The September 9 National Prison Strike: Bring the Call of Abolition Home

Delivered by Kristina Khan at the “Demands for a Transformed University” Rally organized by Black Students for Revolution on September 9th, 2016 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

BRRN - Central Illinois members talking about the September 9 National Prison Strike at a rally organized by Black Students for Revolution
BRRN – Central Illinois members talking about the National Prison Strike, at a September 9 rally organized by Black Students for Revolution

Today, September 9th, marks the 45 year anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising which happened in 1971 at a maximum security prison in upstate New York. The rebellion at Attica wasn’t unwarranted. Incarcerated men were organizing collectively against serious inhumane treatment including torture, starvation, lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding. Demands were issued around the time Black Panther George Jackson died at the hands of prison guards in San Quentin but an apparent death of one of their fellow inmates a couple weeks later quickly sparked a rebellion within the walls of Attica itself.  The violent end of this rebellion several days later was carried out by the state – a haze of tear gas followed by indiscriminate shooting into the crowd resulted in a slaughtering of some 29 incarcerated people and 10 hostages. 89 others were seriously injured by gunfire. The aftermath of the rebellion was heinous as incarcerated men were forced to endure some of the most horrific forms of torture one can imagine.

In their announcement about today’s strike, incarcerated activists and organizers from Texas to Alabama, Virginia to Oregon write,

“45 years after Attica, the waves of change are returning to America’s prisons. This September we hope to coordinate and generalize these protests, to build them into a single tidal shift that the American prison system cannot ignore or withstand.  We hope to end prison slavery by making it impossible, by refusing to be slaves any longer… Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school-to-prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls. When we abolish slavery, they’ll lose much of their incentive to lock up our children, they’ll stop building traps to pull back those who they’ve released. When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.”

Perhaps you are asking why the organizers of this prison strike refer to themselves as slaves? This is firstly, because the 13th amendment to the constitution outlawed slavery EXCEPT as punishment for a crime. And secondly, because people in prison work literal plantations of crops, build electronics and furniture, work call centers, package food, sew clothing and even make artisanal cheese all for little or no pay. Many companies and the state itself take advantage of this slave labor force to maximize profits.  And families with incarcerated loved ones are squeezed of every penny in order to be able to cover the cost of simple things like phone calls and to meet the basic needs of their family members who are behind bars. For many individuals, incarceration is a series of financial, emotional, and physical chains from which there is no escape.

Here in Champaign County, Illinois we too have a racist criminal justice system. While Black folks make up about 14% of the general population in the county, they represent about 70% of the jail population. This is one of the highest racial disparities anywhere in the country. And no, that’s not because Black people commit more crimes. Take that nonsensical notion elsewhere. Studies continue to show, and arrest data pulled from the Bureau of Justice itself shows that not only do Black folks not commit crimes at a higher rates but they are arrested more often, punished more harshly and serve longer sentences for the same offenses as their white peers.

Here in Champaign County, three Black people died in the jail within a 7 month period. Toya Fraizer, Paul Clifton, and Veronica Horstead were all in the jail for nonviolent offenses and it is my opinion that none of them should have died in a cage.

Here in Champaign County, nobody – NOBODY – took accountability for these deaths. No public officials, no police, no guards made even a general statement to our community about this loss of life.

But here, in Champaign County, the sheriff’s office with support from the county board have put a ¼ cent sales tax on the referendum for the November election. They are masking it as  “public facilities tax” but what the proposal really is is an $18 + million jail project.  This is unacceptable and cannot stand. This is not the sheriff’s town; this town belongs to the people. And I for one refuse to just hand money over to a corrupt office for an open ended slush fund for jail spending and more militarized police.

Because, not only are alternatives to incarceration less expensive than building more cages, many alternatives are far more successful at decreasing rates of recidivism and creating stronger, healthier, safer communities.

We must break ourselves of the false and antiquated notion that prisons make us safer. They do not. They are and always have been a means of controlling and coercing labor out of low income and Black, Brown and Native people.

Our town doesn’t need yet more taxpayer money spent on prisons and police. Our town needs a damn detox center, adequate and accessible mental health treatment, pre-trial services, and funding for reentry programs that are led by formerly incarcerated individuals.

We need to build a justice-centered community that aims to rid ourselves of the things that make violence possible in the first place. We cannot fund the violence of incarceration any longer. There is no more space for apathy. From the prisons, to the pipeline, to Palestine – white supremacist violence must be dug out at the root.

Take the easiest step towards ending racialized mass incarceration in our own backyards and vote no on this “public facilities sales tax” that’s really just a jail tax. If you want to work in solidarity with incarcerated workers across the country you can go beyond this vote and organize to end prison slavery, police terror, and state sanctioned capitalist violence.

The power of the people is and always has been the means by which social change takes place. It takes real and concentrated work but it can and has been done. If we want real justice we have no other option but to organize in solidarity with one another.

Until all are free, none of us are free. Abolition now!


Kristina Khan is a member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. She works against jail construction in Central Illinois with the group, Build Programs, Not Jails.