On Sept. 8, 30 activists and organizers rallied outside Bristol County Jail, Rhode Island. Several progressive groups endorsed the rally, called by FIRE Boston. In attendance were: the Boston branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Justice for Siham, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Workers World Party – Boston, United American Indians of New England, and the Boston May Day Coalition.
Bristol County is known for its brutal Sheriff Hodgson, who organized chain gangs and offered his inmates as slave labor to build Trump’s border wall.
Aug. 28 marked the 500th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade, and slavery has continued to the present day through prison labor. Prisoners in Massachusetts make as little as 14 cents an hour for their work, while in some states they are not paid at all.
The rally expressed solidarity with the nationwide prison strike and with the more than 250 prisoners who chose to hunger strike in July in solidarity with 60 ICE detainees in the Bristol County Jail. According to a statement from Families for Freedom, the detainees’ demands included increased access to medical care, nutritional food, and lower commissary and phone rates. Sixty ICE detainees initiated the strike on July 18, and by July 24, there were 71 prisoners striking in solidarity. By July 26, 258 prisoners were striking in solidarity with the ICE detainees. The Sept. 8 Bristol County rally built on and highlighted the need for solidarity among the workers and oppressed.
Chanting down Babylon’s walls and speeches
Members of PSL’s Boston branch spoke in solidarity with the national prison strike, describing the U.S. as “a prison house of nations.”
A PSL member and organizer of the Jericho Movement’s Boston chapter, Nino Brown, spoke out against the racist prison state and how we can defeat the oppression capitalism breeds:
“Contrary to what is popular liberal opinion, New England is no liberal paradise different than the South when it comes to oppression, particularly that of the state. When we talk about the state, we ain’t talking about the name of the stolen land we reside on – Rhode Island or Massachusetts – we are talking about the prisons, the courts, the police, the law, and so on. We are talking about armed thugs hired by a white supremacist and imperialist system. The comrade on the mic before me talked about this nation being built on the genocide of the Indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans. We all know that’s true. So we bear no illusions that what the police here are protecting is a system that has not stopped doing what it was founded on. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be out here protesting right now!
“We have to realize that prisoners are a part of the working class, and we know for sure they are of the oppressed. But what we also have to realize is that this prison strike is reverberating internationally. The corporations that are making super profits off my people’s backs, of the multinational working class, are also multinational in character. So our struggle has to be multinational and international, and it’s important that we highlight the international character and attention this prison strike movement is gaining. If our oppression and enemies are multinational, if they are international, so must our solidarity and our resistance! We are going to win because we are destined to win. Lines are being drawn, and we got to remember that we are all we got, we are on the freedom side, not the side of the state! All power to the people!”
He finished with an adapted version of the old labor song “Which Side Are You On?”
Malcolm X was a freedom fighter and he taught we how to fight!
So we gon’ fight all day and night until we get it right!
Which side are you on my people, which side are you on?
We on the freedom side!
Organized labor and solidarity
Edward Childs, an organizer of UNITE HERE Local 26, Boston’s hotel and food service union, spoke about worker and union solidarity.
“Our union supports the prison strike. Every worker has an obligation to support any worker fighting horrible working conditions. We fought hard from health and safety regulations and everyone has a human right to safe and sanitary conditions, whether in the hotels or behind prison walls. We are going file an OSHA complaint on behalf of our sisters and brothers behind these walls. How dare the guards say they are a union when every union says an injury to one is an injury to all, yet they have not filed a complaint for the workers behind the walls anywhere in this country.
“Within a year, the White House plans to imprison 450,000 workers and 800,000 students who have TPS status or DACA. They intend to put them in work camps being built around the country. This is a xenophobic attack that will crush the union movement. Wall Street uses this xenophobia and the whole prison system to attack workers; they have no right to put anyone behind bars.”
Former prisoner Siham speaks!
A former prisoner of Bristol County Jail, the beloved community member, activist, and mother Siham Byah, called into the rally from Morocco and denounced the treatment she received while incarcerated. Byah is a single mother who was detained on Nov. 7, 2017, and deported Dec. 27, 2018, effectively separating her from her eight-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen. Though she has lived in the U.S. for 18 years, she was illegally deported by ICE to her birth country of Morocco, from which she is seeking asylum.
Byah denounced the guards for their inhumane treatment to prisoners stating:
“It is a facility that takes pride in mistreating and dehumanizing its inmates. Health care is nonexistent. The food is inedible. It’s not something you would give an animal, never mind people. We did not see the shadow of a fruit or vegetable unless you have a special order from a doctor, and even then you get a rotten apple once a day. People have their basic rights stripped away from them. I certainly didn’t feel like a human being when I was kept in there.”
Solidarity forever, tear down the walls
As the national prison strike comes to an end, activists and organizers all over the country are gearing up to continue to broaden and deepen the struggle against the racist prison state and all of its conditions imposed on the people. The prison strike may formally come to an end, but the struggle continues. Wherever there is oppression, there will be resistance. When the masses of working and oppressed people rise up collectively and consciously, we can tear down the prison walls of this racist society!