Hundreds gather for conferences in New York

By: Ben Davis, Daphna Their and Lee Wengraf

It may be that struggle around issues of incarceration is set to pick up in New York if two recent events are any measure: the first-ever New York Prisoner Justice Conference in Albany, and a remarkable conference put on by Educators for Mumia at Columbia University.

Prisoner Justice Conference in Albany

The New York Prisoner Justice Conference, held March 27, was the product of months of hard work by organizers from around the state. Groups bused to the capital from cities across the state, including Buffalo, Ithaca, New York City, Rochester and elsewhere.

Some 200 activists representing some 58 groups from across New York participated, including Prison Families, the Correctional Association, Prison Action Network, Harlem’s Grassroots Artists MovEment (GAME), the Osbourne Association, CEDP NY and legal organizations like the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Racism against African Americans was a major concern of participants given the prison system’s massive impact on communities of color, and advocates for the rights of immigrants, Arabs and Muslims, and LGBTQ people were also well represented. Other organizations took up the issues of sexual assault, parole reform and the needs of people with psychiatric disabilities.

A “Draft Statement of Principles and Purpose” presented to participants for input pointed out that New York state alone has more people behind bars—some 90,000—than most countries.

“Mass incarceration, and the climate of fear-mongering that feeds it, create an atmosphere of vengeance, paranoia, racism and scapegoating that poisons the social culture and harms everyone,” read the statement, which also calls for money currently invested in prison to be invested in communities, and for the creation of a “network” of groups that would support each other in struggles that advanced towards this goal.

Workshop sessions focused on the groups’ points of agreement and differences for possible common action. At the end of the day, with such a broad range of groups standing for such a range of politics, it was not possible to form a coalition that everyone could agree on.

Will the Prisoner Justice Network remain a vehicle for networking between various groups, or will it become a center for activism for unified action for prison reform of whatever kind? This will be determined in the future (and the organizers have already continued organizing)—but the mere fact that so many people are thinking about how to come together is a promising beginning.

Educators for Mumia conference at Columbia University

Hundreds gathered the following weekend for a conference and plenary organized by Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ) at Columbia University. The conference focused on Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and journalist who has been on death row for 28 years. Mumia was wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer in a trial notorious for its flaws.

Conference workshops, attended by more than 50 people, included “Mumia 101,” where EMAJ Coordinators Professor Mark L. Taylor and Professor Johanna Fernandez gave an informative layout of the initial facts of the case, and “Organizing on campuses,” where Columbia students led a discussion on student movements and networking.

In another session, the Free Mumia Coalition-NYC laid out the strategy to secure a civil rights investigation from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The campaign for a civil rights investigation is nearly a year old, launched on the heels of the legal setback in 2009, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to grant Mumia’s appeal.

Over 20,000 signatures petitioning for a civil rights investigation were delivered to the Justice Department in December 2009. Supporters signing on to the call included Noam Chomsky, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond, trade unionists from Venezuela and Ecuador, and many more.

An evening plenary at the conference was titled “Live From Death Row: Mumia at the Crossroads in the Age of Obama,” with roughly 400 people packing the space to the brim.

Opening the evening’s event, Pam Africa reminded us of mass movements past. Professor Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, described the legacy of the Black Panther Party. “We need movement … everyone here is a great weapon because everyone here has the power to organize,” Joseph concluded. Professor Vijay Prashad spoke of people becoming more and more “disposable,” pointing out the symbolic significance of the Abu-Jamal case: Mumia, he said, is “a ‘disposable’ who refuses to remain disposable, but wants to be a human.”

In his powerful remarks, Dr. Cornel West called for “education, rehabilitation...for 2.3 million people in the jails,” and for a movement of poor people and the working class. A taped greeting from Mumia himself had him see hope in the spirit of activism among a new generation: “Never think of what you can’t do. You’re young for a reason. You have to do what you were born to be—active.”

The effect on the audience was electric, with many people signing up to get involved.  The time certainly couldn’t be better.