Revolution #240, July 24, 2011
Report from July 18 Sacramento Demo to Support Pelican Bay Hunger Strike:
"Does someone have to die for anyone to listen?"
For the first time since the prisoner hunger strike began on July 1, supporters from across the state of California were able to collectively take the struggle of the prisoners and their five demands to the headquarters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in Sacramento—directly challenging the authorities running California's hellhole prisons. Chants of "Prisoners are dying; CDC is lying; Support the five demands" echoed outside the windows of top CDCR officials. The demonstration included more than 150 people (some who had driven many hours to come from Los Angeles or Eureka) and lasted more than five hours. It ended with a march to the state capitol where former SHU prisoners and prisoner families met with a representative of Governor Jerry Brown.
The prisoners on hunger strike were also present—by way of a powerful banner made by supporters according to the wishes of prisoners at Pelican Bay. It read "Pelican Bay Human Rights MOVEMENT" across the top to be taken to the rally. On the bottom it stated, "And All Similarly Situated Prisoners." It was signed, in the middle, by Todd Ashker, Danny Troxell, Ron Yandell, Sitawa Jamaa, Lewis Powell, Paul Redd, James Williamson, Arturo Castellanos, Alfred Sandoval, George Franco, and Antonio Guillen.
This first statewide rally was organized and supported by a broad range of groups and individuals supporting the prisoners' hunger strike, many which are part of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. This included All of Us or None, California Coalition of Women Prisoners, Critical Resistance, Emergency Committee to Support Prisoners' Hunger Strike, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Prison Activist Resource Project, supporters of Revolution newspaper, the Revolution Club-Bay Area, and the Souljah Movement from Pittsburgh, California.
The demonstration was marked by a spirit of defiance, determination and energy. There was strong participation by family members of the prisoners as well as former prisoners, including former members of the Black Panther Party such as Emory Douglas, known for his powerful and creative art. We met two women from El Salvador, both with two kids in prison. One older woman had served 26 years in prison. A number of family members said they were going to organize protests in support of the hunger strike as soon as they got back home.
The demonstration began with a picket line that filled the whole block in front of the CDCR offices. One of the MCs began with the reading of a letter from a prison hunger striker. "In 2003, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was 'a cancer to be cut out' and that I would die here one way or another," the prisoner wrote.
The powerful testimony of the families and former prisoners was filled with outrage and urgency. "My dad is a prisoner in the SHU [the Secure Housing Unit at Pelican Bay]. It would be nice to have a phone call from him—that's something they are asking for, which they don't get now," a young woman told a Revolution reporter. "I would love to just know that he is OK and that he's being treated right. They don't get enough to eat. Every time I see him he's skinny, he's pale, he doesn't get enough time outside... There are horrible conditions. You wouldn't treat an animal like that. But to treat humans like that—it's not right."
"Does someone have to die for anyone to listen?" added the young woman's aunt, the prisoner's sister.
Among the speakers at the rally were two women who each had two sons in the Pelican Bay SHU who are participating in the hunger strike. Irma said that she had last seen her sons on July 9—one had lost 15 pounds and the other nine pounds. She wondered how much weight they had lost nine days later and whether they were among the prisoners who passed out and had to be taken to the prison infirmary. She read from a letter one of her sons recently sent, where he talked about the basic demands of the prisoners such as clothing that will help protect them from the freezing cold, and a place where they can exercise that isn't a "dog run" (that is what it's actually called)—a small area with high concrete walls. Toward the end of the letter, her son wrote that since being sent to the SHU, he felt like he was "thrown in the hole and left to die."
The other woman, Maria, said, "Yesterday I received a letter from one of my children. My children are suffering in such bad conditions. They are losing a lot of weight and are only able to drink a little water. CDCR, you have to sit down and negotiate. They are human beings! They are people! They have hearts, they speak, they have wishes. We have a right to be a human being." Later she told Revolution about how, when she has called the prison to ask about her children, they insulted her and refused to tell her anything because she doesn't speak English perfectly.
Margaret, a former prisoner, told Revolution, "I'm here to support my brothers. I think it's a disgrace that we as a nation are not taking care of the people in prison. Some of these brothers are in the SHU for 20 years." Then she spoke of her own experience: "I can remember what it felt like when I was in SHU housing. When I was young and was first put in a SHU unit. I can remember being handcuffed, in the muumuu and little slippers [that the prison officials make women prisoners wear]. I really felt like I got swallowed into the belly of the beast. You are handcuffed everywhere you go—when you take a shower or go to exercise. Another thing that happens in the SHU is if one person does something they don't like they punish everybody. They take away everybody's yard time or everybody's shower."
Another significant part of the demonstration was the participation of Native Americans, including a mother of prisoners and elders from the Native community, and including members from the Yurok Nation. The tribal elder expressed his support of the hunger strike and brought out that Native people have the highest incarceration rate per capita of any group. He also brought out how Native people's spiritual leaders in prison are suppressed.
Another Indian leader said that the hunger strikers were part of the "warrior nation." He continued, "We have prisoners in there who are fasting, sacrificing perhaps their own lives so that certain conditions can be met. We will continue to support them." Later the rally concluded with the American Indian Movement's Warrior Song.
Disrespect from the CDCR
A delegation of family members, former prisoners and attorneys went into CDCR headquarters to meet with prison officials and deliver petitions supporting the five demands of the prisoners from nearly 7,500 people (posted at www.change.org/petitions/support-prisoners-on-hunger-strike-at-pelican-bay-state-prison) as well as statements from prominent people (see revcom.us/a/240/statements-support-hunger-strikers-en.html).
The representatives of the protest were prevented from going up to the offices of the officials. They were kept waiting in the building lobby for more than 30 minutes, while the building manager refused to see if anyone would come down to accept the petitions and hear from the family members. Then a highway patrol officer said that the delegation had "no lawful business" in the building and would have to leave or get arrested. Only when an attorney with the delegation called the office of a State Assembly member did a CDCR representative come down. He claimed that prisoners on hunger strike were not in poor health and that their demands were groundless. He refused to listen to the testimony of the family members or even to invite the delegation to sit down.
This disrespect is a continuation of the CDCR's policy of refusing to grant the prisoners' just demands or even seriously negotiate. This after 18 days of a hunger strike, with some prisoners passing out and in need of serious medical attention.
At Governor Brown's office, a delegation of four—two mothers of prisoners, a former SHU prisoner, and an activist—met with a representative of the governor. (It was significant that Brown's office felt compelled to meet with protesters; to date they have refused all requests to comment on the hunger strike, directing questions to the CDCR.)
The former SHU prisoner, a member of Souljah Movement, from Pittsburg, California, described the meeting with the governor's representative. "I was able to go inside the governor's office today and when we started to talk with the people who I thought would really want to hear what we had to say I was kind of disappointed. When they sent a representative out to speak to us it seemed like he was the youngest guy who was in there. You have to speak from the soul. My purpose was to speak on behalf of each and every nationality that has ever been in prison. I was asked to speak to what it is like to be inside a SHU program. It's nothing nice. I felt for the two ladies who spoke about their sons in the SHU... We have to bring out what's really happening."
He went on to say what it is like to be in a SHU: "It's a different life in there. When you're in the SHU it doesn't matter Black, white, Mexican, Indian, we are all treated bad as an equal... Now we need a voice on the street because a person that's in the SHU program doesn't get to voice his opinion. Many things go on in the SHU that you don't know. There are officers that control everything. They control the lights. They control what's on the food tray. If they're having a bad day toilet paper may not be distributed to your side of the wing. When there is a death in your family they have control to not give you the news or the letter until they want to. So you might hear of a death two weeks or three weeks down the line. We don't have to be treated as less than a man...This has got to be heard."
There was coverage of the protest on KCRA TV Sacramento, which highlighted the five demands of the prisoners, and in the Los Angeles Times.
Revolution supporters distributed the newspaper widely during the protest.
Demonstrators vowed to step up the struggle through outreach and action. Each weekday supporters are rallying from noon to 1 pm in front of the California State Building at Van Ness and McAllister (near Civic Center BART station) in San Francisco to support the hunger strike. As long as the strike goes on, there will be a vigil every Thursday from 5 pm to 7 pm in front of the Alameda County Courthouse (1225 Fallon St., near Lake Merritt BART station in downtown Oakland). A "Bring the Noise" march and rally will be held in downtown San Francisco on Friday, July 22, gathering at 5 pm at UN Plaza. And more support actions are in the works.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.