Amid Crackdown on Activists, Support Groups Help Resistance Continue Behind Bars

“I have a confession to make: I’m an antifascist, and I’m going to jail for it,” David Campbell wrote the night before he reported to Rikers Island in New York City.

January 20, 2018, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) broke Campbell’s leg in two places while arresting him during an anti-fascist protest event that was held in response to a far right event happening in the city. Police alleged that Campbell had attacked a right-wing event attendee and tried to strangle the officer who arrested him. When surveillance footage failed to corroborate these claims, the initial charges were dropped. Instead, Campbell eventually had gang assault added to his list of charges, which activists say was politically motivated since the charges seem to stem from Campbell’s participation in an anti-fascist protest. The gang assault charges would hold him responsible for all injuries that occurred in the conflict, even if he did not personally commit them.

Campbell now is serving an 18-month prison sentence from a non-cooperating plea bargain, a haunting result for an organizer whose goal had been to build a movement against racism in his community.

“It’s totally mind-boggling to see him framed as a violent person, to see him imprisoned,” says Carmichael Monaco, a member of Campbell’s solidarity team who is organizing his prison support. “I think the NYPD had an agenda to pin violence on anti-fascist organizing in general, and I think that when they broke David’s leg during his arrest, they felt a need to justify their own violence.”

Campbell is now separated from the community he had built doing his anti-fascist activism, which is why a team of his peers has formed to return a piece of that community to him. His solidarity team — a group of activists providing ongoing material support to Campbell — is hoping to continue this support system, first by ensuring that he gets a steady stream of visitors, letters and care packages, and also making sure that people donate funds to keep Campbell healthy. In response, Campbell is also encouraging that supporters offer funds to the No New Jails campaign, which is fighting plans to expand prisons in New York and elsewhere.

“If this is what they do to me, a nerdy, normal-ish young everyday antifascist in 2019, then you can be sure that much, much worse is coming, and possibly for you — unless you make it clear now that this is unacceptable behavior from any government agency in an ostensibly free and fair society,” Campbell wrote. “Call bullshit on this. Even if you don’t like me, agree with me, or approve of my tactics, call bullshit on this case, for all our sakes.”

State Repression of Activism

The assumption that activists who end up in jail have “crossed the line” and have engaged in actions that should not be sanctioned by the rest of the activist community ignores the long history of state repression, aggressive policing and selective prosecution that is endemic to the system of mass incarceration.

Historically, aggressive sentencing is often applied to political protest actions, particularly nonviolent actions that disrupt government or corporate entities. For example, COINTELPRO, an FBI project in the 1960s and 1970s, sought to disrupt radical movements, particularly in the Black and Indigenous communities, and created mass criminal prosecutions that were either spurious, exaggerated, or, in some cases, based on faulty evidence. More recently, during the “Green Scare” of the early 2000s, many environmental and animal rights activists faced massive sentences for very minor forms of civil disobedience, all resulting from corporate lobbying efforts to make disruptive activism considered a form of terrorism.

Now, with protesters confronting racialized police killings, immigration jails and the threat of fascist violence in the streets, it is increasingly likely that activists will face prison terms for the organizing that was considered standard practice to the last generation. For marginalized communities, this threat is only amplified, and as social justice movements ramp up their ability to really confront and transform systemic injustice, this has led to even more retaliation by law enforcement.

Remembering Those Who Are Locked Up

For many who are organizing in the era of Donald Trump and militarized policing, criminal prosecution for what often amounts to civil disobedience or “normal” protest action is a very real concern. To respond to this threat, many organizers are engaging in “jail support” for activists who have been imprisoned while doing their organizing work, to ensure that people who are facing retaliation from the criminal legal system continue to have the commitment of their larger communities behind them.

Jail support is often a component of larger social justice mass movements, creating structures of solidarity and care for people who have ended up incarcerated. This can take on multiple forms of support, from arranging fundraising for basic financial needs in the jail, to arranging ongoing legal counsel, to moral support, such as writing letters and sending books. And because so many movements have faced significant periods of state crackdown, there are some organizations around the U.S. whose sole purpose is to work on the support of imprisoned activists.

One of the most persistent of these organizations is the Anarchist Black Cross, a network that has existed for over a century providing support to revolutionary communities in need, and has defined itself by supporting incarcerated people. This is borne out of its abolitionist politic, the belief that prisons themselves are illegitimate institutions that do not perpetuate justice and instead replicate the larger structural violence of our society.

With assistance from jail support organizations, people who are incarcerated can continue their organizing work and stay a part of the movements they helped build. It can provide them with resources to stay safe and healthy and return to their communities afterward, avoiding many of the hurdles of re-entry. As people are released from prison, they often find that jobs are hard to come by and many of the relationships they counted on before their conviction have dissolved. Having an organization whose purpose is to help get them resources and support them through those critical months can help ease the transition.

A prison support project from the New York Anarchist Black Cross, Project FANG operates a collectively managed pool of money for prison support. Organizers run broad fundraising campaigns and then disperse money to incarcerated activists.

“Prison solidarity means being in it for the long haul. It means supporting people even when it’s hard, which it inevitably will be. It means recognizing the impacts not only on the person inside, but also on their loved ones and community,” says Jenny Dosey, an organizer with Project FANG. “It means continuing the work that prisoners were doing before they went in. It means fighting for their freedom. It means working to eradicate the systems that keep them in cages.”

Organizers from Project FANG highlight the growing needs of prisoners inside, particularly because of the rising costs of commissary items like dental, hygiene and personal care products, as well as the biting rates of health care co-pays in prison. Since prison labor is excluded from regular workplace regulations, incarcerated people often work for just cents an hour, making it incredibly difficult to make enough money to cover these expenses. On top of that, it can be costly to have a loved one in prison because, particularly in the federal penitentiary system, people can be housed anywhere in the country, so traveling to visit can be cost-prohibitive.

“I credit the increase in need for something like Project FANG to the state and capital doing what they do — protecting each other’s interests to the detriment of the natural world, nonhuman animals, and poor and working folks (especially those of color),” says Dosey. With new movements taking an oppositional stance, the likelihood of state repression has increased, and therefore the need for community support has only become more urgent.

An Outside Movement for Those Inside

Traditionally, many jail support campaigns have been built around individual activists, and have become decades-long political issues, such as the incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal or Leonard Peltier, who become central figures for the larger issues of mass incarceration.

“[I] think prisoner support is important and necessary to keep people connected to the outside world and communities they came from when they are inside,” says Daniel McGowan, an environmental organizer who served time in federal prison for a controversial conviction in relation to Earth Liberation Front (ELF) actions. When McGowan reported for his sentence, he relied on the support of many in the larger environmental, animal rights and activist community for a financial base in the increasingly expensive prison system, since his two-week paychecks often amounted to $12 when he was incarcerated.

Now, McGowan has taken on the prison support work himself, working in a solidarity network of groups lending aid to imprisoned organizers. McGowan works with a collective that is creating the Certain Days Calendar, an annual calendar that shares stories about the prison abolition movement, the sales of which go to support prisoners and social justice organizations. He is also working with Los Angeles Anarchist Black Cross to help promote the annual Running Down the Walls 5K race, a subsistence fundraising effort for 16 current political prisoners, with NYC Books Through Bars, and with anarchist political prisoner Eric King’s legal fund.

“One tangible thing people can do to help organizers inside is sending them information they need for the campaigns they are working on. I recall needing tons of print outs, articles and books to help me write articles and research legal arguments. That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s so hard inside to get the information you need inside,” says McGowan. “I also think that with prison organizers, invariably, the prisons crack down on them. If you are working with prison organizers, you have to be there for them when shit hits the fan.”

Prisoners who organize from behind bars can be subject to harsh retaliation, including being forced into substandard cells and solitary confinement. This means that prisoners need that outside support to be consistent when things get increasingly difficult in an already caustic situation. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) is a project originally stemming from the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), to organize prisoners in a union model. Organizing inside prison against issues like low pay and dangerous working conditions requires the ongoing support of activists on the outside as well.

Organizers hope that supporters will make the connections between these particular individuals and the larger political climate. Increasing incidents of police violence and prosecutorial overreach leads many to believe that there will be even more intentional repression on activists who are trying to challenge the current administration, which would make jail support an essential part of maintaining social movement longevity. For David Campbell, this means ensuring he has material support, that people continue to treat him as a trusted collaborator, and to continue that help when he is released.

“If you’re reading this, I’m already in a cage. Contact with the outside world is one of the biggest predictors for good recovery from incarceration. I don’t care if we haven’t talked in years. Write me, visit me,” Campbell wrote in a public statement before he reported to jail to serve his sentence.

Note: This story has been amended to offer a more precise explanation of the organizations that Daniel McGowan volunteers for.