Filed under: Analysis, Community Organizing, Incarceration, Southwest, White Supremacy
Report from Oakland Abolition and Solidarity that looks back on an eventful year of abolitionist organizing in prisons and jails across the bay area of California and beyond.
“We need society connecting us, not solely with other predominantly white social movements but also many people who survive without compromise in this world on fire. We are not individuals acting on our moral impulses—we are a social force becoming aware of its power. Becoming powerful is a matter of making our story a place to inhabit, of making our story material. We dream in the face of nightmares, not as an escape into an alternative reality but as a weapon to change this one.”
— XXXXXX, incarcerated at Lanesboro CI, Polkton, NC
To Struggle Means We’re Alive:
prisoners speak out on Ferguson,
Baltimore, and the ongoing revolt
against the police
There is so much focus on nonprofits, mass movement building, and electoral politics. We’d like to share with you some proof that a handful of principled people – with commitment and follow-through, operating through a healthy collective process – can accomplish more than you might expect.
We did this independent of any sort of mass movement – the abolition movement is small and beset with difficulties. Without any support from nonprofits (and, fortunately, with relatively little interference from them, though it’s always a threat). Without any “help” from elected officials (and in spite of the election creating massive distractions from grassroots material work).
You can do this too. We can all reach out to the people around us, identify work that needs to happen, and get things done together, now. Here’s some of what we did in 2020.
The pandemic presented the possibility of serious challenges for our jail support program. However, because we rose to the occasion, we found the situation actually created opportunities and momentum. To safely support people being released from Santa Rita Jail, we not only got all the necessary precautions in place so we could continue greeting people outside the jail, we were also able to scale up in ways we’ve never been able to before. We’ve expanded to covering multiple nights a week. We continued offering folks food and drink in a COVID-safe way, plus distributing PPE and information sheets about the pandemic.
Jail Support Ride Program
Circumstances also demanded that we seriously expand our rides program. In March, BART stopped running after 9pm – but the jail would release people too late to catch the last train, stranding them in Dublin. So we changed our ride program to start giving people rides directly home, rather than to the BART station.
We are looking for more volunteers to give rides from Santa Rita Jail at night in a COVID-safer way, and to help cover the costs of rideshares when they’re needed. Contact us at [email protected].
Jail Support Training
Word got around about our jail support work. People started asking us for guidance on how to start their own local programs, so we started to develop training materials and resources. We’ve led four training sessions so far, each ranging from 10 to 40 people from other cities and states.
If your group is starting a jail support program, we’re happy to share what we know about doing this sort of work.
Monitoring and Fighting Against Santa Rita Jail
The pandemic added a dire new element to the already dangerous conditions inside. Our members closely monitored conditions in Santa Rita jail throughout 2020, reported on them, and supported prisoners’ demands regarding their health and well-being.
Some of our members helped launch the Santa Rita Jail Solidarity coalition, along with a website (https://srjsolidarity.org/) dedicated to documenting the testimonies of people trapped there. This coalition promoted a collective grievance written by prisoners in Santa Rita, as part of a fight which led to the release of hundreds of prisoners from the jail.
We monitored COVID outbreaks in the jail as the year progressed, and helped organize and promote multiple phone campaigns to support prisoners’ demands. For example, we drew attention to repression against prisoners for being outspoken about unsafe conditions inside. We participated in the fight against a budget grab by the Sheriff to direct funds at guards rather than prisoners’ healthcare. We pushed to end specific instances of medical neglect, resulting in multiple prisoners getting some much-needed healthcare.
Stimulus Money for Prisoners
In September, a legal ruling said incarcerated people were eligible for stimulus money from the CARES Act. Because of the application deadline, we initially had less than a week to get the word to prisoners for them to be able to apply.
But because our members were on top of the information as it was developing, and because we’ve been sending out mass-mailings for years, we were able to pull this off despite the incredibly short notice. We sent out an emergency mailing not only to people in Santa Rita, but to hundreds of prisoners around California, including 1040 forms and instructions how to apply.
We also created a template for how to do this, providing a model for many other groups around the country.
The Fight Against CDCr
On the statewide front, we’ve continued to build our relationships with prisoners and their families, and support autonomous organizing around CDCr facilities throughout California.
During the months of July through October, we worked with We Are Their Voices, a group of prisoners’ family members who organized a series of rallies at prisons across the CDCr system. We joined them at over a dozen rallies, and stood with them as they took the pressure straight to the department secretary’s doorstep, as covered by the website Perilous, a chronicle of prisoner unrest across the U.S. and Canada.
A major focus of our work was CSATF in Corcoran. We have relationships with people inside there that go back years, and for months we had been building relationships with family members who were organizing in response to the state’s negligence with COVID at CSATF and elsewhere. In the midst of the worst system wide Covid outbreak of the year, three prisoners in CSATF engaged in a month-long hunger strike, an even longer work stoppage, and they are still engaged in ongoing resistance. Because of our relationships inside and outside, when the strike began we were able to hit the ground running to provide media attention and critical support. We had several prisoner testimonies published (1 2 3), gave public comment at state legislator meetings, and sent individual letters to administration, etc, all prior to the strike. We also promoted a phone zap towards the beginning of the strike.
Our work supporting the hunger strike and the concern around COVID helped get media attention for the outbreaks (not only in CSATF, but across the system) that would not have happened otherwise. Our efforts also helped escalate the pace of organizing on the outside, and the strikers’ exercise of refusal in this way caught attention from the inside as well. Throughout the process, we built powerful relationships, and we continue to build on this solidarity and trust.
We also collaborated with other family groups, supporting actions such as a car caravan around CDCr headquarters.
Hosting and Coordinating the National IWOC Conference
In January we planned, coordinated, and programmed the four-day national IWOC conference! We brought together dozens of people from across the IWOC national network, offering numerous sessions of skill sharing and mentoring. We were able to share resources with people we’ve been collaborating with for years, and offer support to new groups just getting off the ground.
We were fortunate to have been able to have this conference face-to-face right before the pandemic. This time spent together in person helped cement the relationships among abolitionists from all over the country, and the national network of prisoner solidarity has only grown stronger.
Big Changes for Our Group
Back in 2016, we started out as a local offshoot of a national labor organization. Over time, we found that organization’s approach didn’t quite match up with how people inside were organizing. Although we had operated with a lot of autonomy all along, in April we formally separated from the national organization.
In some ways, this involved reinventing ourselves: new name, new logo, new website, disentangling administrative details from the national organization. In most ways, though — our members, our principles, our strategy, and our actual day-to-day work — we have continued completely unchanged.
Most of the people in our outside group are white, and most of the people we know inside are not. We’re very conscious of the role of race in creating and maintaining incarceration, and the ways that whiteness helps maintain it even through conventional efforts to “reform” it. But despite our constant awareness of race, in 2020 a person of color left the group because of the overwhelming nature of white-dominated spaces. They are still a close friend, and we often collaborate, but their departure prompted us to begin an ongoing process of education and self-evaluation to study whiteness and how it shows up in our work.
We regularly meet to discuss the many negative ways that whiteness commonly influences political organizing, and how to spot these tendencies among ourselves and prevent them from adversely affecting our relationships with prisoners, their families, and outside organizations. Because whiteness is presented as the default way to be human in the U.S.A., its characteristics can be hard for white people to recognize. This makes it all the more difficult for white people to notice when they are doing things like centering themselves, indulging in “white saviorism,” presuming their experiences or culture are universal, engaging in charity rather than solidarity, being exclusionary, engaging in tokenism, or any of a number of other issues. We are dedicated to doing whatever we can to prevent things like these from adversely affecting our work, and our ongoing engagement in this process of reflection helps us avoid such problems.
2021 and Beyond
What do we hope to cultivate for the future? In addition to maintaining and expanding what we’re already doing, we’d love to see more small autonomous groups like ours. Here are some things a small group can make happen, with little to no budget:
• Pen Pals
• Autonomous Media – video, podcasts, essays, books, comics, social media
• Healing – healing circles for ex-incarcerated
• Reentry Support – reentry help lines
• Jail Support – Let’s have jail support at every county building!
This is just scratching the surface. The key is not to try and do everything, but to just find something real to work on and work the hell out of it.
Want to get involved with what we’re doing, but curious to learn more about how? We host periodic orientation sessions to introduce folks into the work and how to plug into it. If you would like to learn more, please send us an email and we’ll send the details to you!