A prison is a prison

March 28, 2013

Building a strong movement means making common cause with others struggling against mass incarceration, says Kira Woodworth.

THE END the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN), a small coalition based in upstate New York, issued a statement in solidarity with the people of Gaza in November.

The organization formed out of a study group based around Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow. From the outset the group was a multiracial, broad coalition of forces committed to fighting mass incarceration. Although most activity has been focused on preventing the expansion of the Dutchess County Jail in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the coalition agreed early on that the purpose of organizing was to try to build a mass movement that can challenge racism in all its forms.

The statement, which was a product of spirited debate within the coalition, reads in part:

Like the racist system of mass incarceration here in the United States, the U.S.-Israeli war on the Palestinian city of Gaza is an example of the gross contradiction between the priorities of the vast majority of humanity who want to live peaceful, dignified lives and the misuse of societal resources by elites that should be used to meet human needs but are instead used for war, bank bailouts, police brutality, and mass incarceration.

The End the New Jim Crow! Action Network stands with the Palestinian people in their struggle against war and occupation, and makes the connection between the struggle of the people in Gaza--which MIT professor Noam Chomsky called the "world's largest open air prison" during his recent trip there--and the struggle of people in the United States fighting the world's largest prison system.

IDF soldiers stop and arrest a group of young Palestinian men
IDF soldiers stop and arrest a group of young Palestinian men

In addition to the statement, the coalition hosted a screening of Hip Hop is Bigger Than the Occupation by Existence is Resistance--a group committed to ending Israeli apartheid. The statement was passed by an overwhelming majority of the coalition based on the principle that challenging mass incarceration here in the United States means working in solidarity with those fighting mass incarceration everywhere.

The Palestinian people face the same racism, harassment and disenfranchisement that African Americans face here in the U.S. Furthermore, the coalition has also been making steps toward including the struggle of undocumented people and the struggle against for-profit detention facilities for undocumented immigrants.

RECENTLY, HOWEVER, a group of self-described "Jewish activists committed to ending mass incarceration" penned a letter to ENJAN asking the coalition to stop bringing up the issue of Israeli apartheid in our organizing work and focus on the "single issue" of ending mass incarceration in the United States. The letter expressed a fear that having a position on Israel, or even mentioning it, would alienate Jewish activists who are otherwise committed to fighting racism.

This is a misguided approach in a number of ways. First of all, it is impossible to fight racism by turning a blind eye to racism. Second, the entire request is laced with a number of Zionist mischaracterizations, such as implying that anyone or any organization that is anti-Zionist is anti-Semitic. Finally, requesting that members of a coalition refrain from mentioning a particular issue that relates to the work they are engaged in is profoundly anti-democratic.

This brings up important questions for all activists in many areas of struggle. What kinds of coalitions should we be striving to build? And how do we argue to implement tactics that will be broad and inclusive without sacrificing the crucial principles of our movements?

In the case of ENJAN, we are being asked to water down the breadth of our politics in order to pursue the goal of addressing a supposed "single issue." But challenging the system of mass incarceration will require making common cause with others moving in the same direction, such as those organizing in solidarity with the people of Palestine. And it must be said that while we want to work with every organization committed to the struggle against mass incarceration, that does not mean that we need to make an accommodation to the political principles of those organizations that are antithetical to our own.

We cannot say that mass incarceration in the U.S. is wrong, but legitimate in Gaza. We cannot say that the prison industrial complex needs to end, but ICE facilities are necessary evils. We cannot ignore the political economy of racism, and we cannot end the New Jim Crow without recognizing who benefits from it and why. Instead we need to unite with all struggles against state repression and against all attempts to keep us divided.

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