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Operation PUSH prisoners’ strike sparks ‘war’ between slavery supporters and abolitionists

January 20, 2018

by SPARC

Jan. 19, 2018 – It’s been a hard silence for the past five days since Operation PUSH launched a statewide prisoner strike in the Florida Department of Corrections prison system (FDOC or FDC) coinciding with Martin Luther King Day.

Oakland’s support for the Florida prisoners’ strike is proclaimed on this banner dropped over I-80 at sunset rush hour by Oakland IWOC (Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee).

Information from prisoners is coming in at a much slower pace than people on the outside had anticipated, but reports are slowly and steadily making their way through the walls, despite many obstacles.

Thus far, we’ve heard from prisoners that there has been active participation or repression of some sort in the following prisons: Santa Rosa, Jackson, Gulf, Hamilton, Avon Park, Franklin, Holmes, Everglades, Reception and Medical Center at Lake Butler, Liberty, Lowell, Columbia, Florida State Prison, Suwannee, Calhoun and Martin. The list is growing by the day.

A common theme among reportbacks is the attempt by the DOC to sever communication in order to create the perception of inactivity and break the spirits of those participating in the strike. Key contacts inside have reported being threatened by administration with harsher retaliation if correspondence with advocacy groups such as Fight Toxic Prisons and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee continues.

According to prisoner reports, some facilities have shut off state phone service as of Tuesday, Jan. 16. A Security Threat Group (STG, a euphemism for gang) investigator employed at a prison in the panhandle confirmed that multiple prisons across the state were placed on lockdown in preparation for the strike. Shakedowns have occurred where independent means of communication were confiscated and their alleged owners or users were thrown in solitary confinement.

We’ve heard reports that widespread investigations are occurring for anyone who has received or sent mail to organizations offering support on the outside and certain individuals are being labelled a “security threat” for doing so, which can result in heightened custody levels, meaning a loss of privileges and continued harassment by the STG unit. One prisoner was told, “As long as you communicate with these people, you’re always going to be labelled a security threat and you’re always going to be put under investigation.”

Given the past two years of prisoner organizing in Florida, it’s understandable that there is an expectation to hear of something distinct on the inside marking the start of the strike.

A common theme among reportbacks is the attempt by the DOC to sever communication in order to create the perception of inactivity and break the spirits of those participating in the strike.

The movement on the inside of Florida’s prison system has become known for its moments of upheaval and crackdown, such as the unexpected uprising at Holmes CI on Sept. 7, 2016, two days prior to the national wave of prisoner-led actions commemorating the Attica anniversary. That was followed by uprisings at 10 other facilities which had little to no previous connection to outside support.

In most of those cases, the publicity about September 2016 surrounded a violent state repression that turned entire prison dorm units into battle zones. But what was gathered in prisoner correspondence months later was that most of the resistance began as quiet acts of non-cooperation among small groups.

The following year, surrounding a prisoner rights march in DC on Aug. 19, the state extremely overreacted by placing all of its 97,000 prisoners on simultaneous lockdown, putting Florida on the map once again.

Thus far, Operation PUSH has been something different. It’s shown lessons learned on both sides of this war. And yes, it is a war, still being fought ultimately between the people who want to continue slavery and the ones who want to end it.

Operation PUSH did not call for rebellions in the prisons, which are relatively frequent occurrences in Florida. Though they are bold and courageous acts, they have not been as effective in the communication of clear, specific demands like the ones PUSH has presented.

Operation PUSH repeatedly called for the slow and steady process of economic impact through non-participation. In response to this, the DOC appears to be using a different approach of low-intensity, psychological warfare rather than blunt force.

Thus far, Operation PUSH has been something different. It’s shown lessons learned on both sides of this war. And yes, it is a war, still being fought ultimately between the people who want to continue slavery and the ones who want to end it.

In the absence of news reports about brutal repression and destructive responses, and as a result of reduced communication access, we are left to wonder about details of what’s actually going on inside. Much of this may have to wait for firsthand accounts to surface via postal mail.

It should come as no surprise that the DOC can’t be trusted to report strikes occurring in Florida state prisons, just as they have been lying, or to borrow from a PUSH prisoner, “using wordplay,” around the rip-off of their canteen prices. They have been working for weeks to eliminate the chance of the strike’s success. Claiming that it never existed is another tactic for trying to stop it. Never trust the oppressors to adequately report the facts.

From Virginia comes more solidarity for the Florida strike #OperationPUSH, who report: “On Jan. 15, in lieu of our regular letter writing hours, a group of fellow workers from the Tidewater IWW took to the streets in love and solidarity with the #OperationPUSH strike in Florida. We held a banner and handed out flyers and literature to raise awareness about the strike, prison conditions, and prison struggle both locally and nationally. We concluded the night with a demonstration at the local Norfolk City Jail, where we made noise, chanted, danced and sent love to the people incarcerated inside. They, in turn, smiled and laughed, jumped up and down, waved other people over to come and watch and read the banner, and danced along to the chants. One fellow worker even spotted an incarcerated worker holding up and pointing to a copy of the monthly zine we just finished producing called Breaking Bars, a compilation of poetry, prose and other writings by incarcerated people in Virginia! Though we’ve been having hard luck getting information to the inside, hopefully now news of the strike will spread like fire inside the jail and perhaps inspire some new conversations.”

Beyond this, organizers have conducted public records requests indicating that the DOC has been monitoring dozens of organizations for months in an effort to undermine inside-outside alliances.

Clearly the DOC views our organizing as more than a minor inconvenience.

One drawback of having the build-up of public support grow for weeks on the outside is that it provided ample notification and time for the DOC to bribe, threaten and gather scab labor. Prisoners who aren’t engaged with the movement are able to replace participants in Operation PUSH and conduct the major operations needed to keep the slave camps running – food preparation, cleaning etc.

This repression has made it hard to quantify participation, and word of the widespread support and solidarity actions are only now beginning to trickle in through news reports and letter writing events occurring all over the country.

In the absence of news reports about brutal repression and destructive responses, and as a result of reduced communication access, we are left to wonder about details of what’s actually going on inside. Much of this may have to wait for firsthand accounts to surface via postal mail.

Because Florida DOC practices such harsh retaliation against the people in its care and control, groups on the outside decided to deliver the prisoners’ demands.

Starting as early as New Year’s Eve, Operation PUSH solidarity protests across Florida have included demonstrations at the Gainesville Work Camp prison, a Miami parole office and The Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center prison, with hundreds of participants being seen and heard directly by thousands of prisoners and DOC employees at this facility.

On Jan. 16, a five-hour takeover of the DOC lobby in Tallahassee occurred, demanding a meeting with DOC Secretary Julie Jones, which resulted in protestors being forcefully evicted from the building and an arrest in which a protestor is facing a bogus felony charge related to a small amount of damaged property. The response to this protest by FDOC was similar to what we have come to expect: repression and deception. After attacking protestors in their lobby, they released a statement saying they were “battered” by PUSH supporters.

Because Florida DOC practices such harsh retaliation against the people in its care and control, groups on the outside decided to deliver the prisoners’ demands.

Despite the repression and lies, support for Operation PUSH is massively intensifying the public pressure on the DOC. That is an undeniable early victory of the movement five days into it, and there are almost 150 organizations who have expressed explicit support nationwide, contributing social media support, solidarity actions, letter-writing events and fundraising. There have been over 40 stories in the news, including major national and international outlets.

What’s next?

Over coming weeks, organizers on the outside with IWOC (Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee) and FTP (Fight Toxic Prisons) will be gathering correspondence from the inside and releasing periodic updates, coupled with individualized support campaigns, as we have been doing over the past two years.

Several hundred strike support yard signs were printed for statewide distribution and a new phone zap campaign will be released shortly.

The DOC is pretending to ignore Operation PUSH by issuing meaningless statements and attempting to confuse people over canteen prices – citing the cost of a single soup, for example, when the prisoners’ statement referred to the cost for a case. Make no mistake. They are far from ignoring the strikers, and it is far from over.

Over coming weeks, organizers on the outside with IWOC (Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee) and FTP (Fight Toxic Prisons) will be gathering correspondence from the inside and releasing periodic updates, coupled with individualized support campaigns, as we have been doing over the past two years.

Jan. 15 in Florida was a major step in building up the movement to end prison slavery that is brewing on a national scale. It has sown seeds for the months ahead. Prisoners in Texas have already called for renewing the celebration of the Juneteenth abolitionist holiday and spreading it into prisons worldwide. We are considering Operation PUSH as important and necessary groundwork for making that successful.

In the meantime, keep in touch via SPARC, IWOC and FTP.

Supporting Prisoners and Real Change (SPARC) is a platform for Florida prisoners and their families to support each other and organize for change. Visit them on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/SPARC-133851070619730/.

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