A member of the R2K Task Force
Boston Global Action Network
** Issues surrounding the criminal justice system, prison-industrial complex, and death penalty have been largely forgotten and ignored by politicians, but are staggering in their catastrophic implications for a growing segment of American society. Activists have shown deep understanding and empathy by activating on these issues.
** US surpasses all other nations with its civilian incarceration rate, despite being the richest and most powerful nation and “the home of the free”. Rates are even higher for minorities and poor people.
** The death penalty is internationally recognized as barbaric and cruel. US is a leader in number of executions, and Texas specifically. US also one of 7 nations that executes juveniles.
** Activists, by engaging in direct action have demonstrated remarkable responsibility and sensitivity towards the ills of society, while governments have abdicated their responsibility, choosing rather to push forward punitive and heavy-handed measures, effectively making millions “disappear”.
** Activists have been largely peaceful despite much hyped media reports to the contrary. Only violence on part of protesters was largely in self-defense and while being chased by police.
** Direct action has a long and esteemed tradition. Participants are courageous and show great moral fiber, and follow in the footsteps of MLK and Gandhi.
** Current acts of police repression in Philadelphia have put civil liberties in grave danger.
** Police repression irrational and vindictive—as ludicrous as the destruction of puppets, as brutal as beatings and pepper spray.
** Same old propaganda being trotted out to cast protesters as spoiled rich kids from out of town, playing at revolutionaries, leaving a mess for the city to clean up (at the expense of taxpayers of course). This is used so often, that is not worth responding to, yet this old tactic effectively uses the most potent prejudices in society to divide people. Must be challenged.
The August 1st civil disobedience actions in Philadelphia were meant to shed light on some of the most ignominious and shameful facets of modern American society ? the depredations and degradations of the criminal (in)justice system, prison-industrial complex, and death penalty. The actions involved people, young students mostly, taking responsibility for issues in most cases far removed from their own lives, calling on them to stand up for the rights of the most ignored and vilified segment of the population. The US presently has the largest prison population of any country, half a million more than China whose government is constantly accused of running slave labor camps and gulags. Indeed, the US also uses prison labor to produce goods, anywhere from providing reservations services for major airlines to packaging Microsoft products.
For people of color, the present incarceration rates are nothing more than a social catastrophe that has further wrecked communities, undermined families, and destroyed homes. For minor drug possession charges, people have been thrown in jail for years, while little attention has been spared to help our fellow citizens rise from the morass of their shattered lives and communities. Families already on the brink have been torn apart with parents separated from children. Furthermore, without proper legal representation, fair trials have been hard to come by. It has proved much more useful however for politicians to build jails than to educate young people, to prey on the publicís racist fears, than to speak to their conscience. Meanwhile, some of the greatest criminals in society, criminal corporations, have never been brought to justice, as their legacies of polluted sites, defective and dangerous products, and occupational hazards on the job have claimed more lives than all the murders combined. General Colin Powell alluded to this when he chastised Republicans for opposing affirmative action for minorities and women while supporting affirmative action for corporations in the form of tax breaks and subsidies. However in the case of crime, the contrast is ever starker.
Another demand of the protesters, to abolish the death penalty, is the call of the peacemakers of the world, and not violence as the police and city have tried to portray. Indeed it is the US state and federal governments that continue to expand the application of the death penalty, a trend that all major international and national human rights organizations condemn as uncivilized, cruel, and useless in deterring crime, but instrumental In inuring the population to greater brutality on the part of the state. Most major Western countries have abolished the death penalty. In Canada, crime rates have dropped since capital punishment was deemed unfit for a civilized country to pursue.
The most important thing to bear in mind through all this is that the young activists in Philadelphia took personal responsibility to highlight these issues, risking arrest for the sake of millions now in jail and for the sake of society that is slipping into moral delinquency and barbarity. It is our state and federal leaders who are the ones who have abdicated their responsibilities by demonizing their fellow citizens and seeking simplistic and cruel solutions to complex social problems. For the richest and most powerful country in the world to have locked up so many of its citizens, disproportionately the poor and people of color, is an abdication of responsibility so great and with so terrible a human price, it is almost unfathomable. And each year, the prison population keeps growing, destroying more lives, creating more criminals, and worst of all, substituting hope with hatred and fear.
The activists were well informed, courageous, and moved by a deep sense of duty to other human beings for going out on the streets of Philadelphia. Nothing can diminish this fact, especially not the angry and selfish rants of inconvenienced motorists or the propaganda offensive of the police commissioner, the district attorneyís office, and city hall. All could have chosen not to participate, not to risk arrest, and not to follow their convictions. Yet the young activists were moved by the same sense of moral urgency and spirit as the great moral and spiritual leaders of our time, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who likewise spent many years in jail for engaging in similar acts of civil disobedience decades earlier. Even now, the political prisoners, and they are political prisoners in earnest, are practicing jail solidarity and are on collective hunger strike, tactics as old as the first non-violent struggles for human dignity and freedom.
Attempts by the police commissioner of Philadelphia and the mayor to tar the movement for social justice in the press and through intimidation tactics and repression of the protesters are reminiscent of Philadelphiaís recent ugly history of police brutality. However, the calls by the commissioner to investigate activists at the federal level and the mayor to prosecute them to the fullest extent also hint at a far more sinister push to shut down civil liberties altogether in this era of heightened social consciousness among the youth. These efforts in addition to information gathering, surveillance, so-called “preemptive” arrests, and selective violations of civil rights, are having a chilling affect on the exercise of that most cherished freedom, the freedom of expression. If allowed to stand, such tactics will bring about the conditions of a police state, not through some unforeseen upheaval, but slowly and methodically until our most important rights are abrogated and the Constitution effectively suspended.
This new repression, that has reached such ludicrous heights as in the trash compacting of puppets and the arrest of all puppet makers recently in Philadelphia, should be taken extremely seriously. In their minds, a warehouse full of puppets is the same as an arsenal full of guns. It is often forgotten how quickly civil liberties can be abrogated and dispensed with even in a democratic society. The fact that global justice activists operate completely in the open and plan non-violent actions around issues normally associated with peace and freedom, does nothing to diminish the threat from police repression, and may in fact heighten it. It is entirely possible that the new movement is seen as a real threat to the current unjust world order as is manifest in its hopeful and inspiring vision of social change represented most dramatically by its puppets, its murals, and its great works of art. The police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia, by acting like small town thugs through their vindictive and wholly unconstitutional measures only go to show that the whole system is unequipped to handle such a benign but effective challenge. However, the recent law enforcement actions reveal how real the power of the state can be and how great its potential for violence and lawlessness, regardless of the peaceful and non-violent intent of activists.
In summary, it is up to each and everyone of us to show our solidarity with the brave souls in prison, to stand up against intimidation and injustice, to cast light on the mutilation and degradation of law enforcement and the judicial system, and to proclaim our freedom and rights. It is time for the populace to wake up from its slumber, to take a long hard look at the American nightmare that so many of our fellow citizens live through every day. Our conscience allows us no other choice.
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
· Thomas Jefferson
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
· Albert Einstein
“My silences have not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”
· Audre Lourde
“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
· H.L. Mencken
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
· Henry David Thoreau
“Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
· Eli Weisel
“They first came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up - because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up - because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up - because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up - because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me - and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
· Pastor Martin Niemoeller
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Boston Global Action Network