Events, Marches and Demonstration

A19 Millions for Prisoners March in Washington D.C. 

It’s August 19th and I’m very pleased with the turnout of the Millions for Prisoners march as I write this on my flight back to Seattle from Washington D.C. It was October of last year when I got an unexpected direct message on twitter from an incarcerated individual who told me to get in touch with Millions for Prisoners (M4P). It just after I’d done a photo-protest in a small town called, Mukilteo where I’d stood out front of Starbucks, McDonalds, UPS, and other prison profiting companies holding up my handmade “End Prison Slavery” poster. After I’d posted the photos ontwitter is when I was told to connect to M4P. I went to their webpage to fill out a contact form and before long I got a call from Krystal Rountree (the founder of IamWE and the organizer of M4P). She offered me the opportunity to collaborate with her on the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March by organizing out of Washington State as a local representative, before too long I’d also volunteered to assist with their monthly newsletter and weekly radio podcast, both called No Shackles. I found my place in the movement putting together the monthly newsletter: incorporating reader submissions from individuals on the inside while adding relevant articles to educate readers on the outside about the effects of mass incarceration. My focus for the newsletter was to write and collect articles that could engage readers on both sides of the wall in order to enable as many people as possible to participate in the prison abolition movement by staying informed about the Millions for Prisoners march and the many intersecting issues that are exasperated by the use of slavery in the United States. My desire for readers was to nurture their passion for prison abolition enough for them to want to attend their nearest A19 demonstration and to connect to others.
In July is when I received the request from Krystal to speak at the rally in Washington D.C. and I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity! Previously I’d been unsure on exactly which demonstration to attend, whether go to one closer to me in California, travel across the country to D.C. or even whether to organize a march in Seattle, but after being invited to speak I knew I had to be in D.C. After debating on what to say I realized that it was the voice of the prisoners themselves that I wanted to amplify during the rally. I reached out to two brothers that I’d been connected to in the Michigan Department of Corrections, Chanton Miles and Lacino Hamilton, to ask what they’d like to be said. As a media scholar, I recognize the importance of representation and during the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights rally my desire was to allow the direct words of the prisoners to be represented through me, the prisoners’ voices amplified during the prisoners’ human rights rally. I felt honored to be able to use my voice to amplify the voices of those who are incarcerated. We must recognize that we can’t end slavery without calling it out, today we called out slavery as a legal institution operating within the United States and we did so while standing in Lafayette Park, facing the White House in solidarity with sister marches and demonstrations happening concurrently throughout the country, the largest of which occurring in Boston, where tensions led to a number protesters being arrested. I sat in Ronald Reagan airport waiting for my flight watching the news coverage in Boston, something that had been lacking for us in D.C. as no major news outlets were present.

Mainstream Media Avoids M4P

The media’s avoiding our march reminded me of how dramatically the climate of this country has changed over the past year. Especially recently, after the violent incident that occurred in Charleston. Sadly, incidents of racial violence are ordinary these days but although some were disturbed by the acts of violence that occurred in Charleston, many where much more outraged by the President’s dismissal, and even excuse, of the gross racial violence, placing blame on “both sides”. Speakers at the march responded to the President saying, “We have the right to self defense” because an action of self defense is expected when in the face of racially hate driven violence. White supremacists were armed with guns in a way that Black activists would never be allowed and White Supremacists were protected by the police in a way that Black activists never are. In addition to spreading hate under the cloak of ‘free speech’ White supremacists targeted our day of resistance, August 19th, by organizing a ‘Freedom rally’ in D.C. at the same time as the M4P event. Black August is a traditional month of resistance against state forces, therefore the planning of the M4P event honored this and was planned starting in the prisons over a year in advance. It wasn’t until a few weeks before the march that we noticed on social media the distribution of flyers for a Freedom Rally and we recognized this as a direct attack, an ‘all lives matter’ like response to our request to be heard on our day.
Even then, I wasn’t entirely upset by the fact that this rally was happening at the same time until I got a call from Chanton, who’d written the speech, “I wish they’d cover the Prisoners’ Human Rights March, all I see on tv is this freedom rally” I noted the fact that there weren’t any big media outlets at our event, and that didn’t bother me until I heard from Chanton because I knew he was unable to see our live social media feeds, he depended (not by choice) on mainstream media for his news consumption and of course the media failed him and every other person watching unable to see our demonstration. Mainstream media did not choose us to broadcast, it never does because we have no ownership over any mainstream media outlets, we’re either grossly under or mis-represented. This is one of the reasons why I chose to produce media, to have the power to express my own narrative in a engaging and honest way. Although Chanton let me know that the march was not being televised, because mainstream media chose to broadcast a Freedom rally, it was great to have a moment to debrief with him about how the speech went and how well it was received by the crowd in D.C. He informed me that he recently got out of the hole (solitary confinement) and his writing work had been confiscated without reason. I had yet to hear from Lacino, still in the hole, since he sent me the first draft of his speech July 11th. It saddens me to see that these brave men’s willingness to share their non-violent, motivating and inspiring words at this event led to such harsh consequences. Their words stirred up the crowd, “Today we’re not marching asking for anything, we’re demanding Congress to remove this stark form of disrespect for human life. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution is a reminder that Americas slave and racist origin is alive and striving in Americas police, court and prison systems. Can systems that are intimately related to slavery and White Supremacy lay claim to the principals of Freedom and Democracy?” Of course we cannot continue to operate within a slavery based criminal justice system and continue to cloak it under the banner of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. This is not only hypocritical, but dangerously misleading. The refusal to address the hypocrisy of these issues is intentional and we must not continue to allow it which is why this event was worth my first trip to Washington D.C.

Meeting Other Like Minds

Although I’d never yet been to D.C. as soon as I got Lafayette Square I immediately recognized my people crowded underneath the shade of large trees facing a tented stage. Excited to meet the organizers that I’d been collaborating with remotely for over a year I immediately recognized Mallah-Divine who sent me his book, The Hidden Hand Duality of Self, during the first few months that we met online. He led me to the lead organizer, Krystal Rountree who was wearing a shirt for the march that I should’ve purchased online when I had the chance. To be able to meet the people that have been carrying this event, breathed new life into my passion for social justice and human rights. It can be isolating to be an activist, as you become more passionate about your cause (refusing to engage with companies that profit from prison labor) you realize the difference in people who don’t share your passion. Social Media gave me the opportunity to connect with activists across the country who are as on fire as I am about prison abolition. I feel honored to be able to stand along side such hard working, inspirational and well-known individuals in the movement. That was the beautiful thing about my being able to go to D.C., I got to meet and network with the most influential leaders of M4P committee. In D.C. met other people who were willing to drive and fly across the country to stand for Prisoners’ human rights and formed connections that would not have been formed otherwise. Those are my kind of people, the ones who go out of the way, regardless of inconvenience or obstacle in order to embrace the struggle and push forward.
There is a common understanding among those present at today’s march that when we cage, torture and degrade people as a form of punishment, we dehumanize not only those that are suffering under those conditions (the prisoners, their families) but we also dehumanize ourselves (police, corrections officers, bystanders). We must recognize that human rights are natural rights given to every one of us regardless of our standing in society, the speech I read emphasized this, “Human rights are not a privilege bestowed upon individuals due to good behavior and conduct. And they’re not limited to policies and laws enforced by bureaucratic government officials and administrators.” The unequal distribution and regulation of human rights by government officials is not only inhumane, it is barbaric. We call for an end to this through the amending of the 13th, but we also know changing legislation wording alone is not the answer. #AbolishThe13th or #AmendThe13th is a slogan used to mobilize people through social media platforms. This phrase allows us to educate and make people aware about the fact that slavery exists. The majority of Americans are unaware of legalized slavery which is why our focus is on the people, the collective and not the government. The representatives of Congress knew the loophole that they thew in when they wrote the 13th. It was written to preserve slavery, not to end and it because of this “We shouldn’t necessarily be marching to change and educate the government. We should be marching to change and educate the people.” It’s the masses who are unaware of the need for change, and its the masses who we must require to change their mindset and engage in this fight in order for us to force the government into making the changes necessary to liberate our people. “The real leap forward does not consist of some symbolic Congressional measure, but in the people accepting the challenge of embracing the struggle and surmounting obstacles.” It’s the masses who have to recognize the need for change AND be agitated enough to demand change. We become agitated by police brutality, mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex and the public school-to-prison pipeline enough to share posts on social media, making videos of police killings go viral but the vast majority of us don’t go past that in our action against this well constructed Black genocidal, criminal justice system. Some of us become agitated enough to attend a demonstration, we may even make a sign or buy a T-shirt, but we usually we stop there. What happens after the hashtag to viral video to street protest cycle?
Just another killing or another brutal, unjust arrest (if you’re lucky) and then the cycle continues…

Breaking the Cycle

National outrage leading to a popular hashtag causing the spread of a viral video resulting in a street protest (no matter how large) isn’t enough to evoke change. Obviously our government can handle that, suppressing our protests with police force, because these incidents of violence and the exponential growth of mass incarceration continues. Speakers at the rally reminded us that every 12 hours a black person is killed by state forces and this is a rate of genocide. 1 our of every 3 Black men is under state supervision (in prison, parole, etc) and this direct attack on the men in our community is destroying our family structures and depriving generations of young men from learning how to become adequate fathers and husbands. This is an intentional method of the government used to destroy our community and it’s working because our response to these trends by hash-tagging and sharing videos is not working. I too was stuck in that cycle, wondering why if sooooo many people are outraged online and some i the streets then how can this keep happening? If millions of people around the world are seeing so many police killings of Blacks on video then how can this keep happening? I think we all find ourselves asking those same questions, but it doesn’t take more than a simple conversation with a more experienced activist (for me it was a prisoner) to realize that there is more to the formula of evoking change than social media and street protest, we must also engage in networking and organizing. One of the best parts about attending events centered around social justice is having the opportunity to network directly with others that are like-minded. I left the event feeling lighter and heavier, lighter in a sense that this event culminated months of hard work, but heavy with the responsibility to continue forward. The fact that we were able to organize events in solidarity across the county in protest of legalized slavery is a great success because our willingness to come together and organize has been lacking in the Black communtiy since the aggressive destruction of the BPP, but we can no longer continue to be afraid. There were BPP members in attendance at this rally, urging us not to give up on those political prisoners still fighting on the inside, now elders with medical issues being neglected by corrections officers who are desperately in need of our support.
We can support each other much better by expanding our thinking when it comes to what activism looks like. One huge mistake that people continue to make is thinking that attending a march is activism. While attending a march allows you to engage with an activity but it doesn’t make one an activist, it opens a door. When we go to these events we’re able to gather, support each other, meet others sharing our struggle, share stories and talk about our ideas. If you can go to a march and then go home and never contact one person you met at the event then what’s the point? There’s no way that you can be an activist because there’s no activity there. If you can attend a march without exchanging information with new people that you hope to collaborate with in order to make strides forward then how could you be active? Ending slavery, an institution that our government has consistently upheld and depended on throughout generations of torture and abuse, is going to take a very large group of very active people who are consistent and demanding. There is a formula I follow when I go to marches and I’ll share it with you, C^4, not only does this help guide my thinking during fast paced events like marches and rallies, following the steps also allow me to grow my network and get more work to do for the movement because as an activists there’s never enough work to do:
  1. CONNECT I challenge every person who goes to a demonstration to leave with at least 5 new contacts from people with intersecting interests or identities. Always keep a small notebook with you in order to write down any inspirational quotes or jot down contact information. Connecting with someone can be as simple as getting their email or social media handle.
  2. COMMUNICATE What’s the point of getting someone’s contact info if you never reach out? I urge those of you who were able to connect to open up a line of communication by reaching out to those contacts (regardless of their location) and letting them know more about your work and your passion. This should be done in a timely manner (within a week of your meeting) allowing people from different states/organizations to keep in touch with the intention of expanding our collective sphere of influence.
  3. CREATE & COLLABORATE This is the most important step and where a lot of people fall short. Once you communicate with those contacts, you must actively look for a way to collaborate with them. What’s the point in opening up a line of communication if you never work together? Be creative, find ways to collaborate that you’ve never seen before that can grab the attention of people who’ve never heard of your cause or what you do. Even if you can’t plan some extravagant event, create a new branch of an organization or start a new business venture with your contacts; collaborating can be as simple as a tweet like, “So glad to have connected with @MallahFitness at the @mili4p human rights march #A19 #EndPrisonSlavery.” A simple tweet like this introduces all of your followers to this new contact you’ve made and vise-versa giving both parties access to a new sphere of influence.
  4. CONTINUE with CONSISTENCY There will be some organizations and individuals that are easier for you to collaborate with than others. Don’t feel bad if you’re able to work together to plan an event with one individual or organization and not another. As a writer its easier for me to work with different organizations by attending the events they host and writing about them than it is for me to organize an event. If you’re a photographer it may be easier for to collaborate with a writer, allowing them to use your photos for an article. If you’re the founder of an organization it may be easier for you to collaborate with an individual interested in starting a new branch of your organization in another state, than it would be for you to work with a book author for example. But I’m sure that we all can find a way to work with anyone, we’re creative enough. For example, the organization founder could collaborate with the book author to host an event featuring their books. The fact that you were able to find another person with similar interests at an event for a cause both parties are passionate about is overwhelming evidence of your potential to work together. After working together successfully, do it again because this if the type of consistent collaborating that is essential to relationship building.
As a result of our constantly connecting and collaborating with each other our collective following will increase and growth will happen. A lot of people are unwilling to beyond ‘showing up’ at a demonstration. Although showing up is a VERY important 1st step, it’s not the solution to change. This will not be the last march, rally, demonstration, Black August or A19 so we must all be ready when the time comes for us to stand together and demand our rights for our people. Prisoners’ rights are human rights and this country wide demonstration is only the beginning. Once I get off of this plane I have to reach out to my contacts and look for ways to collaborate with the like-minded individuals I met at the march so that the rippling effect of what began in D.C. will continue.
A thank you to ALL of the organizers who put this beautiful event together against the odds, with the obstacle of opposing forces.
A thank you to ALL of those who were able to hear me speak in Washington D.C. today.
A special thank you to my father who accompanied me to the rally and stood in the blistering heat sweating profusely in order to get the perfect angle of me speaking.
In the future we can be sure that, not only will more people know about the next demonstration because it’ll be spread widely across multiple platforms in creative ways that the masses cannot ignore, but now more people will also know exactly what to do in order to keep the ball rolling after the event is over: Connect, Communicate, Collaborate and Continue resulting in increased unity and exponential growth within our communtiy.
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About Amani Sawari

I am a University of Washington alum, Class of 2016. I graduated with my Bachelors Degree in two majors: Media and Communications AND Law, Economics and Public Policy. It’s a mouthful but it illustrates how I have a hard time doing only one ‘thing’. I am a writer, poet, singer, songwriter and much more. I enjoy sharing my experiences and perspectives with those who are interested and I am a proud member of the black diaspora!

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