You can build walls all the way to the sky and I will find a way to fly above them. You can try to pin me down with a hundred thousand arms, but I will find a way to resist. And there are many of us out there, more than you think. People who refuse to stop believing. People who refuse to come to earth. Author Lauren Oliver
Without active resistance by the oppressed and their allies, none of the major shifts we have seen in society over the past centuries would have occurred, from the end of slavery to the right of women to vote. At any one moment, many struggles large and small rage on, with the number of defeats outnumbering victories. (Think Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter). Each of those struggles result in some brave, selfless individuals being imprisoned, wounded, even losing their lives. Is the sacrifice worth it? It’s a question that is difficult, if not impossible, to answer in the moment. And for the individual, it is almost always “no.” But when seen in terms of the bending toward justice of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “arc of the moral universe,” the answer is more likely to be yes.
“Change takes a long time, but it does happen,” notes Deborah Ellis, who directs NYU’s Public Interest Law Center. “Each of us who works for social change is part of the mosaic of all who work for justice; together we can accomplish multitudes.”
At what price do we resist?
Some environments are more challenging than others when it comes to resistance, however. And prison is one of them. The balance of power between commanding officers and inmates is so skewed toward the COs, and the lack of public scrutiny and empathy is so stark, that resistance seems totally futile as the years tick by.
People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” Assata Shakur, who escaped from prison and now lives in exile in Cuba
And yet, the abuse within prison walls is so rampant and brutal it is as needed there as anywhere — which is why people like George Jackson (an incarcerated Black liberation icon of the ’60s) still figure so large today. He never stopped agitating — and he paid for it with his life.
I’m currently warehoused in a county jail that contracts with the federal Bureau of Prisons. If we feel like we’re wronged here, we can sign a grievance, but if we’re ignored — as in most cases, we are — there is no access to the courts. The administration refuses to provide the necessary 1983 form. There’s a guy here right now who’s Muslim and wants a particular type of Quran, written for his sect. They won’t provide it or allow anyone to send it to him. So, they’re denying him his right to practice his religion and he should be able to file a lawsuit. It’s a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
Out of sight, out of mind
Some jails, like the one in D.C., are located in progressive cities, with people nearby who care and are watching. And even if they aren’t watching, word will get out. After all, the jail is located in their midst. (I want to give a shout out to a new group, called Neighbors for Justice, that has as its mission, in part, to “increase awareness among the neighborhood on the lived experience of our neighbors in the jail…”) However, many jails and virtually all prisons are located in rural areas where we are out of sight, out of mind, except for those who work there — -and the urge to protect their source of income is strong.
“Prisons are black boxes,” says David Fathi, director of the ACLU prison project. “There is very little information available about what happens in prisons.”
Profiles of resistance
Of course, resistance still occurs. For example, when inmates are locked down for days with no explanation or without a justifiable cause, they flood their cells (by plugging their toilets) and start fires (using batteries). And the response is double down on the lockdown.
It is more effective to fight back using what matters to prison administrations the most: money — for example, by refusing to buy anything from the commissary or to work at our jobs. We cook the meals, clean up after the officers, take out the trash. We do everything. If we didn`t do any work, the jail wouldn’t be able to run. But we all have to act together to have an impact, and that’s why the administration uses a divide-and-conquer strategy. Residents are deliberately separated by race, geography, length of sentence, etc. It’s almost impossible to come to a consensus on anything.
Meanwhile, because of the built-in divisions, somebody usually ends up informing on the leaders of acts of resistance. And then the leaders are sent to the hole or the ADX [maximum-security facility].
There have been times such actions have been effective. One of the most famous was New York’s Attica uprising in 1971. The spokesperson, 21-year-old Elliott James “L.D.” Barkley, explained it this way: “We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace, that means each and every one of us here, have set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”
The uprising took place two weeks after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison and involved 1,281 of Attica prison’s approximately 2,200 inmates. Forty-two prison staff members were taken hostage. During the following four days of negotiations, authorities agreed to most of the prisoners’ 28 demands, except for amnesty from criminal prosecution and the removal of Attica’s superintendent. The cost was high, however: At least 43 people were killed (including 10 correctional officers and civilian employees).
Still, some significant gains were achieved and the uprising remains a lesson of what the human spirit can do when people are pushed to the edge. It’s not worth it to just act out and blow off steam like I see here. But when you’re talking systemic racism, inadequate health care and other issues of that importance, we need people like L.D. and George who are willing to sacrifice in order to benefit the group. We must never lay down in the face of oppression.
The challenge is that the age of George, Assata and L.D. was more political, militant and educated in historical context than today’s generation. They were more conscious and less what’s-in-it-for-me. They understood the influence of the “system.”
Building a power bloc
Families of the incarcerated also could be organized to become a potent force. But you’re mostly talking about people from lower-class families, working hard at their jobs all day. When they get home, they’re tired. They don’t have energy for a fight. And whatever financial resources they have they’ve spent on prison visits, phone calls, etc.
Ultimately, our mission must be to win voting rights for the incarcerated (like recently passed in D.C.) and then to turn these people behind bars and their families into a powerful bloc of influence. It’s time to shine the light of attention inside prison walls and hold the powers-that-be to account.
This post was co-written by Pam Bailey, Rob Barton’s in-the-world editor and collaborator.