Occupy San Quentin
I jumped in my car and headed for downtown Oakland, Oscar Grant Plaza, a.k.a. Frank Ogawa Plaza, 14th and Broadway. There is no traffic on I-880 but I see many police out on the streets. It’s President’s Day—Lincoln and Washington’s, and while the two dead presidents find a place of agreement in this national discourse—there is still no place for me and many of you at the collective bargaining table where we might share a meal consisting of human rights. The entree is served, yet, it is returned to the kitchen untouched
What a waste.
I’m sure Oakland city officials were happy Occupy Oaklanders were headed out of town—tax dollars coming out of the pockets of another constituency for a change, San Rafael citizens. As we played musical buses, hopping from one to another until we found the right fit, we then settled in for the jaunt across the Richmond Bridge. Riding with an official observer, members of a conscious rap group –a cool guy with crackers and dip he shared, a photographer and a videographer—we were on the smaller of the luxury vehicles, no bathroom, but the go-go pole was there, bar and ceiling mirrors.
When we arrived in Marin, we immediately saw the men in blue blocking freeway entrances, parked along the road and approaching us on motorcycles. At the prison, guards stood in formation—I don’t know what they expected, an attack? Did we look stupid? Led by seasoned activists, programmers from Frank Ogawa or Oscar Grant Plaza to San Quentin, we were not interested in an Alcatraz adventure. Kevin Epps’s film The Black Rock showed us this historic impossibility, as we recalled the American Indian Movement’s successful Occupation of The Rock, a political move reenacted each Thanksgiving Day which technically returned the land to its original inhabitants.
The plan Monday was not to feed anyone to the visible and invisible sharks surrounding us.
We were surrounded on land, in the air and probably at sea. There was no getting away, and so only the foolish tried to stir up trouble, some of these fools walking along with me back to the buses as cops on motor bikes sped by us in a show of blue force. These white kids were taunting the police without regard to the fact that the police had the advantage and could with little to no provocation shoot us or at least shoot me, the lone darkie in the lot. I thought about Police Relations 101: Do not provoke them. Whenever possible ignore them, act as if they do not exist. The young adults walking with me wouldn’t shut up. They couldn’t pass by a cop without commenting . . . shouting at them as they alternately ate snacks and sauntered along the road. It was as if they were at a movie, as though Occupy Oakland had not survived multiple police attacks supported by Mayor Quan and City Hall. Spokespersons called the names of several Oakland Occupiers incarcerated and awaiting sentencing or trials. There were even wounded persons and a casualty –weren’t these people listening? If we could get killed or nearly killed at home, what about violence abroad.
Throughout the afternoon, moderators had to stop and spell out to those present the importance of civility—do not trash the neighborhood, use the rental porta potties secured for the occasion, be polite and respectful, because if anything was stirred up, many of those on stage and in the audience would not make if back home.
Dorsey said they had no strikes (as in three strikes) left, many speakers out of prison based on legal representation from organizations like the Habeas Project. I was so happy to hear from a representative from a community behind bars which often goes unaddressed, that is, the mentally ill. The speaker, Daniel Hazen from PsychRights and U.S. Human Rights Network, recalled his treatment inside and the plight of those he left behind: forced treatment including shock therapy. May 5 is a boycott of mental health system and the American Psychiatric Associations latest label bible: DSM 5. What is “normal”? See Facebook: Boycott Normal.
This nationwide call to Occupy Prisons is a response to the prisoners’ call for inclusion in the overall discussion of 99 percent demands. Kevin Cooper, a prisoner at San Quentin currently on death row, states in the cover story in Occupied Oakland Tribune, dated Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, that the capitalist system needs a portion of American citizenry to be left out of the loop to “have not,” for there to be those that “have.” He says, “Those people who are truly the ‘Haves’ within this country have not made it to death row. For the most part, they never have and never will. America has a deep seeded philosophy in which it only allows for the execution of its poorest people. These seeds have taken root and have grown in such a way that no person whom this system sees as a ‘Have-Not’ is safe from its death machine whether they are within [San Quentin], or on a BART platform.
“It seems that the 1 percent [is] immune from the sentence of death, even when [its] policies in war or peace, have killed untold numbers of people around the world” (7).
It was clear as the day progressed that there was clearly no separation between the plight of those behind bars in maximum security and that of those in the East Yard. If anything, the difference was perhaps in urgency, such as those on death row or prisoners serving sentences over 25 years or a life sentence without the possibility of parole— We heard from prisoners who’d been locked up since 13, 14 and 15 years old. We might all be part of the 99 percent, but it is clear that those imprisoned or trapped behind enemy lines are in another kind of hell. It is off the chart . . . the fire is that hot.
When Occupy Oakland arrived all four bus loads of us, those present before us clapped and cheered. There were children, youth and adults at the rally estimated at about 1500 strong at one point during the three hour event which began at about 12 noon. A few familiar faces were absent, like Boots Riley, a spokesperson for the Occupy Oakland movement. Perhaps he was out of town. But I saw Judy whom I first met organizing for women prisoner’s rights through Catholic Charities. I also saw Tiyesha Meroe and Citizen Payne, organizers with the Oscar Grant Movement and the Prison Abolition Movement. Claude Marks, Freedom Archives, spoke about the plight of Puerto Rican activists held inside U.S. prisons. Elder Freeman, All of Us or None, was also present, despite the recent loss of his daughter and her funeral just last week. He didn’t speak, however, his presence was not unrecognized as Dorsey and others that afternoon did roll call.
Endorsed by Angela Y. Davis, All of Us or None, Elaine Brown, Critical Resistance, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Kevin Cooper Defense Committee, Oscar Grant Committee, Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu Jamal, STW Legacy Network and others, many people spoke whom I’d seen last at the State Capital when we gathered for the Public Hearing called by Rep. Tom Ammiano on Secured Housing Units of SHUs.
The program started with sacred prayers from First Nation members: Lenny Foster and young drummers. The speaker called us to think of loved ones locked behind enemy walls. Morning Star Gali read a statement sent by Leonard Peltier. Mumia Abu Jamal sent a recorded message which was on point as usual. One could not help but think about comrade George Jackson and the San Quentin Six, three standing with us at the East Gate. Toward the end of the program Willie Sundiata Tate spoke, along with Luis Talamantez. David Johnson was on stage but didn’t speak. Sundi spoke about Hugo L.A. Pinell (Yogi) who has been in solitary confinement for 40 years, the last 12-plus in Pelican Bay’s SHU and the need to release him. 66 years old, Pinell has not had a disciplinary write up in over 30 years. Ruchell Cinque Magee, sole survivor, though wounded, of the 1970 courthouse escape, is serving his 50th year in Corcoran even though he has not been convicted of any physical assaults or murders. Fleeta Drumgo along with Luis and Sundi, was released. He was killed after his release though. Johnny Spain, the only one of the six defendants convicted of murder was released in 1988; David Johnson was convicted of assault and later released.
(Elaine Brown, classical trained pianist, former chairperson of the Black Panther party, writer and activist, told us the story Michael "Lil B" Lewis which she chronicles in The Condemnation of Little B. She is Executive Director of the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee, supporting the legal appeal of Lewis("Little B"), who, arrested in 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of 13 for a murder he did not commit, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.)
Some of the most eloquent speakers were the formerly incarcerated. One woman spoke about how solitary confinement made it so she felt uncomfortable when around large crowds of people whom she didn’t know. “I don’t want you to think I am antisocial, but this is what prison did to me. I was released in 2009.” Another woman spoke about her brother who has been in the SHU for years. There are organizing meetings still held in solidarity with inmates in Pelican Bay SHU.
Emcees Linda Evans and Dorsey Nunn, alternating with Barbara Becnel, kept the program going. At one point Dorsey shared a poem. One could see the past catching up with many persons outside the prison, as Dorsey spoke of once being on the inside of those walls, while many of us relived Tookie Williams’s killing by lethal injection that cold evening early morning December 12-13, 2005.
I’d been looking forward to standing in solidarity with the imprisoned among us, those men, women and children who are under maximum security lockdown—the family members we never see, hardly hear from and if we are not vigilant, easiest to forget about since they are literally absent or removed from view. Occupy Prisons Monday, Feb. 20, 2012 says to the imprisoned –out of sight is not out of mind.
San Quentin State Penitentiary is located in one of the wealthiest counties in Northern California, San Rafael. It sits on the beach with a magnificent view. It is a figurative oasis, a perfect place for reflection and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, those behind the concrete walls and steel bars never see the sea, hear the birds or contemplate the space along the horizon where sea and sky meet, the blue overhead indistinguishable from the one below.
All this landscape going to waste. Whose idea was it to put a prison on a beach? Whose idea was it to fill the central valley with prisons—
Instead of food we grow plantations where the black people, brown, Indigenous and poor people, the weak and the vulnerable are enslaved.
Prison visits even when one doesn’t go inside, takes a toll on one’s spirit. It took me almost an entire weekend to recover from Atwater and though I know the energy we brought to San Quentin and to other prisons on this National Occupy Prisons Day was a positive one, it is still a negative space—and no matter how many gardens one plants in hell the fire burns it down as little victories like those concessions made to hunger strikers last summer rapidly continue to evaporate into the thin air they are written on as weeks and months pass, the central demands still unaddressed.
The plight of the Palestinians was shared and parallels drawn. Some of the more eloquent speakers were the three hikers, Sara Shourd, Josh Fattal, and Shane Bouer, who spent over a year imprisoned in Iran charged as spies. Deirdre Wilson (CCWP) spoke about losing her children while incarcerated and the fact that her family had money, and hired a private attorney for her was the reason why she was out today. Tati Session, a youth who spent considerable time in a juvenile jail, part of it in solitary confinement, spoke eloquently about regaining her power. She also spoke of how so many youth are not aware of their rights when arrested or detained and that more needs to be done about this. Her comments were directed at the youth, but included the elders whom she stated the youth should not alienate themselves from.
The program was divided into sections: “Abolish Unjust Sentences” with comments from people who have served or have received the Death Penalty, LWOP, 3 Strikes, and Children Tried as Adults like Veronica Hernandez’s statement. She is in SF County Jail, William Noguera’s statement, and Kevin Cooper’s statement: “We Dissent.” Another section was: “Abolish Inhumane Conditions” with statements from Mumia Abu Jamal, Grace Lawrence, a statement from Robert King, Angola 3, a poem by Alisha Coleman; “Demand tax dollars used for development of people not prisons” with statements from Deirdre Wilson about women in prison and the SVP closure. Statement from Jane Dorotik, CIW; Steve Champion’s Statement read by Jack Bryson and a rap by Jabari Shaw and his posse.
Each of the statements was read by someone present that day. These powerful voices, many new to the listening audience, were greeted warmly by those present, while over the fence or gate where the prison guards also listened and videotaped the protest, I am sure they too were moved, we hoped moved to treat the men they encountered later that afternoon more humanely. Jack Bryson, lead organizer in the Oscar Grant Movement, a movement that galvanized Bay Area in a people’s movement which pushed the California judicial system for justice. Jack shared that before January 1, 2009, he wasn’t politically active or engaged in the judicial or civic process. What happened on that BART platform where his sons saw their friend shot to death changed his life forever. Similarly, what happened to many Occupiers in Oakland, changed their lives forever as well; police brutality tends to have that kind of effect on a person.
As one of the go-to persons Monday morning and throughout the day and afternoon, bundled up against the cold, Jack smiled at me as we parted ways once again at Oscar Grant Plaza at 5:30 p.m. as he noted: “We didn’t have any incidences or violence. Everything went smoothly.”
I agreed. Everything certainly went smoothly. As I was leaving the prison finally away from those fools who might have gotten me shot, I saw Emory Douglas and he introduced me to an artist, who is working on a project in the Tenderloin which is depicting a critique of war as the antithesis to peace. I saw Gerald and others like Gloria La Riva from the ANSWER Coalition. Earlier I’d witnessed devorah major still the crowd with three powerful poems early on in the program. Visit http://wn.com/ANSWER_Coalition_Speaker
Gerardo Hernandez, from Victorville Penitentiary, one of the Cuban 5 sent a message which was read by one of the programmers. He writes: “We know firsthand about the injustice inherent in the US judicial system. In our case we are serving long sentences for defending our country against terrorist attacks by monitoring groups whose whole existence is to carry out violent acts against Cuba. It is those behind bars [who] help bring about a more humane society that provides jobs, housing, education and opportunity instead of incarceration. A big embrace to you all. Venceremos!” Visit http://www.thecuban5.org/wordpress/index.php
Sister Elaine Brown sang us home after the rally. Prompted by Sister Becnel, she continued an earlier except of Oh Freedom. She’d mentioned the soundtrack for past revolutionary movements. I don’t think we have one for these current skirmishes, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t assemble a songbook, even if this means pulling out compilations for review. Music was a part of the program, but for some reason, we only heard one song. Despite the intellectual heaviness of the day or the absence of food, unless one packed a lunch, people remained attentive. It was a beautiful bay area day—sunny, warm and pleasant, a perfect day to Occupy San Quentin.
There were several “people mic checks” built into the program where voices amplified repeated affirmations loudly so that perhaps prisoners might hear us inside despite the many layers of brick and cement and steel separating us.
Tuesday, February 21, we are to call Governor Jerry Brown (916) 445-2841. Visit http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/how-to-support-150000-calls-in-support-of-the-hunger-strike-drive/
Also http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/yourleg.html (for local representative contact information)
Sample Phone Script
Hello, my name is________________________ and I am a resident of CA. I am calling in support of the hunger strike that spread across California’s prison system. Thousands of prisoners went on hunger strike in July and Sept./Oct. to protest torturous and inhumane conditions in Security Housing and Administrative Segregation Units in California prisons. I strongly urge you to:
1. Visit Security Housing Units (SHUs) and Administrative Segregation Unit is (Ad-Seg) and speak to prisoners who participated in the hunger strike;
2. Attend any informational meetings or legislative hearings about prison conditions and the hunger strike where the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition may be presenting;
3. Hold the CDCR to its commitment to the hunger strikers by revising the regulations in a meaningful way;
4. Demand that CDCR treat the prisoners as stakeholders in its process to develop these regulations;
5. Vote for the repeal of the prison media ban (AB 1270)
Demand that Romaine Fitzgerald be released immediately!
42 + years in captivity is too long! http://freechip.org
Demand Leonard Peltier be released immediately!
36+ years in captivity is too long! http://www.leonardpeltier.net
Demand that Hugo Yogi Pinnel be released immediately!
44+ years in captivity is too long! http://www.hugopinell.org
Demand that Lynn Stewart be released immediately!
Sentenced to 10 years on trump charges, an obvious attempt by the US government to silence dissent, curtail vigorous defense lawyers, at 70 years of age, a 10 year sentence is a death sentence http://lynnstewart.org
Demand that Oscar Lopez Rivers be released immediately!
29 + years in captivity and counting is too long! http://boricuahumanrights.org/free-oscar-lopez-rivera/
Party for Socialism and Liberation present Robert F. Williams and Black Power in the film, Negroes with Guns (53 min. 2005)
This Public Film and Discussion is Friday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m., 2969 Mission Street, between 25th and 26th Street, in San Francisco. Visit PSLweb.org or call (415) 821-6171.
Racism, Austerity, and the Struggle for Public Education
Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 p.m. in the Student Center. Visit www.socialistworker.org and www.norcalsocialism.org
A Talk by Carl Dix: Mass Incarceration + Silence = Genocide
Carl Dix is a longtime revolutionary and a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist party. In 1970, he was a part of the largest mass refusal of U.S. soldiers to go to Vietnam. In 1996, he cofounded the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. Another founding member is Sheba Makeda Haven. This date is also the day the Black Panther Party was founded.) In 2006, he coordinated the Katrina Hearings of the Bush Crimes Commission. Recently he participated in a series of dialogues with Cornel West under the themes: In the Age of Obama: Police Terror; Incarceration; No Jobs; Mis-Education. . . What Future for Our Youth? In 2011, he co-issued a call for a campaign of civil disobedience to STOP Stop and Frisk.
He will speak Wednesday, February 29 at 6:30 p.m. in the Maude Fife Room, Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley. For information contact, Revolution Books, 2425 Channing Way, Berkeley, (510) 848-1196 email@example.com
OCCUPY Follow-up Event
Another Occupy 4 Prisoners Event, March 1, 2012, 7 p.m. at Grand Lake Theatre, Broken on All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration and New Visions for Criminal Justice in the U.S. $10 donation requested, no one turned away. All proceeds for Occupy 4 Prisoners. Visit occupy4prisoners.org
MARCH 5 to Sacramento to Protest Cuts
March 1, local actions. March 5 all out on Sacramento to protest the Dec. 13 approval of $1 billion in further cuts to K-12 schools; $100 million in cuts to developmental services and in-home support for seniors and the disabled; $102 million to community colleges; $100 million in cuts to CSUs and UCs; $15.9 million to local libraries and $8.6 million in cuts to Medi-Cal. Visit www.AgainstCuts.org or mail@AgainstCuts.org
May 1, 2012 General Strike
Visit www.occupymay1.org also (323) 250-MAY1 and firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Announcements Continued
Free Khader Adnan: 65th Day of Hunger Strike Week of Action: February 19-26. Free all political prisoners and end Israeli aparthied. Meet at the Israeli consulate: 456 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco, today, Tuesday, February 21, 4-7 p.m.