Revolution #242, August 14, 2011
Aug. 1: A Day of Solidarity and Support for Prison Hunger Strikers
On August 1, people in a number of cities across the U.S. rallied and marched in a day of action and solidarity initiated by World Can't Wait and taken up by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. The call for the day said the actions were "in support and respect for the courageous prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison and other prisons all around California, whose July 2011 hunger strike challenged the inhumane conditions of the Security Housing Units ['the SHU'] and inspired the support of people far and wide…"
There was important participation in the San Francisco and Los Angeles actions by families of prisoners at Pelican Bay and other SHUs, as well as former prisoners. One woman whose sons are at the Pelican Bay SHU said that the prison authorities had withheld her letters because she wrote that she and her sister had joined groups supporting the hunger strike. She used her remarks to deliver a message to her sons in case they saw her on TV: "I love you. We're all fighting." Also taking part in San Francisco were Carol Strickman, an attorney who was part of the negotiating team for the hunger strikers; Laura Magnani, Regional Director of American Friends Service Committee and author of a report on solitary confinement in the U.S.; and others active in the struggle for prisoners' rights.
In Los Angeles, families and friends of SHU prisoners were joined by representatives of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), Interfaith Communities United For Justice and Peace (ICUJP), and other organizations that are taking a stand against the torture of prisoners. Two days earlier, some family members and others had been offered an information table by the organizers of L.A. Rising, a major concert of radical bands at the L.A. Coliseum, and talked to hundreds of people.
The following are reports we received from readers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City on the day. They are followed by reports from Chicago and Seattle that appeared on the World Can't Wait website (worldcantwait.org).
More than 50 people gathered in front of the California State Building in San Francisco as part of an International Day of Solidarity and Protest in Support of the Prison Hunger Strikers initiated by World Can't Wait and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. The protest was endorsed by California Prison Focus, SF BayView newspaper, Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and Cindy Sheehan.
As the rally began, the MC challenged people to represent for those who are locked down: "What's happened in the last several weeks is historic and the people who made it happen cannot be here today and that's our 2.3 million sisters and brothers that are behind bars." She said the action had two demands: That the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) should meet the five demands of the hunger strike and that there should be no retaliation against the hunger strikers, their supporters, or their families.
Laura Magnani, Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee and author of an important report on solitary confinement in the United States, said: "We have to keep the pressure on. They're hoping that we are going to all go away. They're hoping that it's over. And we're here to say that it's anything but over. This is just the beginning. The real work starts now and it's on us to show that we are not going away, that we haven't forgotten."
Carol Strickman, staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and staff to the negotiation team for the hunger strikers, addressed the different channels that supporters of the prisoners are pursuing to get the demands of the prisoners met. "The only way that any of these things can happen is through the power of the people, pushing for the changes to happen and to be enforced," she said.
Jerry, a former prisoner, speaking for Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, described the conditions in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), from not being able to see the sun or a blade of grass for years to only being able to bathe when portable showers are wheeled in front of one's cell. "We want to say to CDCR and the world that these unjust conditions will not be tolerated anymore," he said.
Four relatives of prisoners also spoke. All began by relating the amount of weight their loved ones had lost during the strike: 38 pounds, 25 pounds, 20 pounds, 18 pounds. And all described different forms of retaliation that their family members had faced.
One woman said that the CDC withheld her letters to her sons because she wrote that she and her sister had joined groups supporting the hunger strike. She used her remarks to deliver a message to her sons in case they saw her on TV. "I love you. We're all fighting," she said
Another woman said that her letters had not been delivered to her sons because they were in Spanish and that their letters to her have also been held for over a month during the hunger strike. "I'm here with my boys, to take care of all of the prisoners, not only my kids but all the kids, all my brothers, my friends, everybody in there, they are a human being like us and they deserve better," she said.
Family members of one of the prisoners who formulated the list of demands of the hunger strike and who has been in the SHU for 15 years, said that he had been transferred to Corcoran (another California prison with a SHU) supposedly for medical attention because his throat had swollen shut, but they suspect that it was out of fear on the part of the prison authorities.
Kiilu Nyasha, a revolutionary journalist and long-time activist for political prisoners and all prisoners, recalled the work of George Jackson, a revolutionary prisoner who was assassinated 40 years ago this month. "I've been waiting 40 years for this," she said of the hunger strike. "There's only one race, the human race, and I salute the prisoners who have broken down these false barriers between them and among them and are coming together in solidarity to fight the prison system."
She described the conditions faced by Hugo "Yogi" Pinnell, a political prisoner who has been incarcerated since 1964 and held in solitary confinement since 1969, the last 20 years in the Pelican Bay SHU. "Yogi hasn't been able to make a phone call or touch another human being, outside of getting handcuffs put on him, for at least 20 years. He hasn't touched his mother since 1973." Kiilu continued, "We have to take collective responsibility for what happens in our society. Being the world's largest incarcerator makes us much less than human. We must regain our humanity and demand an end to neo-slavery, the prison system and torture."
A distributor of Revolution newspaper spoke to the heroic struggle waged by the hunger strike and the links between this important struggle against the inhumanity of solitary confinement and the whole issue of mass incarceration in the USA. "Today, mass incarceration is the leading edge of the oppression of Black people," he said. "The prisoners' hunger strike has exposed to many the complete illegitimacy and hypocrisy of this system—why getting rid of this system is the only way we can get to a whole different kind of society where there will no longer be the living hell of mass incarceration and where the people as a whole can be truly liberated."
A statement in solidarity with the prisoners from the Oakland Education Association, Peace and Justice Caucus, was read. The Revolution Club-Bay Area, Prisoner Activist Resource Center, World Can't Wait, a student from the Black Student Union at Laney College, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and a supporter of Revolution newspaper also spoke.
After the rally there was a march to the building where Governor Brown and the California Attorney General have their offices. A delegation went inside to present them with a copy of statements in support of the hunger strikers by prominent figures in the arts, academia and other areas as well as letters from prisoner families.
Outside, a member of the Revolution Club read a poem by a Nevada prisoner, Ikemba S. Mutulu (Marritte Funches), in support of the hunger strike that had been sent to and published in the BayView newspaper:
They tell you that I'm the monster,
But it's my humanity they seek to take.
Every day that I awake, I break the law.
Every time I pass a book to one of my fellow convicts,
Each time I greet one of my brothers in peace and unity,
Black, brown or white,
This is what they call gang activity
As they pull out their pens and begin to write,
Slap their cuffs on me and slam me in the hole,
Beat me down black and blue.
But I'm the monster, they lie to you.
Supporters plan to step up the fight for the demands of the prisoners. A legislative hearing is scheduled for August 23 in Sacramento on torture and the Pelican Bay SHU, called for by California State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano at the request of supporters of the prisoners. A statewide mobilization is being organized by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity and hunger strike supporters to show mass support. Supporters are also continuing to show support by participating in rolling fasts, writing letters to legislators, getting out information about the strike and the conditions in the SHU, and sending words of encouragement and support to prisoners.
Also, last week, more than 150 religious communities of Roman Catholic nuns mailed in letters of support of the prisoners' requests to the governor of California. Each religious community represents from 100 to 18,000 nuns nationally and internationally. These representatives say: "We are with each of the prisoners and their supporters and loved ones in this struggle and extend our prayers of love, peace and support."
In downtown Los Angeles, families and friends with loved ones in the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay and other state prisons, including a former prisoner who spent four years in the SHU at Pelican Bay, joined with representatives from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), the Martin Luther King Coalition, readers of Revolution newspaper, and numerous others determined to stop torture. The NRCAT banner read "Torture is a Moral Issue." A group of 50 protested in front of the State Building for two hours and took off on a march through downtown LA, blasting through a bullhorn the five core demands and encouraging others to join.
The families and friends had come from all over Southern California, including Santa Monica, Montclair, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Compton, Lake Perris, Riverside, and Santa Ana. Many of these families have been, for the most part, alone with the knowledge of the horrific reality of their loved ones in the SHU. Only now, with the July hunger strike and support actions, have they come together, joined by others from many sections of society with one voice to demand an end to the long-term isolation and torture.
They told how their loved ones' spirits had been lifted to learn of the protests on the outside and the publicity about the cruel and unusual punishment in the SHU reaching the public at large.
A former Pelican Bay SHU prisoner spoke about his experience in the SHU, including how he watched other prisoners literally go insane. He told people the only way he kept his sanity was that he had a release date, as opposed to an indefinite SHU term. He said he had to be out here for his friends and all those in the SHU today.
One family member who has been extremely active from the beginning of the hunger strike has repeatedly told her story of being denied the right to visit her son for the past 16 years that he's been in the SHU! But on August 1 she announced that prison authorities have suddenly granted her request, and she was going to travel to Pelican Bay that weekend to visit her son!
Leading into the International Day of Protest, on Saturday, July 30, a group of family members and others were offered an information table by the organizers of L.A. Rising, a remarkable musical event that featured Rage Against the Machine, at the L.A. Coliseum. These family members spoke with hundreds of people about the hunger strike at Pelican Bay and California state prisons, the five core demands, and the upcoming International Day of Protest. This was an extraordinary opportunity to reach thousands of progressive and radical young (and not so young!) people.
New York City
A group of people from World Can't Wait and distributors of Revolution newspaper gathered at Union Square determined to involve many more to protest and stand in solidarity with the prison hunger strikers. Over the course of 90 minutes, dozens of people stopped to sign letters to California Governor Brown and Secretary Matthew Cate of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, urging them to grant the prisoners' demands; and a number picked up signs and joined us. A particularly dynamic role was played by youth who were passing by and joined the protest. Two South Asian high school students from the Bronx joined us and made up and led chants on the spot. They shouted out, "Torture is a crime against humanity, that is the reality, take a stand in solidarity." A young intern with World Can't Wait talked to about 25 people while gathering signatures for the letters. He reported that many of the people thanked us for being out there.
We held up a banner in support of the Prison Hunger Strike and passed out leaflets to the evening rush hour crowd. People read the five demands, statements of support for the hunger strike, and chanted "Stop Torture in U.S. Prisons" and "Solitary Confinement is Torture."
On August 1, a group of us went to the federal building downtown and unfurled a banner that read: No To U.S. Torture, Here and Everywhere! Support the Demands of the Prison Hunger Strikers!
After staying there for an about an hour, we marched to a busier section of town and did chants in support of the prison hunger strikers. The part of town that we ended up with is in a busy part of city, where there is a lot of tourists and stores. Somebody agitated on the bullhorn about why we were out there and this got attention. People listened to what we were saying about the conditions of the prisoners and others came up to understand more what we were talking about. Some people were shocked about what was going on in the prison. When we explained the conditions in the prisons such as solitary confinement and what that looks like, one woman was listening intently. When we told her that there are people who have been held in these conditions for decades, her jaw dropped. Some people told us that if people didn't want to be tortured they shouldn't go to prison. We replied that no matter what people have done they shouldn't be tortured. When we framed it that way, some people changed what they thought We had an enlarged version of the demands. In making these demands known, people get more of a sense of what the conditions in prison are really like. Some people also had copies of Revolution issue #241, "Prisoners at Pelican Bay End Hunger Strike, The Struggle Continues." This issue had a good centerfold that explained how the real criminals are presidents like Bush and Obama that have started illegitimate wars of aggressions, sanctioned torture, etc.
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