Free Joy Powell! America’s Political Prisoner for Fighting Police Brutality

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

If you protest against police brutality in America, you are definitely going to get brutalized by the police. And lately, federal marshals, homeland security, ICE officers, and assorted militarized federal goons and thugs will pile on. If you led a movement against police brutality in Rochester, NY in 2006, like Rev. Joy Powell did, you will be set up on felony burglary and then murder charges, and spend a long time in prison—doing very hard time as a female, African-American, political prisoner. It’s important to make sure Rev. Powell’s story is out there, because she was in the forefront of the black effort to protest this most lethal form of white supremacy, and as the only political prisoner jailed for directly fighting police brutality, is paying dearly for it.

Joy Powell recently wrote about the killing of George Floyd:

We live in a system which blatantly displays “White Justice and Black Laws” with random killing of Black and Brown people based upon the color of their skin. . . [T]he world is enraged after the traumatic news aired of an unarmed black man named George Floyd being brutally murdered by a Minneapolis officer named Derek Chauvin who strangled him to death as his knee pressed in this unarmed victim’s neck while George was handcuffed on the ground. This evil and diabolic murderer didn’t treat George Floyd with dignity and humanity. . . [It] has me disgusted and totally vexed. We’re pushed to the brink and forced to protest. It’s really happening; it’s called “CIVIL UNREST”!

Rev. Powell knows all about the lack of dignity and humanity of the police.

Powell is in solitary at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women—harassed by guards, and, typically for prisoners, especially political prisoners, denied medical treatment for diabetes and asthma. Born in 1962, she grew up in bad conditions in Rochester, NY, and started young, dealing drugs, for which she was jailed at the Albion Prison—where she was raped and then stalked by a corrections officer. In spite of that trauma, she came out determined to devote her life to advocating for the mentally ill and then organizing protests against violence. By 2002, this included the lethal violence of the Rochester Police Department. By then a Pentecostal pastor, Powell organized demonstrations criticizing the police when six people died in police custody and when a man was beaten to death. The police beat a mentally ill black man to death, and then they “maced, beat with billy clubs, stomped and arrested” those who tried to intervene to prevent his death. It was all on tape, but not only did the police go unpunished, they were commended by the police department and the mayor. All this sounds very familiar. It certainly is to Joy Powell. She has recently written: “African-Americans are subjected to the harshest laws. . . The color of my skin seems to be the only crime: racial profiling comes to white supremacist minds.” The harshest punishment was definitely meted out to Powell.

Powell’s activism against police brutality and racism resulted in her being framed for serious crimes. The Rochester PD had warned her she was a “target.” She was not to get away with speaking out “against corruption, police brutality, and police justifications,” as the Jericho political prisoner organization put it. She was set up: falsely charged with burglary in 2006, and convicted—getting 16 years—and then, in 2011, convicted of killing a man back in 1992, given 25 years to life, with no credible evidence and witnesses who later admitted to lying. She will be eligible for release in 2022.

That is, she will if she survives that long. It’s been reported that at Bedford Hills Prison, women with corona virus symptoms are housed virtually on top of each other in isolation. After two weeks, they’re released into the general population. There’s no widespread testing; each prisoner gets one disposable mask. At Carswell “Medical” Prison for Women in Ft. Worth, there have been at least 500 cases. One of the women politicals I’ve written about, Red Fawn Fallis, in for resisting the pipeline poisoning of indigenous lands, has been transferred to Dublin (California). But fellow Native-American prisoner Andrea Circle Bear was not as fortunate. She died of the virus at Carswell, after delivering her baby. Earth Liberation Front (ELF) political transgender Marius Mason was also transferred, to Danbury (Connecticut), but not Aafia Siddiqui. Siddiqui is a victim of horrific injustice, tortured as an alleged Muslim activist, and is still at Carswell, serving her 86-year sentence as a “terrorist.” All political prisoners should immediately be released.

As Joy Powell said in her recent statement on Floyd’s murder: “My people came here in shackles and chains, yet nothing has changed. It remains the same. . . They maced a 9-year-old girl and busted a 75-year-old man’s head open in Buffalo.” In Powell’s own Rochester NY, her struggle continues and the response is still brutality. In July of 2018, 16 people were arrested at a Black Lives Matter Rochester march. The marchers were met by Rochester riot police with “guns, batons, and helicopters” and with no mainstream press coverage. In June of this year, after yet another violent police response to their George Floyd rally, the Rochester BLM released a statement criticizing the RPD’s “disregard for our basic humanity” and insisting the city of Rochester must “divest from police and invest in our communities.” The dissent goes on and so do brutal police riots.

As of the end of June, at least 10,000 protesters have been arrested. And as ever, police certainly do not spare women when it comes to their brutality—many, many videos can be seen online where women are knocked down, held down, maced at close range—very young women and women from the Wall of Moms in Portland. And also as ever, black women can count on special attention from police as they defiantly protest against faceless, heavily armed storm troopers. In early July, in Des Moines, protest organizer and African-American Jasmine Johnson, 19, was charged with “criminal mischief.” She told of two officers holding her handcuffed arms while she said to them: “Let go. I have handcuffs on. I can’t do anything. You’re holding me too tight and it hurts. Let go of me!” According to Des Moines’ BLM, law enforcement “became violent” at that demonstration. They tackled a woman, while other protesters tried to push away the cops. And they put two black women in chokeholds—one of them was then slammed up against the side of a van, causing her injury. Such police violence is way too common.

Another egregious example is the experience of Miracle Boyd, a black 18-year-old activist, a recent high school graduate, who is an organizer for Chicago’s Good Kids Mad City. She advocates defunding the police and using the money to help black and Latinx communities. She has also worked against gun violence and poverty. On July 20th she was filming the cops’ violence at a rally to protest the Christopher Columbus statue. She was filmed when she was punched in the face by an officer—the blow knocking out several of her front teeth. She’d been recording the violence around her where the CPD struck at least 32 people with their batons, some on the ground when being hit. After the incident she got hate mail, racist messages and threats, all of which blamed her and thought she deserved to be punched. Boyd said, at a news conference, that she was attacked by the CPD, “who value a supremacist statue over my life, safety and well-being.” Her lawyer, Sheila Bedi, a law professor from Northwestern, says the officer was using “lethal force” illegally. They want him fired, and Boyd is bringing a civil lawsuit. The social media visibility of the incident, as with other filmed violent incidents, means that perhaps at least some of these police crimes might face punishment.

The Black struggle against the lethal force unleashed by white supremacy to keep them in line dates back to slave patrols, but in terms of more recent movements, the Black Panther Party was very important, and very dangerous as far as the government was concerned. The Black Panthers, begun in 1966 (over 50 years ago!), demanded an end to police brutality and had armed patrols to ensure it. According to the BPP’s Safiya Bukhari (another female political prisoner), the Panthers’ “10 Points” featured “an end to police brutality and murder of blacks” and “black men freed from jails.” The US systemic white supremacist government has not lost that fight yet. Famed political prisoner—until she escaped to Cuba—Assata Shakur, member of the BPP and its underground military wing, the Black Liberation Army, clearly saw that their enemy was, as Shakur said in her Autobiography (1984), “the capitalistic, imperialistic oppressors.”

The Panthers put their analysis in the global context of American imperialism abroad. Truths about capitalism and imperialism cannot be admitted by the US, because of the necessity of maintaining the Big Lie of America personifying freedom, equality and democracy. So when Julian Assange tore back the curtain to reveal the true nature of the US war to “help” the people of Afghanistan with the revelation of the “collateral damage” tape, it had to be quickly contained and those responsible for the truth-telling harshly punished. Similarly, when the tape of George Floyd’s murder was widely broadcasted, the corporate government and media tried to contain and co-opt the horrible truth of unchecked police violence, and has now moved to forcibly suppress the anti-racist/anti-government protesters.

As Joy Powell puts it: “Unity, shame and fear, has moved in weeks what centuries couldn’t. Acknowledgement is power.” There’s hope in that recognition. Assata Shakur talked of “political, social and economic oppression” of black people. And then “where there is oppression, there will be resistance.” So many black women political prisoners have fought white racism—from anarchist Lucy Parsons in the 1870s, to Communist Claudia Jones in the 1950s, and SNCC’s Diane Nash, MOVE’s Janine and Janet Africa and the Black Panther women of the 1960s and 70s—and now for BLM. BLM’s politicals include the jailed (in 2016) Jasmine Richards from Pasadena, and Sandra Bland, who was quite possibly murdered in a Texas jail in 2015. All political prisoners must be freed—this is even more urgent as prisoners confront the corona virus.

And the Rev. Joy Powell, jailed for exposing police brutality is one who should be released. It was good to see that the Black is Back Coalition, in advertising their August conference, pictured Joy Powell with Mumia Jamal, Sundiata Acoli and Mutulu Shakur; she was there with all the black male political prisoners, many in jail since the age of the Black Panthers. The Coalition argues that during this latest uprising, it would be a good time to free all these prisoners. Joy Powell’s statement on the uprising is moving: “We need love, peace and the police abuse to cease! . . . THE GIG IS UP IN 2020, like thunder we sing! No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police!” She wants to be free—to have justice. She wonders—as do the protesters in Seattle, Portland, NYC, Des Moines and Rochester—“why can’t I exercise my first amendment right of ’free speech’?” In Powell’s case, she wants to exercise her right “without being set-up, and beaten, with trumped-up charges, a couple of wrongful convictions and a 6’ by 8’cell.” She’s the only political prisoner jailed directly for fighting police brutality.

Free Joy Powell!

Linda Ford is a retired history professor, living in Madison, NY.  She is the author of Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, and Women Politicals:  From Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart.