Voices raised to Free Her

Activist and freelance journalist Ben Norton reports from Washington, D.C., on a rally to highlight the impact of the U.S. injustice system on women and families.

Protesters speak out at the Free Her rally against women's increasing incarceration (Julia Johnson)Protesters speak out at the Free Her rally against women's increasing incarceration (Julia Johnson)

"I HAVE the right to not be silent," a speaker declared, her amplified words projecting loudly and triumphantly from the Sylvan Theater, a stage directly adjacent to the Washington Monument.

The speaker, a formerly incarcerated mother, joined a wide array of people raising their voices at a June 21 Free Her rally against mass incarceration and the war on drugs in Washington, D.C.

In all, 30 people, from a variety of distinct backgrounds--ranging from formerly incarcerated mothers, to children and family members affected by mass incarceration, to feminist activists, to poets, to lawyers committed to social justice and more--took to the podium to share their stories and ideas. "Free our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives," a speaker declared, speaking for the feelings of the impassioned crowd.

The turnout to the rally was inspiring. There were around 100 people present at any point in the event, with an estimated 300 coming through in total to learn and participate. Many brought chairs to listen for the whole four-hour event.

Discussions of mass incarceration and structural racism in the U.S. "justice" system tend to revolve around how much men of color--and in the age of the New Jim Crow, Black men in particular--are targeted by the racist "war on drugs." This is certainly true, as any look at the victims of, for example, "stop and frisk" racial profiling or police violence show.

Free Her, however, took a perspective on mass incarceration not often heard: the effect of the prison-industrial complex on women, and their families.

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AS THE prison-industrial complex grows (with bipartisan support), so does the proportion of women incarcerated. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of women incarcerated in the U.S. rose by 21.6 percent, outpacing the increase for men. Approximately 85 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. Some 65 percent of incarcerated women have children who are still minors, compared to 44 percent of men. According to prison rights advocates, more than one-third of incarcerated women will not see their children until they are freed.

Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated mother and representative of Families for Justice as Healing who shared her story at the Free Her rally, said, "When I went into prison, my children were babies, and when I came out, they were young adults." Another speaker noted that a Black child is nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than a white child.

Susan Rosenberg struck a chord with crowd with a powerful thought experiment to convey the costs of mass incarceration. What would happen, she asked, if the U.S. government released thousands of unjustly imprisoned mothers? Her answer: They would come home and grow their communities.

Rosenberg, a revolutionary feminist and former member of the May 19th Communist Organization, herself spent 16 years in federal prison. Several of these years were in a High Security Unit, an experimental underground political prison in which she endured isolation tactics, strip searches, 24-7 surveillance and sensory deprivation. (The High Security Unit, deemed by Amnesty International to be "deliberately and gratuitously oppressive," has since closed.)

Rosenberg has become a prison abolition activist, and just recently published a memoir, An American Radical: A Political Prisoner In My Own Country.

Many speakers drew attention to extreme structural racism of the "justice" system. Activist Barbara Fair likened mass incarceration to a new form of slavery. "We went from the auction block to the cell block," she said. Such parallels have been made by prisoners themselves, including striking prisoners in Alabama charged that the authorities are "running a slave empire."

Attorney, author and activist Nkechi Taifa spoke of the New Jim Crow as a kind of "Black genocide" and offered "kudos to Michelle Alexander," the Ohio State law professor and activist, whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has become the main text of the contemporary movement. "The U.S. moved from lynchings to mass incarceration," Taifa said. "Players change, but the script remains the same--unequal justice."

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ONE NAME that came up often was Marissa Alexander. Her case came into the spotlight two years ago after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the focus on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which supposedly protects people's right to defend themselves, but in reality has been used by racists like George Zimmerman to defend their hate crimes.

Alexander, whose husband often abused her and threatened her with violence, raised a gun into the air and fired a warning shot during a fight. But Florida authorities insisted she wasn't protected by Stand Your Ground--she was convicted of aggravated assault and given a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. An appeals court has granted a new trial, and Alexander is currently free on bail.

Activists also handed out pamphlets to raise awareness about a 16-year-old transgender Latina girl--who, because she is a minor, is referred to as "Jane," or "Jane Doe"--who has been imprisoned in solitary confinement at York Correctional, an adult women's prison in Niantic, Conn. Jane has been in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) since she was five years old, and has experienced extreme abuse, including trafficking, sexual abuse, drug exposure, and physical and verbal assaults. Her story illustrates the intense discrimination against trans people, particularly trans women of color, at the hands of the "justice" system.

Members from the organization Boston Feminists for Liberation spoke of the struggles of CeCe McDonald, another trans woman of color to suffer abuse from the justice system. These activists also drew attention to the case of Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old Occupy Wall Street activist who was convicted this year for allegedly assaulting a police officer in March 2012. In reality, the officer had grabbed her breast from behind, and she instinctively elbowed him in response. McMillan was beaten by police, but she was the one charged with a crime.

Activist Tamara Petro, director of the Multicultural Leadership Institute, reminded us that the problem goes even deeper than racism. She insisted that we "have to end not only the drug war, but also the prison-industrial complex," which is both racist and driven by the priorities of capitalism.

The huge growth of private prisons around the U.S. demonstrates that incarceration capitalists have found a profitable industry, and neoliberal politicians see in these jails the potential for profit and "job creation" in a floundering economy--not to mention a place to warehouse undocumented immigrants.

Petro said she was pleased by the range of organizations represented at the Free Her rally. "Many people are discussing issues, coming together and speaking out," she said in an interview. "Each person and group has their own piece of the solution."

One prominent group was Women Organized to Resist and Defend (WORD), a new intersectional feminist organization. It brought an an assortment of purple signs that read, "FREE Marissa Alexander," "Women's rights are under attack," "Say no to racism and sexism" and more. Several left-wing organizations, including the International Socialist Organization and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, were also active at the event.

Susan Rosenberg explained that the "hardest part of leaving prison are the people you have to leave behind." The Free Her rally, and organizations like Families for Justice as Healing, which helped organize it, provide a community for women who have suffered systematic injustices to heal, and form new networks of friendship and solidarity.

The Free Her rally against mass incarceration demonstrated that the contemporary movement against mass incarceration and the war on drugs is largely led by some of the people most affected by them. The struggle continues--the Free Her rally was only one step.