Milk Not Jails ice cream social at the US Social ForumI'm back home in Minnesota after the conclusion of the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, Michigan, last Saturday. Host to this historic gathering of 15-20,000 social justice strugglers from progressive business owners to anarchists, Detroit was and remains on the front lines of capitalism's crisis. It's a city of contradictions. Thriving community gardens dot otherwise overgrown lots and abandoned buildings; friendly smiles mask neighborhoods plagued by violence and one of the nation's highest rates of police killings.

In my last article about the Forum, I mentioned Threat Management, the paramilitary-style firm hired to provide security at the USSF's official tent village. From a friend connected with the bicycle caravan camping there, I learned more.

"One of my friends on the caravan showed up at the village, saw the paramilitary guys, said 'Uh-uh,' and left to find housing on her own," she told me. "But in that village, there were also three full busloads of youth from out east, all under 18. The paperwork they had to do to just to get to Detroit was incredible, and all their parents had to sign waivers. So I guess the Forum needed those security guys to prove to the parents that the camp would be safe."

To us, that raised the question: Could we create a sort of safety without fences and guns, or prisons and police--a safety from below?

by brian hokanson
published at Bluestem Prairie

Prison abolition at the Westin Hotel

Another contradiction in Detroit was the varied locations of Social Forum activities. We live in a world where social change happens in empty lots for some (for example, the unofficial tent village I slept at) and the region's premier convention center (Cobo Hall) for others. At this point in my life it happens at both, and also at the ritzy Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, which somehow ended up being a Forum workshop venue.

The workshop I attended there was "Why Rural America Matters for Prison Abolition," and the suit-and-tie Westin staff went out of their way to be unhelpful towards us. I was struck by the "normal" appearance of the 30+ workshop participants. The Westin probably didn't think the same.

So why does rural America matter?

US_incarceration_timeline-clean Whether you're seeking to abolish prisons or simply reform them, the statistics are grim. The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate (1 in 100 now do time every year) AND the highest total prison/jail population in the world. In 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 3.2 percent of all U.S. adults were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year's end.

Most prisoners are from urban areas, creating the impression of an urban issue. But most prisons are located in poor rural areas. Between 1990 and 1999 alone, 245 prisons and many more local jails were built in rural America. That's a new prison every 15 days. There are more prisoners in America--2.4 million--than farmers.

The prison industrial complex (defined here) and the criminal justice system as a whole are bastions of white supremacy. Incarceration rates for people of color are greater than their percentage of the population in all 50 states. I'm white, grew up in a rural area, and now live in an urban one. I'm not very personally impacted by the fact that around 1 in 10 black American males under 30 are trapped in a cage as I write this. It's doesn't directly affect me much that if current trends continue, a black boy born in 2001 will have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison—a Latino boy 1 in 6; a white boy 1 in 17.

But it sure affects Detroit.

The city is 80 percent black. Riding the city bus, I was the only white person on board when the bus wasn't coming from Cobo Hall. "This is the most white people I've seen in Detroit since Kennedy was President," said one local Forum participant.  And Detroit knows about white supremacy—institutionalized racism that overrides individual prejudices and creates systemic injustice.

Outside the anarchist convergence center on MLK Drive--remember anarchists, the top domestic terror threat for whom the rulers needed 19,000 cops to protect the G8/20 summit in Canada this weekend?--the only police harassment I saw over five days was directed towards black folks waiting for the bus while enjoying a free meal from Food Not Bombs. Someone called to say they were smoking weed, although only one was smoking a cigarette. The cops – themselves black – harassed the men, who in unison spit back about the police, themselves black, enforcing a white supremacist structure.

Then the designated police liaison for the center – a white woman – intervened, and the cops left.

The last factory in town

"We need to link the issues of urban and rural America," said one of the presenters at the Westin workshop, which was organized by the Center for Community Alternatives (upstate New York), California Prison Moratorium Project  (eastern California) and Thousand Kites (Appalachia). All three organizations challenge prisons and prison practices in rural areas using partnerships with people in large cities.

And all three organizations have noticed a similar pattern while mobilizing rural residents to support de-incarceration and prevent expansion. Nationwide, many rural communities depend on prisons for jobs, and although research demonstrates that prisons actually hurt local economies, not to mention the environment, governments and corporations use the job allure to pit rural communities against urban ones.

Local officials welcome the prisons thinking--or claiming, if they already know better--they'll provide jobs that won't recede in the tides of industry. But in reality, prisons have devastated their home towns. So, says Ashley Fairburn, an organizer with the California Prison Moratorium Project, “They go to really great lengths to make sure communities can't stop the prison before it comes."  

Prisons and the firms that run and provide goods to them use principles from the Cerrell Report, a dated but still significant master plan of sorts for siting unpopular projects from garbage burners to big box stores to detention centers. The report outlines which communities are least likely to resist as well as strategies for keeping communities uninformed until it's too late.

For example, Fairburn lives in the San Joaquin Valley, a landscape dotted with prisons in towns dominated by Spanish-speakers but with Anglo governance. The governments are legally required to provide documents about city business in Spanish. "We'll make them actually do that," Fairburn said.

Many places with a prison or detention center call it “the last factory in town.” But unlike factory workers, most prison guards don't want to live in the towns themselves, instead often choosing to commute 40 or 50 miles each way.

“The workers have an understanding of how devastating the industry is for the town," explained Fairburn. They understand that prisons don't contribute to other sectors of a town; where Fairburn lives, the town's general fund is one-tenth the budget of the prison, and the school's budget one-twentieth.

They know that the prison is dependent not on local businesses, but on multinationals. Local officials may say the prison gives local farmers an opportunity for contracts, but the prison system will always get its food from a multinational like Sodexho or Aramark. Without any interaction with the prison, not even through business, the prisoners – and urban people, period – become “othered” by residents of the prison town.

“This is gonna take a lot of time”

Lauren is an organizer with the Center for Community Alternatives, based in Syracuse. She explained what her work was like before coming to a more systemic analysis. She previously worked with the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on a campaign targeting phone companies that charged 630% more for collect calls from loved ones in prison than from others. The CCR won the campaign, but it took four years and a $500,000 budget. "I thought to myself, this is gonna take a lot of time and a lot of money," Lauren remembers. What would it take to challenge the prison industrial complex on a bigger scale? "We took a step back and asked what the biggest obstacle for us was. And it was rural New York." She took a job as an economic developer in a rural area, and "for the most part totally failed" at using the position to benefit her anti-prison organizing. She was an outsider, and although she was white and could blend in, she lost credibility because of her background. "I could say I was from Syracuse instead of NYC," she says. "But that only flew for so long!" A liberal city manager Lauren worked with was sympathetic to her analysis of the criminal justice system. Until, that is, the local prison appeared on the state's budget cut list. Then, he said the prison needed to stay. Being in the rural area was difficult because of the lack of civil rights and social justice organizations that make collaboration easier in the city. The "brain drain" of young activists away from small towns also sapped the pool of potential allies, she says. In her area, plenty of "back-to-the-landers" balance out the conservatives somewhat, but working with them can be just as challenging. "The level of racism is terrifying. Everyone I've met in a prison town tells me that crime is a result of prisoners' families coming to visit--everyone says this, regardless of political spectrum. A lot of college towns are nearby, and when kids of color from the college town come to the prison town, locals assume they must be the family member of a prisoner." The issue shifted from how to successfully organize as an urban activist in a rural area, to how to use urban resources in partnership with rural ones. "What do we have access to [in the city]? Well, one thing we have access to is consumer markets." *Milk Not Jails * Before prison towns, much of upstate was better known as dairy country. And that makes the idea of Milk Not Jails seem a perfect fit. A fledgling consumer campaign, Milk Not Jails seeks to revitalize the dairy industry by partnering with progressive dairy farmers and arguing that the prison industrial complex should not be the primary economic development plan for rural New York. Prisons are not a long-term sustainable solution for rural economies for many reasons - not the least of which being the fast-growing number of advocates for prison abolition and alternatives to incarceration and policing. At the Social Forum in Detroit, a wildly successful Milk Not Jails ice cream social with huge buckets of chocolate, vanilla, rocky road and vegan raspberry sorbet drew a bustling crowd of convention-goers and local passersby. Getting there from the convention center required a hot, steamy walk a mile up the Detroit River to Miliken State Park. The free ice cream action was a perfect match for the weather, and organizers brought more than enough to spare an extra cone for the walk back downtown.

Milknotjails-detriver Just as I started back along the riverwalk, a pair of security guards (I think; the blending trend of private and public police forces made it hard to tell) on bicycles pedaled past. I heard one of them talking about the event. "What do they want exactly," he moaned. "Tear down all the jails and just give all the prisoners milk?

They got a ways ahead of me before I summoned up my courage. "No more jails!" I yelled, and smiled somewhat meekly as they turned around to look. They both turned around to talk with me. One got off his bike and walked alongside while the other, not wanting to hear it, kept on his way.

It turned out to be a friendly conversation about the need/lack thereof of prisons. His biggest concern was, “What about the murderers and rapists?” We came to a common ground that because of this, eliminating all prisons and jails isn't possible right away. But I told him about how most of America's 2.3 million prisoners are nonviolent--only one percent are incarcerated for those most violent offenses. Many--two-thirds in the state of California, Fairburn said at the workshop-- are imprisoned for parole or probation violations, which can be as simple as not having a permanent address. (After age 21, there is no state program to help released prisoners find housing in California or most anywhere.) And of course, many more are snared by repressive drug laws that disproportionately target “black” drugs like crack cocaine more than “white” ones like powder cocaine.

I told him about an organization at the Social Forum called Generation Five, which seeks to eliminate child sexual abuse in the next five generations, and said we could do the same about prisons through a combination of attrition, rehabilitation, and stopping the worst individual crimes before they start.

He asked me what the alternatives to prison would be when people inevitably mess up.

"I want community-based punishments instead," I said.

"Community-based punishment would never work."

That statement was apparently too much for a person walking 20 yards ahead of us on the riverwalk who, unbeknownst to me, had been listening in. I later found out his name was Jeremy, and he was a member of a native Alaskan Inupiat community.

"Community-based punishment? It's been working amongst my people for centuries."

Jeremy went on to explain how in many pre-colonization societies, grave offenders were to be banished from the community and all surrounding communities--a sentence of exile that nearly eliminated rape and murder. We talked about how in addition to a justice system of and for the people, other sectors of society like housing and food security must also be addressed.

Mounted police at USSF opening march During our walk, three separate pairs of Detroit Police passed us. Why did they need to be there? Kids splashed in the fountains, adults rested in the shade, and meanwhile at Cobo Hall, activists busily addressed the issues that cause so much of the violence the police are called to deal with. One officer noticed us talking. "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about!" he yelled at Jeremy and I with a grin, ribbing the man from a different agency.

The guard's wheels had seemed to be turning a little--but he became hung up on one question, which he repeated over and over.

'What if he does it again? What if the murderer just goes to the next town?"

"He's not welcome there, either."

"But he doesn't have to be welcome to kill someone. What if he does it again? What if he does it again?"

It would have been tempting to bring up Aiyanna Jones, the 7-year-old girl murdered by Detroit cops earlier this year in a literally made-for-TV SWAT raid, and the fact that cops “do it again” more often than anyone else, leading to staggering rates of domestic violence in the families of police and prison guards (another destabilizing factor for rural prison towns).

But, more patient that I am, Jeremy continued to explain that in his culture, pre-colonization, such things happened rarely if ever. He himself was imprisoned for a time in Kansas, in a facility where he was one of the few prisoners who was not a sexual offender. Being put in a cage was not what those men needed, he said.

Eventually, the guard left us. "I've got to take care of this," he interjected, interrupting Jeremy mid-sentence, and strutted over to order around some skateboarding kids. The two of us walked on together, but not after I pointed to the guard and told the kids, "Don't listen - this guy doesn't know what he's talking about!"

Bringing it back home

The rest of the way back along the Detroit River to Cobo Hall felt quick, as Jeremy and I talked about indigenous/immigrant partnerships (like that happening in Minnesota) and their parallels to urban/rural collaborations.

Two days later, the ride back to Minnesota from Detroit was necessarily not so quick – about 13 hours. I spent some time thinking about last October's urban-led action against Nazis in rural Austin, Minnesota,  and how it could have benefited from a frame more like that of Milk Not Jails.

Most of all, what I took away from the 2010 United States Social Forum was the need for humble, inter-generational, cross-ideology, cross-movement, anti-oppression and, also, rural-urban organizing and action. Of course, we need spaces solely for those categories we're a part of, too – like the anarchist space I spent plenty of time at to escape the straight-laced hierarchy of many Forum activities. But our struggles are connected and much of the time, our contradictions are our strengths.

As the prison abolition group Critical Resistance says on their web site, “Take a minute and think about what makes you feel safe - your home? Your family? Your friends? While some people may say that prisons and police in your community make you feel safe, many of us [for example, the woman on the bicycle caravan at the top of this article] most impacted by prisons and policing will not.

“We don't claim to have all the answers. In reality, we know that the dominance of prisons as a response to harm has kept many alternatives from developing. But we also do know that alternatives exist.”

As the Social Forum line goes, an alternative world is not just possible, it's happening.

Many of the statistics and other information in this article come from:

The Real Cost of Prisons Project

Bureau of Justice Statistics – Research on the Crime Control Industry 

Children's Defense Fund – Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign 

Critical Resistance

Photos (top to bottom) Milk not Jails, photo by the author; Prisoners graph from wikipedia;
Detroit River photo from ajviola, creative commons;  Mounted police at USSF march photo from Jobs with Justice, creative commons.

This article may be freely reproduced and shared under a Creative Commons license.  Contact the author at bjhokanson at gmail dot com.