Reflection on support for prisoners’ Operation PUSH And a call to action in Tallahassee on March 8 against visitation cuts

by Panagioti Tsolkas

In January, activists across Florida celebrated Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday with a renewed commitment to struggle alongside those among the most exploited members in our society: the prison slaves.

Over 150 organizations across the country issued statements of support for Florida prisoners. Some carried banners in their local MLK parades or dropped banners off overpasses for thousands to see. Others handed out flyer, pasted posters and pushed out social media.

It was said by many, including Angela Davis on her visit to Tallahassee, that had King not been assassinated as he joined underpaid workers in Memphis, Tennessee, fifty years ago, he would most certainly have been in Florida supporting the prisoners of Operation PUSH.

It’s not hard to have imagined him sitting next to us as we were dragged out of the Florida Department of Corrections lobby (then falsely accused of “battering” law enforcement officers, leaving a Gainesville student activist facing felony charges). But could he have imagined that in the time between the civil rights movement he took part in and today, the slavery he decried as the root of poverty would have actually grown exponentially, as the prison population jumped 700 percent?

Under the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, every prisoner is a slave, and hundreds of thousands nationwide do the labor of maintaining the prisons, as well as get contracted out to government agencies, universities, and private companies.

In response to this exploitation, Operation PUSH prisoners called for a peaceful but powerful strategy of noncooperation. And as J.F. Kennedy said in 1962, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” After FDC’s attempts to suppress prisoners standing up for the dignity, it appears they may be on the road to manifesting JFK’s prediction.

Despite a month of extreme repression, FDC can’t control the building pressure inside these human warehouses. On Thursday, February 15, a “disturbance” was reported at the Columbia C.I. Annex prison, just west of Gainesville. While details remain unclear, signs point to yet another uprising.

In FDC’s words: “ Five staff members were injured during the disturbance and received outside medical treatment for non-life-threatening injuries. There were no inmate injuries. The Department has transferred all inmates involved in the incident to different facilities and will take appropriate disciplinary action.”

Note this is the same agency with 428 inmate deaths in 2017, an unexplained 20 percent increase over previous years,

Shortly before this event, the Gainesville-based Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons received a letter from Columbia Annex prisoner Paul Luxama. He explained that he had been transferred from Jackson C.I. following the nationwide uprisings of September 2016. Luxama points out  that “there’s no such thing as a peaceful boycott against [FDC],” and he elaborates extensively on the experience at Jackson where simple acts of refusal resulted in brutal retaliation thus creating a violent situation which put people at risk.

“[FDC] perceives peaceful boycotts not as a threat to security but as a threat to their power over the slaves’ minds and a threat to their bottom line,” writes Luxama.

While we will once again have to wait for direct contact from prisoners to find out the real story, we are left with MLK’s reminder after a long summer of upheaval in 1966: “We’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

To add insult to injury, FDC has just announced a plan to massively cut back visitation access, in tandem with an introduction of video visitation technology which will generate profits for private contractors at the expense of families of prisoners. Some of these family members are now vowing to join Operation Push supporters on March 8, at noon in front of the FDC headquarters in Tallahassee.

On January 15, Operation PUSH captured the world’s attention by declaring their intention to “lay down” for at least a month, and they. Perhaps some have decided it’s time to start standing back up. What follows is a reflection on the past month, a look at what we’ve learned and what’s to come.

How PUSH comes to shove

About three months ago, around mid-October, a small group of rebels emerged anonymously from the stagnant swamp gulags of Florida. After decades of tension building alongside soaring incarceration rates and plummeting standards in prison conditions, a visionary plan aimed at fundamentally changing the penal system began taking root across the state.

In choosing the primary tactics of withholding labor and boycotting commissary, they advocated actions that arguably fall within constitutional rights of political and religious expression, even for prisoners. In addition, these prisoners asked for help to amplify their message as far as possible. The main goal, in one prisoner’s words, being “to shine a light from the outside in on the system.”

Despite the establishment’s attempt to make prisoners invisible, this movement, calling itself Operation PUSH, reached a global audience. While maintaining anonymity, PUSH’s statement captured interest from at least 50 news outlets ranging from international heavy hitters like the Guardian, Washington Post and Newsweek to local radio shows and bloggers. Within a week of announcing their plan, over a hundred organizations had signed on in solidarity.

Around the same time, a public records request by Florida Institutional Legal Services revealed that FDC had already been conducting surveillance on many of these organizations over the past year. Through correspondence from prisoners, we also learned that FDC is attempting to designate groups like Fight Toxic Prisons essentially as gangs (or “Security Threat Groups”) in order to further restrict our communications.

Alongside this interest and solidarity, we are seeing the growth of a national level of pressure on the prison system unparalleled since the tumultuous era of prisoner organizing in the ‘70s, characterized by the Attica uprising —which occurred at a time when prison populations were less than one quarter of the current size.

Keep PUSHing

Conditions in Florida prisons have gotten so bad and so well-documented that there is nowhere left for the system to turn.

According to a spokesperson for the Florida DOC, Ashley Cook, the solidarity activists’ statements were “absolutely not true” and “no Florida inmates participated in work stoppages, all daily operations are continuing as normal, including inmate phone privileges.” They are digging their own grave, and every lie like this they tell digs it deeper. The DOC says there was no such thing as Operation PUSH, no prisoner strike and no retaliation against organizers.

We know this to be a lie. Not every prisoner went on strike of course, and not every camp had activity. But we have documented over a dozen facilities that showed signs of pressure: shakedowns, limiting communication (including state phones getting turned off), significantly increased staffing, relocation of suspected organizers, and the use of disciplinary confinement in the weeks surrounding Jan 15.

All of this costs the prison system time, money and social capital.

Operation PUSH is far from over. It will only continue to grow and evolve, culminating in a Juneteeneth celebration that will mark, loud and clear, the coming end of prison slavery.

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