AUSTIN — Malcolm London had been marching for four hours, and the Nov. 24 protest for police shooting victim Laquan McDonald was winding down.
London was directing activists to Grant Park, where the organization he is a part of, Black Youth Project 100, planned to end its march with a quote from Assata Shakur: "We have nothing to lose but our chains." Some planned to head next to a jail, where they'd call for arrested activists to be released.
Then, someone dropped a smoke bomb.
London, 22, said he was across the street from where the smoke bomb was released, but an officer approached him and asked if he was responsible. London said no, but then he was surrounded by — he estimates — six to eight officers. He screamed at the other protesters, telling them he was being arrested.
What happened next depends on whom you ask. London maintains the police were the ones roughing him up before he was charged with aggravated battery.
As he sat in jail, with those outside calling for him to be freed, a woman began to type an open letter to the black, queer, feminist group London works with and to all Chicago activists.
London has sexually assaulted her, she wrote, and she wanted him to be held accountable.
A 'martyr' or 'monster'?
The night of his arrest, London said an officer put him in a chokehold and put something that felt like a zip tie around his neck. He said he couldn't breathe or speak. His vision faded. He lost consciousness.
For a second, London said he thought he was dead.
When he regained consciousness, he was charged with aggravated battery for allegedly hitting an officer in the eye.
London was in jail for 14 hours, but almost immediately a social media campaign, #FreeMalcolmLondon, sprung up calling for his release. Black Youth Project 100, where London is a co-chairman and organizer for the Chicago chapter, told supporters to call the Central District police station and demand the release of London and other protesters. A group of black aldermen held a news conference where they said he should be freed.
I know @MalcolmLondon, my daughter with him in the protest. I don't believe that the reports that led to his felony charge. He is a hero— Roderick T. Sawyer (@RoderickTSawyer) November 25, 2015
Crowd reaction to Malcolm London's charges being dropped pic.twitter.com/R8DsvB7hGS— Joe Ward (@JayDubWard) November 25, 2015
Prosecutors dropped the charges against London, and a judge told him, "You are free to go" — despite pleas from police to keep him locked up. Then-Police Supt. Garry McCarthy told a press conference that London was seen "clearly assaulting a police officer" but was instead "cut loose from custody which shouldn't happen."
When he left the courthouse, London was met by a large crowd of cheering supporters. Journalists had gathered, providing national coverage of him being released.
Meanwhile, a different story was developing online.
"He raped a friend of mine, and he's not a martyr, he's a monster," a Twitter user wrote to BYP100.
On Facebook and the blog publishing platform Medium, a post from a woman who identified herself as "Kyra" was being circulated. She had been sexually assaulted by London, Kyra wrote, and the #FreeMalcolmLondon campaign had been "traumatizing."
"While I understand the campaign was necessary for the movement, and for Malcolm’s safety, having my social media bombarded with images of the person who harmed me accompanied by descriptions of him as a hero and upstanding human was nothing short of traumatizing," Kyra wrote. "So I decided to share my story."
The incident happened in 2012, Kyra wrote: She and London had gone to see a movie. Afterward, he came to her place for coffee so he could stay awake on the drive home, and Kyra rebuffed "a few sexual advances," she wrote.
"I was clear that I did not consent, and I thought he got the picture that he’d made me uncomfortable. But because it was late, at some point I dosed [sic] off and I woke up with Malcolm’s fingers in my vagina. (For those who are unaware, unconscious people cannot consent to sex.)," Kyra wrote. "I immediately asked him to leave and once he was gone I told him what he did was an act of sexual violence.
"He was apologetic, but did not understand why what he did to me was assault. To this day, he still refers to what occurred between us as 'a misunderstanding.'"
BYP100 responded in a statement on Facebook, saying it had placed London on a "mandatory membership hiatus" and had started a "transformative and restorative justice process, rooted in compassion, accountability and a belief that no one is disposable."
Sitting at a bench at La Follette Park on the West Side, where London says he played while growing up, the poet-activist rocked back and forth during an interview with DNAinfo Chicago as he said, "We take this moment very seriously."
It's been a tough time, he said, but he's held true to his politics, which means looking at the world through a black, queer, feminist lens and understanding the disadvantages faced by those groups, a defining focus of BYP100.
"It's been tough because ... I hold true so many of my politics, which includes not victim-blaming or calling black women 'liars' when they've said they've been harmed. It's been more tough on the organization, too," he said. "We're still working through that."
That philosophy has extended to the incident with Kyra: London has not discredited her or refuted her letter in public or when talking with DNAinfo, though he has also declined to say if he agrees with her version of events. He declined to directly address the allegation in the interview with DNAinfo.
Malcolm London has fought for black women and people along the LGBT spectrum for years. It was "worrisome," "hurtful" and "frightening" to hear a woman say he had assaulted her, he said — but he is working with Black Youth Project 100 to pursue a process of accountability and "restorative justice" between him and the woman. [DNAinfo/ Kelly Bauer]
Rise to prominence
London grew up in the Austin neighborhood, where it's "no secret there's violence," he said, and he did so poorly in eighth grade he got accepted into only one high school (where he'd eventually graduate with a 1.9 GPA). His parents were concerned about his future, he said.
But going to school on the North Side, in Bucktown and Lincoln Park, made him see things differently.
"In a city like Chicago, once you pass a certain viaduct, the grass gets greener, the buildings get taller, the homicide rate vanishes," he said. "I [knew] kids who would go on summer trips to Italy, had summer homes in Michigan, and all that s--- was beautiful, but I came from a place where it was hard enough to even own a home, let alone two of them.
"So, those narratives are very different, and so, for me I was like, it wasn't that I wanted anybody who I went to school with to have any less — but how could it not occur to me that I had not enough? If it can look like this on the North Side, why can't it look like this on the West Side?" he said.
London began writing poetry to impress a girl in his U.S. history class in high school, but he was soon more in love with language than anything else, he said. He became a slam poet, dragging his younger brother to events so he wouldn't have to miss them because he was baby-sitting.
At the same time, London was becoming more aware of politics and racial divides in the city. He was in classes with North Side teens who went to Europe for the summer while he went to funerals, he said.
"You begin to see that it's unfair, it's unequal, it's inequitable," he said. "You either get depressed because of that thing, you fight harder to rise above that thing or you try to do it all. You also are depressed and try to rise above it and try to balance the scale, which I think I'm trying to do."
London spoke of his activism and beliefs through his poetry. In 2011, he placed first individually and as a team member at the prestigious "Louder Than a Bomb" competition. The poem that won, "Training Ground," criticized Chicago Public Schools.
"Oceans of adolescents come here to receive lessons, but never learn to swim," London said. "This is a training ground. My high school is Chicago: diverse and segregated on purpose."
"Training Ground" and London gained national attention when he performed it during a TED Talk in May 2013. Videos of London reciting the poem at the TED conference have received more than 1 million views.
A few months after the TED Talk, London was one of 100 young, black organizers to team up and start BYP100. They met in July, the same weekend that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of manslaughter in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, London said.
Even as other founders became less active in BYP100 or moved on to other projects, London stayed, and his prominence as an organizer and artist grew.
He had helped the Chicago Teachers Union during the 2012 strike; now, he was an advocate for an elected School Board, spoke against police violence and incarceration, called for the Chicago Police Department to be demilitarized and defunded.
He began speaking all over the world — the coolest place was Trinidad, he said; the most interesting, Dublin — and, as of four months ago, was able to start living off his work as an artist.
He was invited to appear in a short video from one of the makers of "The Wolf of Wall Street." More than 17,000 people followed him on Twitter. His music and poetry had been listened to more than 50,000 times on SoundCloud. He'd been dubbed "the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation" by Cornel West. Hundreds, if not thousands, voiced support for him when he was arrested at the Laquan McDonald protest.
And then there was the letter from Kyra.
Justice without police
In her letter, Kyra wrote that activists had discouraged her friends from sharing her letter, worried it would be damaging to the community. She wasn't dissuaded.
They said "I needed to be quiet until Malcolm was released because it was inconvenient timing. But liberation isn’t convenient, or easy," Kyra wrote. "We don’t get to say 'Hold up while we free these people real quick and then we’ll come back for the rest of you,' which is in essence what Black women have been told throughout history."
Her story is "far too common," Kyra wrote, noting black women have been victimized throughout history and told to stay silent.
In her letter, she wrote about Huey Newton, who co-founded the Black Panther party and became a household name. Newton and leaders like him "have abused their power raping Black women and we erased those women's stories out of history," Kyra wrote.
"As a Black woman, the idea of a 'safe space' is currently a fallacy for me," Kyra wrote. "I am not safe out in the world, I am not safe in my own community, and I am not even safe in activist spaces around people who claim to be working towards my liberation. You can’t fight for me while I’m awake then rape me while I’m asleep.
"I want to be a bigger part of the movement, I want to join protests, I want to organize, but I can’t do that when the person who hurt me is a figurehead in those spaces."
Organizer and artist Malcolm London, who has faced backlash after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman, is pursuing a process of "restorative justice" with the woman. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
For London, the labels now being applied to him are "worrisome. It's hurtful, it's frightening," he said.
He's concerned about his future as an organizer and artist, he said.
Kyra has not filed charges against London. The justice system can't be trusted to hold "us or to hold perpetrators accountable," she wrote.
She'd been assaulted in the past, and the court process that followed was "equally as traumatizing as the assault itself," she said.
BYP100 is pursuing a restorative justice process, which typically involves making amends between victim and perpetrator. Kyra did not expressly call for such a process, but did say in her letter she wanted to explore ways "we can protect the community at large without police."
BYP100 has not elaborated on what the restorative justice process will look like.
"In an organization that has a black, queer, feminist lens ... there are so many women in our organization, men and women, who've experienced traumatic experiences in relation to sexual violence," London said. "We as people who obviously live in a world where the justice system is failing a lot of us, we have to go reimagine the ways in which we handle interpersonal conflict, the way we handle all of it. All organizations should be more invested in figuring our processes for accountability and restorative justice."
Kyra wrote her letter to BYP100 and made it public because she wanted to educate and help create a process for holding members of the activist community accountable, she wrote.
"By sharing my experience, my short term goal is to come up with a system by which we can hold people in the organizing community accountable when they hurt people, and to educate folks both before and after harm is done," Kyra said. "And maybe that system can turn into inspiration for ways we can protect the community at large without police.
"I’m not exactly sure what that looks like yet, but I am looking forward to working with you to figure out a plan."
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