by Amani Sawari
Costa Rica is an insanely beautiful place. When I took my trip, I did not expect to have any sort of life changing revelation and that’s not what this write-up is going to be about. I took a simple trip to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year and was to my surprise met with political unrest and social resistance.
While I was immersed in the National Prison Strike back home, I had no idea how solidarity looked to others who felt trapped outside of the resistance. Some felt unable to connect with the people they desperately wanted to join in fighting for. Some Americans may say, How can I support a prisoner? in the same way that I struggled to connect with Tico Educators – in both cases knowing that their plight is worth fighting for.
As an activist trying to hide under the disguise of a tourist, I went to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, feeling the ocean’s warm waves rush over my melanated body sinking in the sand while soaking up the sun’s radiant energy. In those moments, I couldn’t help but reflect on the connection between the two National Strikes.
In Costa Rica, the subconsciously racist undertones still exist the same as in any other part of this world governed by white supremacy. Italians owned many of the storefronts from San Jose to Limon City, but there was one city in which every place I walked into was a Black-owned business. Cahuita is a city founded by two Black men, Leslie Henry and Selles Williams, after the governor awarded them a region of land. We stayed in Cahuita for two days before leaving to go back to San Jose.
Of the people who refused to integrate into the colonized country, many took refuge in the mountains. Today one of those indigenous regions is BriBri. Before staying in Cahuita, we’d visited a farm in BriBri, the indigenous land in the mountains where many of the families were self-sustaining. There we learned how to make chocolate from scratch and the story of Shiru. We insisted on trying to visit every part of the nation that we could, excited to come into contact with the strike whenever it was bound to happen.
On the first day of my arrival on an already over five hour trip from San Jose to Limon City, our bus was caught in a traffic jam with cars stalled in both directions, in front of and behind us, for what looked like miles. My friend rolled her eyes in disappointment saying,
‘It looks like we’ve hit the strike.’
Those words lit up my ears. After leaving the states on the tail-end of the National Prison Strike’s burst of energy, I was so excited to see that the spirit of resistance had followed me from the states to Costa Rica. Unionized teachers took the lead in uniting the working class in protest of a recent increase in taxes. Protesters were blocking the streets by the hundreds, restricting access to main highways and central bridges, many of which were the only routes into and out of popular cities around the country.
With Costa Rica’s limited roadway infrastructure, blocking traffic could effectively keep people out of certain regions for hours. This is exactly what happened to our bus on Route 9 coming out of San Jose. We were delayed for over two hours in the hot bus waiting as strikers blocked the roadway, allowing cars to pass on the bridge in Region 44 for only two minutes at a time every hour.
Out of frustration, some people decided to get off the bus and walk from there to their destination, knowing that they may make it before the bus could even get across the bridge. Instead of being upset over the inconvenience that the strike caused like many were, I looked forward to stepping out of the bus and checking things out. National flags are being held high as a man on a mic amplified by loudspeakers out of his truck reminded everyone that none of them wanted to be there but this was the sacrifice that had to be made in order to bring about a resolution. At this point, strikers were demanding to have a sit-down meeting with the president, who had already blown them off in a previously scheduled meeting. The president asked for protesters to stop their protest in order for him to attend, but strikers would not back down.
Like many residing in Costa Rica, we were completely dependent upon public transit so it was inevitable that we would come into contact with multiple demonstrations associated with the National Strike. On another instance, during our trip back to San Jose from Cahuita, strikers were allowing people to pass while “turtling” on the sides of the roadways.
Turtling slows down traffic without completely blocking roadways. It consists of strikers walking along the side of the road slowly while chanting. During traffic, it was normal to see people selling products like bottles of cold water or bags of chips, but instead hundreds of people crowded along the roadsides in solidarity with the national strike.
As the bus drove past the strikers turtling on the side of the road, I raised a fist outside of the window in solidarity. Conscious that my limited Spanish inhibited my understanding of protesters’ stories and their circumstances, I knew that a raised fist demonstrated solidarity. I understood that my limited language skills placed a barrier between myself and the people who I could have helped and supported in their movement towards equitable living and working conditions. Some of us are facing that barrier here in the states in our interaction with prisoners.
The more languages you learn, the more prepared you are to love people
In every community, learning their language is a form of loving those people. The prison class is a community that so many of us in the free world are all too eager to separate ourselves from, so many of us refuse to try to learn their language, understand their world and relate to the people even for a single moment to brainstorm a solution that would serve us all. I urge every free person to connect to incarcerated communities by learning about the circumstances they’re forced to live in and listen to their stories.
The purpose of prison is to restrict people from accessing other people, experiences, cultures, languages and other ways of thinking. As a result of the restrictions enforced by incarceration, prisoners have very little access to adequate medical care, which leads to delayed diagnoses of preventable illnesses. As a result of the restrictions enforced by incarceration, prisoners also have very little access to education and work opportunities that could have a positive impact on their mental and financial stability.
As a result of the restrictions enforced by incarceration, prisoners live under constant threat of sexual harassment and violence that causes stress beyond misery. As a result of the restrictions enforced by incarceration, prisoners have very little access to the people who love them who could contribute to their emotional health and social stability needed in order to reduce recidivism. Prisons create criminals through their violent and oppressive nature, rather than restoring inmates to a healthy state in order to be successful in the outside world. We can no longer allow prisons to limit our access to loving and supporting people in need.
Connecting workers’ strikes abroad
For both the national prison strike and the national strike in Costa Rica, workers were enraged at the fact that they were being unfairly taxed by the government. The living conditions of workers were not being taken into consideration by policymakers, and in both instances strikers united with other groups in solidarity in order to form a national movement of people willing to sacrifice the conveniences of their lives in order to raise awareness about political injustices.
For example, though the school year was just beginning in Costa Rica, class sessions were postponed because of teachers striking. So many teachers are participating in the National Strike that school had been effectively suspended during the strike period. The strikers were effectively shutting down the nation’s schools while also inconveniencing the nation’s tourism industry by shutting down the country’s roads.
Strikers understand that their country thrives off of the income that tourism brings and, knowing that a large part of the tourism industry depends on the roads, strikers were able to get their government’s attention by blocking off major roadways consistently in several regions of the country starting as early as 8 a.m. through to the afternoon. After three weeks and counting of daily traffic jams, people knew no matter where they lived that if they needed to get to another part of the country, they needed to wake up and get there before 8 a.m. The nation was locked down as a result of teachers and others standing in solidarity with them.
A huge aspect of a work strike is employees choosing to sacrifice earning income in order to prove the point that working conditions are so unbearable that one would rather not work. In Costa Rica, strikers wanted to do more than get their employer’s attention, so they didn’t just stand outside of the schools in one community and refuse to teach. Instead they crossed community lines and said to the nation that they refuse to teach.
This is exactly what prisoners did in Lee County, South Carolina. They didn’t just refuse to go to work in Lee County, instead they crossed state borders in order to unite with prisoners across the nation – and now intercontinentally in Canada and Greece and Palestine – in order to protest the entire nation’s unbearable living and working conditions for prisoners.
Public perspective of the problem makes or breaks the issue
While work stoppages have been an effective strategy in both national strikes, one of the biggest differences between Costa Rica’s and the U.S. national prison strike is the public’s recognition of the problem. In Costa Rica, teaching is a highly regarded profession. Teachers are given very competitive salary packages and have the opportunity to obtain land after completing four years of teaching in their selected region.
Teachers are well respected and seen as the “soldiers” for their role as educators shaping the country’s future through the minds of the youth. Because of their highly regarded status in society, when teachers experience a problem that is unique to their profession, people are much more open to hearing them out, supporting them and seeking a solution.
This perspective of teachers is distinctly different from the way that prisoners are viewed in American society. While teachers aren’t respected or paid adequately in the U.S., prisoners’ position in society goes beyond disrespect towards dehumanizing, which makes the obstacles that are unique to their status easier for others to disregard and even completely dismiss.
When prisoners, as invisible members of our communities, have issues, they are often seen as problems that require no attention and the masses are not at all inclined to assist with supporting prisoners or assisting with finding a solution. In many cases the public may even be completely resistant to doing so, some stating that prisoners may even “deserve” the dehumanizing conditions and degrading treatment they receive while incarcerated, and even once they are released.
In order to address this, it is essential that the American public recognize the value of the prison class as humans, laborers and citizens in the United States. Prisoners have a role in our country as a class of people, the majority of whom we hope return to society as whole and healthy, contributing individuals. Until the American public is able to establish a respectable place in society for the prisoner, then the unique problems that prisoners face will go unresolved.
Americans must recognize that the work that incarcerated people provide keeps the prisons operational at a lower cost than additional staff members would and that the work that many prisoners provide to outside companies indirectly affects all of us in every market of our economy from fast food, to insurance, apparel, transportation and healthcare.
People must also recognize that the issues that go unresolved within the prisons will bleed out into society, as the vast majority of our incarcerated community is returning to society. When we refuse to address the problems that incarcerated members of our society face while they are incarcerated, then we’ll be forced to either deal with those problems once they are released or be the victim of the outcome of those problems when they’re no longer incarcerated.
Privilege to be present vs. threats of retaliation
Another key difference behind the two movements is the strikers’ ability to be present to the public. While prisoners participating in the National Prison Strike are unable to indirectly inconvenience the public through their not working for the companies that provide products and services to the public, they are very limited in their ability to be present in order to directly voice their demands and their concerns.
Costa Rica’s national strike is characterized by the strikers’ presence in mass with the refusal to allow citizens to pass on major roadways. While hundreds of workers were present in locations across Limon, thousands were present in larger cities like San Jose. Knowing that taxpayer dollars are what pay the cost of road infrastructure in Costa Rica, for tax-paying citizens to take back the roads by saying, we are blocking these roads, so you must hear all we have to say, is a very unique characterization of the movement in Costa Rica.
Prisoners in the U.S. do not have that ability. In many cases, a prisoner’s presence to the public for something as simple as an interview or being named in an article is met with heavy retaliation by prison officials.
One of the largest differences between the two movements that significantly characterizes the National Prison Strike is the threat of retaliation. Prisoners suffer from very extreme threats of retaliation by officials. Prisoners who are identified as strikers or leaders in the strike are retaliated against in a variety of ways ranging from being placed into solitary confinement, losing their jobs, not given access to commissary, not being served food, not given access to hygiene products, not allowed to take showers and even being transferred across state borders.
By shocking contrast, in Costa Rica teachers are encouraged to raise concerns to their government. Those teachers who can prove that they are participating in the strike are still paid their wages during the strike time. The government recognizes the important role that the public play in maintaining a safe and healthy environment for everyone in the country by recognizing that the public may be able to provide solutions that policymakers are unaware of.
One of the leading ways that the public can address their concerns and present solutions is through public protest and, because of this important role that teachers play in Costa Rican society, their wages and their right to strike is protected. It is important that we protect all people’s right to raise concerns so that we can maintain a healthy and safe environment for the individuals living there.
The government of Costa Rica’s effort to protect teachers’ right to strike should be replicated in prisons so that prisoners’ right to strike is protected, especially if we value them as laborers for the products and services that we need in our country. When we silence prisoners and restrict their ability to raise concerns about their environments, then we are effectively stripping away our ability to make safer, healing and rehabilitative spaces for prisoners. We need prisoners’ suggestions in order to make prisons safer and healthier places.
It is essential that we protect prisoners’ right to strike and raise concerns about their environment so that we can maintain healthy and safe prisons for incarcerated people as well as for the staff, officers and prison officials. When prisons become unstable and violent places, then they are no longer functioning as corrective and rehabilitative institutions. When prisons become innately violent, then they must be abolished, just as any institution that becomes violent in nature must be abolished in order to bring restoration to that place and to those people.
For those who don’t value the lives of prisoners, they should at least value the lives of all others who are indirectly being affected by prisons, which includes all of us. We must refuse to allow places of violence and abuse to exist in our society for anyone.
When we locate evil persisting in a certain segment of our society then it becomes our responsibility as citizens to destruct that evil, knowing that evil is not content with existing in one place for long. I deeply respect the people in Costa Rica for uniting in resisting and reminding me that our struggle is united and it is worldwide.
Amani Sawari, spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the people who first conceived the National Prison Strike, is a journalist committed to “writing to enlighten, engage and empower.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Sawarimi or by mail to 14419 Greenwood Ave. N., Ste A #132, Seattle WA 98133. These contacts can be used to report strike updates. Visit her website, http://sawarimi.org. And support her on Patreon.