Our Bastille


The men and women in prison are the strongest people in the country. Guilty or innocent, think of what they have to endure. It’s not stylish, as “Orange is the New Black” seems to imply. It’s brutal. Dehumanizing beyond belief. Those of us who haven’t been there have no clue. It is quite literally, slavery.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. So reads the Thirteenth Amendment that “abolished” slavery, except…

On September 9, 2016, thousands of prisoners in 12 different prisons in 12 different states went on strike. This is a development of significance far more profound than the presidential circus upon which we’ve been obsessing. Have you heard of it?

Talk about a blackout. When you google prison strike 2016, you get a handful of articles, one from the MSM – the New Yorker – one from Mother Jones, one from Democracy Now!, one from the Nation

It’s a 2 billion industry. Now by U. S. standards as a whole, that isn’t huge, about the size of Tupperware and Herman Miller chairs – or a third the size of annual domestic cotton production, the previous prime beneficiary of slavery.

Of course that doesn’t count the money made by the private prison systems. Corrections Corporations of America brings in 2 billion itself every year.

The movement began with the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), led by  Kinetik Justice. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) spread it to some 12 states, involving upwards of 20,000 prisoners.

The IWOC was organized by the International Workers of the World (IWW), the wobblies, with an impressive history leading the struggle of workers in the early 1900s. It’s fortunes waned when most of its fabled leadership – Big Bill Heywood, William Z. Foster – joined the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution. As Ronald Reagan famously told the press when Jesse Jackson freed the hostages in Iran, “You can’t argue with success.”

Since the collapse of the USSR, anarchism has enjoyed a renaissance. It makes sense. Kind of like the movement returning to its roots. Now the current incarnation of the IWW seems beset with sectarianism. They don’t do electoral politics and they call for the total abolition of prisons, ultraleft positions in my book. But, you can’t argue with success. They have earned a place at the table. In addition to Standing Rock, we need to support the abolition of slavery in prisons. Together with protecting immigrants, these are the front lines of our movement.

The prison strike is all the more significant when you think about all the power that the establishment has over prisoners: put them in solitary for months at a time, deny them parole. Back in the day we used to say that racism is the Achille’s heel of capitalism. Certainly the risk the capitalists have taken in criminalizing a sizable chunk of the Black and Latino populations is coming back to bite them. They have created a class of angry people with nothing to lose. They will lead our revolution.

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