Out of Control: Chapter 6–A Moving Community

Photo of demonstration about Marion prison lockdown held in Detroit

Detroit demonstration against the lockdown

At 11 pm Friday night on April 18, 1986, we gathered at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and loaded up four buses to the very last seat. In fact, the buses were so full that a few people had to volunteer to stay behind. Traveling through the night, we arrived in Lexington, Kentucky at 8 am to a breakfast of coffee, bagels, and doughnuts. As we prepared to march, the bus from Detroit arrived.

Had we marched to the prison gate, we would have remained a mile from the prison buildings. By meeting in a public park adjacent to the prison grounds and walking the half mile up a hill and across a stream, we were able to get within 100 yards of the buildings. 300 of us marched two abreast, with dozens of banners and placards, booming our chants over three large sound systems we carried on our shoulders.

We were just inches away, across a waist-high fence, from the prison custodians who were watching and photographing us. José López began by reading a message from Puerto Rican political prisoner Ida Luz Rodriguez and then offered a concise analysis of how prisons serve as repressive institutions and are at the center of the government’s counterinsurgency programs. Chokwe Lumumba, who led the Detroit delegation (and who is now a city council member in Jackson, Mississippi), read a message from Marion political prisoner Kuwasi Balagoon, then asserted that it was the system that needed rehabilitation and not the individuals. “The system is criminal and criminal-generating and has to be dismantled, just like an old rotting house on a decaying foundation. There is no hope for reform.”

I spoke on behalf of CEML, reading a joint statement of 16 white anti-imperialist political prisoners, then stating that we in CEML and others were there to disrupt the complacency of other white people, to drive a wedge into the racist mindset that was sweeping the country, particularly in regard to prisoners.

As we were leaving, a reporter asked José where we got the money to pay for this demonstration. López turned to the crowd and asked them who had paid for the demonstration. In one unrehearsed voice the answer came back from 300 people: “We did!” López noted, however, that had the Soviet Union offered to pay for more buses, we would have happily accepted the money and filled the park with more Puerto Ricans than Lexington had ever seen in its entire history. With this encounter generating good-humored laughter, we boarded the buses to our next destination.

We arrived at Marion about 4 pm at a spot we had previously scoped out. We poured out from our buses and were joined by our friends from southern Illinois and St. Louis. Forming our line of march, we headed off on the 3/4 mile walk through cornfields toward the prison gates that were guarded with all sorts of military armaments. There we engaged in a spirited picket line for about two hours, marching to the beat of drums and speeches while López and Lumumba spoke with the various media representatives. “Marion lockdown we say no/Control units have got to go!” was the main cry. Many people came forward to speak, including a recently released prisoner and a local attorney involved in much of the legal work to end the lockdown.

A local participant, David Baker of Murphysboro, described:

the most militant display he had ever seen there protesting lockdown conditions. The marchers’ reception also had a militant flavor, Baker said, with a National Guard earthmover (above) stationed directly behind a barricade, flanked by personnel with video cameras and several units from the Illinois State Police and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department. A military helicopter hovered overhead.” (as quoted in the Southern Illinoisan)

Our official welcome may have been chilly, but before leaving Marion we headed off for a friendly, pre-arranged spaghetti dinner sponsored by a local organization opposing utility rate hikes. Then we boarded the buses, to arrive in Chicago at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, exhausted but hopeful that our weekend-long series of demonstrations had made a difference.

How did we evaluate the effort? In our full report to our supporters we expressed our surprise at the excellent coverage from the traditional local media—radio reports, television in Lexington and southern Illinois, and substantial newspaper reporting. Not surprisingly, the only Chicago coverage was in The Defender, the Black newspaper. We were, however, disappointed by the left media, as we had worked hard to let them know about our efforts and asked them to join us. In the aftermath, we sent them articles and photos. We felt that In These Times distorted an interview we had given them, and the Guardian failed to use any pictures we sent and censored what we had written. Although these publications were leftist, our politics were apparently too radical for them.

The work was successful, in that it offered us an opportunity to talk with people who had been concerned about liberation movements around the world but previously were unaware of events inside the U.S. This was a good first step. We described the work we had done in Lexington and southern Illinois in a report to our friends:

The many wonderful Carbondale people who have been struggling in virtual isolation really appreciated our presence. And in turn we could never have done this without them. We look forward to a long and full working relationship with our friends in Southern Illinois. One of them wrote to us the week after the demo: “I can’t tell you how impressed I was by the organization. And what a rush it was to have those buses roll up. The scene of all those dynamic people, so many of them people of color, chanting and marching on that country road in front of that ugly exhibit of state power, is one I will cherish.”

Our report also asked and reflected: “Did we impact in any specific way on the prisons? Only time will tell.”

When we asked José López what he thought the demonstration had accomplished, he stated that we had raised the issues in such a way that they could not be ignored and that we had started a process that would continue to deal with Marion, Lexington, and the rest of the prison system. We agreed. While the exact definition of that process had not yet been established, those of us who went on the mobilization were deeply touched by the experience, and vowed we would continue to try to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Our organizing for and successful mounting of the demonstrations (including the parallel demonstrations that took place in Puerto Rico, New York, Tucson, and San Francisco), forced the Bureau of Prisons to admit it was building the Lexington Control Unit. Judith Mirkinson, an activist friend, and I visited two political prisoners—Puerto Rican independentista Alejandrina Torres and anti-imperialist Susan Rosenberg—who were being held in Tucson. Alejandrina had been in prison since 1983, first at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago where she had experienced forced strip searches and was subjected to physical and sexual abuse and humiliation. (See Psychological Torture: U.S. Style) Now she had been sent to Tucson, thousands of miles away from family and friends to a jail with a population of 400 men and only from three to 10 women.

Alejandrina and Susan believed they would be sent to the next Control Unit at Lexington. Yet the day of our Lexington demonstration, the prison spokesman told the media, “To my knowledge there have been no designations.” I suspect that was an outright lie, as not long afterward, Alejandrina and Susan were two of the five women designated to the Lexington Control Unit. Political prisoner Silvia Baraldini was a third.

Committees were formed around the country to fight against the Lexington control unit. Much of the energy came from women’s groups and others who had not previously been involved in prison work. As far away as California, a new group emerged, calling themselves “Out of Control.” They would become key activists organizing for the freedom of political prisoners in the gay and lesbian community. A popular documentary, Through the Wire, which later aired on PBS and was shown many other times across the country, told the story of the Lexington unit with interviews of the women and Susan Sarandon narrating. Support for the women imprisoned in the Lexington unit was mushrooming.

Next: Developing a Rhythm
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