Days of Solidarity, Evenings of Conscience

July 7, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


Evenings of Conscience were held as part of the Days of Solidarity With the Struggle to End Prison Torture! These events combined speeches, videos, and cultural performances to build the struggle against prison torture and to support the prisoners at Pelican Bay Prison in California, who are set to begin their hunger strike on July 8.

In New York, on Saturday, June 22, the event, held at Revolution Books, began with a powerful reading of a letter from a Pelican Bay prisoner outlining the conditions at the Security Housing Unit (SHU) and the demands and motivations of the 2011 prisoners' hunger strike. This set the stage in understanding what is at stake with the California prisoners' hunger strike.

Noche Diaz reported on the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN) delegation to Sanford, Florida, on June 10 National Hoodie Day, taking the message of Justice for Trayvon Martin from around the country. Many people in the Sanford community, he said, had been told not to step out at the start of the trial proceedings and that while many people did come out, sitting back cannot be allowed to be the message. He went on to talk about how the fight for justice for Trayvon Martin concentrates the injustices of racial profiling and mass incarceration; and through fighting for justice, people raise their sights against the whole system behind mass incarceration and crimes against humanity; and they can transform themselves through making revolution.

Carl Dix, also a featured speaker, tied together the ravages of mass incarceration and torture in prisons in the U.S. and why this in fact amounts to a slow genocide that can easily turn into a fast genocide. The Stop Mass Incarceration Network, he said, is involved in two key battles this summer: fighting for justice for Trayvon Martin in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, and the big fight around torture in prison, including, very importantly, building support for the hunger strike called by prisoners at Pelican Bay. Carl concluded: "We can't allow the powers to isolate the prison hunger strikers and to crush their resistance; people need to be part of a movement to stop mass incarceration now." Solidarity remarks came from Professor Jim Vrettos of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and from Afro-Latin jazz pianist Arturo O'Farill. The South Asian comedian Aladdin Ullah shared a dialogue he had with his immigrant father, who explained his first encounter with the Jim Crow South, through a humorous skit.

On Wednesday, June 26, at Oakland's First Congregational Church, the Stop Mass Incarceration Network in the Bay Area held an Evening of Conscience that included a powerful report-back with Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, killed by police, on his trip to Sanford, Florida, for the opening day of trial of George Zimmerman. Some 40 people came, including former prisoners and others working with prisoners. It was a lively mix of short statements and presentations, video clips from Noche Diaz and Jamel Mims as well as of exposure of the conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU, a discussion with Cephus Johnson, and a showing of a video of Carl Dix's recent talk at the New York Evening of Conscience on the battle to stop mass incarceration and the broader need for revolution.

Cephus Johnson described why he felt compelled to go to Sanford, and talked about the importance of the new movie on the murder of Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station, as well as his support for the prisoners' struggle. A reader from the Bay Area reported: "People gained a deeper understanding of the connection between police murder and mass incarceration. A couple of people commented on how the film clip of the 'exercise yard' at Pelican Bay really brought home how horrible the conditions are—that this was their one hour out of their cell. A couple read every word on the enlarged centerfold from Revolution on solitary confinement and then photographed it. One guy volunteered to help build a SHU model, and then joined us the nest day for bannering at the California State building in SF. He is quite religious, but his Christian morality drives him to work for the prisoners, and he says he loves what we are doing. The program had the definite edge of not just talking about the problem of Mass Incarceration, but challenging people to step out and stop it."

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The following excerpts are from statements given at the Evening of Conscience at the New York program at Revolution Books:

Professor Jim Vrettos from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice:

I'm really so moved and proud to be here with you all. You have an ally, a comrade, believe it or not, at John Jay College. To paraphrase from Jack Abbot's book, In the Belly of the Beast, I am teaching in the belly of the beast. We are trying to transform that belly, that beast, in all sorts of ways. I am so proud to be your comrade, your ally at John Jay. We answered the call in 2011, standing up against stop-and-frisk. Carl, I tip my hat to you, if I had a hat, I would tip it. I've been in the academic world many decades, I've been through all kinds of struggles, demonstrations, takeovers of buildings, I'm dating myself here, Columbia 1968. But I've not met anyone with such courage and integrity as Carl Dix, Jamel, Noche, John, so many of you from this bookstore, the Revolution Club, who made a stand that so many people have not been able to do and certainly as I don't need to tell you, the overwhelming majority of academics simply for whatever cock-and-bull reason cannot do, they're too stuck sitting on their rear ends in their offices, they have not been able to do, worrying about their careers, intellectualizing while the misery goes on, the pain goes on, the brutality goes on. And it has to stop. You can tell I'm the white guy here. I don't have my yarmulke on me but Cornel [West] made it a point, he thought it would be a great idea for me to put on my yarmulke, I am nominally a secular Jew here. And as we got arrested Cornel thought it would be great to have this white guy put on his yarmulke and get arrested and get a picture on TV and so on, showing this guy with a yarmulke getting arrested. I think it was important to show solidarity, to show that other people can relate to the suffering and pain that so many people, young people of color, are going through. It's absolutely crucial that we do this, that we make the connections that Noche is talking about, the links, to get the academic world out there in some way to take a stand and I promise you with all the strength I have, my spirit, my intelligence, my writing, my activism, I will continue to carry on the struggle and do as much as I can to bring that academic world out of their stupor, their intellectualizing and perpetuizing, often times, of this incredible dependency, this incredible misery that they are so, so blind to.

Afro-Latin jazz pianist, Arturo O'Farill:

I was really motivated to become a part of, or at least to find out more about this movement when Ramarley Graham was taken from us, that was an incredibly shocking thing to me, watching what took place—having a 17-year-old son who is Hispanic, African-American, Jewish, Cuban, German, having him walk around the streets of New York City at all hours of the night and be exposed to the dangers of the NYPD—is something that hit home real hard, hit hard, I spent days crying about this. And so we do a lot of different things but I really believe now I understand my purpose. My purpose in life is not to be a sideman or be a leader, be a star, be rich or get laid. My purpose in life is to use my art form to communicate the things that I see, the injustices in the world, the incredible oppression that is worldwide, the absolute massacre of the planet by the United States, the worldwide terrorism of economic proportions and of political and even war criminals that the U.S. perpetuates on the planet. And in my own small way, I'll use my voice, I'll use what I have, the platform that I've built, the orchestra, the music, the records, the composing, everything I can do, I aim towards the purpose of letting people know that things have got to change. It is the most important thing a person can do.

Jamel Mims, Stop Mass Incarceration Network and Revolution Club:

Everyone should give themselves a round of applause just for being here, for being in solidarity with these hunger strikers who are about to sacrifice, who are about to put their lives and bodies on the line to be treated like human beings. We were just out yesterday in Harlem, going to people and going to the masses to talk about this, out with the Revolution Club and the Network to talk about the first day of Solidarity with the California prison hunger strikers and we constructed on the sidewalk an 11 x 7 block of territory. And we had somebody dress up in an orange suit that was reminiscent of the ones that the solitary confinement prisoners wear and we had them pace back and forth in this constructed cell, or had them sit on a chair and stare at passersby as they walked by. The person in the orange jumpsuit was me but the entire time this was going on I'm thinking that there are millions of people, as I'm making eye contact with people as they're walking down the street, that there are millions of people who have some uncle, some cousin, some brother, some sister, who at that moment, they could see, that this is something that effects literally millions of people, tens of millions of people have their lives enmeshed in the snarling jaws of the criminal injustice system. I just think it's really important to get at what's at stake here and to return to what's at stake, what are the conditions that we're really dealing with, this slow genocide—from the front-end policies like stop-and-frisk and gang injunctions in LA, all the way up to people who like Ramarley Graham, face the ultimate fate as the end of that criminalization, to schools that fail them and a society that deems them as criminals. Leading all the way up, say you're just one of these kids that just get swept up, find their lives in and out of the revolving door of the prison injustice system, for some reason or no reason at all being accused of being a gang member or some association, having a tattoo or not having one, or some pictures you may or may not have up on your wall, you're accused of being a gang member, you're moved to solitary confinement. You try to protest or demand that they change those conditions. You're moved from a cell that's a small windowless cage to a large windowless cage that they call exercise, they leave you in that state for days and months on end. This is torture, it fits the international definition of torture. And what we have to do has to be commensurate to actually halting back and reversing that. This is a genocidal trajectory, emphasis on trajectory. Acceleration, they just don't stop is the other thing. It doesn't just remain the same, in that it doesn't just stop when we act to resist these things. But we have to act to halt and reverse this genocidal trajectory. And I'm here to tell you brothers and sisters that the SMIN is a force in society that's out there whose mission it is to halt and reverse the genocidal trajectory of mass incarceration and put an end to that once and for all. And we have a plan to do exactly that and transform the political terrain around that this summer.

We're looking at the trial of George Zimmerman, which concentrates yet another lethal aspect of the system of mass incarceration and the criminalization of the youth, these youth with targets on their backs. Also with this prisoners' hunger strike on July 8, which again from the worst of the worst, these people who, with the same collection of resisters have put out a call for a cessation of hostilities among races, inside and outside the prisons; they have put this out and it's an amazing document to be coming from the so-called worst of the worst. And this summer is an arc of resistance against that, where we're seeking to transform the terrain against that, specifically looking at these specific nodal points, these two concentrations of the lethal edges of the New Jim Crow....

Some folks have spoken to this about what it means in a situation like this, what it means not to act. And what it means in a situation where tens of thousands of prisoners are held in solitary confinement as we speak right now in these torturous and barbaric conditions and what it means to let that go by without so much as a whimper from society. That anybody with an iota of justice or any semblance of humanity, that to not act in a situation like that means to lose your humanity, means to lose what makes you human in that situation. So not only do they lose, but we all lose in a situation like that where they are allowed to get away with doing this to people who they have called the "worst of the worst." This is just a concentration of a genocidal logic. What does it mean that an Illinois senator, a public figurehead, can openly call for rounding up 18,000 Black and Latino youth and shutting them up behind bars as a solution to something that's brought down on their heads. That is a genocidal logic and we need to act in accordance to stop that....

And the last things that I wanted to get to, as we're talking about and a lot of people have put a lot of thought and a lot of words tonight into what's been described in the editorial of Revolution newspaper as a cauldron of contradictions this summer. And when you look out at the world right now, in the midst of things that we were mentioning around mass incarceration but then also the scaling back of women's rights and the virtual denial of abortion in rural areas. You have these wars for empires and drone bombs that are being flown around the world. You have the outrage of folks like Bradley Manning awaiting trial while the world's leaders who have done these crimes sit atop a pile of the loot that they have essentially robbed the world of. We're in a situation where we have Edward Snowden, an NSA leaker, making compelling revelations about what is the actual nature of the NSA. You have a time when all these things are coming to a head: the prisoners' hunger strike, the trial of George Zimmerman, the faultlines around mass incarceration. And what it means in a time like this to act with the SMIN, it means giving all that you can, it means not just letting this be some small movement that does a few things here or there. It means not just having a few days of solidarity and patting ourselves on the back after we've done it.

What it means is contributing funds and going out to gather large funds to actually make this movement a mainstream movement in society that transforms the political terrain around it. To do less in a situation like this leaves the system of mass incarceration grinding on, leaves these horrors existing in the world. So people should contribute funds and give generously to the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. People should go out of their ways to find people who can give. Think of all the people that want to put an end to things like this, who want to put an end to things like stop-and-frisk, but don't know how they can contribute. Well, fundraising and giving funds is one way that people can contribute that no matter where you are and no matter how much time you have, that it can matter. It gets to the resistance like these whistles that we give to the youth in the ghettos and barrios of New York to defend themselves against the abuses of the police and transform themselves into revolutionaries and resisters. It gets delegations down to Sanford. It gets delegations of folks like Noche Diaz and Cephus Johnson down to Stanford to show people that there are some people who didn't get the memo that "you can't do anything about this." It gets those things. So people should give and give generously and even more than that. We should go out and seek those who can transform and really make this movement a mainstream movement that can transform society around the question of mass incarceration, not just to make some gains around stop-and-frisk, not just to make some wins against this New Jim Crow, a few days off of slavery, a few days where we can sit at Woolworth's counter a couple hours longer, but putting an end to a system that keeps Blacks and Latinos as a pariah class in the United States. So folks, get with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, give generously, give your time, your ideas, give your funds. And let's work together to act to stop this slow and grinding genocide.

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