On Thursday July 21st, 30 people gathered in downtown St. Louis to hold a noise demonstration outside the main city jail. This action was in solidarity with the prisoners in California, and elsewhere, engaged in an indefinite hunger strike since July 1st.
As we approached the “Justice Center,” a cacophony of sound filled the air: pots and pans clanged, air horns blared, drums banged, whistles rang out and a sound system blasted tracks against the imposing walls of this city’s seats of power. A statement was read over the sound system, quite literally amplifying the demands of the struggling prisoners in California, in an attempt to communicate with those locked up inside. Leaflets, which contained the striking prisoners’ demands as well as a brief tract on the isolating role of prisons and the struggle against them, were handed out to passing motorists and pedestrians. Several banners were present expressing solidarity with the prison rebels in California.
The event lasted for nearly an hour and the police were all but absent. Participants left with a sense of confidence in our capacity to respond to events and link up with others.
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Within prison, control over the body is paramount. The entire system, from the walls and razor wire to the privileges and classifications, is designed to regulate and manage the prisoner’s body. This means that a struggle in which prisoners assert control over their own bodies (in this case through refusing food) directly threatens the power upon which the prison is maintained.
While the hunger strike may be a limited form of struggle, in that it does not immediately and directly attack the prison itself, it is a powerful weapon in the toolbox of the anti-prison struggle. Alongside the work stoppage, the refusal to move from one’s cell, and the riot (not to mention the mass escape and the prison takeover), the hunger strike is a recurring theme throughout the history of prison rebellions. And it is precisely because the hunger strike is a part of this lineage, as an expression of the prisoners’ capacity to collectively organize, that it is feared by prison administrations everywhere.
Inside prisons, we find simultaneously a fertile ground for the spread of rebellious attitudes and the most inhospitable terrain for their expression in collective activity. Secure Housing Units, Control Management Units, Administrative Segregation, “the hole” – all prisons within the prison designed specifically to limit movement and communication between prisoners, preemptively cutting off even the possibility of collective thought and activity. Even the penitentiary itself functions to separate insubordinate prisoners from each other. In the wake of prison rebellions the collectives formed during their course are broken up through transfers and additional punishments. And yet struggles on the inside appear again and again, recently taking on increasingly massive and diffuse forms.
Prison is perhaps one of the last arenas of struggle in which the liberal, recuperative Left holds little to no sway. There is no political party, no official union within the prison through which the rage of prisoners can be channeled and stifled. Which is not to say that there is nothing to critique, especially amongst the ranks of those who would, from the outside, artificially impose their preferred tactics and a moral penchant for non-violence.
In some ways, the ubiquity of repressive violence and gang/racial tensions within prisons makes recuperation unnecessary. Yet, more and more, these measures are incapable of restraining and stifling a simmering discontent among the prison population.
From the isolated fires and riots of years past to Georgia’s statewide work stoppage in December, the hunger strike which began in California and reverberated through prisons in Ohio and Ontario places us amidst a renewed wave of collective struggle within prisons. Whether or not this rising swell can overcome the heights of the prison walls and spill out into the broader society remains to be seen.
In the solidarity demonstrations which are occurring throughout the country, we can see an embryonic version of the links between struggles which are a necessary precondition for the eruption of a truly uncontrollable storm. The very fact of a movement on the outside which can quickly respond to and act in solidarity with rebellions on the inside is a factor which previous prisoner revolts may have benefited from. The tactical forms of this solidarity will undoubtedly change as struggles continue to appear in various intensities, yet it is essential that it remains a constant.
By engaging with the struggles of prisoners we not only express solidarity with their revolt, but also, we begin to attack the idea of imprisonment. The fear of prison is in part based on the concept that life (collectivity, conflict with the social order) ends once one passes through the gates of a prison. By acting in concert with prisoners we can begin to create continuity between the anti-state, anti-capitalist struggle and the anti-prison struggle, thus ensuring that when comrades inevitably find themselves behind bars they are not so alone, not so immobilized and defeated.
The task of razing the prison walls is a large one; perhaps too large to even comprehend from this vantage point. And yet we continue to find meaning and joy in the struggle against prisons and the society which creates them. For if we did not engage in this struggle, if we refused to see ourselves in the rebels on both sides of the prison walls, we would not be complete, we would not be true to ourselves. And it is for this reason that, despite all of history’s setbacks and failures, we continue to search for openings through which another world might emerge.