A Testament to the Deep Fragmentation

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

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