Revolution #238 Online, July 4, 2011
Los Angeles Press Conference in Support of Pelican Bay Prisoners' Hunger Strike
An important press conference was held in Los Angeles at noon on Friday, July 1 in support of the hunger strike begun that day by prisoners in the Security Housing Unit—the SHU—at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The press conference was held at KRST Unity Center and presided over by Reverend Richard Meri Ka Ra Byrd—known widely in Los Angeles and beyond as a leader and spokesperson for the struggle against police brutality and the criminalization of a generation of youth, and as a moral voice for poor and oppressed people everywhere.
The center is situated deep in South Central Los Angeles, where many of the families of the overwhelmingly Black and Latino prisoners caught up in California's mass incarceration live. And the press conference gave expression to the anger at the inhumanity and torture that is being practiced on an "industrial level" in the maximum security prisons, and at the same time the courage and the humanity of these prisoners who have launched this hunger strike.
The speakers at the press conference included Reverend Dr. Lewis E. Logan, co-founder of Ruach Christian Community Fellowship of L.A. Reverend Logan was one of several speakers who said that they had begun a hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners. In 2005, when Logan presided over Bethel A.M.E. Church, the church hosted the funeral for "Crips" founder Stanley Tookie Williams, who was executed by lethal injection by the State of California. And he took part in the press conference held in September at the spot where the immigrant day laborer Manuel Jamines was shot to death by the LAPD. Reverend Logan was appointed to the L.A. Board of Neighborhood Commissioners by the mayor in 2005, and elected president of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners in 2008.
A mother of one of the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU read a letter from her son, John R. Martinez, about why they have organized the hunger strike. (See "Prisoners at Pelican Bay Begin Hunger Strike.") She told Revolution that her son has served over 10 years of a 39 to life sentence. Because she has a record, she is forbidden from seeing him.
Clyde Young, revolutionary communist and former prisoner, spoke passionately, "with a heavy heart," about the courage of the prisoners, the systemic nature of the way these prisoners are tortured, and the important responsibility that people have to come to their support.
There were statements by a representative of FACTS (Families Against California's Three Strikes); All of Us or None, a national initiative of prisoners, former prisoners and felons to combat discrimination faced as a result of felony convictions; Critical Resistance and CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget); and The Senate Select Community Committee on California's Correctional System (SSCCCCS), an organization of friends and relatives of people in maximum security housing advocating for more humane, less restrictive alternatives to prisons, and for restorative justice principles.
Letters of support were read from Paul Von Blum, professor of African American Studies at UCLA, and by Dylan Rodriguez, Professor and Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department of UC Riverside. After the press conference the participants got together to make plans to build this movement of support in the days ahead.
The following are excerpts from some of the statements from the press conference:
I'm a communist and a former prisoner. I spent eight years in prison in the 1960s for a robbery. And I come with a heavy heart. I don't come with a lot of rhetoric but I come with a heavy heart about what's going on there because I've been there and I know that prison is hell. But prison today is far worse than it was when I was there. I mean, what they are doing to people is barbaric. I mean, they go around the world with blood running down their jaws talking about freedom and democracy. Well, what freedom and democracy are they talking about and for whom are they talking about? Are they talking about it for the prisoners in Pelican Bay? No. We have to understand that we've been bamboozled. We've been tricked. They've been running around this country talking about what we have here is animals, what we have here is the worst of the worst. But I'll tell you what's the worst of the worst, is their system. This rotten and this putrid system. And I'll say another thing, and it's very important to say this. Because this is not an accident. This is conscious policy. A lot of times things that happened and have happened to Black people in this country, have been a part of the workings of this system....
Here in this country we have more people incarcerated than anywhere in the world. Just think if you were to come from another country to this country, you'd be amazed to see how many people are incarcerated in prisons here in the United States. The so-called homeland of freedom and democracy. And I'll tell you. We have to stand with these prisoners. We have to stand with them because they're courageous in what they're doing and they're determined and until they do something about the nature of their demands that they are willing to lay down their lives for those demands. That tells you something about the nature of what they're doing.
Dylan Rodriguez, Professor and Chair, Ethnic Studies Department, UC Riverside
The Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit has established a global standard of physical and psychological state violence. It forms the template against which all other forms of prison torture and normalized state terror may be measured, from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib. Further, Pelican Bay is a place in which the historical violence of racial categories—masquerading as "gang certification" in the California prison system—reveals its fundamental logic of segregation, social liquidation, and bodily punishment. It is no accident that hundreds upon hundreds of Pelican Bay's survivors use the language of warfare, antiblack slavery, and even genocide to describe their experiences in this place. As a professor in the University of California system, as Chair of the UC Riverside's Department of Ethnic Studies, as a longtime activist and scholar of liberation struggle and antiracist, anticolonialist movements, and as an ordinary person who desires to participate in the abolition of such forms of systemic and state-enforced misery, I hope everyone within earshot will listen closely to the courageous voices that now emanate from Pelican Bay's captive population. Their demands are beyond reasonable. In my judgment, the goals of the hunger strike constitute a bare minimum of concessions from a state and prison administration that has proved itself over and over again to be largely incompetent and overtly brutal in its handling of the California's imprisoned population. Many of us who closely observe and study this state system have been left with no choice but to conclude that this apparent incompetence and brutality is, in fact, the regular order of things for California's prison system.
My nephew is 17 years old. He's now at risk to be a candidate to get at least one felony. That one felony nullifies your voting power regardless what people say if you're not on parole then you can vote. It still nullifies your voting power. That is what they're doing. The whole idea is to take away your voice. And this is what they're doing to the next generation, they're taking away their voice and soon everybody is going to be under that parole, probation... it's going to be a society of mass incarcerated disguised. You're walking around, you're talking to each other but you're in a mass prison situation. This is what's happening to this country. We need to rally the families. We need to rally the friends of the families. We need to rally everybody. Everybody needs to understand that this mass incarceration is affecting every aspect of your life. Jobs, environment, health, every aspect of your life is being affected by the prison-industrial complex.
Mary Sutton, Spokesperson for Critical Resistance and CURB
It's time to reconfigure and reshift our priorities as to what's important and bring the money back into the communities to prevent incarceration in the first place. We cannot solve California's budget crisis or build strong stable communities without stopping prison and jail expansion, reducing the number of people in prison and using the saved resources to stop cuts to education and our vanishing social net. California is the wealthiest state in the country but our social safety net and education system are being destroyed. The state has sacrificed programs that support working families in exchange for tax policies that favor the very wealthy and the largest and deadliest prison system in the world. While the crisis hurts everyone, poor and working class people and communities of color bear the brunt of our budget failures. We are caging over 160,000 people in overcrowded prisons and jails instead of funding in-home support services and community medical and mental healthcare, we are building prison hospitals. Instead of building community colleges we are building county jails. Governor Brown's current proposal to reduce overcrowding is to move prisoners into county facilities rather than using proven measures that would reduce the prison population. We're also reducing overcrowding by moving prisoners into out-of-state private prisons. We've moved over 10,000 people out of state into private prisons. This isn't reducing the prison population, its expanding it and shuffling it about and moving people further away from their homes, further away from their legal counsel when these are actually the people that should be released.
Fanya Bayruti, Organizer for L.A. Chapter of All of Us or None
I'm the organizer for All of Us or None, the Los Angeles chapter. This call for a hunger strike is dear to me in the sense that when I was in Soledad I took a hunger strike because I was falsely accused of a situation there. Although my hunger strike didn't last but for five days without food or water I know what these brothers will be going through. There are other elements involved inside the institution when you take up a hunger strike. Guards will have to work in a different format. The medical staff will have to work in a different format to assure that that person is, first of all, not eating anything. Second of all that person's health is up to par. So those are some of the inside things that a lot of people don't talk about that has to happen. So in that happening there's a lot of administrative bureaucracy that's gonna go down....
We used to have 12 institutions that was sufficient and then they came and built 33 more and then all those prisons are over capacitated. Brother gave the number 2.3 million people incarcerated. When Michelle Alexander in her book [The New Jim Crow] talks about this is not a situation that happened by chance. All we have to do is read the writing on the wall. Young man spoke about COINTELPRO operations. We know about the new Jim Crow. We know about how the old Jim Crow came in to the new Jim Crow. It is designed that Black and Brown youth will be pinpointed at a particular age and they rather incarcerate than educate. That's why I want to talk a little bit about that.
Associate Director of the African American Cultural Center
We're here to stand in solidarity with the brothers held captive at Pelican Bay as well as the captives throughout the United States that suffer from cruel and inhumane punishment. We begin saying that we take this position from our ancient African tradition, especially the teachings from ancient Egypt that teach us that we are all made in the image of the divine. That therefore we have human rights that cannot be denied us based on any social status or social context in which we might find ourselves. This day as we go towards celebrating the 4th of July this weekend, it certainly brings to mind Frederick Douglass' famous classic speech. What in the world does the Fourth of July have to do with Black people? It certainly points to the hypocrisy of Black people today. Even though the 2.3 million includes people of all races we understand that, and that they all suffer. We know that the majority of those are Black people and Latino people, people of color, that are suffering the most. And so we have to think about Frederick Douglass' classic speech when we talk about the hypocrisy of the country celebrating the so-called pursuit of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness in the midst of the holocaust of enslavement. What hypocrisy. That category or enslavement we can see as a metaphor for those people who suffer degradation, dehumanization under today's conditions. So that's what we're talking about when we get together with our families this weekend. Let's talk about really what it means to be an American today.
Rev. Lewis Logan
I stand today as a member of the faith community, not just talking the talk, but being willing to walk the walk. I feel that we ought to be able to join in solidarity by fasting ourselves, by recognizing the fact that by experiencing deprivation in a symbolic sense like those who are incarcerated, we put ourselves in connection with them. It's very difficult to ignore the suffering of others when your own suffering, is one thing. When you are intentionally going without the creature comforts, and I think it is timely that this will take place especially as the harbinger of this nation's celebration for independence and it is a telling irony and contradiction, in fact is it not, that this would take place in a time and a season when we experience the most unconscionable shift of wealth and power in the history of this empire and that that shift was in essence begun on, predicated on the basis on some type of independence which these, our brothers in lock down, do not have a sense of. The inhumane treatment is ungodly but we must be willing to do whatever it takes. So I stand again in solidarity with my brothers in Pelican Bay. I will be in fact observing a time of fasting myself.
Luis Garcia, Spokesperson for SSCCCCS
We stand on the principles of restore to justice, but we believe in compassion and more than one chance for people to right themselves and go on and be productive citizens. The laws involved that are being violated in regards to torture of prisoners starts with the human rights law. I want to mention in particular, to other United Nations covenants that touch on this subject, that is article 27 of the United Nations, a covenant of civil and political rights that recognizes oppressed national minorities of which there are two in this country, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos and African descent peoples. Those two covenants give us the rights that protect prisoners in the SHU prisons that are from those two particular ethnic groups. The human rights laws protect all prisoners. And in particular the prisoners stood up, they united across ethnic lines and I think we are going to do the same thing in supporting their effort. I hadn't thought about doing some fasting along with the prisoners but I am going to commit myself to do that as well.
Paul Von Blum, Professor of African American Studies, UCLA
I strongly express my solidarity with the prisoners at Pelican Bay during their hunger strike. The conditions there are inhuman and have been so for too many years. Even beyond the present demands, the hunger strike raises even more serious issues about the tragic role of incarceration in California and throughout the nation, especially the grotesquely high numbers of inmates of color. This horrific injustice must end and we must move rapidly to remedy the profound gaps of wealth and power that give rise to this outrageous reality.
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