In 2020, during just the first two months of the pandemic, incarcerated people collectively participated in at least 106 COVID-19 related rebellions in the United States. This year, organizers with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a national collective of imprisoned people fighting for human rights, are calling on non-incarcerated people to share the baton by holding “National Shut ‘em Down Demonstrations” on August 21 and September 9.
These are historically significant dates in the Black liberation struggle against the prison-industrial complex. On August 21, 1971, prison guards assassinated incarcerated theorist, organizer and revolutionary George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison in California. The next day, incarcerated people at Attica Correctional Facility went on hunger strike in his honor and, on September 9, 1971, more than 1,200 people took over the prison, demanding an end to “slave labor” and improved living conditions. Four days later, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered New York State Police to brutally suppress the rebellion. Twenty-nine incarcerated people and 10 hostages died in the raid.
Echoing this spirit of resistance, JLS is urging supporters to hold demonstrations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps, higher learning institutions with ties to prison labor, and jails and prisons across the United States, to highlight “prisoners’ historical struggles and the current political struggles to dismantle the prison industrial slave complex.” Supporters can share the JLS event flyers on social media, donate, order stickers, network with local organizations to plan a demonstration and host events leading up to the days of action.
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Castle, a member of JLS who has been incarcerated for 30 years and uses a pseudonym to minimize the risk of retaliation, told Truthout that JLS hopes the days of action will “ignite a larger fire” for the abolitionist movement in the U.S. The actions will “get people back into the motion of going back to the prisons and jails in order to shake up those in seats of power and comfort when it comes to prisons and jails,” Castle wrote in an email.
Shut ‘Em Down demos could help pave the path for successful future actions behind bars, according to JLS. A strong, activated, outside movement aids organizing behind bars, since incarcerated organizers rely on non-incarcerated people to help them spread their message.
So far, according to Castle, demonstrations are being planned in Texas, Ohio, South Carolina, New York, California, Milwaukee, Georgia, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Shut ‘Em Down D.C. is hosting a march from the Department of Justice to the Washington Monument on August 21. In Milwaukee, local prisoner and abolitionist organizations held a general assembly on July 21 to discuss Shut ‘Em Down solidarity actions, and are holding another on August 5. More than 40 organizations across the country have publicly endorsed the call.
JLS hopes to eventually see outside organizers occupying jails, prisons or politicians’ property. “There is talk developing around this line,” Castle wrote, “therefore, it’s possible that one day we could witness such a beautiful sight of resistance and a glow of humanity.”
People can support the effort in a variety of imaginative ways that align with their personal situations, local contexts and strategic goals, organizers say. coco, an outside organizer and liaison with JLS who is withholding her last name for safety reasons, told Truthout she is working with JLS to host a series of panel discussions about these calls to action in collaboration with a variety of other incarcerated organizers.
“Sometimes We don’t have the ability to get outside, but We have the ability to contribute to fundraising efforts or host virtual events — possibilities are endless,” wrote coco. “Let’s get creative.”
Brooke Terpstra, a longtime organizer and member of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity (OA&S), a group that supports prisoners’ organizing efforts and works closely with JLS, told Truthout the organization will be responding to the call with tactics that promote relationship building. “We don’t live in a democracy. All your requests are for naught. So now what? You need a strategy,” he said. Through relationship building, OA&S hopes to build a revolutionary movement. “We are not a protest or demonstration group. We do care labor, communications, political education, jail support and community building.”
Instead of organizing a large demonstration, OA&S might bring toys and books to support families who are visiting their loved ones on August 21, a visiting day.
JLS is also encouraging people to use the days of action to boost, or start, abolitionist campaigns. For example, Families for Justice as Healing, a group of incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women and their loved ones, is organizing around halting the construction of a new women’s prison in Massachusetts and around freeing incarcerated women who are aging, sick, survivors of sexual violence and have served decades of time already. Supporters could amplify the JLS-supported Amend the 13th movement, which, in its own words, aims to abolish the “‘legal’ and social basis for the dehumanization of those subject to the judicial machinery of the United States.” The movement is pushing for the strategic release of incarcerated people who are over the age of 50.
Building on the 2018 National Prison Strike
This latest round of organizing builds on JLS’s 2018 National Prison Strike and Boycott, where incarcerated people participated in labor strikes, sit-ins, hunger strikes and boycotts in at least 16 states between August 21 and September 9 of that year. JLS’s media team successfully launched 10 demands into the public sphere through independent and mainstream media coverage. Demands included an immediate end to prison slavery (meaning uncompensated or undercompensated labor); an immediate improvement to the conditions of prisons; and an end to life-without-parole sentences. In December 2020, their ninth demand was met when Congress reinstated Pell Grants for incarcerated students.
JLS is amplifying the same demands this year, while substituting the fulfilled ninth demand with a call for the release of all political prisoners.
Although JLS’s demands include incremental changes, they are “non-reformist reforms,” meaning reforms that decrease the footprint of the U.S. carceral system, according to organizers. JLS is ultimately an abolitionist formation. “When We say ‘Shut’em Down’ We mean just that,” wrote coco. “We are clearly stating that in 2021 — more prisons are being built, conditions are worsening, surveillance and repression are Heightening. Therefore, reform, aka contradictorily working with the enemy, is not a viable option for any long-term success and sustainability. We are demanding the total liberation of Our people and nothing less than that will be recognized.”
Criminalized communities must develop their own infrastructure to combat divestment and the prison pipeline, according to coco. The New Afrikan Liberation Collective, for example, bought land and is raising funds for a community center in Indiana that will feature child care, a food co-op and re-entry programs for incarcerated people.
Castle hopes all supporters will take similarly concrete steps toward an abolitionist future this year. “Every year people hold talks around the significant prisoners’ history of August 21, 1971 and September 9, 1971,” wrote Castle. “Essentially, they have meant nothing but token gestures towards our current struggles inside. We are asking people to step up in the true spirit of those they like to speak on during those dates. Step up in the spirit of abolition. Recognize the struggle never ended, and that we are still organizing based on the same issues they faced back then.”