Prison Focus Issue 53
On August 19th courageous and loving folks in San Jose, California joined with sister marches and rallies all over the country in support of prisoners’ human rights, amending the 13th, and thereby launching the New Abolitionist Movement. Their courage is found in the rejection of an institution so insidious that any criticism can bring a torrent of ridicule and backlash; an institution that tells us ‘they- the other” are undeserving of our humanity, an institution of legal slavery in the ‘land of the free.” And their love is revealed by their enthusiasm for a new society which reunites us in our common experience and affirms those rights which we call human, to all members of our society caged or not, and regardless of skin-color, socio-economic status, or past discretions.
The march launched at 11:45 a.m. with a speech from Amend the 13th’s founder, Joka Heshima Jinsai, recorded and blasted through a bullhorn to crowd of hundreds. Troy Williams of the SF Bayview followed with a call to remember why we march, setting the tone for a purposeful and peaceful demonstration to the public.
As we marched in solidarity through the lively Japantown neighborhood chants rang out: “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will make your prisons fall” and “Human rights apply to all, even those behind a wall”. Onlookers enjoying a patio lunch stood and applauded, while those passing in cars or on foot honked and cheered as marchers proceeded with signs calling to end mass incarceration and recognize solitary confinement as torture.
As we made our way forward to converge on James P McEntee plaza across from the county jail, marchers were welcomed by Watani Stiner. Despite decades of imprisonment and dehumanization, his joyous introduction spread optimism as it reverberated throughout the crowd: “Welcome all of you beautiful and magnificent souls! Today is a good day to resist! Today is a beautiful day to rise up and say ‘no more!’ Today is a wonderful day to say ‘not in my name!’” With that, the stage was set for voices to be heard and stories to be shared.
Riding a wave of solidarity, speakers shared painful truths about the U.S. prison system. Raymond Aguilar noted, “They incarcerated my body, they incarcerated part of my soul, but they did not incarcerate my mind,” as he spoke to his experience and on the issue of juvenile life without the possibility of parole. On behalf of Mianta McKnight of Justice Now, Julia Arroyo of Young Women’s Freedom Center called out the realities of a system that lacks the resources for girls and women of color returning home from prison.
But among the cheers and outbursts of encouragement, there were moments of sheer heartbreak and anger. We witnessed the pain and loss of a mother, Laurie Valdez who shared the murder of Antonio Guzman Lopez, father to her young son, by San Jose State University police. Alongside her, the frustration of Ato Walker, whose life was disrupted by a racist police officer and an unjust bail system. One by one, speakers rose to share their lived experiences. One by one the crowd was moved, not just to open their eyes, but also their hearts.
As history replays itself on the national stage through white supremacist and neo-nazi violence, we are called not merely to avoid the mistakes of our past, but to wholly reimagine our future. “There is no room for slavery in humanity. There can be no exception for any group,” declared Mariposa McCall addressing the crowd.
Today, we must dare to create a new system- a system without slavery, without prisons. In the shared words of Cole Dorsey, organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), “While we support this effort at reform as it was called for by prisoners, we see it only as a strategy in the ongoing war against prisons...at the end of the day, we are prison abolitionists. We are revolutionaries.”
As the rally closed, we, marchers and speakers all, concluded with a pledge: “We have set the stage for the real work to come. In unity we will become stronger, more committed, and more resolved. We stand firm in our belief that all community members, caged and uncaged, deserve their human rights. We stand committed to the New Abolitionist Movement to end slavery in America once and for all.”
With that the platform was set for voices to be heard, stories to be shared. In this environment of support and solidarity painful issues such as juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole brought to light by Raymond Aguilar and lack of resources for girls and women of color returning home, advocated for by Julia Arroyo on behalf of Mianta McKnight, were able to be shared.
You could feel the crowd spellbound and moved as we witnessed the pain and loss of a mother, Laurie Valdez as she shared the killing of the father to her young son by SJ police. But it was being together in common humanity that almost became our fresh air. Folks who wouldn’t commit to speaking seemed to feel the love and camaraderie that was generated and spoke in the end. It was the unity, the humanity we felt from being with each other, face to face, looking in the eyes, sharing the lived experience. And it’s not only in the telling that things got done. We had to be good listeners. We opened our hearts, not just our ears. The hope and the drive and the commitment was undeniable in each of those speakers and it encouraged and awakened us. The many issues brought to bare were difficult and varied, like bail reform and banning the box, the deadly issue of simply “not being heard”, and losing our humanity spoken eloquently by Mariposa McCall. In that hour and a half, we bonded through storytelling and being on common
ground, then we pledged to ride the wave of the New Abolitionist Movement together.
Editors Note: 19 August 2017 — Hundreds rallied outside the White House today for the "Millions for Prisoners' Human Rights March." The event was organized by U.$. prisoners and outside groups to focus on the issue of the 13th Amendment.