Standing up to torture in California

Standing up to torture in California

Saturday afternoon I joined a group of about 150 protestors gathered to stand in solidarity with thousands of prisoners who have spent some (or in about forty cases, all) of the past 43 days on a hunger strike in protest of barbaric conditions in isolation. At the start, over 30,000 prisoners refused food- about a quarter of the entire state prison population.

The unified demands from all the groups in different prisons are both few and reasonable ( In fact, I assume most people who don’t pay attention to prison policy would think they had already been met. They have not. Other groups have more specific or location-relevant demands- Pelican Bay has forty additional demands.

This is the sign I made. Mass incarceration (the highest rate in the world) and mass injustice in prisons leads to one obvious course of action- resistance and protest on a mass scale.

Great injustice requires great sacrifice to defeat

The state of the anti-solitary hunger strike
The state of the anti-solitary hunger strike

During the height of visible Occupy activism in the fall and winter of 2011-12, several left-wing media outlets warned against co-option by Democratic front groups like, who wanted to take raw anger and direct it away from Democrats and towards Republicans. In my opinion, these warnings were correct- I witnessed meetings and attempts from small groups of activists to work with Democrats without the consent of the larger assembly. The party is sometimes called “the graveyard of social movements.”¬†Powerful and passionate groups looking for fundamental change throw in their lot with a mainstream party, and see their demands systematically ignored.

MoveOn is well known for what you might term “armchair activism.” Most of their emails deal with online petitions that take a few seconds to sign, or real world actions in which slogans and signs are provided. Essentially, there is no cost for this type of activism- except that people may feel like they’ve accomplished something when they probably haven’t.

What has been going on since July 8th in the California prison system is the opposite. Hunger strikes are difficult and if held for long enough seriously dangerous. One inmate death has been attributed to the strike, and others may soon follow. As the status update says, almost fifty prisoners have refused food for well over a month. A legal fight over whether authorities can engage in the disgusting practice of force-feeding seems to be going against the prisons- even if they have valid do-not-resuscitate orders. Much like euthanasia, the government has forced people to die in a certain approved manner.

But great injustice requires great sacrifice. Signing a petition will not end the cruel and arbitrary practice of long-term solitary confinement. Inmates stand up for their dignity, and people outside have to stand up for them. Many people who marched and fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s felt that it was worth bleeding for. Dying for, even.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be a rally and march in solidarity with the hunger strikers on Saturday the 25th of August at 5:00, right next to the 12th street BART station in downtown Oakland. Please come and bring your passion and signs, if you feel this is truly important.