Déjà vu

“If we really want to create a broad-based movement, a mass movement, we have to step up our relationship skills.”

If we really want to create a broad-based movement, a mass movement, we have to step up our relationship skills.

Let me share some of my frustration regarding working with AIDS-service organizations in the 90′ and 00’s. I was a ballroom kid with a college education. I lived and moved in two worlds, two connected worlds. The very people I walked balls with were also those most impacted by HIV: poor Black queer and trans folks. The mission of the ASO’s was to save lives: prevent infection, and for those already infected, get them into treatment. One major problem was that those who worked in ASO’s weren’t directly connected to those they served. If you were to ask the ballroom kids who ran the major ASO’s in Philly, maybe 10% could tell you. And I am reaching with that number.

How does this impact the mission and the work? The ASO’s, being NPO’s, were always concerned with “numbers served.” The goal was to get as many bodies through the doors as possible. What happened once those bodies were inside was a different story. Good numbers meant steady funding. Steady funding meant staying employed. Most of the staff at the ASO’s were strangers to the “kids”. And stayed that way. There were a few of us who went to the clubs and participated in ballroom who worked at these organizations. Mainly, in lower level posts. Plans and strategy would come from the top. And we were expected to follow. The most frustrating part was when the plans were obviously off point and we had to get creative and produce numbers anyway. The higher ups didn’t listen to us. They listened to funders. Those of us who were creative enough to get numbers while making the plan look good moved up the ladder.

We weren’t saving lives. We were saving our jobs. I had enough. I saw too many friends and associates die to continue. I knew that we could actually save lives. We could build a strong, resilient community. But we had to change. We needed to bring the people inside. We needed to listen. We needed to prioritize their concerns. We needed to meet them where they were. We needed to overturn our flow chart.

But there weren’t any takers on that. It was a friend, Kareem Excellence, who helped me understand the power of us doing for us. I had known Kareem for a decade. He was finishing his undergrad studies and planned to go south for grad school. But until then, he was connecting with the kids on the streets, at the functions and in the clubs. He was talking to them. He was doing mutual aid work. But most important, he was listening. Kareem pulled me into that work.

We had no funders. We had no office. We had no staff. We had each other. And we were making a great impact in the kids’ lives. Why? Because we were listening to what they said they needed to be healthy, to be safe, to be community.

The work was tiring. It never seemed to stop. But it was worth it. I take from that experience and apply it to my work now. It has helped. But sometimes, I feel frustrated, like I am working in an ASO again.

The key to both types of work is being connected to the people we are struggling alongside. I have said numerous times: If you’re doing this work and you’re not directly connected to someone inside, you are wrong. Until we connect, there is no relationship. And relationships matter. There was no way we could talk to the kids about safer sex and why we weren’t using protection if we hadn’t built a strong relationship. I became Uncle Stevie to half the ballroom kids. I worked on building connections based on honesty and sincerity. And I showed up too.

I didn’t behave like an ASO executive director and expect others to report to me about what was going on. I didn’t act like a staff member who needed number for a project. Sadly, some in our movement behave like this. They aren’t connected to imprisoned folks. They take reports from others. They call a formerly incarcerated person to sit in a panel, but as soon as the panel is over, the phone stops ringing.

And this analogy isn’t just about outside activists/organizers. Many of us inside act like ASO staff.

How many of us are connected to the people right where we are? Some of us spend tons of energy trying to organize with people 100, 500, even 1,000 miles away, yet we don’t say two words to our neighbors. And yet, we claim to speak for them! If we can’t do the work right where we are, we won’t be able to do it anywhere else. Get connected where you are. Make change where you live. That is where it begins.

Some of us are quick to call on other imprisoned folks to support our actions, whether they be strikes, boycotts or stoppages, yet before the action, we didn’t have two words to say to other prisoners. And we wonder why our call goes unanswered. We don’t talk to or get connected with others. We don’t know what is going on in their lives. But as soon as we say so, they are supposed drop everything and join us. Why should they?

If we really want to create a broad-based movement, a mass movement, we have to step up our relationship skills. We have to get connected. We have to show up for people. On the daily. We have to listen to people. The movement’s power is in the people. It’s truly a bottom-up movement. If we strengthen our connections, if we listen to each other, if we show up regularly, we can win.



Meditation on Accountability

Abolition is truly a project that requires balance. It is a negative and positive project. It is presence and absence. Often, we lean one way to the detriment of the other way. Inside, we tend to focus on the dismantling, the negative aspect. We are captive in an oppressive system predicated upon anti-Blackness. We are trapped in a space maintained by racialized and gendered violence. The terror is quotidian. Everyday we are under the boots of people who see us as less than human. No wonder our focus is getting rid of this system.

But then what? What have we done while inside to prepare ourselves for a world without prisons? This is the struggle I am engaged in everyday. Each day, I am fighting against the death this system has prepared for me and my peers. Each day, I am struggling to not drink the PIC kool-aid that says we are unworthy. Each day, I am locked in battle with a system that is determined to isolate and alienate us, not only from you, but from each other. But there is another fight.

Over ninety percent of incarcerated folks have a release date. We are coming home. What are we doing to prepare ourselves for that date? The system is rigged. It is designed for us to fail, to recidivate. No DOC is really going to prepare incarcerated folks for successful reentry. No DOC is going to prepare any of us for a world without prisons. No DOC teaches accountability. Punishment, yes. But not accountability. And we desperately need to learn accountability.

In 2019, I was asked to speak at annual assembly on responsibility. I saw this as an opportunity to speak on accountability. I knew it would be the first time many incarcerated folks engaged in a discussion on this topic. I opened by citing a question from a Vera Institute report that asked crime victims what they wanted more than anything else to happen. Audience members guessed the answer would be long term sentences or corporal punishment for people who perpetrated harm. But that wasn’t the number one answer. What people wanted most: that it never happen again, to them or anyone else.

I chose this question because I wanted the audience to know that the police could not give these people want they wanted. They only become involved after the harm has occurred. Neither could the district attorney or the judge. The DOC and the parole boards definitely are powerless to give people who have been harmed what they want most. The only people who can give them what they want is us. We have the power to make sure the harm doesn’t happen again. And just as some of us had made a decision to harm another person, we could make another decision to not repeat our behavior.

From there, I was able to springboard into a conversation on accountability. On not just being sorry, but “doing” sorry. I focused on what we could do right now to make sure we didn’t continue to harm others. I spoke about the pillars of accountability. I spoke on what it means to really be remorseful and not just regretful. I spoke on making amends. But that was one day.

What we need is sustained study and practice. What we need is community where we can practice accountability. What we need are allies that support and encourage accountability practices. And we need it now. This is one of the things we need to build if we are to create a world we can all thrive in and that doesn’t use cages to remedy harm. It’s tricky. I have to keep everyone’s humanity in the forefront of my mind. No one is disposable. And I have to be firm and require accountability from my circle.

Aishah Simmons’s new book is entitled “Love with Accountability”. That sums up what is required. Love has to be the motivation, the impetus. Accountability has to be the practice. Some days, I can keep all the balls in the air. Other days, I drop all of them. It’s tricky. But with practice, I am getting better. With comrades and allies, I am becoming more adept at loving with accountability.

Join me in this balancing act.

Addressing Internal Contradictions

I’ve been re-reading the intro from the inaugural issue of Propter Nos, published by True Leap Press (twitter: @true_leap) and it made me think about some things…

I am often frustrated by other prisoners myopic view of just what is happening to us. The PIC is never “wholly grasped in its systemic totality,” as True Leap describes in the issue’s introduction. For many, the solution is only release from prison. There is no fight beyond that. This attitude makes building a movement hard.

The crux of my own project is exactly as the Leap writes: to “problematize the discourse that frames and informs the popular movement’s terms of engagement,” specifically anti-prison activists, beginning with the deconstruction of the definitions of prisoner, solidarity, and safety.

What reformists fail to grasp is exactly as the Leap puts: “so long as the root structures of this system and worldview are left intact, white-supremacist law-and-order will merely be reformed, refashioned, and reproduced.” This is why the PIC must be abolished. It cannot be reformed. All we get is a change in the form of oppression, not genuine safety and freedom. We are invested in a failed system. What will it take to get people to divest?

One thing I like that is highlighted in True Leap’s analysis is how there three different tendencies, or what I’m going to call “mindsets”, that we must be aware of and take precautions against as we continue to build our abolitionist movement. These three often cloak themselves in sheep’s clothing. First, there is the Democratic Party, which works to co-opt movement energy and direct it towards their electoral gains. The Black upper/middle and aspirational class forms the second obstacle, a managerial class that is concerned primarily with the White gaze and exudes respectability politics. Third, there are these progressive criminal-justice reformers who are always there to tell us, “You’re going too far.” “Your goals are too extreme.” “Your pace is too quick.” “Your means too direct.” What can we do to draw more people attention to these people and the obstacles to liberation they create?

Recasting a statement that the Leap makes clear in the intro, I want to ask everybody out there how we, as abolitionists, can better understand, study, and address contradictions internal to our movement? How do we get activists, inside and outside, to concern themselves with the impact of patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia and opportunism within our organizations and community spaces?

I also gleaned an inspiring historical lesson from the journal’s resuscitation of the BLA principle of “unity-criticism-unity.” This principle has to be the centerpiece of how we challenge to the movement’s myopic vision of liberation and community. We generally don’t hold onto this principle, so the lives of the most marginalized continue to be erased from the discussion. Moreover, there is a tendency to not criticize inside organizers who espouse homo/transphobia, misogyny, ableism and xenophobia.

Part of what I do is translate PIC abolitionist theory to other prisoners. Much of the written work is inaccessible to prisoners. We aren’t the intended audience, just the subjects. When in the yard, I have discussions about the PIC with others. The other day, I asked some guys what the land we are imprisoned on used to be. Everyone knows it used to be farmland. It was Smith’s field; hence the name of this prison: SCI-Smithfield. Small farms have been put out of business in central PA. So this was surplus land. I explained how surplus land and surplus populations feed the PIC.

We defined surplus and then discussed how this land became surplus, how we became surplus and what role “surplus” plays in maintaining the PIC. This conversation was necessary because many prisoners have faulty understanding of the who’s, the how’s and the why’s of the PIC. If prisoners don’t grasp the systemic totality of the PIC, they cannot effectively fight it. They may even unknowingly support measures that expand it. This is why political education is so important. But it has to be accessible.





To read the entire first issue of Propter Nos, “Reflections on the Movement Moment” check out the following link DOWNLOAD. Anti-copyright, free to print, circulate, and distribute to friends.

Criticism and Self-Criticism in the Struggle Against Jail Expansion: NYC

“We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Eistein

“We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Everyone needs to understand how we got here. Believing that caging and exiling people would produce safety and solve socio-economic problems got us here. So let us not promote more of the same. Three things I’d like everyone to understand:

1. NNJ and JLUSA did not build the cages, pass the draconian laws, arrest people, sentence people, deny people bail, oppress people inside or eliminate funding that would help our communities. They didn’t create the problems. They are two sides promoting different solutions. While we bicker, the real enemy’s boot remains upon the necks of millions. Our energies should be focused on defeating the PIC, not each other.

2. As long as there are cages, there will be suffering. Any solution that entails expanding or building new cages fails to alleviate suffering. In Pennsylvania, until the early 90’s, we had 9 prisons. Today, we have 29- all shiny new cages. We are suffering more today than in 1990. Anyone who claims they want to alleviate prisoners’ suffering , but isn’t for closing and not relocating prisons, is either totally ignorant of the baseline cause our suffering or is lying. I’m for closing Riker’s. And I’m against building new jails in the boroughs. Eliminating prisons/jails ends suffering.

3. As for the suffering of those currently caged, let us remember that most people held in jail are pretrial detainees. Building new cages won’t alleviate their suffering, but doing the following will:

a. Eliminate money bail. Many are stuck in jail because they are poor and cannot post a money bail. How many people would not be at Riker’s if not for their inability to post a money bail? How many cages would he empty?

b. Prohibit Reincarceration for Technical Violators. They are many people sitting in jail for technically violating probation or parole, not for committing or even being accused or a new crime. How many cages would be empty if technical violators weren’t reincarcerated? How much suffering would be alleviated? Today, my niece’s mother, who gave birth to her on April 19, must report to jail to serve a 90 day sentence for a technical violation of her probation. She must leave her newborn and enter a cage and no crime has occurred- at least not by her. The reincarceration of technical violators wrecks havoc on people. It needs to end.

c. Press for speedy trials. Every state and the US Constitution have speedy trial provisions that are routinely ignored by judges and prosecutors, leaving thousands locked in cages. In Pennsylvania, the law says the state has 6 months to bring a person to trial and if it fails to do so, the person, if detained, is to be released upon nominal bail. If the state fails to bring a person to trial in 12 months, the case is to be dismissed. Theoretically, no one should endure more than 6 months of pretrial detention or 12 months of criminal charges hanging over one’s head. In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, speedy trial rules are ignored, leaving people to languish in cages until they are coerced into plea deals. In my own case, I spent 33 months under pretrial detention. In one case, the defendants were caged under pretrial detention for 9 years before the courts recognized their speedy trial violation claims. Pressing the courts to uphold speedy trial rules would empty cages and alleviate suffering.

d. Build strong connections with those inside. Prison is a site of substraction. Prisoners lose freedom, relationships, opportunities and hope. Connecting with us restores relationships, opportunities and hope. Connecting with us enables us to fight for our freedom and transform ourselves. Your support will alleviate suffering on a level that empowers us to fight the PIC.

We have to remember what the ultimate goals are, who the real enemy is and how we got here in the first place.

In Solidarity,