Pelican Bay and Tottenham: Lessons Learned from Two Struggles
Conditions were so inhumane at the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison in California that prisoners began a 20-day hunger strike on July 1, 2011.
Although the strike is officially over, the hunger strikers were and still are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities...”—opportunities that are routinely denied.
Examples of “privileges” the prisoners wanted are, one phone call per week and permission to have sweat suits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.)
All of the “privileges” mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons in the federal prison system and in other states.1
As of July 21 California Prison Focus confirmed that the hunger strike leaders at Pelican Bay had entered into an agreement with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials…to end their hunger strike in exchange for a major policy review of SHU housing conditions; gang validation process; and the debriefing process.2 And as of July 27, the CDCR had implemented three changes: permission to have wall calendars; to have watch-cap ‘beanies;’ and to resume correspondence courses paid for by the prisoners themselves with the CDRC agreeing to provide the opportunity for someone to proctor their final exams.3
Victory for one is a victory for all
This courageous strike by prison inmates—not just in Pelican Bay but in prisons throughout California—not only has exposed the torture that is taking place in prisons throughout the U.S. on a daily basis, but has succeeded in actually winning some demands! Their struggle has begun under the best of circumstances—a victory through solidarity action—however modest.
Things did not turn out so well for young English workers who spontaneously lashed out, en masse, against the abhorrent conditions in which they are forced to live. According to an article that appears in this issue of Socialist Viewpoint, the proverbial “last straw” was reached August 4 in England when a Black man, 29-year-old, unarmed, Mark Duggan, was murdered by police, which “…sparked the largest ever rebellion by working-class youth in England. Unlike the events in Brixton and other Black population centers in 1981 and 1985, the events of the four nights from August 6-10 spread to all parts of England with at least eight different protests across London and in twelve different towns and cities.”
The response of the British Government was expressed in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron, “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture—a culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities…”
And what does Cameron do? “Mr. Cameron repeated earlier statements that the police were authorized to use plastic-coated bullets against rioters. …While he agreed with objections by the police to the deployment of the army to confront any future unrest, he said the authorities would consider whether the military could fulfill any functions to allow more police officers to be deployed. ‘Nothing should be off the table. Every contingency is being looked at…’”
As to the causes of the outbreak, he returned to his earlier theme of the social and moral breakdown of youth who have chosen criminal behavior instead of work.4
Ruthless punishment of the poor
According to an August 12, 2011 article in the New York Times by John F. Burns titled, “British Leader Seeks Public Housing Evictions for Rioters and Their Families:”
“…the government of Prime Minister David Cameron put forward on Friday [August 12] a new way of punishing the looters and vandals…kick them and their families out of their government-subsidized homes.”
Cameron’s rationale for this is that the “rioting” is “criminality, pure and simple.” When asked whether this would render them homeless, he replied, “They should have thought of that before they started burgling.”
Further, according to the same article:
“The communities minister, Eric Pickles, a right-wing Conservative, was blunter still in another BBC appearance. Saying it was not time to ‘pussyfoot around’ with the lawbreakers…focusing on scrapping a rule that allows for the eviction from subsidized housing of people who commit crimes in their own neighborhoods in favor of a broader measure that would allow for similar punishment wherever the offenses were committed.
“Asked how those so penalized would live, Mr. Pickles responded, ‘They could get a job.’”
Organizing is the key
Whether you are locked up in prison or whether you are locked up in the ghettos of poverty and unemployment, you are locked up.
The crisis of unemployment and its resultant poverty is hitting the young especially hard. Unemployment among youth across the globe is rampant. Young men and women are unable to live on their own. The police occupy the streets.
And, as for the schools-to-prison pipeline, the police occupy the schools; and the children are criminalized for wearing their shirts out; or for crying and acting out, as all children do.
For the children of the poor there are “face-down-take-downs” (a brutal police practice of holding a child’s head to the ground by placing their knee on the child’s upper back, while grabbing the child’s hands to put on handcuffs, sometimes causing death!)
When children do play hooky, not only do they get suspended as punishment, but their parents are threatened both with stiff fines and prison terms for not getting their children to school. The disruption of family and school life by fines, arrests and suspensions further sets children back academically. There are NO benefits to children or their families from these practices. Their only purpose is to criminalize both children and their parents so they don’t have to educate them! And so they can blame the poor for the brutal and inhumane conditions and circumstances they must endure.
The difference in the outcome between the struggle of the prisoners of Pelican Bay and the other California prisoners who have won concessions, and that of the Tottenham rebellion is the organization and solidarity of action carried out by the prisoners.
The cultivation of poverty
The economic assault on the poor and working class by the world commanders of capital is designed to transform the “salt of the earth” into the “scum of the Earth,” and make them solely responsible for their own condition. This is nothing new to capitalism. From the very beginning of class society—from slavery, to Feudalism, to capitalism, withholding the right to work or to get an education, has been capital’s modus operandi for the control and oppression of the working class in order to insure an ever-higher accumulation of private profits. Capitalists don’t create that wealth—workers do! Yet workers don’t get a say about what share of that wealth they should get unless they organize in solidarity and fight hard to get even a tiny fraction of it. And when that struggle stops—those concessions are lost!
The billionaires and the poor—a reality check
It’s hard to fathom the vast extent of economic inequality that workers are experiencing today on a worldwide scale. According to a July 9, 2011 article by Les Leopold5, which also appears in this issue of Socialist Viewpoint, titled “How Dracula Hedge Funds Are Sucking Us Dry,” “…the top ten Hedge Fund elites make on average nearly $1 million an HOUR.” According to Leopold, “They make more money than everyone else, including our top movie stars and athletes...and they pay lower taxes.”
To gain back what workers have lost, the fightback must be well organized—democratically, independent of all capitalist parties (including parties that claim to represent both working people and capitalists because that’s an oxymoron!
What we can do now
First, we have to agree that this obscene inequality of wealth is intolerable. Certainly the overwhelming majority of us, the masses of people who actually created this vast wealth by working for the commanders of capital for wages that have barely supported us and our families, must organize—not only to defend what little we have left, but, because we are the majority and have the right to control how things should be.
We have to agree that unemployment is intolerable. The right to a job that develops and utilizes individual talents and abilities to the fullest and that provides a comfortable wage and safe working conditions is an inalienable, basic, human right. It is not a privilege to be doled out by capitalists as a reward for obedience to them! Obedience to slavery is never rewarded—it’s expected. The disobedient slave is punished. That’s the way capitalism/wage slavery works.
That’s why we need to organize—to take matters into our own hands. We can achieve universal employment by reducing the number of hours each worker works without reducing pay. It’s called “a sliding scale of wages and hours.” Such a system could put the unemployed to work until everyone has a job at a living wage.
The extra free time as a result of the cut in working hours could be devoted to developing each person’s abilities, talents and skills to their fullest through free education from cradle to grave. A sliding scale of wages and hours is an equitable and reasonable step toward the redistribution of wealth from the coffers of the elite to the masses of working people who created that wealth.
In order to carry out this re-distribution of wealth, industry should be nationalized under the democratic control of working people.
This will not be an easy task. We will have to defend our right to share the wealth we produce. We have to insist on taking control of production for ourselves because the capitalists can’t be trusted to do it safely or fairly. They have shown that they always put their private profits before economic equality or the health and safety of workers or the environment. Under capitalism, private profits come first!
End the wars now
We must insist on ending all the wars now and bringing all the troops and contractors—all U.S. and U.S/EU/NATO-controlled military, contractors and police forces—home now! Close all U.S. bases around the world! Insist that the military step down so that it can be disarmed! We must insist on food and not bombs! We must clean up our environment not bomb it! Universal human needs and wants, including the preservation of the environment, must come first!
How do we begin?
This brings us back to the beginning—to a unified struggle to right the wrongs of this world like the prisoners of Pelican Bay have begun to do under the direst conditions of confinement, torture and brutality at the hands of the U.S. capitalist prison system—the largest in the world. If they can do it so can we!
But this struggle has to be very clear in its anti-capitalist, pro-revolutionary socialist stance. It has to target the enemy, capitalism, and eradicate it. That doesn’t mean eradicating the capitalists themselves—they are welcome to share the planet along with us—but we do need to eradicate the system of capitalism, the root of all evil, the private ownership of the means of production that enslaves the masses.
This will require a world socialist revolution. And the world socialist revolution needs a powerful, independent, and democratically organized combat party—an international organ of worker’s solidarity—an international worker’s socialist party. Only such a party can be the voice of the masses demanding peace, justice and equality, with the power to establish these things in the world. That’s because we workers are the majority. We have a world to win!
4“Cameron, in Speech, Pledges Swift Reaction to Rioters,” August 11, 2011
5 Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009)