by sean swain
So long as oppression exists, there will be resistance – the natural response to oppression. And prison is the one place where oppressors may impose directly and intimately on every aspect of a captive’s life, so we can easily conclude that prisoner resistance will go on until some (not so distant?) future day when prisons cease to exist. The question that confronts resisting prisoners is the nature and form that resistance should take.
I have opposed what I perceive to be “reformist” prisoner actions, to include efforts like hunger strikes, work stoppages, and mobilizations for legislative reform – which are, by and large, most of the menu options you find resisting prisoners selecting. Having already written about my reasons for opposing these forms of resistance in favor of what I’ve described as “direct action,” I won’t repeat myself. What I would like to do instead is to present a practical definition for what separates useless and futile “reformist” action and useful, productive “direct” action.
“Reformist” and “direct” actions differ in the way they relate to the oppressor’s projection of power. The distinction that separates reformism and direct action lies in whether the action reinforces the sense of the oppressor’s power or whether the action undermines that sense of the oppressor’s power.
Some examples to illustrate what I mean:
A hunger striker, by refusing food, articulates some set of demands or terms to be met by the oppressor, on the promise that when those demands or terms are met, the hunger striker will resume eating food. In pursuing this course, the hunger striker is essentially appealing to the oppressor – applying coercive leverage in the course of the appeal – to modify the oppressor’s program and to accommodate the hunger striker’s demands or terms.
The hunger striker, in issuing demands or terms, is recognizing the “right” of the oppressor to exercise power. The hunger striker says, “I know that you are in charge, so I am appealing to you – in a radical method for getting your attention – so that I can persuade you to exercise your power differently.”
The hunger striker says, “If you only meet those terms, I will resume eating and will resume my assigned role in your program.”
What the hunger striker does NOT say is, “The oppressor has no right to exercise any power.”
What the hunger striker does NOT say is, “The oppressor and his program must go because the oppressor’s power is not legitimate.”
The hunger striker seeks only a change in the operation of the program, not its elimination. In practical application, prisoner hunger strikers may demand an end to special housing, or solutions to overcrowding, or better conditions like food and recreation and programs. Hunger strikers do not seek an end to the existence of the prison system, demanding that everyone from the prisons director down to the rookie prison guard collect their final paychecks and open the gates and the cell doors, never to return to work.
The same can be said for prisoners on a work stoppage. They employ a tactic for gaining concessions from the oppressor, not for ending oppression. Therefore, just like the hunger striker, the work stoppage prisoner’s actions recognize the legitimacy of the oppressor and the oppressor’s right to rule.
Both forms of resistance reinforce the power relationship of oppressor and subject.
Let’s contrast that to the only instance of prolonged direct action undertaken by prisoners that I’m aware of – the campaign waged by the Army of the 12 Monkeys at Mansfield Correctional in Mansfield, Ohio, in 2012. In that direct action campaign, prisoners across racial and gang divides participated in a mass action of sabotage and disruption that was maintained for weeks. Flyers and training manuals flooded the compound, instructing prisoners how to jam locks, cut phone cords, clog drains, and essentially cripple the operation of the prison.
Orderly operations ground to a halt. The prison’s sweatshop factory lost several days of production. The damages to prison infrastructure – including smashed windows, hundreds of replaced locks, and a collapsed plumbing system, all caused in the span of just weeks – cost the prison six figures. The sabotage campaign was likely carried out with mass participation, but with serious participation with a small number of prisoners.
To contrast this direct action approach with the reformist tactics, consider: The Army of the 12 Monkeys made no “demands” of “authority” on a promise of normalizing the situation. In this way, with this direct action approach, A12M did not recognize the authorities or their assumed right to rule.
The A12M did not say, “Meet these terms and we will resume our roles in your program.”
The A12M did not say, “We know you are in charge, so we are appealing to you to exercise your authority differently.
The A12M said, “We do not recognize your authority or your right to exist.”
The A12M said, “We will destroy you.”
Those prisoners did not seek concessions from those who claimed to exercise power, but set out instead to exercise power of their own. Revolutionary power.
So, given this example, the question arises: what if prisoners, even in small numbers, at every prison in the United States – or even in the world – began a concerted and deliberate campaign of sabotage and harassment… one that, over time, would attract more prisoners who recognize the fun in sticking it to the authorities? If such a direct
action campaign at Mansfield Correctional cost the prison six figures in just a few weeks, what if such a campaign occurred at all thirty-some Ohio prisons? What if it occurred at hundreds of prisons across the country, and maintained for months instead of weeks?
Rather than begging for changes through tactics that cause self-harm, a very small fraction of the prison population could bring the various departments of corrections to the brink of bankruptcy and systems failure, forcing drastic and desperate changes to be undertaken so as not to lose control of the corrections complex all together. From this point of view, direct action and only direct action produces “change you can believe in…”