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Tue, 14 Dec 2010 20:41:18 -0500
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Prisoner Advocate Elaine Brown on Georgia Prison Strike:
'Repression Breeds Resistance'

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/12/14/prisoner_advocate_elaine_brown_on_georgia

***

Prisoner Advocate Elaine Brown on Georgia Prison Strike:
'Repression Breeds Resistance'

At least four prisons in Georgia remain in lockdown five days
after prisoners went on strike in protest of poor living and
working conditions.

Using cell phones purchased from guards, the prisoners
coordinated the nonviolent protests to stage the largest
prison strike in U.S. history.

There are reports of widespread violence and brutality by the
guards against the prisoners on strike.

We speak to longtime prison activist Elaine Brown of the
newly formed group Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners'
Rights.

[includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: "Seize the Time" by Elaine Brown, who is our
next guest. That's right.

At least four prisons in Georgia remain in lockdown five days
after prisoners went on strike in protest of poor living and
working conditions.

Using cell phones purchased from the guards, the prisoners
were able to coordinate the protests across Georgia.

On Monday, Georgia officials confirmed four prisons are still
in lockdown: Hays State Prison in Trion, Macon State Prison
in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena, and Smith
State Prison in Glennville.

There have also been reports of prisoners going on strike in
several other facilities.

The prisoners say they'll continue refusing to leave their
cells or perform their jobs until they receive better medical
care and nutrition, more educational opportunities, payment
for the work they do in the prisons.

In addition, they're demanding just parole decisions, an end
to cruel and unusual punishments, and better access to their
families.

Well, joining us now is the longtime prison activist Elaine
Brown. She's a member of the newly formed group Concerned
Coalition to Respect Prisoners' Rights. She's the former
chair of the Black Panther Party. She's joining us from
Berkeley, California. Up until recently she lived in Atlanta,
Georgia.

Elaine Brown, it‘s being called the biggest prison strike in
U.S. history.

Explain what's happening.

ELAINE BROWN: These men created what is effectively a
spontaneous decision by networking with each other and
saying, you know, 'We're tired of all of the abuse we've been
suffering here,' as so many other prisoners before them have
said.

"We're going to do something, but the something we're going
to do is not to try to initiate a violent response or
initiate violence, but to simply say we will not work until
we're paid," and the other demands and petitions that they
have made, as you've outlined.

And they made a decision that that would be on December 9th.

I have no idea why they picked that date and how they ended
up getting perhaps ten prisons involved.

But at that point, of course, the guards and the
administration became aware of their intention.

And so, when they locked down on the night of the 8th, their
decision was to not get up.

And they didn't.

But the prison pretends, and the administration has
pretended, that they locked the men down.

But they're talking about four prisons, and there were
probably ten in the initial one-day strike, as it was slated
to be.

They have refused-we're in day six, and they are still
holding out and saying they will not come out and work unless
they can sit down at the table and begin to get their demands
met and their issues dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Brown, your son is in the Macon State
Prison? He is there, still on lockdown there?

ELAINE BROWN: Not only is he on lockdown, but he's in the
hole right now, because from almost day one or so, I was
informed that he was taken off to the hole, deemed some sort
of leader. Just for the sake of the record, because somebody
asked-well, said, 'Well, I understand Elaine Brown doesn't
have a son.' Well, I didn't give birth to this boy. I have
known him for 15 years, and I have been with him for that
long, since he was incarcerated and put into an adult
facility at 14 years old. And he's done 14 years now. And so,
he is my son for all-in all meaningful ways.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the conditions in the Georgia
state prison system, Elaine Brown?

ELAINE BROWN: Well, I'm sure they're not very much different
from other prisons, I mean, or as the men would say, the
chain gang or the camp they're in. You know, you have
overcrowded conditions. There is no activity other than the
work tasks that they're assigned to do. In other words,
there's no real educational opportunities. There's no
exercise. There's nothing else. The food is bad. They have
poor nutrition. They have crowded-overcrowded cells. A lot of
the day-to-day thing, I think the most important part is
that, as it was outlined many years ago in a Stanford study
conducted by Dr. Phil Zimbardo, one of the most important
things is that the constant violence being perpetrated
against them by guards, who with their own idle time look to
try and instigate an incident here or there, so there's a lot
of screaming, hollering, you know, aggressive behaviors that
go on.

And so, there's always some incident jumping off, as it were,
and so forth and so on.

It's just a life of idle-idleness and violence and a lack of
any basic human condition.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what they do in their work. I mean,
among the conditions, the demands of the prisoners are a
living wage for work, talking about being a violation of the
Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution that prohibits
slavery and involuntary servitude.

What are the work conditions? What are they paid? Are they
paid? What are they-

ELAINE BROWN: No, in Georgia, they're not even paid. They're
not paid one dime in the state of Georgia.

I mean, the State Department of Corrections would like to say
they have some workers that are paid. There are probably some
people doing life without parole who work at the Governor's
mansion, maybe 15 of them who might be getting some money.

But the prisoners in the state of Georgia are paid nothing at
all.

Now, that's not to say that the prisoners in other states are
being paid.

They're mostly being paid a dollar a day to 50 cents an hour.

That would probably be the maximum.

So they're not exactly being paid enough money to accumulate
anything over the years of their incarceration and maybe come
out of the prison with more than the $25 check they give them
upon release in the state of Georgia.

So, they are not paid one single dime, and they are required
to clean the floors, clean the showers, do the yard work, do
the dishes, cook the food-in other words, to maintain the
prison itself.

AMY GOODMAN: I'm looking at a report out of the Black Agenda
Report, and it talks about how there's no educational
programs available beyond GED with the exception of a single
program that trains inmates to be Baptist ministers.

ELAINE BROWN: That's absolutely correct. I believe that's at
Phillips State Prison, and it's a school out of Louisiana.

And I think there are about 20 people even enrolled in that
program.

So, it's almost pointless to even mention it.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how this largest prison strike in
U.S. history was organized, sort of redefining the term "cell
phone," Elaine Brown.

ELAINE BROWN: Well, you know, a lot of people have been
fascinated by this, and I'm glad that you made note
immediately that-you know, so many people say, 'Well, these
guys have contraband."

Well, the greatest avenue for their obtaining these cell
phones is by sales from guards, and these guards are selling
these phones at exorbitant prices.

I learned the other day that one guy said he paid $800 to a
guard for a cell phone that was probably worth about 50
bucks.

So, that's the first point that has to be made, because
people imagine that there's all this smuggling going on-and
there is, but it's on the part of-in the main, on the part of
guards that are inside these facilities.

The cell phone played a part, but the other part was that
there are leaders of different factions in the prison, and
they were able to sort of discuss what could they do. Instead
of fighting among themselves, is there anything that they
could do to try to change the conditions of being just
constantly bombarded with violent attacks, with, you know,
idle time, and so forth and so on? And they-at some point, a
number of them just decided, "Well, we just shouldn't work."
And it just became a prairie fire. It was truly the spark
that lit the prairie fire. And everybody was saying, 'Well,
I'm down with that. We're not going to get up.' And each
group-you know, you have blacks in various subsets, and you
have Muslims, you have Mexicans and other Latinos, Hispanics,
you have Whites, you have Rastafarians, you have
Christians-all of them, for reasons that I cannot explain how
they suddenly understood how to be unified, decided, 'Yeah,
we're not working, and we're down with this, and we're not
going to get up, and we're going to stay united.' And across
the prisons, in the various sets, they called each other,
sent text messages, and they all agreed to do it. And they
agreed on the date, and that was December 9.

AMY GOODMAN: Elaine, I interviewed you a long time ago when
your memoir came out, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's
Story. You're the former chair of the Black Panther Party.
Can you tell us a little bit about your life and how you came
to be a prison activist today?

ELAINE BROWN: Well, it's pretty-you know, it's sort of
organic, very much like this prisoner strike. You know, we
used to say in the Black Panther Party, 'Repression breeds
resistance.' Pardon me. I was born in the ghettos of North
Philadelphia-I was raised, rather, in the ghettos of North
Philadelphia. Even though I went to sort of privileged
schools and so forth and so on, I was very conscious of that.
When I ultimately joined the Black Panther Party at around 24
years old, I knew then that I was fully conscious that the
things that I experienced in my life were a part of a larger
picture and that I was a part of a group of people who were
an oppressed group. From that point on, the question was
liberation. The aspects of our-of liberation and the ending
of all exploitation, as we would say it, was just a matter of
looking at all the various aspects of our oppression and how
it played itself out. In the Black Panther Party, there was a
10-point platform and program that articulated some of the
manifestations of our general oppression, talking about lack
of education, as a matter of fact, not having enough food and
housing. In essence, what we called for was freedom and right
of self-determination.

We recognized that our plight was not much different as black
people than other oppressed people, and we joined arms and
forces with a variety of other groups like the Brown Berets,
the Red Guard, the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, and so
forth. And then we linked ourselves to the international
struggle of people around the world for national liberation
in Vietnam, throughout the continent of Africa, and in Latin
America, South America. So, we became internationalists.

And I remain that person. So it isn't complicated to draw the
line from that struggle to the struggle of the most oppressed
group in America: the prisoner class. The prisoners in this
country, as you know, make up the largest prisoner group in
the world. America confines more people than any single
country at a higher rate and a higher-and the largest number.
Fifty percent of those prisoners, or nearly 50 percent of
them, are black men. And so, we have to ask the question, how
did that come to be? Either the black men are the only
people-when we consider that we black people make up
approximately 12 to 13 percent of the overall population and
yet almost 50 percent of the prison population, we have to
ask the question, is this the result of some genetic flaw in
black people? Are we obviously some sort of criminally
minded? Or is there something wrong in the scheme of things?
Obviously, the latter is what I would say. And so, I've
committed myself to bringing people out of prison.

I have a very close friend who was a member of the Black
Panther Party here in California, who has been in prison
since 1969, over 41 years, Chip Fitzgerald. So I helped to
organize the Committee to Free Chip Fitzgerald. These people
have been buried in prison for their political beliefs, and
they've been buried in prison for their poverty. There are no
rich people languishing in the prisons of America. So,
there's a class question. There's a race question. And this
is just a continuation of expressing my efforts or of
continuing my efforts toward the goal of the liberation of
all oppressed people.

AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Brown, I want to thank you very much for
being with us and just ask you a final question about what
you expect the outcome of-it was planned as a one-day strike,
December 9th, biggest strike in U.S. history in prisons. But
with the lockdown continuing in a number of the state prisons
in Georgia, what's going to happen?

ELAINE BROWN: Well, we-this coalition that you have
mentioned, the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoner
Rights, which includes everything from the NAACP national
office and the state office to the Nation of Islam and a
number of other organizations, All of Us or None, so forth,
across the country, we've been talking in conference calls
over the last two days. We are having a meeting at this point
with either the commissioner or deputy commissioner of the
Department of Corrections. We plan on imploring them to first
stop instigating the situation and trying to escalate it to a
violent confrontation, which is what they are doing by
prodding men with everything, turning off the heat, beating
people, forcing them out of their cells, turning off the hot
water, destroying and trashing people's property, not feeding
them, and so forth and so on, all kinds of tactics to
instigate a violent response. So our first goal is to make
sure this does not become Attica, although it is not like
Attica because the prisoners have not taken hostages or
anything of this sort. They are simply not leaving their
cells.

AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Brown, we're going to have to leave it
there.

ELAINE BROWN: And then the next step-

AMY GOODMAN: But I thank you very much for being with us.

ELAINE BROWN: Alright, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Longtime prison activist-

ELAINE BROWN: OK, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:-former chair of the Black Panther Party. Thank
you so much. We'll continue to follow the Georgia strike.

***

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http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1214/prisoner_advocate_elai
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