On February 12th, 1994, Ernest Lee Johnson and his ex-girlfriends’ two sons participated in the botched robbery of Casey’s General Store that took three victims’ lives: Mable Scruggs, Mary Bratcher and Fred Jones. Mr Johnson has no recollection of the murders, was in despair and had been drinking and smoking crack in the hours after his ex-girlfriend broke up with him. A Black man with intellectual disabilities and no former, violent convictions, he was convicted by an ill-informed, all-white jury with the help of Boone County, Missouri, Prosecuting Attorney, Kevin Crane. Ernest Johnson now faces an execution date of October 5th, 2021.
This week, we spoke with Elyse Max, State Director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty about the life of Ernest Johnson, the media and court situation he faced, his twice overturned death penalty, the links between the lynching of Black people in the US and the current death penalty, intersections of race and class in who are the victims of capital cases and who sit on death rows, the mishandling of Ernests intellectual disability in the case and other topics.
You can learn more about Ernest’s case, including ways to help press Missouri Gov Parson for a commutation of Ernest’s execution and the work of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty by visiting MADPMO.org. You can follow their work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram via the handle @MADPMO.
“Interpreting Realities: Aligning Fragments Within the Prisoners Resistance Movement“
This is the second segment of a series of political discussions focused on building support for Jalihouse Lawyers Speak 2021 National call to action #ShutEmDown2021 along with support for the 2022 National Prisoner’ Strike & Boycott.
In this segment “Interpreting Realities: Aligning Fragments Within the Prison Resistance Movement” moderated by Brooke Terpstra – a longtime resident of Oakland and co-founding member of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, which has been active since 2016 in the abolition and prisoner solidarity movements–we are joined by two panelists located within the belly of the beast– a conscious New Afrikan Komrade, located within kalifornia koncentration kamps, who is serving a longer than life sentence due to prosecutorial abuse of power, along with Komrade Underground–3rd world rebel, urban guerrilla, student of dragon philosophy and member of JLS–to discuss myths and misconceptions of the us prison structure and how these misconceptions create fragmented understandings about the prison-carceral state and forms of abolition. We also hear how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further isolated prisoners from the outside world.
** This episode, including Sean Swain’s segment on the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising and the massacre that follows, detail abuse and brutality against people in prisons, including of a sexualized nature, so listener discretion I advised **
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Somethin’ That Means Somethin’ (instrumental) by J Dilla
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Host – Brooke Terpstra: Let’s just put it up front that disagreement is okay. Oftentimes in panels and conversations and interviews, it’s always said to be a conversation but that normally disagree… and people got disagreements. So let’s just say like “it’s all okay. We agree on the main thing. We’re all comrades, but disagreement is okay and conversation is okay.” Actually, that’s the goal! The discussion, the response, the back and forth. All that’s fair game. We’ll just put that up front. I’m ready for that. I’m looking for that. So, we had a couple questions to kick this off with those folks.
Number one is a big question, so I think I’m going to cut it in two. The prison, an explanation of it, the term, the idea, the concept, is heavily propagandized in our society. Heavily mythologized as laws, as well as prisoners, as crime, as “innocence”, “guilt”. They all come really heavy with baggage, with imposed meaning, ideology. So heavily mythologized its kind of submerged into being common sense. Common sense until they force you to basically confront the realities or or maybe you inherited a position in society or certain experience that has basically clued you into the reality. And one thing that definitely forces an individual’s unlearn and all that come to terms with the realities of prison, the prison system… the reasons that it exists.. is getting locked up.
During that time, face to face with the beast. When you go in… the stated of reasons for the system: “rehabilitation. safety, innocence and guilt, your worth as a person, etc…” All that makes no sense. Well, inside people come to different understandings of the structure and the basis of the prison. They go through certain phases perhaps. Some people think is just a broken system where the process is broken and needs to be fixed. Or that it’s just a big scam to make money, a low level scam to rip people off. Or maybe it’s rampaging, even just rogue institutions run amok. Some say it’s just another area for racist brutality. There are ones who stick to a strict understanding of slavery, just about forced labor, and think that it’s all around forced labor. [We] don’t think the opposite. It’s basically… it’s not about forcing labor, but about forced idleness and basically warehousing surplus labor. and that It’s good for the outside as well. So as far as the understanding the prison system, there are these different models and analysis of the prison system or being locked up.
Could you speak on your own coming to consciousness around this? Maybe the phases and analysis and understand that you went through? And where you are today? And perhaps which of these kind of points of view, do you think are myths and misconceptions beyond just maybe being partial, or maybe being a little bit left a little right, complimentary to your own position, but which ones are basically dangerous and are a problem?
New Afrikan Komrade: I started in the system kind of early. I went to a couple of boys’ Camps twice. I was going to the California Youth Authority, which was basically a prison for youth. It was a complete failure. The way the system was set up, it was brutal, barbaric. You know, the things that I witnessed in there, they stay with me to this day. But that’s where I really got introduced into what I would like to say, my revolutionary state of mind. So by the time I was some years old I had been a witness to about 50 different riots, race riots.
So just seeing that as a youth, I understood that they will setting me up for failure in the future. And I remember the first time that I was at Juvenile Hall, I cried like a girl when they closed the door, right? By the time I came to Juvenile Hall, and I seen all my partners there, in the field, having their popcorn night, soda night. There was no form of rehabilitation to try fix the situation, or why we’re in here…. I’ve always played with guns. I’ve been playing with guns since I was a young dude, you know? As I got out, it was just repetition, it was just the constant thing.
It was a constant thing, with a constant theme. Being incarcerated at such a young age. It left me lightweight & emotionally underdeveloped. Because everything about it was aggressive. I was aggressive in everything that I did. I did not respond to anything but with aggressiveness. Even in my relationships, now even with my wife and kids there is always aggressive manner in how I approach things. And I really believe that that’s part of the failure of the system. And it just goes back to my understanding, definitely the greatest misconceptions about Prison, is that they’re institutions of rehabilitation. And this is no doubt a social myth.
But when I left the pen[itentiary], it was just California Department of Corrections (CDC). By the time I came back it was CDRC. They put the R in there for rehabilitation. And I believe that’s was for the federal funds. That’s got to get the federal funding and get these programs. So, it’s my opinion that most of the individuals truly want to make drastic changes in their lives. You know, they don’t come from institutional programs, they come from within yourself. What these programs are designed for is prisoner behavior control. Everyone on parole is based on participation in these programs. So in essence, no one’s going to these program to be rehabilitated. They go to these programs in controlled circumstances of release.
A lot of these dudes that I know, they have gotten all of these certificates that they have to offer and these cats are still the worst of the worst. To be fair there are some vocational trades that can be useful to someone who is really dedicated to have a productive life in society. I mean, it’s only right that a man should have some type of skill, you know, to play this deal. But again, as I said before, these programs are in place to receive some type of federal funding and prisoner behavior control. The reason I say that is often when we’re in classes, maybe every 90 days or so they always come in and let you know “look man we are having some visitors, we’re having people, they’re building these computers or whatever, some machinery… we need you guys to be on your best behavior.” So they come through, and they look at us like lab rats, or whatever it may be. “Be on your best behavior!”
I believe it was Angela Davis that talked about is dynamic in her book “They Come For Us In The Morning.” She touched on the fact that comrade George [Jackson], in that particular formation was resistant to these type of programs that was being provided. And it always makes me touch back into that Willie Lynch factor. It was a brother that used to run the Nation of Islam classes in one of these penitentiary classes I was in, and the first thing that he did was he brings up the Willie Lynch. And he said “what I want you to do every day, I want you to identify a dynamic of the Willie Lynch process. Because they are around you every day.” So what I see is the part where Willie Lynch says “at the end, make them believe in us and only us.” So you trying to fix yourself, that doesn’t work, because that’s not profitable for them. You know what I’m saying?
I believe it was Malcom [X] that calls the penitentiary “the hidden university”. Right? But the rehabilitation that we do for ourselves has no financial gain to be recorded or cashed in on. So when W.L. Nolan and George [Jackson] began to emphasize the importance of organizing, shit hit the fan. What the brothers was doing was really to set the stage and establishing and securing prisoners rights that had been set in place in 1942 by the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. They at that time… they constituted the largest number of Black conscientious objectors to World War II. It was there that they met abolitionists who was associated with the Quakers. Revolutionary shout-out to Brother John Brown.
So a lot of people don’t know that the prison abolition movement and its relationships to the carceral state was born out of this dynamic. And this is important that we talk about how misconceptions created stagnate understandings about the prison carceral states in the forms of Abolition. We are talking about predictive policing. So here’s where we step in the dialectic of discipline, strategy. And this is where we begin to see the dynamic of state repression and Mulsim resistance, where we actually organizes resistance that the Nation [of Islam] exercised, the State will always put in place, on top of rules to squash and counteract that resistance. Of course, Brothers will always come up with some new form of organizing in response which in fact was political in nature, because it will add to the overall fragmentation of various forms of abolition, and not only expansion of the tactics applied, but to the overall strategy.
You know, it just puts me in a place when I first seen that movie 300 when it came out and they only show one front of resistance that was being fought against the Persian oppressors, but at the same time there was another battle going on at sea. So, when the brother spoke earlier about his viewpoints that may be violent, violence is necessary. It has to be a necessary tool, but it has to be done autonomously. It can be done as a whole or a mass, but I don’t think we’re equipped, or that the people are passionate enough to carry out the attack that’s necessary. You know, so primarily most formations, again today, they are aiming to reform what currently exists. They want to change the frame, but the picture remains the same. They want to put a band-aid on it. When it’s clear the situation requires a more extreme approach and that’s the abolishment of these existing slave camp. They are a direct reflection of the blueprint of American capitalism.
Even saying the abolishment of slave camp, I would have to state and leave room for a gray area of contradiction saying that… Being in here, man, some of these dudes… they belong in jail. Some dudes belong in jail and that’s a dialectical approach of understanding… That two things can be true at the same time. To me that’s one of the misperceptions about prison is the rehabilitation team. It doesn’t exist. If you don’t have the ability to fix yourself then nothing else is going to work.
Host: Exactly. Man and this process started really young for you, like it has a lot of people. Like it has for my family, like the people I know. A couple things you said there… I’m glad you identify the guided tours. We got certain facilities, and the certain facilities are maintained, that are near major media markets where there are a lot of nonprofits, where there’s a lot of little programs, where they trot people through, they prop people up for newsletters and pictures, for defending, for their the grants. And also CDCR uses them as a boutique in a facility. It’s a showpiece, while meanwhile 50 miles up the yard it’s a completely different situation, some level one prisoner out there organic gardening, getting to pet dogs is basically the cover photo. While on the inside pages there’s the reality is that everybody else doesn’t get that. You basically identified the line of reform. There’s a major distinction between, like these different perspectives in the prison. It frustrates me when people identify the prison resistance struggle as a matter of criminal justice reform… It’s like “nah… nahh..”
New Afrikan Comrade: I don’t believe… well as a revolutionaries, we don’t believe in the word reform. Right? We make we make drastic changes. Like I said man, just coming through the system I had never been given the tools that I didn’t give myself to fix me. Right? Having been to California Youth Authority. I went in there and I got seven years for my crime. So when I went to the Board, because in the California Youth Authority, you have to go to the Board to go home. There’s no automatic dates, ya dig?
So, we have counseling sessions, the counselors will be just the regular police that worked in there. These dudes didn’t have credentials. Or they wasn’t qualified to counsel me or give me the necessary mental help that I need. I can’t even recall even seeing a psychiatrist during those times. They had dudes in there with 10, 11, 12 years of age, right? It was worse than penitentiary. I’ve been about 9-10 different penitentiaries. I’ve never experienced anything like i experienced in the California Youth Authority. They were criminalizing us and we didn’t understand it at the time. Cuz there was two things that was gonna happen and they were either going to make you or break you. Right? They will make you a better criminal or they were going to break you down and makes you a worse type of man. Right? I had a little cousin that went in when he was 12 and he stayed in there till he was 25. And it was not good.
So when I get here, in these times, I do see a difference or change in the type of individuals that’s coming through the system, because back then we were a little bit more conscious too in the 80’s… you got to take that into consideration. My mother was a [Black] Panther. Coming up we were really Black conscious in the town, you know what I’m saying? So, we just automatic in the California Youth Authority, you had the Crips versus the Bloods. You had the Northern Mexicans versus the Southern Mexicans. It was just automatic that in the Bay Area, it was Black versus the whites, who claimed White Pride. It was no question, we didn’t have to claim that. It was just on.
I was just telling someone the other day I’ll say man, “I’ve never been anywhere that’s so segregated like the penitentiary or jail.” They keep you in this old frame of mind that they say it doesn’t exist anymore, but it exists behind these walls. So the only way to rehabilitate you from that is to separate you. “Y’all take this part of the day and you take this part of the day, and ya’ll take that this part of the day.” That’s not rehabilitating you, that’s just flame and fire. You know what I mean? Like I said, once again, the penitentiary is just warehousing bodies. This is all about capitalism and getting money. I don’t see anything that’s productive here. It is just warehousing bodies. This is all about capitalism and getting money. I don’t see anything that’s productive here.
Host: Yeah. So I mean, on that note… It was interesting to hear that you came from people that were Panthers, that you got that head start. You had generations before you that had a certain level of consciousness. But on that note, I want to talk to Komrade Underground, where he came from and if you could speak on the different understandings for the structure base of prison. And speaking more specifically too. There is the one big myth like rehabilitation? That’s the first one to discard. And that’s a problem. That ideologically imposed nonsense.
Komrade Underground: One thing… I really want to appreciate everything that comrade was saying, because there’s so many similarities, however, because I’m on the total other side of the world, it seems like there’s so many differences between these two different Department of Corrections, however, it’s still just stuck in constant repression, constant repression. You know, California, actually it seems to me so much in front of every other state in the United States. As far as when it comes to how picky they are, and and how they hide these fucking forms of “reform” and just building this deep return and deeper ideas of repression.
However, let me start with a little bit about myself. You know, I also started when I was [redacted]teen years old. I came to detention center, and I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop. I went to programs, went to different levels, went to little juvenile prisons. Then at the age of [redacted]teen, I got a direct filed as an adult, and ended up getting two life sentences. And they threw me right in the Big House. We had a little dorm for people that was under 21. But it was getting it.
There’s also such a big gang culture down here where I’m at. So that’s what it was. They throw us together, everyone up under 21. And we are clashing and we clashing and every chance. But there was also at such a young age, that sense of rebellion for the pigs. Every time the pigs will come out and fuck with a during count. We all launching and batteries and pieces of soap at them and everything, just getting them up out of there. Because no matter what, for some reason, when I was young, no matter if we were bumping that day, we were going through it that day, when pigs came around we will stick together. And that changed a lot through the years. I think it had a lot to do with that so many of us had life sentences at 16, 17, 18 years old, and nothing matters at that time. We just wanted to just lash out, just go. And we didn’t really understand what was going on or didn’t understand our [prison] sentences. But we still had that hope, you know?
But it made no sense. Right? So coming through, I would say a big thing that radicalized me that brought me to a revolutionary consciousness would have to be the involvement of the gang culture down here. Back then, it’s very different now, but back then it was like… you have folks that would take you up under their wings and give you the correct books in the correct nourishment. And it’s not happening too much anymore. But back then I was given Che Guevara, I was given George Jackson. These two comrades that had been in my life for the last 20 years. More than most folks that I known on the streets. Man. Che Guevara and George and Jonathan. Man… they’ve been in my life. So I was able to go through those things.
But also, there is such this level of repression here where I’m at, because there’s no such thing as parole over here. So they don’t have to give us programs to help us get the fuck out of here. They don’t have to give us programs to help push us up out of here. Right? So what they do they actually stamp us with these STG (Security Threat Group) files to keep us out of these programs to keep us away from that. Because they know there’s no reason to give us programs. We’re all just in the belly here, and we’re all just going to be clashing here. And there’s no huge penitentiaries over here.
They’ve actually created all these micro-institutions, because they know exactly these… I call them social experiments. They know exactly how many Bloods, Crips, Kings and Vice Lords to keep on these compounds, to keep us at each other, to keep us clashing with each other. They know how many whites and Blacks and Hispanics to keep us at, because there’s really not too many white supremacists down here. I mean, excuse me, there’s not too many white supremacist gangs down here. All the white boys down here are mostly white supremacist unless they were born in the Black and brown hoods, and are part of the Black and brown formations. But for the most part, there’s no solid white supremacist gang where I’m at. They don’t really get no breathing room. Even the pigs are mostly Black and brown where I’m at. So it creates this whole different idea, this whole different structure of repression that we’re dealing with down here. Because there’s no parole, there’s no ideas of reform. And because there’s no ideas of reform, there’s only here and now.
So what they’re doing, as we speak, creating these two different types of prisons. You either have these honor prisons where people can do a lot of time, but have maybe video games or tablets or whatever, or they’re creating these highly surveilled, hyper fascist prisons, that when you go back through the history of different places like California, different places like New York that had all these revolutionaries from the 70’s and 80s… Because the state is starting to feel that pressure, they’re starting to grasp onto those old ideas of repression, and finding ways to keep us locked down. Finding ways to create different types of camps and institutions to keep us locked down, right? So you have SHU programs, you’ve got administrative programs, you got all these different prisons that are popping up. And then they only battle with the idea of these “honor programs”, these “honor prisons”. So there’s this huge separation now, there’s a huge separation on different camps. And there’s nothing to look forward to. There’s nothing looked forward to over here.
So what when we start talking about myths and misconceptions, from state to state they vary, right? There is no reform. That idea is just to perpetuate these money grabs for the State, these money grabs for the places. These honor institutions are not honor institutions, they are ways to formulate more money for the carceral state. When we even talk about what prison is and what the carceral state is… What are these things that so many of us, or so many “radicals” want to want to push out? The idea of prison is just the beginning of the carceral state. This is ground zero. This is where the battle starts day in and day out.
But there is also… Academia which is such an extension of the carceral state because it’s taken our ideas and making them less dangerous. It’s taking these revolutionary ideas and making them less dangerous because when they push that out there now it’s been said through the Ivory Tower. But then we also have places that have forgotten, like these mental institutions. These “mental institutions” are just ways to get people to trial. They are ways to get people to trial to send them into prisons. There’s no help in these mental institutions. It’s pump them with Thorazine and put them on stand.
So when we talk about these different extensions of the Carceral State, we have to remember that this is part of the fight too. We have to battle this shit, man… We have to battle all of that, man. And then like we said, when we talking about fighting, we were talking about physically. I’m talking about that type of solidarity. I’m not talking about the nonprofit industrial complex that’s going to fund the prison industrial slave complex that’s going to go back and fund the fucking military industrial complex. So it’s like all these different things that get so convoluted in this talk of abolition, but what is abolition? What are these conceptions and misconceptions and myths about abolition?
I think one of them is the prisoner. This prisoner rebels that everyone wants to romanticize or fetishize. Most folks in here, man, they just want to go home. They want to do their little time and get out, right? The revolutionaries, yeah, we’re in here. We in here and we’re doing it. We’re the ones that are on these calls. We’re the ones that are trying to build together. And then once they get a little whiff of that… all of us are getting separated, threw in the SHU and suffering from extreme repression. So there’s these formations. Now, I don’t even want to call them formations, there’s these people claim that formations out there that are just grabbing onto any prisoner, any prisoner that wants to say something, and wants to push that idea and push that as a point that now abolition is become fetishized. That this prisoners has become romanticized. This prisoner’s not a comrade. This prisoner is not a comrade, this is just some dude that is probably backed by a bunch of reformists, that probably wants to get parole that has no idea on the struggle, or the movements that are trying to be formed.
You know, we had this idea of these movements, and people want to attach that word movement to all of their formations. But we are reaching to create a movement right now. Because there’s so few of us on the inside and outside that have that truth, that have what I call “George and Jonathan consciousness”. That George Jackson and Jonathan consciousness was actually a true form of solidarity, man. That’s why George called Jonathan his alter ego. And that’s what it needs to be. These formations need to be alter egos of each other. We have to be y’all and y’all have to be us. But at the same time, we need to have a better understanding and be more specific on who we let into our circles, and who we let build with us and create this formations. When it comes to the inside and the outside. The outside needs to not just fucking grab any prisoner, and we need to be more security conscious, and not just grab any fucking person out that has a fantasy that abolitionist so and so. Because most of them just want to exploit us. Most of them just want to add us to a name on some fucking thing that they’re writing, or something that they’re pushing through this Ivory Tower to make us less dangerous. I just think that there’s this level of discipline, and there’s this level of security, and there’s this level of anger and rage that we need to get back to. We need to fucking get back to that rage, man. We need to get back to those places where shit matters, man. Where it wasn’t just about putting prisoner-so-and-so’s stamp on stuff. So I think a lot of these myths and misconceptions form around what is important these days. We’re not going to pretend like us living better in here is not important. But you have a lot of people that’s focused on that.
So, the abolitionists need to focus on these direct attacks on the State. These direct attacks – and when I say direct attacks, I mean focused violence. Because there is this idea of fear that is not instilled in these pigs. They’re not scared to come to work. They’re not scared to come and repress us on the inside. Because once they’re in here, they got these shotguns, and they got these AR-15’s. And they know that we don’t. But when they start letting loose on us, we can’t do anything. So how do we combat that? In here we only have so much urban guerrilla warfare we can use. But out there, that solidarity that we’re looking for, this direct military action that people don’t want to talk about anymore, these underground movements that people don’t want to fucking be part of anymore… I mean, those are the things we need to start talking about. And those are the things we need to start building on.
Host: You just you just drew some lines there, Komrade. And I appreciate that. And I got a couple of different questions. I’m trying to decide which way to go. But I want to ask you both… I think I might get in some trouble here because in light of what you said. There are these abolitionists right now… They call themselves abolitionists, and maybe even like everyone on this call even isn’t the same kind of abolitionist. It’s just that there is multiple abolitionisms. There are folks out there that are organizing for the right to vote, or better Jailhouse Lawyering around conditions. Let’s focus on the voting. Do you consider, either of you, that could be a priority? or to be important? I know it’s actually a point within the JLS demands. I mean, I definitely got my point of view, but I want to hear what you guys have to say about it. And like practically, if it makes sense, not just out of pure principle.
New Afrikan Comrade: From my experience… You know, I believe everything starts with the court system, that’s where all the shit starts, right? Like, in my case now, you know, I was on the run for about [redacted] years. So when I finally got caught and got arrested, I filed a motion to dismiss based on violation to my due process rights. So what they had to do was they had to justify why the police didn’t look for me within [redacted] years. So I knew they did not do no investigation. Because I asked if they went to my mom’s house and they never went to my grandmother’s house. The house that I was at, that they kicked the door in one time and never came back. And at that time, I don’t know if you familiar with the [redacted]… So you know the whole little situation that went down there, you know with the dude. I actually was doing body guard work for [redacted] during that time. So I know he wasn’t looking for me. You know what I mean? It was the hottest spot in the town.
So when I finally get to the hearing, they come up all these documents that have been anti-dated, things scratched off, and they used the documents to force me to trial. Because if had they not shown the justification it was an automatic dismissal. So they used these documents, these false documents and testimony to force me to trial or whatnot. So I go to trial. I mean, it was 3-4 month trial, and had a deliberation for 11 days. There was one lone hold out juror. They removed him, put a white lady back on the on the jury, and within five hours I was convicted. You get what I’m saying? Within five hours I was convicted.
So now that I’m in here… I’m like “Okay, now I know these documents and know they aren’t real.” So I file a Freedom of Information Act and whatnot. So I started getting all these letters from these different law enforcement departments, FBI, and the Department of Justice. And everybody’s saying that these documents doesn’t exist. So I had a homeboy up here. He showed me how to file a lawsuit. He said “Look bro this is how we file a lawsuit. This is how we are gonna get your shit back into the courts.” Right? So I filed a lawsuit and they hit me with this shit called an “Anti-SLAPP Motion” [SLAPP = strategic lawsuits against public participation]. What an anti-SLAPP motion is it usually means it’s a corporate law. And what they said was under the first amendment, they have the right to use any tactic they wanted to, to prove their case.
When I showed him, he said “Man they admitted to that shit?” “Yeah, they admitted to that shit.” “Yeah, we lie, we did that. But there’s nothing you can do about it.” So going through that type of shit and seeing the system or being a victim of that. In my perception things have to start in the court room. And that’s not to say that all the other things that you spoke on… I think everything has to be hit on every point. Wherever it may be with the prison system, the abolitionists, the court, law enforcement, wherever it may be, we got to hit them from every angle. We have to be a full on assault and like the brothers said at some point something has to get dangerous for them to really, really get the grasp of what’s going on around here and to say that we’re serious.
But in the same token, like the brother said, again, people aren’t what they were back in the 60’s and 70’s. This is a totally different environment with totally different people. Even in the penitentiary its [different] now. Dudes are not willing to go to the hole no more. We got TV’s in our rooms. We got phones in our rooms. You know what I’m saying? We got all these amenities that make you lazy and you don’t want to lose these things. This is what they do. So when you’re talking about even if I right now, today, if something went on in here…. I’m getting a prime example. They had a pig in here that was harassing the inmates. So the same dude that showed me how to do the lawsuits. He filed the paperwork and said he was sexually harassing the inmates and had everybody sign it, it got him removed, and I mean, removed from the penitentiary period.
When they called the dudes in that had signed the document, everybody recanted their stories and they ended up bringing him back. And he came back doing the same shit that he was doing before he left. So, it’s hard for even dudes that are serious about pushing any type of revolution to do something, because at the end of the day you will be the only one doing it. And you’ll be the only one paying the consequences. And it’s really not going to have any effect. Because it’s required that the masses get involved for it to have any real effect. People are lacking that passion, that commitment, that dedication to the struggle and to the cause. And like the brother was saying for us coming through the system as young as we was, we got that early. That was embedded in us. So it’s just a part of who we are now. I don’t know how to be anything other than what I am. It just is what it is. It’s all I talk about. You can talk religion and revolution and that’s it. That’s it, nothing else.
Host: So it’s the same question to Komrade. You said about priorities and making choices. You have got to hit them everywhere all the time. Personally I think we got some choices to make. You both basically did something really important right now. You basically, you shared an assessment of inside situation. An assessment of numbers and of force. And even like movement health. If we’re calling it a movement. I even loathe to to call it that. We got like pieces of it. We got like a baby movement thats trying to get on its feet, but it’s not getting there. We got some choices to make. What choices do you think we should be making?
Komrade Underground: Well, okay, so I think that’s important. I also want to go back to the original question, and also talk about what the brother was talking about when it comes to law and the courtroom, because I have a very different stance, and maybe it’s because I don’t see a lot of anything coming out of the courtroom. Is it necessary? Yes, it’s necessary. It is necessary for folks in here to fight their case. It is necessary for people in here to utilize every tool that we have right now. Right? However, me personally, I’m over that shit. I’m over getting denied from the courts. I’m over getting fucking denied these grievances. I don’t do grievances unless they’re mass grievances, like the brother said. And then a lot of times, that’s what happens, man, people recant when they start losing items. So I’m over that shit, man. I’m over going to the court system. And I’m over fighting with only pen and paper. And there are people that still do it. And I commend them and I thank them. But when it comes to me: it’s direct action. It’s direct action that gets it done, man.
So when we talk about prioritizing, and we talked about choices… first and foremost it’s going to come down to you. It’s going to come down to what you’re ready for and what you’re ready to lose. Because in here you have to be ready to lose everything. Everything. When it comes to voting. Is voting important? Fuck no! I would love for everyone to just not vote one year and then see what happens. Let’s see what happens when we when we take that mass approach and not vote. But then at the same time, we can’t live in these fantasies that this is going to happen. I think it is time to start making choices and start prioritizing what’s important. And I think trying to get people out of prison by every single means necessary is important.
But when we talk about getting dangerous, and we talk about attacking things like the courthouses. Or when we talk about attacking things. Like you’ll see headquarters and stuff. These are things that are different from doing them in the 70’s. You have to look at what has changed. What has changed is that everything has become digitized. So back then when the George Jackson Brigade would bomb an institution or would bomb a headquarters, they weren’t just bombing this institution, they were also burning the files. They were getting rid of everything that was held in that headquarters. However now, it’s just going to be property damage. Because everything is digitized and saved in clouds. So we have to figure out ways and make choices on how we attack those systems.
How do we attack the legal system now? How do we attack these voting systems? How do we attack the Department of Corrections when everything is digitized? So there’s things that need to be prioritized on how and the things that we are learning. The things that we are sacrificing. The things that we’re getting into. It’s this hack culture. Penetration testing is going to be so important. It’s going to be so important because these are ways that we can attack the Empire. These are ways that we are going to have to attack the Empire. So when we think about these things, we can’t think on huge mass scales, because a lot of times the masses are not ready.
So who are we talking to? We’re talking to the comrades. We’re not talking to the masses yet. Right now, man, the masses they just want to chill. They just want to chill because the fire hasn’t hit their cribs yet. The fire hasn’t hit their prison yet. But we need to have these conversations. We need to make it a priority to have these conversations with comrades. We need make it priority to take these actions with the comrades. I’m not saying to not support people that are fighting their cases, because that’s important, too. However, there’s a lot of people that want to do that. So let them do that. Let those abolitionists do that.
When it comes to JLS and some of the initiatives that JLS is getting involved with. Are they important? I think they’re important to make noise. I think they’re important because this is what the masses wants to see. But the masses are not the ones that are going to be taking up arms immediately. The masses are not going to be the ones that are going to be attacking the carceral state by whatever means necessary. That’s going to happen later. That’s going to happen later because there’s no neutral side on a moving train. Once this train gets to moving people going to have to pick sides. However, right now where we’re at, that stage where we’re at… It’s like not even important to talk about that. So I think people should want to involve their-self as much as possible. But I think also, we need to be serious about who we are having these conversations with. We need to be we need to not have these conversations with people that are not ready to take it there. And that’s on the inside and outside.
Host: Did you want to have something you wanted to add?
New Afrikan Comrade: So, when we are talking about movement, and I believe it was what brother H Rap Brown that said “the movement is only a phase of the struggle”. So the movements have the ability to change phases as it progresses. And that’s what we’re experiencing now. You know, back in the 60’s the movement was the alpha movement. So there was a little bit more of that guerrilla warfare aspect to the movement. Now it is a little bit more feminized. Not to say in a bad way, because it seemed like the sisters have a little bit more ties with the people than these brothers had.
We have to take what we can get at the time that we’re getting it. I agree with the brother, but when I was talking about the court system, per se, they have to have people start bombarding these court rooms. When I went to trial, I was in there by myself. They were doing what the hell they wanted to do. You get what I’m saying? But if we start having these mass court watches, where we just start having people come together and start going to these court rooms, and putting these public defenders, and these DA’s and these judges on blast. It may have just a little bit different effect. But you know…. Hey thats was the police, my bad. My door was wide open. [laughter]
Komrade Underground: [laughing together] They gonna do an extraction tonight, for real.
New Afrikan Comrade: We just have to set up some different rules, and everything has to be hit at a different time, everything has its place and time. I believe it was Fred Hampton. They asked Fred about the Minutemen and the Weathermen, and what was their relationship with the Panthers. Fred was like “Nah, we stand far our back from them. They’re chauvinistic and individualistic.” When he said that. It was like the time when the NFAC [National Fuck Around Crew] was doing their thing out here. You remember that, right? So, at the same time that was happening, that was a different dynamic. Everybody had seen that as part of the movement, but it was something separate from the movement. That had nothing to do with the movement. It was a racial shit. So we have to be careful when we pledge our allegiance. Like the brother said “we have to talk to the comrades, man we can’t be talking to these outside characters, because they are on something totally different.”
Komrade Underground: I really like what you talked about, about movements changing. Because like you said, I don’t even know if we can call this a movement right now. And if it is, it’s a few of us. But it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle and that’s part of a movement, right. And there’s this idea of the 60’s and 70’s, this revolutionary optimism, where everyone really felt that the revolution was here. The revolution was now. And the pigs also felt it. And that’s a necessary fear that I’m talking about. They created whole systems and broke their own laws and created stuff to stop this movement. So now, because they did that, and they killed off all the leaders of these movements. Killed off all these gang leaders too. I’m going to call them mass political movements back then because that’s what they were moving towards. Organizations or street organizations were moving towards these more politicized ideas, coming out with manifestos, and coming out with things that were in-line, because they were getting politicized by the same leaders. By the Young Lords, by the Black Panthers, by the Black Liberation Army. These folks were either coming from these movements or moving towards these movements. We could talk about Jeff Fort, and how he was helping Gaddafi fund his revolution from Chicago. Back then these these ideas were important. And then what happened? That fear led these pigs to cause a huge wave of oppression and they started assassinating. Then they started breaking us. Man they started breaking us. Man let’s be real. They broke us. They broke us to pieces. They fragmented us. They took us, infiltrated us. And now they not only created a fragmented movement, they created a movement that hates each other.
We can’t even fucking think about battling the right-wing or battling these fucking pigs and battling this stuff, when we can’t even talk to each other. We’re so worried about ideas that this praxis is getting lost. There is no praxis right now because we’re still trying to figure out how to talk to each other. So that revolutionary optimism went to a broken revolution. And where are we taking up the scraps now? How are we picking up the scraps now? Some of us are so fucked up from the losses that happened back then. Some of these street organizations and individuals that lost family, that lost friends, that lost comrades, that lost the ideas, that lost these movements. So where are we now?
Everyone’s running on Twitter to have these conversations and really just looking for friends and people to argue with. It’s broken the revolutionary spirit and we’re fighting. We’re fighting from the SHU. We’re fighting from lonely places in the free world. Because that’s one thing I have seen. The comrades that a solid 10 toes down that I know what my comrades… man, I feel like sometimes it’s just as lonely as me right here in the SHU [Secure Housing Unit]. It’s a scary dynamic to think about it, that we’re still in fear from shit that happened back in the 70’s. And we’re in so much fear that we don’t know how to bring it to these pigs.
New Afrikan Comrade: I agree.
Host: That brings us right to question two, man. We’re talking about the present phase, the present conditions. I mean, the last year during COVID-19… speaking for the outside this whole pandemic has basically revealed a lot of what we thought was there, it basically pulled a lot of blinders away. This last year and a half has been a year of unprecedented rebellion, escape, and strikes on the inside. From the folks in charge of stuff, it’s been a huge spike. As for the the activity? It’s been up and down on the outside. Let’s talk about the reality of how prison conditions during the ongoing pandemic have further isolated prisoners from the outside world. And how this has enhanced or detracted from the resistance movement. Even though we saw this last year, it has only increased activity. Speaking for myself on the outside, I’m just going to put it in there. It basically… we have run into a bunch of limits. The escalation of activity and like the heightening of crisis… We went straight into serious limits. If there’s a word for the outside it’s going to be limits. A lot of us aren’t being honest about these limits that we’ve run into. I can get into that more but I want to hear about like your guys’s perception and reality on the inside right now.
New Afrikan Comrade: As far as the COVID situation? hah… March 15 – they put us on lockdown, maybe on the 14th that’s when everything on the nationwide lockdown. On April 11 it’s been about 30 police up in here. They pull about 20 of us out our room (I was included in that 20) for about 15 of us… now this before they will send all the guidelines. 10 people per group and they just put into place the masking implications on the police. So they come up with the rules, snatch us up, dress us out. They come up in the room, three or four deep in the room, no mask on, no nothing. So we complain like “Hey, man, you’re not supposed to be up in here like this!” They ignored us. The captains, and lieutenants… they don’t have on masks. Nobody has on masks! So, automatically, I’m pushing paperwork. I’ll write their ass up. You up in my room, threatening my life, putting my life in jeopardy.
Like the brother said, I don’t file 602’s… that shit is really a waste of time. And they always ride with the pigs. You almost never win that shit. But I did it anyway. That was a year ago. I’m just now, maybe last week, getting the finishing copy of that 602 back… and they denied me from Sacramento. From the head place. So where I’m at, it wasn’t really that bad like it was in Quentin. I’m like an introvert anyway, so I don’t fuck with people anyway. If they not on my level, I really stay in my room and I do my own thing. So it wasn’t really that bad up here, per se. I just know like other penitentiaries like San Quentin which is really horrible up there. I have a little cousin who was up there and he caught that shit. My mom was just telling me yesterday that her cousin has a dude who is out there in New Orleans they had caught COVID. My guess is when you catch this shit, they supposed to give you liquids. And they were feeding that man solid foods and they damn near killed me.
So a lot of the protocols that they’re doing up here is just to show face. It’s just to show that we’re doing something. Just like the past two weeks, we had two police in here that was sent home with the COVID, with the new strain. They sent him and her home. We came back, she just got dirty again, they just sent her home again. But not one time have they came here to tested any inmates to see if we’re sick. So in my mind, I’m always thinking that their trying to create a dynamic of sickness to keep what they call “hazardous pay.” I don’t really think they’re taking it serious. When they get sick they locked us down. As opposed to clearing out one of these buildings. When these police, they come in here to stay for seven days. Let them go home and the next police that come in, they come here quarantine for seven days before they start their weekly shift. If you’re not making those type of adjustments… in everything that their adjusting is always us, locking us down. You know what I’m saying? Even though we are having visiting again, I don’t allow my family come up here. Straight up, I’m cool. I don’t need no visits. Don’t come up here. I don’t allow them to come up here. It’s not really bad up here.
I really don’t have too much to say on that. I stay away because I don’t believe all the COVID shit. I think it’s over sensationalized. I think it’s just a lot of propaganda. And I think it’s a way to violate people’s constitutional rights. They’re finding a way to change and shift society. They found a way to segregate people… to say how many people can be.. I mean was already doing that shit. Only five people could be in a certain group. But now even more so they’re breaking down how many people can come into the restaurant and things of such nature. In a minute, they will be using COVID to be able to change and redirect the Constitution. Like George says “anytime you overcome one form of oppression, they’ll find another way to oppress you.” And that’s what they’re doing. They find a different way to oppress us because they see the old ways is not working anymore. That people are getting tired of the old ways. So what do we do? “Okay, this is what we do. We will give them a pandemic, lock everybody down, readjust the way of living. readjust their way of thinking and then we will go back to business as usual.” Yeah.
Host: Here in California, at least, we’ve had sickness go through facilities. And in a way COVID has been a little departure. There’s a response is always just to lock people down and they’ll let you ride it out. Take an ibuprofen. You just sweat it out. You cry it out. You shit it out of yourself.
New Afrikan Comrade: [laughing] It’s funny you say that right? About a week ago, man… my body had locked up. Have you ever had a Charlie Horse? Now I get Charlie Horses all through my body. My back, my stomach, my legs, my ankles, my feet. I never felt no shit like this. Have you ever see the movies where the muck tries to come out your body? You get what I’m saying?
Host: Medical is gonna be no use, you just ride it out, man.
New Afrikan Comrade: I go man down. When I’m in there they were seeing my whole body, watching my body just move, my muscles just locking up. So they don’t give me shit. So the lady she calls the doctor and the doctor is on the phone. So the doctor says give him Aspirin. So she hands me Aspirin and I say “I don’t want that shit! Give me muscle relaxers, give me something to stop these muscles from locking up.” So she said “give him a COVID test.” Everything’s COVID. And that’s the new thing. Everything’s COVID now. You go in with a broken leg, they say “It’s COVID”. So they give me a rapid COVID test and I come back negative. They still put me on quarantine.
Komrade Underground: I think this is important for me to talk about too because I had a very different experience from from the fuckin ‘Rona. I didn’t get it. I haven’t experienced it. But I think the main reason is because they also came in my cell late night. They came 10 deep straight to me and threw me right to the SHU. I got, in the beginning of COVID, I got thrown right on the slab. And it was because of the approach I was taking to this virus. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was killing motherfuckers. And I knew that these pigs were going to bring it in. I knew I couldn’t make it. I didn’t have no lab to make it in. I knew I couldn’t get it from the outside world. So I started trying to organize.
I started trying to organize and tell these pigs and create a space not to let these pigs in unless they masked up, unless they’ve got body suits on, and only one pigs allowed to come in here. And you already know man, I started having these conversations and started bringing it to the people and trying to create it. If it wasn’t going to be the whole compound, it was going to be my motherfucking dorm. And then we’re going to see what’s gonna happen. You already know, man, they came masked up with a different type of mask, the black masks, right? And they came in 10 deep and took me straight to the SHU. No reports, no shots, no nothing. Just went straight to the SHU. And I’ve been there ever since. And they’ve kept me here ever since.
So there has been this direct violence. This direct silencing violence that some people have experienced and I just happened to be one of them. But I’m not the only one, after I got locked up… two more of my comrades got locked up. I don’t know what they did when they heard I got snatched up for it, but I know that was on the same shit that I was on and was 10 toes down, ready to ride. So I just see that in certain places, and this was a super repressive institution I was at at that time. They came and snatched me off the mat and disappeared me. So because I’ve been in the SHU, I haven’t really experienced a lot of actual people getting COVID. But I’ve experienced these social experiments that they’ve been using to keep us separated.
So to to add and implement more rules, to implement more reasons to lock down, to implement more reason to keep us from our family, to implement more reasons to stop visitations, and to control. In War for the Cities by Yaki Sayles there’s a part of it in the meditations on the Wretched of the Earth, it talks about how these hoods are being experimented on from the experiments that happened to us in prison. So they have these social experiments that are taken out on us on the inside, because they know all of us getting out or going to go to the same hoods. So when we see the same things happening to our neighborhoods, we are already assimilated, we are used to lock downs. We used to be locked up and we are used to being separated. That’s where they gonna start these things. They will start these things in these Black and brown poor neighborhoods, and expand them from there. They’re going to keep us in these bubbles, they’re going to keep us in these small places, just like in prison. So and then their going to be snatching people off the streets. They’re going to be snatching people off the streets, like they snatch us out in here. So there’s just so many different levels of these social experiments that are happening. But then how much is that affecting this already fragmented movement?
Okay, so this shows us that the monetary system and capitalism and all that shit is bullshit, right? It showed us that everybody in the whole fucking United States didn’t have to fucking work unless you were poor, Black or brown, and working class that became, what’d they call that shit? “Essential workers.” So now, when you’re essential, you are now essential, not to the movement, you are essential to keeping production going. It’s not the money people need because the government’s printing this shit out left and right. The government’s fucking tricking everyone. So it’s just these ideas of “You are essential” instead of saying that “you are expendable.” You are expendable workers now, because we need to keep the beast moving, we need to keep the machine moving. There’s just so many different levels that the Empire has used to attack us on the inside and outside because this is where the movements going to come from. This is where the people are coming from. This is where these protests came from. This is where the mass looting came from. It came from the hood where these folks are having to work now. It came from the idea that the prisoners that are being locked the fuck down.
So now our communication even to spread this fucking word on what’s going out, of what’s getting out of the prison is so difficult right now. Luckily the pigs are corrupt. Luckily, so we can get phones and shit in here. But besides that, that’s still a very small amounts of us. And then within the amount of people that are getting phones, how many people are actually putting in at work? An even smaller amount. So, if they can figure out how to control us? So they’re finding out how to motherfucking break us, man, they’re finding out ways to fragment us even more. So there’s been such where there was already a separation of solidarity. There was already a separation between us and the free world comrades, now it’s becoming even more. And COVID is showing that it’s just ways to oppress us. Right? It’s just ways to keep us oppressed. It’s just ways to keep us locked down in the free world and over here.
Host: Yeah. Okay, both you brought it up. Essentially, like a lot of people on the outside that aren’t acquainted with being incarcerated, or the prison system, they don’t realize that people inside, the lockdown of COVID-19 is nothing new. You already got 99 problems. COVID is just another one. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s a new level of asymmetrical warfare being waged against you, COVID-19 is just another chapter of the same book. Out here it’s like some big dramatic thing. But mostly just more continuation of the same, even though it killed 240 people in California [prisons], like how many people does the prison system kill on a daily basis no matter what?
Komrade Underground: Yeah, for real.
New Afrikan Cromade: Right. Those aren’t astronomical numbers as far as I’m concerned. I need it to be more for me to be a believer. That’s me, personally. I’m not taking those shots. I’m not getting no vaccines, none of that shit. I’ll take my chances.
Komrade Underground: I’m in the same vein. Literally. The same vein. I’m not taking that shit, man. I’m not taking nothing.
Host: It’s one of the few choices that you are allowed. Something you could actually choose on the inside.
Komrade Underground: For right now…
Host: To get a vaccine or not? What you get with an eating each day? You aren’t choosing that. Turning a doorknob? You don’t get to turn a doorknob. Well, the vaccine is a few things you have to get to decide on.
New Afrikan Comrade: I think they weaponize the food. Weaponize the milk. I don’t eat this shit. I don’t drink their water. Everything I do I buy off canteen. So I’m one of those type of dudes. I just don’t fuck with the pigs at all.
Komrade Underground: Salute, man, salute!
I just wanted to get into what he was talking about. About them weaponizing the food, because that’s true. It is this idea that whether it’s on a conscious level that is happening on the compound or something bigger, it’s this food and it’s a formal production. It’s the little things that keep us oppressed in here, like you were saying. COVID is just one of the things that’s killing us, right now. But we have lived in the proximity of death every fucking day we’ve been inside. Death is so close to every single prisoner, that COVID is like “okay, it’s just another thing killing us.” “So and so got COVID? He gonna make it through. He just got stabbed two weeks ago. I know he can make it through COVID.” So there’s this level of death that looms over all of us, that we have to fight.
Not a lot of people know this story, and I’m gonna bring it up. But when I was young, in one of the juvenile dorms I was in, they snatched us all up and what they would do is they would bring stuff to us so we can all get in fights and then because they might have a big bus or a big load of more juveniles coming so they would clear out rooms to make room for these new ones. Send us to the confinement for 60 days and either put us with the adults or just slowly integrate us back in. But this time we went ham, and I went ham on the pigs, and I spit in their face. I’m going through it with them. They were slamming me on my shit and everything’s going down, but I was going hard that day. I don’t know why it was just one of those days that I know this is part of the process: them handcuffing us and beating us up. I just didn’t feel like wearing it man, I didn’t feel like wearing it. I started going ham, spitting on them, they put a mask on me. They were just going ham.
So, when they put us in the showers I was going in on these pigs. I’m talking about “I’m not cuffing up again. I’m not going to my room!” Going ham. This pig got really tired of me, he got really tired of me spitting on him and he finally got the cuffs on me and told me to step to the back of the place. I’m young, I’m like 18 then, and when I stepped to the back of the shower, he walks in the shower and pulls a fucking knife on me. A real, steel street knife on me and tell me how he’s going to cut my nuts off and stab me and kill me. And when I seen that. I seen in his eyes like, “Yo, this pig really wants to kill me, yo. This pig really wants to kill me and he can do it right here! And from that day forward, I knew that every day in here, it’s not only a struggle to survive, but it’s a struggle to not die. So COVID is just another fucking pig without no fucking mask that I gotta fucking deal with.
Host: You said something right there. And you said a lot right there, let’s be honest. But proximity to death, and what it imparts and what it teaches you. A personal story. I mean, I haven’t been locked up, so I can’t relate in that way. I can’t say “I know.” I’m not a brother in that sense. But I just lost my father, like recently, like last week. And on his death bed I asked him “so are you scared?” And he said, “No, not since Vietnam.” He was in Vietnam when he was like, 21 years old. He said “I could have died any day. So I’m not scared. I’m not scared of anything.” It was close to proximity to death, on that basis, and throughout his life, that basically worked in a certain perspective. And a certain strength, and a certain knowledge of self. I know none of you signed up for it, you were placed in this system. And that proximity to death is imposed on you. But there’s something there about the proximity to death that sets your priorities, that sets this passion. And I see it concretizes, it makes solid who you are and what you got to live for. You know how you want to live and you know, how you want to die.
Komrade Underground: I think George said it best, He said “I don’t care about living a long life. I care about living a well and fulfilled life.” And that’s been my mantra every morning that I wake up. I don’t give a fuck about living long. I just want to live fulfilled, yo.
New Afrikan Comrade: You can’t you can’t let death be the main ingredient in how you live your life. We are all born to die, like brothers say. We are born to die. So if it’s you’re time to go, there’s nothing you can do about it… it’s your time to go. So I’m not going to be doing no extra shit, jumping through hoops, taking vaccines and all this shit because I’m scared to die. I’m already half-assed dead anyway, living this motherfucker. Sleeping in this coffin. You know, I sat in here one day and watched the whole room just close in on me. It was just me and the bed and the wall. We can’t let death be the issue on how we live our lives in here. Whether it’s COVID, whether it’s these pigs, whether it’s these inmates. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. You got to live the best life you can.
Komrade Underground: I was gonna say, I think that’s important, though, too, because I don’t want to make it seem like every choice that I make is because of death. Because it’s not. When I say I want to live fulfilled, it’s to know that we are very close to death but still living strategically. right? I think that’s important and I appreciate you for bringing that up. Because those that live with death wishes, they’re not going to get a lot done. We’re going to put out half assed work, and we’re going to put out stuff that’s not important. So we shouldn’t lead with death, you are right comrade, But I really, I really think that just knowing that it’s there. At times, it makes us more frantic, right? It makes us want to push out more stuff. So we have to slow down a little bit, we have to not let that lead us. And just remember that it’s there.
Remember that when it’s time, let’s just go out hard. But when it’s not, let’s still be strategic in every move. Let’s still move with the idea of creating, because none of us are going to be around when this shit sets off. Right now none of us are going to be around when the actual movement or when we come to whatever anyone wants to believe is going to be communist fucking…. not utopia, but just a new world. A new Earth. We’re not going to be around for that. But we still have to prepare and plan and structure our movements to where it matters. Because if we just do shit half-cocked and half-assed, then anything we’re doing is just going to be a detriment to the struggle.
Host: Well, and I think that’s an excellent place to leave it man. You guys both just wrapped it up. And I want to thank both of you for your time and your generosity and the risk you’re taking – you’re calling from your cells right now. So, thank you. And thanks to Shut ‘Em Down media group for making this possible. The first of many conversations hopefully. We need more of this.
Komrade Underground: Hey man I appreciate being here and being allowed, and for this platform. That’s all that we can do is just have some more of these conversations. So I think I’m just gonna leave you with the words of Jonathan Jackson. “All power to the people that don’t fear freedom.”
On this special midweek release, you’ll hear Swift Justice, incarcerated Abolitionist in Alabama affiliated with the Alabama Resistance Movement and Unheard Voices OTCJ. Swift talks about some current situations in the Alabama Department of Corrections, legislation ongoing around prison slavery due to the exception clauses at the state and federal level (specifically the 13th Ammendment), covid-19 behind bars, groups doing well in the struggle and organizing that needs to go further and actually engage with incarcerated comrades and updates on the recent attack on Swift’s mentor, Kinetic Justice. Check out some of Swift’s writings on his supporters blog at SwiftJustice4Freedom.wordpress.com.
You can hear our past interview with Swift here as well as our interview with Kinetic and Bennu on the founding of the Free Alabama Movement. For more Alabama prisoner perspectives from over the years, you can search Alabama on our site.
Protesters will take action against increasingly torturous and fatal conditions at the prison in Green Bay (GBCI) at noon on Saturday, August 28, 2021. The protest will include a march to the prison, speeches from advocates and people who’ve done time at GBCI, and relaying messages from people currently held there. The demonstrators will use large banners, loudspeakers and noisemakers to attempt to reach and express solidarity with people confined in the prison.
WHERE: Green Bay CI, 2833 Riverside Dr, Allouez, WI 54301
WHEN: 12:00 Noon on Sat August 28, 2021
Conditions at prisons across Wisconsin have deteriorated in recent years, and GBCI is one of the worst. Money that was intended to repair and improve the 123 year old prison is instead being used to create more solitary confinement cells and control units. People held there describe it as a conversion into a supermax style prison.
Staff at GBCI frequently neglect medical emergencies and drive their captives to self-harm and suicide. Those held in the restrictive housing unit (RHU) often express fear for their lives. When summoned to investigate deaths or litigate suits against the prison, local law enforcement and judges support the prison, enabling continued atrocities.
The demonstration at GBCI is part of the national SHUTEMDOWN2021 mobilization called by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a prisoner-led organization. The goal of SHUTEMDOWN2021 is to raise awareness of the prison strike JLS plans for next year, and their 10 demands to end slavery and improve conditions in prisons across the US. Wisconsin organizers are also planning educational events in Milwaukee, and a large demonstration at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) on September 9.
Unity And Struggle Through The Bars with Mwalimu Shakur
This week on the show, you’ll hear our conversation with Mwalimu Shakur, a politicized, New Afrikan revolutionary prison organizer incarcerated at Corcoran prison in California. Mwalimu has been involved in organizing, including the cessations of hostilities among gangs and participation in the California and then wider hunger strikes against unending solitary confinement when he was at Pelican Bay Prison in 2013, helping to found the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, Liberation Schools of self-education and continues mentoring younger prisoners. He was in solitary confinement, including in the SHU, for 13 of the last 16 years of his incarceration.
For the hour, Mwalimu talks a bit about his politicization and organizing behind bars, his philosophy, Black August, the hunger strikes of 2013, the importance of organizing in our neighborhoods through the prison bars.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Jonathan Jackson at the Marin County Courthouse, the assassination of his brother George at San Quentin in California and the subsequent uprising and State massacre at Attica State Prison in New York. Black August has been celebrated at least since 1979 to mark these dates with study, exercise, community building, sharing and reflection by revolutionaries on both sides of the bars. In the last decade across Turtle Island, you’ve seen strikes and protests and educational events take place around this time of the year as we flex our muscles.
This year, as you’ve heard us mention, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is calling for weeks of action for Abolitionism under the name “Shut ‘Em Down 2021”. You can find out more at JailhouseLawyersSpeak.Wordpress.Com and follow them on twitter and instagram, linked in our show notes, alongside links relating to this weeks chat. You can hear our interview with a member of JLS from earlier this year about the “Shut ‘Em Down” initiative, or read the interview, at our site and in these show notes. Also, check out our interview with the remaining member of the Marin Courthouse Uprising, possibly the oldest living political prisoner in the US, Ruchell Cinque Magee.
Shaka Shakur Hunger Strike
New Afrikan prison rebel, co-founder of the New Afrikan Liberation Collective and IDOCWatch organizer, Shaka Shakur has been interstate transferred hundreds of miles away from his support network to Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia (recognize that name?). There was a call-in campaign this week focused on VA Governor Northam, director of VADOC Harold Clark, VADOC central regional director Henry Ponton and Warden Woodson at BKCC. This was in support of Shakur’s hunger strike in protest of the transfer, his time in solitary prior in Indiana for having his prescription medication, being moved into solitary at BKCC with minimal hygiene and no personal materials. As noted in the transcript about his hunger strike at IDOCWatch’s website, the transfer interrupts civil and criminal litigation Shaka Shakur had pending in Indiana and has caused him to be halfway across the country after his own surgeries, the loss of his family matriarch and another aunt, the hospitalization of mother and other health hardships.
TFSR: Hi, I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself for the audience, maybe like your name, your location, if that’s useful, any pertinent information that will help the audience understand you.
Mwalimu Shakur: My name is Mwalimu Shakur, and I’m in CorcoranState Prison, where I’ve been for the last 17 years, 13 of which were in solitary confinement. But, you know, due to our massive hunger strikes in challenging this legislature inside of prison, the bureaucrats decided to let us out to the general population.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about some of your background, where you came from, how you became politicized, and how you identify politically now?
MS: Yeah, well, I came from Los Angeles, California. You know… gang violence was a problem in every neighborhood around the whole LA County area. As well as most of Southern California, but I grew up in a gang neighborhood, and not having really no political education, and only knowing the street way of life. You kind of navigated through court cases, you know, cases that put you in prison. But once you come inside of here, you have older individuals from your same community and other communities around the country who became politicized. And they became politically mature, so they can re-educate others that come in.
And for me, landing in prison, or what the drug mentality, gang mentality, criminal mentality all together. It put me in a situation where I was always involved in physical combat with others. You know, people I knew from my area, and then we have race riots. So those types of things that put you in solitary confinement. And when you go to solitary confinement, or you catch an infraction, those in SHU term, they’ll place you around more politicized individuals, who’ve educated themselves, studied their own history, study, politics, economics, a vast array of things. And being around those guys, that was the program on the inside. So I was able to start educating myself. I educated myself, so much so that I developed it into my practice. And it gave me a discipline, that became second nature to me. And once my mind started opening up to this new reality, I started seeing things more clearly, and I realized and understood why my community was the way that it was.
It wasn’t because we wanted to do these things, it was by design by those who oppress us and control us so that they can put us in their prisons and enact a modern day slavery type practice. Being in prison, that’s exactly what it is. So that’s what happened to me. And now, the more I still learn, the more I’m able to teach, and hopefully stop others from making those same mistakes. And if my teaching is correct, the way it was with me, then we can stop this school–to–prison pipeline which is what we say when you have a lot of people from inner city coming to prison, not knowing what to do with their self, they usually end up here. And we’re trying to break, break that curse, break those habits.
TFSR: A lot of people in the listening audience may not understand what you mean, with talking about how the situation was set up, particularly at this time, like you went in during what could be called like the heyday of mass incarceration in the United States. And if you could maybe break down, since you’ve been in for a while and some things have changed greatly, somethings have stayed the same. There’s this guy named Biden, I’ve heard about that has a still pretty prominent politics, that was pretty prominent. And some of the political decisions that put a lot of people in particular, Black and brown folks behind bars at that time. Can you talk a little bit about that context?
MS: Yeah, well, in the inner city, they flooded it with cocaine. You know, as if to say that the little progress we’ve made in the 70s, from the 60s revolutionary era, would quiet us and stop us from progressing as a people and as a culture. So you flood all the inner cities with this cocaine, okay? A lot of us partook in selling it, not knowing or really having a vast understanding and just further destroying our community and our people. So we became hustlers in the drug game. Gangs were rapidly building and growing. And then they put guns on the streets.
So now with the gun wars, and drug wars… basically the administration, I think and believe, had it set up that way so that they can take taxpayers money to build more prisons and create more laws to put us in and clearly show you the problems that are happening in those inner cities. And they created it, you know, and when you study it, you see it unfold that way because the only ones being hauled off into these prisons is Black and brown people. And the sentences are outrageous. Without a murder just for like selling small amounts of cocaine, you can get a lot of times – double digits, Okay? And then they enacted other laws, like the three strike law and made it seem like we were the worst people on planet Earth.
And in all actuality, that’s not really true. If you wouldn’t flood the inner cities with that cocaine and had made it possible for us to have better quality education in our schools, made it affordable to go off to college and learn a higher field of study so we can be successful in this country, we would have had more success. But the ratio, you know, people Black and brown playing sports was very limiting and that was the only ticket that I see out if you weren’t being a drug dealer. So that’s why I say it was by design, when you studied you see that mass incarceration boom, is still in effect right now, right? And what we’re doing is trying to challenge some of those laws and get them out of here. Because we recognize what they did. And with some of the laws changing, it’s like they’re admitting it, that they did do this and now it’s time to make it right. So that’s what I see.
Awesome, thank you so much for sharing that. Part of the context that I have for you and was excited to have you on the show is because you have a long history of struggle alongside of other prisoners against unethical situations, against cruelty, against mass incarceration. One of the points in the struggle of prisoners that I’ve heard you refer to was participation in the hunger strikes against basically unending use of the SHU or solitary confinement. Can you talk a bit about it? People may have heard of the term SHU or secure housing unit? How does that differ from solitary confinement more generally? Is there a difference?
Well, no, there’s no difference. I mean, we refer to solitary confinement is to AD-SEG, administrative segregation, which is what they first put you before you get the SHU term. The situation is the same. 23 hours locked down. Except for once you once you go to the SHU, that’s when you can have appliances like a TV or radio, okay? In AD-SEG, you can’t have those two things, but you can have everything else. You still go to yard every other day for a few hours. And you’re in a dog-like kennel-type cage, where they put a urinal, so that you can use the restroom. But you have no contact with another human being. You can see from cage to cage, but you can’t contact them, you can’t touch them.
The only human contact you have is if you have a celly. So the practices are the same. The length of time, in AD-SEG is not as long as it is in SHU. Like I said AD-SEG is like a pit stop before you get to Security Housing Unit. And within a Security Housing Unit. You can’t have the type of things you can have on in the general population. You can’t take college courses, you can’t go to school. You can’t take a vacation. You can have a few books. You can have no tennis shoes. Just like, some type of shoe that’s not really designed to protect your feet, you can put on like a shower shoe, but with a little bit more support. You could have no athletic shorts, no T-shirts. We took like two pairs of T-shirts to make a long sleeve T-shirt in case it was cold. So you couldn’t have sweat suits, thermals, beanies, nothing like that, to keep yourself warm.
It’s a real inhumane practice to have. You pretty much break a person down to nothing. And you put them in a cell, like I said, confined for 23 hours a day. And it was just because of those conditions: the small portions on the trays, the lack of quality healthcare, always being handcuffed every time you do come out of the cell to go to a shower, which is like five minutes. If you’re in Pelican Bay, then you’re not in a dog cage, you are in a little cage right behind your cell so you see nobody.
So yeah, we all came together talking through the doors, talking through the toilets, to each other and decided to come up with a strategy to get out of here. To get released. It worked because, united we stood on a hunger strike. And then we started challenging the injustice that puts you in there, like the gang validation. And then we start challenging the practices that they use to keep you in there. Like, if you talk to another inmate who’s a gang member, then you get another point, and it keeps you in there longer. And mind you, you are going through a classification every six years to get considered to be released. So it was really inhumane, the practices were. We just came up with the hunger strike strategy as well as challenging the rules in order to get up out of here. And for the most part, it worked.
TFSR: You talked about participating in the hunger strikes against SHU containment. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the administration and gang status? There’s a term, you’ll be able to come up with it, but, basically where if you’re assigned a gang status, because somebody else pointed at you, the only way in a lot of cases to get out of the SHU at that point was to basically claim that someone else was a gang member, and give false testimony in a lot of cases, to be able to reduce SHU time. Is that Is that a fair description? Is that what happened?
MS: Yeah, well, what it is, is the administration, they look at who they feel is against them as far as political-ness. Like for us New Afrikans, I could speak on that. We’re not a gang, but being a politicized, conscious, New Afrikan means you can challenge the conditions and wake others up to that knowledge on how to do so. And what they do is they’ll put that gang label on you, because they put the gang label on the other ethnic groups, and it will stick with the other ethnic groups, if you’re a gang member that came from society, and you come up inside of these prisons and you group together, and you form your structure.
So what they do is they put that label on you. So they can get away with the type of law book that they write. They come up with these rules, just like the bureaucrats and society come up with rules and different laws to get legislation passed, okay? The bureaucrats in prison do the same, they get a book where it gives them the rights to whatever they consider gang practice: like reading certain types of books, certain type of cultural literature, a certain type of drawing depicting that literature. Anything you read, study, or practice, if they consider that gang participation, they’ll slap you with that label.
Okay? And if you rack up… they give you points for everything you do. Okay, if you speak this Swahili language, they say you are communicating in code. Okay, so that becomes a gang point. If you exercise a certain way, in military form, that shows unity. They look at that as gang participation with other gang members. So it’s whatever the rules they can try to come up with to make stick on you, which gives them their little right to hinder you. And once they have enough points, like three to four points, they then can put you in solitary confinement indefinitely. And what it does is, they give you an indeterminate SHU, which is only six months. But every six months, they just keep stamping it. So then you stay in there for years and years and years and you only go to committee every six years if you have an indeterminate SHU. So that gives me the right to keep you in there. And then when you go to that committee, they stamp you again. Saying, “well, we see them talking to another gang member, he hasn’t denounced his association”.
So, you know, those little things keep you in solitary for that length of time, and the only way to get out is parole. And if you debrief, go through the little process of dry snitching or telling on others, informing on others and work for them, or you die. You know? And we wanted to take that power back. So we all got together and decided, you know, let’s come up with these strategies to do so. But it’s a flawed system. We challenged it, it worked because we didn’t have the political maturity to understand that in order to beat their system, we should unite. But once we develop that, we found those strategies to be significant in winning our freedoms from behind that wall. So now, they can only use this SHU practices, if you catch a SHU-able offense. You know, whatever they deem a SHU-able offense by getting caught with a weapon or participating in some type of a riot or melee, assault on the staff, anything that will warrant SHU placement?
TFSR: Mwalimu, just to make a point, on the on the gang jacketing, and the files, and the debriefing and everything. Like, if you get paroled out… and like a lot of people are going to end up staying with their families because they don’t have money. So if they can go anywhere, they’ll try to stay with their family. Oftentimes the ways that the California government defines gang membership, there’s a relationship to… they say like, “Oh, it overlaps with family.” So it seems like it complicated it too, when you go and you stay in your cousin’s house or whatever, they are then associating with a known gang member and this kind of thing. I’m not sure if it still is the case, but I think in 2013 this was still the case, gang injunctions would then come into play where maybe if because you’ve been communicating with your cousin, who’s on the outside. When you get out maybe you can’t go to the neighborhood that your your cousin lives in, because they’re considered to be gang associated through family connections or whatever. Is that right?
MS: Well, it’s true still because yeah, they can gang jacket you. But once they do background checks on your family, and they see that they’re not involved with the street gang or anything like that, they will back up but they will still watch you. Most people, the family already knows about them, and what to expect in case they parole to a loved one’s house. Now, if you go to your neighborhood, and you are a member of a street gang, then the parole department is going to watch a lot more, because if the street gangs is under any type of surveillance for any type of activities that they have, they’re going to see if you’re participating in things like that. And that’s also avoidable. It’s all about you and what you want to do to integrate back into society.
For me, I was working, went back to school, and living a productive life, where they couldn’t pinpoint me for doing things with known gang members from my area, or anybody else I might have ran into that I knew, because while they’re watching me, they’re seeing that “Okay, he may be speaking to people, but he’s not doing anything that we consider illegal or gang activity.” So, they won’t push on you so hard, they’ll gives you a little leeway. But for those that do go back out there and do anything like that, you’re just setting yourself up for failure, you know? Surveillance capitalism, you see it all over now they got cameras on telephone poles, and certain community areas where they can watch the neighborhood and see what they’re doing, and things of that nature. So the community is under surveillance, you know, normal people under surveillance. I mean, so they’re watching everything you do. But it’s up to you, that individual, on how well they want to be productive out there and what they want to do while they’re out there.
TFSR: Yeah, what you’re describing, though, with, like the inside / outside affiliations, and the constant surveillance is counter-insurgency. Right?
Right. Right, right. And they do that in here as well as out there. I learned that firsthand by being in the SHU and being investigated by ISU officers and IGI who are supposed to work with gang members in prison. But they’re going out there in society and work on parole agents, and other Sheriff departments and patrols certain gang neighborhoods. And that’s how I got arrested, actually, on three violations that I obtained. I was arrested by them, you know, and I didn’t commit a crime. But one of my violations, they put me back in prison for being out past curfew because I stopped at a gas station before I got home, and then they were the one’s harassing me! Okay? Then I’m at home, you know, it’s a decent hour, but they came to my house, saying “Well, you are living above your means.” You know, just little chickenshit things like that. It’s the thing that they do when you have their gang jacket on. And like I said, it gives them that right, because of their flawed law book that they put together, that they target us. You know?
TFSR: During the last portion of our conversation, you were talking about the the prison strikes, the hunger strikes across California prisons that actually spread way beyond that, around concerns of solitary confinement. And you talked about when people realize that when they were unified, they have a lot more strength. Can you talk about that sort of organizing. That inspirational moment and the hard work that you all put into create negotiations and some sort of like, de-escalation between different crews, whether they be specifically racialized crews, like the Aryan Brotherhood? That sort of stuff that inspires people still from the Lucasville uprising and from Attica before it?
MS: Yeah, yes. When you show a person your purpose, and you can sometimes take race even out of it, and just show the love for humanity. When you take a stand for others who are being oppressed. And you show them the conditions in which they’re being oppressed, they can understand and say “That makes sense.” So what we was able to do was, let them know that there’s a bigger picture than this little bickering that we had going on for generations and generations. And when you show them that bigger picture, and they see that “if we unite with you all, whether our interests are the same or not, and we can reach the objective by doing so, then let’s do it.” And then the whole time, while you’re doing that, you still show them your correct views, your correct ideology, what you proceed. You show them the incorrect ways in which they’re being treated by the government. You show them that it’s a class struggle, and not a race struggle, and you use these teaching moments, you know, to show them that it’s the race caste system was devised by the two party government system. To show you that “look, if you divide yourself from the Negros and the Indians, then we will give you special privileges,” but they’re not getting as those privileges. So now you show them that, “look, you’re serving their interests as much as we do, or we are. And if you believe in American values, you’re going to lose because they’re not going to treat you the way you think you deserve to be treated.” And you can clearly see that with people that go off to war. So when you show people where they’re wrong is that and who is responsible for the wrong they’ll lean more towards you.
And that’s what we were able to do with the other ethnic groups in California, as well as when we got the word out to society, and had a lot white people, a lot of Mexican people, a lot of other ethnicities join forces with us, in solidarity, to help us overcome the challenges that we were facing here. And we had a lot of people from other countries like maybe Europe, you know, where there was a lot of civil unrest, and a lot of organizations who established themselves, they were poor people organizations. They realized that it was a class struggle. And that’s how you win the masses over. You know a lot of times people just, they have a feeling, they have a thought, they just need to be pushed to exercise that thought and give into that feeling. And when you show him that you’ve got that love and support for them. And they feel that strength, they tend to latch on, too.
TFSR: What were some outcomes actually, of those strikes. I know it led to higher court responses and admonition of the state of California for its practices. How have things changed because of that mass movement of people, and how has that peace that was brokered, and reflection, that it was a class struggle, and not a race struggle… Where does that seem to fit in the California system to you now?
MS: Well, now that they let us all out of solitary confinement, you know, that was one win. And then they can only use solitary confinement or the SHU for if you catch a SHU term. You know, it would have to be a criminal infraction, just like if you’re on the streets, and you catch a case and you go to prison. They have to utilize it the way it was designed. So they can’t use those practices no more. Also the guard union took a hit, because a lot of them can’t work in the SHU no more and get that hazardous pay, which is like triple pay. So they lose out. The Board of Prison Terms has said “You know what? We’re going to have to start letting some of these people out of prison and back into society.” So the laws have been changing.
Since we’ve gotten into the general population, and utilize our practices, and shown them, you know, this revolutionary way of doing things. When they implemented their own self-help groups, which are like robotic programs to teach you how to have common sense the way they want you to, you see how they’re doing it, and you change that narrative and create your own self-help groups. Things that you know will really work. And you’re working together with other ethnicities, and you’re increasing the peace and showing this younger generation “You’ve been misled, you’ve been misguided. You know, we’re the ones who made mistakes, and had the faults, it’s time for us to change that.” And when you do that, you see legislature saying “Okay, well, they know the truth now. They know what really happened. They know how the Three Strikes were devised. They know who pushed the crack cocaine into the neighborhoods.” we’re taking the power back by realizing that there’s a peaceful way to get things done, there’s a peaceful way to bring these changes.
And if you keep telling the truth, you take the power out of their 1% class of hands, and you win more of the masses over. Because you make people who didn’t know, understand, you know, by teaching them those truths. And then they research those facts on their own and they’re more willing to want to help you. So a lot of changes are still needed, but we got the ball rolling. And that’s one thing that I can say is happening right now throughout the California prison system.
TFSR: So this year, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, which is a coalition based around and in prisons around the US and a lot in the South, is calling for days of action, solidarity and education on the outside with folks struggling on the inside on August 21, and September 9. And I’d like to hear later about Black August and about education and the 50th anniversary of George Jackson’s assassination, and how people participated in the Attica Uprising also. But I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about the importance of having people on the outside acting in solidarity and understanding the unity between inside and outside as well as the differences. And just to sort of like point to that trajectory of activity… the inspiration of the hunger strikes in California that spread the movement in Georgia, in the early 2010s, the Free Alabama Movement and the strikes that were happening in Alabama and Mississippi around that time and the sort of like chronology of struggle. Could you talk about the importance of the inside / outside solidarity and the upcoming dates of the action and education?
MS: Yeah, well, the inside outside solidarity is of paramount importance because we don’t want separation. We don’t want the 1% class to think that people in society look at us as bad people, you know? They need to understand that it’s important to support us on the inside because we are the ones who will be fighting once we get out, we’re the ones who are going to fight with them, to help them challenge different conditions out there that are still oppressing them out there is as it is in here. You know, it should never be a divide. It should always be unity.
You know what we sparked in California by recognizing our conditions, we’re glad that it trickled over into the other states because they were up against the same type of oppressive slave conditions. I mean, they didn’t start in California with the three strikes, for example. They started in California, and that actually spread to other States, and they just call it something different, but the condition is still the same. So the importance of knowing that, will build that unity, and people outside will see the importance of this, to stand in unity with us on the inside to get things done because t takes us all in order to beat back Capitalism and Imperialism.
What we would love to see more of, is a lot more changes being done in the Constitution, like Ammendment 13. Keeping those clauses there allows them to still keep those practices, those slave practices. And people on outside needs to really understand a lot more of what they’re up against. And if they are working with anybody in here, we can always show them to look at Liberation Schools. It teaches you something that the American public school system didn’t teach you. We teach the truth based on all cultures, how they’ve been oppressed, economically, politically, militarily. And the need to eradicate those backwards ways of thinking and doing,because you know who established them. And if you know that, then you can fight them a whole lot easier. So we look forward to continuing our Liberation Schools and winning the masses over that way. We look forward to supporting you all out there. As well as I know, you guys will look forward to helping us on the inside. And yeah, we can talk about it a lot more than next time I get a chance to call.
Working inside and outside is the best thing possible so that we break away from that dividing line, that they try to put there because they want to keep you separate. Unity in the masses is of paramount importance, if you want to go forward in this class struggle, because we need to unite, helping each other with whatever we got going on, that reaches a positive objective of change. You know, and like what you’re doing now, this right here builds unity of the masses, builds solidarity, this reaches people so they can see their purpose. And if they need help with anything, and there’s others who might have a semblance of how to make it happen for them, then, you know, by all means you should always assist. You know, and that’s what will keep the unity strong. People always want to be able to lean on their comrades and loved ones and sometimes other people have better programs or something else is working, that they might not have working. And you always want to help people so that they can achieve their goals, just like how you want to achieve your goals.
TFSR: So we’re talking right now, in August, that’s the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising as well as the assassination of George Jackson, which, as I understand in 1979 began being practiced mostly by Black radical prisoners, and then by others in solidarity, the practice of Black August. Can you talk a little bit about the practice, it’s important to you? And also a bit about the education and the Liberation Schools?
Yeah. Well the purpose of keeping the practice going of Black August is what the month means to New Afrikan revolutionaries and fought and gave their life to win freedoms that we have in here. They put their life on the line to challenge these conditions. So, the Liberation Schools, from the onset is to teach that, about our history, our cultural practices, because this is something that we didn’t learn in school. And when you learn through the Liberation Schools, it allows you to go out there and not compete in the capitalist market, but understand what Capitalism is all about and utilize your finances for socialist practices. You know, helping grow Black–owned businesses or other oppressed ethnic groups in the communities, businesses, and building that unity and solidarity. Because what you learn is that we all have shared cultural practices. In Howard Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States you learn how divided line was established and by whom. You learned the importance of solidarity and unity and how to help each other, you know “Each One Teach One” practices come to mind. And you see the importance of doing so. So yeah, this whole month, we pay reverence to those who paved the way for us, basically, and continue with this study. And practice the exercising, something we do in unity. Just to feel strength.
TFSR: So you mentioned, like the practices and the importance of sharing this, learning and mentoring, and study, and focus, during the period of Black August, and also like redirecting funds back into socialistic endeavors. Could you talk a bit about sort of the legacy for you of some of the big ideas, and some of the big thinkers. George Jackson obviously comes to mind. His struggle, his writings have been like greatly influential to folks that are doing study behind bars. I know that you’ve done work on projects that have collaborated with George Jackson University. And also, I would like for you, if you if you’re okay with it, to break down the term New Afrikan, which you’ve defined yourself as. I think some listeners may be unfamiliar with that term and some of its lineage.
MS: Well, the New Afrikan term is your ideology. You know, we consider this our New Afrikan being as we’re descendants of our ancestors who came over here as slaves. So we don’t use the term African American or Black or… We try to refrain from those terms, because those are the terms that the oppressor wants to call you and to see things in his way is just not the correct way. So that’s why we call ourselves New Afrikans, it’s an ideology. And all ethnicities who are revolutionary nationalists should always refer to their self in a way that they feel comfortable, not in a way like the oppressors feel like referring to them. And you know, most of my role models, so to speak: yeah, George is one; Mao; Marx; Engels; Amílcar Cabral; Patrice Lumumba; Kwame Nkrumah; Jomo Kenyatta. All those who took the liberation stands, Che Guevara, to challenge oppression, and unite the people, and challenge the conditions that were oppressing them, not just the people. Those who sacrificed their life, paved the way for us. The spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of all of those who continue to do the same, because, as you can see, the problem still exists.
I do like Huey’s concept as well, because, creating a party, which Lenin spoke about, a party or self-governing organization of the people. You know, that’s basically what Communism is. And Socialism is your economic practices. So it works in hindsight, as long as you’re always keeping the People in mind. When you create programs for the People, they are programs designed to help further the people along, and keep them thinking about self sufficiency. Because that’s what it’s all about. You don’t need to compete in the capitalist market, work your way up the capitalist chain, because you’ll never make it to the top. In understanding that, you want to wake up the minds of others who don’t yet know that. And that way they won’t be running around like dogs chasing their tail, so to speak. Lost and caught up just trying to make ends meet. They’ll make things better for themself. Okay?
TFSR: You were just telling me about the liberation Schools. Can you talk a bit about what y’all do and what the idea is?
MS: Okay, with us, it’s always about need. So, as far as like the Liberation Schools, we try to bring the material, the cultural material, historical material, where we read it and studied it, and we practice our way of life like our ancestors did. And every program we create, is a program of need. So when we grab the certain books, by for instance, Chancellor Williams has a book called The Destruction of Black Civilization, and it tells you how it was destroyed in Africa. Okay, Then he tells you, he does a sequel, part two: The Rebirth Of African Civilization. And that tells you how to build these self sufficiency programs that are designed to allow you to implement socialist practices that are programs of need that people have, so that they can continue to raise healthy families. You know?
Like for instance, we created one program, I have to use a pamphlet so you can get the in depth details of it. But like for instance, one of them was like building a community grocery store. And let’s say for instance, I have enough finances to rent a space and build a grocery store. I use a comrade or friend in the community that has their own construction company, and I spend money with them who is not going to charge me a lot to build the grocery store. Okay, the grocery store, all the stuff that I’m selling in a grocery store, let’s say or instance there are four or five people on my street who have organic fruits and vegetables. The soil is ripe for planting and growing foods and vegetables. So I take all their groceries, all their stuff, I pay them what they want for this, reasonable price, and I turn around and sell it to other people. And what you see is the practices of implementing that. And everybody has enough. Everybody is not in need. And the concept continues.
And you can use it with other things like a clothing store. I have a friend of mine who’s a good artist. So I might want to go to another friend of mine who has a linen shop, and buy some linen, and then take my other friend’s art and transform the art onto the clothes and start a clothing line. You know what I mean? And go to another friend of mine who owns like a store similar to Walmart, and put my stuff in his store and have him sell it for price. So that everybody has enough money. Everybody is working and contributing to each other’s businesses, and we’re growing and thriving those businesses and living off of that. Those socialist practices are what’s missing in the communities. And if there is a lot of, you know, what we call a mom and pop spots, the community businesses, thriving those businesses allows for a safe environment in a thriving community. And that’s one of the things we teach in the Liberation Schools. One of the ways that we’ll be able to implement socialist practices.
People get other things out of it. Because we don’t just study New Afrikan history, we study all oppressed people’s history. Mexican history, First Nation peoples history, which they call them Indians or Native Americans, because that was all of Central South America. We study American history. When you study other culture’s history, you fill in the gap that’s left out of American history, where all of us played a part in history, and we fill those in. We study theology, break down the different religions, show how cultures worship God in different ways. Some comrades are Muslim, so they can talk about that. Some comrades are Christian, Hebrew Israelites, Judaists, you know, I’ve heard all different types. We just study all the sciences that we can and some of the arts. And there’s people who are more well versed in languages and in other forms of study than a lot of others, so they study on an advanced level, and then some study on a beginning level. And as long as you can grasp the concepts, and implement them into your practice it will change your way of thinking and how you relate to each other. When you see that each other has a need, and you learn about core value systems, and you try to complement those needs based on their core value system.
TFSR: So, to go back to the example that you gave, of both starting markets and trading with each other and using each other’s resources and such, how does the socialist approach not allow for the re-creation of a bourgeoisie within that community? Certain people have access to certain resources? And if they continue to hold on to it, doesn’t that just reproduce the class dynamic?
MS: Yeah, if you can’t show people the importance of the socialist practice, then yeah, they’ll stay with a bougie mind. And that’s middle class mainly because they try to reach for that 1% class. A lot of them don’t make it. So if they want to continue to reach for it like that, then you have to just let them do what they do. You know, but for those who see the importance of the socialist practices, you continue to welcome them in and show them the importance of sharing those resources. Because you don’t want to be materialistic, if you if you become too materialistic, then the capitalist mind has as engulfed you. You continue and you start thinking like the 1%, which is what they they want. You see it on a TV screen all the time, the lavish lifestyle. They want to showcase that so that you can see that that is success. And it’s really not. You know?
I was in the streets, and I was a hustler and I used to think that that was the way to be successful. When I realized, after studying my history, when I came to prison, that all I’m doing is stepping on my own people, hurting my own people and creating genocidal practices as well as menti-cidal practices by destroying people’s mind. Making them think that this is the way to be, and it is not. So you have to use a practice that we call “eradicating backwards and unprogressive ways of thinking and behavior.” And when you read and study more, you see that that’s the most important thing to do. You know? And when you apply that mentally, you have to encourage others to do the same. But yeah, if you can’t reach everybody, so if you can’t, you just got to let them pretty much fall to the wayside.
TFSR: I’d love to hear more about your ideas on, for instance in Corcoran, in your study group where, like people have limited access to material resources, there’s… literally the institution is there to keep people separate from each other and monitor their relationships. Sharing knowledge is definitely an aspect of socialism. But is there are there other practices or or ways that people relate to each other that sort of reflect on this socialist practice you’re talking about?
MS: Us who come from the inner city, you know, we’ve swallowed a lot of our differences. And we see that there’s a common goal. And that common goal is keeping it peaceful on the prison yards, and not let anyone disturb that peace so that we can make it back to society where our families and our community needs us. So we can undo the damage that we did with the selling of drugs and the gang banging and the, you know, things like that. So we pretty much understand our conditions. And we know that we are our own liberators. So we fight to do just that. We’ve already, because of our agreement to end all hostilities, we’ve already got football tournaments going, basketball tournament, softball tournaments, handball tournaments, things like that. We share in the practices of implementing the self-help groups. We know how to build better men. We know how to interact with each other to help each other thrive and overcoming any injustices that come our way. So we help each other with law work and stuff like that, filling out 602’s, medical forms. Anything like that to show and build unity, which helps with the solidarity.
So coming across those lines, youngsters coming in here who have a different mindset, they see that, and then they realize “Wait a minute, we thought it was like negative and violent!” And we show them “No, this is why it was violent at first, it was CO’s behind it starting all that.” You know? Then of course when there is bloodshed, it’s hard to stop it. But we show them the importance of building that unity, and why we’re resorting to a different way of doing things. And they’re starting to relate to that more. So it is a lot of action. And we were trying to take the hands out of these CO’s, slowly but surely.
I mean, we’re up against the California Guard’s Union. It’s real big and powerful. But, you know, we’re not going to let that discourage us. We’re going to keep doing the best that we can, so that we can overcome this and get these laws to change, get these Parole Boards, hopefully, with people from the community on them, that would have more sympathy towards us. And let us out instead of believing in Capital Punishment. But yeah, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s working. It’s working in a good way. So much so that the governor is letting people off death row, and letting them transition into prison, so they can function in a normal environment. So hopefully they can get a Parole Board date or win their case in court. You know what I mean?
TFSR: So I guess the specific question, again, about the place that you’re being held, or at least the state. So in terms of the demonstrations that are being called for by JLS that we’ve talked about, or mentioned before, between August 21 and September 9, asking for folks on the outside to spread the Abolitionist message and work with comrades and connect with comrades behind bars. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the issues that are specific to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system, where you’re currently being held. And any sort of insights on what you would like folks on the outside to be working on, or programs that they could be coordinating with, based on the conversations that you’re hearing and the reality on the ground, where you’re at.
MS: Well, where we’re at, if comrades on the outside were building Liberation Schools, that will be of paramount importance, because now they’re educating themselves on the need and the importance of transforming the inner cities into positive places, getting rid of all the negative things. And that’s mainly what we’re doing in here, because our self–help groups, we’re finding needs, and trying to meet those needs. And what the state does is they want to create self–help groups that the prison board will accept. So they can transition back into society and be a robot basically, for them. And we don’t want that, that’s not therapeutic programming. Rehabilitating is people who want to change. And they know what they want to change. And if you create certain types of programs that help that change prosper and thrive, then that’s what’s needed.
And that’s what we’re trying to do. What outside comments can also do is work with organizations that are already doing things in prisons, whatever it may be. If it’s creating newsletters, newspapers, podcasts. Whatever it is, so that people in here can let you know what’s going on. And you can find ways to help that, to bring about those changes, that’s what’s needed. We really would like to see people from the community on these Parole Boards, instead of ex-police, DA’s and people in the legislature who only want to control us all. We don’t want to see them because they don’t really want to help you. You know? If they help you transition to society, then they don’t have a job. They have a job when all these prisons stay full. So that’s basically what’s needed.
TFSR: Are there any sort of organizations that you want to name that folks would get involved in? Like, you were one of the founders of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Commitee? So I don’t know if that’s one that you’d want to name or Oakland Abolition or any other sort of groups?
MS: Yeah, IWOC is always… whatever state you’re in, whatever city you live in, there’s a chapter, and we’re trying to create more chapters. But yeah, IWOC is a good group to get involved with because their Abolitionists and activist, and a lot of them have other professional fields where they can utilize those tools to help transition us out into society and create safe space for us to be involved in community work. They challenged legislature. Initiate Justice is another organization that they really challenged legislature and try to get… They’re guiding Senators and State Council members to pass certain laws that will let us get out of prison earlier than what is expected. You’ve got Critical Resistance, they’re pretty big, and they work to abolish prisons altogether. But a lot of them are activists. You got California Prison Focus. There are some other organizations out there in society and different states. I can’t think of them all right now, but any organization that’s working with inside people to make conditions better on the inside, as well as transform those communities into positive places like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the South. You know, those are organizations you want to be a part of. We have a lot of organizations that we’ve established like the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panthers Party. That’s an organization that deals with racial schools. Prison Lives Matter is a new organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, where we’re trying to continue to connect ourselves to these other prison plantations throughout this country, where we continue to develop consciousness through our education, and our revolutionary theory. We can apply that to practice so that we can continue to grow and thrive as a class, not just as a nation, but as a class of all ethnicities, and struggle to win our freedoms.
You have to liberate the mind first before you can liberate the body. That’s something that I always tell people. That’s something that people can get involved with, and if they’re not working with anybody on the inside, they can always go to my website and contact me, go to other comrades who might have websites and contact them directly. So that that way we can help them get that extra push they might need to get involved in something.
TFSR: Can you say what the what website publishes your writing?
MS: Yeah, I got two different websites. One’s a penpal website and it’s called Wire of Hope. You can go to wireofhope.com/prison-penpal-terrance-white and you’ll see some of my writings on there. My comrade she put that that website together in order to establish relations, not so much as romance. If that happens, that’s a good thing, but to get us a voice out there as well as have people in the community connect with some of us on the inside so that they can work with us with doing positive things out there. And then I got my own website is ajamuwatu.wixsite.com/ajamuwatu
Ajamu means “he who fights for what he wants” and Watu means “people”. So if you put that together, it’s saying “he who fights for the people”, a Swahili word. And you’ll see a lot of my writings. My writings are mainly about education. How to build and create self–sufficiency programs, how to develop political thought, how to apply revolutionary theory to practice.
And one thing I always tell people is never be embarrassed if you go through the political immaturity stage, because that’s a given. You have to develop your own way of doing things based on your understanding. There’s no big me’s there’s no little you’s. But as long as you are studying cultural history, politics, economics, African history, you will see the holes in American history. And you’ll be able to see the lies that they put out there. You know, a lot of the reading material that we read is like, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America which shows you how the 1% class divided the rest of us in the 99%, and how they’re continuing to exploit us through their Capitalist system. The more you read, and learn, and study, the more your mind will open up. So you’ll see where there’s a problem, and you want to challenge that problem any way you can, as long as it warrants success. I would always encourage people to do that.
TFSR: And Mwal… Mwalimu… *laughs* Sorry, I’m still learning, you know? I guess we are all learning right?
MS: Yeah, well we’re all alive and learning. It took me a while to pronounce them all right too. You know, it’s funny because in Swahili dialect, the A’s are pronounced like “e” and the I’s are pronounced like “e”. So it’s backwards for the English vowel sound. The U was pronounced “oo” The M is pronounced “oom” you know, so it takes a while, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll flow like water. *laughs*
TFSR: Yeah, I guess it’s just about practice, and praxis. Comrades, thank you so much for having this conversation. I really appreciate it. And I really value you taking the time and making the effort to get in touch and be in touch about this. I wish you total solidarity and take care of yourself. Keep in touch.
MS: Well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate you for having me, man. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, comrade, people of like mind, in order to go forward is always a beautiful thing. You know, I enjoy meeting new people. I enjoy working with people and helping them out as best I can. “Each one, teach one” is something that we have to continue to do. And “can’t stop, won’t stop” is something we have to continue to be mindful of. So yeah, I’m always here for you all as well. Thank you. Appreciate you all so much. It’s always a pleasure.
This segment was first aired on TFSR in 2013 and then again in 2015. We thought it was time to share some of the story of Chicanx, anarchist-communist political prisoner Xinachtli, in his own words. Throughout the segments original audio, I used his state name of Alvaro Luna-Hernandez as he had not yet adopted the moniker Xinachtli, which means “seed” in Nahuatl. Xinachtli is a collective member at and editor of the Certain Days political prisoner calendar.
Xinachtli is serving a 50 year sentence since 1996 in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for aggravated assault on a Sheriff in Alpine, Texas. The Sheriff was serving a warrant for Xinachtli’s re-arreast at Xinachtli’s home. When questioned on the nature of the warrant, the Sheriff pulled a gun and Xinachtli was able to disarm him and make an escape without harming the Sheriff significantly.
After a few days of man-hunt, his mothers house was surrounded by numerous local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and the house was beseiged. It was only a 9-1-1 call from Xinacthli made stating that he was not being allowed to surrender that caused the troops to stand down and he allowed himself to be taken into state custody.
The grounds for the arrest warrant have since been overturned, but based on the post-facto word of the Sheriff that Xinachtli had pointed the gun at him, Xinachtli was sentenced to 50 years. He’s been determined to be a political prisoner based on his participation in multiple cases against abuse by prison officials and police, his jailhouse lawyering, advocacy for Latinx and other marginalized people in Texas and his political stance that the US and state governments occupying the Southwest of Turtle Island is a racist and illegitimate regime.
Here is featured an interview with Xinachtli that we received from comrades in the Anarchist Black Cross who were doing support work for him. The original interview was incomplete, missing the voice of the interviewer, so we did our best to edit and reconstruct the audio to better fit a conversational format and present his conflicts with the Prison Industrial Complex, his views on his political prisoner status at the time of this interview and his views on his case. More info on his case, plus his writings and ways to get involved in his support campaign can be found at FreeAlvaro.Net.
You can write to Xinachtli by addressing your envelope to:
Alvaro Luna Hernandez #255735
W.G. McConnell Unit,
3001 Emily Drive,
Beeville, Texas 78102
Be sure to use Xinachtli only in written content meant for him, prison staff likely won’t deliver envelopes with Xinachtli written on them.
TFSR: Could you tell listeners about your persecution by law enforcement in Alpine and other parts of Texas and your participation in the Chicano rights movement?
Xinachtli: The history of my involvement in the community organizing, not the original movement, but after back in the 70s and 80s, which led to my my re-arrest – aggravated assault case. That started everything back in Alpine in Brewster County, Texas. Well, you know, my incarceration now, is unjust. I’ve been persecuted by the police in Alpine because of what I was doing and my long history of involvement in exposing police brutality in Alpine. For example, I was a witness to the murder of Ervay Ramos, a 16 year old friend of mine who was shot and killed by Alpine police – Bud Powers, in June, the 12th 1968. And I witnessed the murder of Ramos because I was with him that night. In fact, his case was published by the US Commission on civil rights.
You know, just like everything else, Powers was given the probated sentence. I don’t think he even served a day in jail. I think he passed away a couple of years ago, but he never served a day in jail. And of course, you know, this is just a continuation of a legacy of police brutality against Mexican Americans by the police in a multitude of social injustices that happen in Chicano Mexican American communities and so forth. Like education, racist education, segregation.
TFSR: What was it like to grew up there for you?
Xinachtli: When I was raised in Alpine? I attended the Centennial School, which was a segregated school. I mean, back in even in the 60’s… 68, 67… all the schools were still segregated. That was part of the legacy of hatred that the police always had for me, because I was… in a sense, I was a rebellious youth, you know? I mean, I was supposing police abuse of Chicano youth in the barrio and from that point forward pushed into the criminal justice system at a very young age. I even spend time here close to a facility here when it used to be the Texas Youth Commission. It used to be the facilities for juvenile offenders. And it used to be in Hilltop. I did a year. I think I was 14 years old. I did I did a year then. And, I mean it’s just been confrontation with the police, with the criminal justice system, and so forth. You know? Until until back in 72, 73 I was sent to prison at a very young age again for destroying some police cars. Right there in Alpine. And from that point forward, I mean, it was just have a lot of problems with the police and so forth. Then which led up to this wrongful capital murder conviction, which to this day, I have always proclaimed my innocence, you know, I had nothing to do with it.
TFSR: Can you tell us about that capital murder conviction?
Xinachtli: The robbery and murder of the night clerk at the Ramada Inn in Alpine in September of 1975. It was Capital murder. The state was seeking the death penalty. My court appointed attorney was Melvin Gray, out of the San Angelo. I was charged. My uncle, Juan Herandez was charged. Palmina Hernandez was charged. And allegedly she was the one that turned state’s evidence and put the blame on me, see? But it was her and my uncle who had robbed the clerk and killed him. I had nothing to do with it. I was nowhere around there. But since all the evidence showed that I was never around there. I mean, like the footprints, all the tests that was done on the evidence that was collected by the police never matched. But they never said anything about it. They wanted me. They didn’t want them. She was granted immunity for prosecution. She died in a car accident a few years back. Juan Hernandez, he was convicted in a jury trial in Crane County, but his conviction was overturned on insufficient evidence. He’s also deceased.
Okay, so see? The state was seeking the death penalty. The jury couldn’t agree on the death penalty. So the state waived the death penalty during the punishment phase and they said “well just give him a life sentence. That’s cool.” So the jury gave me a life sentence, but the state was seeking the death penalty. And they had just opened the jail in Fort Stockton. The brand new jail, but they had me housed in Pecos, Texas. Close to my trial, they they move me to the new jail in Fort Stockton. Pecos County that’s Pecos County Jail.
TFSR: Here Xinachtli tells us a bit about his most recent conviction, garnering him the 50 year sentence and what led up to it.
Xinachtli: So when the jury found me guilty, I was awaiting sentencing. Me and three other inmates overpowered the jailer and took his gun, locked him in the cell, open all the cell doors for all the prisoners and told them they could leave they wanted to. And we took the jailers car and we drove all the way through Marathon to the Big Bend National Park and into Mexico. You know, of course, there was no bridge there at the Big Bend National Park. So we left the car and we swim across the river into Mexico. When they saw the car two or three days later through the air, because there was a big manhunt for us. They saw the car. They started trailing us and…. Texas Rangers, FBI, the Mexican police. So when they accosted us on the other side of the river…. we had to shoot out because we had…. I took all the Sherrif’s arsenal. I had all the weapons from the Sheriff Arsenal. I took them. Machine gun, and shot guns, and weapons, pistols and all that. So when they came up on us, we started shooting. Nobody was hurt, nobody was shot, nobody was killed. We ran out of bullets. And that’s when they apprehended us brought us back across the river. I think we were what? Two, three miles into into Mexico? Right there in Santa Elena, Mexico. And they brought this back and that’s when they had me handcuffed and in leg shackles and all that. And that’s when they beat me up.
TFSR: And at that point, some of the officers saw the severity of the beating you were getting and reported to higher authorities to save your life. Right?
Xinachtli: Yes, some of the officers saw the beating, and they went and called the Justice Department. They told them to go check on me because they they thought I was dead. So that’s when the Justice Department Criminal Civil Rights Division got involved in the case. And they indicted indicted Hill and May. And prosecuted him in Federal Court. John Pinkney. He’s in private practice now in San Antonio. John Pickney, he was the assistant US Attorney handling the case. Although I never did testify against him because being said that it was a trial strategy. He never called me to testify against them, but they weren’t convicted. The other inmates did testify against them. Because because they were first offenders and they had no criminal record. I already had… at that age, I was 22 years old. But during all this time I became I became politically aware inside prison. You know, I was involved in the Ruiz trial and the Ruiz case. You know, we went to two federal court to testify on behalf of all all Texas prisoners and so forth.
I was on parole on this conviction. March 11 of 1991. I was paroled after serving 16 years in DDC. And I went to Houston. I was very involved in community organization. You know? I was a delegate for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. I organized a lot of civil rights groups and so forth. Married Elizabeth Perillo. And then after a few years, we had a divorce and I went back to Alpine. And when I returned to Alpine that’s when the police started harassing me.
TFSR: Xinachtli talks about the aggravated robbery charged that the Sheriff use to legitimize the warrant for Hernandez’s arrest.
Xinachtli: If it hadn’t been for the aggravated robbery case, there would have never been the assault case. Some drunk guy in a bar said that I had snatched some money from his from his hand. And the bartender was right there witnessing everything. And he said that the drunk man was lying. Because he witnessed everything. He said, he followed me and him outside. And he had a wad of money in his hand and the wind blew the money up from his hand, because it was real windy on the outside of the bar. And because I brought all these witnesses in at a pre-trial hearing, I was acting as my own attorney. They had no choice but to have it dismissed. They dismissed that case. But the assault had had already happened. I mean, it was it was as bogus as they come.
TFSR: So this 50 year sentence that you’ve been serving since 1996. Tell us about it.
Xinachtli: This new sentence stems from my act of self defense against Sheriff Jack McDaniel. He’s also deceased. He was the sheriff of Alpine. And I was on parole up when I was charged with aggravated robbery case and made bond. He goes to my house to arrest me and he gets mad because I asked him for the copy of the warrant of arrest. I was never notified of the withdrawal or anything. So when I questioned him, he went for his gun. And you know, when he went for his gun, I took the gun away from him. I disarmed him. You know, to be honest with you, I was scared. I thought he was gonna shoot me. Because I have seen all this brutality from all of them. You know what I’m saying? I mean, I had seen when when Ron was was killed, I had seen a lot of brutality from the police. You know what I’m saying? Well, I took the gun and I ran. And then about a few blocks down the road. My wife picked me up, and she took me to Marathon, 30 miles away to the Marathon Post. On our way back she was arrested. See, she was pregnant, then she was expecting a child. Alvaro Jr. On our way back she was arrested and charged with hindering apprehension. I was indicted for the aggravated assault on the Sheriff. So after, you know, after that I had a jury trial. They had a change of venue to Odessa, Texas, and I had a jury trial and I was convicted on one count of aggravated assault on Sheriff McDaniel and not guilty on another account of allegedly shooting a police in the hand, Sergeant Curtis Hines. And I was given a 50 year sentence.
But the the old…. the ’75, ’76 conviction was used as part of the justification for increased punishment. The aggravated element comes in when the sheriff said that I pointed the weapon at him. The way it happened, really, by me disarming him and fleeing from the scene… It’s not aggravated. See, the aggravated even though it was a weapon, I never used the weapon. See what I’m saying? But he’s saying that I took the weapon away from him, and pointed the weapon at him, and threatened him. See? That’s what makes it aggravated. KOSA TV channel 7 in Odessa did a live interview because when I fled the scene, they had a manhunt for me, and it was broadcasting all throughout West Texas. They were they were hunting for me. There was a manhunt for me. So when KOSA TV goes to interview the Sheriff initially… he tells them exactly what happened! That I disarmed him, took his gun and fled, which is true. You know? I disarmed him. But I never threatened him with it. I never pointed the weapon at him.
My hired trial attorney, Tony Chavez out of Odessa, subpoenaed the video. And I remember as if it was yesterday where the news anchor Daphne Downey out of Odessa KOSA TV came into the courtroom. She had a copy of the VCR video and they was gonna play that before the jury. But it was never played before the jury. Mysteriously, this video has come up missing. Nobody can locate it. Daphne Downey from KOSA TV said that since they moved location to another building, that all of their videos, all their archives were donated to the University of Texas at the Permian Basin, the journalistic department. Twitch and a lot of other people have tried to help me locate that video, but nobody seems to know where it’s at.
TFSR: Xinachtli, is there anything that reporter could do if the actual videotape of the Sheriff’s testimony is missing?
Xinachtli: If the reporter can recreate? You know, what the share of relayed to him then. See, because there’s partial testimony. In fact, even some of the some of the offense reports that the sheriff wrote that initially, he told the truth: that I never threatened him with a weapon. I just disarmed him.
TFSR: And when did the Sheriff’s story change?
Xinachtli: After he talked to the District Attorney. Because probably what happened is that the District Attorney told him “Well, I mean, it’s more serious if you say that he used the weapon against you, and threatened you with it. That makes it aggravated, that makes it a first degree felony, which carries a more aggravated sentence, a harsher sentence.” And that’s exactly what happened. See? Because at that time he started… the sheriff started filing all kinds of charges on me. For example: He charged me with disarming him. He charged me with assault. And then he charged me with resisting arrest. I mean, he just kept finding all kinds of charges on me. And then he finally charged me with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Which was the more serious of all the charges. But in a lot of his police reports, even his pretrial deposition that he gave in the case.
Another thing about my lawyer, he was a paid lawyer. Tony Chauvez was a hired lawyer. I think it was about about two months after I get convicted. The federal government hits him with a Rico Indictment for drug distribution, drug conspiracy, involvement with a with a Ojinaga Cartel, Midland Odessa Cartel. They issue 20 some count indictments against him and he immediately enters into a plea bargain with the federal government and pleads guilty. He agrees to surrender his law license, and he gets 30 months in federal prison and he was disbarred from the practice of law. See, at that time… at the time of my trial, the federal government had been investigating him for over five years. And in fact, his home and his law offices were being wire tapped.
I have never been able to obtain copies of those wiretaps. Because my theory of the cases is that if the state and the federal government law enforcement agencies were working together in this big criminal conspiracy out of West Texas, involving the use about 30 or 40 defendants. If they were working together then the prosecutor that prosecuted me knew that Tony Chavez was under investigation by the federal government, because the case started as a state case. All these legal grounds that I had, like the suppression of evidence, the wire taps, the lawyer being under investigation being convicted.
Some of those issues have never been really fully developed, because some of the evidence…. I don’t even know. Because I’ve never had a chance to get a hold of all this evidence, like the wiretaps on his office. What was the nature of investigation? You know? There are some people that have filed some Freedom of Information Act Requests. And, the state and federal governments, they have released some documents, but they haven’t released all of the documents, and they’re claiming exemptions on the other documents. Refusing to release them. They have deleted some of this information, because, you know, I’ve always said that there was a conspiracy between between the police. The police didn’t want me back in Alpine. They knew that I was back in Alpine. And as soon as I got back from Alpine from Houston, they started harassing me. They had me under surveillance. They even sent this heroin addict, by the name of Mary Valencia, to try to entrap me. She later told me this. You know? But the lawyer never called her as a witness during the trial.
TFSR: Who was Mary Valencia?
Xinachtli: Well, see. She was a worker at the motel in Alpine. I was staying at this motel in Alpine. Bienvenido Motel. And she was a custodial worker there. She used to go in and clean rooms in the motel. She was a local heroin addict. I mean she had a bunch of theft charges. And, she later told me that the police had approached her to try to set me up. The police had approached her to find out what I was doing. Because at that time, I was doing some freelance paralegal work for an attorney out of Fort Worth by the name of Alex Tandy. You know, and I used to spend a lot of time in the law library at the (unclear) State University or at the county Law Library. In fact, one day, when I was at the Law Library in the county courthouse I saw Sheriff McDaniel as he was walking by, and he looked at me and he said… These were his exact words. He said ” Well, I see your back.” I told him, “Yes, I’m back.” And he said, “Well, just keep your nose clean.” I told him “Well, the people who need to keep their nose clean are the police, and you! Because all you do is steal from the county. That’s what you do. Steal from the county and beat Mexicans down.” And you should have seen him, he got really agitated.
From that point forward, I mean, they continuously stopped me on the streets. I mean, they even had the Border Patrol drug dog run through my car. You know, they they were all under the impression that I was using drugs that I was selling drugs, because I had started dating this girl who was known for drug use. Maria Imelda. Imelda, was her name. She was an old friend. And, that’s why they always said that I was using drugs. That I was a drug addict, and all this. Which was, you know, I was just trying to, I was dating her, and I was just trying to take her off the streets. In fact, she was the one that got pregnant and had my child.
You know, she was the one that was there at the at the house when Sheriff McDaniel came up that morning to try to arrest me. She was nine months pregnant. Two weeks later, she had the baby when I was in jail. See? And she testified on my behalf, even though they told her that if she testified…. they tried to intimidate her by by threatening her that if she testified on my behalf, that they were going to charge her too. She said “I don’t care. I’m going to tell the truth.” So, you know, she testified. And she testified to the truth. That I never pointed the gun at the sheriff.
TFSR: What is the likelihood of your parole?
Xinachtli: Well, see? I’m under the new law, which is the Half Law. That’s the new aggravated law. You got to serve 25 calendar years out of 50 to be eligible for parole. That’s just to be eligible for parole. You know, that’s why they The Half Law. You get 100 years, you got to do 50 calendar. If you get 50, you got to do half. 25. So that’s the aggravated element of a felony first degree case where there’s a weapon involved. Where you use or exhibit a deadly weapon. You know? And there is a factual finding an affirmative finding. What they call an affirmative find in the use of a deadly weapon that automatically makes the case aggravated. Under the Half Law, you got to do, you got to do half before you even are eligible for parole.
And my case is… see? I’m considered a political prisoner. I’m recognized internationally as a political prisoner because of my community involvement in the streets, as an organizer, as somebody who would protest, police brutality, protest injustices and so forth. You know? I mean, I was a delegate before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, because of that involvement with my community. When I was in Houston, my case has been mentioned in law journals and books and so forth, including my Jailhouse Lawyering back here in prison, Mumia Abu-Jamal and his book *Jailhouse Lawyers*. He mentioned me. There’s that book by Matt Meyer, *Let Freedom Ring*. They also Chronicle my my case from going all the way back to to the Alpine case.
TFSR: So, Xinachtli, where do you stand with your appeals process?
Xinachtli: And of course, I’ve exhausted one full round of appeals. You know? When I was convicted, I appealed my case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. They denied it. I filed in Federal Court. I went to the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals. I went to the Supreme Court. I’ve never had licensed assistance from an attorney on post conviction. I did all the work myself. You know, I never was able to collect all the evidence that was withheld. Although I did ask for it. They never they never released it. You know, like the wire taps, all the other evidence, because I know, there’s a lot of evidence that that could be developed on the prior convictions. If I could reopen that case… that would certainly knock out this other case. But I have to take it against one step at a time, you know. I mean, right now I’m in a Control Unit back here. I’ve been back here for 10 years on basically what they call administrative segregation. I’ve been in solitary confinement for the last 10 years back here on this unit on this new sentence.
In the cell by myself, when I go into recreation, I go by myself. Every time I exit the door, the cell door, they have to handcuff me with my hands behind my back. We get searched every day. I get back three times, two times, a week outside recreation in a yard. Which is… you know a cage. That’s all that is, cement, high walls, all you can see is the sky. The day room is in front of the cell. You know, I mean, you can see the next inmate who comes out to recreation, but that’s about it. There’s no contact. There’s no… I mean, you go to and recreation for an hour a daily. Like this morning I was out there this morning. After you finish rec, you go to shower, and then they put you back in a cell. You know, this is just it, I mean, you go out once.
TFSR: Can you talk to the other inmate as you pass? Can you carry on a conversation?
Xinachtli: Well, I mean, you could holler at him. But I mean, that’s all you hear: hollering. Back in this facility in fact, they just had one that hanged himself last week. There’s a lot of people who have hanged themselves. Who have committed suicide. And I have always complained about that. You know, I’ve always complained. But no. The repression. The the sensory deprivation, the isolation. I mean, we don’t have access to TV. We got access to a typewriter. We got access to a radio, small little radio, but you got to buy those on your own. You know, we have no access to television. Yes, we get Law Library, about three times a week. We order a Case sites from the law library. And that’s how I do my legal work. Well, there’s no limitation on correspondence, but there’s a ten person limitation on your visitation. And you can have visits every week, as long as you maintain a clear disciplinary record. Because if you violate serious disciplinary rules, then they’ll send you to another part. And you have to serve 90 days segregation, minus all of the other privileges. They totally strip you of your property and everything.
TFSR: Xinachtli before this interview in late 2012. When was your last visitation?
Xinachtli: I hadn’t had a visit in a while. uhh… years! Yeah, I think… Let me see the last visit I had. I’ve had a few friends that would drop by. Twitch has come by. A friend from Canada, Sara used to drop by every now and then. I had some family members sometimes come, but I hadn’t had a visit… you know, in a while. Very little. The expression that you find is through pen and paper. It’s through my typewriter. And I mean, you could sense through, I guess, through my writings… the passion, the anger, you know, the despair. Still, there’s…. I cling to hope. You know, because I’ve seen a lot of injustices. What the system has done to a lot of people who speak out against it. They try to crush you. They tried to break your spirit. I mean, They try to just isolate you and just crush you. You know what I’m saying? That’s the power of the state. And I realized that. But no prison or no solitary cell will be able to break my spirit.
I know that I’m right. I know that my cause is just. And I know that. I know that the police assaulted me. But I have no power. You know? They have the political power. They own the court systems. How many Mexicans are killed down across the border every day? And who gets charged all the time? Ya know? we do. You know? we do. So that’s the power. That’s the power of the state and the political process. I know. That’s the only hope that I have like reaching out to people who who have a sense of justice. You know, people that I can appeal to for a sense of justice. Because I know that there’s a lot of people out there, powerful people, that don’t want to see me free. Because they know what I can do. They know the power of my spirit. They know what I could do as far as organizing people making people stand up to fight injustice.
And that’s what I do, that’s what I used to do. If you don’t conform to the system, to the political system. If you step outside the political system and you seek independence from from the political process from the social economic process, then you’re a troublemaker and the only place they want to put you in jail or put you in a grave.
Updates from Greece
1431 AM, Thessaloniki
Greetings from Thessaloniki, Greece. From Free Social Radio 1431AM. On 23rd of April anarchist Vangelis Stathopoulos was sentenced in 19 years in prison. Solely because he tried to help an injured comrade, Chatzivasileiadis. Late he was self injured during the theft attempt. There is no solid of evidence that *Stathopoulos participated in the theft. But even in that case, he could only be sentenced for a misdemeanor. But after phony evidence and anonymous calls, a counter terrorist service, he was tagged as a member of a terrorist group called a Revolutionary Struggle. Basically, Stathopoulos is in prison for his anarchist identity, which he clearly defended in front of the judges and for his attempts to get injured adversary and to have access to a doctor. Since then, many actions of solidarity have taken place throughout Greece, until the every cage is burned until everyone is free.
On May 12 a new law was passed by the greek government about child custody. The law states that child custody automatically and compulsorily goes to both parents equally in case of divorce or even when both parents recognize legally a child born outside of marriage. Up until now usually the custody was given to the mother with some rights of visitation from the father, and in the cases that the custody was given to both parents it was because they both peacefully and collectively agreed so, not because a judge decided so. This new law and its authoritarian power over a child’s life does not include parameters of the child’s benefit or opinion, and even more for cases of domestic abuse, as it recognizes that a parent loses the right for shared child custody only after if they are found irrevocably guilty of physical violence, which is rare in cases of domestic violence. Under this law, all decision for the child must be taken from both parents, and if they don’t agree on something then it’s up to the court to decide. A parent can appeal on this decision but it can take years of court hearings and meanwhile the child is shared like an object with its abuser.
The Hatzidaki’s bill is the continuation of a long series of laws of the Greek state, where under the pretext of increasing the competitiveness of companies that will thus contribute to the economy, started the overall deregulation of the labor market with the main characteristics of changing the schedule from fixed to flexible working hours, reducing labor costs and labor rights. The modern working day that has been shaped thanks to the previous legislations that have been implemented, is full of insecurity and pressure due to the fear of dismissal, low wages, “split” working hours, increased rates of work. Many bosses in Greece don’t pay the workers their gifts, put employees who are suspended to work, insure the employees for 4 hours and make them work 8 and 10 hours, sexually harass, commit violence, bully.
All this with the support of the state that consciously allows such practices to be perpetuated and even proceeds to consolidate and worsen them, probably submitting on June 17 the aforementioned bill, in which you provide: Elimination of the eight-hour period and imposition of 50 working hours per week, with the imposition of individual employment contracts.
Bosses will be able to employ employees up to a maximum of 10 hours per day, without additional pay, provided that within the same 6 months they pay the hours with a corresponding reduction in hours or breaks or days off.
Increasing the hours of legal overtime to 150 hours, with the increase of the limits the legal overtime work will become cheaper. The possibility of a legal claim for re-employment is abolished (even in the case where the dismissal is deemed abusive) with the payment of compensation, thus giving the bosses full immunity for the dismissals.
Abolition of the SEPE (Body of Labor Inspectors) and its transformation into an “Independent Authority” (in fact it will be fully controlled by the state)
Criminalization of the strike guard that will lead to the termination of the strike with a court decision under the pretext of the possible physical or psychological violence that can be exercised by the strikers. At least 33.3% of the services are required, in addition to the security staff, which means that a large part of the workers will have to work during a strike.
Remote voting, electronically, in particular for a strike decision. The measure undermines both the exchange of views and the General Assemblies themselves
Mandatory file of all members of a union and its activities, so that employees can exercise their union rights, in the already legislated Register of Trade Unions maintained in the information system “Ergani” of the Ministry of Labor Flexibility in remote working in the form of either full-time or part-time employment.
R.O.S.E. 93.8FM, Athens
Open Assembly Against Green Growth
On June 6, the open assembly against Green Growth and Wind in Agrafa called together with other collectives in Tymbanos, where work has begun on the installation of wind turbines, and the construction of the substation. Taking advantage of the pandemic and destruction of the area from the Mediterranean Cyclone Ianos. Despite the attack by the repression unit, the protesters resisted and regrouped, continuing the mobilization, shouting slogans, making it clear that they will not back down until the work is stopped. In it’s call, the open assembly calls on the inhabitants of the agrarian villages in the cities of the plain to be vigilant for a cessation and blocking of the works for a relentless struggle for land and freedom.
Sexual Harassment on Athens Social Transport
On the occasion of ever increasing complaints about incidents of sexual harassment in the neighborhoods of southern suburbs, a mobilization was organized on Friday, the fourth of June 2021 at 9pm with a call the metro Argyropouli station. The mobilization is inspired by the Reclaim the Night Movement that emerged in the 70’s in Britain from feminist groups to reoccupy the city for women in the night. The central slogan was “On the street, on the metro, at night, to be free, not brave.” The Gathering in the metro station of Argyropouli in a very positive atmosphere remained in the area for about an hour to highlight the collective presence and protection of women against the incidents that took place in the metro Argyropouli in previous weeks. Then a block of up to 150 people was formed that crossed nearby streets and alleys within the next two hours and finally passed through the shops and ended up in a nearby Square. The march had strong chants with slogans against gender based violence, patriarchy heteronormativity, police violence and sexual harassment in the restaurant. Many people reacted positively, went out on the balconies, applauded and even went on their way. The initiative was organized by the newly formed Witches of the South Team. These mobilization, the first of its kind in our region, leaves behind an optimistic mindset in terms of struggle.
Government Witnessing Changes
Since first of June, according to an instruction of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum. Public servants are prohibited from attending as witnesses in trials where the public is accused of illegal acts as it is said to safeguard the interests of the Greek state. The directive informs the Civil Servants that the testimony in favor of the opponents and against the Greek state constitutes a disciplinary misconduct and a criminal offense. As mentioned below, the affidavit of ministry officials is allowed only to support the allegations of the Greek state. As always in the ministry against which a series of serious cases are pending even at European level. The state is getting shielded in every way.
Making Links: June 11th, Long-term Prisoners, Anti-Repression Work
June 11th is the international day of solidarity with Marius Mason and all long-term anarchist prisoners. This year we want to explore the connections between long-term prisoner support and anti-repression efforts around recent uprisings, a sharp reminder to us that the difference between a status of imprisoned or not is often tenuous and temporary. With thousands of arrests for protesting, rioting, and property destruction from last summer’s George Floyd uprising, we must be preparing for the possibility that more of our friends and other rebels may end up in prison. We’re also seeking to find ways to facilitate interactions between our long-term prisoners and uprisings in the streets. We were happy to share the production of this episode with the lovely folks at June11.Org. To this end, we speak with:
Cameron and Veera, who are part of a group that have been supporting prisoners from the Ferguson uprising for the last 7 years;
They share with us their experiences with state repression, what motivates them, and some thoughts on what we can be doing to make us, our communities, and our liberatory movements more resilient. The speakers responded to questions in the same order throughout the conversation but didn’t identify themselves much, so remember that the order and the projects they’re involved in can be found in our show notes.
You can learn more about Marius Mason and how to support him at SupportMariusMason.org. You can see past podcasts by June 11th, prisoner statements, artwork, info about the prisoners supported by the effort, a mix-tape they curated last year and events listed for various cities you can join at June11.org. We’re releasing this audio before June 11th to entice folks to consider a potluck, an action, a letter writing event, a banner drop, a postering rampage or something to share the day with folks behind walls. Hear our past June 11 episodes here.
You can also hear the June 11th statement for this year alongside other info on prisoner support from comrades at A-Radio Vienna in the May 2021 BadNews podcast!
BRABC Letter Writing Today
If you’re in Asheville, join Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross today, June 6th for a letter writing from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park on Vermont Ave. BRABC meets every first Sunday at that time, provides info on prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression, stationary, postage and company. Never written a letter? Don’t know how to start? Swing by and share some space!
Comrade David Easley, A306400 at the Toledo Correctional Institution, who has in previous months been viciously assaulted by prison staff at the direction of the ToCI Warden Harold May, as well as number of other inmates also who have been isolated for torture and other oppressive, covert, and overt retaliatory actions at that facility, denied adequate medical care for speaking out against the cruel, inhumane treatment at that Ohio facility. More and more comrades are reporting occurring throughout the ODRC, and across this country for any who dare stand up and speak up for themselves, and the voiceless within the steel and concrete walls.
This is a CALL TO ACTION to zap the phone at the U.S. District Court in Toledo, Ohio and demand that Comrade David Easley be granted a phone conference with Judge James R. Knepp II, and the Attorney General because Comrade Easley’s lawyer of record has decided to go rogue by not filing a Memorandum Contra Motion as his client requested and now the State has presented a Motion to Dismiss his case to that court.
Plaintiff: David Easley, A306400
Case No: 3:18-CV-02050
Presiding Judge: James R. Knepp II
Courtroom Clerk: Jennifer Smith
Phone No: (419) 213-5571
Also, reach out to Comrade Easley using the contact info he like many of our would appreciate the concerns, and love from us on the outside to stay the course, and not get discouraged in his Daily Struggle.
David Easley #A306400
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608
Anarchist Bank Robber and Prisoner, Giannis Dimitrakis Healing from Attack
the following was received from comrades at 1431 AM in Thessaloniki, Greece, a fellow member of the A-Radio Network. We had hoped to feature an interview they would facilitate with Giannis Dimitrakis for June 11th, however you’ll see why this hasn’t been possible. We hope he heals up quickly and would love to air that interview for the Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners in August:
On 24/5, our comrade, a political prisoner, the anarchist Giannis Dimitrakis was transported to the hospital of Lamia, seriously injured after the murderous attack he suffered in Domokou prison. G. Dimitrakis barely survived the the attack, and the blows he received caused multiple hematomas in the head, affecting basic functions of his brain. A necessary condition for the full recovery of the partner is the complete and continuous monitoring of him in a specialized rehabilitation center by specialist doctors and therapists.
In this crucial condition, the murderous bastards of the New Democracy government, M. Chrysochoidis, Sofia Nikolaou and their subordinates decide on Thursday June 3rd to transfer Giannis back to Domokos prison and even to a solitary confinement cell, supposedly for his health. Transferring our comrade there, with his brain functions in immediate danger, is for us a second attempt to kill him. Domokos prison does not meet in the slightest the conditions for the treatment and recovery of a prisoner in such a serious condition.
Αs a solidarity movement in general, we are again determined not to leave our comrade’s armor in their blood-stained hands. Nothing should be left unanswered, none of the people in charge of the ever-intensifying death policy that they unleash should be left out of our sights.
Immediate transfer of our partner to a specialized rehabilitation center
Hands down from political prisoners
Solidarity and strength to the anarchist fighter G. Dimitrakis
This is an invitation to engage June 11 in solidarity with Giannis Dimitrakis. On June 9th there will be a solidarity demo in Exarchia, Athens at 7pm!
Host 1: Would you please introduce yourselves and maybe who you are, what projects you’re working on and what experience you have with anti repression prisoner support work.
Cameron: My name is Cameron. I live in St. Louis. I’ve been doing prisoner support stuff for to varying degrees for the last 10 or so years. Having letter writing nights, fundraising for commissary stuff, sending in newsletters to jails and prisons.
Veera: I’m Veera. This is the biggest anti-repression prisoner support project that I’m a part of, or the longest running one. But similar to Cameron, I’ve been doing some support work for prisoners for probably the last 9 or 10 years, and have just maintained pen pals with several different prisoners across the states. And currently in southern Ontario, there are prisons, like across the region, that are on hunger strike, for different reasons, especially in regards to the pandemic and how they’ve been treated. And so I’ve been plugging into some of the hunger strike support work here. But yeah, also still getting acquainted with how projects are done here in this new place that I live.
Earthworm: Okay, my name is Earthworm from Atlanta, and I work with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and the protester jail support team, and Cop Watch of East Atlanta. And we’ve got a lot of protester support experience because our friends have been getting arrested for years at different protests. So we turned it into something that has scaled way, way up, of course, particularly in the last year with the George Floyd uprisings.
Jeremy Hammond: Well, you know me, my name is Jeremy Hammond. I was recently released from federal prison several months ago. And I’ve been involved for most of my adult life. And since my release, I’ve just kind of been slowly getting my feet wet and seeing what my involvement would be most appropriate. And I’m also here with my brother-
Jason Hammond: Jason Hammond, that’s my voice right here. I’m his brother. And yeah, I’m a longtime supporter of Jeremy. But I’m also of course involved in on the ground protests related movements. One group that I’m a volunteer for is the Chicago Community Bond Fund. It’s a bond fund that has been involved in prison abolition struggles, most notably the George Floyd, Black Lives Matter uprising last year. We did a lot of work for political prisoners during these uprisings too.
Host 2: Can you tell us more about the role of your projects in uprising anti-repression, and some of the prisoners you’re supporting, or talk about examples of political coordination and action with other prisoners that might give the audience a sense of the agency of folks behind bars?
C: Well, I mean, in 2014, a group of us started supporting folks who got locked up during the Ferguson uprising, and it kind of came out of desire to not ignore, but actually just like, actively promote the reality that the folks that were participating were engaged in risky and creative and destructive actions, like looting, or shooting guns and arson. And we kept seeing a lot of people fall through the cracks in 2014, like in terms of getting support from like the, “movement”. So we just really wanted to make sure that folks got some kind of support. And so a lot of the people that were participating weren’t really like a part of a movement per se, like they weren’t like in an activist organization, or they weren’t organizers, they were kind of articulating themselves outside of that. And so we just felt like that was really important to see and acknowledge because, yeah, there were people that have gone away for, are now in prison for like five plus years, some people because of what they did.
And like there’s all sorts of narratives by nonprofits and activists, that the people who are like doing the heavier stuff were hurting the movement or kind of a part of a conspiracy of outsiders or criminals. And it felt like that kind of narrative was just reproducing the same that caused this moment, this uprising. This sort of demonization of people, this sort of keeping people in their place, ignoring the fact that people have agency and ability to like refuse to be victimized by systems that want to kill them or hurt them. And I’ve personally just felt like I was very frustrated to not see that narrative promoted or like accepted. That was kind of the big reason why I got involved in supporting folks.
To go back to like nonprofit stuff, like a lot of those folks weren’t really seeing what was happening right in front of them. This was an uprising that was extremely combative against not just the police, but also private property and with the authority of a lot of people who want to keep things the way they are. And people from all walks of life just coming to this situation, and like getting wrapped up in it, and like getting arrested, and like doing things that were dangerous, and not really talked about, and like a legible, easily palatable story. That was just a very hard thing to watch. Having gone through my own legal issues, through going through courts for years, and being arrested a bunch of times, and just like knowing how shitty that is to experience and how like grueling it is to go from one continuance to another. And I knew I had people who had my back, and people who would come to my court dates, and I just wanted to return that as well to other people.
V: Yeah, I can maybe just talk a little bit more about the specifics of the project that Cameron and I are a part of, as far as like the prisoners that we are supporting. They are just from a compilation of a list that we compiled from just mailing letters to people who got arrested during the Ferguson uprising. People from all walks of life and in that neighborhood, and not necessarily people that we could say that we were like politically aligned with, because it might even be safe to say that all of the people that we are supporting when we started supporting them wouldn’t necessarily have aligned themselves with any sort of politics.
Yeah, we sent letters and just said, basically, if they were willing to, we would put them on this public list — which is the list on AntistateSTL — put their images out there and their mailing addresses, and thereby making it easier for people across the country to support them. And so that list we’ve maintained, or someone has maintained, over the years. We had, I think 11 people at one point, and now it’s down to, oh gosh, like 5 or 6 maybe? Because people have gotten out just specifically from that list of folks, there’s two people that I spend a lot of time in communication with them and their families and have visited and everything. And one of them actually, Cameron was alluding to this, but you know, people would get arrested in Ferguson for doing a lot of what a lot of people were doing, which was looting and destruction of property and everything, and one of the guys that I support was arrested for those things and then because of priors, whenever he was sentenced, he actually got a sentence of 60 years. So he’s gonna be in for the rest of his life. So that’s like a very long term. In some ways that to me is like very mind blowing and it’s a very good example of the people that were acting in the streets weren’t always people that we were familiar with their lifestyle, or familiar with the risks that they were taking.
E: So we ran jail support for anybody that was arrested and were doing prisoner support for anybody who is stuck in jail, because they were denied bail or because they’re unfortunately, sent to prison. So we’ve provided all sorts of support for arrested folks.
Jeremy: All right, well, certainly my experience in prison, you have a wide variety of individuals who are locked up, many of which have become politicized in prison. And so they see someone who is locked up on a case such as mine with support from political movements on the outside people know that I’m an anarchist, and a prison abolition is right? And a lot of people are very curious about this. Right? Because of all the experiences in their own lives having been repressed by the criminal justice system.
As far as examples of coordination there’s unfortunately, like, prison they want to bury you, right? They want to prevent you from communicating to the outside world, to receive information of what’s going on in the outside world. And so the work that’s being done on the outside, such as everything from books to prisoners, to the support at people’s court dates and stuff, to having noise demonstrations outside the jail, really gets people who are curious about what’s going on. And so for an example, like I would regularly receive zines and newsletters from ABC and other organizations, right, which are very useful in discussing things that we would otherwise only have access to, like – say for example, something on the news, we would only receive information about what’s going on with the George Floyd uprising, the Michael Brown uprising, based on what was in the news, right? But now we have additional materials to share and discuss as a focus of discussions. For example newsletters from actual movement stuff itself.
And so when people see like the jail demonstrations outside the jail, when people see that there’s people attending each one of your court rooms, that they know that there’s kind of a camaraderie, a sense of loyalty and commitment to something. It kind of brings like prisoners together that we’re not just alone, that we’re, there’s a continuum of resistance, and each of our stories plays a part in that.
Jason: So this is Jason speaking right now, I can talk about my experiences with the Chicago Community bond fund. Just a little back history: this is a bond fund that was organized in response to the uprisings in Chicago against the Chicago police scandal, the murder of Laquan McDonald. There were a large movement, which included a number of arrests to protest the cover up of the murder. And so people had raised a good amount of money to bond out the resistors, the protesters, and in the wake of that it basically coalesced into a movement of an organization that tried to address you know, the problems of the prison system, the Cook County Jail, the mass incarceration project. It was an abolitionist project so we started just working with the community, bonding out people’s family, loved ones, friends, and all that, basically as much as we could try to empty the jail out. This was, I think, around like 2016.
Fast forward to the George Floyd uprising, the organization had been long a supporter of the BLM movement, and when this had happened the organization had definitely stepped up to do everything they possibly could within the organization, to not just bond out the protesters, and the activists but of course the larger community that was involved in, let’s say, property distribution, looting, breaking property, destruction. They stated clearly on that stance, which, in fact, BLM Chicago as well had made a stance to support people involved in the looting.
So we, every day, we’d be out bonding people from Cook County Jail. Sometimes, I personally would go up with a list of like 10 people in the jail, just bonding as many people as we possibly could, as well as trying to amplify and elevate the struggles of other organizations working to change the system. Yeah, this is one thing that’s Chicago Bond Fund had been doing in 2020. And we’re still doing it, you know. We also had a campaign to change the, basically end money bail type law in Illinois. It’s said it’s an “end money bail” but of course felonies and a little bit less palatable type charges, like violent charges or domestic charges, are not bailable, but these are details in the bond bill. But it’s still a pretty good bill the Pretrial Fairness Act, passed in Illinois because of our grassroots shit.
However, there’s still plenty of other challenges beyond the fact, about money for example, the campaign was “end money bail”, right? However, there’s all kinds of other, like compounding details that would allow a person to get what they call a “no bond”. For example, if they have two charges, they can be bond out for the first one, but for the second one in light of the fact that they were already on bond, they could have just be given what they call a “no bond” so that they’re still in there, no matter how expensive their bond is or depending on what kind of charges. So for that reason, there’s still tons of people currently in Cook County Jail and you know, we are expecting the numbers to go down as the the law rolls out, expecting to kind of be fully implemented in two years, but we are we are going to still see a number of people still in the Cook County jail system, even though they are pre trial, just because of all kinds of other laws that would prevent someone from leaving, you know. A large part of this country do not want to see the changes that we were fighting for be implemented. And you know, I mean, all you have to do is just kind of look at the rhetoric and what their actions are, they’re pushing back in the legal sense as well.
Yeah, there’s a major political battle basically between the far right, the John Catanzara FOP CPD camp, as well as the state’s attorney Kim Fox, Lori Lightfoot. Kim Fox has been actually a pretty vocal support of the end money bail project. So like there’s there’s a political battle, of course, as well.
TFRS: Have you seen your support work change over time? For instance the progression from supporting someone through their initial arrest and bonding out, to serving a prison sentence or doing other follow up work with them if that’s not the case. Or if you were in prison, how did your needs change over time from the initial court support and folks showing up and fundraising for lawyers during the initial phase to like, maybe follow up?
C: Well, I mean, initially, we found all these people’s names from like media articles, like there’s a website in Missouri where you can just like find all the court records of cases and so we just kind of like comb through all those and sent letters to them and stuff. And as folks started getting sentenced, some were incarcerated in prisons, other people were given time served because they’d been in jail the whole time and weren’t bailed out. So then the focus shifted from doing like court support, to like, just letter writing and some amount of fundraising when we could. So like just trying to fundraise for putting money on their books, or like maybe some of us have steady work or whatever, so we give $10-$20 a month to one person each at this point, if that’s where it’s at for the folks, at least for me, for the folks that are still locked up. And a few folks have been released in the last couple years. We kind of always tried to check in with them when they’re about to get released, like if they need anything, like, “here’s what we can offer”. It’s a pretty small group, we don’t, we’re not like an actual, like, organization, we just kind of run on our own capacity, but we try to help people when they get released a little bit. And I’ve maintained communication with at least one person pretty steadily who’s been released and we’re actually friends.
But yeah, basically, it’s been so long, I mean, 2014 is so long ago, and people who, a lot of these people like maybe they were in prison, and they got out…there was never an effort to convert somebody to like some political sway, or like political ideology. It was always just sort of like, you were a participant, and we would want the same if we were locked up. So because of that, like, a lot of times, there’s still a connection, but also people have their own lives. And they can move on or they like, have their struggles. I guess I bring that up, because yeah, just to sort of talk about the capacity that we have, as individuals, trying to do this and how we’re not a charity, we’re not a nonprofit or social workers. So we’re kind of trying to meet people where they’re at and have a more down to earth relationship. And if it leads to more of a friendship, then great, if it doesn’t, that’s not the point of it, or whatever.
V: I would, I would echo a lot of that. Honestly, like that progression, I guess, of what our support work looked like at times, I would even say was a bit awkward and clunky. Without this baseline of “we are anarchists” or “we are radicals and therefore we act it during this uprising”, I think it was a bit unclear for both the folks that were locked up and their support networks as to who we were, you know. We’re not social workers, we’re not like an activist organization with a bunch of money coming in, you know. We have a little website on noblogs.org. And we’re kind of you know, as far as this group is made up of now, I think there’s like two people left in St. Louis, who are still there and still active in it and the rest of us are, are all over.
So it’s rather like a disjointed and kind of a funny, awkward conversation to have at times where I’m talking to one of the guys that I support, his name is Alex and I had to have like several conversations with Alex’s mom to kind of like, get her to understand who I was, and that I wasn’t like someone who was going to help place her son in a job once he got out. I was just someone who was going to make sure that her son was looked after and not forgotten about and if something needed to happen where he needed his caseworker to be bothered about some piece of mail, or if he wasn’t getting shoes or something, then I was the person that was going to call and do that. And those sorts of things. I think that we had to be willing to kind of have those awkward conversations with people. And I think that for the most part, that’s been fine. You know, at worst, it’s awkward but we have been able to raise money and get people, when they get released, we’ve been able to give them phones and clothing and help them feel cared for in small ways. And I think that that’s a really important piece of what we do.
Host2: Earthworm, can you tell us about Atlanta?
E: I guess when we started doing jail support work, it was more on the fly in response to arrests happening. It was just kind of catch as catch can, you know. Somebody would be in jail and they’d need $4,000 to go to a bail bondsman to cover their $40,000 bail and we would need to come up with just by calling all our friends. Scrambling to put somebodys rent money up and hope that somebody could pay him back by the time rents due. And we realized in doing that, we needed a more organized, and we needed a bail fund. So in 2016, we started collecting money for that. And sometimes when people get arrested, it makes a lot of news and a bunch of donations roll in. And sometimes you’re able to even set some aside and have that for the next set of arrests. And of course, sometimes more expensive than the amount you bring in.
So we sort of struggled along through a whole series of different protests. And then in the George Floyd uprising, we were fortunate enough that we already were established. And we had that we had a website, and we had this long history of being able to bail out protesters, so we were sort of already a trusted group. And we were able to be really central in that effort and got way more donations than we were used to. But of course, also way more arrests than we’re used to. But with the donations, we were able to cover a lot more of the protesters’ needs. So whereas before, the money had just been very strictly for bail and hiring lawyers we’ve been able to do things like pay everybody’s fines and fees, and pay for medical costs and pay for other incidental things like a babysitter, if you need to go to court. Other things we would never have been able to afford before.
And the other thing that is very blessed that changed is we no longer have a cap to the amount of bail that we’re able to post, because before we had money, we didn’t want to blow it on one protesters. So if you were in there, on $40,000 bail or bond, we could only cover a portion of that, and then we would have to scramble to fundraise the rest of it.
So in the early stages, even before arrests happened when we hear about a protest getting set up. So that arrest might happen, we get the jail support team together and start scheduling who’s going to be available for the 36 hours after the protests if arrests go down. So we’ve got our phones people who have a physical cell phone, because that’s all you can call from jail, and they take turns carrying that and one phone person will bring it to the next person when their turn is over. We scheduled people to do arrestee tracking, which is finding out who’s been arrested, finding them in the jail system and keeping track of them to figure out when they are able to be bailed out, and then getting them bailed out and getting people to meet them they’re at the jail when they’re out. And then once they’re out, that is when court support takes over. And that’s everything from keeping track of when their court dates are and sending them reminders to finding lawyers and helping getting people there to their court dates, and whatever sort of support they need while their court cases going on. And then once their court case is over, there’s follow up hopefully they don’t go to prison or anything but there may be support to do as far as helping them if there’s going to be a civil lawsuit, helping them find lawyers for that, or helping them with whatever kind of evidence gathering or whatever support they need with that. Of course, they may have fines and fees to pay or like ankle monitor fees and that’s all stuff that fortunately now we’re able to afford.
Or unfortunately sometimes people go to prison. And then it’s time for prisoner support, which we do also to the people who are denied bail and they’re sitting in jail waiting for their trial to happen, of which we’ve got about eight in Atlanta. So that means writing the letters. And they also have the phone number so the same phone people who are doing the intake calls the night that people get arrested are also hearing from the long term prisoners, and just figuring out what support they need. Ideally, everybody who’s sitting in jail has their whole support crew of friends and family and whatever supporters, and those support crews can coordinate with each other and with the solidarity funds to make sure everybody’s getting what they need. Failing that, the jail support team just needs to act as a support crew for each prisoner. Meaning that the only number they’re calling is the jail support phone and the jail support phone people are communicating with the prisoner support people at large, who aren’t like the prisoner support for a particular individual and just saying you know, “so and so wants this kind of books can anybody volunteer to send them that” or “so and so is not receiving medical attention, and we need to get everybody we know to call the jail and pressure them to let him see a doctor”, and, and so on like that.
Host 2: Oh my gosh, it sounds like y’all really got that figured out *laughs sweetly*
E: *laughing* Well, I think it’s a process of figuring it out on an ongoing basis. I appreciate you saying that. But I definitely don’t think anybody feels like we haven’t figured.
Jeremy: This is Jeremy. So certainly the arrest and pretrial support work is very crucial. It’s very different than say post conviction, post sentencing. First, I think we just need to listen to the particular circumstances and needs of each person and their charge. But also recognize that since we’re talking about groups and waves of repression, all the circumstances are also linked. In particular, somebody who’s facing charges often can’t openly talk in detail about like, what they’re particularly being charged with. So I think it kind of does rely on support communities to kind of — it’s a political battle, because they want to, like build support for the individual, but also like, build support for the particular so called “crimes” that they’ve been accused of, if it’s like a direct action that they’re currently in prison for. So the way the public narrative goes the way of, in support of what the prosecution’s characterization of the crimes are, right. Like if say, some of the actions over the past couple years, and the uprisings involve various arsons, and property destruction. Well, I think it’s important these groups are doing support work, not just support the individual and whatever the particular legal strategy is, like, say they’re innocent, or whatever, but also support the actual crimes themselves. We had to legitimize the act itself to the public.
And then of course, post-conviction hopefully. I think it makes a difference the amount of time in the in the whole negotiation process, the charges, like the prosecutors are willing to offer up does make a difference if they believe that the person being prosecuted is in isolation, versus if they’re part of a movement, and the prosecutor strategy is also different, and then be more willing to make like better deals or make concessions, that would be a better outcome for the individual.
And then, of course, post-conviction & post-sentencing, you want to give a voice to someone who’s now freely able to speak. The other thing is, as the person’s time draws to a conclusion, and they’re about to be released, the needs also change. That you want to make sure that somebody has every opportunity to make it upon the release, especially long term prisoners, like their ease of adapting. And fortunately I can say that, like they’ve taken care of me throughout my entire bid. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the various groups that came out and supported me. And because of that, I had a pretty easy transition when I was released people came and picked me up from the jail, people were bringing me stuff at the halfway house. You know, my brother and friends made sure that I had a place to stay, you know.
So these types of things help ease the transition I mean, because otherwise, the state will just kick you out and basically hope that you fail again. And so it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Host 1: Yeah, and that, but on that point, it especially when a person’s been inside for decades — like a decade is a long fucking time — but if someone’s been in for 30 years, like the amount of change that’s occurred during that period of time, the amount of loss of loved ones…
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah, it’s truly shocking. Especially the cultural changes, the changes in the city. You know, people might not…everything is technology, people definitely have difficulty adapting to how people apply for jobs and people secure housing and stuff like that is all different now.
J11: So there have been 1000’s of people arrested during the George Floyd uprising last year, over 300 federal cases and innumerable state felony cases. So given your experience, what can we be doing now to prevent and prepare for those uprising defendants, some of them serving time in prison, Cameron and Veera?
C: To me? It feels kind of inevitable. Part of it feels hard to prevent people from acting – or not…that’s not the question, but like, prevent, repression feels hard because uprisings are often just sort of like, they’re super spontaneous and people like who don’t necessarily consider surveillance or security culture like maybe some of us do. Or anarchists or radicals do are going to get get caught up in like the repression and I guess ideally it would be a matter of trying to like, really push for people to like, be aware of, if like a surveillance camera can see you or be aware of like, the risk that you’re taking, but also like, in some ways, having that kind of, sort of awareness can actually kind of placate you. So it’s sort of a hard balance to figure out how to kind of prevent avoidable repression. Because yeah, people are going to do what they’re gonna do. And like, I think, at least having that baseline of that’s what’s gonna happen is like, where I start from.
V: I think it’s very hard to know how to talk about what prevention looks like. We have our experience, and especially having gone through Ferguson, and especially like the repression support work, post Ferguson, we can look at that and say, “okay, we know how bad this can get, so let’s keep this from happening”. But then how do you do that? Like, how do you like, make those connections in the moment.
I can remember a moment last summer, during one of the demos, the George Floyd demos that happened, and I was… So I was hyper aware of everyone that wouldn’t have their faces covered. And so I’m running around and I’m a white woman, who’s in my 30s, running around telling people to cover their faces, and they feel invincible in the moment they feel like, “nothing’s gonna stop me, nothing, no one’s stopping me right now. Like, what do I care?” And here I am running around, telling them all to cover their faces, and they’re looking at me, like, “no, get away from me, this isn’t your moment!” You know? And, and then like, some ways, it’s like yeah, that’s true. And, like, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna stop you and say, “Look, I know how this goes I know how this ends and start telling them…” the answer is no, I’m not gonna do that. But I think that is part of what we can do show up to these things with just bandanas to hand out, you know.
And as far as preparation, I don’t know, I thought about that. But I think that the model of what this support group is doing, find a small group of people — and we are, we’re a small group of people that are just willing to say, “Okay, these 11 people, we’re gonna make sure they’re taken care of.” And I think if you can form groups like that, and just kind of trust each other to do the bottom line for some of these people that are getting locked up, I think that that can be a really good start.
E: Number one thing, I think we need to be educating everybody that we can about not talking to police, and doing other security culture measures to keep ourselves from going to jail in the first place. You know, as far as educating people about wearing masks and security cameras, and just taking precautions, about things that could get somebody in trouble, not talking about illegal things that somebody could get in trouble for, not posting sketchy stuff on social media. Not talking to the cops, or anybody who might talk to the cops.
And when I say “not talking to the cops”, like not saying anything to the cops, other than “I’m going to remain silent, I want to see a lawyer, or am I being detained? Am I free to go?”, or “I don’t consent to a search”. And that is it, as far as what anybody should say to police. So I think holding trainings and holding them for as many people as we can, particularly because we’re getting lots of brand new people who aren’t used to being protesters is going to save a ton of money, countless hours, and misery in terms of people going to jail, and potentially prison later on. Because it’s so heartbreaking when you hear about somebody didn’t know that they shouldn’t talk to the cops, or they didn’t know that they had the right to not talk to cops, and they’ve just threw away what power they had to protect themselves.
Or I guess you could say, conversely, when we hear about people who did get that training, and did know to keep their mouth shut, and were able to tell their friends to keep their mouth shut, that prevents them from going to jail. And that is a huge relief. You know, when we hear from people, and they’re like, “Oh, no, I didn’t say anything to the cops! You think I’m crazy?”. That’s just like a choir of angels singing.
Jeremy: So first off, as with everything, it’s important that you think through your actions before you carry them out. And I think it’s also important to look at the history of cases and to see how people got caught and the mistakes people have made. So the way we don’t repeat the same mistakes so that way, we don’t keep this ongoing cycle of arrests and incarceration. We obviously want to reduce the numbers of people captured by the state.
Jason: This is Jason now. Yeah so obviously, “don’t get caught” is the ongoing lesson that we’re trying to learn. Secondly, we can’t forget, we have to keep the momentum up for people who are facing charges, we have to demand their charges be dropped in whatever form we can we can be writing letters, we could do petitions, we could be doing protests, we could be doing rallies, we could be doing letter writing parties, we could organize our own letter writing chapters, we could organize our own prisoner support chapters. So there’s all kinds of things that we could be doing and are doing to kind of keep the momentum up.
This is a pretty unique moment where you’re still in the wake of where the largest uprisings of many people’s lives, and there is a lot of energy ready to be harvested to kind of push the abolition our work forward, as well as change the system. So the people who are arrested trying to fight the power, to change the system, they really need to be supported if we agree with their goals. So let’s, let’s do everything we can to keep the momentum going on. And you know, people are exploring new ways of doing this.
Host 1: So one of the big things with long term prisoner support that June 11th is trying to address is not letting these people be forgotten. As interest in detention from last summer is already greatly decreased. what can we do to ensure energy and support lasts as long as the effects of the repression will.
C: For me it’s important to be like unapologetic about what people do, or for people to be like, “yes, people engaged in collective and individual actions that were incredibly threatening to the State and Capital and then they get caught”. So it’s like, it is being unapologetic about it is sort of giving people a sense of agency in their actions, as opposed to kind of seeing folks as they became, I mean, obviously, people became victims of state repression, but like, they were resisting, being repressed in day to day life, or oppressed in day to day life. And I guess just like putting it that way can help me kind of see the reality of it, and for lack of a better word, like humanize people.
For instance I think last summer, people were actually coming out in support of looting. Like, that wasn’t happening in 2014. That was a very hard position to hold. And I think it still is in a lot of circles today, but it was very exciting to me because it helps people see the people that are doing that, and create this sort of contagious effect of “Oh, people who are doing that are doing that for a variety of reasons and they deserve to be supported if they get arrested”, that deserves to be spread, and not just throw it under the rug. Because I think if you do that, then you lose the essence throwing the fact that there’s looting, throwing the fact that there’s lots of burning going on, the fact that there’s a fair amount of combative gunfire in the air, just all sorts of creative stuff going on sort of gives a lot of dimension to these uprisings. And I think people can see themselves better in that than they can see themselves in like a more civil disobedience sort of narrative that often just completely erases that. Just talking about it in that way and just like, again, just being unapologetic.
We want to build a different world or live in a different world and the way we get to that is dangerous, but also can be very empowering and exciting and incredibly worthwhile. And the more people who are unapologetic about it, who are like “I support all these combative actions”, the more to me it’s on people’s minds, and the less likely it can be swept under the rug.
V: Yeah, I think that’s the move that we see, or like this boundary pushing of an acceptable narrative. I think that we can participate in that as anarchists and as actors in these rebellious moments. I don’t always know how to push those narratives of the boundary shifting. You know, social media has never been my strong suit, but I think that there are ways to take it to social media and push those things. You know, as the nonviolent protesters and the police were the big bad and “we weren’t doing anything wrong” sort of thing, that’s when we saw some of the people that we supported sort of get forgotten, you know? And I think that that’s changed. That was different last summer, and that the repression support is going to look different because of that.
I think that’s great. I think that there’s still more work to do. And I think that we can be a part of that work. Again, I don’t always know how, I think having those conversations. Just from my personal example, I know that every one of my family was very confused about my participation and Ferguson stuff. Last summer, half of my family was in the streets after dark. And I think in part because of the conversations that we were having, and the ways that things started to be more acceptable, and more people were willing to confront this discomfort.
E: Wow, that is a tough one. I think that’s something that long term prisoners experienced widely, you know? You get a lot of support in the first couple years and then once you’re in there for a few years, the world keeps going and kind of starts to pass you by, and it’s just heartbreaking to think about people in there, wondering if anybody still cares about them. And you know, getting those letters that are just such a precious lifeline when you’re in there, and getting them less and less often. That’s got to be a desperate feeling. I think anybody who hasn’t experienced that, we probably don’t understand just how much of a lifeline that support from the outside is.
So I think trying to communicate that to people, and talk about prisoner support as a core antirepression effort. I think it often gets overlooked as sort of one of the unsexy grunt work things. And it’s kind of hard to write letters, there’s some social anxiety there, people don’t know what to say. But just getting that to be more of a core part of all of our efforts. It’s a mutual aid effort, because you and I, one day, are very likely to end up doing some time. You know, if we’re effective at what we’re trying to do and I hope we are, it’s extremely likely that they’re going to come after us. So setting up these efforts and promoting them as “this is an important part of the antirepression work that we do”, supporting prisoners could directly benefit us one day, and will definitely benefit our community.
So, and I think that there are a lot more opportunities to do prisoner support but it’s kind of overlooked as an activity. Because I frequently run into people who say “I don’t have a lot of consistent time but I’m able to do something here and there, what kind of work do you recommend?”, and I’m like “write a prisoner. You can do that on your own, you can do it kind of at work, or whenever you get a few minutes, it’s totally independent”. And it is such a lifeline for that person. And it’s a way to directly help, you know? Cuz there’s so much that we do that is kind of planting seeds for the future, or just hoping that one day it’ll bring about revolutionary change — which this, I think, again, is a big important piece of doing the prisoner support — but it also directly means so much to a specific individual, that you can see the difference that it makes.
So, talking to people who need guidance about how they can contribute, and who maybe want to work independently, maybe can’t leave the house, don’t have good transportation aren’t able to come to meetings, this is something that you can do from home, that you can do entirely by yourself. If you’re not able to risk arrest, or if you’re not able to physically keep up with a march, you can keep in touch with a prisoner, you can write them. If you hate writing letters you can get a JPay account and send emails, that’s a lot easier. You can put money on your phone account and let them call you. Or you can, some jails and prisons have the like video visits thing, you can do any of that. Once again, I don’t think we can even really understand how important it is for them to know that there’s somebody out there that they can count on, that they can reach out to if they’re in a desperate situation.
I think another big barrier to people’s willingness to begin writing a prisoner is uncertainty about how much time they can commit to it and not wanting to start off strong and then kind of leave the prisoner hanging, which is an important concern. But I would say you know, if you can only do one letter every six months, be upfront about that. But if you can only do one letter as a one time thing, just be truthful about that, and set the expectations realistic. And whatever you can do is incredibly meaningful.
Host 2: And for you, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Well, certainly the work that people have done with June 11th have brought attention to like anarchist and Earth Liberation prisoners who have experienced long amounts of time behind bars and they have not been forgotten and their stories aren’t over either. As far as the cycle of oppression and arrests and incarceration and how do we avoid burnout, and how do we ensure energy and stuff like that: I think one of the big things is we need to realize that we have the capability of winning. That this isn’t just an ongoing cycle that’s going to repeat forever. We believe that we will win, we believe that there is going to be a moment that we could overturn the system. Abolition is mainstream discourse now so we just need to keep the pressure up and keep it going and keep chipping away at the armor of the system.
Of course avoid arrests I mean as much as possible, and bring attention to the people who have unfortunately fell into the dragnet. But I think one of the other things I liked about the work that people have done around June 11th is that it kept people who are behind bars involved, to the extent possible. And really as someone who’s been behind bars and who has been following the June 11th stuff…we want to see people continue the work that we’ve been doing. Even though we might not have all the details, we don’t need to know all the details.
Jason: Yeah. So, I mean, there were 1000’s of arrests last year. It’s summertime now, they say that somewhat the interest has waned in protesting, people wanting to go back to normal, whatever, but I don’t see it that way. I see plenty of people still willing to take the fight. And so let’s get creative, let’s see what new kinds of things we could do. Let’s keep the struggle up, keep amplifying. Like my brother said we do believe we could win, and we do believe that we have made a lot of changes just within the last year. Let’s see how far we can take it.
Host 2: What could it look like to have more connection between long term political or politicized prisoners, and activity and resistance in the streets and elsewhere?
C: Part of my impetus for being involved in the Ferguson prisoner support group, or whatever, is just kind of trying to encourage a culture of solidarity. Especially in a way that tries to cross all sorts of cultural and subcultural divides, whether that be like racial or gender, or class, whatever. Just trying to see how we can fortunately, and unfortunately, have this moment where — especially during an uprising — we’re not following an easy script. Because day to day life is extremely segregated, it’s extremely…it can feel pretty isolating going through day to day life, going to work, going to school, raising your family, whatever. And being just in that baseline, and then whenever that kind of gets shook up a little bit, it’s an opportunity if you have a certain perspective to try to bridge, or break out of, that sort of stalemate.
I think with the prisoner support stuff, it’s always felt important to me to try to meet people where they’re at to have a variety of folks from all sorts of disparate or common situations and just have more perspective. And I love trying to foster situations or moments or being in moments where that is a little more uninhibited, or more relaxed. So like, how do you do that outside of these ideal — and they’re not even really ideal, there’s all sorts of terrible things that happen in uprisings as well, I don’t want to romanticize that if I can — but it is a thing where, yeah, it feels a little looser and easier. So like, how do you do that when it’s over? How do you foster a culture of solidarity of mutual aid that continues to break down like separations? I think we’re always between a rock and a hard place with this, but I think, especially in this case, writing folks, after the uprising ends, ideally, it can help create a sense that “Oh, if this happens to a friend, maybe I would do the same thing”.
Maybe they would have always done the same thing. Because obviously people have their own support networks. But like, maybe us doing that kind of helps spark an idea that like, “oh, if somebody is in trouble, or if somebody is having a hard time because of state repression or because of work, or all sorts of struggles, I can do something too. Or I can call these people who helped me in the past, and we can do something about it”.
So that’s the ideal that I have of doing this project, and even on a practical level, having more support inside and outside of prison walls and jails is helpful. Like if one of us happens to go to prison or jail, we might know somebody in there, somebody you connected with who’s like out, who is released who might be like, “Oh, yeah, I got a buddy in this jail or this prison that you’re going to and it might help you out”. Kind of not the most empowering thing, but it’s like, again, it’s like you’re between a rock and a hard place and these situations…or ultimately I want to like break out of having to think about that, but I think it’s a great place to start.
V: Yeah, it’s I feel similar to Cameron. There’s parts of this that just feel tough to answer, especially regarding the prisoner support work that we’re doing with people who I don’t know that they would identify as political prisoners. But maybe something that I have learned from this and from them is I was kind of talking about the awkwardness of making the connection at first, and then sort of allowing that to just be what it was. Like, “I’m here, and I know you because of this thing, because we were acting at the same time in the same place for a lot of the same reasons” and then sort of seeing where that takes us. And because these guys are not political prisoners, or “political prisoners“, it’s taken me and our relationship in all sorts of places. And I think that that’s been a beautiful way to connect. It’s opened up like my eyes to a lot of the different day to day oppression that some of these people have been living through, and that they’re sort of like allowing me to see into their life me as someone who they wouldn’t have allowed that, before all of this.
And I think that that’s been a really beautiful piece that’s come out of this, because we sort of open it up for connection to happen in all sorts of ways that don’t really hinge on “let’s read this radical text together and have a book club about it”, but it looks different. And then suddenly George Floyd uprising happened, and I’m getting emails and phone calls from them, where they’re just talking to me about how this is inspiring them from the inside and how they’re talking to people, their other inmates inside about why they acted in the way that they did and suddenly you see this fire again, and then you get to be inspired by that with them. And I think that a lot of that is because we allowed for a more open connection, and then we’re allowed to go down this path with them. I think our connection with these guys is a bit different but it’s still one that I continue to feel inspired by.
J11: How about you, Earthworm?
E: Again, I think staying in touch with people is the very ground level of that. Writing to those folks and for their advice and their input. Atlanta ABC runs a newsletter that we send out to probably about 250 prisoners, mostly in Georgia, but throughout the Southeast, that’s mostly written by them: they’ll receive the newsletter and we put a ask for contributions in it, and then they’ll mail us and we type it up and get it in the next newsletter. And staying in touch that way at least they’re connected in with what’s going on, they’re getting news about whatever the revolutionary struggles are, and they’re able to give their input. They’re able to lend support to people who are facing charges, who might go to prison, because they obviously have the clearest idea of how to handle that, and how to keep that in perspective, you know? If you’re facing a little bit of time, being in touch with someone who’s doing a lot of time can be very helpful.
We also publish prisoners writings on the Anarchist Black Cross website. And when they are engaging with something that’s going on in the moment, we’ll publish that more widely kind of spread that to other news sources to keep them engaged that way. I think the other part of that is to hear from them about what struggles are going on inside the prisons, and connect the people who are working on the outside to lend support to those things. So, if people are being brutalized in there, or there’s some horrible racist guard who’s harassing particular inmates, or behaving badly in general, we on the outside are able to bring pressure on that as a result of maintaining this connection with the long term prisoner. There are eyes and ears on the outside.
Jeremy: Certainly like the world we’re building is a world without prisons and we want everybody to be freed unconditionally, regardless of their particular circumstance. We support political prisoners and prisoners of war, but we also support politicized prisoners, we also support prisoners of everything, you know? So, often though, like the state will target political cases as like a canary in the coal mine type situations, where they use new legal techniques to go after political prisoners that, if successful, they’ll generalize. But the same works both ways too. They’ll also use tactics to target segments of the population that they think nobody will rush to defend either for that matter. And so it’s important that we’re fighting for all different types of cases and not letting the state get away with anything.
As far as encountering each other we need to keep up sending physical newsletters into the prisons, sending books to people in prison, doing radio shows on radio networks that have reach within prison, the jail demos and stuff like that. You would be very surprised at the long term reach that some of these actions happen. Like, for example, like when I was being transferred around a couple years ago with the grand jury Virginia thing, right? I ran into somebody at the Oklahoma Transfer Center, right? And I thought he looked familiar, right? Then he came over, said something like “I remember you and Jerry were at New York, they were always having demonstrations outside the jail for you all”. And I was like, “Wow, that was like eight years ago”. But you never know, like, something like that can stick in people’s minds. And I think that has an effect on the mentality of people that “you are not alone, you’re not fighting this alone”, and that June 11th specifically, like, if you are questioning whether you want to be involved in something – first off you should always think your actions through — but know that if you do get in trouble the movement will have your back, will see you through this whole thing, that you’re not alone.
Host 1: Are there any last things that y’all want to add, any ways that people can follow your work or get into contact with the folks that you support?
C: People can go to antistatestl.noblogs.org there’s a tab on the website that says “Ferguson Related Prisoners” and that list is up to date as to who’s still locked up and who still wants some kind of support. There’s also a PayPal link for commissary donations, or release fund donations. People are also welcome just to directly send it to the folks inside themselves if they prefer that.
E: So the Atlanta jail support efforts is not just Atlanta people, lots of work is remote. So if you want to help out with our jail support efforts, we’ve got a mountain of work that needs to be done and we’d be delighted to plug you in and get you trained up to do that. Of course, there’s probably a similar effort in your area that you can get involved in with probably a little bit of googling. If you want to write to any of our long term prisoners, atljailsupport.org has an email that you can reach out to us on and we will plug you in and get you connected to one of them. Also atlblackcross.org is for not specifically protest related prisoners, but all prisoners who are now protesting the conditions of their confinement or protesting the system in general. And if you visit that site there are ways to write to them as well.
Jeremy: Alright, first, I want to pay my respects to the comrades behind bars who are still enduring this repression, the folks who are facing charges now who might have a journey in front of them still. I want to say: we got your back, we support what you’re doing, stay strong.
As far as the work me and my brother are doing, you all know that we do a podcast called Twin Trouble, you could check us out at twintrouble.net. As you all might know, I have several conditions of supervised release, which involves stuff about association with civil disobedience and a few of the things that make my involvement and stuff post a release is going to be difficult to navigate these conditions. Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance is there. I’m currently finding ways to become involved in a way that’s meaningful and safe for both myself and others. But so yeah, check us out on the podcast twintrouble.net we got a few other projects in the works, but I just want to show my appreciation to everybody who has had both me and my brothers back up until this point and the future is unwritten. So who knows what might come next.
IDOC Watch, Leon Benson and Abolitionist Organizing in Indiana
First, you’ll hear from Koby Bluitt talking about her father, Leon Benson and his struggle for release after 23 years in prison, 10 of which was in solitary confinement, for a murder charge in 1998 that he has consistently claimed to have not committed. More on Leon at freeleonbenson.org or leonbenson-freeleonbenson on facebook. The Mass Release & Clemency for Leon rally in Indianapolis is July 25th at Tarkington Park. [00:04:44]
Then, you’ll hear from Landis Reyonolds, a founder of IDOC Watch currently held in Westville Correctional Institution and who’s been in since he was a juvenile, and Ray, an outside organizer with the South Bend, Indiana chapter of IDOC Watch. They talk about their work to start study groups in prison, promote Prison Lives Matter, support jailhouse lawyers and recruit outside lawyers through the Prison Legal Support Network alongside the NLG and more. More info at IDOCWatch.Org or find them on twitter, instagram or fakebook. You can support them via their patreon as well! [00:38:08]
Join abolitionists on June 5th, 2021 at Chimborazo Park from 2-6pm for an Aboliton Assembly & BBQ, hosted by the VA Prison Abolition Collective and Prison Lives Matter. You can find that and more events across Turtle Island at ItsGoingDown’s Upcoming Events page.
Drop The Charges in PDX
The Portland Anti-Repression Defense League, or PADL, is launching a campaign to demand all charges from the 2020 BLM protests get dropped. You can find a link to the press release in the One Year Rebellion post of the IGD column, In Contempt. And you can contact the organizers at email@example.com.
International Solidarity with Palestinians
Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and the Muslim-Jewish Anti-Fascist Front have called for weeks of actions in support of the people of Palestine under the title “International Solidarity Is The Weapon of the People.” We’d like to remind you that while occupied Palestine is no longer in the news as Hamas and Israel signed a ceasefire:
the everyday brutality of the blockade on Gaza has been going since 2007
Israeli courts, cops, military and settlers continue to displace and ethnically cleanse Palestinian Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists and others from the occupied territories as they have since the Nakba began
the US government ok’d more weapons sales to Israel during this recent assault that left dozens of Palestinian adults and children dead, destroyed water treatment, housing, media, medical and other infrastructure
Eric King & CLDC Are Suing BOP
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, on behalf of incarcerated antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King has filed a lawsuit about the ongoing cruelty and torture Eric has faced since he was incarcerated in 2014 for an act of sabotage in solidarity with the then-Uprising in Fergusson, MO, after the brutal murder of Mike Brown, Jr, by police. Eric cannot be abandoned or forgotten, notably since he’s in the crosshairs of the state and white supremacists for his anti-racist and anarchist views. You can find an announcement of the lawsuit at the CLDC website, you can find a great writeup on the situation by Natasha Leonard on The Intercept, and you can hear our interview with Eric and his partner from 2019 at our website.
Skelly of CLE4 In A Halfway House
Joshua “Skelly” Stafford, a part of the Cleveland 4, 4 young anarchist men recruited out of Occupy Cleveland and entrapped by a paid FBI informant into a conspiracy, was released to a halfway house recently. We are excited to see Skelly on his way to full release. Keep an ear out for more details and possible ways to support Skelly post-release.
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Printmatic (Instrumental) by Soul Position from 8 Million Stories
Innocent by Leon Benson / EL BENTLY 448 · MeachThaGod
Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk (instrumental) by Cypress Hill from Cypress Hill
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Koby: Bluitt:My name is Koby: . I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. I am one of two children of innocent political prisoner Leon Benson. His other child is Leon Bluitt. So that is my younger brother. And I’m here speaking on his behalf and my experience, just want to thank you so much for having me here.
TFSR:Would you tell us about Leon Benson?
Koby: : He has been incarcerated in the state of Indiana for 23 years. So, to rewind, in 1999 he was sentenced to 60 years of which he has maintained his absolute innocence, despite the Indiana justice system’s refusal to grant him justice in its appellate courts. To touch on these different things that we’re trying to get through the appeal courts, they basically were able to convict him of mis-identification by the state sole witness, she changed her statement from the original statement that she had, they had him in custody, they wouldn’t even line him up when they wanted to do an actual lineup for her to be able to identify the person that she claimed that she had seen when she was there. Also, there was a new witness that was actually on the scene, and the testimony was never heard in court. And also, they have been not even accepting his appeals to even reconsider the case, even to reconsider any of the evidence because there’s not even DNA evidence, the sole eyewitness seen, she described him as a dark-skinned male, and he had on a certain amount of clothing. If you guys have ever seen my pops online, or ever checked out his website platforms, like my pops is nowhere near darker complexion. He is a very light, very light brown young man. And also the clothes did not match, the clothes that the actual police had locked him up in, when he was locked up on that night, he didn’t even have the match of the description of the clothing at all.
There was a gentleman who they had got a tip from that actually had a disagreement with my pops. Prior to this crime happening that night, they were able to take his testimony, so-called, and this young gentleman I’m speaking of was someone who was known for using drugs in the area. And this guy basically gave the police a tip, because he was there out of spite to whatever he had going on with my pops. And I guess, of course, they wanted to get my pops anyway due to selling drugs or not that, so… And like I said if you guys heard my pops’ song called Innocent, he talked about how he sold dope. He talked about how he was on the streets trying to make a way for his family, my mom and helping her and everything, and not saying that that’s right. But that’s what he did. And then my pops had a witness who was actually with him that night that never got to speak in the trial, and they wouldn’t even allow him to speak in none of the trials, although he’s ready, willing, open to do it. And there are also other witnesses that did not get to speak on my pops’ behalf. They literally just used this young woman and this other gentleman who was known for using drugs, and he was already on parole, too. It was definitely some mess going on. Maybe a reduced sentence for this young man who actually claimed that he’d seen my pops do it.
Basically, where we are now is my pops has been really trying to get into the appellate courts, and they have refused. He has filed a petition of clemency. This happened back in October of 2020. They finally logged into the system about December of 2020. Within four months in the state of Indiana, they’re supposed to give you a decision on if they’re going to grant it or not. And it’s clearly been more than four months. Despite that, Leon Benson, my pops has demonstrated his humanity, growth, and rehabilitation. For the past seven years, he hasn’t had any misconduct, any write-ups, anything. And he has completed over 50 vocational, therapeutic, spiritual and educational programs, over 50. So he has used his time to really what they think in this criminal justice, incarceration system is supposed to work, people are supposed to get rehabilitated. He really took advantage of all the things that they offer. He is now an asset to society. This is a clear case of rehabilitation versus punishment. Are we going to continue to punish people, even after they have sought redemption from within, they have utilized all the services that are offered within this so-called prison system.
Just a fun fact for those who are listening. Indiana has only granted three clemency petitions since the 70s. Okay, and we are in 2021. And I’m sure there are other people who have sent in applications, and he is not the only one in Indiana who has been wrongly convicted. This is not a unique case. This is tragic when it’s known that it’s prolonged incarceration. And it’s not really to rehabilitate prisoners, we all know incarceration hinders mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. With hopefulness, we are going to basically where his case is now to keep things simple as that he filed for clemency, we’re waiting to hear back.
TFSR:Another thing that I’ve seen, talking to folks who are behind bars, who’ve been fighting for a change in the sentence, if nothing else, is that during that period of time, because of all of the “tough on crime” culture war stuff that was going on to the US from the Democrats and the Republicans.
TFSR: There were people getting super long convictions. And since then, there have been reforms of the sentencing structures in a lot of states, where people like old-law people like Jason Goudlock, for instance, is one incarcerated activist in Ohio that I’ve spoken to. He’s talked about how the difference between the old-law prisoners, the ones who had the mandatory minimums, who had the 20 to life sentences, or parole as opposed to required release after a certain period of time that younger prisoners have. Not only is that an unfair situation, but that’s also totally political, where someone who is accused of a crime at a certain point… If your pops is innocent, he should be released anyway. I’m not in favor of carcerality and prisons like they exist in our society. But then again, it seems like it’s obviously a sign of the times of when he was convicted, and it wasn’t about him as much as it was about filling a cell, like you said, if people that are being convicted now of crimes that are similar to that are getting less time. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer to this, but is there a discrepancy between convictions currently versus the time when he went in in 1998? Is that any sort of leverage that you can make in the case?
Koby: Yeah, during that time, I don’t know if the listeners are aware of the prison industrial complex. Really seeing what that time looked like, and what it looks like now, and like you said, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were really pushing this “tough on crime” kind of thing. And this “tough on crime” attitude within legislatures and just within the drugs, right? A lot of drugs were going on and they were using that as a way of really getting these people who were black and brown and just even lower to middle-class people out of here. During that time, it was definitely more than just the person and the actual so-called crime, it was more of a culture, it was more of a push like “We’re gonna get all these people out of here, they’re a menace to society and they need to go. We’re not even open to hearing innocence. We’re just going to get them out of here”. And it’s a lot I can touch on. Absolutely.
That relates to… as you said, they have minimum sentencing back in the day, it was different things that they had in place. They still have that, right? Even to connect to why… he’s having clemency, we’re pushing for him to have a clemency hearing. And the thing is we may not even be able to participate in this clemency hearing because they’re supposed to let us know at least two weeks in advance, but with it being over four months, he filed in October 2020, and they logged it in their system in December 2020. And it is May 28 of 2021. This is an opportunity where he could have people come in and speak. And that’s something else I’m gathering, I’m gathering organizations here within Indiana that are involved in knowing that prisoners, their lives matter, they need to be present, they need to be here, focusing on rehabilitation versus punishment and all of that, but the thing is I think the system is just sets you up. We may not even be able to be in court to speak on my pops’ behalf, to let the judge know that he has support, to let the judge know he’s not just somebody, that you’re not just letting out a person who could be a menace to society. I don’t even agree with prisons in general, but like, nonetheless, we won’t even have an opportunity, possibly, because it’s so late in the game, they might just literally tell my pops a couple of days before that he’s gonna go to court, and we won’t even have enough time to get together, to be present for him. And they may not even let him know in enough time to let us know. So I definitely think the times that back in the day in the 90s, the 80s, and the 70s. Like there’s an amazing Netflix documentary The 13th just about why people should care if they don’t even have people incarcerated or know someone.
TFSR: Would you share a bit about Leon’s activism inside, his creativity, and the gift that he and others like him continue to share despite the dungeons that they’re kept in?
Koby: Yeah, for what it’s worth, my pops has not spent this time in prison and let it go to waste. He really got into books, he really got into unlearning to relearn about the world around him and culture and religion, and cultivated a new him, he had a lot of time to spare, clearly. I think a lot of people who are incarcerated, not even my pops, they come out with such an amazing, broader perspective on how do you take the pain and turn it into a passion of some sort, how do you take the pain and possibly be able to create a platform for your children to be able to begin, to create some revenue through learning about turning all that they’ve been through and learning how to get creative with it. And what I mean by that is, although, my pops’ body was locked up, although there are other men and women who are incarcerated, and their bodies are physically behind bars, their mind, my pops’ mind was free to roam, as he dedicated himself to writing powerful poetry and music and helping to create motivational and educational programs to benefit his other fellow comrades from the inside. He has also worked closely with community activists to push for statewide prison reform, to build a system that truly treats every citizen equally.
My pops has been a key part of forming and running several programs in prison meant to create a better system for others. So I want to mention that he was chosen to be a mentor for the staff that created the band of brothers. And this band of brothers basically taught realistic views of masculinity and help individuals to become better members of their families and communities. My pops has really gotten to the healing point that they so-called push for in prisons, he really got into that, but he created that with other individuals that he was locked up with, and they created that community with each other. And, he is a mentor to other men who are in there for different reasons. And he was tasked with facilitating this group and other group discussions and using his unique perspective to make sure that everyone got the most out of the program.
My pops has been not only a father, he was a brother, he was a friend of his community. My pops is from Flint, Michigan. And he came to Indiana in 1995 and was sentenced to 60 years to life by 1999. He wasn’t even here this long, he’s not even from here, he came down here to help his uncle with his painting business, and to help them do home renovations. But nonetheless, my pops has really taken all his pain and turned it into a passion. Through his music, you hear his pain, but you hear his liberation, you hear his never dying, ending faith, that his music and his art and his poetry really speaks for itself. Some other things he’s been involved in is that he was chosen to be council praise team member and sermon group leader for the congregation of Yahweh, and basically a Hebrew spiritual, cultural community.
My pops is very spiritual, he is not religious, and he speaks about spirituality. That’s what we need to be going towards because we all know religion is a social creative construct. My pops spent 10 years in solitary confinement, where people are known to kill themselves, I don’t think there are any windows in there, it’s literally the size of a bathroom or even smaller, and 10 years in there. I mean, the man has amazing strength. And this is why when you hear his song Innocence, when you hear his songTND Truth Never Dies as long as we discover it, he created most of his art being in the shoe, being in solitary confinement. And so, Leon’s commitment to spiritual betterment has won him praise and respect from his peers.
And even from the people inside, and also, Leon became a demand educator, developing a course called The Streets Don’t Love You Back, where he educated hundreds of participants about the perils of street life, and how to escape and find your higher purpose. We know a lot of our men end up going to the streets, not because they “Oh, yeah, sign me up, I want to go, I want to get into things that could possibly get me killed or sent to prison for life”. No, they get into these things because within their environments, there are little to no options, especially coming from a single-parent home. My pops never met his father. And this is something unique for me. I didn’t know my biological father. I didn’t meet him until I was 16 years old. The reason why I’m here today is that my pops stepped up with my mom and said that he would help raise me. And he said he would be my father. Because he never had his father. My pops had character before he went in. Yes, my pops sold drugs, but he did it because that was one of the very few options that he had to actually provide for his family outside of the option that he came down to Indiana to do when that wasn’t working.
As I said, he taught an education course in prison called The Streets Don’t Love You Back and he educated other men who are in prison because of these things. He became a very gifted public speaker delivering over 300 speeches that could be inspirational, comical, tragic, or uplifting, all at the same time. My pops is very artistically inclined. While in prison, it allowed my pops to raise his creativity to new heights. He studied theater, Shakespeare in particular. He took part in several productions. He developed another program called Poetic Justice, in which he helped his fellow inmates to express themselves in words while learning about poem structures, style, and performance. Really turning all the BS and all the things that they put him through, he was able to make it because he was able to find meaning within all of this and is still finding it.
He’s also published several poems, and also several books that have even been stolen. What I mean by stolen is that there are books that he actually had produced and came out with, but they were stolen by different people who actually published them and actually did the legal work behind them. He doesn’t even own that material anymore. It’s just really crazy, but that’s never stopped him. He’s still going on, still creating, he actually has an album coming out called Innocent Born Guilty. And that will be towards either late July or August. He’s done a lot on the inside and has been a part of what prison is supposed to do, to so-called rehabilitate. But once you rehabilitate, then what? Do you still gotta pay? That’s where we are now. It’s been seven years that my pops has had any write-ups and any violations and as anyone knows, prison is a jungle. It may not be you involved in some mess, it might be somebody else, your cellmate, the guards are corrupt. There’s just so much that could happen but for him to be solid that long especially he’s in there wrongly convicted, so he could have really lost his mind and really snapped and crackled and popped. But he’s been really strong. His strength is so admiring for these past 23 years.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the Mass Release campaign? And how does it relate to the efforts to gain clemency for your pops?
Koby: I am actually working with IDOCWatch, an amazing organization. They have a chapter here in Indianapolis, Indiana. And basically, they have four things that they are working on within this Mass Release campaign, they’re working on actually holding the Indiana Department of Corrections accountable. We need to release some people, we need to release them all because people are not getting rehabilitated through this kind of system. And even when they’re rehabilitated, so-called, they shouldn’t have to sit and die in these prisons without their family and those other things. So there are four topics that are connected to the Mass Release campaign. One is compassionate release, and this is the release of the aging people campaign. The second is clemency. And my pops is representing this portion of the four topics that they are going to touch on within the Mass Release campaign, and also being able to get Direct Relief. That’s the second one. And the third point that they’re connecting with the Mass Release campaign is that when their so-called discipline and written up, people are getting their good time taken away. You can get time added to your sentence, really crazy things. And then the fourth one is that some people are getting sent back for technical violations. And literally, they have added like five to ten years on to their sentence. Even though they have good time, even though they’ve been solid for the last couple of years, if they have one violation or one behavior misconduct, they will add time. It’s designed to keep people in, it’s not designed for rehabilitation. With this mass release we must release them all and let’s rehabilitate them, release them all, and let’s actually create programs. As you guys know, if you don’t even have a member of your family incarcerated, our tax money, our tax dollars are going to build these prisons, we can put this money back into reconstructing some rehabilitations, get some social works out there, get some psychologists out there, therapy, we need it. But they’re focused on keeping people in. So with this Mass Release campaign and my pops, really calling on all those to stand in solidarity and for the state of Indiana to begin to reevaluate the mass utilization of the Indiana Department of Corrections. Even across the country, not even Indiana, but just other departments of corrections. They need to reevaluate this mass incarceration.
TFSR: What might you say to folks on the outside who don’t know that they know anyone in the carceral system, or don’t think that they have this vested interest in abolition about your dad’s case and about the mass release campaign?
Koby: We are all witnessing what is going on. People are getting screwed from different ends, to be very transparent, to be very frank, even just outside of mass incarceration, that is happening – our healthcare. There are just different things that are being screwed that if we all come together and stand in solidarity with one another, and it doesn’t have to be because you directly are affected, it is because that you are a part of this Earth and you have to walk the streets of a person who is affected, who is involved. And you have to make sure that that doesn’t mess up what you have going on, that is not deconstruct anything that your children-to-be are going to grow up. We got to think about what kind of world we want to be a part of, what is the change that we want to see. And it’s going to take more than the people who are actually affected by mass incarceration. And maybe you don’t have a father like me who’s been incarcerated. Maybe you have a brother, maybe you have a friend, maybe a friend or a mother who is a single mother because her boyfriend or the father of her children is incarcerated. And now she’s out here having to make ends meet. Now she’s out here making decisions that she wouldn’t have made if she had assistance from the actual father of her child. Now her children are put in spaces with different scenarios that could go left or right because now she has to make it by herself with little to no support. You’re seeing children that are ended up having mental and emotional issues within the school system, that may be sitting next to your child and class. And they may be having behaviors that are they’re acting out in school, or in high school, or maybe they’re in sports, and they’re a little aggressive on the field, and there may be some things that are going on, that you may not even know about, that have to do with their parents being gone incarcerated, that have to do with their parents having health issues, mental health issues, and have to do with their family, be in situations where they did not… the children don’t even have a say, so they don’t even they’re not even cared about. And it’s just that we have to be a part of a world that we want to see.
It’s gonna take all of us, it’s gonna take everybody. You are going to have to choose a side. You got to ask yourself every day: are you doing what you would want the world to look like in the future? Are you a part of the change that you want to see? Or are you remaining silent and being compliant? Because remaining silent and not saying anything and not being involved does not make you better or not. That’s actually a worse offense. Because if you see something, say nothing, then that lets you know that you are in compliance, that you are just as at fault as the people who are doing these things, the systems that are a part of oppression for different people.
And there are different ways. You don’t even have to be standing on the ground, standing in solidarity. Where’s your money going? Where are you donating your money to? Is your money going towards these efforts to get these things off the ground? IDOCWatch, have a Patreon and they have things that people can send in money because they’re actually working with prisoners. Also, they’re connected with Green Star Families, actually helping families be able to… Certain children are not able to connect with their parents. And because they can’t even afford a phone call, they can’t even afford to put money on the books of these incarcerated loved ones, right? We just have to remember: it takes a village to demand change. And we all have to do our part. You don’t have to be on the ground standing in solidarity. You can be redirecting your money. You could be writing letters, you can be reposting this campaign that you’re hearing today. There are ways to be involved. But I would say being silent is definitely not the answer. Your silence lets you and the world around you know where you stand. And if it was you or your loved one, you wouldn’t be silent. We just have to really think about that.
TFSR: So how can people support the efforts to get clemency for Leon Benson? And is there a way that they can follow the campaign?
We’re going to actually have the demonstration on July 25 in Indianapolis, Indiana at Tarkington Park in connection with the Mass Release campaign. This mass demonstration will have guest speakers, it will have poetry, we’re going to have vegan food and ways that you can connect with like-minded individuals and network, and whatever else you want to do with being a part of a mass demonstration, being a part of something.
Also if you guys already are connected with IDOCWatch or you need to, get on them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/IDOCWATCH/ and also check out his music, google Leon Benson. It’s a lot of information out there, he’s on a lot of different platforms, and see the story for yourself. You don’t have to just take it from my word, you can look up the facts and public information that is on this case, and you can see it for yourself. I encourage you guys to do that. I encourage you guys to support this clemency by seeing what’s next and actually being present for the actual demonstration. But if you’re not able to be present, you can definitely support the fundraiser we’re going to have, we’re going to have a T-shirt and different items that people can purchase. Be on the lookout for that. As I said, the proceeds are going to go to Green Star Families and IDOCWatch, and then half is to Leon Benson and continue the movement that he and I are doing which is Truth Never Dies. TND, that’s the movement that I am constructing for my pops myself and Valerie, which is his sister.
TFSR: Awesome, Koby, thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you’re doing, and good luck. I really hope to see your father free soon.
Koby: Yeah, and thank you so much for this opportunity, thank you guys, the listeners for listening and I hope to see you guys soon. I hope you guys you know really start to stand for something and you gonna fall for anything.
Landis: : My name is Landis Reynolds, I’m currently incarcerated in Westville Correctional Facility. I was convicted at age 17 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. I’m now on year 17. While incarcerated, my advocacy and activism began with juvenile justice reform, trying to get them to change some of the laws that they use, with respect to waiving minors to adult court and sentence them to adult time for offenses committed as juveniles. And as I began to study some of the background there and witness some of the horrors that take place in the penal setting. I just started to expand my activism a little bit, study more of the systematic causes and abuses that are perpetrated by the prison industrial complex.
Ray: And I’m Ray, I use they/them pronouns. I’m the PSLN outside facilitator and a member of IDOCWatch in South Bend.
TFSR: So for the listening audience, could you all maybe talk a bit about the IDOCWatch, what it is, how it developed? What motivates it, who it supports and why?
Landis: Okay, so IDOCWatch began rather informally. There were some incarcerated individuals in long-term segregation and in various prisons that reached out to individuals on the outside and began to form friendships and relationships with those individuals. And as those friendships and relationships blossomed, the individuals on the outside were able to see the daily struggle that incarcerated individuals go through in the Indiana Department of Corrections, they were able to see some of the systematic abuses and the violations that go on, and over time, as those friendships and relationships began to blossom. It morphed into what can we do to fix this situation? So, IDOCWatch is essentially a collective to provide assistance for those that are incarcerated, to fight back for their rights and assert themselves. IDOCWatch believes in a prisoner-led abolition. Basically, as we strive and struggle for abolition, we believe that it starts with the individuals that are incarcerated. We have to educate ourselves, we have to take those first steps in the fight towards abolition and asserting our rights. And IDOCWatch has grown exponentially and towardsfurthering those goals.
I’m curious about… with the organizing that y’all have been doing on the inside, how has the Indiana Department of Corrections reacted to prisoner self-advocacy, sharing education, sharing experiences, and building this community, as you say, and friendships?
Landis: They’ve responded in some overt obstruction, some of the obstruction is subversive. Anything that appears to be offenders or prisoners uniting is extremely frowned upon, any type of assistance or attempts to uplift each other is frowned upon. One of the things that we’ve begun to do is form study groups where we can help educate each other politically, assist each other with education, whether it be pursuing a GED, different stuff like that. One thing that we’ve seen at the location where we’re at is anytime a study group is formed, and we began making progress, that there’s a mass movement and the individuals that are taking part in the study group are scattered throughout the facility. You see administrative rules that are enacted where you can receive a conduct violation for studying in a group. Internal advocates, or what’s also known as jailhouse lawyers, can receive a conduct violation for helping to assist other individuals in legal matters. So there’s absolutely a constructive attempt to stop that type of solidarity and prisoner to prisoner assistance.
TFSR: It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing are rules infraction board-type assaults on individuals inside. Have they done anything that would resemble gang-jacketing participation or solidarity or study groups?
Landis: Oh, absolutely. Anything that same as in support of abolition or in support of solidarity, they actually refer to it as a security threat group activity. So when members get together in a study group to help uplift each other, they see that type of unity, even though it’s in furtherance of reformation and rehabilitation, they see that type of unity as a threat to the safety and security of the facility. And they actually can act pretty harshly against it.
TFSR: Ray mentioned the Prison Legal Solidarity Network. I’m wondering if y’all could tell the listening audience a little bit about how that developed and your partnership with the National Lawyers Guild and what the vision is for that?
Landis: Okay, so with PLSN, one of the things we’ve seen historically, is when it comes to any type of movement when individuals are asserting their civil rights, protesting, and things of that nature alone, without more, it is difficult to accomplish the goal. So various members of IDOCWatch, we put our heads together. And we see that in the correctional setting, many constitutional violations go unchallenged, because either there’s an ignorance amongst the prisoner population on how to challenge those constitutional violations, or what we’ve seen in recent years, is a meaningful or willful attempt on behalf of IDOC to keep offenders out of law libraries or make it difficult for them to assert their legal rights. So, with the PLSN we’ve seen an opportunity to not only build a network that provided the necessary resources for offenders to attack their criminal convictions or file lawsuits against systematic abuses within the correctional setting, but we’ve seen it as an opportunity to educate. One of the main pillars and objectives is empowerment. In that, we seize the opportunity to educate the incarcerated on the true motives of the prison industrial complex and the history behind the prison system as apparatus of class warfare and subjugation. We see it as providing the necessary resources to weaponize the very system, they weaponize against our communities, against the prison industrial complex. And it provides an opportunity for us to network and to build those friendships and meaningful relationships to continuously grow and progress towards the ultimate goal.
TFSR: Yeah, that kind of strikes a chord that I’ve been hearing a lot of quotes of, in the last few years, from prisoner organizers, which is I think a mixture of a quote from… I’m not… amazingly versed in George Jackson, but between George Jackson and also Ho Chi Minh, talking about turning the prisons into schools of liberation. When reading up on the Prison Legal Solidarity Network, I also came across the Prison Lives Matter which I’ve also heard referenced by incarcerated activists that I have spoken to. Can you talk a little bit about PLM and how the Prison Legal Solidarity Network engages with it and what that initiative is?
Landis: PLM is an amazing organization that was created in part by one of our members, one of our inside coordinators Shaka Shakur. And basically, it is to shine a light on the fact that just because the person was convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that their life doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a legitimate shot at reformation. The public a lot of times doesn’t understand the factors that condition individuals and set them up to be incarcerated, number one. And number two, a lot of people think that incarceration is conducive to reformation. They believe that when you come to prison, you have the ability to take advantage of programs to reform yourself and to become a productive member of society. But that’s absolutely not the truth. They don’t understand that prisons are absolutely saturated with narcotics. They don’t understand that prisons are ridiculously violent. And that most administrations enforce policies and a culture that reinforces the cycle of addiction and the cycle of violence. And when an individual spends years at a time in these environments, without the opportunity for a meaningful reformation, that the system is essentially manufacturing monsters that they’re returning to these working-class and minority communities. And it creates that cycle of violence and failure and addiction and re-incarceration. And they don’t understand that that was the true meaning of that system.
If you look at the Indiana Department of Corrections, their model isn’t reformation, it isn’t rehabilitation. If you look at their emblem, it says, Employees Efficiency Effectiveness. So they’re utilizing employees to efficiently and effectively incarcerate individuals. It has nothing to do with the reformation, nothing to do with rehabilitation. So Prison Lives Matter was a formation to shine a light on what really goes on behind these walls and to start to put the mechanisms in place, to start to form the relationships and the networks to actually be able to create an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation and supports what we’re striving for.
TFSR: And while the work that y’all are doing to co-educate and to engage other people that are behind the bars, it seems super important, especially since people are coming in and going and going back in, people have families and communities on the outside. And one of these major dehumanizing methods of the prison system in the United States is to attempt to, despite what it says, break up those connections. It seems like Prison Lives Matters gives an opportunity for people to gain more tools to be able to talk about what they’ve experienced to their loved ones on the outside and re-contextualize the reason that they’re in that place and engage the people on the outside to fight along their side too.
Landis: Absolutely, and what’s disturbing is when you’re incarcerated, those relationships and friendships with your family are already strained because of the distance and the difficulties that come with incarceration. But we’ve seen an effort on the part of the Indiana Department of Corrections to make that even more difficult. So one of the things that they’ve done is they’ve made it harder for offenders to receive snail mail. And one of the reasons for that is they issue began issuing tablets where we can send electronic mail to our families and everything, one more way that they can make money. So what they began to do is, instead of allowing us to receive actual letters, they began copying our letters and making it difficult and limiting the type of mail that your family can send you, they can’t send you actual pictures anymore, to force us to start to use these tablets. Now what we’re seeing, since COVID, is an attack on the contact visitation. One of the most dehumanizing things about incarceration is you don’t have the ability to receive that reassuring touch. And contact visitation, when you’re able to see your family and actually hug another human being, hold their hand, kiss your child, that reminds you of your humanity, that’s a motivation for you to continue to put one foot in front of the other. And here recently, we’ve seen an attack on that.
We believe that, and I’ve heard from a senior official that they’re actually trying to eliminate contact visits in the Indiana prison system and force us to have to utilize the video visitation to see our family. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Number one, not all families have the financial resources to do that. Number two, the Wi-Fi system is ridiculously unreliable. Frequently, one of your family members has scheduled a visit, and they can’t even get through because the Wi-Fi is not up. So as you were saying, maintaining these human connections is really important. And that’s another thing that we’re seeing constructive efforts to obstruct our ability to maintain that contact with those loved ones, our ability to maintain the network with individuals like yourself who support us and support our well-being.
TFSR: It’s a strategy that Departments of Corrections seem to be applying across the country, including at the federal level. It also increases the possibility of surveillance, right? If you’ve got emails shooting back and forth, and you’re paying 50 cents for an E stamp or whatever, through JPay, then suddenly, it’s way easier to run an algorithm to just search for certain key phrases or monitor your relationship with people on the outside.
Landis: Absolutely! One thing that’s particularly scary is for activists, without contact visits, without the ability to utilize snail mail at any time, people that are shining a light on the systematic abuses and oppression, they can cut you off electronically, stop you from being able to send electronic messages, they can stop your video visits. Because the way that it was set up before is they could restrict your visit, they could put you on non-contact visits, but at any time an individual could come up there and make sure that you were okay. But the things that they’re trying to impose now, where they’re making everything electronic, somebody who’s a thorn in the side of a particular administration, they would have no problem whatsoever cutting off all of your contacts with the outside world, and you would literally be at the mercy of that particular administration. So it creates a huge possibility for abuse.
TFSR: And so I guess while you all are working towards PLM as a project to garner more attention and get more support, more understanding on the outside, the Prison Legal Solidarity Network is a tool towards multiplying the number of people that are going to be able to advocate for each other and also build solidarity with each other, to advocate on each other’s behalf, help them through filing these lawsuits, challenging the imposition of this for-profit filtering of people’s real lives and ability to survive.
Landis: So, one thing that we have seen in analyzing history is movements such as this, like I said earlier, require more than simple protesting. In order for us to achieve the things that we want to achieve, we have to start to put the support systems in place to sustain an ongoing movement. One way to proactively counter PRC aggression, and to fulfill certain objectives, such as legal education, political education, the empowerment that we need collectively, was to put this support system in place. We also believe that we have to begin to put other support systems in place to continue to counter some of these moves to further the objectives of the prison industrial complex.
We see, especially at locations like this, where they only provide the minimum amount of education required. Here, under IDOC policy, they’re only allowed to teach English in the classroom. So one thing that I’ve seen is we have a large number of Hispanic immigrants here that can’t speak English. So those individuals aren’t provided books in Spanish, they aren’t provided a translator or individuals that can teach them English, and they’re still expected to be able to get their GED. And what’s even more unfair about the situation is in order to go on to a vocational school or programs like PLUS or other reformative programs, they require GED. So basically, individuals who are immigrants or don’t speak English have to do 100% of their sentence simply based off of a policy. And you see that if you study the policies, the policies aren’t geared towards reformation or reintegrating individuals in society, they’re geared towards keeping individuals here longer.
TFSR: Like handling a surplus population.
Landis: Absolutely. So, that’s two things that the PLSN is looking at right now is we’re looking at how they are deprived of good-time credit. And we’re also looking at the parole system in Indiana, and how they have absolute authority to re-incarcerate individuals at their whim, which is scary. Once an individual does their required sentence and they’re released on parole. If I forgot to report, a change of address, they can send me back to prison for the rest of my sentence.
TFSR: I’d also like to hear a little bit about – I know it’s off topic of the Prison Legal Solidarity Network – but if you could speak a little bit about what your experience with COVID has been in the facilities that you’ve been in, and what vaccination, if any, is happening among the guards, how prisoners feel about vaccines, because I know there’s a lot of hesitancy or distrust in certain facilities around the country.
Landis: Well, at the location I’m at with respect to the vaccine, there’s a huge distrust. We know that historically, prisons have been the place where they’ve done medical experiments, tested experimental medications. So amongst the offender population, there’s distrust for for-profit medical companies like Wexford, who could care less about our physical well-being, their main concern is their bottom line or profits. So very few of the offenders that I know have actually taken advantage of the opportunity to receive the vaccine, and most of them think we all had COVID. So what’s the point in getting vaccinated against COVID, if every person that you know has already had it?
The public has no clue what went on behind these walls during this pandemic. It was terrifying. So when we begin to see news reports about the severity of COVID, how serious it was, there was no meaningful response from the administration whatsoever. And the scary thing is this facility holds more prisoners than any other facility in the state. I just arrived here when the pandemic hit. We have a unit here called ANO where when you’re first transferred from another prison or you come from the reception diagnostic center, you go to that unit first, they assess you, and then they send you to your respective part of the prison you are assigned to. So, the first case was on that unit. And what they did is they tried to keep it hush-hush. They didn’t respond in any meaningful way. Then when we started to hear that they had positive tests in that unit, from what the correctional staff was saying that they instructed officers to stop, if you weren’t assigned to that unit, you weren’t supposed to go to that unit. But we were seeing officers go up to that unit, where they had positive cases, visit with other staff, and then go to other units within the facility. And within a few days, maybe a week, we start seeing individuals start to exhibit the symptoms of COVID. Once itfinished sweeping through the prison like wildfire, then they step in, and they basically quarantine each dorm to their dorm. But they knew that the virus was already within each dorm. So, we weren’t issued masks. When staff was walking around wearing masks if an offender has made his own mask out of whatever materials that he could get, he received a conduct report for it. And then once they finally started to issue masks, at first, I believe those maybe one or two days, medical staff would report to each unit and check to see if guys had symptoms. But after that we didn’t see medical staff for months, there were instances where an offender would be so sick that we would have to threaten to riot to get that offender medical attention. It was a very, very terrifying experience.
TFSR: Sure. Although it sounds like you were describing an instance where maybe someone was transferred in and brought it into the facility as an inmate or as a prisoner, I don’t know if there were any concerns, if you would be aware if the guards had any quarantining going on among them, because they’re coming in and out of the facility, they’re not regulated in the rest of their life, where they’re spending their time, who they’re around, and if they’re masking up outside.
Landis: Exactly. None whatsoever, the guards were pretty much allowed to do what they wanted to do. The only thing that they changed, and this was after there was a ridiculous amount of positive tests, was they started taking the guards’ temperatures coming in. That’s it. And it’s crazy because we read a newspaper article, where the Indiana Department of Correction reported that there were 233 COVID cases, department-wide in every prison in the state of Indiana, they only had 233 people test positive, which is laughable. Because every dorm on the complex that I was in, pretty much everybody had it. There were periods of time where you wouldn’t see an individual for two weeks, and then they would pop back up. And you didn’t know that that person had been in their bed sick that entire time. They tested the dorm underneath the ANO unit. And I believe they had 93 people test positive out of 96. And they stopped testing after that. They wouldn’t test anybody else anymore after that.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess if they reported those numbers, that’s like opening themselves up to a federal injunction or something. They don’t believe in actually being held accountable for anything, let alone for prisoners’ health.
Landis: I’m going to be honest, I believe, because I read some articles on herd immunity. And basically, herd immunity means you let the majority of the population become infected. And basically, that slows… there’s immunity that’s built up on the antibodies. And that basically takes the place of a vaccine, and that’s what I’ve seen take place here. What they did, is they restricted the movement, and they just let the vaccine run its course to the detriment of the people that were incarcerated here.
TFSR: If we don’t know the long-term effects of what the vaccines will do, and there have been like small examples of the negative impacts on a few, a 100th of a percent of the population that’s been vaccinated. But definitely, we’re already seeing the long-term impacts on the cheaper version of herd immunity, which is just let everyone get infected.
Landis, you talked about how you’ve been in for 17 years, you came in as a juvenile, correct?
Landis: Yes, sir.
TFSR: And you’ve been an advocate around shifts and changes in juvenile incarceration in Indiana. If you could talk a little bit about what some of that work looks like and what maybe people on the outside don’t realize why there need to be major shifts in the way that people consider criminality, incarceration, and juvenile health.
Landis: The first thing that people don’t consider is that minors are physiologically incapable of making an adult decision. So anytime a minor is waived to adult court and sentenced to adult time for a decision they made when they were incapable of thinking as an adult, in and of itself, contradicts justice. For me, after I was convicted, I was at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the most violent prison in the state of Indiana. I was placed in a dorm called K-dorm, it was a program called YIA, youth incarcerated as adults. And basically, it was like Lord of the Flies in there, it was violent. There was a lot of misconduct on the part of staff towards juvenile offenders, we really didn’t have any rehabilitative resources to speak of. And one thing that I’ve always seen is that if there’s any renewable resource, here, within the last 10-20 years, as a society, spoken a lot about renewable resources, if there’s any renewable resource, it is our children. If anybody is capable of reformation and redemption, it’s a child. But we’re the only country in the world where a child can commit a crime. And one thing that really isn’t taken into consideration is the background that this child came from, what motivations caused this child to commit this crime.
Not understanding that background, not understanding the inability to think at the level necessary, and sentencing a child to considerable term in prison goes against what our Constitution is supposed to do. Because here in Indiana, we have Article 1 Section 18 that says the Penal Code shall be founded upon principles of reformation and not vindictive justice. But what’s more vindictive about sending a child to prison where they have a choice between joining a gang and engaging in violent behavior, or being raped, or being robbed, or abused. Basically, when you send a child into this environment, either he has to become a monster to survive, or he has to become a victim. And if reformation is the goal, that makes reformation impossible. So looking towards the initiatives and the things, there is pretty much nothing in place that would allow a child to reform themselves.
TFSR: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. And there’s some audio of you also speaking about your experiences up on the IDOCWatch.org website. Really just spell it out also, and very worth listening to. How can people who were in the listening audience support PLSN and get involved, support PLM, if you can speak to that.
Ray: As far as Prison Lives Matter, you can our focus is incarcerated people and people on the outside. You can reach us at PO Box 9383, Chicago, Illinois 6069. Or you can visit us at supportprisonlives.org. For the Prison Support Legal Network, if you are a jailhouse lawyer or interested in our initiative, you can write to us at PO Box 3322 South Bend, Indiana 46619, or leave us a voicemail at 423-281-5009 with your name, DOC number, and a brief introduction and any legal experience or training that you may have, and we will contact you.
If you are a lawyer in Indiana, a paralegal law student, abolitionist-minded with a little bit of legal expertise, we’d love to have you onboard as well in our external committee, and you can email me directly. That’s Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TFSR: Ray gave us a little bit of information about how outside people can get involved with or find out more about PLSN and PLM. The website for IDOCWatch, or it has a reference to support for the demands of the 2018 national prison strike. About a month ago, I got to speak with someone from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak about the Shut Them Down 2021 initiative. And I’m not sure if you’re aware of this initiative, if either you as a member of IDOCWatch, or you as an individual, have any words for the audience about that call out for people to come together around the theme of abolition and engage with juvenile facilities, ICE facilities, BOP, local DOC, whatever and challenge them and educate each other.
Landis: With respect to this specific initiative, I haven’t really had an opportunity to read up on it or anything like that. But one thing that I can say is, without unity, we’re not going to make it anywhere. Every year, I see our rights eroded, I see the abuses become more blazing and more sadistic. But unless individuals come together and make up their minds that meaningful change is the only thing that they’ll settle for, things are only going to continue to get worse.
TFSR: I didn’t have any more questions that I had scripted out. So is there anything that we didn’t talk about? Or that I didn’t ask about that you want to be asked about or that you want to just riff on?
Landis: I don’t know, Ray might have some stuff. The only thing that I wanted to touch bases on is some of the long-term goals for PLSN. Because as a mechanism of genocide, the prison system is just one component. I think that people don’t really see things like public defender agencies as mechanisms of genocide or tools of the prison industrial complex. And what we’re doing is we’re developing some future goals and objectives and strategies for how we can continue to combat the prison industrial complex, not just in the prison setting, but on the street. So one of the things that we’ve started to develop is what we call the Indiana Criminal Representation branch, where most public defender agencies blame their inability to adequately defend defendants on the number of cases that they have. So, I believe that one of the strategies that we can utilize in fighting against the public defender agencies being able to feed working-class and minority individuals as to this horrible system, is by creating our own mechanisms for criminal defense, things like the PLSN, where we have professionals, we have lawyers and paralegals and jailhouse lawyers come together, and law students, and pooling resources to effectively provide that legal support.
If we start to put these mechanisms into place prior to incarceration, I believe we can really carve them out of individuals that are fed into the system and save a lot of lives. Another initiative that we’re looking at is non-profit bail bonds. In recent years, we’ve seen a movement for bail reform, because we know that the odds of an individual receiving an unfavorable outcome to their criminal case is a lot higher when they fight their case from behind bars. And that’s one of the strategies that they use for working-class minority individuals is they keep you locked up. And a lot of times the lack of these resources and these public defenders that either won’t or can’t perform their job effectively assist in feeding the prison industrial complex. If we could come up with mechanisms to where we can assist minority and working-class people in getting out of jail so they can find their cases on the street and start to implement some community-building with those programs. So for the individuals that take part in the indigent criminal representation, or non-profit bail bonds, where they’re actively doing community service, going to school, taking part in political agitation, assisting in initiatives like the PLSN, where they’re actively helping members of their community understand what the prison industrial complex is perpetrating against our communities. And further our goal of abolition.
TFSR: Ray, did you have anything to add to this conversation? I think this would be a good place probably for us to start wrapping up.
Ray: I think that what Landis said above and beyond covered things that I wanted to talk about, and that are call-outs that I mentioned, our buffer inside and outside, you mentioned that it was heard outside, somebody they’re in contact with that is in Indiana that is interested in being a jailhouse lawyer or being trained, contact us.
TFSR: How can people follow IDOCWatch?
Ray: You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, both with IDOCWatch.
TFSR: Landis, are you cool with people reaching out to you? And is it okay, do you have a preference of JPay male or I guess what remains is snail mail?
Landis: However they’d like to reach out, I’m definitely interested in sharing my story and participating with any organization where I can help further the goals of abolition or assist anybody who’s going through what I’ve been through or is going to go through what I’ve been through. In any way that I can help anybody, I’m willing to. You can reach out to me through GTL by downloading the Connect Network app or through snail mail. My name is Landis Reynolds, DOC number 157028, and I’m located at Westville Correctional Facility in Westville, Indiana.
TFSR: Thank you, all of you for taking the time and helping to make this conversation happen. I really appreciate it.
This week, we’re airing a conversation recorded by Eda Levinson on September 12th, 2002, with political prisoner Veronza Bowers, Jr. It originally aired on Youth Speaks Out on KZYX in Modesto County, California, and we re-air this with permission of Veronza and the current producer of the Youth Speaks Out. The show continues to produce youth focused and progressive content available at YouthSpeaksOut.net.
For the hour, you’ll hear former Black Panther Party member Veronza describe to the audience in his own words his upbringing, his experiences of racism, his time in prison, his case, his views on the burgeoning War on Terror, and the situation of political prisoners in the US. You’ll also hear some recordings of Veronza playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute. Veronza was convicted of the death of a US Park Ranger on the word of two prison informants who were paid and received reduced sentences. Veronza continues to claim his innocence and he has been illegally held beyond his mandatory release date of June 21, 2005, based on political pressure by GW Bush appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apparently on behalf of the Association of National Park Rangers, the widow of the dead ranger and the Fraternal Order of Police.
The conversation is very much a product of it’s time, for instance the discussion of the implications of the one year anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Sadly there is a timelessness in their discussion of the brutal war against the people of Afghanistan as well as the continued incarceration of Veronza, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, alongside many other long term, leftist and liberation political prisoners held by the US government. Currently, the Biden administration is discussing some sort of pull out of US troops from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in the last year we’ve seen the deaths due to medical neglect and decades of incarceration for political prisoners like Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, deaths right after release like Delbert Africa, and the endangering of aging political prisoners in their 70’s and 80’s who’ve had bouts with covid and cancers inside like Sundiata Acoli, Dr Mutulu Shakur and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Veronza was successfully treated for lymphoma and pneumonia in 2017 and 2018, having hip surgery in 2019 but his death by incarceration only looms a larger possibility day by day.
He is currently being held at FCI Butner in North Carolina and can be written at:
Veronza Bowers, Jr. ##35316-136 FCI Butner Medium II P.O. Box 1500 Butner, NC 27509
You can learn more about his case as well as see pictures of Veronza and loved ones, read his writings, poetry and interviews at Veronza.Org. Some of this is also available by viewing his page on PrisonerSolidarity.Com and you can read many articles about his situation on the SFBayView.com.
Other Veronza Audio Recordings
These are a collection of audio recordings of spoken word and musical pieces featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr, political prisoner since 1974 and former Black Panther Party member in the US. These are being posted with the permission of Veronza and we hope to have them more available for streaming in the future.
Healing Heart is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Birthing Song is performed by Veronza Bowers, Jr, on shatuhachi flute with overlaid ocean sounds
Song for Alexis is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
To Touch the Spirit is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Eulogy was recorded by Veronza “Butch” Bowers, Jr, in memory of his Mama’s passing. As Veronza was unable to participate in his mothers funeral so with the allowance of the then-Warden at USP Coleman, alongside comrades Rev. “One Love” and another comrade, Siakatame “Mountain Heart” Hafoka, the three speak their goodbyes to Dorothy Woodruff and Veronza performs poetry and music in his mother’s memory and family.
Sean Swain talks about the FBI
BadNews #44 Out!
The A-Radio Network has released the 44th monthly episode of our Angry Voices From Around The World, English-language podcast. Check it out! Updates from Bristol & the wider UK, Mare Liberum about resisting deadly anti-refugee practices in the Mediterranean, hunger striking anarchists and prisoners of the Uprising in Chile, interview with a Myanmar Food Not Bombs activist, the student movement and trial of the anarchist Vaggelis Stathopoulos from Greece, anti-dam resistance in Aragon (Spain), and notes on repression and struggle against the state in Greece!
All Out for Mumia’s Birthday
It’s notable also, that Mumia Abu-Jamal, prolific author and journalist, former Black Panther and political prisoner in Pennsylvania is in grave danger. He’s been in prison since conviction for the 1981 death of a cop in Philly based on flimsy evidence and perjured testimony. From a blood infusion, he contracted hepatitis-c which was eventually treated and cured due to his struggle on behalf of so many other prisoners, that condition gave Mumia cirrhosis of the liver and damaged eye sight. He developed congestive heart disease from his time inside and this year Mumia has contracted covid-19 and is fighting for his life in an emergency heart surgery. The white supremacist police state failed at assassinating Mumia, they failed at executing him and now they’re killing him by medical malfeasance and mistreatment.
It is long past time for Mumia to be free. You can join Mumia’s friends and family for his 67th birthday on April 24th by taking to the streets to exert pressure to releaes Mumia so he can get the medical treatment he needs and end this charade of injustice. There are events popping up around the world for the 23rd through the 25th. You can find some info at FreeMumia.Com
New bilingual website for Fidencio Aldama Pérez
There is a now a bilingual support site for Fidencio Aldama Pérez, a Yaqui de-colonial activist in so-called Mexico who is serving a bullshit 15.5 year sentence on a murder he did not commit. You can hear a little in our Mexico interview from last year, there’s a brief intro post at IGD about the case and the site, and you can learn more at FidencioAldama.org/en/
. … . ..
To Touch The Spirit by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [01:02:42]
Song For Alexis by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:22:50]
Healing Heart by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:37:59]
. … . ..
The following transcription was done by Dan Roberts, producer of Youth Speaks Out when the interview was conducted through today. More of their episodes, including politically progressive ones like this, can be found at YouthSpeaksOut.Net. This transcript, alongside a further dialogue with Veronza by Dan can be found in the mid-May/June 2003 issue of The New Settler Interview #136, archived online by Freedom Archives
Eda Levenson: For four years I have been in contact with a man who has spent the last thirty-two years of his life in prison. His name is Veronza Bowers, Jr. Before his incarceration, he was a member of the Black Panther Party during the Sixties. At twenty-six years old he was convicted of the murder of a Park Ranger—although the legitimacy of his trial is questionable, due to the lack of physical evidence and the reliability of the key witnesses. To this day, Veronza claims his innocence, and that the FBI framed him. He is currently being held in a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. Last June, my family and I visited Veronza. This is the first time that any of us, including my father, who has known him for fifteen years, has seen Veronza in person. During our visit I brought up the idea of doing a telephone interview. After months of negotiation, and being denied once by the assistant warden of the prison, I was finally granted permission to interview Veronza over the phone. On September 11th of 2002,1 conducted the interview.
Because of his circumstances we could only talk in fifteen minute segments, with fifteen minute breaks in between each one.
Veronza Bowers, Jr.: First, I want to thank you, Eda, and Dan, and everyone at the radio station KZYX and all your listeners. This is such a great opportunity, because I recognize the fact that I don’t exist in a vacuum, and at the same time, I understand that it is a tremendous responsibility because people listen to what people say sometime and our voices have been silent for a long, long time.
So this is great opportunity, and I really do appreciate this opportunity, and I’ll try to let it flow. Secondly, you might hear a lot of noise in the background. But it’s not really noise: it’s other human beings, just like I’m situated, and they are getting ready to go and eat, and it might sound like feeding time at the Serengeti Plains.
Eda: I’m going to ask you to talk a bit about your personal background—where you grew up and went to school.
VBJr: I’ve given some thought about my childhood growing up. One thing about prison: it gives you an opportunity if you take it, an opportunity to do a lot of reflecting upon your past.
I grew up in a little town in Oklahoma named McAlester—that’s where they have a big penitentiary—I grew up in a very, very small, tight-knit community, at a time when things were a lot different. And reflecting on that, I grew up primarily with the influence of women. Because my father was away in the Army. My father, Veronza, he did a twenty-five years in the U.S. Army. So my mother, Dorothy …
I’m glad you asked this question be-cause in order to understand anything, you have to look at it in its totality, it’s connections—it’s historical connections, if you will. And growing up in this little town, surrounded by women as I was—because my grandmother had six children: five of them were women, and one son (we called him ‘Uncle Sonny). And so, the little neighborhood that I grew up in, all Black neighborhood, we didn’t have any experience with racism directly.
Or even with all the conflicts that result from that.
Looking back on it, you think about poverty and being poor and all of those things: but back then, it was just always a very, very good feeling. My great grand-mother, Granny, she was my first real teacher of Our Story (it’s called ‘history’). She was seven years old when slavery was abolished. She taught me a lot of things about that past. So my youth was very rich in tradition and stories. And I remember my grandmother (everybody called her ‘Bucker’, but I called her ‘Grandma’). She was like the backbone of the Johnson/Larkins clan. And her word was law.
Growing up as a little boy like that, I learned to really listen to and appreciate the old people and what they had to say. Because they always were talking about “Life”—you know. That was a great joy for me to be able to sit around and listen to all those kinds of things.
And Mama was always ‘Mama’. With my father being away all the time, she gave so much strength and understanding of the world around me.
So, growing up in McAlester, Oklahoma—I was born in 1946. [the sound of many men in the background grows louder].… Eda, listen to this: you hear them call chow? It will get quiet in a minute so I won’t have to speak so loud and so fast, maybe… I’ve really come to the realization that when you start talking about the past, there’s so much that happened, so many memorable experiences that you could wander on and on and on.
EL: Would you talk a little bit about what it was like to be segregated and discriminated against.
VBJr: Eda, I never understood what segregation meant and what racism meant, and I never heard the word ‘nigger’ because, as I say, I grew up in a Black community where there was a lot of love and concern about each other.
I went to a little small school, named L’Ouverture High—but it was for from the first to the twelfth grade. We had to catch a bus and cross a little canal to hop on the bus to go way, way across town. And there was a little school right up the street about two and a half blocks on a dirt road: it was a very nice red brick school. I come to find out later, it was a grade school to jr. high. That’s where white people went to school. And I used to walk past it sometime and look at it and wonder: What kind of teaching goes on in there that’s so much different?
Later on in life I found out L’Ouverture High was named after Toussamt L’Ouverture, the great liberator down there in Haiti. They’d never taught us anything about that.
But that little town, as small as it was, we thought it was normal. Like when we wanted to go to the movie theater. Back then you paid five or ten cents to go to the theater.
They had three movie theaters in the whole town: the News, the Chief, and the Okla. The News was the one where we could go to. I always wondered why we couldn’t go to the other ones, but I didn’t ever question that. And when we did go, we had to sit up in the balcony; and it was only on Saturday or Sunday that we could go.
One time they had this movie called The Ten Commandments—I remember just like I’m looking at it. They closed the theater and let all the Black communities in. Third ward, Fourth ward and Fifth ward (our communities were called ‘wards’).
That was for two weeks. And once that was over and they figured everybody had seen The Ten Commandments that were going to see it, they closed the movie theater down for another two weeks and fumigated the place, because we had been there.
Those experiences as a little boy: I would look at them then and wondering what all this was about. They still had the water fountains with signs: one water fountain said ‘Colored’ and the other water fountain said ‘White’.
I remember on a sunny day, my father picked me up (because I’m too small to step on the water pedal and drink at the same time) so he picked me up and the water is coming up, and I look over at the other water fountain—I could read too, by then—and at the other water fountain a little white boy’s father had him picked up. I’m looking at this water, and the water is sparkling because the sun is shining through the window, and when my father set me down I said, “Daddy, how come my water says ‘Colored’ and the other water says ‘White’ and they look both the same?
And I remember my father lifting me and he said, “Boy, you’ll understand those things later on in life.”
Those are the kind of little experiences, the accumulation of which, along with the lessons of my grandmother, that leads a little young mind like I had into questioning a lot of things that you see around you.
EL: At what point did you become aware that because you were Black you were being treated differently, and when did you realize you wanted to make a difference, and you wanted that to stop?
VBJr: You know, Eda, I don’t think it was a particular point. It was just an accumulation of my experiences growing up, particularly in McAlester Oklahoma, and then later on in Omaha, Nebraska. I think it was just the accumulation, starting back from my real education by my great grandmother, and then watching the women with the Welfare and all of that kind of stuff going on in the neighborhood.
Then one day they came up with the desegregation of schools (I think that was 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court) and I starting going to that little school two and a half blocks up the way, and that’s when I was called (to my knowledge) ‘nigger’ for the first time.
Those kinds of things growing up. Becoming part of a wrestling team and going away to college. Being in the military, the US Navy for a short stint and going overseas in the Mediterranean. And along about that time (by then I guess I’m about twenty years old or so), Brother Malcolm X came on the scene with the Nation of Islam and that whole movement toward recognizing what they called ‘Negroes’ at that time, as Black people, people of African descent—that we were actually somebody. That we were human beings and not just the doormat of the world.
And just listening—because I’ve always been a listener. I was raised that way: to listen to the old people, to listen to adults when they talk. And I took that listening and listened to a lot of things. And not just listened with my ears, but with my heart and feeling. And as I grew up and started looking around me, and I see what is considered poverty everywhere and that it is such a pervasive thing. Then going overseas and seeing how people live differently; coming back and seeing how we still are at the bottom of the pecking order, so to speak—the doormat of the world—and then hearing people like Malcolm talk about (and even the Honorable Elijah Mohammed) talk about “do for self, and pride in your own self.”
And then the pride I was given by my grandmother, Bucker. You know, Eda, if I could, I would like to just give you a little idea through a poem that I wrote to my grandmother. She died in 1983. I used to write a lot of poetry and I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. So I wrote this poem and sent it to my sister and asked her to read the poem—(‘To Grandma,’ that’s the name of it)—and place it on her chest, place it over her heart. I haven’t written any poetry since. The poem goes like this:
Grandma the silence of your heart brings pain to all who love you
Could I say goodbye to you in tears. I would
But somehow I know you would only smile and say
‘Boy, wipe your eyes. I’m free at last. I’m free at last
Thank God, Almighty. I’m free at last.’
So, Grandma, I’ll remember you in your strength
You taught me to stand tall with pride and dignity
Although I live in shadow
At this moment in time
Grant me but the memory of you
Your face, your smile
In darkness then I live without fear
Lost though I may be for a while
Wonderful memories of you sustain me
And I know the meaning of hope
Reflections of you spring from my heart
To liberate me from the chains of men
Grandma, could I say goodbye to you in tears I would
But never can I say goodbye to all that you were
To all that you gave me
Grandma, may you rest in peace
And you know, I wrote that to say that not just Grandma, but the people of the community. You’ve got to have a real appreciation for the strength of a people who were able to withstand the discrimination, the exploitation, the oppression — that life — and still be able to love each other and hope for a better day.
I learned listening to people like Malcolm, and to my own heart, that not only should you hope for a better day, but you also have to struggle for it. So at one point in my life when I heard about the Black Panther Party being formed out in Oakland, California; and I read their platform and program, I said to myself: Man, maybe here we can do something to better the condition of our people.
And then “Our People” expanded to be people who were living in a bad way. And so, I joined the Black Panther Party.
EL: What did the Black Panther Party offer you? And what did you want to accomplish by getting involved?
VBJr: The Black Panther Party became a nation-wide organization and we established chapters for the state and branches in the city all across the country where there were major (what people called) “ghettos”. We began to address some of the issues of our communities—the same ones that I’d seen growing up as a little boy.
Hunger. We established programs like free breakfasts for school children— programs for any child that wanted to eat a healthy meal before they went to school. They could stop by at any of the places where we had that established, and have a good, healthy and wholesome breakfast.
Because it’s a hard thing to sit in school, trying to learn, and your stomach is growling, and you hear more of your stomach than you do the teacher.
So those kinds of issues.
Or, like the old ladies would be going to the store and a youngster would come by and snatch her pocketbook: we addressed those kind of issues. Even recruited some of those little youngsters to escort the ladies to the store and not be worried about being molested.
Those types of positive programs in the community—doing for self—became like a vehicle. And I was just one of the many young men and women who were filled with a vision and a burning desire and a hope and a dream for a better future for our people. And so, we embarked upon that journey, not knowing where it would end. Or if it would end. But we knew we had to do something.
—Not to mention the police brutality that was raging from coast to coast—and still is from coast to coast. We began to wrestle a lot of those issues, and unfortunately (and history will bear it out) we were maligned and attacked.
And my incarceration is a direct result of that. Not because of something I have done, but because of my (what they call or what is called) “political activity.” So that makes me one of the long held political prisoners in this country. And I am just one of many – and it is hard for me to just speak about myself. But because of the nature of this interview, I know that’s necessary. But I can’t be understood apart from a People and a Movement.
Because in reality, as a political prisoner—and that’s known throughout the world: that we were representatives of a people and we were accused of trying to overthrow the government and all kinds of foolishness. Because that was never the case. We were trying to make a better life for our own people. And for that—history will also absolve us on this—a war was declared against us, and many of us linger in prison now. For decades. I’m almost in my thirtieth year, and I’m still struggling.
EL: Would you talk about what happened during your original case. What happened during that time and how old you were when you were convicted.
VBJr: I had never really been in trouble with the law, other than selling Black Panther newspapers and a lot of little miscellaneous charges they were using to try to disrupt the flow of activity.
So, I was twenty-six when I got convicted of first degree murder of a National Parks Service ranger. It was a very strange thing, because not ever having to have an experience with the law and justice and all that kind of stuff, sitting there in the courtroom, clearly things were running pretty ragged. —And I had some very good defense lawyers, and I could see they were doing their best, but I also could see that apparently the deck was stacked.
I’m going to try to make it real brief and straight to the point: they had two main witnesses: one guy that I knew well (and I knew his brother even better) and another guy I had never met, although I knew his brother. The first guy, the main witness, testified that on the night of this killing that I was with him—which was a lie. And that I was the trigger man—which was a lie. And in exchange for his lie, and his testimony (he had already been convicted of an unrelated bank robbery and had received twelve years) he wound up doing two years at some camp and received $10,000 for his testimony.
The other witness —who I had never laid eyes on in my life— he had three cases pending in court for Possession, for Sale and Distribution of heroin. And in exchange for his testimony against me(he corroborated the main witness’s testimony—with another lie—by saying that I came and told him everything that happened.) In exchange for that lie, the State’s cases for possession and sale of heroin were dismissed and he received $10,000. Plus, we had a 1973 Grand Prix that was taken, and it was awarded to him. He was rewarded with our own Grand Prix for his duplicity.
Those two testimonies, with no physical evidence, sealed my fate. And I’ve languished in prison ever since, unable to unravel that strange web that was weaved.
Weaved at a time in history, Eda, when (as it is generally known, now) there was a program called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) that was designed to disrupt and neutralize the Black Liberation Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement. Many of us were victims of that program set up by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. And the web was spun so tight, that we haven’t been able to unravel it except in a couple of cases like Geronimo Pratt out in California. After twenty-seven years, they finally proved it was a wrong conviction and he was released after twenty-seven years and awarded something like four and a half million dollars. That amounts to about fifty dollars a day for your life, and that is not a fair exchange.
And there was one other brother out of the Panther Party named Dhroba Moore. After nineteen years of wrongful conviction by the state of New York, he was awarded some-odd millions of dollars. But that is in exchange for a life, and our lives are just as precious as anybody else’s. We are political prisoners, and there are many others that are still lingering in prison in New York state and California and Maryland, and Mumia up there on Death Row in Pennsylvania. Leonard Peltier over there in Leavenworth. And we just continue to try to do the best we can. To try to live and do the best we can.
My case has so many clouds on it, and it’s been through many procedures; but it can summed up pretty quickly this way: I was arrested on state charges—a number of them and they were all dis-missed, not only because of the Search Warrant. —The judge ruled the Search Warrant was illegal, because there was no Probable Cause or anything. Back in those days there was a lot of fishing expeditions going on.
And then, after the state charges were dismissed (each of them carried Five-to-Life in the state of California: three or four different charges) the Feds stepped in and charged me with the murder of this National Parks Service ranger. And because there was no physical evidence linking me to the crime itself, the government chose to use two people who already had trouble with the law (one of them, I thought was a friend of mine; and like I said, this other guy that I didn’t know) and in exchange for their testimony and all the rewards that they got, the Feds secured a conviction.
I appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, and of course, got no relief. And I haven’t got any relief up until this day. Including when I go to the Parole Commission.
One of the things they require is that you show remorse for the crime that you committed, and from my first time going there in 1983 up until the present, I’ve always maintained my innocence. I explained to the commissioners on more than one occasion that that places me in a dilemma, because it is one thing to have remorse and sorrow for something that you’ve done, but it’s an impossibility to have remorse and sorrow for some-thing that you haven’t done.
And I have made it very clear to them that I did feel sorrow during my trial when I heard the ranger’s wife testify about her husband: I could tell that she loved him. The taking of human life is something, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. But at the same time, I’ve expressed over and over again that my life, in essence, was taken without remorse for a crime I had nothing to do with.
So that’s the thing I have had to deal with, coming into prison as a young man—by the time I got to Atlanta, I was just turning twenty-seven and I’ve had all those birthdays in between. But basically, I became eligible for parole in 1983. I was sentenced to a life sentence, but in 1983 I became eligible for the first time for parole, and at that parole hearing they told me to continue to a full consideration hearing, which meant 1993. I took my court appeal all the way to the 9th Circuit and actually won the Appeal in the 9th Circuit, and that took ten years and the court ordered the Parole Commission to recompute my parole release date, give me an immediate new hearing, absent any erroneous and false information about an alleged assault that never took place—it took place, but I wasn’t involved in it.
And the Commission went through the motion of giving me a new hearing, and then said “Continued until 2/3rds Expiration,” which is 2004. Since ’83, I’ve gone to the Parole Board in ’91, again in ’93, ’95, ’98, 2000, (I haven’t gone in 2002 yet). And in 1993, for the first time, the Parole Board examiners recognized that something was wrong, and they attempted to give me a Parole Release date: they recommended I be released on December 7th, 1998 and they awarded me fifty-seven months for superior program achievement because there have been a lot of things I’ve done positive since I’ve been locked up. And it went to Washington and they took that back. And again in 1995, the Commissioners attempted to give me a 1998 release date, and again, it was taken back in Washington.
I appealed that decision, and thanks to the effort and support from numerous friends, too many to mention, I was able to get some very good legal representation. And now, we have a case in court down in Florida and it’s right up to the ending point, whereas if the judge rules in my favor, I will get immediate release. If they rule not in my favor, then no doubt I’ll be released in 2004—if life lasts and death passes.
But it’s been an on-going struggle with the Parole Commission.
And I have to mention this, Eda: it’s not just me. Particularly those who are considered political prisoners, like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abul-Jamal in state prison, and many up in the state of New York—all over the country, about one hundred and fifty of us. That’s the treatment that we received: we received long, lengthy sentences; in many cases, wrongfully convicted.
And in spite of the fact that we have pretty much been what they call “model prisoners” because we are who we are, we do what we do—in spite of all of that, we keep getting denied parole over and over again. Like Leonard just got denied parole on July 9th, this year. And Mumia got his case overturned in so far as the death penalty phase, and they’re trying to re-sentence him either to life imprisonment or the death sentence.
But thanks to the many people whose eyes are now being opened, we’re getting a lot of support. Because in the old days, there was very, very little support. We were pretty much going on our own. Thanks to the untiring efforts of many people, I was able to get some very good legal representation. But in spite of that legal representation, the Parole Board has dug its heels in and has refused to honor its own rules, regulations and guidelines, as well as the law of the land.
And so we have a case in court that addresses all those issues and it will be decided in the not so distance future. Maybe within a month or two. Hopefully, less than that. Obviously, I’m eligible to go every two years. So, I’m waiting.
—Because when I went in the year 2000, represented by my attorneys, the examiner told me he recommended I be released on Sept 12, 2001. And as witness our interview right now, this is 2002 and it’s September 11th, and I still haven’t been released. It’s a lot of things that don’t meet the eye. But at any rate, we continue to struggle.
EL: How do you maintain the positive spirit—and sanity—after being in prison so long?
VBJr: That’s a question I’m often asked by a lot of the youngsters that are around today—when I look around prison today (because I was one of the younger guys in prison back in those days in Maximum Security penitentiaries). And so I meet a lot of young guys—young, very, very young with more time sentence-wise than they have been on the earth. Like twenty-two or twenty-three years old with Life sentences and forty-five years, and they often ask me: “Man, how do you do all of that time?” That’s the question. But when you say how? Obviously, you just continue breathing—you know what I mean. But it’s also (in my particular case) because I’ve always recognized that myself, as individual, I’m just a part, a small part, of the suffering of a People.
And so even though I’ve suffered the pain and despair of being separated from my loved ones—my mama: she’s eighty-six years old now and in bad health; and my daughter, when I left her, she was five years old: now she’s just had her thirty-sixth birthday—and married with two children, my grandkids. So that pain of that type of separation—longing to be with your family—can never go away. It’s that 24/7 type of pain.
But I also recognize, when I look back and look at the suffering that Granny and Grandma and all the other grannies and grandmas and mommas and daddies and children who have been living lives that could be so much better (you know) if things had changed to some degree or another, that that individual pain and suffering, is long-standing; and so, my suffering becomes very little when you com-pare it, or make the connection between that type of suffering and the suffering that I endure as an individual.
And I’m surely not saying that because I understand a few things that I didn’t understand when I was a little boy—if that makes it any easier. And of course with friends (and I could just name a whole list of friends and supporters who’ve given me courage, who’ve given me hope—guys in prison too but a lot of people who I have been in contact with over the years who have given unconditional love and support and friendship.
And then when you look at the struggle of peoples throughout the world, you recognize that you have to live life somewhere.
And I recognize that. That whether I am in prison or out in the so-called “Free World’ that I have to live my life somewhere. And I’ve determined long ago that I want to live it the best I can, and as fully as I can, wherever I am and wherever I find myself.
In those Maximum Security penitentiaries back in the old days, you used to do a lot of ‘hard time’, they called it; it reminds me of a poem: “Without the cold and disillusion of winter, there can never be the warmth and splendor of spring. Calamity has hardened me and turned my mind into steel.” It’s like the life of a willow tree: you learn to bend when you have to and weather the storm.
So people have told me: “Man, you seem to have found a way to maintain your sanity and dignity.” And I remember reading in one of Nelson Mandela’s books (you know, he did twenty-seven years over there in South Africa, he and his comrades)—and he said one of the hardest things that they found doing that type of incarceration and misery, was how not to adjust. That you maintain your dignity and self-respect, and honesty in dealing with people; and you care for people.
I think I’ve done that because that’s the way I was raised. And so when people look and say, “You’re a strong man,” it’s not because I’m a strong man but because I was raised by strong women and a strong people. And I’m just blessed and thankful that some of those characteristics of those people I just mentioned found a way into my own heart. I just do the best I can, because I love people, and I love life, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have good people in my life.
Like a master flute maker I know named Monty, and an eloquent lady, Kayo, and your sister, Anna. Those in the Jericho Movement: Safiya and Paulette and Herman. My sisters Cynthia, Rhonda, Voni & Joi, Betty, Jean Marie, Ovedia, Debbie, Debb. Mamma Mae, her beautiful daughter Theriseta. My attorneys: Neoma Kenwood, who fought single-handedly for ten years, Mr. Curtis Crawford, Mr. Benjamin Malcolm (may they rest in peace), Edward Hammock & Donnna Sullivan. John Neptune & the world of Shakuhachi. Maynard Garlield —the list goes on to where you just can’t name all of the people who have influenced your life, and you accept that blessing as it comes.
One thing that I forgot to mention is that I had tried to escape in Lompoc in 1979, and I was shot and apprehended, as was my comrade.
Archie Fire Lame Deer sent a couple of warriors over and invited us into a sweat lodge ceremony of Native Americans, and from that ceremony, that day—it was a healing ceremony—I’ve adopted those ways and I walk that path of what is called the ‘Red Road’. And that sweat lodge, the ceremonies—the discipline it takes and the connection with all living things—has made a significant change in my life.
—Including Shakuhachi: the blowing, the using of the breath, connecting with your inner self in meditation. Those kind of things, and healthy exercise and trying to eat the best you can, you can still smile in spite of the harshness of the environment. Environments do make a difference, but I don’t think they are the determining factor in how you view the world and how you respond to that world.
Because today is a lot different than it was in the old days. And particularly, Eda, this institution where I am—Coleman, Florida. It’s the first time (after twenty-six years) that I came to a lower-level security-type institution. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been. I’ve never experienced an Administration like this one. Here, because of the broad vision of the warden and his administration, we’re allowed to have quite a few programs that are meaningful. Programs in the sense that the guys can contribute something back to society. We have a little program we call YES—Youth Encouraging Support—wherein we are able to make contact through our program with young kids who they call ‘trouble kids’, but they really are kids in trouble. Kids from the ages eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen who have been in trouble with the law. We’re able to sit with them in the visiting room and interact and exchange a lot of ideas and feelings and thoughts—to try to make a difference.
We have a program called ‘Non-Violence Training Outreach’ an out-reach program teaching guys self-respect and character building. We have a Fine Arts Department where we put on plays that are slices of life. These types of programs, because of the way things are going to-day, have been not allowed in many many places. So I think we’re like pioneering and laying the groundwork for the future. Because today, there are so many young guys coming into prison, many of them without a GED, or communication skills. And we’re able to make a difference. And that is very meaningful to me as an individual.
So even though prison is a place where no one wants to be; because we are here, some will make a positive use of their years of confinement—and some don’t. And its real painful and terrible to see those that don’t, who often times, through no fault of their own.
At any rate, all the little things combined together to either make you into a better human being, or break you and make you unrecognizable as a member of the human family when you are released.
EL: Today marks the anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and undocumented workers. Could you describe what happened inside the prison that day, and how it has changed since September 11th.
VBJr: On that particular day, it was probably like everywhere else. What happened was something that we couldn’t have even believed to be possible— the loss of that many lives all at once. And not just the lives that were lost immediately, but the families, the things and everyone that was affected by it.
There is one guy here, Siokatame Hafoka from the island of Tonga—that’s way in the middle of the Pacific—he’s a member of our Sweat Lodge ceremony. He’s a big gentle giant—I mean a huge guy—and he’s a gentleman and has a heart as big as he is. Big. And this guy (there are about 1700 people here in this institution) was so affected (as many people were), he fasted every single Tuesday, until today—till yesterday—which made it a whole year of fasting—without food or water. Just to remember that day and remember the spirit of what had happened.
I know that in other institutions, there was lockdown; meaning everybody was locked into their cells. But this place is a lot different than a lot of other places and we didn’t directly experience that—although a few guys got locked up because of their religious affiliations with Islam.
And you hear a diversity of attitudes. But I myself recognize that not only were a lot of innocent lives lost here, but that there have been repercussions on the people of Afghanistan and that people throughout the world have been effected by what happened that day. I think it was something like 2,824 odd people have been identified through body parts that have been found. In my own mind and heart that was a great tragedy. And like in all wars of all times, war is a mutual slaughter of men and women, and those kinds of things they can only sadden the heart.
EL: If there was one thing that you could change in this world what would it be?
VBJr: I would love to be able to change the relations among men—when I say “men” I’m also including women. Humankind. Because we talk about war, poverty, hunger and misery on the one hand, but it’s opposite always exists. But it evolves down to the relationships. Relationships to me are very, very important, and if there is to be a world free of sexism and fascism and ageism and all those other “isms”and schisms that divides humankind—not to mention racism, which is an artificial division of human being based upon skin color or positions and stations of life…
If we could go back in time to that time of what is called “primitive communal society”, but really was a society when there was a lot of collective and mutual cooperation in order to survive against the beasts of prey and the forces of nature that man didn’t understand; if things could be ordered in such a way (not ordered in a sense of a dictatorial thing) but ordered by mutual respect. ..
Like the way I grew up in a community. The elders had respect, not because they had authority being imposed upon those who gave the respect, but because that respect was well-earned and understood. And that’s the type of respect that even great presidents and generals and foreign ministers don’t have because those things are not something that can be forced upon a people.
So if those relations change—relations to the point of production—then we could have a much better world where a woman would never know what it is to have to give up her body in prostitution, or people would never know what it was like to grow up in slavery, a beast of burden. That’s what I would hope for my children and grandchildren and the children after them, and yours, and those yet to be born. And it could be so, but that requires a lot of struggle and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of willingness of people to understand that unless we cooperate as a human species, then we are going to perish.
EL: Is there some advice you would like to tell youth in America today?
VBJr: Yeah. It’s been said (and it’s not rhetorical) that the youth are like the sunshine at eight or nine o’clock in the morning—bright, full of beauty and vigor. And they will visit places where those of my generation and other generations can’t even dream of—yourself included. You have places to go that can only be dreamed of. So, the youth have a great responsibility—like all generations that come after the generation that’s currently struggling to make a better world.
The youth have to take a sober look at that. Not in the sense of foregoing all the joys of life that come with youth, but also recognizing that youth, just like old age, is a passing thing, and it’s here now and it will be gone.
So we listen to our past—reflecting on our past—and plan for the future and live in the moment. . . Often time we see that youth have been criminalized as a generation. They still are our hopes, because they are going to be the future leaders of tomorrow. And so, that responsibility that they have, that has been squarely laid on their shoulder, it will be a heavy burden. But I have full confidence in our youth—the hip-hop generation.
Every generation has its ways. The youth of today are very much in tune with life and the world around them. You hear it in the music, you hear it in the rap music; you see it in their dance, the way they walk and talk. It’s just a matter of being willing to listen, as we all have problems listening when we are young. I pin my hopes upon the youth.
And when I see these youngsters come into the programs I was telling you about: we’ll be out in the visiting room talking and you look in their eyes, and sometimes you see despair, and sometimes a few sparks flare up, and your heart hurts inside, because without some changes, then you know a lot of people will live half-butchered lives, who could otherwise live meaningful lives.
—Not just in the sense of being professional people like doctors and lawyers, but just contributing positive things to their own communities, and to their own families. That’s where it starts at, with the family. And it goes out from there to the community and to the city and the state and the nation. And the world.
EL: What are your own future plans when you finally get out in the year 2004
VBJr: If that happens—and like my mama always say: “If life lasts and death passes.” In other words, if I keep breathing and I am fortunate enough to be re-leased in 2004 (or if I win my case down here in the court that I have going now, and am released immediately). I have a lot of plans.
One is to try to keep breathing—living. And I would really like to be able to open up a Meditation Healing clinic. Over the years I’ve studied and learned and practiced acupressure and hands-on-healing and tsubo therapy, and a variety of healing arts including blowing shakuhachi as a means of self-meditation healing, and have gained some insights and rewards doing all of that stuff to relieve pain.
Pain is a thing people don’t have to necessarily live with—or “learn to live with” as the medical profession often says. But pain can be relieved with the touch of a finger or the sound of a note, or the sound of a voice or a birdsong.
So I would like to try my best to open up a clinic of that nature and train some youngsters in that art of caring, and try to make a little difference in some lives, and take it from there . . . (Loud commotion-sounds like. “Closed, closed, prepare/or. . .] That’s a big announcement.
Anyway, I really have to say that I’m very happy that my mother (who is 86 years old), and my daughter Veronica, even though they suffered so much pain in my absence, that they’ve understood that I had to follow my dream for a better world for US all. Because at one time, I don’t think they understood. But they do now. And those kind of things help one situated like myself, to continue. Those are the kinds of things that mean so much. And I want to thank you, and I want to thank Dan, and I want to thank all of the people at KZYX and all of you listeners who put up with all of my ramblings. Obviously, I definitely want to thank all of the people who have believed in me and have supported me. And I can only hope that that will continue, and that somehow in the future, that my own life—what I have left of it—will be used in a way that is befitting that type of unconditional love and support. This call is from a federal prison. This is a prepaid call. This call is from . . . Veronza
The conference was titled Fitting In and Sticking Out – Queer [In]Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion. From the panel’s description for the conference:
This panel brings together 4 local (Asheville, NC) and regional groups working at different intersections of queer community support. We will learn about the work these groups do, the particular issues that affect southern queers, the changes in visibility and inclusion for queer community, and the building of larger coalitions of liberation. Representatives from four organizations will be part of the panel:
Youth OUTright (YO) is the only nonprofit whose mission is to support LGBTQIA+ youth from ages 11-20 in western North Carolina. Learn more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a nonprofit aimed at working towards LGBTQ liberation in the south. Find out more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Tranzmission Prison Project (TPP) is a prison abolition grassroots organization that provides literature and resources to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. Learn more about their work on their website and donate here.
Pansy Collective is a decentralized, DIY, queer, music and arts collective that created Pansy Fest, an annual queer music festival showcasing LGBTQ musicians from the south and rural areas, prioritizing reparations for QTBIPOC artists and community members, and community education and organizing around the principles of autonomy, mutual aid, antifascism, love, and liberation for all. Learn more about their work on their website, or donate here.
Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site
Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.
Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.
Scott: Okay, so welcome everyone. This is our the final event of the first day of the 2021 Queer Studies conference. So happy to see you all here, we made it through the day. This is a really special panel because we’ve invited representatives of local organizations and groups that do work in the community in the region to help queer community – and we’ll hear more about the work that they do specifically – but this is in the spirit of the conference, which is going back to its founding, conceived as a way of like having academics and organizers and activists meet to talk about queer issues. So this is special to highlight the work that queer folks are doing on the ground. So I’m gonna be moderating, my name is Scott. And I’m going to now turn it over to each of our panelists to introduce themselves, the group that they represent, and give a brief overview of the work that the group does in the community and beyond, and then we’ll get into more involved discussion from there. I can name y’all, or if someone just wants to go, go ahead. If the spirit is calling you…
Leroy: Alright, I will jump in here so that then I can sit back and listen to all the rest of you. Hello, I’m glad y’all are all here. My name is Leroy Kite, I use they/them pronouns. I’m here with Tranzmission Prison Project, we are a queer and trans powered abolitionist books -to-prisoners group that serves the entire country…with a few exceptions of states that have banned us. And we are a sister organization, a sibling organization with Asheville Prison Books, which just serves general population prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina. For those of you that are Asheville specific, we are located out of the back of Downtown Books and News, you can drop by and see us.
And, yeah, we’ve been around for like a little over 20 years somehow? So a very long time. It’s kind of a mystery to me, how that has really sustained this long. I’ve been involved for about seven years, and there is some historical memory losses, there’s just been a lot of turnover over those two decades. Basically, we are still in the process of reconnecting with the origins of how this group began and trying to call up those long lost elders of this project so that we can kind of seam some of the pieces together of what has changed from then and now.
But that pretty much gets up to date. The arc of our work is we receive requests from prisoners around the country, across the LGBTQIA and two spirit spectrum, and mail them back books that they are asking for whether that is romance, thriller, sci-fi, erotica. You know, we try to highlight getting people materials that a lot of other organizations are either unwilling or under-equipped to send to those populations, particularly when it comes to things that regard people’s sexual and gender autonomy. That’s a area that it can be very, very hard to find free resources from organizations that are willing to send that to people. So that’s kind of one gap that we see ourselves filling that’s kind of unique. And with that, I’ll pass it off to whoever wants it. Thanks.
Adrian: I can pop in. So my name is Adrian, I use they/she and he pronouns. I’m the executive director of Youth OUTright WNC. We are a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQIA young folks between the ages of 11 and 20, which kind of led up to 24 during COVID. Thanks for dropping our link, Shawn. So our programs focus in on racial justice, gender justice, and sex and relationship education. So right now we’re running programs Tuesday through Thursday, we have chat rooms on Tuesday and Thursdays that are held on Discord. And we have a video call on Wednesdays that run 6 to 8pm. And that’s those programs are run by Brian Thompson, our youth programs manager, and they’ve been doing a great job there.
We also do some work supporting the GSA clubs across the state of North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with GSA’s, those are “Gender and Sexuality Alliances”, formerly known as “Gay Straight Alliances”, and those clubs really vary between social support and activist groups. But we support them wherever they’re at and with whatever they have self determined to be their goals, right? So if they’re focused on building community with each other, that’s awesome, we’ll talk to them about that if they’re looking at changing policy at their school, also awesome. And we’ll talk about that we try to meet them with wherever they’re at and with what their goals are.
Self determination is really important to our work. Over the past few years, we’ve been really incorporating youth leadership, all the way up through the board level. And so that’s been really important to us as we progress. We like to create professional opportunities for young people as well. We had some part time staff positions last year as educators and facilitators, there’ll be more opportunities for that later this year. And we’ve provided stipends for peer education around sex ed, or mental health, different things like that. In 2019, we held a GSA summit, we hope to do that again. We were a little shaken by the by the pandemic, as most folks were, so we’ve had to postpone that but we’re looking at a virtual version soon. Keep an eye out for that.
And beyond the direct Youth Services, the GSA work, we also do advocacy around policy. So we’ve been working with Campaign for Southern Equality around the Department of Public Instruction’s name policy within the virtual learning system. We were seeing last year that a lot of trans young people were being outed just by the virtual learning system, and so we now do have a preferred name field that will be integrated into Buncombe County and implementation is happening now.
We work with Equality North Carolina on things like non-discrimination ordinances here in Asheville and surrounding counties. And we’re also working right now to put together a storytelling campaign around the anti-trans sports bill that just hit earlier this week. So we’re working with some trans athletes at a couple different high schools to uplift their stories, and really raise awareness to that.
One last little plug I’ll make is for our racial justice and gender justice panels, which happened once a month on our Instagram Live, and that Space A Digital Place to Talk About Race, and TYME (Trans Youth Movement and Education). Those panels are led by young college and high school trans folks digging in deeper to racial and gender justice. And I’ll stop taking up space.
Monse: I’m happy to go next. Hi, everyone, my name is Monse, I use they or she pronouns, and I’m here at repping SONG, or Southerners On New Ground. We are a 28 year old LGBTQ base-building membership organization. We are definitely unapologetically abolitionists, Black and Brown, and all things queer and magic. So we have chapters all across the Southeast. We have chapters in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, in Louisiana. We currently don’t have an Asheville chapter but we have lots of Asheville members who, in the past couple of years, have been engaged in our bailout action that we have done for Mother’s Day where we have raised money to pay the bails of Black mothers and caregivers who are in jail due to bail. And this was definitely to bring awareness to the issue of money bail used as a racist, classist practice in not only Buncombe County, but all across the south, where folks are held pretrial. So before their conviction, and if they don’t have the money to pay to get out, they have to stay in jail and await their court date when people who do have access to wealth or money can wait for their court date from the comfort of their own home. So further criminalizing folks who are already targets of the state.
So SONG was founded in 1993 by three Black lesbians and three white lesbians, and was definitely founded as a way to kind of infiltrate into the queer and gay movement in the moment, and really saying that money bail, that criminalization, that all these things are people facing oppression, like, is the gay issue. So we definitely wanted to make space for folks who are Black and Brown, who are facing oppression and criminalization every day, to be able to be in these spaces and organize and bring their full selves and not having to be closeted.
So SONG is an LGBTQ feminist organization, with core Black leadership. And we believe that until all of us are free, none of us are free. So that’s why we’re really wanting to move this work. Currently, we have campaigns to end money bail, so really connecting to our direct action to bail Black mamas and caregivers out of jail, and bring more awareness to the issue to end money bail and pretrial detention.
We also have been doing research around campaigns to end the collaboration with local law enforcement and ICE – so Immigration and Customs Enforcement – because we know that police and ICE are the same beast under the prison industrial complex. But we do a lot of training, a lot of just skilling-up and building community across the South because we know that the South is where all the shit goes down, and where all our people are. Where we have roots, where we have community, and we want to be able to grow and build and organize in the South. So that’s a little bit about SONG. And hopefully, you’ll get to hear more about the work that we do. But thank you all so much for having us.
Beck: Thanks Monse. I’m Beck, I used they/them pronouns and I’m here as the representative of Pansy Collective. And so Pansy Collective is a DIY decentralized queer LGBTQIA arts and music collective. Our biggest thing that we do is Pansy Fest, and it kind of started out as like, a queer visibility type of thing. Like the punk scene in the South and in neighboring regions around Asheville has been pretty bro heavy, pretty homophobic, racist, and we’re trying to make space that was an anti-racist, anti-homophobic space in the punk community. And then from that, it kind of started to build into more like Southern and rural coalition building and then specifically around moving from like, visibility to BIPOC reparations. So the first fest we actually worked with SONG’s Black Mama Bailout, and that was like the first beneficiary we had, and TPP was another one! But it’s like, it’s so cool that we’re all here right now.
But yeah, it was kind of a way to engage like queer folks into to put a public space that wasn’t some liberal kind of, I don’t know, upitty Asheville…you know? [laughs] People who are living here, you know. But yeah, so it was it was cool to like, create a space where we felt okay around each other, where we can have hard conversations. And also like, where we could bring some of the anarchist principles and things like that, in kind of a more tangible way into the punk scene. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got all these lyrics that are like, ‘fuck this, like, hate cops’”, follow that. But also, do you know about prison books? Do you want to sign up? You know about Black Mama Bailout? So you know, having people tabeling there at all of our shows and events was really big. Making sure we have Narcan, you know, bringing in harm reduction into the scene…just kind of trying to, like, the spaces that we have idealistically in our head as like “a queer scene”, just trying to make it happen to the best of our ability.
And so we’ve been around since 2016? 2017! And it was such a bummer last year: we were like getting ready for a really cool event with HOT BITS. It was going to be like a really cool coalition building, with sex workers rights, and having a really cool, I don’t know, sex positive space, which was like something new for Pansy. And it kind of went all down because of COVID, of course. But we’re still meeting together! We’re still organizing, we, you know, try to coalition build where we can. It’s not looking like events around music and art right now. It’s more like, “Okay, let’s do a noise demo at the jail with Charlotte Uprising.” How can we be outside and distance and really do the work that we believe in, which is like mutual aid, it’s love, it’s like anti-prison, you know, it’s not queer assimilationist, right? So it hasn’t been so much “festy”, like punk stuff going on, but we’re still here doing it. And yeah, super stoked to be here. Thanks for having us.
Scott: Thanks, everyone, for introducing yourselves and the groups and giving an overview. It’s really interesting too, to see where these local regional groups have intersected and work together. My first question beyond the introduction is specifically linking to Asheville, Western North Carolina, a larger region, the South, what do you think Southern queers need? And how does your work try to meet those needs? And you can, you know, get as specific to our town as you want, or think more regionally.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. I think one of the things pre-pandemic, when events were happening, was just having a queer focused event that you didn’t have to pay for. That it was like, sliding scale and all of the money, it wasn’t, you know, going to this model of building up, it was just going to go into the hands of folks who need it. The fact that you didn’t have to show up and pay. I feel like everything else in this area in those spaces, too, it’s like “pay to play” situation. And it’s not really inviting, you know, from a class perspective, but also just like…those spaces aren’t necessarily where, like, I want to be anyways, right? Like I want to be in a space where it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, how I look, if I can afford it. So just creating those spaces, I think.
And something that I just think of, like, resources and education and coalition building is something…there’s like, there’s a lot going on in the South, trying to make it happen, but it’s much more of an uphill battle, I think, compared to West Coast, East Coast, right? And so, you know, tabling events and stuff like that, but also like teachings, where we learn how to do jail support, or, you know, like fun stuff too! Like, do you wanna learn how to screenprint? Just having this open space, you don’t have to pay to get in. And you don’t have to know everybody, you can just come in, and people are gonna be like, “Hey, what’s up? Welcome to the teach-in.” And you’re like, already welcome at the door. And a place where people can share ideas, and it’s not coming from this hierarchical like, “I’m going to educate everybody in this space.” It’s “everybody has something they can bring to it.” So I think that’s one part that Pansy Collective comes from, for sure.
Scott: Adrian, that made me think, like, what Beck was saying about kind of the educational aspect and like, maybe that fits in the mission of Youth OUTright, connecting to young people?
Adrian: Yeah, a couple of things were coming up for me when Beck was sharing. The first thing that came up for me around education and teach-ins’s is: I feel like young people really need us adults to step up and educate ourselves. Frankly. You know, I think that our young people are often in the position either at school or with their families, where they have to educate adults around them about sex and gender, or racial justice, or any number of social movements that are happening in our intersectional community, right? And so something that breaks my heart, but also makes me really proud is watching these young people really articulately say what they need to say, to these adults, right? It’s impressive, it’s great. And also, come on adults, what are we doing? And so you know, where that brings in Youth OUTright is we’re in the process of developing relationships with Buncombe County schools to provide training to all of their counselors and social workers, right? From the adults, providing them training about how to support young people, and we may compensate young people to record their experiences or, you know, provide some amount of input in there. But we don’t want them to have to expend that emotional labor and potentially re-traumatize themselves in entering a space where they have to teach their teacher, right?
And so I think that there’s a big need for adult allies to step up into this place of peer educator for, you know, the people in their community and having these conversations. Of the folks who do want to engage in those conversations, we’re hosting every third Monday, a space called Continuum, which is an intergenerational conversation for supporting specifically gender and sexual minority young people. And so that’s a space where people can engage in conversation with the community there. But you know, we obviously have a little bit more of a focus on young people, right?
So part of our work last summer, we did a direct action training at Carrier Park. And so we brought together a small cohort of young people. And we were socially distanced and talked about what power mapping looks like, talked about some of the changes they want to see in the community, and they identified the Trans Panic Defense, right? They said “the Trans Panic Defense is something that we think is abhorrent and needs to go away”. And that’s super valid. They also picked a hard one. But you know, I think that having spaces like that, centering the young people’s vision, is really what they’re asking for. And again, I’ll go back to self determination, right? And I think that when we allow young people to set the waypoint, we realize that a lot more as possible, right? As adults, I think we get a little bit salty, we get a little bit jaded and cynical, “we’ll never get there”, right? So I think young people need us to tap into that imagination, and tap into that vision and support that, right? As well as stepping up to educate ourselves and understand that like, I’m still learning new pronouns, y’all! Like I’m still…there’s a lot going on, and culture is always changing. So I think they need humility from us, right? They need us to recognize that, to disrupt that adultism in ourselves, right? There’s always this dominant cultural belief that adults know what’s best for young people. They might know what’s best for us! Let’s look at our planet and what the young environmental activists are saying, right? There’s so many ways to look at this and where young people really have the answers. So I think we need to take a seat and listen, and then start making some moves from there.
Scott: Thinking of like, you know, identify problems that they want to attack made me think also about the kind of particular terrain that we have in the South. Given the kind of like, Republican legislative power and the way that they can kind of steamroll anti-trans, anti-gay policies, and I don’t know if maybe that’s something that Monse, you could talk about, in terms of the work that SONG is doing? Because it’s like SONG is as a Southern thing and there’s like, simultaneously kind of invisiblization of queerness in the South, but also this huge social war being waged by the state against queer people in the South. So yeah, that was a way to start to throw it to you. If you have some ideas.
Monse: For sure, I can definitely speak on that a little bit. Yeah, and I would say, like, the South is a region of both great despair and historical trauma, but also great organized resistance and resilience and magic. Like, we really organized in this region because we want to build up. And because we are a part of a long legacy of organizers and cultural workers, freedom fighters who have been committed to the South, and this is a place where folks live, where folks build their lives, where they love, where they organize, and continue to build their families, regardless of all the things and history that has. And I really would want to highlight that resistance piece, because there has been so much resistance that has happened in the South. And I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that folks, we’re naming, like, we organize in the South, and we have that kind of like a southern hospitality where we can find our people, where we can create the potlucks and invite folks in and like, making sure that our neighbors have what they need, that our community is good. And we are doing mutual aid, and we are doing those things. And there’s also like all those things against us, too.
But I think that organizing in the South, to me, is about kind of like that resilience that you’re like, “I’m not leaving this place, because this is where my legacy is, my history is.” And a lot of the times that negative and racist rhetoric is highlighted in the South, but I think, like, right alongside with it is where we grow, like where we are making everything out of nothing. And we are doing that pushback, and we are seeing some wins. And I think we have been able to see some wins, like even specifically throughout this year. Like folks organizing and doing the uprisings. Like we saw so many wins from that, like, where folks, like we are literally, everyone was talking about “what does it mean to defund the police? Like, what does it mean to believe in a world where we don’t have policing, where we don’t have jails and prisons?” And I think that that is because of years and years worth of organizing. It didn’t happen just out of nothing, and like folks rioted and stood up for what they believed in, just like, overnight. I think it has been years of oppression and resilience that ignited folks to continue that conversation. I think that the work is not by any means done yet. But definitely we’re making, we’re seeing the fruits of those commitments and those sacrifices happen. I think it’s up to us here in the South to continue to say like, “Fuck that” – [smiles] I’m gunna cuss on here – but like, “Fuck that, like, we’re gonna keep fighting and we’re gonna keep doing what our ancestors wanted us to do and what rightfully we have to do”.
So yeah, and I think in Asheville there are so many nonprofits, and like so many folks already organizing, and there is a great need for folks to organize. And we definitely saw that even locally in Asheville, when, like, we need to hold local and county government accountable. Like we saw that in the summer, we saw demands of Black and Brown organizers being ignored. We saw that there is a big need, like, we can’t, in Asheville at least, we can’t hide behind liberal organizing and expect things to to move. I think that we have to continue to push and continue to make space for Black and Brown organizers and for demands to to move, so that we can organize and build the world we want to live in, even here, on a local level. And I think that what SONG has to offer, at least here in Asheville, is like training, skill-up opportunities. Like, this 28 year old legacy of folks who have been fighting and organizing in the South because the South is their home, and definitely connection to those folks all across the south, and years of like trans and queer abolitionist organizing. So that’s what I have to say,
Scott: Thanks. And then, you know, building on that idea of like, how the queer communities in the South can get invisiblized in the racist and bigoted ideas of the South, I was gonna use that to sort of transition to the work that you’re doing Leroy with Tranzmission Prison Project, because also a community that gets invisiblized, is the people who are incarcerated, and specifically people like trans and queer people who are incarcerated. And I don’t know if you have something to say about that in terms of like, the way that you’re working with them to get their voices out or get their needs met. Because that’s also a site of like, tremendous resistance, building off what Monse was saying.
Leroy: Yeah, I think that there’s both so much potential here, and in full transparency, so much room for TPP to continue growing in ways that move beyond where the reality of, you know, most of our work to date has, even as an abolitionist group, typically shown up as service provision. Where we’re not as involved on the policy end of things, or able to keep up with all of the specifics of what is happening in this state in the South that specifically targeting these queer and trans prisoners. We, you know, have occasionally popped in to, like, offer a statement here or there about things that have happened on the federal level. Like in 2018 there was this change to the Transgender Offender Manual from the Bureau of Prisons, that really fucked over, altered, the safety of trans folks in prison across the country.
But as far as specific to the South, I personally don’t feel like I am informed enough to be able to say where, you know, we have as a project not yet had the capacity to orient towards how can we show up more and do more coalition building and outreach beyond our little silo of what this project has been maintaining over the years. But I think that that’s the real growth edge for us right now. And where the conversation has really been building over the last several years as we’ve gone from, basically like myself, and like one other person, when I first joined this organization, we sort of went through a period of so much burnout, and turnover seven years ago that the last seven years have been really just building back up our own base and trying to just keep up with the mail. We have, like, 100 to 150 pieces of mail on average that we get a month.
And so we’ve sort of been stretching to make space to have conversations within our group that are more than just “how do we sustain our own morale in this work?” And how do we actually network with some of these bigger, juicy or more challenging questions of “what does it mean to be abolitionists doing books to prisoners work”, and I think that networking with other folks in the south like SONG, like Pansy Collective, like Youth OUTright, is really where the work is headed for us. So that we can kind of use the best of what everyone else is already tapped into, on sometimes more of the policy end of things, sometimes more the grassroots end of things, but just where people have their ear to the ground in places that we don’t always.
I will say, as I kind of alluded to, I think in my first answer – and maybe this is foreshadowing for like another question that I don’t know, it still coming up – about like challenges of working in the South. But I think that the irony is that for longer than I have been involved with this project, North Carolina specifically has been one of the states that has banned us, Tranzmission Prison Project specifically, from sending mail in. And we have – for the cop who may be sitting in this room right now, this is the time where I’m gonna say “Fuck you, and you can leave this call” – but, you know, we we have done what we’ve needed to do to get folks books that they’ve requested. Like, we still get requests all the time from prisoners in North Carolina, and we’ve basically just found some ways to fly a little lower on the radar when mailing those books back to people. But things like we can’t use our letterhead, we don’t use our mailing address when we return those. And so there’s room for us to potentially challenge that.
I mean, in the last seven years, again, as a group we have not had the capacity to necessarily even investigate, like, is this really still a thing? Like, could we run a campaign to get this overturned? And so that’s where having a real upsurge of interest in prison abolition in the last year has been starting to put some more wheels under what feels possible for us, in terms of maybe doing some bigger work, then has really just been on the table for us. Just trying to like keep up with the need that has been there, you know, not not to fall into like, capitalist supply demand lingo, but I mean the reality is like, the prison system is a part of capitalism and we are often in our own constraints that are placed upon us by it by the nature of the prison industrial complex.
So there’s this real tension between like, “how do we ensure that our baseline commitment to just getting people the books that they are asking for is being met”, while also being like “is that in and of itself, abolitionist”. We really situate what we’re doing as centering people’s humanity, and really just restoring that sense of dignity and autonomy to people, that having information is something that we believe everyone should have. Having access to pleasure is something that everyone should have a way to expand their own minds beyond, you know, what’s often a cell smaller than a lot of people’s bathrooms. How do we, again, just connect the dots of the bigger constellation of “how do we keep these prisons from becoming kinder and friendlier to trans people” – whether that’s in the South or around the whole rest of the country – towards “how do we really shrink the system into nonexistence”?
Scott: Yeah, so jumping off of the obstacle point, that was a question that I had prepared. And I’m thinking also of just specifying a little bit because it’s come up – and this is the place we’re in, like, you know, post or not post pandemic, but in the middle of the pandemic – the pandemic hit, right, and like changed the terrain for organizing for everyone. So that, obviously, is an obstacle. I’d be interested to hear how a little more about how have you dealt with that. And also, potentially, on the plus side, the way the uprisings, rebellions last year affected the kind of energy and work that you’re doing, because that’s also something you’ve all been mentioning, in terms of the hearing more about abolition. So obstacles and but also like the recent sort of things that have occurred that have changed the nature of organizing.
Monse: I’m happy to kick it off. I think that yeah, definitely, what has been shared is definitely what we’ve been experiencing too, within SONG. I think even the election was a huge obstacle. I think that that brought up so, so many conversations, but also like, we were able to run a Free the Vote program within SONG in particular parts of the South, where we were doing voter registration and in the jails, for folks who are incarcerated, trying to get absentee ballots. And then we also face that same like, trying to mail stuff in trying to get to talk to people, it was those same things. So I definitely resonate with that, like trying to navigate and even just reach our people who are inside, making sure that they know that we’re out here and just trying to communicate with them has been a barrier put up by the state. And I think it’s very intentional, you know, they don’t want us to talk to them, they don’t want them to talk to us. So I would say I definitely resonated with that.
And I think even, yeah COVID in itself changed so many of the conditions which our folks were living in, and organizing in too. And we as SONG were definitely trying to figure out like, “is this the moment like to free them all? Like, are we trying to push for that, like, get everyone out of jail?” Like, of course they’re not following the CDC guidelines. Of course, they don’t care about the people who are in there. And really trying to see like, what ways that we could turn up on the state, and also keep our people safe from from COVID. We definitely started to do car caravan actions, like honk-ins at the jails all across the South, making sure like, hey, like we haven’t forgotten about y’all out here. And trying to do that. Folks in Atlanta and the Atlanta chapter were definitely turning up and putting pressure so folks could be released. Like, if they didn’t have to be there – of course, nobody has to be there – but like, if they were their pretrial, that they should be free.
So definitely trying to push on the campaign’s that we were already moving, in relationships to like, we need everyone out of that jail because it’s just COVID in there. So yeah, I think that even our tactics of organizing changed so much, and finding our people, and being able to do direct actions…we were thinking, a lot of like, “what does it mean to continue to turn up on the state and keep our people safe from getting sick?” Because we know that historically, our people don’t have access to health care, like our people don’t trust the health care systems, at all, and in fact, have been victims of violence by the healthcare system. So all the things, all the things. And I think, even just locally, some obstacles that have been coming up is also the fast-paced gentrification here in Asheville. Black and Brown folks, especially queer trans folks, are being pushed out of Asheville, so, so quickly, so so rapidly. And I think that that’s also something that my brain goes to is like, how are we like turning up against all these developers who are trying to take our towns, trying to take our people’s homes? And how are we creating space for folks to continue to live here, and work here and organize here in Asheville? It’s something that I would love to get into with any of y’all. But yeah, some of the obstacles.
Adrian: Thanks for sharing all of that Monse, a lot of that really resonates. And I think that, you know, with what’s coming up for me and the young folks that I work with, is I think that we’ve really shifted into more of a survival mode, right? You know, sex ed, and sexual violence prevention work was really integral to our programs before the pandemic, like every single meeting we’d talk about consent. Once we hit quarantine the kids were like, “We just need to hang out with each other, like, we need a little bit less educational stuff.” And we stepped back a little bit because they didn’t have the capacity to keep learning and keep learning. And they were also doing virtual school, right? I think the capacity for everybody, not just young people, just really got lowered.
And, you know, I have been fielding a lot more crisis calls over the past year. We have young people who are stuck at home in transphobic families, right, abusive families. And so, you know, we move from potentially thinking about targeting a trans inclusive policy at school to, oh, I might get kicked out of my home, right? And so I think that’s one of the challenges for us, is that while we try to build power within the youth community, so many of our young folks are just dealing with a different level of marginalization, by the pandemic, right?
One thing I’d point to is our GSA clubs, right? Like we before the pandemic, there were upwards of 35 clubs across North Carolina. Now we’re under 25. And a lot of those 25 are folks who have registered, but like, their club isn’t really meeting right now, or maybe they don’t have the tools to meet digitally, or, you know, they’re running their meeting but they’re only getting 5 of the 20 and 30 people that used to be coming to their meeting, right? So there’s this really big challenge in reconnecting with all of our young folks that have been a part of this network, and making sure they’re alright.
We launched a mutual aid fund over the past year, to support young folks 24 and under who were economically impacted by the pandemic, and we’ve distributed about $14,000 now, mostly to young folks who are housing insecure, and a good number of them are already homeless. And so, you know, in my conversations with the McKinney Vento liaisons who work within the Buncombe County school district and support the homeless youth there, they told me that they expected to see the homeless youth population balloon, maybe even double, over the course of the pandemic due to just the economic impacts, right. And the family impacts again, putting, you know, trans people back at home in spaces that aren’t safe for them.
So, all of those things are hard, but I do want to add a silver lining that has come out of some of these pivots. You know, we moved to digital programming pretty much within a week, right? It was pretty quick. But what was really awesome about it was a lot of our young people took a lot of initiative, right? They’re like, “Oh, discord, yeah, I can make a server, I can make you a robot. I can make you all these things.” And It was incredible and inspiring to see these young people step up to the plate…wow, a sports metaphor, how butch? Okay, that was weird. That doesn’t happen a lot. So, you know, these young people really stepped up to support each other and advocate for themselves, right? That’s been really incredible. And the other thing that comes from that, in the beginning of the pandemic our groups were smaller, but they were rural people, they were POC folks, and so we were actually getting to these young people who really need our services a little bit more. Not to say that young folks don’t need our services – we’re here for them as well – but there tend to be more GSAs within Buncombe County, there tend to be more supportive adults within Buncombe County. And so to see young people from Candler, Lake Lure, Cherokee, these other places, checking into our call, that’s a huge impact for me and for I think the folks in the community.
I think that moving out of the pandemic, as we slowly start to, we’re going to be keeping a lot of these digital organizing strategies that we’ve developed, and need to find this balance between, “okay, we’ve created access to our world programs, and there’s this thing that’s lacking from our in person programs that we need to bring back”. But I tell you, I’m not going to remove all the digital programs, because I’m like having those rural kids around.
Leroy: I can jump back in. Yeah, I’m really feeling the themes of COVID challenges plus, like weird COVID boons that no one necessarily saw coming. Yeah, at the very start of the pandemic, we definitely went into rapid response mode in a way that like, isn’t very typical for us. And again, wasn’t necessarily sustainable for us, but I think, as Monse already touched on – everyone’s familiar with this, I think, on the global level, but for those of us, especially with our finger on the pulse of what life inside of prisons is like, it was just like watching the storm rolling in times 1000 – it was just like the contagion of this is going to kill so many people so rapidly. And there was also this potential, like no one had really ever seen before, for these mass releases.
And so again, even though that’s not something that we, as a group, necessarily had a lot of power to help push for – I mean, I think individuals within our group are kind of like tapped into other campaigns outside of the work of TPP – but what we did do was reformatted a pamphlet that was a collaboration between Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross and Asheville Prison Books, which was basically just an informational two to four pager about what is COVID, and how can you keep yourself safe? And obviously, there were ways we were like ”We don’t know if people are going to be able to apply this.” I mean, obviously, there’s no PPE, there certainly was no PPE inside of prisons at the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried if people were even going to have soap. Hand sanitizer was like, not allowed for a lot of folks because of alcohol. But we were like, “We don’t even know what people are being told at this point, so it seems like the least we could do to just share what we were hearing, as we were hearing it on the outside, with those that we love on the inside,” to just say like, “this is what we know so far about this virus. And this is what we are hearing about what you can do to keep yourself safe as much as possible. And we realized that a lot of this may not be possible for y’all.”
The flip side of what those pamphlets offered was a sliver of hope, for those that were able to receive them, about some of what was happening in terms of folks being released in the South, actually, as well as around the country. And while that did not happen, I think as much as a lot of us in the abolition movement hoped that it could have gone further, there were also some prison breaks. And they were also just stories of people freeing themselves from the cages that they were in. And so there were some little blurbs about that. We also had some of those pamphlets bounce back, and we assumed that that was for that reason. There was like one or two that came back to us that something on the return to sender said something along the lines of like “this is a threat to our security and that’s why this wasn’t let in.” And so you know, it’s not really surprising because we know that knowledge is a threat and prisons don’t want prisoners to even think about the fact that they might one day have the power to liberate themselves, let alone be granted clemency. So, you know, the vast majority of them we think reached the folks that we intended them to get.
But we also weren’t sure for a while when we were going to have access to our office because as the original shutdowns were going on – like I said, we’re out of the back of Downtown Books and News – we lost access to our space for the first like, three, four months that things were going on. So part of those pamphlets, too, was this very kind of frightening disclosure that we were like, “Hey, we don’t know when we are going to be able to send you books, because there’s just a freeze on our ability to maintain this right now, but we want you to know that you are in our hearts and we are thinking of you.” And even just being able to send that little bit of personal love to folks, that in and of itself, I think, was where we were able to put our hearts forward at the start of this pandemic and let people know, like Monse, you were saying, again, like, “you are not forgotten even in this, and we’ll be back with you as soon as we can be”. And so yeah, it took some time for everybody to kind of get their feet back under them again, but by the summer last year we were starting to socially distance gather ourselves in the park to just like, reorganize our core group.
And then as we started to launch our packaging parties back up, which is how we kind of make room for more community engagement than just our regular core folks who come and pick out the books – in the pre-pandemic times used to do this out of Firestorm Books and Coffee, where we would take the books that were ready to be wrapped up and we would just do like a big almost holiday style wrapping where we just brown paper bag everything and address stuff and tape it up, and then it’s ready to go to the post office – we started to do that outside, also in Carrier Park, so that we could continue to do the work. And really, I think this is where this work gets really intersectional. I think that with everything that happened, with the uprisings of the summer and abolition starting to be talked about more and more, we started to see more people show up at those outdoor packaging parties than we had ever seen before. And we have been continuing to get new interests through our Instagram, through our email inbox. And yeah, I think that that’s where the last year has presented some really unusual, but exciting opportunities for where we’re now positioned, just with more folks plugging in all the time than we previously had. So that’s the upside of things. Beck, you want to get in on this?
Beck: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty quick and easy. COVID really threw a wrench in like everything we do. [starts laughing] We created physical spaces for queer community to come together and learn in sheer joy and you know, art, music. So, yeah, we really were at a loss for how to adapt, and none of us were in a place where we were like, willing to switch to digital. So we’re like, “Okay, what can we do right now”, we had applied for a mini grant from the Trans Justice Project. And we got it! And we’re like,” oh, dope, but there’s not a fest going on. So what are we going to do?” And so we decided to do a kind of like reparations drive project, community reach, outreach type thing, where we used all those funds from that grant, to BIPOC artists who are now like, without work. So focusing on Black and Indigenous queer and trans artists, and making sure they’re getting their needs, uplifting the work that they’re doing, you know, from a distance, and also just like, literally just fundraising for them and having our own reparations pool every month. So that kind of shifted that way.
I think a lot of it though, like Pansy Collective as individuals, was just like showing up in the summer, showing up in the street, showing up for aftercare type stuff, showing up where we could, as individuals, for our friends in our community. And so yeah, I think, you know, as things start kind of shifting and maybe outdoor meetups and stuff is possible, it’ll kind of start to go back to what Pansy is used to doing. But really, it’s just been, I mean, as a collective, just kind of being there for each other, and for the folks in town, showing up just as people has been the work, just giving love in a really isolated time.
Scott: Thanks everyone for going into that. I want to ask maybe a final question that would have two parts and then leave room for anyone here who wants to directly ask you individually or collectively questions, but so I’m going to put a couple of things together and hopefully this will work. So on the one hand we see queerness kind of getting more visibility and inclusion and representation, and I’m wondering – because all the work that y’all are doing is still on the terrain that is disruptive for, you know, systems of power, state control – so I’m sort of just interested in what you think queerness still holds that’s disruptive or liberatory, and then kind of putting that into like, what sort of coalitional projects you envision your groups doing in the future?
Adrian: Right now the one sentence that’s coming to my head is like “pink capitalism sucks” right? And I don’t have a whole lot more beyond that right now, in this moment. No, I think that, you know, the sort of acceptability politics that’s happening in like the big LGB sometimes T circles is rather sex negative. So I think there’s growth we could do there together in coalition building. You know, I think that this is probably because of the particular lens that I approach this work, but I see a lot of ageism and adultism generationally, right? I see a lot of skepticism from my elders on the vision that my young folks have, and sometimes I look to my elders to say, like, “Look, I don’t quite see how all the dots connect, but can you help me connect the dots for these young people?” And I need that support from our trancestors. And so I think that’s part of the coalition building that can happen. You know, I think that also we see a lot of white LGBTQ representation, right? So I think there’s a lot of work that we can do around, you know, centering BIPOC experience and what they need, right? So I would really love to see more inter-generational coalition’s between the different LGBT and racial justice serving organizations, I think that could be really, really fruitful. And I’m just kind of curious what other folks are thinking to?
Monse: Yeah, I think you hit it spot on for me Adrian. And yeah, I think that there are a lot of visible spaces and like, spaces made for queer and trans folks here in Asheville at least, but they’re mostly white spaces. And I think that just making spaces for Black and Brown folks to lead the work, for Black and Brown folks to just even come together and organize is necessary. And I would love to collaborate with folks, and just like creating those spaces, like finding the folks that are looking for the spaces and being able to support and find joy to bring our beautiful queer selves and organize together. So I think that that’s where we have a lot of room to grow, where I could see SONG collaborating with folks.
And I think even just like, also language, I’m very passionate about language justice, and that we need to be organizing not only in English because queer and trans folks aren’t only white, don’t only speak English. And I think that these identities can be very intersectional and like, folks are trying to do all the things. And yeah, so I think creating more spaces that are language accessible, that are culturally accessible, and that folks want to come to, because I think that there are so many white, queer, trans spaces in Asheville that a lot of times my folks don’t want to be in, that I don’t want to be in. And I think that there’s a lot of room to grow and a lot of space for collaboration, where we can make these spaces together.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. Yeah, thank you Monse, Adrian. I think all of y’alls responses…what I’m thinking of, how Asheville in particular, and a lot of liberal Southern cities, loves to show it’s pride in like, “we just hired a lesbian cop! Look at this girl boss who just joined the local government!”. When we look at our roots, when we look at queer oppression as a timeline, we have all of the same evils, all of the same oppressive entities are still the same, and no matter how pink or queer, whatever we make them appear, they’re still creating the same evils and the same oppressions.
There was a TikTok of a local lesbian police officer that got really big, and I was just like, “I know her. I’ve seen you arrest some queer folks before. And your TikTok famous, cute.” So yeah, just when we really look at all of these intersections, we can’t be pro gay cops, while gay cops are arresting Black queer people, Brown queer people, are incarcerating and deporting Brown queer people, Black people, Indigenous queer people, all of these evils are still there. If we put queer in front of it, it does not change that. And that’s the same for pink capitalism, like you talked about Adrian. Like, sure, I can go to Target in July and expect to find some rainbow t-shirts, right? But they’re still made in fucking sweatshops. Just because we put a coat of pink on it doesn’t change the system of oppression and the same status quo that we’re really trying to fight against.
And when we think of like, STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolution, and like that awesome organizing that was happening, it was focusing on people who were incarcerated, was focusing on trans Black and Brown people, it was led by trans Black and Brown people, like that is what, to me, that is where revolution is heading and has always been from. It’s not going to be from the lesbian white cop on TikTok who Asheville loves and had a meet and greet with a rainbow flag behind her, you know? Like, no, that’s not going to be it.
And thinking of, yeah, like Monse, you talked about earlier, there’s a gentrification that’s rapidly pushing Black and Brown folks out of Asheville. Like, that’s another thread that I don’t see a lot of queer organizing, like, really looking at, is that class piece, that racism and class piece, right? Yeah, like there’s a Save Charlotte Street going on in town – which is like important, right? This is a whole community – but it’s white folks that are affluent. And there’s a lot of build up and organizing around that, and like, what about all the Brown folks that were pushed out? What about all the Black folks that were pushed out during the 90’s?
So starting to bring all of that in together and look at that same root that is there, instead of just trying to, like, paint it pink and call it cute. Yeah, that’s the direction I would love for us to be heading in.
Leroy: [sighs exasperatedly] Yeah, “paint it pink and call it cute”, there is slogan to be dissected. Yeah, I feel like that was kind of where my brain was going as far as “where’s the liberatory potential of queerness still?” Is that actually still a thing, or is social capital and social hierarchy kind of just subverting this work into something really superficial? And where I see popularity as the potential thing that’s like drawing people into this, and social cred, more than what this work is actually about? I think that’s something that has been a really disturbing trend to try and assess.
Where it’s like, we have a very trendy logo, some might say, that was designed for us in the last few years, and to see our social media suddenly popping off has been really exciting. And it’s like, at the same time that we want people to come towards us and enter into this work, in the time that I have been involved with TPP, this has been primarily white led organization, and it has primarily been white folks involved. We have not had a lot of people of color come to us and say that they want to be involved in our work. And that isn’t to say, none, but I think that there are uncomfortable questions that I’m okay with being uncomfortable about that, for me, when I think about these things, I’m like, I just continue to sit with more questions than I have answers for. What does it mean for us to just continue to listen to other folks in the community, to continue to show up for other POC and Black led organizations in Asheville, so that we’re not just perpetuating part of the problem?
I’ve sat with this question of “if at some point this work needed to completely dissolve in order for something new to take form that was not the folks who have been leading this project for the time that I’ve been here to occur”…I think that’s part of what change is. It’s like death and rebirth and not being so attached to what we have carved out, what we have created, that we can’t still be humble and know that we, again, don’t have all the answers. So I’m excited for where we continue to get to connect, as you know, these four groups that are in this panel.
I’ll say as far as networking goes, TPP actually just got an email from Georgia chapter of SONG like last night about them wanting to start some books to prisoners work for LGBTQ folks in Georgia. And so we basically just send them like everything that we know about how to do this work, cause that was what they were asking us. And we are really like, “Yes, please. There need to be more groups that are specifically serving LGBTQIA folks that are incarcerated”. Because, again, whether it’s in the South or anywhere in the country that remains one of the most marginalized groups in prison, and we know that so many of those folks are Black and Brown and Indigenous.
And yeah, I think that more and more youth are starting to come to us. We have our first ever high school intern right now and she’s getting ready to plug us to the Racial Justice Coalition at her high school. So I feel like a lot of what’s being names as far as intersectionality in this conversation is really like coming to the surface. And it’s an exciting time for, you know what’s possible right now.
But there is a lot of cooptation at the same time. And so yeah, I really hesitate to say with great confidence like…yeah, there is some, I don’t know…the language might have to change. And I think that that’s actually the place where I want to insert this quote that I pulled from – for the old heads who still know who Critical Resistance is – this anthology Abolition Now from 2008, which at the time was the 10 year anniversary of Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organizing group. I mean, at this point, it’s been more than 10 years since this book came out, but this is a quote from Alexander Lee, the founder and director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, or TGI Justice Project, of California. Alexander Lee says:
“As we go forward, we should expect to be forced to discard language that limits this movements to prison and the prison industrial complex, in favor of descriptors that foster prickly coalitions with others who don’t see themselves as anti-prison, but who do believe in the sacred nature of human dignity, however imperfectly expressed in practice. The prison abolition movement must expand its arms to envelop the same people who fight for housing but demonized prisoners, who protest war but love to watch CSI, people who marched for civil rights but yell trans slur at trans women, and queers who demand the death penalty when yet another one of us is murdered. We should move into these other sectors and act as the lodestar, pulling everyone towards the ultimate goal of building a world where liberation is the status quo. When we achieve these goals, the abolition of prisons will just be the icing on the cake.”
Scott: Thanks for sharing that. Powerful words. And yeah, I guess maybe if we can just transition. I mean, I’m really grateful for all of you kind of speaking out of your experience and knowledge of doing this movement work. That’s so important. All right well thank you everyone.
This week on the show, I spoke with Comrade Chux, a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. JLS is an autonomous network of incarcerated activists from across the so-called US. They have been engaged in organizing and calling for the 2016 & 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike activities. Chux and I chat about the call for this year for folks on the outside to engage for Abolition on August 21 and September 9th, we talk about Abolition, Black August and other topics.
You can learn more by following JLS on Twitter and Instagram or checking out their website, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, lawyer is singular in this, dot wordpress dot com. You can also find out there about their fundraising, the JLS Mothers Day fundraising effort through Blackstone Career Institute to sponsor paralegal courses for people in Women’s Prisons, prisoners they’re supporting and more.
Comrade Chux also mentions Amend The 13th. From JLS’s website: “Amend the 13th: Abolish ‘Legal’ Slavery in Amerika Movement” is an all-inclusive, coalition-based national campaign and community-based organizing effort which is determined to remove the “legal” and social basis for the dehumanization of those subject to the judicial machinery of the United States – and finally abolish slavery in Amerika once and for all. “ More can be found at AmendThe13th.org.
1 Million Families for Parole, April 3rd, 2021
Another prisoner initiatives similar to JLS that have been mentioned and supported by the group that are worth checking out include the National Freedom Movement, which is calling for an April 3rd “1 Million Families for Parole” rally across the country to extend the following demands:
We demand that federal parole be immediately reinstated.
We demand the creation of a mandatory parole criteria and curriculum based on the specific educational, rehabilitative and re-entry needs of every parole-eligible person.
Sean speaks about supporting Dimitris Koufantinas, prisoner from the 17 November group in Greece who just ended a hunger strike. You can read a translation of his statement ending his hunger strike at EnoughIsEnough14.org. To hear an insightful interview by a comrade in Greece and another in the diasporic Greek community about the situation with Koufantinas and the aftermath of his hunger strike, check out episode #254 of Dissident Island Radio.
Love Zap for Comrade Z
There’s a weekly call-in to support incarcerated anarchist,
Julio “Comrade Z” Zuniga at Darrington Unit in Texas. Supporters are invited to call the Prison Show on KPFT radio in Houston at 713 526 5738 Mondays after 9:30pm CST to give a shoutout to E-Line and B-Line Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee members standing in solidarity with Comrade Z and all of the incarcerated folks at Darrington. There’s an image in our show notes for social media, suggesting to keep the message short and sweet, under 15 seconds.
There is a currently a petition circulating to press the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murhpy, to grant release for elder Black Liberation political prisoner Sundiata Acoli who is 84 years old and has contracted Covid-19. At his advanced age, Sundiata has developed dementia and has ailing health and is not a threat to anyone. He should be allowed to live out his days outside of prison walls with family and community. More info at the petition linked in our show notes.
Bring Mumia Home
Actions and information is going and available at FreeMumia.Com to release aging and infirm journalist, Black Panther, author and revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal. Keep an eye on his support site for ways to plug in and join the growing calls to release this great man! 40 years on a sham trial is too much!
BAD News, March 2021
We’d like to announce the release of the 43rd edition of B(A)D news: angry voices from around the world a commonly produced monthly show of the anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio network, on this occasion composed by free social radio 1431AM, a radio station in Thessaloniki, Greece. This month covers 5 topics over almost an hour. Check it out!
RoboCop(feat. Tuesday Tuenasty, Squeazy & Lil Stank)
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TFSR: First up, can you please introduce yourself for the audience with whatever name, affiliation, preferred gender pronouns, location, or other information that you think is useful for the audience?
Comrade Chux: For sure. My name is comrade Chux, the pronouns you can use is they/them. I’m a Member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). I guess I just want to say I’m in the carceral. state.
TFSR: For those who don’t know, who is JLS? What are its goals and what are its inspirations and aspirations?
Chux: So, JLS is an autonomous, anonymous group of prisoners that are also organizers and jailhouse lawyers, actually. You know, a little bit of the history is JLS started as jail house lawyers. And then one thing led to another and through these network connections, we actually started create this inside Federation almost, right? So JLS has become the movement. You know, it’s not just you know now when people hear JLS, it’s tied to so many things like the 2016 inside nationwide protests, followed by the 2018 protests, followed by now the special rapporteur that’s going on in the UN. And there’s a lot of other initiatives like the Ammend The 13th initiative that JLS signed on and is supporting to get released to all political prisoners. The idea of JLS is also these 10 demands. The 10 demands that you can find on any JLS platform, whether it’s Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook. And these are what JLS stands for. Every state is also autonomous and has their own needs of that state. However, here, in the broad scale of northern Turtle Island, this is what we demand, this is what we stand for and this is why we protest. So JLS has always gotten inspirations from the comrade George Jackson, from Fred Hampton from even nowadays, different autonomous groups, these autonomous organizations. Every person, every revolutionary, every organizer that has resisted, and moves for decolonization in moving to amplify the prisoner’s voice is who inspire us. So this is something we are constantly growing, it’s constantly moving and it is a constant struggle from the inside having to fight, having to be this voice. Because we now have a platform, we have a voice. And you can hear it.
TFSR: One thing that I think is really awesome that I’ve been hearing more and more in the last few years that I’ve been paying attention to. Prisoners organizing has been, like even folks who are not in immigration facilities, who are in state or federal facilities who are in county jails, making sure to vocally include ICE facilities and the people that are being detained in ICE facilities as comrades and as people similarly suffering under the carceral state. And I think you’re references to like decolonization and like naming that some people call this land Turtle Island is an interesting, like, expansion on the idea of abolition, the recognition that this is stolen land, and that the borders are bullshit. So I just wanted to name that right there.
Chux: I think it’s super important. I think that’s extremely important to talk about the idea of what abolition is. Like the idea that abolition is more than just the state or federal facility. Right? When we think abolition for a long time, we’ve always thought about just the prisons, but we have to begin to think outside of that. Right now. The prisons are ground zero. This is where to start. This is what became of the plantation. But we have to remember there are so many different stripe and so many different types of institutionalization that also has to be included in the fight. We talked about these ICE detention centers, and these black sites almost right. That’s what these ICE detention centers remind me of: black sites. That they just snatch people up, and body snatch them and throw them inside. But another thing that is important that I think folks have to remember, and that is not included enough in the idea of abolition, or even the carceral state is the so called mental institution. These mental institutions have to be included in abolition, because it was the colonizers, and it was the powers that be that just choose how people’s minds work. And so the idea of able-ism is such an important thing that that we have to include when it comes to fighting in the fight and then abolition. Because there’s so many arbitrary laws and rules that can take somebody out of society and cancel them and throw them instantly either into the carceral state or start building an environment where they will eventually end up in one of these institutions, whether it’s an ICE institution, whether it’s mental institution, or whether it’s actually prison.
TFSR: I’d like to explore the idea of abolition a little more. But first, I was wondering if you could talk about the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak statement that was released on the nationwide prison strike for this year. Can you tell us about it and what y’all are calling for and hoping for and who from?
Chux: This initiative is “Shut Them Down.” So you can find it on the JLS WordPress site, as well as on Twitter and on Instagram to find the link. What’s going on is it’s time to reignite the flame with abolition. Right now, we are making a call to any outside organizers and outside abolitionists to show solidarity with the inside comrades. And just inside folks in general, the idea that it’s time to shut them down needs to be an inside/outside work. Abolition doesn’t just work one-way it doesn’t just work from outside-in, nor does it work from the inside-out. This is something that we have to work together on and build community ties with each other. The idea of community is so important right now, especially because of how our community, how our terms, how our abolition has been co-opted by this liberal democrat idea or movement that’s going on these both lose no matter what movement has co-opted all these ideas that means abolition. So I think that this call right now is to reignite the fire abolition, we need to remember what abolition is we need to not fall into the liberal traps that are going on that are taking our terms like “defund” “decarcerate” “divest.” Right?! because those terms are starting to mean nothing. Defund has never just meant to take money a little bit from the police, it’s always meant to shut down the fascist police system. Divest has always meant to take all of your money out of the prison industrial slave complex. Decarcerate means that to decarcerate not just nonviolent folks, not just some people, but ALL people, everyone that is inside. And to get the idea, you take this prison industrial slave complex and dismantle it. And so what we’re calling for we’re calling for an action an outside action on August 21 and September 9.
This action can really just be however you want it to be, you abolitionists want it to be that show that jails or prisons and the protests. You could throw up tables.. zine tables in our neighborhoods to create spaces to talk about abolition, because I’m sure there’s so many people in the hood that are abolitionists that don’t even know because they don’t even know the term. So these are things that we have to create, to create the spaces to have the conversation. So throwing up zines, throwing up spaces, throwing up tables to panels, panels at institutions, panels at colleges, panels at small city colleges or big universities, I think are important. And if you can get any prisoners on I’m sure that would be able to happen through JLS through these different people that are inside. I think having prisoners on these panels are very important. I think that we need to make noise, make the noise we used to make. Right? COVID has separated us. COVID has pulled us apart. But COVID has also showed us that so much of these ideas of the so called American dream or this American experiment is fake, it’s false. I really think that right now, as everyone is getting vaccines, and everyone is feeling a little better about moving around about finding their communities again, I think right now is the time to do this. I think these two days, everyone that’s on Twitter that has been talking about abolition can finally meet each other. And we can start building and working toward this community to shut down this prison industrial slave complex to free all of the political prisoners. To rise from the ashes of the carceral fucking state. And I think it’s important, it is important to have just anything you can do. Anything to do, drop banner do a banner drop. Now banner drops are beautiful, right? But also for folks that don’t want to or don’t feel they’re ready enough to go outside, creating virtual spaces that we now know that are possible grab you and 20 of your comrades or 20 of your friends and do some little writing, do some letter writing to some political prisoners and some letter writing to prisoners that are in your neighborhoods or communities, hold each other accountable, hold each other accountable to create the spaces to fight and to shut them down. To build this community. One thing that is very important is to build this network from the inside and outside. And I think that’s what we need to do. That’s what we’re calling for. We’re calling for the abolitionists to be abolitionists and to step back away from the idea of voting or the idea of reform-y type of attitude that the liberal media and the liberal democrats have. So i think just showing up is important, showing up and doing whatever you can. And there’s so many ideas what I just said was just a small thing. Though the a small things are very important. You look in your areas for the different IWOC the Incarcerated Workers Committees. You can look up the different ABC’s the different RAM’s. If you are out west the Oakland Abolitionist Solidarity crew is amazing in New York you know IWOC in Philly… and these days are so important these days are so important it’s a day that we need to relight this match of abolition.
TFSR: Yeah I feel like there was there was so much energy this summer when everything felt like it was literally on fire around us and we lit some of those fires. But it feels like it’s a recurring theme that i’ve noticed throughout my life is that people on the left were left to center or even just centrists or whatever get so…. can get so aggravated when it’s a republican in office and that’s why the democrats get away with so much more once they get into office they push through. Maybe something that’s not so brazenly and outspokenly racist, carceral, whatever but you know the machinery that gets operated no matter which party happens to be in power in the US. It’s the same machinery, it’s the same bureaucrats, it’s the same three letter institutions. And all of that energy from this last summer I don’t know if it’s just the pandemic tiring everyone out or everyone just sort of let out their breath after January 6 or what.. But I know that there’s a lot of folks out there who know that just because brunch can start up again and just because people are getting their vaccines and there’s not some orange idiot in the White House that everything’s not okay that there’s still growing numbers of… I mean it’s not in a vacuum but there’s like still growing numbers of children that are being put into cages on the border as more people come towards the border to seek safety from situations in Central America but yeah I really appreciate you pointing that out I think it’s really important that people don’t forget who is in office and while they may be more acceptable to some of our palates you got a top cop and you got one of the constructors of mass incarceration in the United States right?
Chux: Yeah I think that’s super important to point out. Right? It’s easy to point out the orange devil. It’s easy to say who the orange devil is, right? Because he wears the color red or because he’s a republican or because of the crazy nonsense and racist statements and hate that he spews. However that’s easy to do. The difficult thing is when you have somebody that is taking these dangerous ideas like most happened in this liberal left or with this liberal democrat idea… they have this way to take these dangerous ideas that we are trying to cultivate and make them less dangerous and when they do that when they co-opt these things then it’s very, very… i don’t know… but it might be more dangerous than going against a threatening enemy. Right? So I think it’s important to remember who these people are.
Who is Joe Biden?! Man, who is he? Man.. he is the writer he is the architect of mass incarceration of this 1994 crime bill. Right? He was the one that started this 85% that started these three strikes that started black and brown… like the war on the black and brown. Right okay yeah, the war on drugs and one thing, but this guy is who made it blatant. “Super predators” who was he talking about? he wasn’t talking about “Amy” or “Landon” right? Nah man.. he was talking about the black and brown kids man that’s what they were talking about. Kids. When they started bringing up the idea of these “super predators” and then we have Kamala Harris, right? Like you said a blatant cop. She’s a cop. She was a district attorney. She was somebody that sent children to prison. She was somebody that sent people to prison constantly, constantly, constantly. So, yeah this is who we accepted. This is who (not me) we wanted. You wanted the devil in the mask instead of the devil that’s just blatant.
TFSR: The phrase abolition obviously has a deep historical weight. And it signifies a lot, as do the dates that were chosen and have been repeated through these last few years of nationwide strikes and protests around incarceration. Would you remind us about the significance of the dates of JLS has chosen to propose and the meaning of Black August to revolutionaries behind bars.
Chux: Sure. I think it’s very important, because I want to mention that most revolutionaries, I want to say all revolutionaries, but I don’t want to just put that blanket out there and be wrong. But most revolutionaries, do not celebrate Black History Month or heritage month. Nah, we celebrate Black August. Black August was one of the most volatile months that has happened in the revolution or in the spirit of the revolution. And on this month, during the daytime we fast, during the daytime we study, during the daytime we feel to each other, and we try to create and grab on to the extent of our ancestors, fallen revolutionaries. And one of the probably the greatest JLS inspirations and they’re pretty revolutionary inspiration is George Jackson. Comrade George Jackson, who was assassinated on August 21. And I guess, I mean, I can talk for hours about George Jackson and Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye. But anyone that does not know the history or who George Jackson was… I urge you to pick up his book. I urge you to find everything you can about the comrade, because for most of us, he started it all. So then skipping forward to the second day which is just as important to so many of us as September 9. September 9 is a memory that most of us still remember, most of us still recognize as a day of mourning for us. But that was the day that the prisoners in Attica in upstate New York took over. And one thing I want to say about this, and one thing I want you to remember is when this happened, it was because of the volatile and the extreme circumstances that were happening in New York at that time. It wasn’t a planned thing. Right? This was not something that was planned. This is something that organically.. that the revolutionaries that was there because there was revolutionaries there, with Black Panthers there, there was Young Lords there, there were Weather Underground there, there was Black Liberation Army there, there was comrades that were there that feed this organic autonomous movement, and they needed to take hold of it. Because if not, they would have never had those three days, they wouldn’t have had a voice, they would have died instantly. And there’s a brilliant book, called Blood In My Eye, that everyone needs to get that is about September 9. And what happened after September 9. The three days of the takeover of the uprising, followed by the years and years and years of covering. The state covering and the state of New York covering everything that happened that day.
TFSR: I think it’s worth noting also that this is the 50th anniversary of both of those events. The massacres, Governor Rockefeller, massacres of prisoners and guards and staff that were being held hostage inside of Attica, as well as the assassination of George Jackson. So that that significance definitely, definitely is there and it weighs heavy. So the the protests called for this year also explicitly mentioned political prisoners, and the need for them to be free. Over the years, it feels like there’s been distinctions drawn in a lot of prison movements around social versus politicized versus political prisoners. Can you talk about the demand to free our aging political prisoners, in particular, like amidst this pandemic, and so many of them being in their 70s and 80s.
Chux: There’s so many comrades that are inside that have been buried alive in here that we need to fight for their strategic release. I urge people to follow amend 13. Amend 13 has a vast list of the prisoners inside of the political prisoners inside. And I really want to remind people, these ideas of politicized prisoners or political prisoners or prisoners of war, once we all come inside, we’re all prisoners of war. Once they declared a war on the street, once they declared a war on the drug, the war on black and brown, the war on poor people. We all became prisoners of war. Once these Jim Crow laws started locking up black and brown people, and started creating the policies to lock up poor folks. That’s when we all became political prisoners.
Now yes, there are some prisoners that are actually inside because of their work on the outside. And those prisoners, Mumia. Maroon. and I can keep naming them all, but these prisoners are our inspiration as well. These are who we look up to. But not only them, there are so many prisoners like.. I’ll talk about George Jackson. George Jackson was not a political prisoner when he came in first day, when it comes to the terms “political prisoners” but no one would ever deny that he was a political prisoner today. And I need people to remember that.. Man, that just because there are certain ideas or politics on who should be released, who shouldn’t be released. Nah, everyone should be released, and especially the political prisoners and people that are suffering from repression constantly because of their ideas, because of their views, because of who they are. Because their skin color, because of the politics, these comrades are taking it next level. Taking the pain next level. There’s not any days that Mumia has that is an OK day in here. There’s not any days that Maroon is chilling. Right? So I need people to remember that these comrades. These political prisoners are the ones that are and have been extremely repressed and extremely tortured by the system.
I mean, look, with they have done to Mumia. Look. They have given them hepatitis C. They’re giving Maroon and him COVID! Dude! I mean, he’s not around anybody, you know, he’s in the SHU. How is he getting COVID? Like, how is this stuff happening to him? If it’s not the prison, it is not the prison crisis is not the system killing him? You know, so I think this is very important, I think it’s so important to push for the release of the people that should never have been inside. The people that if anything, should have went for some type of Geneva Convention, because that’s the war that will always be tore upon them. So there are so many people in here, so many people we have to remember. And I want people to see who Joy Powell is. Right? There’s one thing that is forgotten a lot here too, is the radical black feminists that are inside, the queer folks that are inside, that get forgotten about. Because of, you know, the numbers, the numbers. There’s not that many women prisons. So the women revolutionaries get lost. However, I know a few, that are suffering just as bad or even worse than the male comrades. So I just want people to go and look up, the radical black feminists that are inside and support them as well. Hear the voices we don’t hear a lot. Joy Powell is who we are hearing from a lot lately. However, we need more.
TFSR: So this last year has been really hard, especially for folks who are being denied the ability to move denied the access to safety, people in cages. It’s also notable that there have been an incredible number of uprisings, escapes, and other resistances because people have the fight in them, basically. Can you talk about what you’ve heard from other comrades about the pandemic, and how folks are making it through?
Chux: Sure. I think it’s important to point out that right now, prisoners have been in prison 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years that have been experiencing the state violence, this colonial violence, this ghetto violence, constantly. I think that it’s important to note that one of the common threads is right now this last year has been one of the most deadly years for so many of us. It’s easy for us to see our enemy when he has a knife in his hand, or when he has a spray can or when he has hand cuffs. But when we are now fighting against an enemy that we can’t see… COVID… that we know is coming in from the outside. It’s scary. And there’s so many more people that are talking about needing to create these safe spaces and needing to get the fuck out of here because they don’t want to die in here. So they’ll have to wait and fight to appeal and all that stuff. But now it’s so much more urgent. And everybody is just worried. Everybody’s worried that somebody they know is going to die in here that might lead to them. So this enemy, this biochemical enemy that is being reeked upon us. It’s scary. They’re not doing things to save us in here. They are making environments more volatile, more dangerous, more scary! So that’s why you’re seeing more stuff this year. That’s why stuff is popping off. That’s what people are hitting the fences. That’s why you’re seeing, you’re seeing prisons on fire. You’re seeing the Midwest on fire, you’re seeing St. Louis on fire, you’re seeing Georgia on fire, you’re seeing people, 15 prisoners rushing the gate at one time in South Carolina, you’re seeing these things because people want to live! These uprisings are us wanting to live and nothing more.
TFSR: You’ve already listed a bunch of ways that people can engage in their communities: Get together, talk about abolition, make some noise & educate folks. And I guess points where that can especially be noted are these invisiblized spaces of terror that are in all of our communities. ICE detention facilities, jails, prisons, juvenile facilities, mental health facilities, as you said. There’s also a reference to higher education in terms of I guess, like, universities or colleges that work with prisoners, I reckon. Is that is that right? Why? Why JLS has pointed out higher education facilities?
Chux: Well, there’s so many prisons, I mean, there’s so many institutions, there’s so many colleges that actually invest still in the prison industrial slave complex, why there’s so many of them that create these things that the small things that prison need. And I’m not talking about, you know, one that comes to educate the prisoners. Now, there’s some places like different universities that will create great stuff for the state to help the state run the prison. And even if it’s little things, and that’s why it’s important to have these areas, right. One thing about the institution, these ivory towers, is that we have to remember that it is part of and at the end of the day, you know, and it’s blatant! When you see these radical professors like the comrade Garrett Ferber getting kicked out of Ole Miss because of his political views. He was one of the most brilliant historians of the recent times. And all the stuff that the comrades would do for…. I mean, this professor actually had classes on the JLS 10 demands, right? So it’s like the anything that pushes the idea of abolition in the institutions in the “higher education” facilities are not actually trying to further these dangerous ideas or these ideas to shut down the state. Because the state still perpetuate, and still grows inside of the higher education facilities. Right? Inside of these institutions. Inside of these colleges and prisons, right? I mean, there’s only so much of a radical education that someone can get in there. And then it starts turning into a liberal education. I use the word liberal as this big Democrat, watered down idea of what it means to be radical.
TFSR: The demands for 2018 which I think besides a modification of adding the focus on on political prisoners.
Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women
An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor
The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights
The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole
An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states
An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans
No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offend
State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services
Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories
The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
Chux: So the only thing that’s been changed is number 9. 9 has been revised to “Free all political prisoners.” Because you know for some, and for a lot of people the pell grants were reinstated. I’m not so clear on the rules a number i read at the beginning that it was under a certain amount of time that people can apply for pell grants and maybe it’s extended… I don’t know, but the revision has been to number nine that explicitly called to free all political prisoners. I think what’s important, I think what’s very important is to remember that everything right there is what abolition is. Every single thing that we quoted and you know some people like to argue and say well some of these ideas or are kind of reformist, right? Some of these ideas are… the idea to create a humane living environment. Some people say that investing in the prison industrial slave complex… and you know the argument is that it might be. It might be for the moment. However, we know this fight for abolition is going to be a long fight. We need to be able to live in here. We need to be able to grow in here. We need to be able to educate ourselves. We need to be able to get the opportunity to build and to create. One thing i’d like to point out is purely what abolition is: it is the goal. No matter what road it takes to get there, abolition is the dismantling of the prison industrial slave complex. Shutting down every single prison, shutting down the carceral state that’s what abolition is.
TFSR: Abolition, like the demands towards abolition and understanding these things… there is no one who knows better what is needed to ameliorate the situations than the people who are in those situations. So like while there’s some of those demands that if I was writing a list with my experience and whatever else, I might not prioritize. I’m not going to question that that people that are on the inside and living it day to day feel that these are important things for people on the outside to stand in solidarity as accomplices and to push for.
Chux: Always. That’s for sure and that’s what we look for that’s what we appreciate. We appreciate things like Final Straw we appreciate the comrades out there that understand that our voices are important our voices are out there. It’s not like we don’t have a voice. We do have a voice and just because some people have contraband phones or some people are able to have more of a voice does not mean the voices that are not actually heard are not important either. That’s why I think letter writing and writing to political prisoners and creating networks inside/outside networks are so very important we need more words of prisoners out there. Even if it just comes like this on a collect phone. This is what we need.
TFSR: So there is…. I guess similarly, and this is not a JLS call out.. but so listeners know there’s a very good Millennials Are Killing Capitalism interview with some other organizers from JLS and the host brought this up I think or maybe one of the guests… but the National Freedom Movement is calling for 1 Million Families for Parole Rally on April 3. This is for places all around the country. Participation from wherever you can as I understand because parole is a national issue that affiliates of the National Freedom Movement all around the country are are experiencing a lack of access to it and in particular like worsened by the state’s response to the pandemic by shutting things down by pulling back on access to educational opportunities that would allow people to score the points basically so that they can actually earn their freedom through the system. It’s fucked up, but it’s the existing system that the prisons have set up.
Chux: The strategic release ideas and parole is so very important but for all those people that say “I heard you want to abolish parole” and okay yeah in the end when we abolish the system we’ll be abolishing parole too, but man we need parole right now we need the opportunity to release any prisoner any way we can! So I think that we need people to make these calls we need people to go to these state we need people to learn on how arbitrary that their parole systems are because every state is different, every state that even has them are different. So I think that this is important to fight for those that are parole eligible. I think it’s important for those that have family on the inside or just have any type of idea or want to be part of this abolition movement to find out about these parole systems and trying to find out any way to release as many prisoners as we can.
TFSR: Besides how people can continue following and supporting the work of you and other comrades with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, do you have any other topics that I didn’t ask about that you specifically want people in the audience (whether they’re behind bars or in the “free world” or whatever) that you want to share with them?
Chux: Well I just want everyone to know that the fight is coming and it’s constant. It is a long fight. It’s something that is not pretty, but it’s something you have to work towards. Every single one of us have to work towards this because the carceral state affects our community. These pipeline’s that are sending black and brown folks inside is something that has only increased. Yeah, sometimes you hear the liberal media talking about that “it’s changing or getting better” but from the inside we’re telling you it’s not. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse as they’re creating more of these types of lockdown institutions and lockdown programs and they’re trying to find the comrades on the inside with these contraband phones. So I think that it’s super important to find your local abolitionist network and build with them. Because we can’t do this alone. Abolition is a communal thing. This idea of inter-communalism is abolition and we need to stick together we need to build with each other we need to find our organizations. We need to find both those communities that are close to us. Then if there’s none that are close to you just contact and call the Fight Toxic Prisons called the Oakland **** call just the comrades everywhere to find out how to create these autonomous networks these federations, these groups in your own area. If there is none contact the IWOC. Contact everything you can to be part of this movement because this is a community thing and we need to build with each other.
TFSR: Comrade Chux, so much respect to you and the work that you do and thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Yeah, solidarity.