Inside/Outside: Demo at San Quentin Prison

All photos from demo: some taken by me, others taken by friends.

When I heard of the call raised In Oakland, California, to “Occupy the Prisons,” I gasped. It was not an especially radical call, but it was right on time.

~Mumia Abu Jamal, Souls On Ice

As the carload of us walks back along the two-lane road toward the parking area, leaving a crowd of 500 or so outside the east gate of San Quentin, clusters of military-looking guards stud the hills above us, watching through sunglasses. We’re tired from walking and standing for a few hours. I’m feeling cranky, and a little disappointed. What was I expecting? Maybe the Occupy/Decolonize events have spoiled me with their frequent snake marches and militant ruckus-making. Shutting down banks; shutting down ports; attempting to take empty buildings for community use. Being near San Quentin (my first time) has me itching to tear down a wall or two.


There are good reasons for urgency here. Psychological torture of solitary confinement. The particular variety of U.S.-sanctioned murder that is “capital punishment.” Immigrant detention centers. Life imprisonment without parole. Unpaid labor by inmates. Lucrative prison construction; private prisons. The generally dehumanizing conditions inside: conditions that inspire work strikes, hunger strikes. Guantánamo. A new law allowing for indefinite detention without charge or trial.

But outside the gates of San Quentin, surrounded by visible and hidden state guns, what are we to do? Consciousness raising and calling out the government seems to be the default. The little (big?) crowd cheers on speaker after speaker, many of whom invoke human rights discourse — some calling on the UN to forbid certain common incarceration practices. They urge us to phone the governor. Hey, I don’t really have a better idea. But I sure don’t trust reforms to last, to *not* be rolled back or shifted into the same ugly equilibrium some other way. So although I bear witness spiritually, and my skin ripples at the words of a political poem or the sight of a queer+feminist anti-capitalist banner, I find myself wishing, again, for more strategic analysis.


How can we go broader, and really forge some strong allegiances in the international fight against prisons? What’s the relationship among profitable prisons, deindustrialization of the U.S., cheap labor abroad facilitated by neoliberal policy, and the “War on Drugs” as a generator of what might be considered a double reserve army: convicts tortured and disenfranchised inside; (im)migrants terrorized and disenfranchised outside? What true power can we leverage to materially move closer to prison abolition? What does the long-term big picture look like for us here in Northern California, the most-incarcerating state of the most-incarcerating ‘developed country’ in the world?


I hear, and echo:


To be fair, I did hear some tight (though brief) analysis from the stage, but it wasn’t from a live person. Recorded, Mumia laid it out clean:

As [the Occupy Movement] shifted the discussion and paradigm on economic issues, it must turn the wheel of the so- called ‘Criminal Justice System’ in America, that is, in fact, a destructive, counter-productive, annual $69 billion boondoggle of repression, better-known by activists as the Prison-Industrial-Complex.


Besides, as my friends reminded me on our walk back to the car, prison support work is as much about healing as it is about struggle. Think about it. Like many people who’ve survived sexual assault and/or abuse (which, by the way, a devastating number of people endure in prison), the suffering of prisoners is often ignored, mocked, or blamed on them. People who get out of prison often find no spaces to share their traumatizing experiences — might not want to relive them, anyway. May be feeling a lot of shame around incarceration. And so there’s enormous silence and lack of support, even for people on the outside. But today, folks testified. Showed up and listened. That’s real. And as one of the hikers imprisoned in Iran said, the state uses prisons to weaken movements, and lockup is often a place of deep despair. But when there’s strength of spirit and resistance inside, that’s a great testament to the strength of the larger movement for freedom.



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2 thoughts on “Inside/Outside: Demo at San Quentin Prison

  1. Laura Di Piazza February 27, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    Didn’t know until a few moments ago that Mumia Abu Jamal went to Goddard College.
    You took some amazing photographs during this demonstration. During last residency there was a discussion on how many mothers are arrested because their live-in boyfriends deal drugs and even if they have no direct involvement, many end up in prison and their children in the foster care system. So not fair.

  2. kloncke March 3, 2012 / 8:09 pm

    Woah — didn’t know that, either! Wild.

    Ugh, the WarOnDrugs bullshit is seriously dismaying. I didn’t know about that discussion during residency: sounds like it was concrete and interesting.

    I wonder if the incarceration of mothers as associates of convicted dealers has changed (in California) since Prop 36 mandated treatment instead of incarceration for some drug felons.

    Anyway, it’s hella heartening to have community-within-Goddard-community like you (and now Mumia, lol), to think and care and act around this stuff together. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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