Black Liberation and the Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex
An Interview with Rachel Herzing
Rachel Herzing lives and works in Oakland, CA, where she fights the violence of policing and imprisonment. She is a co-founder of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex and the Co-Director of the StoryTelling & Organizing Project, a community resource sharing stories of interventions to interpersonal harm that do not rely on policing, imprisonment, or traditional social services. The following interview was conducted by the True Leap Publishing Collective.
True Leap Press (TLP): Hi Rachel, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. We are excited to have you as a contributor in this inaugural edition of Propter Nos. Our publishing collective thinks the specific timing of this issue is important to highlight, as it is set to be released in the closing days of Black August. Could you possibly explain what Black August is for our readers, and why it is so important for people to recognize today?
This week we spoke with Alex about Bend the Bars conference which is taking place in Columbus OH on the weekend of August 26th-29th. This is a gathering which was called for in direct support for the September 9th national prisoner work strike, and is one of the only gatherings that we know of which explicitly centers the work of people doing direct support with incarcerated folks as opposed to NGOs and non profits. In this conversation we speak about the intentions for the conference as well touching on the prison condition in the US, the National Work Strike, and many other things.
And, to visit the news sources that our guest mentioned, and to learn more about the upcoming national prisoner work strike to be called on September 9th, you can visit the following websites: Free Alabama Movement Support Prisoner Resistance IWOC
Additionally there is Prison Legal News, which is a resource for folks who want more information about the day to day litigation that affects convicts and their families.
1. Who are you? Where are you incarcerated and how long have you been inside? If you would prefer this be anonymous to avoid repercussions, please feel free to use a nickname, or more general / generic info (like the state or region you’re in, rather than the specific prison).
I’m Sean Swain, currently level 4 at Ohio State Penitentiary, and I’ve been locked up since 1991. I’m way too lazy to use nicknames. :)
2. Can you tell us about any prisoner resistance movements or activities you’ve openly participated in?
I can describe reform efforts that failed, including legislative initiativesand hunger strikes and proposed work stoppages, all seeking changes from authorities, all recognizing the authorities and their legitimacy. In fact, I would submit that when reforms succeed, they fail… Becuz they only pave the way for counter reforms. The mythological character rolling the boulder up the hill… Succeeding… Only to end up rolling the other way… Over and over… Forever. You can participate in failure openly, but successes cannot be conducted openly.
3. What kind of tactics or action (whether formal protests or informal “troublemaking”) do you think are most effective?
Successful tactics in resistance have been those that involve direct action. On a couple of occasions, I have witnessed widespread sabotage campaigns with a decent propaganda effort really descend orderly operations into disarray. Unlike gang banging and hunger strikes and work stoppages, authorities are unprepared for this kind of tactic, incapable of putting a guard and a camera on every single captive.
Sabotage really exposes the key weakness of any authoritarian system: its reliance on the population’s obedience and complicity. Small numbers with virtually no resources or formal training can make a huge impact, attacking and discovering key choke points to exploit.
4. Can you tell us a story where outside support made a difference in your life or resistance efforts?
Outside support has greatly altered my life in many ways. One example is when I was in seg in Toledo (TOCI). Friends had a strategy. They called the prison and central office claiming to be media. This created the illusion of public attention, which all prison systems hate and fear. Friends also called legislators as media, then called the prison and central office as assistants to legislators, all of this prompting central office and the prison to call each other to say, “WTF,” and for them to contact real legislators in what they believed were return calls, right after legislators were contacted by fake media. Total shitstorm.
The illusion of visibility and political blowback. I knew it was happening as my material situation improved. Received property and privileges that had been withheld. By the time fake attorneys started calling, the will to keep fucking me around was greatly diminished. The illusion was
a powerful weapon, can be duplicated with a phone book and a handful of Walmart cell phones, however they are appropriated.
5. What strategies would you like to see emerge or develop among folks on the outside who already do prisoner support work?
I would like to see a couple things develop. First, some method to provoke prisoners to consider effective direct action resistance, to be a thread that connects resisting prisoners or aspiring resisters with information on previous successes and failures, inspiring prisoners to think beyond hungerstrikes. Second, creation of a kind of repository where information may be accessed by other supporters. Third, a developed strategy for connecting resisting prisoners at one location to prisoners at other locations. Information is power. Timing is everything. Coordination creates more favorable conditions. Fourth, and last, projection of the idea to the larger community in struggle that every element or action might in some way become integrated with local prison resistance or prospective prison resistance, or creating actions in such a way as to impact the operations of the prison industrial complex. To this last, an example: when at Toledo, an anti-nazi rally in town became a small riot. If those folks knew the location of TOCI and moved in that direction, the reaction of the enemy enforcers, the cost, the resources, the seriousness of the potential problem for perceived public order… Potential. In that case, potential from simply knowing the local prison was just down the street.
6. How could someone who’s new to prisoner support work get involved?
For this question and the next, let me give a broader response of getting informed. Departments of Corrections have websites with useful information on where prisons are, security levels, staff, how to get there, phone numbers, what prisoners are where. There are books and zine programs nationwide, where free world people get repeated requests from radical prisoners and possibly develop relationships. There are prisoner pen pal programs at infoshops and collectives. There are online presence for prisoner voices and zines… So, consult all of that, determine what your goal is, and select some course of action consistent with that goal. Like anything else, it should be experimental and fun.
7. How should we inform or include prison populations that may not already be involved, like female prisoners, prisoners in regions with less activity and support, folks in immigrant detention centers, county jails, etc?
Again, to refer back to #6 above, prisons are located in the physical world. Not hidden. The populations are inside, everyone given a number and part of an online catalog, with rap sheets and photos and FAQ sheets. Those prisons have parking lots full of cars with plates, where staff come and go at shift changes every day to drive to and from homes. This is a physical reality. Central offices for corrections systems are often located in industrial parks, with parking lots and cars with plates and shift changes. Again, physical reality. Explore it. Think while you explore. Successful developments are always organic and spring from experience.
This is an interview with Jenny Esquivel and Petey S. from Sacramento Prisoner Support. They’ve been working primarily with Eric McDavid and other long term anarchist and eco defender prisoners, but also connect with and support lots of other prisoners.
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin is an American writer, activist, and black anarchist. He is a former member of the Black Panther Party. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has lived in Memphis, Tennessee, since 2010, where he and his wife JoNina organize against police terrorism with Memphis Black Autonomy.
FULL TEXT OF INTERVIEW:
Interviewer: Alright, so I’m doing an interview with Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. Do you wanna just start with talking about your background and your experience and how you came into doing this work?
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well, I was a youth organizer in the South during the 1950s, actually, that was when I first became active in any kind of movement, I guess. I was in the student–or the youth–NAACP chapter in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the late 1950s. And then in 1960, the sit-ins came to Chattanooga and both myself and my cousin who was older and was one of the student leaders–he actually was one of the leaders of the protests from the black–from the only black—high school in the city [who moved] into the center of the city, into the department stores and so forth and they sat in, occupied the premises. And uh, after they were attacked by the police, however, and the racists, and started fighting them inside of the department stores, young people from–you know, much younger than the ones who were high school age, my age, which was, I was in grade school–but a whole bunch of us, thousands of us, really, as well as other people from the black community, cause at that time, the black community was situated primarily downtown in several large districts. The black working class people. And so a lot of people left the communities, came downtown to protect the students and so forth, and there was really something starting to see, you know, they were shooting high-pressure water hoses at–and this is interesting, this happened in Chattanooga before it happened in, you know, the more famous case happened in Birmingham. But they were doing this in Chattanooga. And loosing police dogs to attack people and all that stuff. That happened in Chattanooga. But what happened in Chattanooga was that the people weren’t passive. They resisted. They were actually fighting the cops, they were fighting, stabbing at the police dogs, beating the police dogs back, you know, people were fighting the racist whites who came into the department stores.. So it was a whole different kind of thing, and so the federal government called it a–when they did their report on it–they called it a “riot”. You know, they called it a “riot”. Which, it was a rebellion, you know. Let’s be clear. It was a rebellion against white supremacy. And uh, that radicalized me. That radicalized me, it made me an activist. And so just one step after another, during that period of the 1960’s from you know, just a young kid growing on and becoming older, and getting into the Black Panther party.. and then later, going into the army and so forth, that whole period was about stuggle and activism, and it just carried me along. And I was not the only one, there was a whole generation was just carried along at that time, it was just for me, the rioters never stopped. And so, you know, that was how I got involved in activism originally.
Interviewer: Cool. So what prisoner support movement and activities are you currently in contact with and working with?
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well I’m with a group called the Black Autonomy Federation and we recently just started–and when I say recently, like in the last less than a year–we started a Black Autonomy Prison Federation. And we started it because we felt like the issues of mass imprisonment of blacks and peoples of color was not being addressed by the prison movement. And still we feel that way, and this is one of the reasons why we started to give a voice to all the, you know, to the issue of mass imprisonment of people of color but also to give a voice to activists who wanted to organize a broad-based movement around it. And so we started it for that reason, we also started it around to deal with, in the black community, you condition these young black people into prison anyway, you know with the gangs and street violence and all of this, you know. And so we started this Black Autonomy Federation, we reached out to some prisoners on the inside, we still are doing that.. We are even reaching out to prisoners that are doing work around prison strikes and so forth now, in Alabama particularly. And these things are coming together because there is a dearth of activism at this period around these issues. There is very little activism on the outside around the prison strikes, there is even less around the whole question of you know, mass imprisonment. There’s less. And it’s a reflection of the kind of co-optation by non-profit organizations and by fairly conservative figures in this period–would be fairly conservative, certainly, by the estimation of the 1960’s and what I come from.. You know this lawyer, first, this um, what is it–Mrs. Alexander, she’s Alexander? .. Well, you know, the thing about her is she…[IA] she wouldn’t even believe what was apparent, in terms of mass imprisonment, that had been known for years. She didn’t believe it, and only was able to get a voice because she had access to mass media. She had access to mass media, her privileged position, both for herself as an attorney, a corporate rights attorney, as well as for her status of her husband, who was a federal prosecutor. So she was able to get publicity, and she appeals to these liberals and so on and so on.. I don’t. I don’t care about liberals. I care about people who are being subjected to police terrorism, the people who are in the ghetto, being starved to death and forced to commit crimes of survival. And, you know, this is the kind of work we’re doing right now. We’re working with this–and of course I continue to work with, or try to continue to work with the Anarchist Black Cross. Because one, for me, the Anarchist Black Cross was one of the movements that supported me when I was in prison and was very instrumental in getting me out of prison from two life sentences in the 1970’s when I was a political prisoner. But also, I have continued to have, on some level to have ties to the Anarchist Black Cross because it’s a world-wide Radical Activist movement in the Anarchist movement– one that, in my estimation, one of the few still around that has the potential with it has reached its full capacity.. you know, or not, that’s another thing altogether, but it certainly has the potential to build a mass-based movement that could deal with a great many issues with imprisonment and the state. Because the state, until I went to prison, I don’t really think I understood the whole question of the state. State terror and the whole issue, what oppressive government is really like. Until I went to prison and saw for myself, one, the racialized nature of imprisonment. The class nature of imprsionment. And the terror, the terror. The stark terror and murder of imprisonment. I didn’t see these things, didn’t know these things when I was, like a lot of people, I wasn’t naive, But I just didn’t know about it. And then having seen it for myself and understood what this meant, you know, understood what it meant and understood how a movement in the streets could be built. And was built, on our behalf, in terms of, um, you know, the Attica rebellion in ’71 particularly. And all after that, the period after that, there were massive protests. There were forty eight. There were actually forty eight such rebellions after Attica. In 1972, there were forty eight rebellions. Which is still the highest number of prison rebellions anywhere in the country. You know what I’m saying? And so, this was a time…[IA]… in terms of my own understanding, and my own uh organizing and activism inside the prisons and also understanding the power of the movement on the outside because I’m one of the people that, the movement on the outside got out. I was the one that was fortunate enough to get out. I was able to get a world-wide campaign in terms of the Atticus movement internationally, as well as you know, anti-racist organizations that were coming into existence at the time. And even a wing of the Dutch, I guess it was Amnesty International, split. Because the original, official Amnesty International had a policy that if you engaged in violence, and if you were um, some sort of radical or anti-authoritarian organization, but um..
Somebody: [Excuse me.. how are you?]
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: I’m good, [IA] (laughter)
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: The point of fact… the official organization actually split. And it split, and out of it came the Help A Prisoner Oppose Torture Committee. Which was based in Amsterdam. And also around that period, the British, the UK, you know cause Black Cross came into existence and that created the whole new wing of resistance under the name, under the banner of Anarchist Black Cross. So I was the first American prisoner to be adopted by the Anarchist Black Cross UK. Had long ties and familiar thing [?] So um, I’ve had a relationship with the Anarchist Black Cross in terms of at least, well one way or another, I’m not saying I was always some member of some board meeting, but certainly I would give them my ideas and make criticisms and so forth and so on, to kind of push the movement forward, and make it more radical and try to even deal with in terms of anti-racism, as well.
Interviewer: Cool. So as you may be aware, there are prisoners who are trying to organize a uh, nationally coordinated hunger strike and potentially work stoppage and other forms of resistance starting on September 9th. Um, what do you think the outcome of that might be and how can we on the outside support and make it uh, build that mobilization?
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well, it can be extremely powerful. It mean, it can be, I’ve seen it happen. Um, you know in the 1970’s we created the Prison Labor Union movement. It had between fifty and seventy five thousand prisoners in a brief period of time. And this actually formally incorporated in a lot of states, 36 states in all either had fully formed organizations or they were being formed, the unions. And it was so powerful and it was growing so quickly, that the prison officials became alarmed. An you know, the strikes and disruptions by prisoners. But it was growing so quickly that what they did was to take a case to the United Nations–oh, Sorry, the United States Supreme Court. They took the case to the United States Supreme Court called Jones vs. North Carolina Prison Labor Union. And uh, North Carolina was one of the strongest Prison Labor Unions. In fact, the person who helped me start the Federal Prison Labor Union in Atlanta, Georgia, came from North Carolina. He was a political prisoner anyway and he was framed up on, you know, on some, you know, a civil rights activist framed up on the uh-what was it-the uh… mmmm, can’t remember the city now. But they railroaded these three activists and anyway he went to prison over that in North Carolina, they transferred him somehow for whatever reason to the federal system and I met him and we worked together and we built a group–or were building, were in the process of building a group when the decision came down that you know, they had us all locked up and shipped out and what have you and broke the movement up. So I think that what I’m trying to say is that that is how far it can go, it can go much farther now, in terms of forming organizations and in terms of labor unions. I don’t know, they maybe could become the major labor force in this country in this period. I mean, all of this is possible. Now as far as building a national movement and so forth.. of course the prisoners have to decide, in the final analysis, what kind of movement they want. I’m not going to take that away from them. But at the same time, there are things that we can do out here, ourselves. That we should be thinking about in terms of national.. one is to create the framework for a National Prisoner Labor Union. Which is something they didn’t have in the past, but it can happen and should happen now. And I think that however that’s done, it has to be working with prisoners, but however it’s done that would be a real step forward. Also we need to go after every form of corporation or agency or whatever that makes money off of prison labor. We need to demand, we need to help them formulate their demands, in my opinion, even though we’ve got some very intelligent prisoners on the inside who have leadership potential. But we also don’t–and I said last night–we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We need to understand that we can, on the outside, develop a framework where we go after these organizations and make them, pressure them to pay the prisoners a decent wage. [IA] from on the inside exploiting prisoner labor. And their objective is, is nothing but slavery. They make millions and billions of dollars from prison labor that’s run by the state, with their own corporations like the federal government had the UniCor.. I don’t know that they call it today, could be something else, but.. UniCor is what they called it back then, and most of the states have their own similar kind of state-based corporation. But then in addition to that, there are literally hundreds, hundreds, of corporations, of course in the United States, that have either factories on the inside or have contract workers with the prisoners, or what have you, and these are the kind of things we have to address I think, you know, we have to address this kind of stuff and so our objective is we’re gonna get, you know, we want to get involved with prisoners. And we want to, you know, express some idea that people might not’ve heard–you know, most of the time you have prison activists on the outside that have never been in prison. Now, that isn’t always the case, like last night, myself, Mark Cook and uh, Ed Mead and um Bo Brown were there, and of course all of us have been in prison, for a substantial period of time, I’d been in the prison with some of them, personally. But uh, I think most of the time you’ll find that most people who are prison activists have never been in prison. Now that is not to say that there cannot be great activism, you know, not to say that at all. But there’s a certain kind of sensitivity that comes from having been an activist in the prison system yourself at that time and you have an understanding of it that someone on the outside might not have. So we could build something. That could be very, very powerful in support of the struggle. Cause as you look at it right now, you only have really the three–I mean, there’s stuff percollating underneath, true enough, in all the prisons. But the reality is we’ve only had two or three real strikes. You know, now, we know they’re coming. Just like we know there’s going to be a revolution in the streets. But we don’t know when and how. And so what we have to do is try to create a framework for it to be successful and to spread. And I think it can spread if we could bring together some kind of national organization network of activists on the outside who can pass information to other prisoners and so forth. That’s what we need to do. But as I said, we need to see ourselves as a pressure group on the outside.
[We’re gonna go up and see what Paulette’s doing. OK?]
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Okay.
[Are you alright?]
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: I’m fine, thank you. Take care.
[Keep an eye on that guy over there, okay?]
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Okay. (laughing) He been drinking something? Okay.
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: So.. you know.. so.. So that’s where I’m coming from.
Interviewer: So the next question I had was: how can we include or involve prisoners who are in states where there’s not a lot of protest going on, people in women’s prisons, or immigrant detention centers, or other, or even county jails? You know, other forms of incarceration that aren’t part of movements like this?
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well we gotta save that information. We’ve gotta get information into them. I mean, we can get information into them better than prisoners in another state, you know? So we have to get creative methods of doing that. Putting it in a newsletter, putting it in a letter, whatever, to get the information in to them. But more than anything, we gotta create fervor in the streets for them. See, that’s what I keep saying. And um, if we don’t do that, if we don’t create a fervor in the streets for them, it won’t be as successful in my opinion. It may even fold. And that’s why you know, you’re gonna have a limited number of them take place at this time. Because there’s been no ability to do coordination. And that’s to be expected, you’re in prison, you know, if you’re trying to write from prison, you know, it’s gonna be difficult. but if you got it in the street, you got some forces in the street, in different states that have a structure together, it makes it easy. We’re not taking anything from the prisoners, that’s not what I’m saying. We’re building something for the prisoners. To be quite honest. And I just think that uh, at this stage, we’re not seeing that. I mean, we keep talking about you know, in individualistic terms about this state, that state, and it’s not, you know. I always looked at it as–and people talk about class politics–I always looked at the politics of imprisonment as classist. And I never had any differences with you know, even people I was in prison with disagreeing with me at the time. When I tried to get the IWW to support the prison struggle or the strikes and so forth, and the uh, the whole idea of unionizing prisoners.. wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t help. I mean, we were being attacked, wiped out. They wouldn’t say a word. So, those are the kind of errors, too, that we need to understand. And we made errors in the past, and we also have had victories. And I think what’s wrong with the left and what’s wrong with the movement of this period is it doesn’t even want to teach its own history. As its own. It’s not even teaching that to the newer generation of activists. And I think that’s a real serious mistake. And that’s what I’ve always seen myself as correcting, is that real deep divide in terms of the consciousness of between generations, okay, you know, “what did you do in the 1960’s?” and so forth, and what’s happening now? you know. Why don’t I know about that? Why don’t we know about the Prison Labor Union which was so powerful back in the 1970s? These are things that could help right now, in terms of building a movement, you know? You’d know where to go, you don’t have to start, go way back down to the beginning, you can start at a different stage, you see what I’m saying?
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: And so, this is what I think. This is what I’m saying. And the group I’m working with, you know, we pretty much agree that if we’re gonna come in with it, we’re gonna try to come in with a program that’s broader-based and non-sectarian. You know, cause you got a lot of sectarianism too, one group wants to show it’s doing more than somebody else and so on and that doesn’t help the overall struggle. it just makes it easier for the officials to come down on you. And the things we learned in the 70’s and 80s, they still apply.. 60s and 70s, I should say. They still apply to many things. You got the same prison officials. You might have a different kind of prison system in terms of repression or being standardized with the um, whaddyacallem, behavior modification units but now, you know, their so-called SHU and all that kind of stuff. [IA] But all of that happened when I was in prison. We had gone through that stage, we had defeated the man inside the prisons, we had destabilized the prison structure, and we had won some victories, but then we started suffering losses. Assassinations, George Jackson, forcible violent repression of the Attica rebellion, and then afterwards, mistakes were made in terms of letting liberal lawyers take over important aspects of decision-making and organizing of the movement. And then of course you know what lawyers do, after a while, even the ones that Carlton says are radical, they get to where they feel like it’s dangerous now. It’s “dangerous”. that the poor are gonna rise up. (laughing) That it’s gone beyond the stage of liberal negotiation. And they start bailing. And that’s what happened. You know, a lot of liberals bail out. And the rest of them are left, the rest of the people in the streets were left to hang. With that gone, a lot of them were prosecuted, some of them prosecuted, some of them were cases where they came in and broke up groups, you know, [IA] broke up organizations in support of prisoners. But it lasted for a long time, and I really learned a lot from that period. And I was hopeful that a lot of other people have, as well. You know, people my age as well as, just others in this period, younger people in this period. including new activists, That’s what i’m trying to say. The new activists have.. you know.. the thing that, the reason the government continues to hold Black Panthers is not just in terms of punishing them because of their active resistance. I mean, they’re doing that. But the reason why they’re doing that, they’re holding them so long, is that they don’t want them to link up with new generations of organizers in the streets where if you.. there’s some things that even myself–well I don’t get around much anymore but–there are some things that I can tell people that might be insightful. Oh, and inciting. (Laughing) Might be insightful on one hand, but the incite, you know, might incite rebellion.
Interviewer: I know, personally, that that’s true.
[Somebody: Hey, I’m going to be going out with Jimmy tonight.]
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: More trouble? More trouble you’re making?
[Somebody: Something like that.]
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: But anyway, so, this is what I’m saying. We need to have continuity. We don’t have continuity in this, from that period to this, and so there’s so many problems because of that. Of course, the enemy won out, in many respects. The enemy was able to reshape the present circumstances from what had been a victory by the people. They were able to reshape the present social circumstances. Since you’ve got mass imprisonment. You’ve got the kind of disparities like I talked about last night with the black infant mortality or with the mass unemployment. With so many other things that are really issues that exist in this period that didn’t exist in the 1960’s. You didn’t have mass homelessness in the 1960s. Even in the 1970s you didn’t have that. And so these are things where the capitalist structure was able to induce more and more misery and poverty onto the masses of people so that now you’ve got mass imprisonment at a scale that has not been seen since the great depression but you don’t have fight-back. And you’re gonna see it get worse because they’re going to go and have more and more austerity measures before it falls. Because, you know, to put on our heads. And you’ve already got a mass poor population that has been decimated for years. But you have not had a resistance to fight back movement. So that’s the kind of thing you need to recognize: what is being used to stifle protests and what we can do to build it.
Interviewer: Well, I want to downstairs to see what Paulette is talking about, but, it was nice talking with you.
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Yeah. Okay. Well, I hope you got enough to work with.
Ben Interview with Mark Cook and Ed Mead, May 20, 2014 – Portland, OR
Mark: …talk about issues that apply to all prisoners. We have the Gitmo prisoners… they’re involved. Because similarly – they get to be involved because they get probably the most nationally, or internationally of both sides of… [IA] And there’s immigrant detention prisoners who are not convicted at all, in some cases are treated worse than general prisoners. So this is gonna be a pretty broad network, you can’t delimit it.
Ben: I totally agree
Mark: You talk about a common interest of all prisoners – once you’re locked up you gotta be able to control your environment, some kind of… you know…
Ben: So I want to start by just starting with who y’all are, what your background is, why you do this work and why you think it’s important. Ed?
Ed: The 13th Amendment abolished slavery for everyone except those convicted of crimes. Thus we have 2.3 million slaves in the United States. Disenfranchised from the political process, kept in conditions of dependency and irresponsibility. We all know that if you put a dog in a cage and poke a stick in at it day in and day out, week in and week out, and on and on, that ultimately you’re going to have a vicious animal on your hands. Well almost everybody in prison gets out, and unless something is done, they’re going to internalize that rage and then take it out on their wives or children, their neighbors their community… it just doesn’t make good sense. You don’t get something good as a result of doing bad things to people. And what happens to people in prison is bad.
Ben: Makes sense. You want to talk about your history? So this is Ed Mead. How did you come into doing this work?
Ed: My name is Ed Mead and I was a state raised prisoner, pretty much. I started doing time at the age of 13. In the mid 60s I became politicized. And while a prisoner at McNeal Island federal prison and ever since then I’ve been doing some level of prisoner support work. Either from the inside or the outside.
Ben: Cool. And Mark, you want to talk about your background a little bit?
Mark: I’m Mark Cook. I spent probably 40 years behind lock and key. Since I was the age of 14 years old. And a lot of the brutal treatment I received while being incarcerated pointed me in the direction I’m headed today. I became an advocate and activist in the late 60s, during the time of the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, etc. In fact, I helped found a Black Panther chapter within a prison. Ive always been, when I’m doing time, a stand up convict. In other words, I’m not a snitch, you know I just strike tall. I go down with the strike. I generally follow the leadership, but after doing so much time I became part of that leadership. And I was able to pick new directions based on being politicized by the Panther Party and the Weather Underground. We got newspapers and literature that came into prison about that time. And so we were able to, some of us were able to move it in a different direction. And since that time I have moved to several different organizations, but always as a prisoner advocate. That was the basis of all my work. And in becoming involved with the George Jackson Brigade I was part of their program. Not just an altruistic thing. We were empowering ourselves because we were in prison. And after getting out of prison we were still abused and neglected by the government. Different… the state, local and federal governments. So we figured this was in our interest to help those people. Helping them, we’re going to help ourselves. Empowering them we’re going to empower ourselves.
Ben: That’s awesome. So what work are y’all doing right now in supporting prisoners? What..?
Ed: Primarily what we’re doing is supporting the hunger striking prisoners in California. With their first hunger strike – according the department of corrections figures, not our own – there were 6,600 participants, the second hunger strike there was just under 12,000 participants, and the final hunger strike kicked off with 30,000 prisoners participating. So this is a point of conflict between the most oppressed against the state apparatus of repression. And so if there is any segment of society that needs to be supported, it’s that segment. So Mark and I put out a monthly newsletter called The Rock. And it goes primarily to California prisoners, although we also have a growing readership in the state of Washington and the state of Oregon. In the last 13 years I’ve been the editor of a quarterly newspaper called Prison Focus out of Oakland. And both Mark and I are active in the National Lawyers Guild. He can talk about that more.
Mark: When I did the – I decided to take on the responsibility of the Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild National Prison Project. And to make it what we wanted to make it. Prisoners of the first shot. A long time ago they put out a newsletter called Midnight Special. Right now we have a design called The Rock. These are prisoners speaking to the issues in prison. The issues that they want changed. The issues they want to attack. And they set out a program of how they are going to attack it. This first time was through a hunger strike. But again, it is mainly the prisoners inside. Even though we’re exprisoners – still convicts – we have a word in this and we get to speak out as editors in this newsletter, most of it is written by the prisoners inside, themselves. And they, it helps them to grow inside, to organize inside. Just by writing these letters, other prisoners know – “hey, I can join in because I know something. Maybe we could make it work.” My part right now is not exactly a treasurer – we’re both treasurers in the same… stamps are the thing that makes this thing spread throughout the prison system. I have a newsletter here for June. There’s one prisoner here, he says he enclosed 60 stamps. Now he’s gone through his whole unit, pod, collecting these stamps from other prisoners. 50 cents a piece. That’s a lot of money for inmates inside. And this is his one run. And he says when I get a chance I’ll get you some more. Letter after letter comes to us this way. They come with stamps inside of them and most of the newsletters that go out are paid for by the prisoners. To start off with, they paid for everything. All the stamps, all the newsletters.
Ed: For the first two years.
Mark: Yeah. For the first two years. The printing cartridges that were needed. Paper. Everything was paid for by them. Because they knew they needed this communication between each other so everybody could be on the same page. They picked up 4 main issues that they were going to speak to. Other prisoners started sticking more issues in and they said “no, we’ve got to get these four resolved first.” And just trying to get those 4 resolved is a pain in the butt. Because the administration says “oh yeah, we’ll do this.” Then they’ll back up and say “no we’re not going to do it” or they’ll change jobs and somebody else takes their place and says “well I didn’t say that.” It’s a hard struggle for them inside. But they are doing that struggle. The families and friends are helping them. There are a lot of advocates that are helping them. But they are calling all the shots. How this help is going to go….
Ed: In terms of a national action of some sort, there does need to be a publication that reaches prisoners across the United States, and I’m not sure what that would be. But I do know that it would take money and people power to be able to do that.
Ben: I’ve talked to people from the San Francisco Bayview who said that they would run like press releases or something like that, somewhere in their back pages about this having been announced.
Ed: As would we.
Ed: But. How are we getting into Arkansas? How are we getting into Tennessee?
Mark: We’ve never been into Gitmo. Ok and lots of the immigration prisoners, a large majority of them are Hispanic. We don’t do a Hispanic thing. We need people who can keyboard this thing in Spanish and send it in to them. Get the Puerto Rican prisons, you know? It’s a lot of work to be done. And we had to come up with the ideas – Ed and I had to come up with most of the ideas of how to hit those targets. We’d like it to go national. It takes a lot of [IA]. Me and ed we’re not big time fundraisers.
Ben: So the guys who have called for September 9th of this year… what do you think the outcome of that might be, if they go forward with that.
Ed: I think that the results will be mixed. I called for a statewide, one day work strike at Washington State some years ago. For no purpose other than for prisoners, for us to see how strong prisoners were – how much unity there was – and for prisoners to see how much unity we had on the outside. When they went down for that one day we would be demonstrating in Seattle in front of the King County Jail. The administration got wind of what was happening and in many prisons around the state locked up people they thought might be leadership. The Washington State Penitentiary went down about 70 percent the McNeal Island State Prison – it’s a state prison now – went about 50 percent, and the same for prisons around the state. Except for the women’s prison at Purdy – they not only stopped working that day 100%, they also refused to eat. So I think the results will be – if the saturation can be done – I think the results will be something similar. Maybe 50%.
Ben: Ok. Cool. And what do you think that we on the outside can do to improve the chances of that?
Ed: We have to get the word in to outside support people, or if we have the connections to prisoners in every state, in every prison. So you can see that that’s a huge job to accomplish in a very short amount of time.
Mark: And every state has multiple prisons. You may be able to get a small core in one prison to communicate with each other, but they’ve got to spread it through all the other prisons. That’s the hardest part. When you talk about something national. And you’re looking at 50+ states. You know, you’ve got more than 50 territories and states to work with. It’s a big job. I don’t know if it can be done by September. That’s a really short period of time. I would even say almost 5 years is a short time. Trying to get all of these people on the same page. Because it’s gonna’ fluctuate. Like this thing with California prisoners – it peaked and now it’s going down. I’m hoping it will peak again and go beyond that last mark they made. I’m hoping – but I’m here in Oregon and Washington. All I can do is facilitate their rap. And they’re getting a pretty good rap. You know, the letters they send us, that we send back for everybody to read are pretty strong, pretty good.
Ed: And another thing that will impact this is that if you’re talking about a hunger strike, you know, the administration can just blow that off. It’s a work strike that is really going to accomplish something. And, you know, if a quarter of the population doesn’t eat that’s not going to get any mention. That’s not going to… so I agree with Mark, it’s a big job in a very short period of time.
Mark: Even if some of the strongest prisoners – they don’t work, they can’t do a work strike. That’s why they did a hunger strike. Because there’s no work for them.
Ed: Well that’s in the SHU, but we’re talking about general population.
Mark: Well they’re the leadership in the general population. Whereas the leadership… we know there’s a leadership in the SHU. We don’t know if there’s leadership in the population.
Ben: I’ve talked to people who are doing support for the Free Alabama Movement. And they say that their plan right now is they’re not going to announce when they go do the next work strike because they announced the last one and it was shut down because of that. The people on the outside say that they understand that the prisoners are planning on doing another, kind of more surreptitious surprise work-stoppage and would potentially be able to coordinate that with the hunger strike that is being called for at Menard and so I agree with y’all that getting that kind of work stoppage… I mean, I do support work for Sean Swain, an anarchist prisoner in Ohio, and just suggesting that prisoners could shut down everything by just laying on their beds – and he means shut down the state of Ohio – got him thrown in the hole. So I think that that is what the real threat is. So we need to be able to build the outside support to have the backs of guys who take that kind of stand. And that’s what I’m hoping this website will begin to do…
Ed: The repression will come. If prisoners go on a work strike, or even a hunger strike to a lesser extent, those who they think – the ringleaders will be locked up. I mean that’s just gonna’ happen.
Ben: I can’t remember the questions that I had…oh! How would you all propose reaching out to prisoners in states where there is not already a prison movement, or institutions like women’s prisons or things like that that aren’t as involved?
Ed: Through publications.
Ben: Ok. Mailing in newsletters like The Rock and…
Ed: Of course, that means getting the names and addresses of prisoners … which is not hard to do because Bo produces – the Prison Activist Resource Center – they produce a directory that goes into prisons across the United States, and prisoners write them from every prison in the United States. They can get names and addresses and then letters can be sent in to those prisoners and then they share those things with other prisoners. And that would be a way to do it.
Ben: And Book s to Prisoners projects could also be a way…
Ed: Books to Prisoners could do the same thing, yes. So just, what doesn’t happen – what doesn’t exist and what needs to exist is a national database of prisoners
Ben: Ok. Trying to… How could somebody who is new to this work get involved? How would you – what advice would you give to somebody who has never done these things before?
Mark: Man, there are so many different ways… because there’s a lot of grassroots groups that are interested in what’s happening in prison. And people who have never been in prison before. Like in Washington state we have the school to prison pipeline group, and the so called WISH group or the New Jim Crow group. These people have never been in prison. Have no idea really about it. They’ve been getting everything out of a book and then trying to teach other people about it. So it’s…
Ed: You know a book is a good start. You know, the New Jim Crow or books by prisoners… that’s a good start. But in terms of getting involved, I mean, something as simple as going to a mailing party, putting on stamps and address labels. You know just, from there right on up. There’s just all sorts of things. Keyboarding prisoner articles. Not only do you get an understanding of what the prisoners are saying, but a lot of stuff can’t be printed until someone does the thankless work of keyboarding.
Ben: Yeah I – every once in a while when I’ve got- I accumulate writings from prisoners – I just post on Facebook , “I’ve got writings! Anybody want to volunteer to type them up? And the most unexpected people will say, “Yeah, send me something!” and then they’re like “Thank you for sending me that – it really was insightful to read that as I was typing.”
What other strategies – like long term strategies – would you like to see people on the outside -or tactics – would you like to see people on the outside kind of developing?
Ed: People on the outside – we formed a group called “Free Us All” in Seattle during the last California hunger strike. And we did demonstrations, we put on two hip hop events in the central district, printed 10,000 broadsheets and circulated them nationally. The main thing, I think, for us, was being in contact with the prisoners, and the primary thing to do, the most important thing to do for outside people is to amplify the voice of prisoners, in whatever means you can find to do that. Amplify their voice. And the rest will flow.
Ben: Cool! Awesome. I think that’s all the questions that I had. Do either of you have anything else you would like to contribute or say?
Ed: No, that’s about it.
Mark: No, and lots of luck!….. There is another thing you know like this – if they don’t write a letter, send a prisoner or an organization a stamp or some money so that they can continue to do the work. Because they will. There’s a lot of groups around. They can find groups that do the work. You don’t have to give a fortune to these groups. They’ll take anything, you know, to keep moving. Just by accident, I talked about how we needed stamps last night, we got over $50 worth of contributions right on the spot. But they gotta’ talk about it and say what they need. Bo talked about how she needs bags of food to give to hungry people. And I don’t know what other way she can do it but she spoke there and some of the people are interested. They will drive by and put food on her porch. So… you were there, right?
Ben: Yeah, and I think that’s… I worked with a Books to Prisoners project in Columbus, Ohio, for while which was also an activist prison abolition organization. And I think that thing of asking for help or asking for money is sometimes difficult for people.
Ed: It is, it’s a hard thing.
Mark: And you don’t because you don’t… like this because you know some people are fluid, like they have the money, they just don’t want nobody to know it. And they’ll write off them checks like, you might get it in the mail but you might never really know who you got it from. And there’s some people who don’t have anything and they’re scuffing themselves. [IA] it’s a broad population we’re working with. Inside of prison where Ed and I worked, reactionary prisoners outnumbered the ones who were trying NOT to be reactionary. And some were deliberately trying to remain reactionary. You know racists or Nazis or whatever. Their motorcycle gang was the most important thing to them. Nothing outside of that, you know (there were various motorcycle gangs). There’s a lot of reactionaries inside. Some even among those, I remember, there are those who are leaning strongly toward common cause. They still wanna’ fly their colors and stuff like that. And writing letters to them and getting letters from them you’ll find those people. You’ll find bible backers writing to you. We had one who wanted prisoners to sell their organs. You know, “You’re not doing nothing but laying in prison, so why don’t you just donate your organs…?” not knowing these guys are going to be starving when they just get paroled. They’re going to need everything they’ve got inside. If they pull an organ out they’re going to fry it in the frying pan!
Ben: Yeah, working with the Lucasville Uprising guys there’s some of that going on because they came across racial factions when the uprising happened. And Jason Robb, I’ve met with him a couple of times, he’s still somehow affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood, but you can see the solidarity that he has with Keith Lamar and Siddique Abdullah Hasan in the actions that they’ve taken together, the hunger strikes and things like that. It’s really inspiring to see people come across those lines.
Ed: That’s actually what’s happening in California.
Mark: One of the four main leaders in California …Who spoke with the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, and he told them get off that shit now because we need to get together with everybody.
Ben: And it’s….compared to what’s going on here where people are so divisive over Kristian Williams writing an article…
Ben: It’s…like…can’t we learn from the people who are overcoming far broader divisions and why can’t we get our shit together.
Mark: That whole idea is trying to get it together. They’re apart when they come to the group… they have to understand that. They just want to stay apart…just come as a little group and sit in the corner. They’re bullies whether they stand up or not. Lots of times that’s just what they do.
Coyote is a 36-year-old self-defined anarchist who held down his own prison chapter of Anarchist Black Cross in the confines of Nevada’s maximum security prison, Ely State Prison. As of November 8th 2013, Coyote Sheff was finally released this after 16 years of incarceration. He is with family, and is ready to continue his ABC work in Olympia where he intends on starting another chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross.