Filed under: Anarchist Movement, Radio/Podcast, Repression
Rebel Steps returns with a new episode on how to set up defense committees in the face of repression.
If someone is facing charges of any kind, supporters might form a defense committee, basically a small group of people dedicated to supporting that individual through their trial and, if they serve time, once they are inside. This episode explores anti-fascist political prisoner David Campbell’s experience with a defense committee and the experience of K and Heena, members of Ashley Diamond’s defense committee and organizers with Survived and Punished.
Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
Last summer, upwards of 10,000 people were arrested during the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprisings.
For some of those people, their charges were dropped and, after a night or so in jail, they were let go. And hopefully, they were each met with the friendly faces of people doing jail support when they were let out. In those cases, the cops just wanted to get people off the streets and disrupt the protests, or they just didn’t have anything to really charge the arrestees with. But for others, it was a very different story. Some arrestees are set up as an example. The prosecutors heap on outrageous charges and drag the cases out, sometimes for years. And in both scenarios, behind each headline is a web of organizers supporting the arrestees. In the first scenario, that support might just be jail support. Something like handing out metro cards and water as people get out of jail. We have an episode about that in season 1 if you want to learn more. But in the latter case, that support is a little more involved. If an arrestee is facing a long struggle, supporters might form a defense committee, basically a small group of people dedicated to supporting that individual through their trial and, if they serve time, once they are inside. That’s what I’ll explore today.
While you might not be familiar with the term defense committee, you’re likely familiar with some of what they do. There’s a long history of creating defense committees for political prisoners in US, and some of the defense committees have made it into the history books or headlines.
Archival Audio: Free Huey! Black is Beautiful. Free Huey!
That’s audio from a Free Huey Rally on February 17, 1968, Huey Newton’s birthday. The Black Panther Party and other groups held a rally of 5,000 protesters in Oakland. The work to support Huey caught the attention of the media around the world. The coalition continued to organize until he was released two years later in 1970.
Angela Davis Audio: I’d love to tell them how grateful I am….
Angela Davis, Archival Audio: If it were possible at this very moment, I’d like to be meeting with all of the beautiful people who have struggled so hard and persistently and intensely for my freedom.
That’s Angela Davis speaking to the media in February 1972 on release from jail on bail after spending 16 months awaiting trial.
Angela Davis, Archical Audio: Unfortunately, because of they’re few restrictions in the bail order, I can’t do that. So I’m going to have to attempt to reach all of the struggling sisters and brothers in this way.
The campaign for Davis continued through her trial and included more than 200 local chapters within the US and over 60 in other countries. She received a not-guilty verdict in June 1972.
Huey & Angela’s defense groups eventually succeeded in freeing them. But other political prisoners’ cases from the past still continue today:
Democracy Now Audio: Hundreds of 1000s of people have signed petitions asking President Obama to release Native American activists Leonard Peltier. This is a video from Amnesty International, which has been pushing for President Obama to grant Leonard Peltier clemency. “I am everyone, whoever died without a voice. Or a prayer. Or a hope. Or a chance.” Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist who’s been in prison for 40 years, serving two consecutive life terms for a crime he maintains he did not commit adultery or was a member of the American Indian Movement. Founded in 1968, during the Civil Rights Movement, to advocate for the rights of Native Americans. “The only thing I’m guilty of struggling for my people.”
That was Democracy Now in December 2016. Leonard Peltier was arrested in 1972 and sentenced in 1977. Though supporters have continued to organize for his release, currently he is still incarcerated.
And as groups have continued to support longtime political prisoners, new cases emerge all the time. Some more recent examples include the Water Protector Legal Collective, organized in 2016 to support those arrested at Standing Rock, and Defend J20 Resistance, organized to support those arrested during the 2017 inauguration. When you start to look at the history, it’s impossible to list all the notable cases that benefited from defense committees.
First, I’ll be focusing on political prisoners, like I just described, and the way defense committees push back on repression. I’ll talk to David Campbell about his experience on the inside and Maura, a member of his defense committee, about her experience supporting him from the outside.
And, since everyone affected by the prison industrial complex is deserving of care and support, I’ll also be speaking to K and Heena from Survived and Punished NYC about defense committees in other contexts and how this contributes to the abolitionist movement more widely.
David Campbell’s Defense Committee
David: My name is David Campbell. I am an anti-fascist activist and former anti-fascist political prisoner, and my pronouns are he/him, I am affiliated with MACC, which is the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council in New York. I’ve been doing a little bit of work with ABC that’s Anarchist Black Cross, which is a political prisoner support organization that’s been around for a long time.
David has been interviewed on Rebel Steps once before in our Jail Support episode in Season 1. If you haven’t heard that part of the story, I recommend giving it a listen. But here’s a quick a recap of his case:
David: So I was arrested at a counter protest to an alt right event in Manhattan in January of 2018. It was a very boring protest until late at night and the fight broke out, maybe a half dozen people on each side, a drunk guy on the alt right side was knocked out. And a police officer kind of came while this fight was going on and just grabbed the first person he saw, without saying anything or telling anyone to stop. That person happened to be me. So this cop who is much bigger than me, grabbed me from behind and threw me to the ground. And when it did that, he broke my leg. I was the only one that was arrested. So the DA, you know, they were gonna make an example out of somebody, but I was only option they had. So I fought my case for almost two years. Ultimately, I ended up taking a non-cooperating plea deal to a gang assault charge, which gang assault was written into the law in the 90s under Giuliani and the Giuliani era, and it’s like impossible to beat. To cut my losses, I took a plea agreed to be sentenced to serve 18 months on Rikers Island. I did 12 months straight, I got six months earlier than my 18 month sentence.
In addition to interviewing David, I spoke with Maura, a member of David’s defense committee, about the experience of supporting David from the outside.
Maura: I am Maura. I am an anarchist. I am also an art historian, a new art historian. I’m currently in school to get a PhD in art history. I was part of a Defense Committee for David Campbell.
What is a defense committee?
To start out our discussion, I asked Maura and David to offer a little more detail on what a defense committee is.
David: A Defense Committee is a group of people that come together to support a defendant, meaning someone charged with a crime by the state , this is a long tradition in radical political movements. The idea is that they can help you make it through the extremely stressful process that is fighting political, or politicized criminal charges.
Maura: It shouldn’t have too many members, it should have the core group of people to rely on, you want to know the person that you’re supporting. So like their character, what their abilities are, a bit about their knowledge and their political ideology, if that’s really important. And then ideally, those individuals have various roles divided amongst this group that you formed that mostly reflects the skills and willingness of each member.
NEW EP 💖 Learn about defense committees & how you can get involved. Featuring former political prisoner David Campbell & Maura, a member of his defense, & @sheabutterfemme & @heenasharma_ of @freeashley_now & @survivepunishNY https://t.co/WC7aqA9pLR #FreeAshleyNow #FreeThemAll pic.twitter.com/5NYYwyFxjV
— Rebel Steps 🏴👟 (@RebelSteps) April 20, 2021
Maura and David told me about how David’s committee formed.
David: Groups of people would come over and just check in on me, while I was recovering from being attacked by this officer. We’d cook dinner together and hang out. Once it became clear that like, okay, my case is getting kind of serious, it started with an older, more experienced activist that I kind of knew from the anarchist activist world in New York, recommending to me that we form one. And I asked the handful of people that had been checking in on me, after my arrest, to become the core of my Defense Committee.
Maura: I’m friends with David. We met in DC for the J 20 Protests. When David was arrested, I was in a legal support working group. So I ended up doing legal support for him, along with some other members of that working group crew. In fact, all of us, became part of the Defense Committee. That’s how I came to be.
What does a defense committee do day to day?
Let’s take a look at what a committee does day to day. There’s a slew of things Defense Committees can help with, before or after sentencing.
David: So it’s designed to be about supporting the defendant whether or not they have to go away. And that can mean something as simple as just hanging out with the person to see how they’re doing. That can be handling logistical things. When I was arrested, I had my leg broken, I couldn’t get around. So I had people offering to come help me with laundry and groceries and things like that. While I was fighting my case, my Defense Committee was essential in just helping me stay sane. They were checking in with me all the time to see how I was doing. And people would be incredibly patient and just let me vent, right just did a lot of social support stuff that made facing these really scary charges easier, though still not easy. We met every week or so. And I’d update people about the case. People were researching case law and case strategy, came out to court appearances to show support, raised the money for me to help me get by, they put me in touch with all kinds of people that helped me kind of weather the the process of fighting criminal charges and prepare to go to jail, a radical therapist, self defense experts, former political prisoners. And then when I was inside, they organized the visit schedule, they made sure it was full, every week. They managed my website, forwarded me international mail, and online messages. They kept my commissary account full. They wrote me all kinds of letters themselves, they took my phone calls at all times a day. Anytime I needed books or clothing or anything else that I was allowed to have, I would just ask them, and they would order it for me and send it in.
Among other things, Maura helped with the finances.
Maura: David and I have joked that I’ve become his financial advisor. But I’m not a very good one. I took on the donations David received while he was away, so I did some light accounting, it’s not my favorite thing to do. But no one really jumps at the money tasks. I will say though, it was fun to tell him about how many donations he was getting. So that he could see all the support that he had. He had a great amount of support. And you can kind of hear his voice pick up over the phone, when I would relay some of those updates. I would also do social media, in that same light, like getting the word out about fundraisers if they were public.
In addition to offering more general support, David’s committee helped him with a special project; translating a book from French into English, all without access to the internet!
David: I had this French book that I was translating, while I was inside. So there’s no internet at Rikers. So I had to do the whole thing by hand with this giant French dictionary. And a number of people from my Defense Committee and a few people who were not on the Defense Committee came together and helped me with this translation. I would translate like a 30 pages section of this book. I’d write it out by hand, I’d mail this handwritten translation out to one of them, who would scan it, they’d take turns typing it up, and researching things I’d noted in the margins or whatever, then they’d print their version off and send it back to me, then I’d mark that up with corrections and send it back to them to add the corrections to the typed up version. It was a lot of work for everyone. But it was super cool to see it in action.
These sorts of projects are a great way to stay engaged with people on the inside. Another example of something similar is a reading group including those inside and outside. Don’t be afraid to get creative when supporting someone serving time
Defense Committee Fight Repression
By supporting our individual comrades, we can fight back back against repression more broadly.
Maura: A Defense Committee formed by anarchists, antifascists, abolitionists, this is a very tactical move, and it can be thought of as a tool to use against the state. So it’s an effort to build against the inherent violence in their power to control us and the individuals who are incarcerated, but also these larger political movements as well. Repression, especially in the form of human cages, is one of the strongest and most violent state tactics. So to fight against that is not going to be immediately satisfying, necessarily. You may lose by way of legal circumstance, like the charges become convictions and equal prison or jail time. It’s important for that next step, to not be defeat, it has to be creating power in that powerless position and showing the state that this isn’t a fight they’re going to win. I really think that people who have immense power in the state and to abuse it ,like prosecutors, judges, COs, police in general, politicians, they carry these images around them of success and winning by way of their power. But over time, I think these images that they have start to change and become manipulated in a sense by our own acts solidarity and resilience, like regular visitations or piles of letters in the mail room that an incarcerated person is receiving or Like, even, you know, a burning precinct or limo like, over time. These images that seem kind of hard to process for the state become threatening to them, and it just sends a message that we are not willing to lose. And so even in these like really dark times of, of incarceration, ultimately, we want to send the anti repression response of that is going to be the one that succeeds.
David: You have to do time, your time inside is going to be made way easier by people on the outside doing everything they can to make sure that, you know, you have all the little things that make time easier in jail. You’re sending a message to other people who have charges or make catch charges, right, that they’re not alone, that they’ll be taken care of. And it’s true, like people will take care of you. It’s super cool.
Ashley Diamond’s Defense Committee
My first exposure to prisoner support and defense committees was in cases of self-identified political prisoners, like David. But that’s not the only context in which we can use these formations and tactics. To learn more about defense committees, I spoke to some organizers from Survived and Punished, a coalition that includes many defense committees.
K: I’m K. I use they them pronouns. I am 26, and I live in Brooklyn, New York. I am a member of Survived and Punished. I’ve been a member for over two years now. And I’m also a co-creator of 8toabolition.com. I’ve been organizing for almost seven years now. And right now, most of my work revolves around ending the prison industrial complex. At my day job, I’m a social worker. If I’m not working or organizing I’m usually with my friends or my partner, or I’m reading and sleeping, I love sleeping.
Heena: I’m Heena. I use she and they pronouns, also a member of Survived and Punished New York. I think, for me, it’s been a little less than two years. I worked with K on the Disability Justice Mutual Aid Fund last summer. I’m a youth worker. I am based in Staten Island. If you know cool people and abolitionists Staten Island, connect me.
Survived and Punished seeks to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The organization began with a defense campaign for Marissa Alexander and was co-founded by Mariame Kaba who we did an interview with in July 2020. If you haven’t heard that episode, I highly recommend it! It will offer further context on abolition.
Heena: It started off originally in 2013 as a Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander Florida Black woman and mother of three who was criminalized and received a 20 year sentence for defending herself in a violent attack from her husband. It was during this time that you know fighting for Marissa that one of the co founders Mariame Kaba who many folks know from Twitter as @Prisonculture, she was raising awareness specifically around how women of color, Black women, and gender nonconforming people of color are criminalized for self defense, and this is just exacerbated by the prison industrial complex. Eventually, that group became Love and Protect, which was then an affiliation of a few different defense campaigns and grassroots groups that grew to become Survived and Punished. Coalition’s focus is really around eradicating the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and all the violence that contributes to it.
K: Right now we have chapters in New York, Chicago, and in California. We’re completely volunteer run, which I think is really important because I feel like the work we’re able to do with a base of volunteers I think, is really impressive.
In addition to organizing with Survived and Punished the group, Heena and K are both part of the defense committee for Ashley Diamond, a Black, transgender woman, and prisoners’ rights activist. She is currently imprisoned because of a technical parole violation and is incarcerated at Coastal State Prison in Garden City, Georgia.
The story of how this defense committee formed goes back 6 years to when K first met Ashley.
K: When I was living in Georgia, I was organizing with a group that no longer exists, but the group was called get equal. And we were an LGBTQ group that was pretty much working on every issue but marriage equality at the time. During my job, I was introduced to Ashley Diamond because she was coming home from being incarcerated and we were working with students to throw her a welcome home party. As we were like working on the party, and I got to know her, I learned that she’s a Black trans woman who’s really an activist who actually sued the Georgia Department of Corrections and one, and she sued because they were not taking care of her health needs specifically, as a trans person.
Ashley Diamond, Interview Audio: I’ll never forget when they called my name off the bus because there’s a roster. And I’ll never forget when they said Ashley Diamond, and I stood up, and they were like, what that was their exact words.
Interviewer: What’s going on with your hormone treatment, and just that part of the equation?
Ashley Diamond, Interview Audio: They were like, we’re not gonna give you that. But we’re gonna, the state of Georgia was gonna make a man out of me. And I was told that often. Somebody’s got to fight somebody. So I encourage whoever that is, that may be listening, or if it’s something you need to change, the only way it’s gonna change is if you change it. And people always say, What can I do? I’m one person. It only took one person, look at history, it always takes one person.
K: At the time, I wasn’t really able to make the connections between Ashley’s case, and like a larger system that was keeping like Black trans woman, incarcerated or criminalized. I wouldn’t say I was an abolitionist at the time, like I was able to be like, oh, Ashley should be free. But I wasn’t able to, like think deeply about like, why it was that she was incarcerated in the first place. So after the welcome home party, Ashley and I just remained Facebook friends. Now, it’s like maybe six ish years since then. And I was scrolling on Facebook three or four months ago. And I saw an article featuring Ashley. And so when I saw it, I was like, why is someone sharing an article about Ashley from six years ago, and I clicked on it and realized that she’s re incarcerated again, at the same prison. Through reaching out to her on JPay, I was just able to learn more about her case.
Just a quick definition here, JPay is a system for communicating via email and sending money to people who are incarcerated. It’s extremely exploitative, but it’s one of the quicker ways to communicate with people inside a facility.
K: I just knew that like now, especially with the network I have, and also the analysis I have and the resources I have that I couldn’t just be like, oh, someone I knew is now in jail and not do something about it. So working with her, we were able to talk about like, what it would look like to actually provide meaningful support for her. And that’s where the campaign to Free Ashley Diamond came from. I just wanna name that this is my first Defense Committee. It’s really been a learning experience.
Heena got involved after receiving an invitation from K.
Heena: I worked with K last year and like we’re also an S&P New York together. And I’ve been supporting different people in S&P who are incarcerated with like fundraising and mutual aid. But I hadn’t been a part of someone’s support team until K reached out. Ashley’s story is just horrible. And unfortunately, you know, it’s one of many. And so I just wanted to be able to uplift her story.
Like they mentioned, this was K and Heena’s first time participating in a defense committee. But they were able to get started on the work thanks for the resources from Survived and Punished.
K: Even though I hadn’t done a Defense Committee before, Survived and Punished has a really helpful toolkit on starting your own Defense Committee. And that was pretty much my Bible in the beginning. So I read it. And then when I was putting the group together for Ashley, everyone read the toolkit and then came prepared.
Once the committee got started, the work looked similar to some of the work David’s defense committee did, covering things like fundraising and communication.
K: Right now we have a group of people that worked on the petition. And then we have group of people that were focused just on fundraising, this group found a way to like sign up Ashley for Patreon. And we connected with Ashley’s friend to make sure she had access to the funds. And then there’s also a group that’s working on re entry. So like working on helping create a parol plan for when Ashley is free. Every couple of days, we’ll talk to her on JPay. And the issue is with JPay, everything that set on there can be read by officials. So I’m JP we’re just checking in with her. And then once or twice a week, I’ll talk to Ashley on the phone. Throughout the week, we’ll do stuff like we’ll have a phone zap and basically demand that her basic needs are met. And we’ll also troubleshoot. So a lot of the Defense Committee work is actually interacting with her lawyers because her lawyers can have their calls off the record. So we’ve played like a really elaborate version of like telephone. I wasn’t expecting there to be so much strategy work, and there’ll be some weeks where I feel like everything is working on this campaign, non-stop and everything’s very quick moving. And then there’ll be some weeks like this week where I think it’s pretty laid back
Abolition is the Goal
While the short term goals of the committee are to support and eventually free Ashley Diamond, K and Heena see this work as part of a larger abolitionist movement.
K: Before the campaign started, we went over our principles and goals. And if you go on the website it says like explicitly like we are abolitionists. When we are talking about it, especially to individual people, like we’re making it plain like Ashley should be free. And also every person who’s incarcerated should be free. We are not playing into this narrative like that Ashley should be free just because she did the certain things, like she should be free because she took a certain amount of classes, or things like that. Because we’re not like a legal team. When we’re constructing our strategy. We don’t have to rely on tropes like that, like, Oh, it was a non violent offense. As abolitionists, we believe that any prisoner is a political prisoner, not just the person who’s innocent, or someone who’s incarcerated for just doing like political work. So being able to name the prison industrial complex as being inherently bad, no matter who’s interacting with it, I think allows us to be more imaginative when it comes to our organizing. And I also think that it’s really helpful that Heena and I are in Survived and Punished because we have like a shared analysis. One of the most important things about being a member of Survived and Punished is being able to realize that there’s no such thing as like, a perfect victim, and just realizing that people are people and we’re working to free them all, without being corny!
You may feel like there’s a tension between these goals. Is focusing on an individual the way to create systemic change? In short, absolutely.
K: I think people who think that they’re individualistic in nature aren’t really thinking, as organizers. For example, the campaign to Free Marissa was about one person, but look what came of it: Survived and Punished. And another thing that’s important about defense campaigns, is because they’re abolitionist, they’re also giving people a starting point to make connections, like I said, when I realized that Ashley should be free, that led to me interrogating my belief that there are some people who should be free and some people who shouldn’t be. I’m writing a book. And there’s going to be a section on survivor defense campaigns. During this researching process, I’m just realizing like how how important these are like, for example, like if you read Angela Davis’s autobiography, like she talks about the importance of a defense campaign. And then in the 70s, I believe there’s a survivor defense campaign to free a Black woman named Joan Little. And that campaign really inspired so many people across the country. In fact, like Angela Davis wrote, in support of that campaign.
The Joann Little campaign is another important part of defense committee history. Here’s Angela Davis describing that campaign:
Angela Davis: There was a young woman by the name of Joan Little, who had been charged with the killing of a jail guard. As a result of the the involvement of many different people, people who were involved in the Black movement, people involved in the movement for the freedom of political prisoners, feminists who were beginning to take up the question of rape, got involved. The outcome of a trial was a very positive one. She was found, actually, she was found not guilty. It was important, not only because it resulted in the acquittal of Joan Little, but also because it demonstrated what we could do if we could only come together if we could recognize that somehow, differences did not mean that we could not work together. And that, that working on different issues didn’t mean that we couldn’t discover the connections and the intersections and the way in which they were cross hatched. And, you know, overlaying so it was, it was a powerful, powerful moment, when we are striving to free individuals, myself included, it’s not simply in order to get that one single person free. It’s an order to make a point, that power can be generated by communities of people coming together.
As I discussed in our media episodes, stories are an important part of organizing. Here’s Heena.
Heena: Here’s enough, I’ve been learning over the past few years, just like the extent to which women including like trans women, are survivors of sexual violence, even before being incarcerated, right, let alone during incarceration. Prison is a source of like sexual violence, right? And this is targeting Black woman more, women of color more and like people who are gender non-conforming and non-binary. And I think for me to like, at first I was like, oh, how does an individual’s campaign contribute to this larger movement, but I think it’s because it’s an opportunity to use someone’s story, not in like an objectifying way, but in a way of like really building solidarity with this particular person who is a person who deserves to be treated as a human and with compassion. Because, you know, we know that it’s hard for folks to connect with numbers and percentages and data. And so it’s just really meaningful to uplift specific people’s stories, because we’re trying to make these connections between other people’s stories as well. And even just in terms of like an organizing standpoint, I think it’s really important to be able to see all the work and like everything that happened to free folks, and to really celebrate when folks are successful, right. And so to learn so much from the free Marissa campaign, and to just like, use those as like ways to celebrate our work as well. It’s very hard to do this work where it’s like you’re in the face of these, like really oppressive systems. And sometimes it’s hard to have hope, and you want to hold hope even for those incarcerated survivors that you’re supporting, right. And so I think it’s really important to make these connections and think about how much we can get done when we really work together and celebrate our victories.
— Rebel Steps 🏴👟 (@RebelSteps) April 21, 2021
While K emphasizes the importance of these committees from a strategic and organizational perspective, they also note that it’s okay to focus on the individual, too.
K: If we were just focusing on an individual, that would be okay too! Who is to say, like, oh, you’re spending too much time or resources on an incarcerated Black trans woman, or like, Oh, you’re spending too much time, like working to get someone that you love and care about out. Like, even if it was individualistic in nature, like incarcerated people are still people, and they deserve to have people investing time and labor and love into them.
Heena: Often, we’re so stuck in this scarcity mindset. I mean, it’s real, in terms of like the same $20 being passed around for mutual aid, you know, like, all those kinds of things. And like, we can’t like buy into that, and then limit ourselves about what is possible. And that includes, like thinking about, like, we can’t just focus on this one person, because so many people need to be free. But then what are you going to do, you’re just going to do a really bad job of helping everyone? We have to start somewhere right and build power.
if you’re interested in helping with Ashley’s case, check out FreeAshleyDiamond.com for links to donate, sign the petition, and more.
Starting a Committee and Getting Involved
Starting a Defense Committee
So, you know what defense committees can do, and why they’re important, and maybe you want to start or join one. If you’re facing charges, David has some advice for you.
David: Alright, if you’re facing political charges, I know it sucks. It’s scary. And you might have to do time, hopefully not a lot, right. But regardless of what happens, you can make the process way less painful and way less scary. Get a couple friends together, and ask them to be on your Defense Committee. See who has what skills and specialize the tasks that need to be taken care of, according to who’s willing to handle them, who’s better equipped to handle them. If you don’t know anybody in the radical community, or the activist community, wherever you are, or wherever your case is, just pull together a few people you have some sort of trust with and ask them if they’d be willing to form a Defense Committee. You don’t have to be best friends. And I didn’t really know most of the people that ended up joining my Defense Committee. But I had a good sense of kind of who they were, how they were, I’d seen them at enough protests and actions and meetings, to where I had a good read on them. And I was like, 99% sure they weren’t cops. Don’t have to be best friends. If you’re not plugged into the activist community at all, if you don’t have an anarchist, friends or whatever. Do you know anyone in the activist world or the anarchist world you could reach out to who might be able to put you in touch? Because you honestly be amazed at how willing people are to extend solidarity to someone who’s been arrested for the movement, even a total stranger. If those aren’t open to you, they just get a few people together, even if you have to kind of explain your politics or the circumstances of your arrest. And just make sure that people who know you well, or people who show good judgment, level headed people, patient people. One other thing that I would recommend for anyone facing political charges, get a copy of the Tilted Scales Collective’s book The Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant. It is totally invaluable for defendants with political cases. You don’t have to be a super political person to have a political case, by the way, right. Like if you were arrested at a protest, and the DA is going hard on you, you have a political case. These these don’t necessarily apply only to people who are like hardened radical activists.
And if you’re considering joining a committee, he has some advice for you too!
David: So I would recommend to anyone that’s participating in a Defense Committee on the outside or who has been asked, it can seem like a lot like a huge investment. And it is. But also know that if you need to take time off, you can do that. So don’t be afraid to say that, like, you’re going to do what you can. And you’ll communicate clearly, if you need to step back. Like that’s okay. I would also just ask that people be patient with their defendant. It is incredibly stressful to be facing charges. I sometimes felt like I was cracking, like I was just like, my head was just like explode. Have at least one person bottom lining, everything you do. This person is bottom lining researching case law, this person is bottom lining setting up a website, this person is bottom lining researching facilities the defendant might get sent to and so on and hold each other accountable for these responsibilities. Keep your communications clear and honest, don’t go behind anyone’s back. You have to come at it with a sense of being being willing to work. And I’m saying this as a defendant, right? Like, this is what I saw people on my Defense Committee doing. And it worked. It worked well. If you’re on a Defense Committee, I want to be you when I grow up!
Maura also has some advice from working on David’s campaign.
Maura: Make sure that you only say yes to things that you absolutely can do. So be careful about making big promises or commitments, because you may not be able to keep those. And you don’t want to do that to yourself or to your friends. So I think that there’s a balance that is important to figure out, so you’re not like creating unintentional harm or stress for yourself or the person that you’re supporting. Because there will inevitably be things that will make you feel defeated or worried in the process. And you’re going to want to do everything you can. But you also really, really want to make sure you’re equipped to do that work. And then also, even just saying yes to being on the Defense Committee, I think you want to make sure that you can do it for the long haul. I guess I feel strongly about that. Because it does. you know, it’s slow. It’s a slow process, and sometimes not winning a legal battle or something like that can be a big challenge. So if you don’t want to get your hopes up, but you also don’t want to promise too much.
K and Heena from Survived and Punished also shared some advice for those joining defense committees, especially if you’re working with survivors.
Heena: You’re going to make mistakes. Things are not going to be perfect, and you’re going to learn a lot of things on the fly. And that you should try to support survivors anyway. For me, like I’m a very like anxious perfectionist. So sometimes I’m just like, sitting with like, I cannot mess up like, this is such important work, like trying to ground myself and like humility, and like a willingness to learn and to like de-center, myself, honestly. Folks should really like check their assumptions and biases that we know we all have that are very deeply ingrained, and that we might not even realize how they are coming out. No matter how much of an abolitionist you are, how much you’ve read, but you know, just trying to do the vigilant work of like, reflecting on like, what’s coming up for you while you’re doing this work and like how it’s okay to be wrong, but like to be accountable and to like, want to grow. You know, remembering that this is about supporting the survivor. And this is about being in solidarity and not about trying to save someone, right, because we don’t want to play into tropes about incarcerated people, especially Black women, especially Black trans women about like saving them from this violence. And there’s a lot of internal work that I think folks need to do and be like open to doing, while not letting that keep them from trying.
K: I would just say expect things to take three times as long because you’ll have a plan and like that plan can be great. And then suddenly the prison isn’t taking calls, or Jpay is down, or there’s something going on nationally, or Ashley has some feedback, but you have to wait until she talks to her lawyers. So just being able to realize that the work is urgent, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll always get to do things on our schedule.
Other Ways to Get Involved
You may not know someone who needs you in their defense committee right now, but there are still plenty of ways you can contribute to this struggle.
David: One case that is getting a lot of attention right now, but not nearly enough is Loren Reed that’s l o r e n space r e e d. This is a person who has been sitting in federal jail for like six months now, because of comments he made on Facebook. That’s a huge repression case. If you check out Anarchist Black Cross, ABC, they have a list of mostly like long timers, political prisoners who was serving like life. If you want to write write a letter to one of those guys, they’d be happy to hear from you.
Maura: I would observe the calls put out by Certain Days calendar, which is a calendar that compiles and produces stories from political prisoners and former political prisoners. And they also do organizing work as well, like fundraising events.
Heena: Looking locally, I think is really important. You know, think about like, do you know, where the closest prisons to you are? Like, do you know what they’re like? Do you know if there’s any campaigns to get rid of them? You know, you know, like, there’s all sorts of things that you can look into. And because unfortunately, the prison industrial complex, so complex, like, there’s all sorts of policing things, right? Like, you can think about the movement to like end Child Protective Services, right? Because that’s also another way of policing. Like thinking about school to prison pipeline. Thinking about like foster care. Like, there’s all these different systems that are so punitive that there are many ways in every possible field that you can look at to see how you can get involved.
K: My number one piece of advice for people who are like, wow, like I just found out like that we should abolish prisons like what do I do now, like, you need to join a group, that doesn’t mean that you need to join Survived and Punished. And it doesn’t mean that your group needs to be massive, it could just be you and your friend, and your cat or something. But you need to like, work together with other people. You can start small, you can work with another person to read daily about the prison industrial complex. You can spend an afternoon researching like how prisons in your area are funded. You can collaborate with like other groups, who are maybe not in your local area who are doing this work and ask if you can start a chapter in your area. The important part for me is doing this work with other people. And I mean, not to talk about Mariame all the time, but like one of the things she says is like everything worthwhile is done with other people. Because anyone can have an opinion on anything. Anyone can say, oh, everyone should be free, oh the prison industrial complex is racist, like, that’s a really easy part. Just having an opinion. What actually matters is like what you’re doing with that opinion, and what you’re doing with it every single day. So my biggest piece of advice is to find other people who are passionate about this, or at least passionate about learning about this. And then look at like the resources that like groups have online, and maybe you host a letter reading night, or maybe you can do a fundraiser like those are just some simple things that people can do, even if they don’t necessarily see themselves as organizers.
Bernice Johnson Reagon Singing: “What is she to you? Joan Little, She’s my sister, Joan Little, She’s your mama, Joan Little, She’s your lover, Joan, the woman who…? that carried your child. I’ve always been told, since the day I was born… Keep your nose clean. Keep your butt off the street. You gonna be judged by the company you keep. Said I always walked by the golden rule …. controversy I stayed real cool. Til along came this woman… Breaking the law. The next thing I heard as it came on the news, first degree murder, she was on the loose. Joan, Joan…
That’s Bernice Johnson Reagon, an activist and musician, singing her song about the Joan Little case, reminding us of the connections between a single case and the lives of those around us.
Defense committees are one tactic for pushing back against repression and for working toward an abolitionist future. It’s a way to support individuals in our communities while also trying to change the bigger picture. Check out the show notes for more resources and ways to get involved.
You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Special thanks to our interviewees, David, Maura, K and Heena. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
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