We’ll Ride Until the Wheels Fall Off: Prisoners as Proletarian Actors

Georgia – On December 9, 2010, thousands of Georgia prisoners struck – making it the biggest prisoner protest in the history of the United States. What does this mean? Prisoners across the Georgia penitentiary system collectively refused to cooperate with the system incarcerating them, to leave their cells, to work for free for the government. They organized to exert direct control over their bodies, their lives and their circumstances, something they could only do by acting in concert in the thousands. Since December 9, the initial strike day, thousands have continued their struggle against brutal, punitive, unjust conditions, standing up against extreme violence from the prison guard forces.

Despite its size, the unique thing about this prisoner resistance is that it uses the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the proletariat: consciously and collectively withholding its labor power across the divisions created by bourgeois ideology and its division of labor. One prisoner put out the following statement:

…Brothers, we have accomplished a major step in our struggle…We must continue what we have started…The only way to achieve our goals is to continue with our peaceful sit-down…I ask each and every one of my Brothers in this struggle to continue the fight. ON MONDAY MORNING, WHEN THE DOORS OPEN, CLOSE THEM. DO NOT GO TO WORK. They cannot do anything to us that they haven’t already done at one time or another. Brothers, DON’T GIVE UP NOW. Make them come to the table. Be strong. DO NOT MAKE MONEY FOR THE STATE THAT THEY IN TURN USE TO KEEP US AS SLAVES….

Across and against the extreme racial antagonisms which exist throughout all of capitalist society but especially in the USA’s “corrections” system, prisoners of all colors united against a common enemy: the coercive, violent, exploitative force of their captors. Organized through existing networks of prison life, using cell phones purchased from guards (who profit from illicit trade with the prisoners – charging as much as $800 for a cell phone!), the strike has put forward intelligible, clear, justifiable demands – demands that many of us can identify with as exploited workers, but also demands that go beyond working conditions or wages to challenge the logic of incarceration in the US today.   The list and more below the fold:

• A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.

• EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.

• DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.

• AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.

• DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.

• NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.

• VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.

• ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.

• JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

It is considered acceptable that millions among us must work for wages that cannot support a whole, healthy existence. It is considered natural that millions of people are locked in cages without recourse, without dignity, without opportunity, exploited and closed off from society. Perhaps the most brutally exploited people in this country have organized the largest strike in the history of jails and one of very few strikes in the US in the last decade.

On Friday December 10, one prisoner expressed the commitment to the cause, “We are going to ride it, till the wheels fall off. We want our human rights.” It’s interesting to note the usage of “human rights” in this struggle. On the one hand, the usage of “human rights” is a strong universalizing element, something with appeal across the divided working class. It is also true that prisoners are so tightly and violently contained that the prison system constitutes an attack on their basic humanity, stealing it from them and reducing them to bare, brute life.

Slavery and Prisons

The United States of America’s incarceration project has a long history in this country connected to Black slavery. American slavery produced immense wealth for this country, propelling it to become the richest country in the world.

That is why Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 about the law-abiding citizens of America: “I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”  In fact, the entire capitalist world-system was only made possible by the massive surpluses that came out of black slave labor.

After Karl Marx had to flee France from its Napoleonic counter-revolution, he brainstormed in his Grundrisse how capitalism functions as a totality . Reflecting on Slavery in the US in 1857, Marx commented that Capitalism  “incessantly whips onward with its unlimited mania for wealth” (325, italics added). Marx was to later argue in Capital that “Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-earners in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World.”

When the 13th amendment of our constitution was implemented to abolish slavery, it maintained an important exception, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Italics added).

As Slavery was abolished in 1865, many of the first prisons were old slave plantations, like Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. The Black Codes were implemented after slavery branding almost every former slave as a criminal and many southern states was built and maintained by convicts. For example, aged African-American women convicts dug the campus of Georgia State College, and prisoners as young as twelve worked in chain gangs to maintain the streets of Atlanta.

The American ruling class punished the working class for its black-led but multiracial militancy of the post-World War II era by disciplining the industries and spaces with high concentrations of blacks. This began with reigning in the unions after WWII, and continued with “automation,” a process in which machines and robots replace living, thinking, human labor. In the 1960s, capital began pulling their industry and factories out of major US cities altogether, effecting places like Detroit and Los Angeles particularly hard.

In inverse proportion to de-industrialization, incarceration skyrocketed, and became even more racist in its targeting of the black proletariat. In 1954, there were 98,000 African-Americans in prison or jail. By 1974, that number had crept up to 153,500. By 1994, it had grown fourfold to 635,000. And in 2002, it had risen to a record high of 884,500. Some 50% of the prison population is Black: Over a million of the almost 3 million people in prison are Black–even though Black people comprise nowhere near 50% of the US populace. Overwhelming numbers of prisoners are poor people, people from working-poor families and poor communities. Overwhelming numbers are people of color and most are not “violent offenders.”

Prisoners are confined to conditions involving brutal super-exploitation and complete containment. Ripped largely from proletarian communities, systematically denied access to the basic productive and reproductive power of society, prisoners and their labor are violently controlled and regulated by the state which claims direct control over their bodies, energies and activity–a relationship not unlike ownership. Prisoners form a unique and specific sector of the proletariat, bordering on a class unto themselves–and yet they are not separate from their families, their neighborhoods, the exploitation and oppression of society at large.

This breaking up of communities has always been an indispensable component of the political side of capital accumulation, going back to the disruption of African societies for the slave trade and Native American societies for colonial access to land. To this day, war for conquest of land and total political control of labor remains every bit as crucial to the processes of capital accumulation – the logic of our system.

The “Georgia” Lessons

The American South is the place in our country where the capitalist ruling class enjoys the most power over the proletariat. There, unions have always met with the most difficult labor laws (“right to work states” are called that because workers have the “right” not to be in a union). There, a legacy lives of activists being killed by racists. There, most social movements have the weakest presence. The stratified racist culture still permeates social relations deepest. Georgia in particular has the nation’s highest rate of correctional control; 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. The nationwide figure is 1 in 31.

The prison population is often analyzed in terms of its racial make-up, but political thinkers of all types too often fail to note that nearly all prisoners are almost all proletarians – people who own no productive property and, must work or die. But incarcerated proletarians are not “simply” proletarians on the outside, because they cannot sell their labor-power to the master of their choice. Precisely because prisoners are not usually forced to work for free, they are not in exactly the same class relation as slaves. Although capital (such as Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country) feed extensively off the prison system by warehousing a huge chunk – about 3 million people!- in just this manner. Many prisoners are not even involved in productive labor and are instead consigned to atrophy, denied any productive expression of their life force whatsoever. Those who are coerced to produce do so for little or no payment at all.

In such an environment we left in awe, wonder how was it prisoners engaged in an incredibly well-coordinated multiracial struggle? For this strike to have prisoners who see themselves as modern-day slaves, who built a strike against prison work and prison conditions, it becomes a political act that we can all learn from on how to fight our conditions.

It is important and meaningful to note that the goals and demands around which many of us have rallied in the past year are not that different from those of the strikers: Access to education; defense against state violence; living wages; decent food and living conditions – our whole class is fighting for dignity and survival! The demands of the prisoners are in many ways the demands of our class and our struggle for justice and liberation. Their self-activity is part of a long tradition in the US, using tactics that blend those of the Lucasville prison uprising of 1993 and the Republic Windows and Doors workplace occupation. It is undeniably a historical event, one in a chain of struggles that never fully come to an end. The more we can celebrate and remember the concepts and forms utilized in the past, the more well-honed our own arsenal of tactics will become.

Like the student movement, these prisoners are organized through informal networks, rather than institutionalized organizations like unions. The strike was organized out of really existing social relationships, and the strikers have been subjected to extreme repression in the face of which they have continued their struggle. Many of us try very hard to figure out how our communities and the relationships which compose them can be galvanized with such focus and force. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the economic struggle confront the state in this direct action strike form. If prisoners in Georgia under such oppressive conditions and a racist environment can organize themselves, break down racial divisions, and organize and sustain class struggle in the most heavily policed place on earth, why can’t we?

Solidarity with the Strikers – Struggle in the Class

Click here for information on the Bay Area solidarity rally on 12/17, plus a solidarity statement

In the Bay Area and across the nation, there has been a growing movement against budget cuts, for immigrants rights, and against police murder and brutality. The challenge is always how to fuse these seemingly separate struggles into one overarching offensive of , by, and for proletarian power. Every action by the working class to realize its freedom must be honored and every opportunity to build bridges between them seized upon. The prisoner strike in Georgia must be publicized and its lessons spread amongst the proletariat – both on the “inside” and on the “outside” of capitalism’s racist dungeons.

As we write this, support actions are being organized and they’re catalyzed through relationships and groups which have grown in part out of the struggles against police brutality and attacks on public services (most notably education) that have rocked the bay recently.

Check out the post over at the blog thosewhouseit, where comrades are spreading the word and helping to organize solidarity with the strikers. Or read the letter of solidarity issued by a group of dedicated Bay Area organizers who have initiated a coalition effort to actively show solidarity with the strikers. On Friday December 17th, there will be a protest at 5pm in front of North County jail in downtown Oakland 7th street and Clay (check the flyer image for more details.)

Perhaps this working class activity at the very bottom of the class structure will trickle up and infect the whole proletariat. If that happens, we could one day look back at the Georgia prison strike as the beginning of the end for capitalist America. A closing quote from WEB DuBois’ book, Black Folks: Then and Now:

…the South saw just as quickly that here was a point of fatal weakness which they had unconsciously feared. The moment that any considerable number, not to mention the majority, of their four million slaves stopped work, much less took up arms, the cause of the South was lost.

All power to the prisoners, and therefore to the class!


Thanks to Black Agenda Report for the top image, and for much-needed coverage against the corporate media whiteout!

2 responses to “We’ll Ride Until the Wheels Fall Off: Prisoners as Proletarian Actors

  1. Pingback: All out on Friday in solidarity with the Georgia prisoner strike! | THOSE WHO USE IT

  2. excellent. thank you.

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