Day 43 – Time to Re-Frame the Debate
It is difficult to be a Mediator in a situation where no “negotiations with terrorists” are allowed to take place. But let’s start with that word “terrorist,” a grossly overused label in our post 9/11 era. It is meant to demonize. It is meant to conjure up fear and loathing. It is meant to justify any level of violence to counter the fear. Yet what we are dealing with in this non-violent struggle to improve prison conditions is a group of well-disciplined prisoners who have been working across their ethnic differences to adopt non-violent, historically grounded methods to focus attention on their grievances. And in between hunger strikes they reinforced their commitment to non-violence by issuing a Call to End Hostilities between so-called gang groups. So “terrorism” has no place in the discussion.
Taking a non-negotiation stance is reminiscent of hostage taking strategy. “We don’t negotiate with people who kidnap and hold hostages.” But when the Mediation Team questioned that terminology with the CDCR during the first hunger strike in 2011 we were told “but we are being held hostage by this strike.” Really? The prisoners themselves are bearing the suffering of their action, a hallmark in non-violent tactics. They have no power, except the moral power that the opponent feels as he/she/they confront the suffering of the strikers. All the power rests with the Department to either make the changes that are suggested, stonewall the demonstrators, and/or punish the demonstrators. So far the last two responses are the only ones they have chosen.
The Department claims that the leaders of the strike are forcing prisoners to refrain from eating. Yet every instruction they have issued, in our hearing, says the opposite. People should make their own decisions about whether to go on hunger strike and how long to remain on strike. People with pre-existing medical conditions should think carefully before going on hunger strike. People should accept re-feeding if their bodies are telling them they have had enough. The strike started with 30,000 prisoners and is down to a few hundred. If people were being forced to stay on, they don’t seem to be complying. Could there be some people in the system who feel peer pressure? Certainly. Could there be rogue actors, among the correctional officers or the prisoners, causing problems for people who start eating? Probably. But our Coalition has contact with prisoners and their visitors in institutions throughout the state and believes that a minimum of coercion, if any, is in play here.
What do the prisoners themselves say about what they are doing? Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, one of the four representatives at Pelican Bay said this week, “As people who have suffered under such a brutal, diabolical system, we realize that it is our responsibility to help change the course of violent prison systems that have made their way to our communities… We called for an end to hostilities to eliminate giving prison guards an excuse to kill prisoners. We realize nothing productive can be done to change the current state of our situation, our prison environment, unless we end the hostilities between prisoners and end all racial and gang violence within the CDCR. We feel that prisoners are the victims of a systematic process that manipulates them through racial and gang violence in order to prevent greater unity.”
The only way the strike can end without any more participants dying is if the Department begins to see the prisoners as humans, not just as people who have committed crimes, usually decades earlier. Without this breakthrough there will be deaths.
But an equally serious problem is that our own humanity is compromised when we demonize “the other,” and dismiss their humanity. Experienced practitioners of non-violence—such as Gandhi or Cesar Chavez—counseled that hunger strikes should only be used to raise issues within one’s community, where the moral imperative being lifted up can be embraced and real change can take place. When the opponent doesn’t feel that human affinity, all may be lost. It is sobering to remember that Cesar Chavez fasted to the point of permanently harming his own health, and died prematurely. We appeal to Secretary Beard and Governor Brown to demonstrate their humanity by making the reasonable changes that are being requested before it is too late. History will hold them accountable for these lives.
On behalf of the Mediation Team,
Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee (415) 565-0201 Ext. 11
Hunger Strike Mediation Team
Dr. Ronald Ahnen, California Prison Focus and St. Mary’s College of California
Barbara Becnel, Occupy4Prisoners.org
Dolores Canales, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement
Irene Huerta, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement
Laura Magnani, American Friends Service Committee
Marilyn McMahon, California Prison Focus
Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children
Azadeh Zohrabi, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children