Sept. 14 at Riverside Church NYC: End Mass Incarceration/Close Attica Posted October 23, 2012 by NYSPJN

by Incarcerated Flavors


The New York State Prisoner Justice Network was one of the organizers for a historic program to End Mass Incarceration/Close Attica at Riverside Church on September 14th, 2012. It was massive, brilliant, and inspiring!

First and foremost, the people: nearly 2000 people were in attendance, filling the immense awe-inspiring arched nave to the balconies. Although many came from upstate and from distant states, the crowd was mainly New York City and represented the broadest array of NYC-based anti-mass incarceration and prison justice forces. Judging by when the wildest cheering was heard, it seems we are a radical bunch! People cheered loudest at the strongest statements from the stage: abolish prisons, challenge capitalism, overthrow white supremacy, support justice for women, lgbt folks, Muslims, youth, and everyone targeted by the criminal INjustice system. There were also loud ovations for unity and connecting the dots to mold our separate issues into a powerful movement.

Each of the speakers and panelists is a brilliant thinker and powerful, clear, poetic orator: Angela Davis, founding mother of the anti-incarceration movement; Michelle Alexander, generator of the movement’s current anti-racist renewal under the banner of End the New Jim Crow; Jazz Hayden, formerly incarcerated, documenter of police Stop and Frisk abuse in New York City and currently a target of it himself; Cornel West, fiery and spiritual, a moral compass for a nation gone awry; Marc Lamont Hill, the youngest panelist, as deep a thinker as he is a dramatic spokesperson for a new generation of activists – these were the panelists. In addition to the panel there were speakers: Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director of the Correctional Association, who combined hard facts about prison abuse at Attica and throughout the system with passionate commitment to the women and men who are living under its heel every day; Pam Africa, international spokewoman against oppression everywhere, and pillar of the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal; Mumia, by recorded message and live call-in, off Death Row but still incarcerated with a life sentence; and Juan Mèndez, by video, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, quietly serious, deeply dedicated to human rights, and himself a survivor of imprisonment and torture. This impressive array was moderated by asha bandele and Suzanne Ross, long-time justice activists whose political insight was essential to conveying the meaning of the event. Behind the scenes, a whole army of volunteers, as well as the extremely supportive staff at Riverside Church, carried out the literally hundreds of tasks that made this evening the success that it was.

From two hours of profound and nuanced ideas about the problems and the solutions for building a movement against mass incarceration, some highlights:

Pam talks about the world’s most famous political prisoner: Jesus, framed by the powerful, tortured, loved by the people. Soffiyah describes vividly the lives of the men incarcerated in Attica: prisoners of color guarded by white guards, amid an atmosphere of total repression. Mumia speaks in heartbreaking personal detail of his decades in solitary confinement — this year when he could touch his loved ones for the first time, he says, he was overwhelmed by the intensity of his emotions.

The panel is asked for their overview of the mass incarceration system. Angela says the culture and technology of incarceration overflow the prison system and pervade the so-called “free” world. Michelle says mass incarceration is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time; racially targeted mass incarceration is payback for the gains of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Asked what they see happening in our movement, Marc says the growing gap between rich and poor has been waking people up to the nature of the system. People are seeing the contradiction between first class jails and second class schools, and are connecting the issues of education, housing and jobs to incarceration. Jazz says he sees growing awareness everywhere: a program like this couldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Cornel adds  a spiritual dimension: we are seeing precious humans living in subhuman conditions because of a system based on white supremacy and greed. Several panelists refer to our movement’s need to pay attention to the different ways that different communities are targeted: Angela says the specific oppression of women and lgbt folks in prison casts light on the underpinnings of the whole system. Marc and Cornel refer to homophobia as a barrier to building unity. All say we don’t have to agree on everything but we have to coalesce, to connect the dots among the different issues and also connect the different parts of our movement into a powerful whole.

Several panelists provided thoughtful perspectives on the interaction, and sometimes tension, between reforms and the goal of long-term system change or abolition. Everyone wanted the whole system dismantled and replaced with more human, humane, equitable alternatives, and everyone said that reform is not enough. Marc Lamont Hill pointed out that for real people struggling to survive in real prisons, fighting for less abuse, better medical care, or libraries can make a crucial difference. He summarized the solution as both/and, with the right connection achievable not in theory but only in the practice of fighting for change.

For members of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network, a light-bulb moment was Michelle describing her ideal of the kind of structure she envisions for our movement: an organization driven by vision and not by funding, an overarching network that connects the different issues and mobilizes people based on what fires them up. We looked at each other and said: “Hey, that’s us!” We left with renewed energy, inspiration, and commitment.

For those who have internet access, parts of the program are viewable at