Karen Smith: Rest in Power

by Joe Courter

In a year that took so many beloved people away, the death of Karen Smith in the early morning hours of Nov. 29 was a shocking and profound loss to so many in our community and beyond. At 46 years old, with a full plate of meaningful responsibilities and passions in her life —her kids, her extended family of friends and co-workers, her commitment to the cause of prison abolition and connections to the many prisoners she corresponded with, and the fellow activists in the cause who she inspired with her dedication and relentless positive attitude — gone in an instant of crashing metal in a single car accident on Waldo Road.

She was around the Civic Media Center a lot, but I can’t say I ever had much of a conversation with her; she would be busy, focused on her task(s). Laptop open, phone at hand, maybe pen in hand, or in conversation with others. She was a volunteer with the Free Grocery Store, which the CMC has been hosting during the pandemic. A person who worked with her a lot was Panagioti Tsolkas. He wrote the following in the blog Antistasis Project on Dec. 1, shortly after her death:

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It’s hard to describe what organizing alongside Karen Smith was like in a way that won’t sound hyperbolic on account of her absence, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. Movement circles can get bogged down and organizers often get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we face. 

It’s inevitable, yet Karen Smith figured out how to manage it all with a rare style and grace. She dodged the obstacles, confronted the bullshit and stayed focused on her two-pronged mission of supporting prisoners and attacking the prison system, relentlessly. All while being an amazing mother of two and stellar friend to so many.

Since her passing, several of us who had the fortune of organizing closely with her have noted the feeling of disbelief stemming from a view of her as invincible, unstoppable … a supernatural creature walking among muggles. The organizational energy that she could harness in planning protests, conferences, bail funds, social events is unmatched. She could motivate and focus a group without it feeling pushy, and she could host a killer party without seeming stressed, and then totally chill out and relax without seeming all high-strung from pulling these things together. 

She was also an incredible example to me as a parent, and countless other future parents, that people with kids can balance movement responsibilities and commitments to their children.

She could get wild as hell, then pull it all together to show up for media interviews, professional appointments, her job as a waitress, etc. When she had to step back to handle work or family matters, she didn’t make commitments she couldn’t keep and drop the ball.

When our crew held a campout out in front of prison work camp for 10 days, Karen would come after a late work shift to sleep at the camp, roll out of a tent first thing in the morning with a bullhorn in hand to yell raw, unfiltered rage at guards and shout encouragement to prisoners, then drink some coffee and head back to town to the Sunday brunch shift at 706, where she worked for the past 15 years, till they closed for COVID-19.

I know, I told you, it sounds like the kind of things you say to kiss someone’s ass after they’re gone. And she would surely be annoyed by praise like this, but ask around, these are the stories you’ll hear over and over, from people who met her once and people who knew her for decades.

So many times over the past several years I watched in awe at her ability to connect with people and inspire them to action, in many cases just with a paper, pen and stamped envelope. 

At prison demos, when we were close enough to establish that those inside could hear our bullhorns, she would often say “this is Karen Smith, call us, write our PO Box. Let us know how we can work together.” And they would. 

On the occasion where someone made the unwise decisions to write something sexist or disrespectful, Karen would tell them firmly to cut that shit out. And they listened. She could command respect like that, even from someone she never met in person.

At any given point in a day, she might step away from a conversation with you to take a phone call, and come back having coordinated a legal defense strategy with someone sitting in solitary. By the end of the day there would be a phone zap going to support their fight for law library access, better sanitary conditions in the kitchen or getting moved out of solitary…

Being in her presence had the feeling of working alongside a legend, those who got letters from her on the inside will say the same. Perhaps the highest compliment to her work is knowing so many wardens and prison staff across Florida and beyond have cursed her name, surely wondering themselves if she was a real person or some fictitious, omnipresent force out to “kick their ass.”

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Walking back from a hastily called memorial at Depot Park on Dec. 2 with friend and activist Ellen Allen, she pointed out the similar community loss we had when Zot Szurgot was killed in a vehicle accident in the fall of 2016. Another vibrant, dedicated organizer, active and loved in a number of different circles, and likewise gone in an instant. 

I stopped by the CMC and there on the desk in the day’s mail was a letter addressed to Karen Smith from one of her incarcerated pen pals. Me and the volunteer there just stared at it, grief magnified to another level. 

Strength to all who knew and were touched by Karen. Somehow we all must carry on, find our work and calling, and do it.

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