Written for Viewpoint Magazine, October 2014
Sin Barras is a prison abolition group based in Santa Cruz, California. We are not a registered non-profit, receive no government or foundation funding, and are unstaffed. We say this immediately because we are organizing in a moment of neoliberal non-profits and constant co-optation, so “grassroots” does not get the point across.
We are celebrating a recent victory that has improved medical conditions and treatment inside the Santa Cruz County Main Jail. Our celebration is not an endpoint, but a moment of re-invigorated energy, which we are using to reflect on our strategies and learn our next steps. We are trying to hold systems of incredible violence accountable and at the same time are working to render them obsolete. But one clear takeaway is that a militant and community-oriented direct action led to a year-long grand jury investigation of the inhumane conditions in our local jail. Of course the work continues, because we know deeply that the jail itself is inhumane.
Our organization began with four or five university students excited about the project of prison abolition. We had all experienced the dehumanizing process of being arrested and/or had family members incarcerated, and though we were students, made a commitment to root our movement-building in the broader Santa Cruz community. Slowly but surely we have grown into a fierce network that actively amplifies the knowledge and organizing capacity of people who have been most directly impacted by police and prison violence, white supremacy, and the poverty created by capitalism.
Sin Barras promotes community-based interventions that confront interpersonal harm without relying on the police. We fight for prisoner rights and support prisoners’ struggles through art, direct action, and legal strategies that tackle “non-reformist reforms,” reforms that do not participate in criminalization or compromise. It takes a variety of tactics to make visible the lived realities and resiliency of people who have been caged and rendered disposable by the state. It is no coincidence that while California has built 24 new prisons in the last 30 years, most formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones have been coercively conditioned into less vocal and direct forms of resistance. This is done by the police, our current education system, the courts, and the prisons. Because of this reality, it is crucial that those most impacted by the systems we are fighting are at the forefront and center of our movements, working to sustain a statewide coalition of anti-prison organizations. This leadership model is crucial to combat the story liberal social movements so often mobilize, painting victims of oppression so they match national norms about what “deserving citizens” are like. These constituents are portrayed as “non-criminals,” with documentation, conforming to white, capitalist, and patriarchal norms. When these strategies are used, the most dangerous conditions and the people who are currently most vulnerable cannot be discussed or addressed and are cast as “undeserving.”
While we maintain and develop our own analysis of an abolitionist future, we have learned that working together across our geographies and political nuances is effective. We organize with Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide coalition of over 60 organizations that seeks to “curb prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.” During our formation as an abolitionist organization, we were skeptical about joining a group with non-profits. But we have consistently found that there is ongoing and powerful work being done to decarcerate that does not declare itself “abolitionist.” Working with an incredibly diverse group of (sometimes unexpected) allies has been central in building a unified and transformative movement against mass incarceration.
Earlier this year, we killed $4 billion of jail expansion money. And yet the number of those incarcerated in the state of California climbed higher. As we celebrate victories secured by a diverse and broad coalition, a unit that was unbowed in attempts to divide us over half-measures and empty promises, we also want to recognize the work we still need to do. Activist and academic Ruthie Gilmore has recently argued “the fact that prison numbers rose in 2013 is a testament to the deep fragmentation of social justice work in the USA.” Why is it that immediate struggles against criminalization are so often divorced from fights against deportations or from rebellions like those ongoing in Ferguson, Missouri?
In this November’s election California will consider Proposition 47, which decarcerates some inmates while accelerating more funding to cage “dangerous” offenders, taking away the possibility of parole for many. We know that state strategy has been to fragment our movement by offering “potential” victories at the cost of leaving the most marginalized and the most radical behind. We need to find a program – a target and plan for political development, from which we can connect our movements in a serious and ongoing way.
– Tash Nguyen and Courtney Hanson, Sin Barras