Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

Josh Hollandsworth, reporting from a demonstration building for an upcoming prisoners' strike, highlights the need for class analysis

Slave labor abolished... except for prisoners

On August 10, around 40 people of varying tendencies and backgrounds showed up in front of Durham County Prison in North Carolina, nestled downtown across from the Durham Performing Arts Center. Their purpose was to rally showing support in advance of a nationwide prisoners’ strike on September 9 being organized by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. People from various groups attended, including the Workers World Party, Ignite NC, and the Inside-Outside Alliance (to name a few). I attended as well, representing the Red Party North Carolina. It is the duty of all revolutionaries and those who claim to be pro-worker to stand with the inmates of the world, who suffer intolerable conditions and who can legally be paid nothing or almost nothing for their work. For all intents and purposes, this is modern slavery and the creation of a better world starts with better treatment for the victims of our so-called ‘justice’ system.

The rally started around ten minutes after the scheduled start of 7:30 PM. Greg Williams, a member of the Triangle IWW branch-in-formation made opening statements on a set-up microphone. Among other things he mentioned that the goal of the IWW (and any comrades in the struggle) is “ownership of the means of production.” Chants were led of “no justice, no peace!” and “if we don’t get it, shut it down!”  As the chants carried on, distinct banging could be heard from the windows above. Some inmates whose cell windows faced the streets were banging for our attention, expressing solidarity with our cause and showing that they saw us and appreciated what we were doing. That happened in and out throughout the demo and it had a very powerful effect on us all. Who knows what punishment they may have faced for that display of support? At one point we turned and looked up at the windows, in some of which orange-suited figures could be seen, and chanted “we see you, we love you!” As is common at any ‘wobbly’ event, union hymns such as “Solidarity Forever” and others were sang openly. Though unlikely, it is my hope that their sounds may have reached the prisoners.

Cops saw fit to close about 40-50 feet of the sidewalk closest to the entrance for some arbitrary reason, but on the sidewalk beyond it our protest spilled out onto a lane of the street in front of the prison. There was little interference with this, though two cops did approach Greg at one point and talk to him. He explained that though he “respected their opinions as an individual,” he would not tell the protesters to leave the lane. The porkies, apparently unsatisfied at a citizen knowing and flexing their rights and seeing other people openly recording the interaction, chose not to push the issue any further and walked away.

Between the songs and chants came the most important voices – those of our scheduled speakers who had family, friends, or personal experiences in the brutal penal institution. Letters were also read directly from inmates who gave firsthand accounts of expired food, unsafe living conditions, blatant racism and a total lack of proper medical care as major concerns facing those in the system. These accounts should be spread to everyone, that they may drop their hatred of fellow human beings just for being in prison. By far the strongest personal account came from an unexpected source – an old van which happened to pass our protest. It stopped by Greg and the occupant, an elderly black man, spoke to him for a few minutes. He then waved the car to stop close to the center, where he got out and was given the microphone.

This random passerby, with his young grandchild in tow, then shared with us on the spot his account of three months spent in this very prison. Of the same problems we’re hearing about today. Of the fact that nothing has changed since he was in there. Of the fact that the people being locked up are his people. And when he was done and getting ready to leave, the young child ran up and grabbed the mic. Along with the youthful playfulness that would be expected of any child his age given a microphone, he said that “kids want to be with their parents so they can be good to their parents!” I personally couldn’t agree more. We all thanked him from the bottom of our hearts for taking the time out of his day to share his important story with all of the people assembled and for driving home the point that the people in here are human beings worthy of the same rights as anyone else.

At one point during the event a reporter from a local paper noticed me passing out flyers for the Red Party and mentioning the organization to another demonstrator and approached me asking for information about our group. He took down my name and some basic details of our organization before departing. Though ultimately nothing about the RP appeared in their article1 the next day, it was a significant moment for a representative of ours to have contact with press. It is our hope that through increased visibility we can unite the fragmented left and realize the goals together that we’d only dreamed of before.

Prisoners, like all other laborers, need a union. And in conjunction with that the Red Party North Carolina demands a citizen-controlled board which can help confirm the proper treatment of inmates and ensure that more stories like what we heard today aren’t created. We need to end the incarceration of all non-violent offenders and treat prison only as a last resort of the criminal system, with all efforts at rehabilitation being the first. There must be an end to privatized prisons which profit off of increased incarceration rates and which have every motive to run the lives inside as cheaply and inhumanely as possible. And ultimately we must abolish capitalism, the root source of nearly all injustice and the primary catalyst of poverty, crime, and racism.

What happened here is only the beginning. This September 9, let’s rise against injustice once more and stand with the worker-prisoners of the world!