Occupy for Prisoners rally held in Durham
In the distance and several stories above, inmates crowded around the few windows that looked out onto the plaza, waving to the demonstrators.
More than 16 cities held rallies on Feb. 20 as part of a national day of action, “Occupy 4 Prisoners”, that emerged from a January general assembly at Occupy Oakland. The Occupy for Prisoners call to action was informed by a letter from Kevin Cooper, a prisoner on death row in San Quentin, who wrote in an open letter to the Occupy movement earlier this year, “No man or woman on death row in this state, or any other state, is a ‘Have.’ We are also the ‘Have Nots.’ We are the bottom 1 %.”
Occupy for Prisoners calls for abolishing the death penalty; supporting prisoner struggles such as the Pelican Bay hunger strike; freeing political prisoners; ending the repression of activists; dismantling solitary confinement and “Secured Housing Units” and shifting public funds from the prison-industrial complex towards improving communities. 13 Occupy assemblies endorsed the protest, along with dozens of national organizations.
The call from Occupy for Prisoners notes:
“Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow. Between 1970 and 1995, the incarceration of African Americans increased 7 times. Currently African Americans make up 12 % of the population in the U.S. but 53% of the nation’s prison population. There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
“The prison system is the most visible example of policies of punitive containment of the most marginalized and oppressed in our society. Prior to incarceration, 2/3 of all prisoners lived in conditions of economic hardship. While the perpetrators of white-collar crime largely go free.”
Candace Mujahid, an organizer with the Ban the Box Durham initiative – a movement aiming to ban the use of the “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” question on job applications – noted that prisons are big business (one report from 2006 suggests it is a $37 billion dollar a year industry. “They are utilizing prison labor to make products and sell products and not putting any of that money to rehabilitation or education access,” Mujahid said.
Across the country, there is growing awareness and outrage about for-profit prisons, mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth, racist death penalty sentences and long sentences for non-violent drug offenses. While the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prisoners. As organizers of the Occupy for Prisoners day of action noted, any movement of the 99% must fight for justice for prisoners and their families, who are among the most oppressed and exploited in society today.