Brother Can You Spare a Dime June 29, 2015Posted by rogerhollander in Capitalism, Economic Crisis, Poverty, Uncategorized.
Tags: al jolson, bread lines, brother can you spare a dime, great depression, poverty, roger hollander, unemployment
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Roger’s note: A song the Republicans once tried to ban, it is as relevant today as it was during the (not so) Great Depression
Tags: detroit, detroit bankruptcy, detroit water, human rights, poverty, racism, roger hollander, sarah lazare, water brigade, water rights
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Roger’s note: few things, if any, are more necessary for human survival than water. The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world. It is a nation replete with millionaires and billionaires, and it is a nation that spends trillions of dollars on warfare. It is also a nation that operates within the dictates of capitalist economy where people who cannot “afford” to pay their water bill are cut off without this fundamental necessity. There is something very wrong with this picture.
Following two-day inquiry, UN experts release strongly worded warning condemning city’s human rights violations
Detroit’s “unprecedented” shutoff of water utilities to city homes condemns residents to “lives without dignity,” violates human rights on a large scale, and disproportionately impacts African-Americans, United Nations investigators declared Monday following a two-day inquiry.
“Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family,” wrote UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, in a joint statement. “It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.”
The officials visited the city following appeals in June from organizations concerned with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) escalation of water shut-offs to accounts that have fallen behind on their bills, amounting to up to 3,000 disconnections a week. The increase touched off organizing efforts by residents who charge they’re part of a larger plan, in keeping with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s bankruptcy push, to displace African-Americans and privatize water and public services.
During their investigation, the UN experts held interviews and meetings with local residents, as well as with city officials. On Sunday, hundreds of people crowded into a town hall meeting with the officials. “Once again, the international spotlight was on Detroiters trying to carve out dignified lives while being denied basic necessities of life,” said Maureen Taylor, spokesperson for the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People’s Water Board, at the town hall meeting.
DeMeeko Williams, coordinator for the Detroit Water Brigade, told Common Dreams that it is absurd that people in the city have to appeal to the United Nations for support. “You can’t get help from the city government, the state government is the main culprit, and the U.S. government is not doing anything, so what else is there to do? Who do we turn to?” he asked.
Despite a grassroots push for the Water Affordability Plan, the city has increased water rates 8.7 percent at a time of massive unemployment and poverty. Detroit is effectively passing “the increased costs of leakages due to an aging infrastructure” onto residents who can’t afford it, the investigators charge.
The rapporteurs document the heavy toll the shut-offs have taken.
“We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity,” they state. “Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity—they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.”
Despite the lack of data provided by the city, information obtained by the investigators suggests the city’s vulnerable and dispossessed are bearing the brunt of the crisis. “About 80 percent of the population of Detroit is African American. According to data from 2013, 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty level, 99 percent of the poor are African American,” they write. “Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD.”
Furthermore, they note, “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.”
The investigators continue, “It was touching to witness mothers’ courage to strive to keep their children at home, and the support people were providing to each other to live in these unbearable circumstances. And it was heartbreaking to hear of the stigmatization associated with the shut-offs—in particular the public humiliation of having a blue mark imprinted on the sidewalk in front of homes when their water was shut off due to unpaid bills.”
Meanwhile, the shut-offs continue. “There is still a high number of people going without water,” said Williams. “The Detroit Water Brigade is on the front-lines trying to help people get back to self-sufficiency. We need more support. The situation is not just going to go away.”
Food For Thought September 19, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in First Nations, Immigration.
Tags: food stamps, history, Immigration, pilgrims, poverty, roger hollander, satire, thanksgiving, undocumented
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THANKS TO LIZ CANFIELD FOR PASSING THIS ALONG:
Nearly 500 Hundred Arrested as Fast-Food Workers Rise Up September 5, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Poverty.
Tags: burger king, civil disobedience, fast food workers, jon queally, kfc, labor, labor unions, labour, low-wage workers, mcdonalds, minimum wage, poverty, roger hollander, seiu, taco bell, union rights, worker rights
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Roger’s note: Only in this world of cancerous capitalist economic relations would a working person have to risk inevitable arrest to advocate for a living wage from from the employers for whom her labor helps to build billions of dollars in profits. Socialism is not, as often mistakenly thought, the state ownership of everything. Genuine socialism is worker democracy where the working people whose labor creates the value of the product or service share equally in the revenue generated. Given the enormous productive capacity of worldwide human labor, in such a world everyone would have a living wage. No private owners, all productive enterprises owned collectively by those who work them. This is neither an unattainable or Utopian dream, rather it is what must inevitably replace capitalism’s inherently unequal and undemocratic way of distributing wealth; otherwise the planet is doomed by the war, pestilence and environmental destruction that are a direct product of capitalist economic relations.
Hundreds of fast-food workers and their supporters were arrested in cities across the country on Thursday as they stood up (and in some cases sat down) as they demanded a $15/hour minimum wage, the right to unionize, and better working conditions across the industry.
In what was the largest coordinated action yet by the low-wage workers movement that has been establishing itself over the last several years, nearly 500 people participated in civil disobedience that led to their arrest outside major fast-food chain restaurants, that included McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, and others.
The New York Times reports:
Organizers said nearly 500 protesters were arrested in three dozen cities — including Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Little Rock, Ark. All told, the sit-ins took place in about 150 cities nationwide, the organizers said.
In Milwaukee, United States Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, was arrested along with several fast-food workers.
“I’m doing this for better pay,” said Crystal Harris, a McDonald’s worker from St. Louis, minutes before she sat down in the middle of 42nd Street in Manhattan outside a McDonald’s restaurant about 7:30 a.m. on Thursday. “I struggle to make ends meet on $7.50 an hour.”
The protesters carried signs saying, “Low Pay Is Not O.K.,” “On Strike to Lift My Family Up,” and “Whatever It Takes: $15 and Union Rights.” They also want McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to agree not to fight a unionization drive.
The Guardian reports:
Many fast-food jobs pay little more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Thursday’s day of action called for a minimum wage of at least $15.
By the afternoon organisers reported police had arrested 436 people nationwide with more than 43 arrests in Detroit, 19 in New York City, 23 in Chicago, 10 in Little Rock, Arkansas, and 10 in Las Vegas. Protestors were arrested in New York after blocking traffic in front of a McDonald’s in Times Square. In Los Angeles police warned fast food workers sitting in the street they were part of an “illegal assembly” before arresting them.
“We’re definitely on the upward move because we feel justice is on our side … we can’t wait,” said Douglas Hunter, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago who said he has difficulty supporting his 16-year-old daughter on his hourly wage. “We think this is ridiculous in a country as rich as America.”
Also in the Guardian, economy columnist Heidi Moore suggests that not only is the fast-food workers movement growing—it’s working. She writes:
From the first $15-an-hour protest in Seattle in May 2013 to a convention in July, 60 cities on 29 August 29, and Thursday’s first widespread act of intentional civil obedience in the movement, the development of the fast-food protests has shown evidence of a labor movement ready to re-make itself.
“The unions themselves are recognizing that the old system is broken and they need to retool and try new strategies and new things, and that’s what the fast food strikes represent,” says Professor Ruth Milkman of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (Cuny), who has co-authored a new report on the progress of the labor movement in New York and the rest of the US.
Today’s strikes are different from previous ones in a number of ways, demonstrating the willingness to innovate, said Milkman. The widespread civil disobedience – courting potential arrest by walking out on the job – is one aspect that has been widely mentioned. Other innovations: the addition of home healthcare workers, a separate industry that major unions like the SEIU have worked hard to unionize, but which has not received as much attention as fast food. Tying the two industries together is, for the unions, a way to widen their reach.
And the Huffington Post adds:
The high-profile strikes — which tend to draw national news coverage when they happen — have helped progressive legislators push through minimum wage hikes on the state and local level in recent months, including a $15 wage floor that will slowly go into effect in Seattle. Even President Barack Obama has held up the protests as evidence that Congress needs to hike the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised since 2009. The current level of $7.25 is less than half of what the Fight for $15 campaign is calling for.
“You know what? If I were looking for a job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union,” Obama said Monday in a Labor Day speech. “If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”
While the fast-food companies themselves have generally remained quiet, critics of the campaign who sympathize with the industry have tried to dismiss the protests as stunts orchestrated by the Service Employees International Union. The union has devoted millions of dollars to the campaign in an effort to bring unionism to what’s generally a union-free industry.
With some exceptions, the fast-food strikes generally haven’t been large enough to shut down restaurants. In fact, it isn’t always clear how many of the people participating in a protest are striking workers. In Charleston on Thursday, several workers said they had the day off and wanted to take part in the protest; others told HuffPost they were missing a scheduled shift and were formally notifying their bosses they were taking part in a protected one-day strike.
Jonathan Bennett said he was supposed to be working at Arby’s on Thursday.
“If we don’t do this, I don’t know who will,” Bennett said. “$15 could change everything.”
Tags: Canada, Council of Canadians, detroit, detroit bankruptcy, detroit poverty, detroit water, human rights, Maude Barlow, nadia prupis, poverty, roger hollander, water rights
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Roger’s note: there are trillions of dollars to support thirteen years of warfare in Afghanistan and hundreds of military bases around the world and a stockpile of nuclear weapons capable of destroying the planet a hundred times over; there is money for record profits for banks and financial institutions and millions to bail them out when their crimes lead to economic disaster; there is money to pay CEOs hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries; there are gazillions for war profiteering corporations such as Lockheed and Boeing; there are three billion dollars a year to arm Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians (I could go on and on) … BUT THERE IS NO MONEY TO PROVIDE WATER TO POOR PEOPLE IN DETROIT.
Some naively and mistakenly believe that in a democracy you get the government you deserve. Yes, just as Palestinian children deserve to be murdered because their parents voted for Hamas. It is a perverse world we live in. In CAPITALIST democracy, you do not get the government you deserve; rather you get war and poverty. But, don’t listen to me, I am an unrepentant commie.
Council of Canadians joins movement against city-wide water war
As Detroit activists and human rights groups continue to protest against widespread water shutoffs, the Council of Canadians mobilized on Thursday to deliver a convoy of water in a show of international support to beleaguered city residents.
The Windsor chapter of the council will bring hundreds of gallons of water into Detroit to help those faced with long-term service shutoffs.
“In a region that holds 20% of the world’s freshwater, the water cut-offs are a source of growing international outrage,” said Maude Barlow, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians. “Water is a human right, and it is unacceptable in a country of plenty, surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in the world, that people should go without.”
The council plans to deliver their convoy to a rally Thursday afternoon at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Detroit. Several organizers will also send a petition to City Hall, asking for water to be restored to elderly people, disabled people and families with children.
“The human suffering is that of a major disaster, one that grows every day,” Barlow stated, adding that the council asks President Barack Obama to “intervene and to declare a state of emergency. It is appalling that this has been allowed to happen, even more so to go on this long.”
The city, which has been fighting its way out of bankruptcy in part by cutting public services such as pensions and welfare, ceased its water supply three months ago to households that were behind on payments in order to collect about $118 million in outstanding bills. Council members recently agreed to a 15-day moratorium on the shutoffs to allow residents time to catch up on what they owe, but emphasized that it was temporary. The policy began to receive international attention as residents held rallies and mass protests and the United Nations declared the shutoffs a violation of human rights.
More than 14,000 households were disconnected between April and June, while the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced plans to increase the shutoffs to up to 3,000 households a month. But according to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN expert on the human right to water and sanitation, disconnections for delinquent bills are only “permissible” if residents are simply choosing not to pay, which is not the case for the majority of the city’s low-income households.
“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying,” de Albuquerque said. “In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”
Detroit’s cost of living is too high for many of its low-income residents, particularly as they take the brunt of service cuts decided on by their bankruptcy manager, Kevyn Orr. “Our water rates rise continuously,” Priscilla Dziubek, a spokesperson for the Detroit People’s Water Board, told Common Dreams. “More and more people are struggling with their water bills. We have a loss of democracy. [The city] should make decisions with the citizens of Detroit in mind.”
Water bills in Detroit have gone up by 119 percent in the past 10 years. In June, the city council approved an 8.7 percent increase in rates. At the same time, unemployment rates reached a record high and the poverty rate hit 40 percent. Orr ordered the shutoffs for anyone who owes more than $150 on their bill, while the DWSD said that the procedure is standard and enforced every year.
But as the Michigan Citizen pointed out in June, there is a notable discrepancy in who gets their water services turned off and who doesn’t: Low-income residents do while elite establishments — like the Palmer Park Golf Club, which owes $200,000; Ford Field, which owes $55,000; and the Joe Louis Arena, which owes $80,000, — don’t.
“Why are they going after citizens?” Dziubek said. “They could collect from one of these large accounts and get a lot more money.”
The Detroit People’s Water Board and several other organizations, including Food & Water Watch, called on the city’s managers to implement a water affordability plan that would ease the burden on low-income residents. In a report (PDF) submitted to the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, the Detroit People’s Water Board stated that “it would be more just and efficient for the DWSD to spend its resources collecting unpaid bills from commercial and industrial users than depriving households of basic services.”
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a press statement Monday that the DWSD should “fundamentally reconsider its use of draconian water shutoffs as a means of strong-arming residents who cannot afford to pay their water bills.”
It was unclear Thursday morning whether the council would be able to cross the border, as the U.S. government has to give approval on allowing in any amount of water that exceeds what is necessary for “personal use.”
Dziubek wasn’t worried. “I can’t see any reason why humanitarian water would be turned away,” she said.
Why I Wouldn’t be Caught Dead Shopping in Wal-Mart May 29, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Capitalism, Economic Crisis.
Tags: boycott walmart, capitalism, fair wages, minimum wage, poverty, retail capitalism, roger hollander, wal-mart, wal-mart profits, walmart, walmart profits
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Wealth of Walmart Owners (the Waltons)
(as much as 42% of Americans combined!)
Subsidies and Tax Breaks that Benefited Walmart & the Waltons
Most Walmart Workers Annual Wage
Tags: Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, income inequality, labor, labour, minimum wage, pam ramos, poverty, roger hollander, wal-mart, working poor
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Roger’s note: Barack Obama, soon to be if not already a millionaire, shows just how out of touch he is with reality by his visit to one of the most exploitative enterprises on the face of the earth.
The president’s visiting my store Friday. He won’t see how I sleep on my son’s floor and eat potato chips for lunch
Thursday, May 8, 2014 12:23 PM -0500, http://www.salon.com,
When I woke up to see the news, I could hardly believe it: President Obama is planning a visit to the Mountain View Wal-Mart where I work.
But the excitement quickly passed when I found out the store would be shutting down hours in advance of his visit. I wouldn’t be able to tell the president what it’s like to work at Wal-Mart and what it’s like to struggle on low wages, without the hours I need. I am living at the center of the income inequality that he speaks about so often, and I wanted to talk to him about how to change this problem.
My situation is not unlike that of many of the 825,000 Wal-Mart associates – and many other Americans – who are working hard, but just can’t keep up. Most of us aren’t even paid $25,000 a year even though we work at the largest employer in the country and one that makes $16 billion in profits.
I wanted to tell the president what it’s like working – and living – like this.
Things have always been tight. After four years working at Wal-Mart in Mountain View, I am bringing home about $400 every two weeks (I’d like to get more hours, but I’m lucky if I work 32 hours a week). That’s not enough to pay for bills, gas and food. All I can afford to eat for lunch is a cup of coffee and a bag of potato chips. I’ve always done everything possible to stretch paychecks and scrape by. Sometimes it means not getting enough to eat.
But then I got some bad news that made stretching my budget impossible.
Two months ago, I started feeling ill. My doctor told me I needed to take a week off to have a series of medical tests. Every day for a week I went to the hospital and had to pay $30, $60 or $100 in co-pays for each appointment, test and X-ray.
With these additional expenses and without a paycheck for the week I was out, it pushed me over the edge. I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.
Right now, I don’t have a place to call home.
I sleep on the floor of my son’s living room because I can’t afford my own place. All of my belongings are in my car. I don’t know where to send my mail.
I used to think, “At least I have my health and my family.” But my doctor thinks I may have colon cancer, and with all of the money I still owe the hospital, I’m not sure how to finish the tests and get treatment. Even though I do have insurance through Wal-Mart, the co-pays are more than I can afford with only $400 every two weeks.
I wanted to tell the president I am scared. I am scared for my health. I am scared for the future for my grandkids. And I am scared and sad about the direction that companies like Wal-Mart are taking our country.
I don’t wish the struggle I’m facing onto anyone. But sadly, my situation isn’t unique. I know that I am one of many living in the Wal-Mart economy who has no financial stability. We expect to work until our deaths because we don’t have any retirement savings and are concerned about the future in front of our children and grandchildren.
There are so many of us who have it so hard – trying to live paycheck to paycheck. While the president is here visiting my store, I want him to look inside at what is really happening at Wal-Mart.
I want the president to help us and tell Wal-Mart to pay us enough to cover the bills and take care of our families. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask from such a profitable company, a company that sets the standard for jobs in this country. And I hope it’s not too much to ask from a president who believes that income inequality is the defining challenge of our time.
Pam Ramos has worked for four years at the Walmart in Mountain View, California. President Obama is visiting this Walmart on Friday. Ramos is also a member of OUR Walmart, the worker organization calling on Walmart to publicly commit to paying workers $25,000 a year, providing full-time work and ending illegal retaliation.
Signs of the Times December 20, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Economic Crisis, Housing/Homelessness, New York.
Tags: abby zimet, andres serrano, homeless, homelessness, new york city, poverty, roger hollander, veterans
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In the Bay Area, the homeless are suffering more than usual from a cold snap that has killed at least seven people. In New York, the homeless are suffering about as much as they always have, and they are everywhere. Seeking to tell their stories, artist Andres Serrano embarked on “Sign of the Times,” a project to buy 200 signs from homeless people at 20 bucks a shot to offer video testimony of their hard lives. When he asked, they always said yes, sometimes with a hug.
“I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that deserve to be heard.”
The Play’s the Thing December 16, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Criminal Justice, Education, Poverty, Race, Racism, Torture.
Tags: august wilson, chris hedges, education, incarceration, poverty, prison, prisoners, Race, racism, roger hollander, solitary confinement, theatre, torture
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Posted on Dec 15, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com
|AP/Ted S. Warren|
|Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in his Seattle neighborhood in 2003.|
By Chris Hedges
I began teaching a class of 28 prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey during the first week of September. My last class meeting was Friday. The course revolved around plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka and other playwrights who examine and give expression to the realities of America’s black underclass as well as the prison culture. We also read Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Each week the students were required to write dramatic scenes based on their experiences in and out of prison.
My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison. And when I read the first batch of scenes it was immediately apparent that among these students was exceptional talent.
The class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years. And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice—the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners—the title they chose was “Caged.” They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.
The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States. The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life. One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.
My stacks of 28 scenes written by the students each week, the paper bearing the musty, sour smell of the prison, rose into an ungainly pile. I laboriously shaped and edited the material. It grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society—some of the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails across the country, those we as a society are permitted to demonize and hate, just as African-Americans were once demonized and hated during slavery and Jim Crow—began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country. The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
“The most valuable blacks are those in prison,” August Wilson once said, “those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.” He added: “The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison.”
I increased the class meetings by one night a week. I read the scenes to my wife, Eunice Wong, who is a professional actor, and friends such as the cartoonist Joe Sacco and the theologian James Cone. Something unique, almost magical, was happening in the prison classroom—a place I could reach only after passing through two metal doors and a metal detector, subjecting myself to a pat-down by a guard, an X-ray inspection of my canvas bag of books and papers, getting my hand stamped and then checked under an ultraviolet light, and then passing through another metal door into a barred circular enclosure. In every visit I was made to stand in the enclosure for several minutes before being permitted by the guards to pass through a barred gate and then walk up blue metal stairs, through a gantlet of blue-uniformed prison guards, to my classroom.
The class, through the creation of the play, became an intense place of reflection, debate and self-discovery. Offhand comments, such as the one made by a student who has spent 22 years behind bars, that “just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” reflected the pain, loneliness and abandonment embedded in the lives of my students. There were moments that left the class unable to speak.
A student with 19 years behind bars read his half of a phone dialogue between himself and his mother. He was the product of rape and tells his mother that he sacrificed himself to keep his half brother—the only son his mother loves—out of prison. He read this passage in the presentation of the play in the prison chapel last Thursday to visitors who included Cornel West and James Cone.
Terrance: You don’t understand[,] Ma.
Terrance: You’re right. Never mind.
PauseTerrance: What you want me to say Ma?
Terrance: Ma, they were going to lock up Bruce. The chrome [the gun] was in the car. Everyone in the car would be charged with murder if no one copped to it …
Terrance: I didn’t kill anyone Ma… Oh yeah, I forgot, whenever someone says I did, I did it.
Terrance: I told ’em what they wanted to hear. That’s what niggas supposed to do in Newark. I told them what they wanted to hear to keep Bruce out of it. Did they tell you who got killed? Did they say it was my father?
Terrance: Then you should know I didn’t do it. If I ever went to jail for anything it would be killing him … and he ain’t dead yet. Rape done brought me into the world. Prison gonna take me out. An’ that’s the way it is Ma.
Terrance: Come on Ma, if Bruce went to jail you would’uv never forgiven me. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.
Terrance: I’m sorry Ma … I’m sorry. Don’t be cryin’. You got Bruce. You got him home. He’s your baby. Bye Ma. I call you later.
After our final reading of the play I discovered the student who wrote this passage sobbing in the bathroom, convulsed with grief.
In the play when a young prisoner contemplates killing another prisoner he is given advice on how to survive prolonged isolation in the management control unit (solitary confinement, known as MCU) by an older prisoner who has spent 30 years in prison under a sentence of double life. There are 80,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, which human rights organizations such as Amnesty International define as a form of torture. In this scene the older man tells the young inmate what to expect from the COs, or correction officers.
Ojore (speaking slowly and softly): When they come and get you, ’cause they are gonna get you, have your hands out in front of you with your palms showing. You want them to see you have no weapons. Don’t make no sudden moves. Put your hands behind your head. Drop to your knees as soon as they begin barking out commands.
Omar: My knees?
Ojore: This ain’t a debate. I’m telling you how to survive the hell you ’bout to endure. When you get to the hole you ain’t gonna be allowed to have nothing but what they give you. If you really piss them off you get a ‘dry cell’ where the sink and the toilet are turned on and off from outside. You gonna be isolated. No contact. No communication.
Ojore: ’Cause they don’t want you sendin’ messages to nobody before dey question some of da brothers on the wing. IA [internal affairs officers] gonna come and see you. They gonna want a statement. If you don’t talk they gonna try and break you. They gonna open the windows and let the cold in. They gonna take ya sheets and blankets away. They gonna mess with ya food so you can’t eat it. An’ don’t eat no food that come in trays from the Vroom Building. Nuts in Vroom be spittin’, pissin’ and shittin’ in the trays. Now, the COs gonna wake you up every hour on the hour so you can’t sleep. They gonna put a bright-ass spotlight in front of ya cell and keep it on day and night. They gonna harass you wit’ all kinds of threats to get you to cooperate. They will send in the turtles in their shin guards, gloves, shank-proof vests, forearm guards and helmets with plexiglass shields on every shift to give you beat-downs.
Omar: How long this gonna go on?
Ojore: Til they break you. Or til they don’t. Three days. Three weeks. You don’t break, it go on like this for a long time. An’ if you don’t think you can take it, then don’t start puttin’ yerself through this hell. Just tell ’em what they wanna know from the door. You gonna be in MCU for the next two or three years. You’ll get indicted for murder. You lookin’ at a life bid. An’ remember MCU ain’t jus’ ’bout isolation. It’s ’bout keeping you off balance. The COs, dressed up in riot gear, wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you. They bring in dogs trained to go for your balls. You spend 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. They put you in the MCU and wait for you to self-destruct. An’ it works. Men self-mutilate. Men get paranoid. Men have panic attacks. They start hearing voices. They talk crazy to themselves. I seen one prisoner swallow a pack of AA batteries. I seen a man shove a pencil up his dick. I seen men toss human shit around like it was a ball game. I seen men eat their own shit and rub it all over themselves like it was some kinda body lotion. Then, when you really get out of control, when you go really crazy, they got all their torture instruments ready—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. But the physical stuff ain’t the worst. The worst is the psychological, the humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat and the long weeks and months of solitary. If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive. They want to defeat you mentally. An’ I seen a lot of men defeated.
The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity. A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997. Earlier his 6-year-old son had innocently revealed that the woman was seeing another man. “I am aware of what kind of time I got,” he tells his wife. “I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but you chose to stick around. The reason I told you to move on with your life was because I didn’t want to be selfish. So look, man, do what the fuck you are going to do, just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.” He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends or even former cellmates. One prisoner, who wrote about how men in prolonged isolation adopt prison mice as pets, naming them, carefully bathing them, talking to them and keeping them on string leashes, worked in the prison infirmary. He said that as some prisoners were dying they would ask him to hold their hand. Often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.
A discussion of Wilson’s play “Fences” became an exploration of damaged manhood and how patterns of abuse are passed down from father to son. “I spent my whole life trying not to be my father,” a prisoner who has been locked up for 23 years said. “And when I got to Trenton I was put in his old cell.”
The night we spoke about the brilliant play “Dutchman,” by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amira Baraka, the class grappled with whites’ deeply embedded stereotypes and latent fear of black men. I had also passed out copies of Robert Crumb’s savage cartoon strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!,” which portrays whites’ fear of black males—as well as the legitimate black rage that is rarely understood by white society.
The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison—places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent—yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.
There are many Muslims in the prison. They have a cohesive community, sense of discipline and knowledge of their own history, which is the history of the long repression and subjugation of African-Americans. Most Muslims are very careful about their language in prison and do not curse, meaning I had to be careful when I assigned parts to the class.
There is a deep reverence in the prison for Malcolm X. When the class spoke of him one could almost feel Malcolm’s presence. Malcolm articulated, in a way Martin Luther King Jr. did not, the harsh reality of poor African-Americans trapped in the internal colonies of the urban North.
The class wanted the central oracle of the play to be an observant Muslim. Faith, when you live in the totalitarian world of the prison, is important. The conclusion of the play was the result of an intense and heated discussion about the efficacy and nature of violence and forgiveness. But by the end of a nearly hourlong discussion the class had unanimously signed off on the final scene, which I do not want to reveal here because I hope that one day it will be available to be seen or read. It was the core message the prisoners wanted most to leave with outsiders, who often view them as less than human.
The play has a visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate. The students wrote a dedication that read: “We have been buried alive behind these walls for years, often decades. Most of the outside world has abandoned us. But a few friends and family have never forgotten that we are human beings and worthy of life. It is to them, our saints, that we dedicate this play.” And they said that if the play was ever produced, and if anyone ever bought tickets, they wanted all the money that might be earned to go to funding the educational program at the prison. This was a decision by men who make, at most, a dollar a day at prison jobs.
We read the Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The character Bynum Walker, a conjurer, tells shattered African-Americans emerging from the nightmare of slavery that they each have a song but they must seek it out. Once they find their song they will find their unity as a people, their inner freedom and their identity. The search for one’s song in Wilson’s play functions like prayer. It gives each person a purpose, strength and hope. It allows a person, even one who has been bitterly oppressed, to speak his or her truth defiantly to the world. Our song affirms us, even if we are dejected and despised, as human beings.
Prisoners are given very little time by the guards to line up in the corridor outside the classroom when the prison bell signals the end of class. If they lag behind they can get a “charge” from the guards that can restrict their already very limited privileges and freedom of movement. For this reason, my classroom emptied quickly Friday night. I was left alone in the empty space, my eyes damp, my hands trembling as I clutched their manuscript. They had all signed it for me. I made the long and lonely walk down the prison corridors, through the four metal security doors, past the security desk to the dark, frozen parking lot. I looked back, past the coils of razor wire that topped the chain-link fencing, at the shadowy bulk of the prison. I have their song. I will make it heard. I do not know what it takes to fund and mount a theater production. I intend to learn.