Building Support for California Prisoner Hunger Strikers…
Deeper, Broader Backing Urgently Called For!

July 24, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


July 13, Corcoran

On July 13, 400 people—supporters and families of prisoners in California's prisons—gathered in César Chavez Park, a few miles from the gates of Corcoran State Prison. Organized by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity and built by other groups including the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, people came in buses and carpools from Northern, Southern, and Central California. We met one another in a park, and then set out with our banners and signs on a long march in 100+ degree heat to a rally right outside the prison.

Corcoran State Prison is one of four prisons in California that have Security Housing Units (SHUs). In this strike, and the two previous hunger strikes last year, Corcoran has been a strong center of prisoner resistance, and many of the families attending the rally had loved ones inside. Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN) activists and everyone we spoke to there all commented on the strength we all took away from the day, meeting and learning from one another. Some, especially among ex-prisoners and their families, noted that the gathering itself, with many nationalities and areas represented, was indicative of the transformative effect of the signing of the "Agreement to end hostilities" that was signed in August 2012.

July 17 Panel on the Hunger Strike

An overflow crowd was present at Revolution Books in Berkeley to hear powerful and indicting testimony from a panel of speakers, exposing from different angles the torture of long-term solitary confinement and upholding the courageous California prison hunger strikers. Two students from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), who themselves were captives for five years in the torture cells of Pelican Bay State Prison SHUs, anchored the panel with their testimony. They were joined by Andres Conteris of the group "Close Gitmo," who visited prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU shortly before they began their hunger strike, and brought messages from them; Michael Montgomery, a  National Public Radio reporter who has done significant, consistent (and singular) work covering the prisons, including exposing the inhumane brutality of solitary confinement in California prisons; and Larry Everest, a writer for Revolution newspaper, who is active in SMIN.

Montgomery vividly traced and exposed the suffering that prisoners endure in the SHU and the arbitrary decisions by the prison authorities that confine them there, sometimes for decades. One of the UCB students talked about the war on drugs, about how in the last decades in California there have been 22 prisons built and only one college. The other UCB student, a Latino, talked about growing up, about how the homies who were most respected all went to the SHU in Pelican Bay, and how he wanted to go there from an early age. He spoke about how he was in a pod with "southerners" [this refers to prisoners from Southern California] and one white guy, and how the Latinos took care of, took food and other items to, that white prisoner because he had no one. Later, when he decided to study for his GED, the white prisoner tutored him in math every night at 5 pm. Stories like these blew a hole through the conception that the people in the SHU have no humanity. Everest situated this explosion of the prison population and rise of solitary confinement in a system of mass incarceration—a counterinsurgency before the insurgency—rooted in the evolving demands of global imperialism—and pointed to the hunger strike and the "Agreement to End Hostilities" as proof of the revolutionary potential of those the system vilifies as the "worst of the worst."

The program drew forward many formerly incarcerated persons who also had spent time in the SHU, as well as family members of loved ones in solitary confinement. The Q&A was peppered with back and forth between the panelists and the audience, with people both asking questions and speaking from their own experience. One woman, a mother of a young man being tortured in the Pelican Bay SHU, brought a stack of 68 signed copies of the "Emergency Call" which she has gotten signed from friends and strangers alike, everywhere she goes in and around Oakland. Another woman asked for help in visiting her son who is in Pelican Bay. She had visited him in five different prisons but was suddenly denied access when he was moved to Pelican Bay. A Black man spoke of his years in solitary confinement and said that it was books, like the ones "in this store," that helped keep him together, and keep him sane through those years.

Everest's call for urgent action to support the prisoners was not lost on the people present. Afterward a quickly called meeting of SMIN was held.

July 19: Day of National Action in Solidarity with the Prisoner Hunger Strike

SF Bay Area

At noon, people from the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, Code Pink, and the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Fellowship of Berkeley converged on the California State Building on a busy San Francisco corner. One member of Code Pink, who is on her 34th day of a hunger strike in support of protesting Guantánamo and California prisoners, came to the rally.

Then the convergence headed off to a corner in Oakland (known among rebels of the East Bay as Oscar Grant Plaza), the home of the Oscar Grant rebellions and the site of Oakland Occupy. This has also been the corner at which the Stop Mass Incarceration Network has had a consistent presence for Justice for Trayvon Martin and the California prison hunger strikers. This spot had seen powerful marches nearly every day of the week after the verdict came down finding George Zimmerman not guilty. This plaza is where a "Day After the Verdict" rally and march called and built for by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network erupted into truly mass protest. The scene there is becoming very polarized, with some reactionary fools being hyped up by the media about "outsiders" coming into town, stirring up trouble and breaking some windows. But as some started spouting their reactionary views and getting in the faces of speakers, many of the people who were previously only watching stepped up to take the bullhorn. The crowd grew. One of the people on the bullhorn building support for the hunger strike was one of the UC Berkeley students who had spent many years in the Pelican Bay SHU. One youngster whose parent had been in prison told us he'd gotten out 70 leaflets to the crowd. People in the crowd signed the banners about both Trayvon and the prison hunger strike.

Afterward, our group joined a rally, and then a march of about 300 people took to the streets. We marched to East Oakland and the Fruitvale BART Station, the site of the murder of Oscar Grant and the spot made famous in the new movie, Fruitvale Station. Another rally was held there, where a member of SMIN called on folks to step forward and support the hunger strikers.


On Friday, July 19, Day 12 of the prisoner hunger strike, the Stop Mass Incarceration Network called for a Day of National Action in Solidarity with the strike. The day came at a serious crossroads in the strike, when prison officials and the State of California have intensified their retaliation against hunger strike prisoners and their legal support network. The Day of National Action and Solidarity also took up the slogans "No More Trayvon Martins" and "No More Criminalization of a Generation." In Los Angeles, SMIN carried out a day of mobile actions.

First, there was a lightning press event at the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon in Leimert Park at 10 am. Families with loved ones participating in the strike, and others with SMIN, wanted to bring the reality of solitary confinement torture and the hunger strike into the area where the protests for Justice for Trayvon Martin after the Zimmerman verdict had been most powerful, and to support both. The press event featured families who have relatives in Pelican Bay, whose stories were told on Press TV and Univision KMEX Channel 34 in Southern California. Graciela Martinez told media that the torture of SHU prisoners not only continued after years and decades, but retaliation by prison authorities had escalated once the hunger strike began, and they were going up to Pelican Bay that afternoon, after the Day of National Action and Solidarity, because of great concern for the hunger strikers. Graciela told how prison officials were isolating prisoner representatives, freezing them in isolation cells, ransacking their cells and removing legal materials, denying medicine to hunger strikers with chronic illnesses, banning their lawyers from Pelican Bay and other state prisons, etc. As part of the Day of Action, these family members had plans to distribute the SMIN Emergency Call! Join Us In Stopping Torture in U.S. Prisons! in towns up and down California on their trip to and back from Pelican Bay that afternoon.

At noon, the protesters met on the Crenshaw Blvd. overpass at the Interstate 10 Freeway, the site just days before where hundreds had stopped traffic on the freeway to show their outrage at the Zimmerman verdict which represents the declaration of open season on Black and Latino youth. Right at that spot, thousands of motorists passed and hundreds honked in support, as families with loved ones in the SHU, high school students, and political activists held giant banners saying "We Are All Trayvon Martin—The Whole Damn System Is Guilty" and "Pelican Bay Prisoner Hunger Strike—End Solitary Torture," and "Support the CA Prisoner Hunger Strikers."

In the course of a little over an hour, 5,000 cars passed and traffic came to a near standstill at certain points, as motorists read the banners and signs, honked, and raised their fists in support. A crew then made its way to the Santa Monica Promenade, where hundreds of youth on summer vacation, international tourists, and local shoppers congregate. As high school activists passed out stickers and the Emergency Call to stop torture, people from all walks of life came up to take pictures of themselves with the banners as the backdrop, and an impromptu rally was held addressing dozens of skater youth, who listened intensely to the speeches and in many cases took up distributing "5 Demands—CA Prisoners on Hunger Strike—We Have Your Backs," and "We Are All Trayvon—The Whole Damn System is Guilty," and stickers.

Stand Up for the Courageous Prisoner Hunger Strikers

People! This hunger strike is now is now ending its 17th day. The human beings in solitary confinement are putting their very lives on the line to change the cruel, unjust, and torturous conditions they are forced to live in, day after day, decade after decade. They state that they are doing this "to not only improve their conditions but also as an act of solidarity with all prisoners and oppressed people around the world."

It is on us to spread the knowledge of this just strike throughout society. And more, to join with the prisoners in resolutely opposing the inhumane treatment they endure at the hands of the prison authorities and demanding that prison authorities meet their just demands. We must also demand that the prison authorities stop their vicious retaliatory attacks on the hunger strikers.

The heroism of these prisoners should move all of us to stand with them with determination and compel us to step up and support their struggle on many fronts and in many ways.

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