“You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: The vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.” Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
Oppression, Resistance, Unity, Power: A Statement In Support of the Virginia Prisoner Hunger Strike
By Rashid Johnson
In protest against the ongoing and inhumane conditions at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison – one of Amerika’s most notoriously abusive and racist prisons – dozens of men at the prison went on a hunger strike. The strike began on May 22, 2012 and lasted several weeks.
I had spent over a decade imprisoned at Red Onion. Much of that time was spent in political growth, and my writing and circulating reports and articles to publicly expose abuses there, and trying to help build us a support structure on the outside.
I also struggled to impart to my peers the truism that while oppression does breed resistance, resistance without unity and public support is futile, which is why our captors promote division and individualism among prisoners – a “mind your own business” and “don’t concern your self with others” mentality – and manipulate us to misdirect our frustrations and ‘resistance’ against and between ourselves. It is also why they maneuver at every turn to alienate the general public against us with fear and hatred, the old Willie Lynch game.
To repress my efforts, officials kept me in solitary, often isolated from other prisoners. They routinely censored, destroyed and ‘lost’ my correspondence, imposed increased repression and abuses on me, and finally, on February 11, 2012, transferred me cross-country without notice or explanation to the Oregon prison system.
But I’d like to believe that despite their attempts to undermine and frustrate this work, my efforts, in collaboration with others of like mind, took root and bore fruit.
Many of the hunger strikers are men whom I had the honor of serving as both student and teacher. Many are members of street tribes (so-called gangs), whose traditional rivalries kept them divided against and at odds with each other – divisions and conflicts that Red Onion officials acted at every turn to fuel and perpetuate. However, as one of the representatives of the hunger strike stated, “We’re tired of being treated like animals. There are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We, the oppressed, despite divisions of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, are coming together. We are rival gang members, but now are united as revolutionaries.”
And the prisoners now have an outside voice and support structure to publicly air their grievances and demands for basic human rights.
As I often point out to my peers, although we outnumber them at least ten to one and many of us are in prime physical condition, our oppressors have power, and the power to oppress us, only because they have unity and control public opinion. Whereas they keep us divided, and the public alienated against us, it is just as effective a political tool today as it was yesterday on Southern slave plantations and in campaigns to exterminate Native peoples and subjugate Mexicans to turn profits and steel land. It is the politics of oppression.
But today’s prison movement is learning from Georgia’s prisoner strike of 2010, to California’s prisoner hunger strike of 2011, to this latest hunger strike at Red Onion. We are learning that not only does oppression breed resistance, but political consciousness breeds unity, and unity begets power. It enables people so long indoctrinated to believe themselves powerless to see that they can challenge and change oppression by uniting against their common oppressor.
The greater our numbers and unity, the greater is our power to turn mere resistance into seizure of power, which is why unity of the oppressed is the greatest fear of any oppressor. The prison movement has much to teach us. We are conquered only because and insofar as we are divided.
Dare to struggle, dare to win!
All power to the people!