Solidarity with Historic Prisoner Hunger Strike

When 30,000 prisoners go on hunger strike and work stoppage against solitary confinement, how are revolutionaries on the outside to respond?

Reflections on Saturday’s rally from two members of Left Party, Bay Area chapter.

CORCORAN, California

Organized by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, Saturday’s mass pilgrimage to Corcoran State Prison drew several hundred former prisoners, activists, and strikers’ family members — sometimes, all wrapped up in one determined person.  From across the state, we convened on the prison’s outskirts in a scorching miasma of hundred-and-two heat and dust, armed with bullhorns, handmade banners, slogans, sandwiches, and prayers.  Such a historic feat of prison organizing deserves attention, media, deserves to be amplified and shared on the outside.  In a prison system where even minor ‘infractions’ can land one in the SHU (Special Housing Unit, or solitary confinement, an internationally recognized form of torture), thousands of people locked up in California’s prisons are courageously risking health, humiliation, and further dehumanization in pursuit of the five demands at the center of the strike:

  1. End group punishment and administrative abuse.

  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify gang status criteria.

  3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement.

  4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.

  5. Expand or provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

As “scientific socialists” (nourished by utopian visions and spurred at times, we readily admit, by intuition a.k.a. our hearts), we constantly ask ourselves how we can better strategize within working-class struggles for a free society.  It is a question borne of love and guided by listening.  What is the best way forward?

When it comes to the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), some socialists may deem it most strategic to sideline or back-burner the struggles of prisoners in the U.S.  After all, they are part of the “lumpen proletariat” — the unemployed and highly marginalized sector that is not poised, as are other strata of the working class, to mobilize dead-on challenges to capital, the bourgeoisie, the owning classes, and the state.

If I Died, Would They Care?

Poet and historian of slavery Gale P. Jackson writes, “If you can serve, then you can poison.”

Her Tituba-inspired insight echoes the dialectical Marxist perspective that on a broad scale, the bourgeoisie “produces its own grave-diggers”: growing reliant on the exploited proletariat class. But does this dynamic apply in the PIC?  Prisoners obviously bolster the business of captivity (a business whose profitability might either be continuing to surge or teetering on the brink of decline, a question that warrants close watching).  But do inmates “serve” the system directly enough to poison it?  Or is their contribution more oblique, more chillingly dispensable?  As the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reminds us, “Since the European colonization of North America, Black life has been disposable.”  We’re hardly eager for another wave of bloody proof.

The very tactic of a hunger strike relies on popular sympathy, betting on mass rage and mobilization in the event of a participant’s endangerment or death.  Given the constant affirmations of anti-Black racism and criminalization in this country (Zimmerman’s acquittal being only a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg), this seems like quite a gamble.  How can we help but fear the worst: people sacrificing their lives in vain, laying their bodies at the feet of an unprepared and thoroughly indoctrinated public.  If a portion of our brethren were to sacrifice their lives fighting for less torturous conditions, would prison lobbies simply harvest a new crop of human primitive accumulation, a new “offender population” to feed the maw of lockup? It’s a terrifying thought, but one that we must squarely face.

Despite its urgency as a political matter, the prisoner struggle will probably prove extraordinarily challenging.  At the end of the day, what is the real leverage of organized groups inside?  Can they win their struggle without widespread public support?  Without backup from organized labor able to strike, willing to wield economic power against that notorious set of flagrantly unprosecuted criminals—the bourgeoisie?

Bleak as their prospects may seem on paper, the prisoners press on.  As should we.  As a party committed to the fight for democratic rights for all, engaging in the struggles of the most oppressed sectors of society, and in recognition that some of our most powerful revolutionaries have been politicized from the inside and may be locked behind bars at this moment, we seek ways to continue supporting this fight.  There’s a reason that prisoner organizing groups take names like “All Of Us Or None.”  Such solidarity is a powerful antidote to the spiritual and psychological toxin of individualism.  It helps counteract the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist denigrations (external and internalized) that permeate the dominant culture, fueled by a capitalist economic system that wants the working class divided. All the better to exploit us.

We must face the fact that taking down the prison industrial complex necessitates nothing short of taking down the capitalist state.  Even Angela Davis and other abolitionist organizers of Critical Resistance agree on this point. Yet this cannot mean that we abandon prison solidarity efforts in favor of focusing on strategic linchpins of capital. In our current moment of low-level Left struggle, we cannot choose to ignore the fundamental role prisons play in preserving the legacy of slavery in the U.S., propagating a culture of fear and intimidation that compels our mass obedience and ensures that revolutionary organizing efforts are kept at a bare-minimum.

So where does this leave us?  What should we do?

We have no easy answers, but some inklings.  On the inside, prisoners have already demonstrated, time and again, an ability to make a way out of no way.  Even stripped of so much agency, they can be powerful, leading their own struggles for truces and reforms.  But we predict they will also need friends in “high places” on the outside— at the height of strategic organization.

Who Runs the Prisoner Disappearing Act?

Prison labor is by no means limited to the gross exploitation of those who are locked up on the inside. As Angela Davis writes in her piece, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, “The seeming effortlessness of magic always conceals an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work. When prisons disappear human beings in order to convey the illusion of solving social problems, penal infrastructures must be created to accommodate a rapidly swelling population of caged people.” What possibilities exist for organizing the multitudes of  “behind-the-scenes” workers within the various sectors that make up this penal infrastructure (e.g. prison construction, food and uniform suppliers, security technologies, furniture manufacturers, etc.)?  While organizing the prison guards union may not be at the top of our agenda, where can we look to find more realistic and strategic entry points? For instance, what about transportation workers who shuttle prisoners to and from prison sites? One cannot help but recall the powerful acts by resistance movements during the Holocaust to sabotage the railroads and cattle cars that transported the victims of Nazi persecution to the sites of their slaughter.

No Business As Usual, Stop the Cruel and Unusual

Building on these visions, we also ask: What are the possibilities for organizing work sectors that may be less immediately linked to the PIC, yet are more hyper-visible to the public eye?  Reviving an anemic labor movement could yield yet-unseen opportunities for raising awareness of the anti-PIC struggle, connecting it to broader class struggles.  For example, BART workers recently went on strike fighting for a better contract, and may strike again next month.  In the future, can we imagine them striking (or opening the gates for free) in solidarity with prisoner hunger strikers?  Longshore workers of the ILWU refused to handle South African cargo to protest apartheid, and just yesterday shut down operations to mourn the death of a fellow worker and allow time to investigate the cause of her death.  Can we imagine them shutting down the ports in honor of prisoners?

Strikes, blockades, occupations: what will it take to amplify these crashing waves of struggle?  And is the U.S. working class ready to stick our necks out for our brothers, sisters, and siblings behind bars, starving for sunlight while we ralliers on the outside melt and faint in the summer heat?

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