Revolution #267, May 1, 2012
Taking to the Streets on April 19: NO to Mass Incarceration!
On April 19, in cities around the country, people took to the streets to BREAK THE SILENCE in response to the reality that "Mass Incarceration + Silence = Genocide." What is the significance of these actions? And why do many more people need to join this movement?
The U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country on earth: 2.4 million people in jail or prison, almost one person per 100. Nearly five million more under "supervised control"—on probation or parole. Black and Latino people, who are 30 percent of the U.S. population, are over 60 percent of those in prison. One in nine young Black men are in prison. Twenty-nine percent of Black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. In New York City, nearly 700,000 people were subjected to stop-and-frisk by the NYPD last year—87 percent were Black and Latino. More than 90 percent of them were not even alleged to be doing something wrong when the police stopped them.
For decades now, the U.S. government has waged a "war on drugs"—really a war on the people—and hundreds of thousands have been jailed for simple possession. A whole section of society, for whom this capitalist system cannot provide any real future, has been demonized and criminalized. The criminal INjustice system treats the youth as "suspects," guilty until proven innocent, if they can survive to prove their innocence; racial profiling is routinely carried out by the police and anti-gang injunctions target Black and Latino youth. And those who get out of prison are denied job opportunities, access to public housing, food stamps, government loans for education, the right to vote, and more.
This amounts to nothing less than slow genocide—that could easily become fast genocide.
This must be opposed with determined resistance. As Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party has written:
"People have to change their thinking about incarceration—millions no longer accepting the justifications for this and millions of the oppressed also breaking with thinking there's nothing to be done about it and/or it's really their own fault.... But this can't be accomplished by exposure alone, or by a focus on exposure around how unjust this is. Much more exposure is needed... the key to changing people's thinking about incarceration comes down to unleashing and guiding a mass movement that engages in determined resistance to the outrage of mass incarceration. This movement needs to be aimed at making this a dividing line question in society, one that everybody has to look at, re-evaluate and develop an opinion and a stand on."
On April 19, people stepped forward to speak bitterness about what mass incarceration means for those behind bars, their friends and families—and about those who are brutalized and murdered by the police.
In Chicago, Gloria Pinex, the mother of 28-year-old Darius Pinex, murdered by the Chicago police in January 2011 (by the same cop who murdered Flint Farmer six months later)¸ spoke of her other sons, one just released from prison and another who had a felony weapon charge for carrying a screwdriver. She said, "I am not going away. I'm not afraid." In Houston, a Black woman talked about being in jail, her two brothers serving time, and a woman in prison for killing a man who had raped her. In Los Angeles, Revolution interviewed a Black man whose son is finishing a 19-year sentence for being the lookout in a robbery and has been in solitary confinement in California's infamous system of Security Housing Units (SHUs). In Seattle, a Native woman whose nephew was found dead in juvenile detention talked about how she worries for the lives of her sons on almost a daily basis. One former prisoner who was in San Quentin talked about how the guards pit people against each other and try to categorize people into rival gangs based on where they are from. At a speakout to build for April 19 at Skyline College in San Francisco, speakers included Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant who was murdered by BART cops in 2009, and Denika Chatman, whose son Kenneth Harding was shot eight times in the back after being chased by SFPD over a $2 bus fare. And many others then stepped forward to speak about their own experiences of being profiled, routinely disrespected, and sweated by cops.
In Harlem thousands were challenged to join the movement to end mass incarceration and to sign the "We Say No More" statement. One young man said, "I'm very aware that there's a New Jim Crow! We have to fight it!" After two hours, 160 people from Harlem had put their names on the statement.
Elaine Brower, from World Can’t Wait and Military Families Speak Out, spoke at the rally in New York, describing herself as someone who lives in a white neighborhood in Staten Island. She said, "We are the freedom fighters. We are the new resistance and we have to keep going... I think of my brothers and sisters in the inner cities who suffer, who can't even go out of their apartment building. When I was in Queens, locked up there, I met women, they were in their bathrobes and slippers and pajamas because all they did was walk out on their stoop to have a cigarette and the police asked them for ID and they didn't have ID, so they arrested them. Since when do we have to have ID to stand in front of your apartment building to have a cigarette? What is this turning into, Nazi Germany?"
In Atlanta, a Black woman came up and said, "I know, I'm locked up myself," and then explained that she and several other women were out on work furlough for the day, and were getting on the bus to return to their lock-up transitional center for the night. She pulled back her sweater to show us the "Department of Corrections" shirt she was wearing. At another point a young white man introduced himself on the "people's mic" with his inmate ID number and said he had spent a year and a half in a juvenile jail for possession of marijuana. Throughout the afternoon, many people told stories of their own or their loved ones' experiences with the prison system.
A correspondent from North Carolina wrote: "People engaged in a way we had never experienced before, openly speaking bitterness about racism and the prison system. A mother spoke about the profiling that goes on in public housing and the fear she has for the safety of her children. A homeless man talked about how hard it was to get a job after getting out of prison. A young woman spoke about how scared she was because she had just been sentenced to prison for six months and was worried about her child. An older man talked about the racism he's encountered in his lifetime, and broke into tears. Another man said that 'even if you did good in prison, you'll never get a job again.' A high school student spoke about missing his father, who had been sent to prison in Arizona because the Hawai`i prisons are overcrowded.... An overwhelming number of people we met had family members or friends in prison and many were eager to tell their stories."
Just a Beginning—Many More Must Join
In New York, Revolution interviewed some of the new "Freedom Fighters"—arrested at non-violent civil disobedience actions against stop-and-frisk at police precincts last fall and winter—who spoke at the rally.
Randy Credico, political comedian, activist, and former director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, said, "It's really encouraging to see so many young people. That's the most encouraging thing to see, so many young people. Cause I can go home at night, and I'm wiped, and I'm not worried about being stopped and frisked. But these guys are hassled all the time. So they're really putting their life on the line. And it's really a very encouraging movement, that there's really something happening. And I am really proud, and I'm happy, or flattered to have been part of the beginning of this movement six months ago. We've made so much headway that this is now becoming an issue in the mayor's race. Everyone's talking about stop-and-frisk.... Where we were back then, it was a secret that everyone was just going along with. Now, the significance five and a half months later is tremendous. The gains, that's what's significant. I see it, by all of the news coverage, it's become the mainstream story, they can't ignore this any more."
Father Luis Barrios, associate professor in psychology and ethnic studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and associate priest at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Manhattan, said, "The significance of what we're doing here today, one is that we're breaking the silence. The system really likes, and enjoys, and gets a lot of benefits when issues are invisible.... So this is a good beginning. We're breaking the silence. Stop and Frisk is a symptom of something bigger. This mass prison incarceration they like to do. Because after the Civil Rights Movement, you don't see that sign any more, that Blacks are not welcome, Latinos are not welcome. But there are all the ways to say you are not welcome, how to isolate you, how to disempower you, and incarceration is one. So we are denouncing this. But we also help people to understand, this goes beyond race. Race matters. But we are also saying class matters, gender matters when it comes to dealing with the issue of mass incarceration."
April 19 was a measure of the progress of this new movement against mass incarceration—eight cities participated with gatherings from 20 in Atlanta, to 60 in New York, to 100 in Los Angeles—and demonstrates how this is just a beginning AND how there is much potential for this movement to grow. There is a big gap between the numbers of people who came out and the vast numbers of people affected by mass incarceration as heard in the bitterness spoken out by the people. This anger, which represents the sentiments of millions of people, recently came to the surface with the murder of Trayvon Martin. And there is work to be done, with real potential, to close this gap and bring many more people into this fight to end mass incarceration.
In New York, Carl Dix spoke of the need for many more people to step forward and get organized and get involved:
"If we're gonna stand by and let them target Black and Latino youth, strip them of their rights, send them on a pipeline into prison, we're not going to be able to do anything about this system. We need to leave here on a journey going against the injustice that this society brings down, and today in particular, we're talking about mass incarceration. Let's fight together against this injustice and let's go as far as our principles will take us and then let's learn from each other and exchange as we carry out that fight. I went through a process like that about 40 years ago, and it led me to becoming a revolutionary and a communist. Don't put an upper lid on how far you can go, go as far as your principles can take you. Continue to learn about why this stuff happens, why it's coming down, and what we need to do to stop it."
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