Columbia Meeting on Mass Incarceration

Changing the Game


September 22, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

On September 17, I attended a town hall meeting at Columbia University. The event was organized by the Columbia Black Alumni Council, the Harvard Black Alumni Society of New York, and a coalition of Columbia student organizations. Here are some observations I want to share with the readers of coming off the event.

This town hall meeting, "Now What? The Role of Millennials in the Aftermath of Ferguson," was two days after a rally and speak-out organized by students on the campus titled "He Was No Angel: The Re-Valuing of Black Life." More than 200 students and others attended the rally. The New York Revolution Club called on those attending the rally to take a picture to declare their determination to resist and send a message around the country that students on this campus are joining others to put a stop to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation. Nearly everybody—200 people—took the steps of the library. Someone asked, "Hands Up, or Fists Up?" There was a resounding response: "FISTS UP!" Someone was heard over the crowd yelling, "And NO SMILES!"

Fists Up! at Columbia University

At the town hall, the room was full (about 150 people), with mainly Black students, undergraduate and graduate; alumni and young professionals, as well as several white undergrads and graduate students; and Asian and Latino students.

First I want to note that there was a very deep and palpable sense among many of the students that this has to stop, that Black and brown lives matter, a very palpable sense of people confronting the fact that we live in a society where, when it comes to the lives of young Black men, they have no rights that a white man is bound to respect. The whole event started off with a very powerful slide show that included photographs from Ferguson, Missouri, and protests after the killing of Oscar Grant [in the San Francisco Bay Area], as well as photographs of Black people lynched, and one where white people crowded around, photographs of Emmett Till's beaten and mangled body, of his mother, Mamie Till, opening up his coffin for the mourners to see what had been done to her son. The slide show started as people were filing into their seats and as soon as some of the pictures of the lynching came up people around me stopped talking and just stared up at the screen.

BAsics 3:19 says, " There will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn't fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression [of Black people]. There's never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn't make that one key foundation of what it's all about."

And what you felt in that room, and especially later in the break-out session I was in, was some of this deep, deep desire to be free of this, a real questioning of why, after slavery, after Jim Crow, Black and brown men are being shot down like animals in the street, why millions of people are being warehoused in prisons across the country, why millions and millions of youth are living daily in a state of constantly being harassed, brutalized, humiliated and often (every 28 hours) killed by the police. The people in this room were a microcosm of people who think and feel in similar ways, and we should not underestimate that there is a very deep and palpable sense among millions of people right now who are in deep anguish about, are seriously searching for answers to why we are in this situation, and also have a certain determination that this must stop, that we cannot live like this anymore.

As part of the program of the evening, people were polled via text regarding their initial feeling when they heard about Michael Brown's murder. The largest number of responses by far was angry and the second largest was disillusioned. The organizers from the law students alumni association were very moved that Juanita Young and Iris Baez, two parents whose children had been murdered by police, were in the room, and they started off the event by introducing them to the audience.

The second observation I want to make is that early on in the questions and answers, a revolutionary communist got up and very polemically and passionately led people to look at the real situation we face, the revolution we need, and how they can be involved in changing everything right now. This completely changed the terms in the room over what was possible and desirable. Whereas before, some aspects of the full brutal reality of the oppression of Black people had been in the room, there were ways in which this reality was being papered over. A panelist who had done extensive research in how stop-and-frisk has been wielded as a tool for racial profiling said that there was no basis to say why Black people have been systematically targeted and criminalized, warehoused, and even murdered. One of the questions that repeatedly was put to the organizers in building for the event and via social media as the event was going on was what we do now after Ferguson—what's next. Another of the panelists put forward a paltry vision of each person should get involved with an organization, go to a meeting and get involved. People on the panel were correctly criticizing that yet another superficial conversation about race in America is not what is needed, but the programs and proposals being put forward were not coming from a full confrontation of why this keeps happening, the trajectory of this, and what everyone who is outraged, or is won to be, can and must do now. This was very demobilizing for the people who were in the room, people driven to come to this evening because they are in turmoil and want to act in a way that changes the situation.

This is why the intervention from the revolutionary communist was so important—you could feel it crack the atmosphere in the room—with passion and science the revolutionary put front and center the actual situation confronting people right now, from the start of this country down to today, the genocidal nature of the program of police murder, mass incarceration, and criminalization of the youth, and the fact that we need revolution, nothing less, to get rid of this system once and for all and bring something radically different, something liberating, into being. He talked about the role that Freedom Summer 1964 played in changing how millions of people thought about the position and role of Black people, the role that Freedom Summer played in millions of people society wide confronting what that position and role is and where they were going to stand in relation to that. This is about changing how millions of people think and act based on the actual reality. And then the revolutionary went into the two major things happening this fall that can and need to be real advances in the movement for revolution—the October Month of Resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation, and the Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian, "Revolution & Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion." Throughout his remarks, the revolutionary brought out how the whole system, the thinking and way of living, morality has to be radically changed and, yes, everything in society tells us that this is the best of all possible worlds, so the best you can do is find your way to plug in, your niche, your meeting to go to, but this is just not true, there is a whole other way we can live and that's what Bob Avakian's life and work has been about, and if you care at all about the emancipation of humanity you need to be there November 15.

It was striking how the entire tenor in the hall changed while he was speaking, people loudly applauding for different sections, snapping their fingers, deep murmurs of approval, people who had put the November 15 card into their pockets pulled it out and started reading it, and after he spoke, what he had said now reframed the entire conversation. The question of revolution was in the air and being struggled over, even as most people meant different things by it. People in the crowd, including the two mothers whose sons have been murdered by police, Juanita Young and Iris Baez, spoke very compellingly. One young man said he has been grappling with the legacy of MLK and the role of nonviolent resistance. In response Iris Baez said that she was against violence and then went on to talk about the violence and brutality unleashed by the police against her son, against all these other young men and with no justice meted out in case after case after case. Juanita Young spoke about how this has changed her whole life, how she can't imagine being free of the murder and loss and anguish of her son until she dies, about how people would tell her to accept a financial settlement for the murder of her son, but how she refuses because this will not bring him back, will not provide the justice for the police having murdered her son Malcolm on a staircase with his hands cuffed behind his back and leaving his body on the stairwell for hours. She made a very compelling pitch for October 22nd, The National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, and why everyone needs to be out that day, walking out of school, etc.

As the larger session was breaking up into smaller groups, the organizers asked the revolutionary communist if he would like to lead a session, which he jumped at the opportunity to do, and as people filtered out of the room, mingling in smaller groups, I walked by several small groups of people talking about revolution, what it means. Over 20 people came to the breakout led by the Revolution Club.

I have two other quick observations I would like to make. First, people are really looking for meaningful ways to act now—this was evident both in the larger meeting as well as the smaller breakout groups. We have to appreciate this and act to both inspire and organize people very concretely. People were serious about the very short time we have before the Month of Resistance starts, but they set themselves to the task of what are we trying to accomplish and how should we go about doing this. Some of the sentiments reflected in correspondence we received after included: "This week a rally and town hall meeting was organized on campus to bridge the Columbia, Harlem and greater NYC communities together in solidarity, dialogue, and action. Attending both events, I have learned that the month of October has been declared a Month of Resistance on a national scale. This is our time to act!" "There is no more waiting for the right time. Today we stop saying I and start saying WE. As a community overflowing with power and resources, I would like all of us to work together as a people of different backgrounds and join efforts to fight this fight hand in hand. How do we contribute to the Month of Resistance? We start by securing a location for Cornel West and Carl Dix..."

Some of the students went to work the very next day to find a space on the campus for a symposium on mass incarceration, police murder, repression and the criminalization of Black and Latino youth, with Cornel West and Carl Dix as well as at least two professors on campus. Other students feel deep connections with the people in the neighborhoods they are from—they want this kind of conversation and action to be happening among those who face the hardest hell every day, and some initial plans were made right away to get into these neighborhoods. All of this is very initial and much needs to be figured out over the next week, including how do we put radically simple tools into people's hands so they can organize their schools, campuses, projects, and neighborhoods, how to have all that feed into the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN) website. And people should be getting overall direction and key guidance from the website.

The final observation I have is that I asked the revolutionary communist what moved him to speak as he did and he mentioned two things. First, he reflected on and took guidance from a recent piece that went online at, "It's ALL about Getting Free: The Forest and the Trees," which I would encourage everyone to read right away, as well as the fact that although there was a palpable sense in the room of the depth of the problem we faced, the overall framework being put forward did not allow us to look squarely at the magnitude of the horrors facing humanity with the science, imagination, and rigor necessary to see how we can actually get free. And what was striking was that after he made his comments, the room was way, way more alive with wrangling, discussion, and, yes, struggle, all of which are necessary if we are to get free. All of this and much more is embodied in BA and the leadership he provides, and it matters very much if we keep bringing out to people who BA is, and what a rare opportunity it is to see this person live and in person on November 15.

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