The multiorganization Atlanta Prison Strike Solidarity Committee gathered together some three dozen people on Sept. 9 in downtown Atlanta for a teach-in, discussion and potluck. The event was held to mark the end of the 2018 nationwide prison strike and to commemorate the anniversary of the Attica Uprising, a historic prisoner rebellion in New York state whose demands also included worker demands.
The teach-in highlighted the role of prisons in capitalist society and the structural dehumanization of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. It also emphasized the need to provide “outside” support and assistance wherever possible to the ongoing “inside” struggle that the recent prison strike represents.
The first panel consisted of Taliba Obuya, a national organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and a member of the New Afrikan People’s Organization, and Dianne Mathiowetz from Workers World Party.
Taliba Obuya spoke about the historic and contemporary role of prisoners as agents of change. She outlined the legacy of the 1971 Attica Uprising, which she connected directly to the 2018 prison strike. The Attica Uprising was a radical response to systematic dehumanization. It was a bold assertion of the humanity of inmates made necessary by brutal material conditions.
As Elliot James “L.D.” Barkley, a leader of the uprising who was killed by state police, proclaimed: “We are men! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten as such. The entire prison populace [in Attica] has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States.”
Taliba Obuya connected on both historical and contemporary resistance needed to combat oppressive conditions and for the perennial drive for the affirmation of humanity.
Dianne Mathiowetz complemented this historically grounded material analysis of prisoner struggles by looking at the role of prisons in capitalist society. She emphasized that to fully grasp the role of prisons, the key is to understand the overall function of the state.
Mathiowetz noted: “The state [is] an organ of class rule, an entity that perpetuates the oppression and exploitation of the ruling class on society, that employs armed bodies of men, police, prisons, courts to enforce their rule. So simply, the state or government of the U.S. is not a neutral body, dispensing laws or judgments impartially, but a tool of the capitalist class, engaged in perpetuating its dominance and supporting its profit-making goals.”
Mathiowetz continued: “Prisons serve multiple purposes then. The most obvious is the threat to take away a person’s liberty. Capitalist law is designed to protect property. In particular, [capitalists’s] property. Working-class people can get years in jail for shoplifting or robbing a store, but hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes to fraudulent loan schemes hatched by top executives at some of the biggest banks and mortgage companies, and no one went to jail. That’s called white-collar crime, a form of white supremacy, I might say, where all is forgotten after paying a fine.”
The second panel consisted of Bridgette Simpson from Women on the Rise — an organization of formerly incarcerated women — and Kevin Caron from Georgia Detention Watch and World Without Police. Women on the Rise has been instrumental in putting pressure on the city to close the Atlanta City Detention Center. Looking forward, Simpson considered how the towering structures of prisons might be converted to serve rather than control working-class communities of color.
She challenged the audience to imagine “a center for freedom, for well being, for just being.” To create a more just society from the appropriated structures implies realization of direct democracy in which empowered communities are decision makers on how to utilize space — not capitalist politicians invested in the profits of the current exploitative system.
Kevin Caron analyzed the development of the 2018 strike, which included hunger strikes, work stoppages, sit-down strikes and boycotts. By relying on multiple tactics, organizers were able to create a more inclusive — and thus further reaching — coordinated mass action of resistance.
The historical significance of the dates chosen for the strike also reflects the conscious effort of organizers to educate other inmates about the legacy of prison revolt. The beginning of the strike was called for Aug. 21, the anniversary of the 1971 assassination of George Jackson, prisoner organizer and Black Panther in San Quentin State Prison, while the last day was Sept. 9, the anniversary of Attica.
After an engaging and highly collaborative discussion, fueled by a steady stream of audience testimony, comments and questions, those attending sat down to dinner and continued to discuss the prison system, rebellions and the role of people “on the outside.”
The theme of continued struggle echoed the sentiment of a message smuggled out of Attica almost five decades ago: “The uprising at Attica did not begin here, nor will it end here.”
The 2018 strike reflects an evolving strategy born out of this legacy. It is through generations of struggle that mass resistance grows stronger, more resilient and more adaptive to the material conditions.
The struggle continues without pause beyond the 2018 nationwide prison strike. Free the people! Tear down the walls!