The West Side Highway in New York, which traces Manhattan’s westerly edge, is dotted with luxury condo buildings and office blocks with views onto the Hudson River. Around 20th Street, an eleven-story modernist mural of geometric shapes, “Venus,” decorates the south face of a vast concrete block, but the famous painting by Knox Martin is now almost entirely obscured by a recently completed condo complex.
Just as “Venus” now goes largely unnoticed by the cars whizzing up and down the highway, so, too, does the building it decorates: Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium-security women’s prison and rare example of a state penitentiary in the middle of a major metropolis. I had never noticed Bayview myself, having passed that stretch of Manhattan hundreds of times. On Saturday evening, however, to mark the eve of Mother’s Day, I stood outside the prison with around 50 people making as much noise as possible.
Prison noise demonstrations – during which crowds stand outside correctional facilities chanting, whistling, banging drums and generally ruckus rousing – are intended to connect with inmates; a small gesture to remind prisoners that they are not forgotten. The demonstrations are pitched by anarchist solidarity networks across the world as actions in support of political prisoners, underpinned by the view that anyone imprisoned is, in a sense, a political prisoner (as the function of prisons and who gets deemed “criminal” are deeply political issues). Anarchist Black Cross – a network of collectives which have organized prisoner solidarity actions since the early twentieth century – regularly set up letter writing to individuals seemingly imprisoned because of their political positions and organize noise demonstrations worldwide.
The call out for Saturday’s demonstration from NYC Anarchist Black Cross spoke specifically to the issue of imprisoned mothers: “[O]n the eve of Mother’s Day NYC Anarchist Black Cross calls for a world without cages for all. We call for it during this time, because 2/3 of all women in prison are mothers and we recognize the forced separation of a child from their caregiver by the state as an act of violence,” it read. A recent Reuter’s article noted that women who give birth in prison have to hand their children over to a relative or put them up for adoption within 48 hours of giving birth. Most state penitentiaries are also remotely positioned, making visitation between incarcerated mothers and their children a challenge, especially for poor families without access to a car.
Noise demonstrations are often organized on calendar days set aside for celebration – celebration for the non-incarcerated, that is. Notably on New Year’s Eve, crowds gather yearly outside prisons in almost every state in the country. Indeed, a noise demonstration in New York last December 31, which garnered support from Occupy Wall Street participants, drew a crowd of 200 outside the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan and sparked a rowdy scene later that night in Zuccotti Park. On Saturday evening, the chants directed toward the women inside Bayview made clear the point of the demonstration:
“Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day! We will abolish the prisons one day!” the crowd shouted and more vociferously still, “You are not alone.”
I had never previously attended a noise demonstration and beforehand could not imagine what response a small group with noise-makers could possibly elicit from within the concrete edifice – whether inmates would hear or care. But as soon as the noise began, the small square windows of light began to flicker on and off – some at strobe-like speed – along the prison’s North side. Inmates, as regularly happens during noise demonstrations, were turning their cell lights on and off in recognition as we stared and shouted up at their windows. Gradually, too, indistinguishable figures came forward, visible in their cell windows only as waving silhouettes; they made heart signals with their arms and danced in-time to the inconsistent drum beats from the demonstration below.
Anarchist Black Cross want to see an end to all prisons. Many who do not share their fervor, however, still understand the controversial nature of the US prison system, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world (well over two million). It has long been criticized as an industrial complex, in which increasing the numbers of prisons (and so prisoners) is seen as a means to create jobs and cheap labor from inmates. Noise demonstrations in and of themselves do not manifest fleshed-out critiques or attacks on the carceral system – rather, they are a small way to reach out to, and assert solidarity with, those trapped within in it.
For over two hours on Saturday, scores of women inside Bayview stayed glued to their windows, waving; lights continued to flicker on and off and the crowd below continued to chant and bang any noise-making object available, including plastic street barricades caked in New York grime. All the while, prison guards and a handful of New York Police Department officers walked in front of the demonstrators, one officer constantly filming. When the demonstration finally came to a slow, drawn-out close, shouts of “thank you” and “we love you” could be heard from the cells above. Some prisoners held up sheets of paper to their windows, but to the crowd standing far below, their messages were illegible.
The gesture of the demonstration, although seemingly greatly appreciated by women inside Bayview, felt very small indeed as the inmates retreated from their windows and the prison building once again was silent and dark. We turned back onto the roaring West Side Highway, passed the gleaming new build which obscures the “Venus” mural which would never have been visible from any of the prison’s cells anyway.