We have a lot of people here who are rising up against his austerity measures and he was unable to simultaneously institute these harmful policies and play himself off as being respectful of protestors. To be real, he was just getting hit from every corner of the city continuously for years.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Kelly Hayes: Oh thank you for having me.

Adam: So you wrote what I would sort of call the definitive autopsy on the perspective third term for Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, one that you argue and I think pretty clearly argue, is a product of activist through various different sectors of the activist community and in many ways is a concession and a win by them. And I want to talk about that. It’s a pretty big picture thing and I think that a lot of people who operate in this space of activism, especially police and prison abolition and reform, uh, can sometimes feel like the world’s bigger than them and that they don’t necessarily move the needle. And this is a case where I think there’s a, it’s a very clear sign that the tide has changed in Chicago. Can you talk a bit about, just to kind of lay the ground for our listeners, what a Mayor Rahm Emanuel represented to Chicago and to activists kind of nationally? What sort of political threat he represented and what forces had worked against him over the years? And then we can kind of drill down on the details from there.

Kelly Hayes: Sure. Thing. So I was among those challenging Rahm Emanuel really early on when he had a very different sort of public perception around his work here. When he first came to be mayor of Chicago, he was trying to put a very friendly face on his dealings with protestors. He was trying really hard to avoid any controversy in that area and I thought pretty artfully at the time. I was kind of resentful of it to be honest because I thought he was doing his politician piece really well in a way that was preventing the message from getting out for some of us. Uh, for example, with Occupy in 2011, over three hundred people were arrested for trying to hold space. Emanuel orchestrated the whole thing to make the police look good. They were just super polite about how they arrested people in front of the cameras and of course not so polite behind the scenes, um, people were treated pretty horribly in jail. He crafted the narrative really well to look like he was different than the other mayors around the country. He was trying to treat protestors with respect and dignity. And so he got out of the gate with that messaging pretty well. But it didn’t stand up to time because Chicago is a resistance town. We have a lot of people here who are rising up against his austerity measures and he was unable to simultaneously institute these harmful policies and play himself off as being respectful of protestors. To be real, he was just getting hit from every corner of the city continuously for years, which is why it’s really hard to narrow down this story. It’s, it’s, I don’t want to call it like death by a thousand cuts, but really it was a relentlessness to what went on and even the part of the story that I tried to tell him that piece, it’s still just a snapshot because there are only a few campaigns covered there and there were so many people working to stop state violence under Rahm Emanuel. I think the key thing to understand is that his veneer eroded and his own storytelling fell apart and the face of the superior storytelling of movements.

Adam: Yeah. I think, um, the, you know, the term “neoliberal” gets thrown around a lot, oftentimes incorrectly. And I think that for many, I think very correctly, Rahm Emanuel represented the kind of limits, if you will, of neoliberalism or the kind of most sinister manifestation, which is to say someone who sort of presents himself as being progressive or liberal but really operates under the interest of white sort of real estate in Wall Street interests in a way that was, like you said, it was effective for awhile then sort of wore off. Um, can we talk about specifically the sort of two major points of protest to start off with, which is Rahm Emanuel’s attacks on public education, the shutting down of schools and also his attacks on the mental health clinics. Uh, he oversaw the largest public school closure in US history. What kind of effect did this have to really kind of motivate and animate the forces against him? Those sort of two dual efforts that he did targeting specifically poor black neighborhoods?

Kelly Hayes: Well, I think that Rahm Emanuel didn’t realize the extent to which something as extreme as those school closures, like would have a polarizing effect in the city. I do not think that he understood in that causing that great an injury he was also like shuffling a great deal of energy and resentment towards the people who were already opposing him in an organized way. A lot of people who you know are really busy with their day to day lives and don’t necessarily have time for a lot of political engagement, it became a personal thing for them at that point. These people were engaged with trying to save their schools. Parents occupied schools to try to prevent their closures. I saw middle school children form blockades around school doors to try to prevent their supplies from being removed from the building on the last day of school. It was a heartbreaking time. Um, I went to jail behind one of those protests, a lot of people threw down in a spectacular manner and that had a culture building impact on this city. As much, as injurious as it was, it stoked 6:56 a lot of people in a really powerful way. Uh, with the mental health clinics I was deeply involved in the sort of closing months of that piece because of my background in direct action, I was asked to come in and help with some things and we actually occupied a clinic uh, briefly, it was overnight and eventually the police cut through the barricades and arrested everyone. But there were very dramatic acts of protest involved there carried out by people who were deeply affected who were telling their stories, who told Emanuel in front of the entire city that they would die without their clinics. Some of those people did. Helen Morley was one of those amazing and brave people and you know, people like her also affected the culture of this city and helped gel together communities that had a reason to move forward in concert in a powerful way. So every time he struck us with that violence and privatization and neoliberalism, he also connected people. And I think that that’s something that was beyond his understanding.

Adam: Yeah. Without getting too too far beyond the scope of this podcast, which of course does mainly legal system reform and abolition, but you can’t divorce the two, right? You can’t untether the austerity politics with the focus on policing. There are a number of statistics that show that people who are shot by police or have quote unquote “violent” encounters with police have mental health issues and there is a direct correlation between the shutting down of mental health facilities and the increase in violent confrontations. As someone who deals in the day to day, as someone who’s very close with the activist community, how does one work to sort of connect those threads right? We talk about Black Lives Matter, we talk about austerity and how do you, how do you sort of unite those into kind of one uniform ideology, um, specifically in the context of Chicago? For example, things like school “reform,” quote unquote, were hugely popular amongst liberals. They’re normally not anymore, but they were around 2009, 2010 because of things like Waiting for Superman and the kind of propaganda surrounding that. How does one get one to sort of see the connectivity of all these different things on a day to day basis for your kind of,  someone who sort of just, you know, it doesn’t necessarily follow it closely?

Kelly Hayes: Well, I would say that as a prison and police abolitionist, these things are inextricably connected to me every day and I think they’re also inextricably connected to a lot of the people in our communities every day. Prison abolition isn’t simply about the dismantling of buildings. It’s about the presence of something that is not there yet.

Adam: Right.

Kelly Hayes: So in my work and in the work of other folks who are acting against state violence in the city, there’s a lot of trying to model what we need and what’s being taken and why these conditions are the way they are such that, you know, crime is generated. We know that conditions foster crime and when people say they can’t imagine what a world without prisons looks like, I tell them to think of the more posh suburbs around Chicago because people whose needs are met, do you not have a lot of the issues we have here. So when we see schools, which are the heart of a community being ripped out of those communities, when you see people being deprived of mental healthcare and other services, there is an undeniable direct connection. And even the police and the prison administration will explain themselves, like, they wind up taking on, like, Cook County Jail is the largest mental health care provider in the state and I believe still the country. So these things cannot be separated and I think it takes a special sort of limited thinking to try to separate them.

Adam: Right. A lot of money goes into trying to separate them.

Kelly Hayes: Exactly.

Adam: I am reminded of The New York Times editorial when, uh, when, when Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War, they rushed to the presses saying ‘poo poo poo,’ you know, ‘talk about racial justice, but don’t talk about a US violence oversees.’ That he, you know, the sort of, the worst thing you can do is start connecting things like race and class and austerity and war, you know, you can keep them in their little separate compartments, but. So one thing I wanted to discuss when discussing Rahm Emanuel’s legacy and really what, what the city sort of faces moving forward is, was the movement, this is sort of really fascinating and a lot of people know about it as the movement for reparations around Jon Burge, who was the former police commander who ran a torture regime for about 16 years in Chicago from 1972 to 1988. This was something I think truly radical, truly subversive. Limited in many ways, but really set a standard for what activists could do. Can you talk about the movement, the Chicago Torture Justice movement in the early 2010s and sort of how that happened and how that happened under Rahm, um, in spite of him?

Kelly Hayes: Certainly. So in 2010, uh, some folks started having conversations, community members, lawyers who for quite a while had been working to free Burge’s victims, artists, organizers. They decided that they needed to create some manifestations, some artful manifestations to really force this into the public consciousness. Like people, you know, this had been a news story. People knew these things had happened, but it really wasn’t seizing upon people’s, like, you know, the city’s conscience in the way that it should. And it wasn’t pushing for, this knowledge wasn’t generating change that transformed conditions or really benefited those who had been most impacted. So it began with the exhibition. But from there, a lot of work began including the, the ordinance that was written, which as organizer Mariame Kaba said, it was truly a transformative document. Providing financial compensation is of course very important, but providing for the educational and medical needs of the torture survivors and their families, of creating a monument to torture survivors of police torture and really doing the work of making sure that these people’s needs were met and their stories were told in the Chicago Public School curriculum. I mean, to be quite honest, I didn’t believe it was possible. I thought it was more of a political statement than an actual policy pursuit. But in the closing six months or so of the, uh, of the campaign, I was approached by someone I really respect and told that we need to take some of the momentum of the moment and direct it towards this because this is doable. And that was organizer Mariame Kaba. And I agreed to do it because I tend to do what that brilliant woman asks me to do (chuckles) and sure enough, you know, with a relentless campaign in those closing months to drive it home of direct action and, you know, creative, artful protest, you know, the battle was won. But that also included a great gift we received, which was a mayoral runoff. And I think that this plays a lot into why Rahm Emanuel decided not to run again. Uh, that runoff was brutal. We hit him with everything we had. We went to his house, we set up a pop up art exhibit outside of his mayoral office. He couldn’t get away from us and there was really nothing he could do any about any of it because he was under such close media scrutiny that if he, if any of us were arrested or attacked by the police, it could have cost him the election. So he had to stay very hands off. And I think he just didn’t want to live through that again.

Adam: Um, let’s talk about negative campaigning for a second. I know that in certain leftist or anarchist or sort of general circles of organizations and people who are skeptical of electoral politics, a lot of people embrace negative campaigning, which is a sort of general philosophy, for our listeners, of engaging in electoral politics specifically to criticize or to bring down someone who is uniquely evil. They do this very successfully with Joseph Arpaio in Arizona. Um, I know that Chicago activists did this in a district attorney race recently and this was something I know a lot of people were gearing up for Rahm Emanuel if he was to run next year, he is not now. Um, can we talk about the efficacy and the logic behind negative campaigns and what your personal thoughts are on that as an approach to politics?

Kelly Hayes: I think negative campaigning is incredibly important in this political moment. Um, particularly given the disengagement in the electoral system that we see among marginalized groups. People are disillusioned. They’ve given up hope in investing in a candidate who claims to represent their interests. So personally, I’m not going to walk into those communities and tell them that some of these candidates who I don’t believe in personally are going to help us, are going to make things better, but what I can make a case for is that the people who’ve done us great harm need to be held accountable. There needs to be consequences. So in that way I think that we can get people to act against folks and set a standard and show people that there are consequences for wicked actions and maybe that’s a step towards something else and maybe it’s all some people are going to do, but states attorneys have a 95 percent retention rate and Anita Alvarez was bumped from office. So to me it sent a very powerful message that you don’t have to endorse a candidate to affect the course of electoral history. And I think any tool right now that we have to effect the course of electoral history is a crucial one.

Adam: Speaking of wins, I know that there is some internal debate as to the value of the verdict in the Van Dyke trial, which has recently concluded with a guilty verdict for second degree murder. That one’s ideologically complex. Can we talk about the view across the board about what these kinds of trials do? Are they considered wins? Are they considered kind of window dressing? And for those who don’t know, uh, in 2014 he was convicted of shooting a young African American man, Laquan McDonald sixteen times, and then was found guilty, which is, for anyone who follows these things, is an extreme rarity. But can you talk about how activists in Chicago are kind of absorbing this? I know it’s very recent, but can you talk about that and what the sort of long term outlook is in terms of police accountability and building systems of police accountability?

Kelly Hayes: That is indeed quite complicated. As you know, Chicago has a pretty large presence of abolitionist organizers. As major cities go, I’d say we’re kind of a hub for that. So some of us do not believe in the prison system, um, policing or the punishment system. So personally I wasn’t super engaged with calls for the conviction itself, but that said, this isn’t, this isn’t just any case and this isn’t just any climate and I definitely understand these political objectives and the statements that people were trying to make and also the comfort that people were trying to win for a community that has been hurting. I think we have to remember that movements aren’t just about actions and strategies they are also about community and culture building. And the community really wanted this and I hope that folk find some peace in it. My personal feeling on police trials is that they do not offer systemic change and I think the general risk is that you actually create a scenario where the system is validated. That it can work. I don’t think we’re seeing that in Chicago though, and I think part of that is the very careful organizing that was done by folks like Black Lives Matter Chicago. You may have seen that after the guilty verdict folks were still in the streets in great numbers, shutting things down and I was really grateful for that because, you know, they were delivering on their message. You know, Jason Van Dyke is not an aberration. He is an emblem. This conviction here I don’t think is going to turn into a sense of complacency.

Adam: Yeah, that’s interesting cause I know that a lot of people who are curious about abolitionism or the sort of general approach to it sometimes there’s these kind of, um, tension points where people aren’t quite sure what the right route is. And I think it’s good to sort of consistently engage in that. We have this a lot with some communities, and we talked about this briefly when we talked to Willy Anderson, we talked about sort of alternate justice systems are kind of accountability systems that exist outside of the state. And it can be hard because sometimes the state is the only option and so things get a little, a little dicey. So the term “Chicago” is a very racialized term. The word itself is shorthand and right-wing circles for kind of liberalism run amuck and African American violence, black on black crime right? It’s sort of used as a shorthand. The president uses it as shorthand to racialize Obama, has for years. This has kind of led to a sort of soft liberal racism around gun control, which is a topic we’ve discussed on the show before and it’s something that’s also not very clear cut and dry. Can we talk about the ways in which gun control in inner cities is not as clear cut as we kind of want it to be in terms of tacking on long prison sentences and who it really affects. We discussed this with Josie Duffy Rice in the first episode, which is um, you know, most gun control, most automatic weapon laws don’t really affect Cletus and in the hills of Virginia, they really manifest in the inner cities. Can we talk about how to balance the need for public safety with the use by, specifically Rahm Emanuel, this gun control issue to police black communities in Chicago?

Kelly Hayes: Well first I think it’s important to understand that Rahm Emanuel is Trumpian in so many ways and just labeled differently. He also blames the community for its own struggles. Every time it happens, you know, if he talks about personal responsibility and families. That’s functionally not that different from the president talking about people in the terms that he does, it may seem more respectable, but at the end of the day, it’s still abdicating responsibility, blaming people for their own suffering and you know sort of throwing your hands in the air when you actually have the power to effect the situation. Rahm Emanuel has overseen the conditions that fuel violence and he has consistently uplifted these notions of more mandatory minimums and we have consistently fought against those policies because there is no evidence that they work. There is no evidence that stiffer prison sentences or more arrests or fueling the prison industrial complex will make anything better in our community. But people like simple solutions to complex problems. So when people hear about large crime numbers and then hear about heavy prison sentences, people want it to be that simple. And Rahm Emanuel thrives on people’s desire for things to be that simple when nothing is. There’s also some amount of feigned ignorance behind all of this because if Rahm Emanuel were to acknowledge that he knew that conditions fuel violence, that people who are desperate do desperate things, that people who will live in a state of despair experience more crime, then he might be obligated to do something about that. So there’s this very thick air in the city government of people just sort of covering their eyes and ears pretending to not understand how anything works and then speaking to the public accordingly.

Adam: One of the things you mentioned early on was that Rahm Emanuel presented himself in a kind of slick fashion to kind of, uh, you know, obviously he came from the Obama administration, he was his chief of staff, um, as someone who could sort of be seen as an ally or, you know, he kept his policies kind of vague. My question is moving forward now ten years later, eight years later is with the election coming up and, you know, we don’t want to endorse or not endorse candidates on the show obviously, and I don’t think it’s good to do in general, but what, what should it be something that people are gonna look out for in terms of how to avoid that fate again?

Kelly Hayes: I am far less interested in what a politician promises or what they say then what they’ve done and I think it would be a catastrophic mistake for us to get hung up on rhetoric or talking points. I think we need to look at the history of the candidates and what they have done. Have they supported privatization? Have they supported tough on crime solutions? Like these are the things I’ll be looking for and I don’t think I’m going to find a candidate who I think ‘this is my person,’ who I think is worthy of my investment, but I will definitely be looking at people’s records and figuring out who I think would be the most catastrophic and avoiding them. Like in the grassroots as a street organizer, whoever wins is my next opponent. Like I’m going to go head to head with whoever wins and that’s the way this works and that’s the way politics works. So I’m looking for, you know, the weakest opponent in terms of who’s going to try to further privatize my city and further militarize the police.

Adam: Right. Um, obviously a lot of these lessons go beyond Chicago. The austerity politics are crippling communities throughout the country, privatization of education, the closing down of mental health facilities. Just as someone who’s been in the weeds in these scenarios for some time, what advice would you give activists or politically engaged people in these communities in terms of what lessons can they learn from Chicago?

Kelly Hayes: So lessons that folks can learn from Chicago in terms of some of these bigger fights I think one thing is that you can’t wait for the big nonprofits or, you know, you’re more money sort of activist institutions to do anything. What I’ve seen is that if an idea seems too aggressive, if it seems like too much, you’re not going to get the buy in from the people with the resources, but once you create momentum, everyone wants a piece of it. You start bringing people into a room who share your objectives, start creating educational opportunities, start educating ourselves. We all have important books we haven’t read yet and when we build power in the street at the grassroots level, we see things happen that folks who have a lot more structural, economic and social currency suddenly want to be a part of it. You know, Bye Anita campaign had a budget of less than a thousand dollars and they brought down a prosecutor against all odds. So I would tell people, you know, it’s okay to start small and think big. It’s okay for your idea to seem impossible and too radical for everyone else because nobody makes the impossible happen without just disregarding what people tell them and saying, you know, I’m not going to agree to this inevitability. I’m going to factor inevitability out of my political view and demand what’s just. I would say it’s okay for us to do that and I think it’s an important thing to know right now when people are being told ‘just vote Democrat because we’re up against these terrible Republicans’ and the truth is it’s a yes and both, you know, we can go after the Republicans and still demand from Democrats life giving policies that will help our peoples.

Adam: Yeah. I think on the issue of moral vision, it’s, it’s hard for a lot of people to sort of comprehend because we have been drilled into this kind of reductionist thinking about what the possibilities of political power are specifically this kind of preemptive defeatism with terms like “electibility” or “feasibility” or “realistic,” right? These are kind of ways you maintain the status quo and sort of stunt moral thinking and I always think of that line from, there’s a Neil LaBute play called The Shape of Things where she says, ‘everything is nothing until it’s something,’ which I think is clearly the case with what you talked about with how people say, well, that’s not gonna happen and the second these movements gain momentum and then suddenly everyone wants a piece, then it’s something, right? But of course, you know, things are not always something. So I think that’s a sort of good note to lead on and sort of maybe a broader moral question, but one I think that really needs tackling. Is there anything that you wanna like talk about or plug before we go?

Kelly Hayes: Basically I would just say that my collective, Lifted Voices, offers direct action trainings. There are a lot of groups around the country offering organizing trainings and I think getting trained up and getting education is one of the most important things people can do right now if they want to organize. So I would suggest people like, in your area look into who’s offering those kinds of trainings. If you can canvas, then you can talk in front of large groups of people. Like there are lots of important skills to pick up right now that we need to be building. Even if it’s an organization that you’re not super into that you don’t plan on working with, I go to those trainings too because I want to know what skill sets they have to bring to what I can do, so the thought I’d like to leave with is just education, pursue as much of it as you can.

Adam: Awesome.

Kelly Hayes: I do tweet about a lot of these kinds of things, so if people want to follow me on Twitter it’s @MsKellyMHayes. I do tweet out some of the opportunities that people have to find those educational events.

Adam: Thank you so much. This was extremely informative.

Kelly Hayes: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Adam: Thanks to our guest Kelly Hayes. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod or subscribe to us on iTunes and follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.

Common Bails Out a Stranger

What it’s like to take part in New York City’s Mass Bailout.

@common

Common Bails Out a Stranger

What it’s like to take part in New York City’s Mass Bailout.


This commentary also appears in The Daily Appeal, our newsletter. Subscribe here.

It was nearly 1 p.m. last Wednesday, and Common, the 46-year-old rapper, actor, and criminal justice reform advocate, stood on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, smiling nervously. He wore subtly tapered black pants, gray laceless sneakers, and a fashionable auburn T-shirt. Kerry Kennedy, the president of the nonprofit group Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, had just handed him a less fashionable T-shirt—navy blue, with the words “MASS BAIL OUT” written across the front. Common tried to express enthusiasm for the shirt, but he clearly preferred his chosen color scheme. “Look at all these stylish people,” he said, gesturing to the group of activists accompanying him, some of whom seemed more stylish than others. “And I’m gonna have the blue with black, and the gray?” But Kennedy didn’t let the matter drop. It was, after all, a photo op. There was a film crew trailing him.

Common was on his way to the Brooklyn Detention Complex to post bail for a woman he didn’t know. He was one of hundreds of volunteers participating in an action that RFK Human Rights calls Mass Bail Out. On any given day, over 7,000 people are jailed at Rikers Island who have not been convicted of anything; they have been charged with a crime but are unable to afford bail. And 87 percent of them are Black or Latinx. The goal of the Mass Bail Out was to free about 350 of the people in this predicament—every woman, 16-year-old, and 17-year-old, regardless of the charges they face—to await trial from home. The point is to show that New York City does not need Rikers and does not need cash bail—the city would be just as safe, and these women and young people can be spared the trauma of jail, not to mention the educational, employment, and familial consequences of being taken away from their lives.

The rapper, actor, and criminal justice reform advocate Common was one of the hundreds of volunteers participating last week in an action that the nonprofit group Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights called Mass Bail Out.
Sarah Lustbader

“The only reason this woman is in a cage is that she can’t afford bail,” Wade McMullen, the managing attorney of RFK Human Rights, told Common. “And as soon as she’s in that cage, she’s at great risk for sexual assault, discrimination, and abuse. She’ll be separated from her family and taken from her job.” People who were locked up, he went on, were more likely to be coerced into pleading guilty, even for crimes they hadn’t committed. “The system is set up to help prosecutors,” he said.

Common listened with his arms folded, at one point stroking his close-cropped beard. Eventually, he gave in, agreeing to change T-shirts. “I’m gonna give up fashion for freedom!” he declared. He pulled off his shirt on Atlantic Avenue, quickly replacing it with the RFK shirt. The new color scheme looked fine.

Judges often set high bail in order to detain a defendant. This is a perversion of the purpose of bail, which is to allow people charged with a crime to remain free while they fight their cases, with an incentive to return. Advocates argue that bail should provide a meaningful incentive to return, not a jail sentence. Many urge judges to tailor bail to a person’s ability to pay: $20 could be just as meaningful to one person as $20,000 is to another.

Instead of waiting for judges to change their behavior, groups like RFK Human Rights have set out to change the system themselves. Organizers have gathered money for community bail funds across the country to help people who cannot afford their freedom. RFK Human Rights’s bail action has put the city’s district attorneys “on edge,” writes Professor Jocelyn Simonson. Some have warned that freeing these women and teenagers will jeopardize public safety. “The RFK Jr. [sic] Human Rights ‘mass bailout’ project in New York may sound compassionate, but it’s actually a dangerous and irresponsible intrusion into our criminal-justice system,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown wrote in the New York Post.

According to Simonson, this reaction “exposes how ‘public safety’ has come to embody a very harmful and narrow definition of which ‘public’ matters.” Evidence indicates that the risk posed by people awaiting trial is exceptionally low, while the risk of violence to people detained at Rikers Island, especially women and young people, is quite high.  “The Mass Bail Out,” Simonson argues, “asks us all to reconsider what it means to keep the public safe.”

On the street near the jail, Kerry Kennedy addressed the public-safety question. “If we were truly afraid, then Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be walking free.” She also noted that, as attorney general, her father, Robert Kennedy, addressed cash bail in the federal system. “Here we are now, having failed to address it at the local level,” she said.

In 2017, Kennedy’s group helped bail out Pedro Hernandez, a Bronx teenager who spent a year at Rikers for a 2015 shooting that he did not commit. Yesterday, the Bronx DA finally dropped the last remaining charges against him. Hernandez, like Kalief Browder, has been called a “poster child” for bail reform.

Common, Kennedy, and the film crew began walking toward the jail. In his new outfit, Common attracted even more attention than he did before. As they walked by, two white women sporting librarian haircuts stopped and stared at his shirt. “That’s a rapper,” one explained to the other. “He’s going to bail someone out.” Three teenagers in gym shorts tried to get Common’s attention—“I rap too! Check out my mixtape!” one shouted—but Common didn’t seem to hear them. I told them that Common was about to bail someone out of jail, and their eyes grew wide. “Oh, word?” said one. “Tell him to free my uncle!”

McMullen prepared Common to go inside to the room where bail gets paid. “It’s not the most efficient system,” he said. Once Common gave over the information—the woman’s name, her ID number, his name—the person at the window would fax it to Rikers; then we would wait for a fax back, which could take an hour or two. McMullen assured him that “we’ve arranged to go to a nice window,” where the officer would expedite the process as much as possible. Common was handed a file containing information about the woman he would be bailing out, and he nodded solemnly as he turned the pages.

Sign here, under “advocate,” McMullen said, helping him fill out the surety form. “You’re the advocate. That’s your relationship.”

“Now I’m an artist, activist, and advocate!” Common said.

They walked into the small bail room, and the lofty rhetoric gave way to bureaucracy. Common approached the bail window, one of two. “Hey, how you doing today?” he said with a smile. “I’m here to bail someone out.” The officer behind the window seemed indifferent—not hostile, not friendly, barely making eye contact. “ID?” she said.  Common turned to McMullen: “This is the nice window?” Common handed over the paperwork, then started to wait. He asked if the officer could give him a courtesy call when the fax from Rikers came in, like a restaurant texting a patron when a table becomes available. No luck. He would have to wait in the bail room like everyone else.

At the other window, a woman talked to the officer in loud and frustrated tones. Her bailout attempt did not seem to be going smoothly. Behind us, a man struggled to use a JPay machine.

After about 20 minutes, an officer walked in and told the film crew to stop recording. “Look, Common, we are all very happy for you,” she said, in a tone that seemed to belie her words. “We get it. But you guys just can’t record in here.” The cameras were turned off. Another officer asked for Common’s autograph; a third officer asked Common to pose for a picture.

The bail captain returned with some good news: She’d called the women’s wing of Rikers and they were expediting the paperwork. “That’s where I used to work,” she explained. Even with this VIP treatment, Common would end up waiting nearly an hour. While we waited, he told me how, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, “it became normal to have friends and family members incarcerated. I would visit my uncle in jail. I accepted it as normal.” Then he met Michelle Alexander, the scholar and author of best-selling book The New Jim Crow. (Being Common means having experiences that are not at all common.) Alexander helped him connect the dots between slavery and the prison system, and he realized that mass incarceration was neither “normal” nor inevitable. “I almost felt like I’d been duped,” he said.

When the paperwork was ready, Common stepped up to the window. The officer showed him a photo of the woman, confirming that she was the person he wanted released, and he nodded. “Sign here and press hard,” the officer instructed, handing him some paper with carbon copies underneath. With three swoops of his pen, Common was done. He and the officer wished each other a good day, and he walked back onto the street.

As he headed off to his next engagement, he seemed invigorated by the experience. He even came around on the T-shirt, saying he wouldn’t change back. “I’m gonna rock this today and let people know what I’m about.”

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Will Alabama Sheriffs Finally Stop Diverting Jail Food Funds To Their Own Wallets?

The governor is making sheriffs sign an oath promising they won't misuse funds meant to feed jail prisoners. But some sheriffs are already pushing back.

Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin infamously pocketed $750,000 in jail food funds and subsequently bought a $740,000 beach house.
Etowah County Sheriff's Office

Will Alabama Sheriffs Finally Stop Diverting Jail Food Funds To Their Own Wallets?

The governor is making sheriffs sign an oath promising they won't misuse funds meant to feed jail prisoners. But some sheriffs are already pushing back.


After the revelation that several Alabama sheriffs were pocketing funds meant for feeding people in jail, Governor Kay Ivey asked every sheriff in the state to sign an “oath” pledging that the state funds would be used only for the facilitation of feeding prisoners. But it may not go far enough to keep sheriffs from skimping on prisoners’ meals.

Beginning on Sept. 1, the form sheriffs must submit to receive state money for jail food funds (typically $1.75 per inmate per day) was updated to include an oath stating that the money will be “used only for the appropriated purpose: ‘food for prisoners in the county jail.’” The affidavit is being treated as a legal document and “any evidence of misappropriation, making a false official statement, or use of office for personal gain, could be referred for criminal prosecution,” Ivey’s spokesperson Daniel Sparkman told The Appeal.

While sheriffs have skimmed from the jail food fund, prisoners across the state have reported their food is inadequate, spoiled, and contaminated with insect or rodent droppings, according to a lawsuit filed in January by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. In the Etowah County jail, where the “beach house sheriff” presides, prisoners were being served rotten lettuce, beans, and noodles that one man called “the worst food I’ve ever had in my life,” AL.com revealed. This wasn’t unique to Etowah County, however: Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was briefly jailed in 2009 after he kept $212,000 from the food fund while he served prisoners corndogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for several weeks. Many sheriffs have refused to disclose whether they took food funds or what they did with them.

But the enforcement of this oath has limitations. Any evidence would be found during an audit, which only occurs every three to four years, according to state audit officials. Additionally, the affidavit doesn’t cover the federal, county, or municipal funds that sheriffs may receive to feed their prisoners.

And other arms of government are sending a different message. Shortly after sheriffs began signing the oath in September, a state ethics commission cleared Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who raked in roughly $750,000 from jail food funds and infamously bought a $740,000 beach house.

Meanwhile, the oath does not resolve an underlying dispute over what the law actually allows sheriffs to do with excess jail food funds.

The Depression-era law that sheriffs say gives them the right to pocket these funds may have made sense at the time; sheriffs’ homes were usually connected to the jails and they used their home kitchens to feed prisoners. But its relevance has been long debated since then. A 2008 ruling by then-Attorney General Troy King said sheriffs had a right to keep excess funds. But in 2011, his successor, Luther Strange, wrote in an opinion that sheriffs could not use the funds for “any purpose other than future expenses in feeding prisoners.” After reviewing the practice, Ivey has sided with Strange.

Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, cheered Ivey’s oath and said it is another useful mechanism to hold sheriffs accountable for how they use the funds. “This affidavit confirms they are not violating the law by misappropriating public funds; it doesn’t reflect a change in what they’re able to do,” he told The Appeal. It was unlawful to take the funds before the change in the affidavit, and it remains unlawful now.”

As of Sept. 25, 13 sheriffs had submitted the signed affidavits to the comptroller’s office. This isn’t an indication of support for the policy, however, since they can send them in whenever they want as long as it’s by the end of each fiscal year.

But some sheriffs are already pushing back against the oath. The Alabama Sheriffs Association has maintained the position that pocketing the funds is still within the law and only the legislature has the ability to change that. Chilton County Sheriff John Shearon, who signed the oath, told The Appeal that there’s “a lot of gray area” surrounding the ability to keep funds, and although he saw the potential for questionable practices, he thought the state should have simply waited to pass legislation. “Everything is upside down, we really have no clue,” he said. “I think it probably could have been done a little bit different, it should have been done next year in the legislature, it should have been done in more of a controlled manner.”

He would not say whether he had kept excess food funds from his 179-bed jail. He has also refused to give the Southern Center for Human Rights access to records showing how he had used the funds, telling a paralegal he did not believe they are “subject to disclosure under state law,” according to the lawsuit. Shearon said he wanted to hand over the responsibility of feeding prisoners to someone else, calling it “nothing but a headache.”

Robert Timmons, the sheriffs association director, also told AL.com that Ivey didn’t have the authority to prevent sheriffs from keeping the money. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal.

Last legislative session, bipartisan efforts to change the law or add amendments that would forbid the practice in designated counties stalled. When the legislature reconvenes in March, Alabama Appleseed will push a bill that would end the practice statewide.

We are supporting legislative efforts not because we think it’s necessary, because we think the law is clear and to once and for all put this issue to rest,” said executive director Frank Knaack. “Some sheriffs continue to think that the law seems to not apply to them.”

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