On the morning of October 25, police from nearly twenty law enforcement agencies descended upon the Occupy Oakland encampment located outside city hall. They removed its occupants using chemical weapons, and arrested nearly 100 people before destroying the encampment. The mayor of Oakland lauded the police raid while SWAT and riot police occupied the city. Workers had to show ID to get to their jobs. Later that evening over a thousand people marched through the streets to protest the morning’s police action and attempted to retake the plaza. Images circulated around the world showed police repeatedly using chemical weapons, rubber bullets, and flash grenades against the march. The crowd only seemed to swell. The next night, thousand retook to the street, overcame the plaza and during a general assembly, reached consensus to organize a general strike on November 2nd.
While October 25th’s violence was a grim if not surprising reminder of how those in power perpetuate, manage, and respond to social and economic crisis, so too is it a reminder of the adage, “repression breeds resistance”. As people working to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC), we are eager to relate to the dynamism of the occupations and to act at the intersections of economic and social devastation, state violence, and people’s resistance. We take up the call of our comrades from Cairo to “let the boundaries of [our] occupations grow” and to “build larger and larger networks.”
Over the past two months, thousands of people have been thinking about, talking about and mobilizing around gross inequity between the 1% and the 99%. The last thirty years has led to unprecedented concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the 1% as well as the creation of another 1%: the 1 in 100 people currently locked in US prisons and jails. Examining the connections between these two polarized ends of the US economy helps us understand why resistance to the PIC points a way forward toward building participatory and democratic economies centered on strong, stable, and healthy national, regional, and local communities.
Between 1979 and 2007, the nation’s highest earners saw their household income triple, while during the same period the prison population increased from 500,000 to 2.3 million, not including juvenile and immigrant detentions. In 2011, with 1% of the US population controlling 40% of the wealth, 7.2 million adults — or 3.1% of the population, mostly poor and of color–are under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison). Federal, state, and local budgets for imprisonment, surveillance, and policing have exploded while “austerity” budgets driven by the elite 1% have forced brutal cuts with the claims that governments cannot afford to fund education, healthcare, housing, transportation, infrastructure, community centers, and other life-affirming projects. How did the rich get so rich, and poor get so arrested?
The rise of law and order regimes made notorious by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (and pushed forward by every administration following) can be seen as a response to liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s inside and outside the US, the strength of unions, and the end to the post-war economic expansion. The rise of the post-war PIC has played an integral role in broader plans to free markets from their regulatory, geographic, and political constraints — leading to deregulation, outsourcing, union-busting, mechanization, privatization and elimination of social goods and services, and wage and benefit reductions now familiarly recognized as neoliberalism.
All workers are disciplined and punished by these economic programs, making the call of the 99% resonate with the majority of the population who are deeply impacted by unemployment, foreclosures, social service and education cuts, and steeply mounting debt. The most vulnerable — poor people, people of color, immigrants, queer and gender non-conforming people, and people with disabilities — have also been targeted for further coercion, containment, and control by policing and imprisonment and legalized discrimination against formerly imprisoned people. Currently, sixty-five million people have criminal records and are barred from most employment, as well as public housing and food assistance. Eleven million undocumented workers are targeted for wage theft, harassment, raids, detentions and deportations while often working for less than minimum wage in unsafe conditions.
Of those who are paid to work, an increasing number are forced to work for some aspect of the military and prison industrial complexes. As the right wing offensive attacks public sector unions from teachers to postal workers — and vital social services get sacrificed in the name of austerity and artificial budget crises — police, prison, and military budgets are the last to be cut. In this economic context, police crackdowns on the Occupy encampments mirror the rise and militarization of policing that the most marginalized sections of the 99% have lived through and resisted for generations. Police attacks, the mass arrest of protestors, and the threat and reality of police-led evictions have galvanized scores of supporters from across the country to move from passive to active dissent. In the face of this repression, new social solidarities are being formed and solidified as people recognize how policing is used to protect and perpetuate the violent economic and social relationships that have brought thousands of people into the streets.
In Oakland, these solidarities have started to become more formal, as Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly voiced support for the California Prisoner Hunger Strikers, declared opposition to gang injunctions and youth curfews in solidarity with the local Stop the Injunctions Coalition, and held a rally and march against police violence. This resistance draws from the memory and experience of the last several years of protests against police brutality that were sparked by the police murder of Oscar Grant III, as well as the preceding history made by such organizations as the Black Panther Party. With no small amount of contradiction to work through, those whose race, class, and gender status have placed them at less oppressive ends of the PIC have opportunities to stand alongside those who experience the onslaught of policing and imprisonment all day, every day.
Police suppressed the Occupy protests amidst one of the worst budget crises in Oakland history. The very day after the raid, five schools were closed to save the city $2 million, while estimates at the cost of policing the night of the crackdown are around the same amount. Unemployment in Oakland is at least twice the national average and Black residents, especially hard hit, are leaving the city at alarming rates. At the same time nearly half the city’s budget goes toward policing. In Oakland and across the country, neighborhoods hit hardest by policing through gang injunctions, ICE raids, DEA invasions, and police murder are the same hit hardest by budget cuts and economic inequity. But those hit hardest often fight hardest.
Amplifying the voices and supporting the leadership of the millions of people living under the PIC is one crucial way to keep building the strength of the occupy movement. Can we incorporate work by former prisoners to ban the box that marks one as a convicted felon on employment applications by elaborating employment demands coming from the occupations? If we use this moment to pull organized labor to the left, can we call on unions to advocate for the millions of potential workers denied access to work because of felony convictions and to take a stand against prison and jail construction that is bleeding state economies? When we celebrate international solidarity with current and historic uprisings, can we include the uprising of thousands of prisoners who went on work strikes throughout the Georgia prison system last winter, and the thousands who went on hunger strike throughout the California system this past July and September simultaneously with a hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons? Can we imagine what it would look like for imprisoned people to participate in General Assemblies? How will we include the voices of communities for which police violence and murder is a daily occurrence that rarely makes the headlines?
As the 1% continues to unleash its police forces on encampments across the country, many people will be politically ignited for the first time. Others will mark this moment as a continuation of decades of struggle. The PIC is central to the unequal distribution of resources and the systematic denial of life chances. Its violence protects oppressive economic relationships, steals resources that make communities strong, and quells dissent. But even in social and economic crisis, opportunities abound. This is a moment when our work can have a profound impact in dismantling the forces that keep us down, making fundamental changes in the balance of power, and building the new and better world we want and need.
Isaac Lev Szmonko and Isaac Ontiveros are members of the Oakland Chapter of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex.
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