Revolution #180, October 25, 2009
Chicago Benefit Supports Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund
Scores of people of varied nationalities, ages and backgrounds, packed the performance space at Boocoo Cultural Center and Café in Evanston, Illinois, Sunday night, October 11 for a benefit for the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund. Middle class folks from Evanston mixed it up with families from the Southside of Chicago, including the family of Corey Harris, the 17-year-old baseball and basketball star at Dyett High School who was shot in the back and killed by an off-duty Chicago cop on September 11. People from the theater world; musicians and friends from the jazz and hip-hop scenes joined a variety of activists, including revolutionary communists.
A former prisoner, whose prison term included six years in segregation, was co-emcee. He first met Revolution newspaper through PRLF while in prison. He described his transformation to the crowd.
World class jazz by Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls started the evening with a hauntingly beautiful and appropriate song for Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and activist murdered by the Nigerian government. Rebel Souls were later joined by hip-hop star Diverse.
The readings of letters from prisoners to the PRLF were the highlight of the evening. Professional actors who volunteered their time and efforts were Corey Cantrell, Yadira Correa, Mildred Langford, Ernest Perry, David Shapiro and Austin Talley. The readings were directed by Joann Shapiro. Their readings brought down the house; their insightful interpretations “found the place of truth” in the letters, as one of the readers said.
The majority of readers were recruited by other actors, with the excerpts of letters from prisoners that’s on the PRLF website as the only organizing material. Most of those who read at the benefit knew they wanted to be part of this before they ever talked directly with an organizer. Many of them cited the prisoners’ optimism in those letters as a major reason, the exuberance of the prisoner who is “just amazed at the whole realm of science…” motivated one reader.
One of the readers also found the letters “very personal, but with a broad political and social perspective. Their focus is on the world, they’re finding their voices. They’re optimistic about their situation.”
The first excerpt of the evening set the tone. It was from “one of the exiles currently here at the East Block unit of San Quentin’s Death Row… I am writing with extended appreciation for the boundless energy and creativity displayed through your zeal in looking out for the fellahs, we the condemned Exiles whose plight within the CIS is much like—to borrow a phrase from Comrade Bell—Sisyphus in Hell without hope of a brighter future. I would like to extend my status as a subscriber to your anti-imperialist, culturally informed newspaper—Revolution…. With strength and solidarity.
After the readings, one of the performers said, “I can’t IMAGINE the weight on his shoulders!” Another said “imagine, ‘strength’ in that situation.”
A supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party followed this with a powerful fundraising call, reminding the audience of what it means for the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund to be able to renew subscriptions to prisoners and expand their reach to include skyrocketing populations of women and Latino prisoners. He challenged people at the benefit to “send a message” by contributing generously. The estimated total amount raised and pledged is close to, but not yet at, the $3500 goal.
Broad publicity had some unexpected benefits. An immigrant from the east coast, who read about the benefit in Revolution, called and said he would start sending money to PRLF. He described his internal debate about donating: he has to be careful because the U.S. government can do bad things to people, especially immigrants, for no valid reason. But the prison system is diabolical, it doesn’t prepare prisoners for their release, and really, slavery hasn’t been ended, it goes on in the prison system all the time. He likes Revolution’s articles on police brutality and immigrants, and decided that donating money was the compelling need over his concerns about himself.
A prominent minister in the area initially declined to be part of this benefit. About a month later, PRLF got an unsolicited call from him, informing them that he was making a donation to the benefit.
PRLF’s status as a project of the 501(c)(3) International Humanities Center made a huge difference. The city of Evanston posted three PRLF-made banners in prominent locations, including in the middle of downtown and at the one high school in the area, about this benefit. An acclaimed soul-food restaurant donated red beans and rice and corn muffins for everyone because “important people are going to be there,” but PRLF’s 501(c)(3) status, and the event’s local angle, gave him more ability to justify it.
The “local” angle was another major positive factor for this. The Evanston Round Table, which is distributed free to every household in Evanston, ran a letter to the editor from an Evanstonian organizing the benefit. The Evanston Sentinel, the local Black newspaper, ran a story, as did the online Evanston Arts Buzz. The Daily Northwestern [student newspaper at Northwestern University] sent a reporter and ran an article about it afterwards. Many people in Evanston said “your publicity is everywhere.”
Much remains to be done. We are continuing our fundraising for thousands more dollars to renew 800+ subscriptions by the end of the year, to fill 180 requests for new subscriptions and numerous books. Donations are still needed and yours will make a real difference. Go to PrisonersRevolutionaryLiteratureFund.org to donate or for more information.
We’re following up the benefit with a mass PRLF meeting, as we try to consolidate some of these advances. We’re seeking people to transcribe handwritten letters from prisoners into electronic formats, translate prisoners’ letters from Spanish to English, fight censorship against Revolution newspaper, and sustain PRLF financially.
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