The Prison Strike Is the Modern-Day American Slave Rebellion

Eli Day September 11, 2018

A group of incarcerated firefighters marches from their drop point on Morgan Valley Road to battle the Jerusalem Fire on August 11, 2015 near Lower Lake, California. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

On August 21, 1971, George Jack­son was shot down dur­ing an attempt­ed escape from San Quentin State Prison. Jack­son, who had authored the high­ly-regard­ed prison mem­oir Soledad Broth­er the year before, co-found­ed the Black Gueril­la Fam­i­ly and quick­ly emerged as one of the lead­ing voic­es for black lib­er­a­tion in the ear­ly days of the black pow­er move­ment. A mere two weeks lat­er, on the oppo­site end of the coun­try, Atti­ca prison in New York became the site of the nation’s most dead­ly prison upris­ing. Forty-sev­en years since the cli­max of each, the dates were cho­sen as book­ends to pris­on­er-led protests that swept the coun­try in recent weeks. Out in front were orga­ni­za­tions like Jail­house Lawyers Speak (JLS), a human rights group made up of cur­rent­ly incar­cer­at­ed individuals.

These protests, cen­tered on 10 demands, are an echo of those ear­li­er episodes when pris­on­ers band­ed togeth­er so that they might inch their way towards some­thing more close­ly resem­bling free­dom. And per­haps no demand speaks more clear­ly to the spir­it of that impulse than the sec­ond: An imme­di­ate end to prison slav­ery” by ensur­ing that every incar­cer­at­ed per­son is paid the pre­vail­ing wage in their state or ter­ri­to­ry for their labor.” The shared expe­ri­ence of being forced to labor against one’s will brings oth­er chill­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to light, like the fact that, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly black and brown, today’s cap­tive pop­u­la­tion looks an awful lot like ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions of forced labor. But there’s also some­thing spec­tac­u­lar and awe-inspir­ing in the oth­er direc­tion: in past and present instances of slave labor, the vic­tims have mount­ed an orga­nized resis­tance to their plight.

While the com­par­i­son might sound extreme, it is the best way to illu­mi­nate the basic real­i­ty of forced labor behind bars. Jared Ware is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and out­side spokesman for JLS. He tells In These Times that pris­on­ers relate their con­di­tion to slav­ery on two grounds. The first is that the 13th Amend­ment nev­er actu­al­ly banned the prac­tice, and in fact, explic­it­ly per­mits its ongo­ing use for any­one con­vict­ed of a crime:

Nei­ther slav­ery nor invol­un­tary servi­tude, except as a pun­ish­ment for crime where­of the par­ty shall have been duly con­vict­ed, shall exist with­in the Unit­ed States, or any place sub­ject to their jurisdiction.

But the Con­sti­tu­tion is a doc­u­ment draft­ed in a world near­ly 250 years removed from our own, and in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent con­text. That’s why the sec­ond rea­son pris­on­ers charge slav­ery is ground­ed in some­thing more con­crete: the expe­ri­ence of those who per­form forced labor, as defined on their own terms.

I can remem­ber my great grand­dad­dy and them, they were talk­ing about it,” a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of JLS told Ware, who’s inter­viewed JLS mem­bers peri­od­i­cal­ly over the years. They nev­er real­ly referred to it as prison or as jail, they referred to it as being forced back onto the plan­ta­tions again. This is some­thing we’ve always understood.”

Even this is an under­state­ment. Prison labor is a bil­lion-dol­lar indus­try. Incar­cer­at­ed indi­vid­u­als do every­thing from sewing to extin­guish­ing wild­fires to lit­er­al­ly pick­ing cot­ton on still-oper­at­ing Louisiana plan­ta­tions. Those who labor behind bars are not only paid an absolute pit­tance (some­times as lit­tle as pen­nies) if at all, but they labor under threat of vio­lence. As Nathan Robin­son of Cur­rent Affairs argues, slav­ery is the only way to describe an arrange­ment in which peo­ple are made to do things or be dragged away.

Amer­i­can Slave Rebel­lions — Past and Present

Once we accept that the term slav­ery is indeed the right one for what’s hap­pen­ing here, we can then draw out oth­er sim­i­lar­i­ties between the expe­ri­ences — name­ly, the pow­er­ful role the vic­tims them­selves have played in resist­ing their captivity.

In A Nation Under Our Feet, his­to­ri­an Steven Hahn doc­u­ments in rich detail the role that black Amer­i­cans have played in not only shap­ing Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life, but in cul­ti­vat­ing a sense of them­selves as a peo­ple with shared polit­i­cal aspi­ra­tions. One of the more fas­ci­nat­ing stretch­es of the book comes with the dis­cus­sion of enslaved life in the Con­fed­er­ate south. There’s an often-unspo­ken assump­tion that slaves had no real polit­i­cal lives to speak of — they just labored under the ter­ror of the whip while wait­ing for his­to­ry to take place, play­ing lit­tle-to-no role in shap­ing it. But Hahn’s work real­ly should van­quish this myth. Through­out the course of the Civ­il War, espe­cial­ly towards the end as cracks in the plan­ta­tion sys­tem began to sur­face, enslaved peo­ple would some­times band togeth­er, refus­ing to work or car­ry­ing out oth­er small acts of dis­rup­tion in order to bar­gain for bet­ter work­ing conditions.

In one exam­ple high­light­ed by Hahn, as Union forces moved south, slaves in one Louisiana parish seized on the rearranged bal­ances of pow­er and nego­ti­a­tion” in the fall of 1862, telling their overseer:

…that they would not work any­more unless they got paid…shortly there­after Wood­land, togeth­er with a num­ber of sur­round­ing sug­ar estates, adopt­ed a wage sys­tem. Only the large Mag­no­lia Plan­ta­tion seemed to hold the line by promis­ing labor­ers engaged in a slow­down a hand­some present” when the crops were harvested…Within a month, the Mag­no­lia slaves had demand­ed a mon­th’s pay, and they com­menced anoth­er slow down when the demand was reject­ed. Not long after, all the women went on strike and refuse to return to the fields despite the urg­ings of a fed­er­al army offi­cer brought in to encour­age coop­er­a­tion; a week lat­er they were joined by the men. By the end of Octo­ber, the only worked that the hands had com­plet­ed was a chill­ing site to the plan­ta­tion man­agers: they had erect­ed a gal­lows in the quar­ters, claim­ing to have been told that they must dri­ve [the man­agers] off the plan­ta­tion[,] hang their mas­ter &c and that then they will be free. With this, Magnolia’s absen­tee own­er appar­ent­ly had enough. He promised com­pen­sa­tion once the crop was gath­ered and sold, and the slaves went back to work.

Mean­while, on a plan­ta­tion near New Orleans:

Object­ing to a new­ly hired over­seer who was in the habit of wield­ing the whip pret­ty freely and of using abu­sive lan­guage to the negro women,” a del­e­ga­tion of field hands” approached the mas­ter one morn­ing and very respect­ful­ly stat­ed their objec­tions”. He would have none of it, told them he could hire whomev­er he pleased, and sent them off. They prompt­ly went to their cab­ins, packed up their bun­dles, and start­ed on the road to Fort Jack­son [where]… they knew they could get employ­ment.” They had not gone far before the mas­ter recon­sid­ered. He called them back [and] told them they should have any over­seer they wanted.”

Hahn’s great con­tri­bu­tion here is twofold. First, he makes clear that any his­to­ry of Amer­i­can labor that does­n’t include black peo­ple is a work of weasel­ly non­sense. Black Amer­i­cans’ role in forg­ing that his­to­ry runs much deep­er and begins much ear­li­er than wide­ly acknowl­edged. Sec­ond, he reveals how slaves and the new­ly freed saw them­selves not just as vic­tims of the cru­elest fan­tasies white suprema­cy could imag­ine, but of a sav­age form of labor exploita­tion as well.

Today, cap­tive peo­ple — who are forced to labor with­out fair pay, and face phys­i­cal retal­i­a­tion if they decide the arrange­ment is bull­shit — are mount­ing a col­lec­tive effort to dis­rupt a sys­tem of vicious­ly racist eco­nom­ic exploita­tion. As the sec­ond of their cho­sen anniver­saries lapsed this past Sun­day, mark­ing 47 years since Atti­ca erupt­ed with the demands of its cap­tive pop­u­la­tion for basic dig­ni­ty, protests in at least 20 facil­i­ties across the coun­try were com­ing to a close.

Hey, I’m for dis­rup­tion!” the JLS rep­re­sen­ta­tive exclaimed to Ware. That’s what com­rade George Jack­son said, I’m for dis­rup­tion,’ as long as we’re dis­rupt­ing the sys­tem and not destroy­ing each oth­er.” The dis­rup­tors, he added, should remem­ber how eas­i­ly the past can reach across the present. The sys­tem evolved, it’s a lit­tle more sophis­ti­cat­ed, and you know peo­ple tried to change the lan­guage and there was a dis­con­nect,” he said, con­tin­u­ing: But I think we do a grave injus­tice when we just ignore the fact that it’s still a con­tin­u­a­tion of slavery.”

The threads bind­ing America’s present­ly chained labor force with its first are not only in the basic fea­tures of their expe­ri­ence, but in their will to resist, togeth­er. And as anoth­er JLS rep­re­sen­ta­tive told Ware, that resis­tance is only a step toward a much deep­er quest for gen­uine free­dom where it’s been denied. It’s worth remem­ber­ing that in 1863, sat­is­fy­ing that demand ulti­mate­ly took some­thing far more rad­i­cal than many of its time thought pos­si­ble: abo­li­tion.

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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