As A Nation Grapples With White Supremacy, The Millions For Prisoners March Comes At The Perfect Time
In the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the left’s anti-fascist response to defend that community, and the death of Heather Heyer, a rally that has been planned and organized over a two year period by imprisoned people and the grassroots prison advocacy group IAMWE offers a powerful opportunity for those looking to actively confront white supremacy.
People all over the US have responded to the violence of Charlottesville and the President’s defense of the white nationalist groups as morally equivalent to their anti-fascist opponents by taking direct action against confederate statues, most prominently with members of the World Worker’s Party including Takiyah Thompson tearing down a confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina this past week.
In such times where rupture gives rise to direct action, an event with the word “march” might seem less urgent for the left than the radical possibilities that may be available in their backyards. But Millions for Prisoners is much more than a march, and racist monuments are easier to destroy than the larger structures of white supremacy.
Although there will be a brief march, this is hardly another police friendly anti-Trump liberal march of 2017. The majority of the event will be a rally in front of the White House, featuring an amazing list of speakers including former Black Panther Party Members, a survivor of the MOVE bombing, socialists, members of the Central Park 5, activists, academics, and prison abolitionists. Their demand is the end of slavery in America — the elimination of the “exception clause” in the 13th Amendment which fatally caveats the abolition of slavery with the phrase “except as punishment for a crime.”
“The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery; it nationalized it,” Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun explains in a recent article in the SF Bay View. As one of the members of the Free Alabama Movement, Bennu has faced intense repression from the Alabama Department of Corrections due to his involvement in the call and promotion of last year’s national prison labor strike against the practice of prison slavery.
Back when incarcerated human rights advocates known as Jailhouse Laywers Speak called for the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March the notion that the exception clause of the 13th Amendment enabled a continuation of slavery was still a relatively radical notion. One that at the time was primarily discussed within radical prison abolitionist circles and among some of those who had experienced it first hand. The role of the 13th as legitimizing a state owned form of slavery was perhaps most prominent among members of, or those influenced by, the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army.
In 1970 Black Panther Afeni Shakur, one of New York’s Panther 21— who would later become mother to rap artist Tupac Shakur — penned a passionate essay from prison entitled “We Will Win,” she stated poignantly within it, “We know that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments did not liberate us — that they only legalized slavery and expanded the Dred Scott decision to include the Indians, Spanish speaking and poor whites.”
George Jackson famously referred to neo-slavery in the books he wrote in California’s prisons — Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye.
Another member of the Black Panther Party, as well as the Black Liberation Army, Jalil Muntaqim — who is still incarcerated as a political prisoner — has written extensively on, and even tried to litigate against, the 13th Amendment to challenge prison slavery practices. He even faced repression last year for teaching Black History and including a thorough examination of the 13th among students at Attica prison.
However, the 13th Amendment’s exception clause and prison slavery are no longer solely being discussed from behind the walls by Black revolutionaries. Both issues have garnered a great deal more attention in the past 12 months.
In September 2016 a massive National Prison Labor Strike was launched by a coalition of organizations including the Free Alabama Movement, IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and others coincided with the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion.
More notably to most Americans trained to ignore the protests of imprisoned people, Ava DuVernay released her Oscar nominated documentary 13th during the prison strike, bringing the voices of prominent scholars and political pundits to the topic of the “exception clause,” lending it more mainstream credibility. There have been large class action lawsuits under anti-slavery laws against two private prison companies that gave large donations to — and have received massive contracts from — the Trump administration.
The issue also became a topic of mainstream discourse when a passage from a Hillary Clinton memoir was revealed online, showing that she endorsed and benefitted from prison slavery during her time as First Lady in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion.
To highlight how these touchpoints are connecting with the growing radical and progressive left, Democratic Socialists of America — at the largest socialist organization gathering in decades — recently voted overwhelmingly to officially add prison abolition to their platform.
So what do growing anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist movements like those who defended Charlottesville against literal nazis and their white nationalist allies stand to gain from attending a rally against prison slavery?
Uhuru one of the incarcerated supporters of Millions for Prisoners, describes it as “a Coalition that is placing resistance in the form of direct action back into the Prison Resistance Movement.”
He notes that, “During the Black Power era, prison resistance was connected to the political resistance outside. Unlike now, where prison issues are viewed as distinct from outside political actions.”
“By recognizing outside and inside actions as connected strength is given to any actions. It brings the movement back full circle. The combination has the potential to disrupt all normal functioning that is government related and contributes to the people[’s] oppression.”
Uhuru speaks further of the radical possibilities noting that potential is to have “the best minds inside and out at the same table strategically planning. This has always been a major fear of the establishment.”
“Today our Prison Movement brings fears because it’s the worst nightmare version to governmental powers. Prisons are where your poorest and [most] abused are. It is also where some of the most Revolutionary minds are. These minds inside being connected to the larger movement outside guarantees to bring new energy to challenge fascism and white dominance in this country.”
“The energy in the prisons against examples like Trump have been incubating in Amerikkka gulags for decades. Marching and protesting with the Millions for Prisoners is about so much more. Education, reintroduction of the Prison Movement, and uniting groups that can move in one direction towards abolition of the Prison Industrial Slave Complex. One of our first moves in the process to abolition is to unite to amend the 13th amendment. Smash capitalism is my cry!” says Uhuru.
Dee from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, believes “the possibilities are endless.”
“We must undermine this system in order to bring it to its knees. That can not be done from one side, it’s going to take both sides. The sooner we recognize the pigs, jails, courts are all the same the quicker we can get to real more affective abolitionist work. And we should look even further beyond, to the abolition of capitalism and establishment of more equal based political system.”
Failing to show solidarity for the anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist movement against the 13th Amendment’s exception clause and the prison industrial complex also has it’s own substantial risks for the left, particularly in a climate where murderous fascists are facing less police repression than leftists who participated in direct action in during inauguration day, and seemingly in Durham this past week.
“For years, our radical movement has been too silent. They were intentionally pushed into the background by more reformist organizations. With the silence of these radical elements, came decades of stiffer prison sentences and less resistance to what was obviously a cementing of the Prison Industrial Slave Complex,” explains Dwight G who is imprisoned within the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Beyond the potential for solidarity beyond the walls, or even the radical potential for coordinated direct action that could shake the foundations of US capitalism’s most brutally fascist manifestation, there is the critical and often missed opportunity to learn from members of the revolutionary left who have survived the crippling brutality of the most fascistic and white supremacist corners of the US.
Dee from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak says he looks forward to hearing from “Robert King and Ramona Africa. Robert due to his history in prison solitary units and prison organizing as a Black Panther Party member on the prisons. Ramona due to her history as a victim of a police bombing of their home, simply for their political belief. Her story shows the lengths the police will go to silence you by outright military bombings or frame ups in court actions.” Indeed it is not every day that one has the opportunity to hear from survivors of the bombing on the MOVE house, or Black Panthers like Robert King of the Angola 3, and Mumia Abu-Jamal who will join via teleconference from inside Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy prison.
Dee also notes that he’s “anxious to hear the Central Park 5 speak,” adding “All of these individual’s situations show the web of white supremacists actions through the judicial system. A beast that has of yet to be slain.”
It has not been easy for incarcerated people to organize an event for radical people on the outside to show-up and build more power toward the radical possibilities of prison abolition. IAMWE has provided incredible grassroots leadership to bring this vision to Washington, DC without the support of corporate sponsors or non-profits that sought to water-down its mission. It is an event that promises to connect people fighting against not just prisons, but the white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism that make America’s prisons the world’s most populated. It is a beautiful act of insurgency to smash a monument to a man who fought to defend slavery, but to abolish slavery in our time would be truly revolutionary.
Millions For Prisoners Human Rights March Links:
Speakers List/Schedule of Events (DC Event)
Solidarity Demonstrations (Other Places in US)