Solidarity with hunger strikers

July 20, 2011

Nikolai Smith, Neha Sobti and Edna Bonhomme report on rallies to support prisoners at California's Pelican Bay State Prison, now 20 days into a hunger strike.

SOLIDARITY ACTIVISTS are holding demonstrations from California to New York City in support of a hunger strike that began on July 1 by prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California's Pelican Bay State Prison.

More than 1,000 prisoners began the strike to protest cruel conditions, and it quickly spread to other prisons in the state--reportedly involving some 6,000 prisoners at its height. Inmates are refusing meals to protest inhumane conditions, including total isolation for some, for up to 22 hours a day.

Todd Ashker, Pelican Bay prisoner participating in the hunger strike explained his reason for taking part on Democracy Now!:

The court challenges have gotten nowhere. Therefore, our backs are up against the wall. A lot of us are older now. We have serious medical issues coming on. We believe that this is our only option of ever trying to make some positive changes here is through this peaceful protest--a hunger strike. There is a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary. None of us want to do this, but we feel we have no other option.

Supporters of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers call on officials in Sacramento to meet the prisoners' demands
Supporters of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers call on officials in Sacramento to meet the prisoners' demands (Neha Sobti | SW)

In Sacramento, more than 100 activists mobilized at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on July 18 in solidarity with the Pelican Bay hunger strikers.

The demonstration, which featured community members and organizations from across the state, was organized by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a Bay-Area based coalition consisting of grassroots organizations and family members of the strikers committed to amplifying the strikers' demands.

"We're here to say 'Ya basta!--Enough is enough!'" exclaimed Manuel LaFontaine, a member of All of Us or None, an Oakland-based prisoner-rights organization. "We are here because people in California prisons are being tortured. As a former prisoner, I recognize what torture is. It's being left in a cell the size of your bathroom with no windows. It's having food being used as a weapon to have you snitch on another person. It's having to give up your right to be human."

The speakout included chanting, drumming, reading letters from hunger strikers, and speeches from other formerly incarcerated activists and family members of the hunger strikers.

Burma, a mother of two hunger strikers in the Pelican Bay SHU, told the crowd that she hoped the media coverage of the demonstration would reach prisoners inside--and others across the state and country on hunger strike in solidarity--to show that they are not alone. After day 10 of their hunger strike, she said, her elder son had lost 15 pounds and her younger son had lost 8 pounds. "My sons have no medical care because the prison is trying to stay within its budget and make money off them and the other prisoners," she said.

She added:

The clinic has closed completely. There are no educational services or arts and crafts; no telephone calls. The cells have no heaters. My sons freeze for the 22-and-a-half hours they spend in their cells. They have been thrown in a hole and left to die. The California prison system doesn't work and has been broken for decades and it only creates more problems for our society. Governor Brown knows this!

The demonstration was met by seven police cars, which cornered off both ends of the street and issued several threats to arrest the protesters. Activists marched in a picket line in front of the Corrections Department Headquarters to evade the police's attempt to move them to a small portion of the sidewalk.

As protesters continued to chant outside, a group of leaders from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition and some of the strikers' family members entered the CDCR office to deliver a petition with over 7,500 signatures in support of the strikers. With it was a letter reiterating the urgency of the strikers' condition and the clarity and non-negotiability of their demands.

Conversations were initiated with CDCR employees, and a few minutes later, LaFontaine announced to the protesters that a meeting with Jerry Brown had been promised. Brown was said to be out of the office, however, and the coalition met with a representative instead. There was a peaceful discussion, but no guarantee that Brown will act on the demands.

Whether the hunger strikers' demands are met will be influenced by the solidarity shown from those outside of the prisons. As Burma, the mother of two hunger strikers said, "We hope these actions of support continue to spread all over the country and that people support the strikers and their families until we've won."

In New York City, some 40 people gathered on July 9 at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to show their support for the Pelican Bay hunger strikers.

Harlem community members and activists expressed their concerns about racial profiling, unemployment, and the system of mass incarceration that activists have described as the "New Jim Crow." One speaker, a 69-year-old man, described his experience in the 1971 Attica uprising that began when prisoners demanded better living conditions.

In the takeover, he described a community of people who were working cooperatively--a group that temporarily excised religious or racial divisions. This rebellion was stifled when the governor massacred participants in the struggle.

Miguel, from the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and VOCAL-NY, spoke about institutional racism and mass incarceration. Other participants included formerly incarcerated people, the Prisoner's Justice Club and the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow. As people walked along the busy Harlem corridor, participants chanted: "From Georgia to California, prisoner rights now!" and "Meet the demands now! End mass incarceration."

California's Pelican Bay State Prison and Corcoran State Prison inmates are playing an integral role in a burgeoning prisoner's justice movement. The fault lines of mass incarceration not only highlight cruel and unusual punishment in California, but in other prisons throughout the United States.

These desperate measures show the daily abuses prisoners encounter. Some prisoners have referenced the 1981 Maze Hunger Strike, where 10 Irish Republican prisoners of the British state died protesting their incarceration.

The CDCR has indicated that it places people in SHUs for their safety. Yet medical and psychological reports have indicated that SHUs are neither safe nor secure.

Non-incarcerated activists can play a key role by holding solidarity actions. An additional Pelican Bay Prisoner Solidarity Action was held in New York City on July 11 and has garnered a multiracial effort to end mass incarceration.

As the prisoners continue this struggle, it is important for both incarcerated and non-incarcerated people to organize and challenge the criminal injustice system.

Daphna Thier and Lee Wengraf contributed to this article.

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