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Interview with Bo Brown

459130_183992215060144_1638270763_oBo Brown did time in the late seventies for robbing banks with the George Jackson Brigade. Since her release, she’s been living in Oakland and working in many ways to support prisoner struggles. Most recently, she’s been focusing on working with women who’re getting out after long sentences. Folks are currently working on a new documentary film about her life. Read more about that here: http://gentlemanbankrobber.tumblr.com/about

Recorded May 11th, in Portland, OR. Download (right click and save file)

Interviewer: So who are you, what do you do, and how long have you been doing it?
Bo Brown: So my name is Bo Brown.. um.. I’m 66 years old.. um.. I was a political prisoner for eight years.. in the late seventies. I got out in ’86.. I did time for bank robbery, associated with the George Jackson Brigade, which was an underground revolutionary organization in the Pacific Northwest, based in Seattle. And what I do now is I am working currently with Families With a Future, which is about to become a new non-profit in the bay area and myself and my sister Ida McCray are working with ten women, all of whom have done more than 20 years, three of them for killing their abuser, and none of them are white. And we have a little program that’s actually originated through Ida’s job, working for the women’s resource center, which is connected to the San Francisco county jail.. and we meet with them every two weeks. We’re actually there two days a week, in case anybody wants to stop in–well, she’s there every day, but I’m there two days a week–and we.. women have so little in resources compared to men that they always, they don’t have clothes, they don’t have food, they don’t have.. you know, when you’re locked up that long, you can’t just come home and understand what the hell the BART train is, because the BART train didn’t exist before you went to prison. So Ida gets food at this place, there’s this group called SAGE, I don’t remember exactly what that stands for, but they get food, leftover food from a series of kind of bougie-ass restaurants in San Francisco. And we actually get it delivered there twice a week. And I think it’s enough for, usually it’s enough for three or four days of food. And it might be anything from, like, we had goat the other day. Woman’s like, “what the fuck does goat taste like?” “Here, taste this!” So I brought a bunch of containers and we got plastic forks and spoons, and stuff like that, people can eat there, we also encourage them to take food with them. ‘Cause my number one rule is ‘no one is allowed to be hungry’. And um, it’s so expensive to live in San Francisco. Two of the women went the other day—(dog jumps on her lap, “Oh, get off me!”) … Well, there’s two. There’s two sets. One is living with her sister who took care of her kids while she was in prison. Nine people are now living in a one bedroom apartment. Well, she’s trying to get out of that apartment. She’s not on parole any longer, which is good, because otherwise she could not live with her sister who is also on GA. Um, two women went and looked at a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco the other day and it was $4000 a month.
Interviewer:  Yeah..
Bo Brown: So.. affordable housing is not a reality.
Interviewer:  And tell me why you think this work is important.
Bo Brown: Because these women, they have no idea where they are. Well, especially for the ones who are the battered women, because they were under the old law. When they put in a battered women’s defense clause in the state of CA in the criminal codes or whatever the hell you call that, they did not make that retroactive.  These women today would only be doing maybe ten years. One of them’s done 26, one of them’s done 24, one of them did 18.. The one who did 18 was 17 years old when she went to prison, now she’s 35. She does not even know how to live as an adult in this world. A lot of them actually have girlfriends, more than probably half of them. They don’t want to live with men anymore. Which is also an interesting phenomenon. They just don’t, you know. Too much trauma.

Interviewer:  What sort of suggestions do you have for those folks who do prisoner support work? What strategies or directions would you like to see folks take in the future?
Bo Brown: I would like to see people who are working with long-term offenders not to try to run their lives. These women are not stupid. They lived together in a knifers unit [??] many of them for 20 plus years, they know each other, they have respect for each other, and they’ve taken every program that the prison had to offer. They could teach the classes, actually. What they don’t know is what planet they’re on. I mean the thing that happens a lot is people want to kind of like take them over, and make them their children kinda. These are real women. The only thing you need to say to them is “Thank you for taking out the trash. I’m sorry I could not be there to help you.”
[dog welcoming someone]
Interviewer:  So a follow-up question to that.. it sounds like what you’re saying is that for people who are doing prisoner support work, that they really need to take the lead from prisoners themselves?
Bo Brown: Yes.
Interviewer:  So how might they do that? What are some suggestions that you have?
Bo Brown: Take them to the store. Give them money. Feed ’em. Get ‘em clothes. They don’t have clothes. They don’t have clothes.
Interviewer:  Alright. And as you may know, on September 9th, prisoners across the states are organizing and trying to have a national mobilization, so some of them are doing hunger strikes, some of them are doing work stoppages, to end solitary confinement. First of all, what do you think the outcome of that is going to be?
Bo Brown: Well. It depends on how long they can maintain it. The state is going to ignore them in the beginning. Cause they just always think prisoners are weak pieces of shit. But if they can do it a long time.. and these prisoners are pretty smart by now, they’ve done this a lot , you know. Just like when you’re sick in prison, you sign your medical stuff over to somebody, you can do that when you’re getting ready to go on hunger strike. Cause they’re going to try to force-feed them. They tried that last time. And they killed somebody. ‘Cause if you struggle and that tube perforates your esophagus, you’re dead. They’re not gonna go in there and fix that.
Interviewer:  And so what can we do now as supporters to aid that mobilization?
Bo Brown: Set up your networks now. You got a couple months to do that, right? So when they say go, you can go. And follow the direction of the prisoners. It’s not. Your. Strike. It’s their strike. You know, use your little websites, use your like.. you guys got the fancy computers, you got the communication system. That’s your job, I think, is to get the word out there. You know, put it in the world. Put it on YouTube. Put it on whatever the hell. Send it around the world. Because there’s already a lawsuit, I believe, if I remember correctly, I think there’s a lawsuit.. I think Dennis Cunningham is the one working on a lawsuit that has to do around long-term solitary confinement and conditions and stuff like that. And I’d find more information out about that. And you know, use your information.. this is your tool, this is your power here, your computer. You guys know how to do that. Some prisoners know how to do that, but most of them do not. You know, if they get $400-500 to pay some guard to bring them a cellphone, they can learn how to do that, right? Which is what happened now in Georgia.
Interviewer:  And tell me why you think it’s important to take the lead from prisoners.
Bo Brown: Because it’s their world. It’s their oppression, not yours. It’s their pain, not yours. You’re an ally, not a prisoner.
Interviewer:  How can we include prison populations that might not already be involved in these nation-wide struggles…
Bo Brown: Well if they have.. They need to have the information so that they can make a choice about what they want to do where they live. I mean, that’s the thing. A lot of them don’t have access to the information.
Interviewer:  And what about fostering resistance in places where people think resistance doesn’t happen? Like, women’s prisons, detention centers for undocumented folks..?
Bo Brown: Well it happens in women’s prisons. Women in Chowchilla had a small hunger strike last time. I mean the thing is that when women do stuff it doesn’t get any attention. Like when Attica happened, there were women all over this country who went and shut down a day, the day after Attica. But people don’t know that. And in that Vicki Laws book, there’s a few instances of that. Where she talks about that.
Interviewer:  And for the new person who might be listening, how can someone new get involved in prison support work?
Bo Brown: Find out who might be doing prisoner support work where you live, in your area. read these websites. Hook up with people. You have to search, you have to work. It’s not just going to fall from the sky on your head. Or be in your ice cream cone as a surprise or something. (laughing) “Ooh! Here I am!”
Interviewer:  Cool. Is there anything else you’d like to add, um, maybe to the new person, or just anything else about prisoner support work that you think is important?
Bo Brown: Well, I think that the other thing that needs to happen especially around women is, women have no resources. None. Like these women don’t have shoes. They don’t have underwear. They don’t have socks. They don’t have bras. They don’t have shit. They give them $200 and that’s it. How far is $200 going to last you in the world that you just dropped into?
Interviewer:  In some states they don’t give them any money.
Bo Brown: They don’t give any money?
Interviewer:  Right. Uh-uh. No. In Colorado I don’t know the [??] but I know it’s much less than two hundred bucks. And I know that in other states, it’s zero.
Bo Brown: Maybe it’s even based on how much time you get, I don’t know. I mean in California for the long-termers you’re supposed to get $200. But one of these women, that we were just talking about, she went out to court, and so she didn’t have any money, they didn’t send her anything because she was on a court-out. She was not going home. But when she went to court the judge modified her sentence and said, ‘Okay, 26 years is enough. We’re letting you go today.’ She had nothing. She had nothing. She had nothing! You cannot be in the bay area with nothing.
Bo Brown: And that’s, you know, we’re gonna start a.. Families With a Future is going to be a new non-profit. We’ll be looking for donations, i mean one of the things that me and Ida try to do is.. well, one, we feed them, and we hustle all our friends for socks and food and whatever the hell we can get. But if we had a little fund where we could give them a hundred bucks every couple months, and actually take them shopping.. and not tell them what to buy, but take them shopping..
Interviewer:  Right. And do you have a website?
Bo Brown: We’re gonna be building one pretty soon. All that’s in process.
Interviewer:  So again, look for Families for a future?
Bo Brown: Families With a future.
Interviewer: With a Future.
Bo Brown: And when we get that, we’ll give that to you guys and you can put that on your website.
Interviewer: Okay. That would be great. Anything else you want to add?
Bo Brown: Nah.
Interviewer: Okay. Thanks!