Revolution #239, July 17, 2011
Interview with Manuel LaFontaine, member of All of Us or None and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition
"The worst of the worst is not allowing people to be treated as human beings"
Manuel LaFontaine is a member of All of Us or None and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. This interviewed was originally done on The Michael Slate Show and it is being posted at revcom.us courtesy of The Michael Slate Show, (KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles, 98.7fm Santa Barbara, www.kpfk.org worldwide)
Michael Slate: What are some of the key developments in the strike since last Friday?
Manuel LaFontaine: There hasn't actually been many. And I say that to say there has been but when no fundamental change has happened in regards to CDC either negotiating or trying to even meet with the prisoners or meet with people that want to represent or amplify the voice of prisoners, it's a clear indication where they stand, and where they stand is that they're willing to let people die or jeopardize their health and safety than start communication and figure out how do we resolve this.
Slate: So they're basically taking a stand that they're not going to end up in any conferencing or anything like that with the prisoners or with the representatives of the prisoner solidarity groups, right?
LaFontaine: Right, and I think what they're doing is tactical on their part, so this system, a very torturous system, like I've been telling different people, you don't have to go to Abu Ghraib. You're right now in your contemporary Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay here in California. So what's going on is they're going to try to wait things out. "So let's see how far we can take these prisoners."
It's torture in many ways. Ten minutes ago I was looking at this website that someone sent me a link in, and we have corrections-only websites or blogs where they basically say, "We should put a microwave with a steak on it next to the cell where these people are going on strike and torture them even more."
So this mindset that officials have, the mindset that guards have, and the fraternity within the law enforcement, feeds into that mentality that prisoners are just the "worst of the worst," when in reality the worst of the worst is Pelican Bay State Prison at the moment. The worst of the worst is not allowing people to be treated as human beings, to have their human rights restored. The fact that they're inside should not constitute torture. We as a society should not condone torture.
Slate: I couldn't agree with you more. I think the worst of the worst is an entire system that bases its treatment of masses of humanity on robbing them of their humanity. The point that Michelle Alexander and a lot of other people have made is, this is a conscious policy very much linked to the war on drugs and all that.
I noticed that the numbers of hunger strikers mushroomed to a very high number of people across the California state prison system. What was that number, 6,000 or something?
LaFontaine: Yeah. If CDC is admitting that, right? It begs the question, what else ain't they admitting, right? It's 6,600 according to them, and here's the truth that CDC will never admit to anybody, at least not to the public, is that the hunger strike has gone across racial and geographical lines in the California state prisons, which is to be highly respected for those of us who are former prisoners, for those of us who are fighting for change and peace in our own communities. Because it's extremely hard to do, especially after decades and generations of prison-manufactured racism, segregation and violence.
So what's going on right now is feared by the state. They don't want to see truce between gangs, so-called gangs, and gangs that they help propagate and the violence that came with it. They don't want to see that, because when there's truce, there's peace, there's resistance, the focus goes back on the man. The focus goes back on the oppressive nature of the man, and the man being the administration of CDC.
And here's another truth CDC won't tell you, that it segregates people who think critically, and people that organize others to think critically, under the pretext of a threat to the security of the institution or staff or inmates, or that you're a gang member. The minute one becomes politically engaged inside, and you begin to challenge the conditions of confinement, or begin to organize others to look beyond themselves and to focus on the things that led to their incarceration, such as social, political and economic oppression here in America and throughout the world, it's the minute you're deemed a candidate for the SHU. That's something the CDC won't tell you.
Slate: What they do say, and I've read a bunch of articles on the strike in major national publications, they quote the CDC representatives as saying, "Well, what we can really say is that gang members are leading this strike, and that shows why we're correct to put them in isolation." That this is all about gang members and their influence across the prison population, and not speaking at all to the very specific demands to be treated like a human being that the prisoners have put forward.
LaFontaine: The California Department of Corrections, I was once one of those people inside. CDC will do anything, I mean, everything in its power to protect their image. In fact, their image, the public relations, their spokespeople, only exist to protect the reality behind it. And the reality is sheer torture. There is no conditions of confinement, conditions of torture. When you put somebody in a cell for twenty-three hours a day in a concrete chamber, that's torture.
Imagine that the only human contact in the last 10, 15, 20 years, is that of guards putting shackles on you. Or a vague recollection of someone who he or she told you was a nurse from the medical field. Imagine if you are having a heart attack, or need medical help, and you need to call out for help, but nobody can hear you because the walls and the floor are soundproof. These brothers aren't asking to be released. They're asking for their basic human rights. They're demanding an end to torture.
I'm not here to speak for them. I'm here to amplify that voice. And I forgot how many hours and days, but I haven't eaten anything. And those that know me in the Bay Area, I haven't eaten anything since June 30. I haven't physically chewed on anything since June 30, for me it's more a stand of solidarity. A lot of people will talk the talk, but won't walk the walk. I'm going to speak as someone who is in the SHU, because I know that the minute, if I was to be caged up under some fraudulent or framed-up charges, trumped-up charges, they'd place me in the SHU under the pretext of being involved in gangs.
So I'm doing this for future people, for all the young brothers and sisters in Los Angeles, in San Diego, who are caught up in that street manners, and street violence, who right now are candidates for the SHU, whether they recognize it or not.
Slate: Can you talk about the support this has been getting from people outside the prison?
LaFontaine: Yeah, there's a lot of support. And there's a lot coming from the family members. So we could talk about the organized activists and organizations, and there are many, throughout not only the Bay Area, but California, in Canada, in Philadelphia, and so many places that have shown their support. We've got prisoners on strike in other prisons, who are also showing solidarity.
But the family members are important to talk to, because I'm one of those people who get the emails, that gets texts, that gets those so sad calls, saying, "I just found out about the strike. I want to do something. I've been quiet, because I don't want it to happen to my loved one. I want to do something."
And what I've been trying to tell people, we have to do something, we have to start talking to other people, talk to our church members, talk to our community members. I got a text last night from someone I didn't even know that three people are in the hospital, for example. I got a text letting me know three people are in the hospital. So far, CDC has been quiet about releasing the details to the public. So sad I couldn't speak afterwards and I don't know how anyone could after learning this.
So people are very concerned, but with this concern is also a victory. And it's a victory in the fact that the spirit—they can torture a human body, but they can't really torture the spirit and the enlightenment that's going on with people who are not in the SHU. So the victory here's that people are becoming aware. The victory is that people now are starting to rise up and say, "I didn't know California could do that." And then when you start to question that notion of the "worst of the worst," that's when you start to challenge them and say, "That's a human being still." And if we're a country, a society that bases ourselves on democracy, on justice and liberty—and yet we're out here torturing people.
So people are picking up, and there's going to be a solidarity event this upcoming Saturday in the Bay Area, for those of us who are here, and there's going to be an international day of solidarity, so many people throughout the country, throughout the world will be joining us as we basically are going to be demanding that CDC begin to negotiate, talk to the thousands of prisoners on strike. And the numbers are continuing to grow.
Slate: Where can people go to get updates on the strike?
LaFontaine: They can go to http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.