A call to end slavery in America: September 9 National Prisoner Work Stoppage

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Prisoners on strike in Huntsville, Alabama, May 2016

On September 9, Prisoners Across the US Will Strike for Their Lives

We’ve been told by social theorists that we are living in the time of riots and uprisings. But on September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion, prisoners across the country hope to employ a different tactic, calling instead for a strike.

This strike is slated to be the largest in prison history, with actions planned in at least 20 states, and has been a long time in the making, preceded by work stoppages in Georgia in 2010 and Alabama in 2014 and earlier this year. The text that set it off was released last fall by the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a national organization against incarceration, called “Let The Crops Rot in the Fields”, which encourages inmates and their supporters to disrupt prisons at their economic core. The official strike announcement, released this past April, declares:

This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.


As communication infrastructure can be difficult to establish behind bars, the text has been widely circulated in prisons across the country with the help of outside networks. FAM has teamed up with other organizations like the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World), the Free Ohio Movement, the Free Mississippi Movement and the New Underground Railroad Movement to help organize the strike, which has been additionally endorsed by a number of organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild.

While labor stoppages might be considered an anachronistic tool of the labor movement, they are actually quite innovative in the case of incarcerated people, who are rarely thought of as workers at all, despite the fact that the fact that nearly half of the US prison population toils for mere pennies, often for corporations like McDonald's, Victoria’s Secret, and (until recently) Whole Foods. In California, around fifty percent of wildland firefighters are incarcerated, saving the state $1 billion per year. Meanwhile, mainstream labor unions including AFSCME, SEIU and the Teamsters Union, actively represent the interests of police and prisons guards across the country, making clear that the September 9 strike will not simply be an attempt to improve working conditions, but an attack against the prison industrial complex itself.

Melvin Ray, a co-founder of FAM who was in solitary confinement for a year after helping organize the 2014 prison strike, recently said in a Skype interview from inside prison:

These corporations that are using this prison labor, this slave labor, they finance political action committees, they finance politicians, they make sure people are in office that will pass the kind of laws they need passed to gain access to this free labor pool. And so when you look at this labor pool, you realize it’s nothing but a corporation. It’s a corporation that’s based off of the same principles that slavery was before the 13th amendment, except there are different people in control. And it all runs through the state now.

This strike comes on the heels of widespread organizing and rebellion against state violence and police killings. And the state seems to have superficially begun to respond: in the past few weeks alone, the Department of Justice has called to end bail for poor people and to stop contracting to private prisons. Meanwhile, however, public prisons and detention centers proliferate under inherently inhumane conditions.

Organizing in prison requires immense resources and is incredibly risky for those already locked up. But as Ray said, “There’s always a possibility of repression… I have a choice to make, I can either sit back and be scared of the system and not allow my voice to be heard, or I can put my voice out there and prepare myself to deal with whatever consequences may come along with that.”

Below, you’ll find some suggestions for how to support the strike and learn more about the political economy of prisons, convict labor, and the history of organizing behind bars. Let’s get cracking.

How To Get Involved

On August 26-28th, a Midwest activist convergence in Columbus, Ohio, Bend the Bars, will provide a space to plan for the strike and strategize about how to build beyond September 9. The convergence will end in a demonstration in downtown Columbus.

Many prisoner solidarity groups are holding regular letter writing nights leading up to 9th, which help spread the word to prisoners about the strike and are crucial in building and maintaining ties between those on the inside and those on the outside.

On September 9, noise demonstrations outside prisons and jails across the country will show solidarity for people on strike, build relationships among activists, and pressure prisons and policy makers into making concessions. As Ray says: “This is where the issues are. This is where the people are incarcerated. And so this is where we want the activism. This is where we want the energy and the people.” Plus, there are few things more moving than witnessing prisoners shout and bang on windows; it’s a sharp reminder of all the vibrant life that remains encaged and the power of forging connections that were never supposed to exist.

Here is just a sampling of specific upcoming events and solidary actions; many more are listed on itsgoingdown.org:

New York:


Oakland:

  • September 9th: BBQ to make banners, discuss strike, and watch a film about the Attica uprising.

  • September 10th: Rally and march on corporations profiting from prison labor and in solidarity with prison strike.


Los Angeles:


If you can’t make it to an event, consider publicly supporting the strike on social media, encouraging your organizations to support the strike, and donating to key groups like the Free Alabama Movement, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or Fight2Live (F2L) “an emerging support network for queer and trans people of color who are currently incarcerated or have pending legal charges in New York.”

Additional Reading

Let The Crops Rot in the Fields, by the Free Alabama Movement.

Foundational text of the September 9, 2016 strike.


“My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” by Shane Bauer.

Bauer went undercover in Winnfield, Louisiana, providing incredibly brave insight into the other world of workers who help keep prisons running—prison guards.  


Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

A new classic in theorizing prisons from a Marxist perspective, showing how prisons aren’t merely an outcome of racism, but help reproduce it as part of a political economic project.


Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, by Victoria Law.

Law documents the robust and often forgotten history of organized resistance and daily struggles of people in women’s prisons.


Dixie Be Damned: 300 Year of Insurrection in the American South, by Neil Shirley and Saralee Stafford.

This lively history of rebellions includes tales of Maroon communities, resistance against convict leasing, and the 1975 revolt at North Carolina Correctional Center for Women.


Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Heather Ann Thompson.

Just released, Thompson’s deft history has already received widespread attention from mainstream media for naming previously anonymous state troopers and prison guards responsible for killing inmates in this infamous standoff.

 

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