It never rains but it pours. In the last weeks, two major mobilizations against racist injustice burst out. Most people were outraged that on July 13 Zimmerman walked away from having shot teenager Trayvon Martin dead. The police did not even arrest Zimmerman until his family led a national campaign which marched and lobbied for Justice for Trayvon. And the prosecutor, according to at least one juror, did not make the factual case that would have enabled them to find Zimmerman guilty.
On July 8, 30,000 prisoners across California stopped eating and went on work strike for a number of demands central to which was an end to long-term solitary confinement (called Secure Housing Units or SHU as small as 6’ x 7’ windowless cubicles) for months, years, even decades. Some strikers have been refusing even water, and a week ago one prisoner, Billy Michael Sell, who asked for and was denied medical help, died in Corcoran SHU. (Prison officials say he killed himself.) California is one of 19 states that use long-term, often indefinite, solitary confinement and has by far the largest numbers of prisoners in solitary — over 10,000.
The thousands of prisoners who acted despite all kinds of restraints, including individual isolation, are even more amazing since they have come together across racial, religious and other divisions. This unity is hard to find outside and was developed inside beginning with the Georgia prisoners’ hunger strike in 2010, which was state-wide, and repeated in the California prisoner hunger strike in July 2011, when at least 1,035 of the SHU’s 1,111 inmates refused food. That strike spread to thirteen other state prisons and involved at least 6,600 people throughout California.
The third hunger strike, in September 2011, spread to twelve prisons in California as well as prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that housed men from overcrowded California prisons. By the third day, nearly 12,000 people were participating. The strike ended after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) promised a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners accused of being gang members or associates – the handy grounds, of which no proof is needed, that condemns men to years of the torture of being without society.
Inside Organization Produced Remarkable Organization Outside
When California prisoners renewed their hunger strike in September 2011, Dolores Canales, whose son has been 13 years in the SHU, and other family members started California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. “A lot of family members work full-time jobs, so the organizing is all in our spare time even though we have families, jobs, etc.” In the Bay Area, Marie Levin whose brother is inside, and a member of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of lawyers, advocates and family members, brought a mock SHU to the public in parks, universities and vigils. This was repeated in protests called by family members across the state.
The prisoners clearly never stopped organizing. They had no choice. They have charged that the CDCR has not seriously addressed any of their demands.
In August, 2012, prisoners from Pelican Bay State Prison in California who have called for all three of the California prisoner hunger strikes announced: “Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups…in SHU, Ad-Seg [administrative segregation], General Population, and County Jails, will officially cease.” They had made it possible for the present hunger and work strike to involve every prisoner. Learning from their having achieved this astonishing unity is the job of those of us who want to do the same in the society generally, beginning with bridging the Black-Brown divide which has so undermined the justice movement every minute.
Putting Justice for Trayvon and the Prisoners Hunger Strike together
Trayvon Martin was simply walking home from getting some snacks when he was followed and killed. The shock for many was that he was vulnerable to vigilante violence for simply walking while Black. Yet, even to understand how that could happen, it was vital for the justice for Trayvon movement and the prisoner hunger and work strike be brought together.
When I called family members and other key people to propose an urgent joint action, bringing together support for the hunger strikers and justice for Trayvon there was initial apprehension. We discussed it at length — a wonderful learning experience for all of us. After everyone agreed, a number of people and organizations came together in a National Convening meeting; and through phone calls we hammered out issues and decided to call for a “Hunger for Justice” event for July 31st. One issue was whether raising the travesty of justice suffered by the clearly innocent Trayvon would be used to hide or play down the injustice against the imprisoned men – innocent or guilty – who were never sentenced to the torture they were being made to endure, which they were now risking their lives to end; or whether each could be a strength for the other. Like the prisoners, families and supporters saw the point in coming together. They attracted others, more than 1,200 to date who fasted or took other action on July 31st.
In our Hunger for Justice Call we said: “We fast knowing that the criminalization that killed Trayvon Martin, and the criminalization that justifies the torture of prisoners in solitary confinement are one and the same. We fast in solidarity with the demands of the hunger strikers. And we fast to get justice for Trayvon and for people of every gender, race and religion who have been killed by state and vigilante violence.”
In such a coming together, we remembered Chicago’s distinguished Black Panther Fred Hampton who by age 21 was bringing Puerto Rican and Black gangs together to do anti-racist work instead of less socially productive actions, and was rewarded by US government bullets riddling his body as he slept. To cross divides massively is more effective — and less dangerous.
The Global Women’s Strike made the action global. An informal network of people in Europe, who know very well how dominant prison is in life in the US and especially in the lives of people of color, acted and are still acting in tandem with what we in the US organize. One figure — Mumia Abu-Jamal – more than any other has through his struggle against the death penalty informed the world about the role of mass incarceration in repressing all social movements and institutions of US society. His support network is emerging in support of all prisoners now.
Women in prison are far less subjected to the torture of the SHU (though some are). Many of the women have been involved in collective action of many kinds which sexism ensures gets little or no publicity, or outside support. Many are fasting every Friday to show their support for the men. Many are no doubt hoping that the present spotlight on prisons will begin to make visible the particular burden of guilt and torture of women (single mothers are the fastest growing population of those going to prison) whose incarceration condemns many to losing their children to adoption, and in any case to losing their ability to care for those they love most and who are most dependent on their care. This never leaves them.
And then there are the mothers, daughters, partners, sisters, wives, aunties, grandmothers – from Palestine to Haiti, Guantanamo to Colombia, China to Sri Lanka, Mexico to California and across the United States – who do most of the justice work for loved ones locked away in prisons. It’s mainly women who travel long distances to visit, who work to ensure that prisoners stay connected with children and grandchildren, who fight for adequate health care and decent food inside (two of the present demands), who are a support for prisoners struggling to keep health and sanity and for those with ill health, like Lynne Stewart, to get compassionate release, and who consistently fight to get justice for those wrongly incarcerated, beaten and raped in police cells, and shot by vigilante guns or more official weapons.
Betrayal or accountability
The United States has the distinction of having the largest prison/detention/jail population per capita in the world. Every single issue prisoners face exposes the ways in which US society is shaped by prisons: from expensive phone calls (private contractors make a mint by providing phone services to prisons); to the lobby for prisons of private corporations; to the torture of solitary confinement; to union busting by prison labor; to desperate unemployed workers being hired as prison guards often the only available job because the prison industry is the only one growing; to the inaction (at best) of those in positions of power.
But now the California Hunger Strike has forced prisons and prisoners onto the US political agenda with the force of 30,000, from the very bottom up. They remind us that the movement of the 50s and 60s was betrayed by those who rose all the way to the White House while neglecting the many down here continue to be shot, or left to rot in prisons.
Mass mobilizations are necessary because those who were elected or supported to defend and protect us have got on just fine with our jailers. The US scandal is not only that Trayvon was killed, but that so many of the earlier victims were not taken up by elected officials and those who claim they are our leaders. Rhetoric they have in abundance, but they will not stand with the grassroots between elections. They cash in on our suffering to get positions from which they silence us and undermine our struggle.
Over the past few decades, increasing numbers of Black and Brown people have entered the halls of power, some coming from poverty and happy to “move on up”. Yet, this has mostly been at the expense of those left behind who remained impoverished and continued to be ground down. Some expected that being part of the professional or political classes would give them a protective shield from the most blatant and violent racism; they were stunned when Trayvon from a gated community was racially profiled, hunted down and murdered. A twenty-first century lynching.
In this anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we would betray the legacy of the civil rights movement if we neglected to acknowledge the leadership coming not from above but from those at the grassroots. The extraordinary prison hunger strikers dissed as outside of society who are risking all to teach us that we are all prisoners of injustice and that we cannot escape unless we all fight together to get out.
Stop Press: Undocumented youth and women on hunger strike at ICE Detention Center
A group of 9 undocumented young people, now known as the Dream 9, went to visit their families in Mexico and then returned to the US at a border patrol station in Nogales . It is reported their intention was to get into the notorious Elroy Detention Center in Arizona where earlier this year two people were found dead hanging in their cells, and where a US vet and father of eight went on hunger strike. The Dream 9 began a hunger strike soon after being detained at Elroy, six of them were placed in solitary confinement where as of the time this was written two of them remain. There are reports that 70 other women at Elroy detention center have joined the hunger strike.
Margaret Prescod is an immigrant from Barbados now living in city Los Angeles. Trained in the civil rights, Black and welfare rights movement, she is a co-founder of the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network, Black Women for Wages for Housework, and Women of Color, Global Women’s Strike and is the author of “Black Women: Bringing it All Back Home” which was published in the UK. She is the host of “Sojourner Truth” heard on Pacifica Radio’s KPFK and WPFW.