Waging Nonviolence

Organized youth and top-level defections threaten Uganda’s dictatorship

by Phil Wilmot

View image | gettyimages.com

After a full day of darting around the congested Ugandan capital city of Kampala to meet with activists, civil society groups and community leaders, I gratefully swung my backpack off my shoulders and tossed it on the table. I sunk my body into the refuge of a few soft cushions and exhaled a deep sigh of resignation. My host eagerly dashed to his television to switch on the evening news, as if the physical, psychological and emotional beatings we absorbed that day had not diverted a single ounce of his energy.

“Haven’t you had enough political talk for today?” I asked him, popping the cap off a much-needed beer. “Don’t you want to rest so we can be ready to do it all again tomorrow?”

“No, Museveni must go,” he promptly replied. “The dictator is not getting any sleep. Why should we?”

He’s right. There’s no possible way President Yoweri Museveni is getting a good night’s rest with his 30-year military regime progressively imploding. When you’re a head of state for that long, no reality beyond lifelong monarchy seems safe. You have waged war upon your own people, you’ve stolen their natural resources, you’ve pillaged neighboring countries, and you’ve manufactured one of the most corrupt systems of governance in modern history. You cannot simply turn over the keys to the state house.

Internal defections cause paranoia

Dictators prefer to have a few allies they can trust, and for many years, Museveni was able to attract quite a number. His economic policies drove the Ugandan populace so deep into poverty that he was able to buy the votes and support of the masses with a mere bar of soap or a cup of water.

These days are different though. Two key long-time allies of the Museveni regime have defected since the last election cycle, causing many to question whether the three-decade ruler has the political infrastructure it takes to shield his power from the encroaching civil society movements.

According to inside sources, such as Museveni’s Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi, even the allegiance of Museveni’s closest kin — such as his wife and son — has become unreliable. However, the dictator was driven into a more severe frenzy in 2013 when General David Sejusa, the then-spy chief of the Ugandan military, decided he had enough after coming across a secret military plot to assassinate himself and other political leaders who had called for investigations into Museveni’s alleged plan to pass power onto his son.

Sejusa’s falling out with Museveni left him exiled in London, where he then established Freedom and Unity Front, a political movement provocatively abbreviated as FU. In December 2014, he returned to Uganda, which was a subject of much excitement for freedom-loving Ugandans, who were seeking a political figure not interested in occupying a high level office — an ambition Sejusa called “foolish … since Museveni has already stolen millions of votes for the upcoming elections.”

As if losing a member of the high command who knows all of the secrets behind his war crimes and political tactics was not enough to startle Museveni, his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, announced his intention to campaign for the presidency as the National Resistance Movement, or NRM, ruling party flag-bearer last month. Such intra-party competition is foreign to the history of the big shots in the NRM. Moreover, Mbabazi has been a driving agent of many of the most totalitarian laws passed in recent years, including the Orwellian Phone Tapping Bill and the Public Order Management Act, which renders unapproved conversations between more than three people illegal. Draconian partners are needed in a dictatorship and Museveni has lost the man who historically seemed to be his closest friend.

Youth organizing more strategically

The proverbial moat surrounding the Ugandan dictatorship’s castle is drying up, making it a perfect time for young unemployed people of the nation to launch their own offensive. Nonviolent civil resistance in Uganda is still a young phenomenon. Walk-to-work protests in 2011 pushed astronomically high food and gas prices down temporarily, followed by a successful peaceful campaign to protect Mabira Forest from deforestation by a sugar company later that same year. Teacher strikes have occurred annually to protest low wages in government schools. A few rallies and marches have been on occasion dispersed with tear gas. All of these efforts, however, have lacked continuity.

Police apprehend yellow pigs released by Ugandan youth activists in downtown Kampala on Feb. 16. (Kenneth Kazibwe)

Furthermore, actions in the past year have been mainly symbolic. A group known as the Jobless Brotherhood has been releasing pigs painted yellow to represent the ruling party in strategic locations around the country, often placing a hat that resembles the iconic one worn by Museveni atop the pigs’ heads. Other conglomerates of unemployed youths have organized marathons through Kampala in protest of corruption and life presidency. Until now, these movements have been fragmented, their actions being short-term and somewhat short-sighted. However, with the recent establishment of politically ecumenical groups, such as the Interparty Youth Platform and the No More Campaign, some much-needed synergy is brewing in the world’s demographically youngest nation.

Arrested for criticizing arbitrary arrests

On July 9, former Prime Minister Mbabazi and opposition party leader Kizza Besigye were arrested without substantial cause or charges. With the help of the youth groups, the Democratic Alliance — which consists of leaders of various opposition political parties — convened a press conference the following day to criticize the government for making politically-motivated arbitrary arrests. At this event, seven members were arrested, loaded into police vehicles, and driven from court to court (even beyond the geographic jurisdiction of the alleged crime) until the business day ended, necessitating their detainment. Both male and female activists were stuffed in the same small cell with other suspects at a rural police post.

Four visitors came that evening to deliver food to the detainees (who are not given dinner or breakfast in Uganda). Those visitors were also gathered and thrown in the cell. The following morning, an additional seven visitors were also arrested and thrown behind bars after the police officers on duty felt threatened by their large numbers and fired bullets. Altogether, 18 activists, many of them high-profile figures in civil society, were victimized by police brutality over a single incident.

Youth organizer Daniel Tulibagenyi poses at the press conference he organized to criticize the government for arbitrary arrests, before being arrested himself. (WNV / Daniel Tulibagenyi)

From symbolic one-offs to crisis-generating actions

There is clearly a fear that organized youths present a strong threat to Museveni’s interests. Now that the youths have finally strengthened their internal structures, police have been following them from meeting to meeting, cracking down at will despite the rights to assembly, association and movement guaranteed in Uganda’s constitution — something Museveni has publicly called “just a piece of paper.”

In some areas of the country, farmers who sell their products to multinational corporations aligned with the Museveni government are scheming to withhold their products and labor. Others are advocating for agricultural cooperatives in rural areas to spend a week without sending food to Kampala. Shutdowns of the transportation sector are also being planned. “We need to pin the dictator in a crisis,” noted one youth activist. “We have to present him with a scenario that hits him where it hurts and consequently undermines the assets that support his rule.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Wadulo, a civil society advocate in parliament suggested a different approach. “I think we should explore forgiveness as a tactic. Elections are just around the corner in early 2016, and Museveni is prepared for bloodshed. Is that what we want? Let’s move into the win-win quadrant. Let’s allow him to move out of power peacefully by appealing to his interests.” Wadulo acknowledged that this will necessitate appeals to bodies such as the International Criminal Court for Ugandan stakeholders to handle the terms of his exit from power. “He is a dictator, but he is our dictator,” Wadulo claimed.

“But will he keep the loot of 30 years?” asked Oyaka Makmot, one of my fellow board members at Solidarity Uganda. “Just because Mandela advocated for a flexible form of political forgiveness does not mean that such an approach should be replicated elsewhere in Africa. Reconciliation and healing is not authentic in the absence of justice.” Such comments echo the sentiments of youths throughout the country who are eager to witness an oppressive regime endure some form of payback.

Tilling the soils for war

The elephant in the room, as with many other dictatorships, is the United States’ military interests. Uganda is the key security partner in Sub-Saharan Africa for the superpower with the world’s largest military budget. The Uganda People’s Defence Force has fought proxy wars against the Al-Shabab terrorist entity in Somalia, as well as looted the mineral-rich Congo for raw materials sought by international companies that manufacture electronics and vehicles, among other products. When it comes to U.S. interests south of the Sahara, the U.S. base in Entebbe, Uganda is the jumping-off point. U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi has maintained a neutral role in Ugandan political matters, though he has failed to recognize the lack of a level playing field for political candidates. As a result, activists have accused him of being complacent with the fact that his government is funding, training and equipping a military that has a terrible human rights record.

Ugandan youths are at the moment discussing a push for a freeze of military support from the United States if Museveni is on the 2016 election ballot, knowing that in the event of election violence or similar political mayhem, Museveni will be quick to turn to the Pentagon for help.

At the same time, however, it would be erroneous to insist that Museveni’s regime is solely insulated by a foreign government. He has invested national funds in his own internal security strategies, arming informal vigilante youth groups with weapons only intended for soldiers. Recent government budgets have seen the line items relating to community policing and crime prevention skyrocket, begging one to question what the country’s not-so-distant future has in store. Uganda is already overridden with armed police in public areas and at private businesses, soldiers on buses, civilian spies, and tear-gas-dispensing machines stationed in public areas. Every aspect of public life is a reminder that Museveni — and Museveni alone — is the man in charge. After all, this is the man who once said, “I own the money in Uganda.” But as we practitioners of strategic nonviolent action know, resources such as money, weapons and sanctions will ultimately prove insufficient.

Have reports of capitalism’s death been greatly exaggerated?

by Kate Aronoff

View image | gettyimages.com

Late last week, economic journalist Paul Mason, whose Channel 4 blog has been one of the best English-language sources for making sense of the ongoing Greek crisis, published an excerpt from his forthcoming book in The Guardian. It announces that the end of capitalism has begun and that (spoiler) it doesn’t look how we thought it might. The 20th century old/new leftist dream of some crisis-sparked proletarian revolt, he argues, has been battered by neoliberalism and, now, is being replaced by a steady trickle of viable, largely technology-fuelled alternatives to the current economy. “Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques,” Mason writes. “It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviors.”

He contends that advances in information technology have “reduced the need for work, blurred the edges of work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.” Stemming from the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s, feminist movements and scholars have for years highlighted the loose connection between work and pay, along with the blurry line between labor and leisure at home and in the workplace. And, as Doug Henwood rightly pointed out, there’s nothing inherent to technological innovation that means less work, especially for the market’s worst-off; in the last several years, the American economy has actually become more productive (that is, labor intensive) relative to GDP. To date, automation hasn’t so much reduced the need for jobs as it has expanded capitalism’s capacity to create more terrible ones.

Clearly, though, the economy is changing. For Mason, there are a few other factors driving this transition: an influx of abundant information at odds with capitalism’s drive to hoard scarce resources; the rise of “spontaneous production … that no longer respond[s] to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy,” like Wikipedia; and, finally, the growth of alternative economic practices in the face of crisis — food co-ops, time banks, parallel currencies and other measures falling broadly under the umbrella of “free time, networked activity and free stuff.”

As austerity wears at its seams in southern Europe, all of the above are disrupting what Mason calls a “fifth long upswing for capitalism,” differentiated from the previous four by a lack of pressure from the workforce to herald in higher wages, new technology and more consumption. Increasingly, networks are replacing hierarchies and we’re all learning to share more, in cyber and real-space. In their beautiful abundance, these social and actual technologies chafe at ownership; influenced by technology, in turn, there is a new engine of change replacing the industrial worker: “the educated and connected human being.” Information technology and the networked social forms accompanying it are non-capitalist beasts just waiting to be let out of their stables to race toward a post-capitalist future.

But as Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor noted recently for The Nation, there’s no ready-made path from information to liberation. “Our high-tech tools are constrained by market incentives and government surveillance interests that are often intertwined,” they wrote. “We cannot think about surveillance without paying keen attention to the corporations that benefit from it and the deep inequities that result.” Not only is there a barely-hidden world of workers making the digital revolution possible, but tech itself is already being used to serve the interests of those driving our current, vastly unequal economy. It deserves noting that some of the biggest fans of decentralization — technological or otherwise — are right-wing libertarians, who would be as happy to see workplace protections stripped as they would to see a new start-up food co-op take root.

Consider Uber, the poster-child of the for-profit sharing economy now worth $50 billion. Until a landmark ruling last month, the company posited itself as a neutral technology, simply providing its army of contingent drivers with a platform through which to make their own money — and stay exempt from federal labor laws. By ruling that Uber is, in fact, an employer, the California Labor Commission confirmed what many drivers already knew: Work in the sharing economy doesn’t stray very far from the current one.

Left to its own, state-supported devices, capitalism has proven itself plenty adept at navigating crisis after crisis, and, from subprime mortgages to student debt to climate change, monetizing the seemingly priceless. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote in 2010, banks are a “highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.” Technology is just another hurdle they can ably jump over. Even against the information age’s more egalitarian impulses, tech remains firmly in the hands of the one percent — albeit a nerdier, tanner and more socially progressive one.

Conversely, Mason is exactly right to point out the incredible promise these emergent innovations hold to serve downright radical ends. But what’s going to take them there? “No doubt, the Internet opens up new avenues and opportunities for resistance,” Taylor and Hunt-Hendrix concluded. “But new technologies will not solve the problems at hand: People acting collectively will.” Tech is contested political ground. Even in the transition from feudalism to capitalism Mason references, it took a plague and, importantly, a widespread peasant revolt to lurch Europe out of stagnant feudalism. As in other historical epochs, disruptive power is necessary to drive society’s agenda away from the interests of those already in charge.

Mason’s call to “direct all actions towards the transition — not the defense of random elements of the old system,” to focus solely on building alternatives, is a false dichotomy. If Syriza’s project in Greece has shown anything, it’s that combining a broad-based solidarity economy with political power is deeply threatening to neoliberalism, the top brass of which will risk self-implosion to stamp it out. Acting alone, Solidarity for All didn’t provoke a sadistic backlash from Greece’s creditors. Syriza’s victory at the polls, its leadership’s presence at the negotiating table in Brussels, and the egalitarian populist parties grasping at state power across the Mediterranean did — but neither the challenge nor the solution could exist without the other.

Millennial-led movements from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street have already put the social technologies Mason describes into practice, and are writing new rules for how popular uprisings work in the 21st century. Podemos, Spain’s ascendant populist party, uses a sub-Reddit to make decisions among members at the national level. Thankfully, technology is changing organizing at least as much as it is the economy. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere without a fight, no matter how inventive the alternatives. If the early 20th century labor heroine Lucy Parsons were alive now, she might add an addendum on to the statement she’s best remembered by: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to innovate away their wealth.” Today’s movements will need to be at least as creative as the forces they’re taking on, and be building solutions that are even more so. Post-capitalism is coming, but a new and even more disruptive tradition of organizing will have to clear the way first.

What ‘Orange Is the New Black’ tells us about sexual abuse in women’s prisons — and how to stop it

by Victoria Law

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett talks with Carrie “Boo” Black during the third-season finale of “Orange Is the New Black.” (Netflix)

Trigger warning: The entire article talks about sexual assaults and abuse.

Spoiler warning: Episodes 10 to 13 are discussed in detail.

In this season’s “Orange Is the New Black,” viewers are introduced to a host of new characters, including a prison guard who claims to be in love with — and regularly rapes — Pennsatucky, the woman assigned to drive the prison van. Even if Pennsatucky were to report the rapes, her friend Boo points out, it’s her word against his. And who will the prison administration take more seriously? A woman imprisoned for a crime or a guard whom they saw fit to hire? At best, she will simply be disbelieved; at worst, she would be punished by being placed in solitary confinement and then being transferred to a harsher prison.

Meanwhile, the woman has van duty every day with the guard, an assignment that takes them out of the prison and away from any potential witnesses or watchful eyes. “He’s got you,” her friend Boo says.

This kind of scenario isn’t limited to fictional television series. We don’t know how often it occurs in real-life women’s prisons to real-life women, but the little that we do know indicates that it’s more than a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. In both men’s and women’s prisons, sexual abuse is more likely to occur at the hands of staff members rather than other prisoners.

I’ve written before about ways in which women who are not in prison have organized to prevent gender violence. But tactics and strategies that work on the outside don’t necessarily fly behind prison walls. Keep in mind that prisons are sites of total control. Movement is limited — and sometimes strictly controlled. So, while people on the outside can utilize tactics like banding together for safety, avoiding being alone with certain people or avoiding isolated areas, these strategies don’t work in an environment in which staff have the ability to give orders.

Those who refuse risk being charged with “disobeying a direct order,” which usually is punished with time in solitary confinement. Having such a charge on their record can also be held against them during a parole hearing, which means an even longer prison sentence. There is little to no opportunity for a person to explain that they disobeyed that direct order because they feared sexual assault. Even if there were, as Boo rightly pointed out, it’s the word of a prisoner against the word of a staff member. And physically defending yourself? In prison, that’s called “assault on an officer” and not only lands a person in solitary confinement, but garners an additional charge with the very real threat of more time in prison and, for the rest of their stay, unrelenting harassment and abuse from other prison staff.

Despite these limitations, people in women’s prisons (not every person in a women’s prison identifies as a woman) have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. In 1996, after the passage of Measure 11, a mandatory sentencing law, women’s incarceration in Oregon increased dramatically. Unable to handle the sharp influx of women, the state contracted with private prison company Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, to house 78 of these women. That year, Barrilee Bannister and 77 other women were transferred to a CCA-run prison for men in Arizona. When they first arrived, Bannister recalled having to walk past a line of prison staff members who gawked, whistled and made lewd comments at them. But that wasn’t the only form of sexual harassment and abuse that the women would endure.

Weeks after their arrival, Bannister said that a captain visited several women (including her) in a cell, bringing marijuana with him. They all smoked and, when he left, the captain left the remainder with the women. Shortly after, he returned with other officers, announcing that they were searching the cell for contraband. But, they said, if the women preformed a strip tease, they would not conduct the search.

Knowing that being caught with marijuana would mean an additional charge and an increase in the amount of time they had to spend in prison, the women began to strip. After that, she said that officers frequently brought marijuana and other items that the women were not supposed to have. In exchange, the women would perform strip teases.

But it didn’t stop at strip teases. Soon, officers began raping women. But Bannister and the other women refused to silently accept this new reality. Bannister contacted friends and outside organizations and told them what was happening. They, in turn, contacted media. The negative publicity led to an investigation and the women’s return to Oregon — and out of the CCA prison. The women filed a federal lawsuit against CCA, eventually winning a public apology, a promise of stricter rules to prevent sexual abuse, and the reimbursement of attorney fees.

Sexual abuse isn’t a problem only in private prisons. It’s a frequent occurrence in publicly-run prisons as well. But women in publicly-run prisons have also banded together to try and stop the abuse.

In Battered Women’s Justice, Patricia Gagne describes how women in an Ohio prison were dealing with the same dilemma. In the mid-1990s, one particular guard seemed to have it in for one particular woman. Her cellmate recalled that he constantly harassed her. He also threatened her and her friends — if they attempted to report his behavior, he would plant cocaine among their possessions. Scared, the women kept quiet. But after he assaulted the woman, her friends knew they could no longer keep quiet. They filed a complaint with the administration and testified before the grand jury, which eventually led to the guard’s arrest and conviction.

Their actions also had a ripple effect. “We could never clean up the penitentiary or never change a lot of people’s minds,” the woman stated. But, she continued, after that guard was arrested and convicted, “a lot of the nastiness and that vulgarness … was seeming to cease a little bit and to ease up a little bit, because they began to get nervous. And more women stood up, and two other officers were escorted off because the women found enough courage to stand up.”

In Michigan, sexual assault in women’s prisons was so pervasive that the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in and launched an investigation. It found that “nearly every woman … interviewee reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards,” including rape, sexual assault, impregnation, abusive pat frisks and violations of privacy. The Justice Department initiated legal action against the state in 1997 on the grounds that Michigan was “violating the constitutional rights of inmates incarcerated in Michigan women’s prisons to be free from sexual misconduct and unlawful invasions of privacy.”

But women inside the prison system didn’t wait for the Justice Department. They filed suits on their own — both individually (as in the case of Stacy Barker) and collectively. In 1996, 31 women (including Stacy Barker) in Michigan’s two women’s prisons filed Nunn v. MDOC, charging that they had been subjected to sexual assault, sexual harassment, violations of their privacy, physical threats, assaults and retaliation by male prison staff. They also charged that prison officials had been aware of this abuse, but had done little to investigate or prevent it. Four years later, in 2000, the Michigan Department of Corrections signed a settlement agreement that banned cross-gender pat-down searches, meaning that male guards were no longer allowed to pat search women, and limited the circumstances in which male guards could transport women or remain with them in medical examining rooms. The settlement also limited staff allowed in the housing units, where women might be in states of dress or undress, to female guards.

That same year, women also filed Neal v. MDOC, a class-action lawsuit. Nearly 440 women who had experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault, invasions of privacy and retaliation for reporting staff misconduct signed onto the suit. In 2007, nine years after it had been filed, the case went to trial. The jury awarded the women more than $30 million. In July 2009, a settlement was reached for $100 million to be distributed to the class members — in other words, any woman incarcerated in Michigan who had suffered any of the experiences listed in the suit — and their attorneys.

These are specific instances that have been written about. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the only methods people have used to keep themselves and each other safe. In “Orange is the New Black,” Pennsatucky and Boo come up with a creative solution that enables her to escape from her driving duties — and the accompanying sexual assaults. It’s not a tactic that would necessarily make headlines or that she would even be able to tell others without jeopardizing her own escape.

From years of talking to people who have spent time in women’s prisons, I’ve learned that stories of resistance actions — whether individual acts or collective organizing — often remain undocumented. Creative strategies may be passed down by word of mouth and the prison grapevine, but unless someone takes the time to talk with people and ask them specifically about what they did to challenge and change conditions, those stories rarely make it past prison walls.

¿Puede ganar el movimiento por una educación gratuita, pública y de calidad en Chile?

by Javier Gárate

View image | gettyimages.com

This article is also available in English.

Los próximos meses son cruciales para el movimiento por la educación en Chile ya que la Presidenta Michelle Bachelet se puso como meta para este año la aprobación de una reforma educacional. Durante la campaña presidencial y también el primer año del gobierno, Bachelet enfatizó la importancia de una educación gratuita para todos, pero en las últimas semanas el gobierno ha dado un giro diciendo que algunas de las propuestas de la campaña en materia de educación no podrán ser cumplidas, por lo que hoy el rol del movimiento toma incluso más importancia. Para asegurarse de que esto suceda, el movimiento ha aumentado la presión al gobierno con grandes manifestaciones de estudiantes y profesores, incluyendo un paro indefinido por parte de Colegio de Profesores de Chile que empezó el 1 de junio.

A lo largo de los años el movimiento ha aprendido a no tener grandes expectativas de los cambios que puedan venir desde el gobierno. En el 2011 – cuando las protestas lograron sus mayores niveles de movilización – muchos pensaron que la transformación era inminente, solo para sufrir frustración tras frustración y una pérdida de fuerza del movimiento en los años siguientes. Sin embargo, esta vez puede que sea diferente. Según Bill Moyer – activista por el cambio social y fundador del Movimiento por una Nueva Sociedad en EEUU, conformada por una red de colectivos que jugaron un importante rol en grupos noviolentos en los sententas y ochentas – y su modelo  “Plan de Acción del Movimiento”, los movimientos sociales muchas veces pasan por ocho fases. Basado en esto, podríamos inferir que el movimiento por la educación en Chile está acercándose a sus últimas fases.

Históricamente los estudiantes en Chile han estado al frente de las protestas sociales. Por ejemplo estudiantes secundarios fueron unos de los primeros en desafiar en las calles la dictadura militar de Augusto Pinochet, mientras que los universitarios usaban las facultades como lugares para la resistencia. Después del fin del régimen Pinochetista, el movimiento estudiantil necesitó de tiempo para re-enfocar sus demandas y  crear nuevas formas de organización y de protesta.

Tras años de esfuerzos para darle nueva fuerza al movimiento, en el 2006, estudiantes secundarios en la llamada “revolución pingüina” – por la forma y color de su uniforme – dio un indicio de la potencia que podía tener el movimiento estudiantil en Chile. Las movilizaciones del 2006 empezaron con exigencias muy específicas como el pase de transporte escolar, pero pronto pasaron a ser demandas por cambios estructurales contra las políticas económicas neoliberales en educación, en este caso representadas por la Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza (LOCE), que limitaba la participación del Estado en la educación y que entró en vigor el 10 de marzo de 1990, el último día de la dictadura militar de Pinochet.

El movimiento por momentos logró poner la educación en la agenda política, pero las movilizaciones llegaron a su fin después que la Presidenta Bachelet – durante su primer periodo presidencial entre 2006 y 2010 – derogara la LOCE. Sin embargo las exigencias  por una educación gratuita, pública y de calidad  quedaron lejos de ser cumplidas.

En este momento,  el movimiento entró en la fase tres o “condiciones de maduración” según Moyer, en esta se forman nuevas organizaciones y pequeñas acciones de desobediencia civil empiezan a dramatizar la problemática. Después del 2006 hubo un período de menor actividad, pero lentamente nuevos colectivos empezaron a emerger con  exigencias más claras por un cambio radical en la educación en Chile.

El movimiento estaba listo para la fase cuatro o de “despegue”. Esta fase usualmente sucede después de un suceso desencadenante – causados por el movimiento o por quienes están en el poder – que después de mucha organización lleva a manifestaciones masivas, acciones de desobediencia civil y una amplia cobertura mediática.

En Chile, el suceso desencadenante fue la elección en el 2010 de Sebastián Piñera, el primer presidente de derecha desde Pinochet. Piñera ganó las elecciones entre otros motivos como reacción a muchos años de frustración con la Coalición de Partidos por la Democracia (Concertación) – coalición de centro izquierda que estuvo en el poder desde el fin de la dictadura de Pinochet-. Esta nueva situación, combinada con una percepción creciente que la verdadera justicia social no llegaría desde quienes están en el poder, produjo una mayor unidad en el movimiento para organizarse en contra del gobierno.

Los líderes, quienes representaban a los miles de jóvenes ansiosos por involucrarse en la política más allá del voto en elecciones, comprendieron que este era el momento para lanzar una movilización a gran escala.

El movimiento lanzó una campaña que incluyó una gran diversidad de acciones, incluyendo marchas masivas, toma de colegios, flash mobs, un plebiscito alternativo sobre si la educación debiera ser gratuita o no y muchas más. La gran mayoría de las protestas fueron fuertemente reprimidas por la policía y el gobierno trató de culpar a los estudiantes por la violencia en las manifestaciones, pero las imágenes de estudiantes, profesores y apoderados marchando de forma pacífica siendo atacados con gases lacrimógenos y cañones de agua no hizo más que desmentir este argumento. La represión no hizo más  que aumentar el apoyo de la ciudadanía al movimiento, las encuestas mostraban más de un 70% de apoyo a su causa, lo cual puso a la educación en el centro de la agenda política en el 2011.

En aquel momento  existía la sensación de que era posible lograr cambios en la educación casi de forma inmediata, pero como argumenta Moyer, el cambio toma tiempo y los movimientos muchas veces tienen que pasar por varias fases antes de lograr sus objetivos. Una de las debilidades del movimiento estudiantil es que depende mucho del año escolar. Es muy difícil mantener las movilizaciones durante las vacaciones de verano, al mismo tiempo, cada ciclo hay nuevos representantes de las federaciones de estudiantes, por lo que es difícil transferir los niveles de  movilización de un año para el otro.

Entre el 2012 y el 2014, el movimiento pasó por  la quinta fase, la cual Moyer llama “sensación de fracaso”. En esta fase, hay un menor nivel de participación  en acciones y el movimiento pareciera tener menor impacto. Muchos sintieron que las grandes manifestaciones no estaban produciendo el cambio esperado y que era tiempo de buscar nuevas estrategias. También hubo divisiones dentro del movimiento, las más notorias fueron las diferentes posiciones tomadas frente a la votación en elecciones, primero en las locales del 2012 y después en las presidenciales y el parlamento del 2013. Muchos de los líderes estudiantiles universitarios apoyaron el votar por candidatos a elecciones locales y después a la presidencia y el parlamento – algunos incluso se presentaron y fueron electos  al parlamento – por otro lado organizaciones de estudiantes secundarios llamaron a boicotear las elecciones, argumentando que el cambio profundo que el movimiento exigía no llegaría por medio de la política electoral.

Durante la quinta fase, usualmente los políticos dicen que han “recibido el mensaje de la gente” y que ahora es su turno el diseñar e implementar los cambios que la gente ha demandado. Para el movimiento estudiantil chileno, esto significó que el debate pasó de las calles al Congreso y  a los partidos políticos. Al mismo tiempo, la agenda política estuvo dominada por las elecciones presidenciales del 2013, donde muchas personas pusieron sus esperanzas en que una re-elección de Michelle Bachelet vendría con un mandato de refomar de forma radical la educación en Chile. Bachelet había terminado su primer período en 2010 con históricos niveles de aprobación, gracias a medidas económicas que  – en una forma asistencialista y limitada pero directa – apoyó a la clase trabajadora. La campaña presidencial de Bachelet para su re-elección giró en torno a su compromiso con acabar con la inequidad en Chile.

Sin embargo, desde su re-elección, Bachelet no ha  presentado propuestas en materia de educación que cumplan con las exigencias del movimiento. El gobierno argumenta que esto no es por falta de voluntad política, sino debido a un congreso hostil y recursos limitados por un bajo crecimiento en la economía. El año pasado el gobierno aprobó una Reforma Tributaria, con el objetivo de obtener más impuestos de las grandes empresas para poder financiar la reforma educacional. Pero para muchos, la reforma tributaria que fue aprobada no logró cumplir con la promesa de una reforma estructural para acabar con la inequidad en el país. A Chile no le faltan  recursos, lo que le hace falta es una distribución justa de estos recursos.

Actualmente, el movimiento se encuentra en la fase seis, llamada “convenciendo a la mayoría”. Después de más de un año del gobierno de Bachelet, el movimiento tiene claro que un cambio radical en la educación no llegará por medio de la reforma que este gobierno está proponiendo. La reforma del gobierno enfrenta una importante oposición de los sectores más conservadores en el Congreso, por lo que ha tenido que moderar sus propuestas para conseguir su aprobación. El movimiento entiende que ahora es de vital importancia presentar contra-propuestas que contrarresten las del gobierno y usar su poder de movilización para asegurar un acuerdo lo más cercano a sus demandas históricas, sabiendo que lo más probable es que este no sea el fin de la lucha.

A lo largo del tiempo, el movimiento ha sido muy bueno presentando sus propuestas de cómo se imaginan el sistema de educación en Chile y este año que el gobierno se fijó como fecha para aprobar la reforma educacional,  trabajar en contra-propuestas se hace incluso más importante. El pasado 6 de junio, la Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile, que representa a los estudiantes de las llamadas universidades “tradicionales” –  universidades que fueron privatizadas durante el régimen de Pinochet – acordaron una propuesta de educación llamada “Que Chile decida”.  La propuesta presenta un petitorio con 9 puntos entre los cuales se destacan: carrera docente construida con los profesores, estabilidad para los trabajadores, democracia interna para los planteles, gratuidad universal y fin al lucro en todas sus expresiones.

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La propuesta ha sido acompañada de una creciente presión social y junio fue uno de los meses con la mayor cantidad de manifestaciones por la educación, por ejemplo, la marcha organizada por estudiantes el pasado 10 de junio movilizó  cerca de 350.000 personas a lo largo del país. Estas acciones suceden al mismo tiempo que el paro indefinido de profesores y algunas tomas de colegios.

Según Moyer, hay dos  fases más después de la sexta fase: “éxito” y la “consolidación del éxito y abordar nuevas luchas”. Por lo que la tarea no está cumplida incluso si es que se logran los objetivos propuestos.

A pesar de que estas fases no son necesariamente lineales y no todos los movimientos pasan por cada una de ellas, este es un modelo que intenta explicar los procesos que vive un movimiento social y mostrar que los cambios profundos pueden tomar tiempo.

El movimiento por la educación en Chile se encuentra en un punto histórico, habiendo ya  pasado por varias fases de una larga lucha. El movimiento no estaría en la posición que se encuentra ahora – con el gobierno de Bachelet presentando reformas al sistema de educación – si no fuese por la continua presión social. El movimiento tiene claro que este es un momento crucial, y por ende ha aumentado su nivel de movilización, sabiendo que es posible que el gobierno modere sus reformas por la presión de sectores más conservadores. Sin embargo, si logran conseguir importantes niveles de apoyo – como lo hizo en el 2011 – es posible que pueda finalmente conseguir los objetivos de una educación gratuita, pública y de calidad en Chile.

Can the movement for free, quality public education win in Chile?

by Javier Gárate

View image | gettyimages.com

Este artículo también está disponible en Español.

The next few months are of critical importance to Chile’s long-running education movement. President Michelle Bachelet has said she plans to implement comprehensive education reform this year, which will guarantee quality education for everyone. To ensure this happens, the movement has increased pressure on the government with huge protests by teachers and students last month, including an indefinite strike by the National Teachers Union that began June 1.

Over the years, the movement has learned to temper its expectations. In 2011 — when protests were last at a peak — many thought change was imminent, only to suffer frustration and loss of momentum in the years that followed. But this time may be different. According to Bill Moyer — a social change activist and founding member of the Movement for a New Society, a network of activist collectives that played a key role in nonviolent social movements in the 1970s and 1980s — movements often go through eight stages. Based on the model he designed for understanding the cycle of a social movement — called the Movement Action Plan, or MAP — the education movement in Chile is nearing the final stages. Before learning about those, however, it is important to understand how it got to this point.

Students have historically been at the forefront of social protests in Chile. High school students were some of the first to defy Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, while university students used their campuses as safe places for resistance. After the end of Pinochet’s regime the student movement took time to re-focus their demands and set up new forms of organization and protest.

Following this process of re-adjustment, high school students sparked Chile’s movement for education in 2006 — known as the “penguin revolution” because of the shape and color of the school uniforms — with a very specific demand for free and universal student transport passes. They soon moved on to more structural demands against the neoliberal economic policies affecting education, specifically the Organic Constitutional Act of Teaching, which reduced state involvement in education and came into force on the last day of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship on March 10, 1990.

The movement was briefly successful in putting education on the political agenda. Mobilizations came to an end after President Bachelet — during her first term in office from 2006 to 2010 — repealed the controversial act. However, the demand for free, quality public education, was still far from being met.

At this point, the movement entered stage three, or “ripening conditions,” where people form new groups and small civil disobedience actions start to dramatize the problem. After the 2006 protests there was a period of lower activity within the movement, but slowly new collectives began to emerge, along with a clearer demand for radical transformation of education in Chile.

The movement was then ready for the fourth stage, or “take off.” This usually happens after a trigger event — caused by the movement itself or by the power-holders — and, after significant organizing, which leads to massive demonstrations, large acts of civil disobedience and extensive media coverage.

In Chile, the trigger was the 2010 election of Sebastián Piñera, the country’s first right-wing president since Augusto Pinochet was forced out of office. Piñera’s government came to power as a reaction to years of frustration with the Coalition of Parties for Democracy — the center-left coalition that had been in power since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. This development, combined with a growing perception that real social justice would not come from the top down, created stronger unity on the left to organize against the government.

Student organizers, who represented the many thousands of young people eager to engage politically by creative means other than the ballot box, understood that the time was ripe for massive mobilizations.

The movement then launched a campaign that involved a great diversity of actions, including mass marches, school occupations, flash mobs, an alternative referendum on whether education should be free and much more. Most of the student protests were heavily repressed by the police. The government tried to blame the violence on the students, but the images of students, teachers and parents marching peacefully being tear gassed and hit by water cannons belied this narrative. This repression backfired, as polls showed that the movement had more than 70 percent approval among the public, which put education at the top of the political agenda in 2011.

At the time there was a feeling within the movement that it was possible to change things immediately, but as Moyer argues, change takes time and movements usually have to go through various stages before achieving their goals. One weakness of the student movement is that it is very dependent on the school year. Students struggle to keep the momentum going during the summer break and every year there is new student leadership.

Between 2012 and 2014, the movement went through the fifth stage, which Moyer calls the “perception of failure.” In this stage, there is a lower level of participation in actions and the movement appears to be having less of an impact. Many participants felt that large protests weren’t bringing about real change in education and that it was time to look for new strategies. There were also divisions among those in the movement, most notoriously manifested in the different positions taken by activists on voting — first in the 2012 local elections and later during the 2013 presidential and parliamentary elections. While many of the university student leaders strongly supported voting for different candidates to local government — and some even ran and got elected to parliament themselves — the high school student leadership could not have been more different. They called for a boycott of the elections, arguing that no real change would come through electoral politics.

During the fifth stage, politicians often argue that they have “received the message of the people” and that now it is their turn to design and implement the changes that the people have demanded. For the Chilean student movement, this meant that the debate moved from the streets to Congress and the political parties. At the same time, the mainstream political conversation was dominated by the presidential elections of 2013. Many people had hoped Michelle Bachelet’s re-election would come with a mandate to radically reform the education system. Bachelet had finished her first presidential term in 2010 with historically high approval rates, thanks to economic measures that — in a limited, but direct way — supported working-class people. The main message of her 2013 presidential campaign was a commitment to end inequality in Chile.

Since her re-election, however, Bachelet has failed to put forward education proposals that actually meet the movement’s demands. The government argues that this is not due to a lack of political will, but rather the limited resources of a stagnant economy. To implement and be able to afford their education reform, the government passed tax reform last year, with the goal of raising more taxes from big companies. To many, however, this reform fell short of the promise to end inequality in the country. Chile doesn’t lack resources, what it lacks is a just distribution of wealth.

At present, the movement is in the sixth stage, which Moyer called “winning over the majority.” After more than a year of Bachelet’s government, the movement is clear that the radical change they demand for free, quality public education, will not come through the reform that this government is proposing. The government reforms face strong opposition in Congress, so the government has had to water down their proposals to make sure they get approved. The movement understands that it is now vital to work on proposals that counteract those put forward by the government and use its power to secure as good a deal as possible, knowing that it will not be the end of the struggle.

While there have been proposals for reform from students and teachers over the years, they have become more important than ever now that the government is sending education bills to Congress. On June 6, the Chile Student Confederation, which represents students from the so-called “traditional” universities — public schools that were privatized by Pinochet — agreed on an education proposal called “Chile decides.” It put forward a petition with nine points, including: the development of curriculum by teachers, stability for workers, internal democracy for schools, free and universal education, and an end to profit in education in all its forms.

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The proposals have been accompanied by growing social pressure. In June, there was an increase in the regularity and the number of people at marches. For instance, the protest organized by students on June 10 mobilized almost 350,000 people throughout Chile. These actions are happening at the same time as the indefinite teachers’ strike is taking place.

According to Moyer, there are two stages after the sixth: “success” and the “consolidation of success and moving over to other struggles.” Even though these stages are not necessarily linear, and not all movements go through all of them, it is a model that attempts to make sense of the processes experienced by a movement and to ultimately show that change takes time.

The education movement in Chile is at a historic point, having already gone through several stages of a long struggle. It wouldn’t be in the position it is now — with Bachelet’s government set to reform the Chilean education system this year — if not for continuous organizing and creative actions. The movement is aware that this is a crucial moment and it has raised its level of mobilization accordingly, knowing it is possible that the government might make compromises on many of their demands in response to pressure from more moderate sectors. However, if the movement manages to gain majority support — as it did in 2011 — it may be able to secure free, quality public education for everybody in Chile at last.

Eric Garner’s death remembered with a week of actions

by Ashoka Jegroo

On Tuesday, members of NYC Shut It Down unfurled banners in Grand Central Terminal, while chanting Eric Garner’s name and “Black Lives Matter.” (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

After a week of actions, Black Lives Matter activists in New York City are set to march today to commemorate Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was killed by police last year on July 17. His death — along with that of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing non-indictments of the police officers responsible in both incidents — sparked months of nationwide protests and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Garner’s family recently accepted a $5.9 million settlement from the city, which Comptroller Scott Stringer noted was not an admission of liability. For Garner’s family though, the settlement is far from the end of the fight.

“Don’t congratulate us,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, told CNN. “This is not a victory. The victory will come when we get justice.”

The Garner family and Rev. Al Sharpton have called for a rally on July 18 in front of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. The family plans on continuing to call for federal charges in the case.

“This does not represent justice,” Erica Snipes, Garner’s daughter, told USA Today. “We are calling on the Department of Justice and [Attorney General] Loretta Lynch to deliver justice for my father.”

Meanwhile, on Monday, as the settlement was being announced, Snipes joined dozens of protesters in Staten Island as they marched from the Staten Island ferry to the spot where Garner was choked to death by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

The march was one of NYC Shut It Down’s weekly #PeoplesMonday protests, during which the activist group highlights the case of a different victim of police brutality.

“We held the Peoples Monday that was dedicated to Eric Garner in Staten Island for several reasons, said NYC Shut It Down member MJ Williams. “It is where Eric Garner lived, where he was constantly harassed by the police, and where the police killed him. The action kicked off a full week of commemorations with energy and love.”

She went on to explain that Staten Island is where Garner’s family and community are located, as well as “the district represented by former-DA-now-Congressional-Representative Daniel Donovan, who oversaw the grand jury that failed to indict Eric Garner’s killer.”

The march was led by Snipes and also attended by members of Millions March NYC and the Peoples Power Assemblies. The protesters made their way from the ferry to the front of the Richmond County Supreme Court where they took the streets, stopped traffic and attracted the attention of local police. The protesters then continued marching through the streets, passing the NYPD’s 120th precinct building — where Pantaleo worked — before making their way through the St. George neighborhood. Members of the community joined in the march at various points until protesters reached the front of Bay Beauty Supply, the spot where Garner was killed. Snipes and Hertencia Peterson, the aunt of Akai Gurley, a Brooklyn man who was killed by the NYPD last year, spoke to the crowd about the need for justice in these cases of police brutality.

After that march, NYC Shut It Down staged multiple surprise banner drops at two different locations to remind people that one year had passed without any legal consequences for Garner’s killer or changes to the policies that led to Garner’s death. On July 14, members of the group unfurled two banners that read “#ItStopsToday” and “I Can’t Breathe” inside Grand Central Terminal, while chanting Garner’s name and “Black Lives Matter.” The former were his last words and became rallying cries during protests. They were chanted yet again on July 16, while NYC Shut It Down dropped another “I Can’t Breathe” banner, this time from the High Line public park.

“On the days when no mass actions were scheduled, we planned strategic interventions in public spaces as reminders that Eric Garner and his family have still not seen justice, and that the conditions and policies that led to Eric Garner’s death, including broken windows policing, have not been addressed,” Williams said.

NYC Shut It Down, along with various other groups, have also organized a march for July 17, intended to commemorate Garner’s death exactly one year ago.

“Millions March NYC, NYC Shut it Down, People’s Power Assemblies and Black Lives Matter NYC are joining forces to demand justice for Eric Garner on the one-year anniversary of his death,” Williams said. “The purpose for why we come together and march is to raise awareness, show our unity against oppression, and to create a forum in which people are free to utilize their voices and their bodies to express their dissent.”

So far, over 1,500 people have RSVP-ed on the march’s Facebook event page, and the activists have promised that the actions will continue until they get justice for Garner and his family.

“The family will continue to seek justice,” said NYC Shut It Down member Q.B. “Even though the city has reached a settlement, the city will not take ‘liability’ for Eric Garner’s death. This means we are not done.”

Colombia arrests social activists for Bogotá bombing despite lack of evidence

by Kate Aronoff

In a sign that reads “No legal false positives,” activists in Popayán show solidarity with the 16 jailed activists (WNV / Irene Arenas)

On the morning of July 8, the district attorney of Colombia, in coordination with the National Police, rounded up and arrested 16 people for their alleged connection to a bombing in the capital city of Bogotá a few days earlier. Today, those arrested sit in their cells awaiting indictment. The question being asked by the country’s activists, progressive media and a growing base of skeptics outside of the cellblock is whether they’ve done anything wrong.

Despite a marked lack of evidence, Colombian President Manuel Santos has pinned the attack on the National Liberation Army — the country’s second largest terrorist group next to the FARC. Following the raids, Santos’ Defense Ministry further claimed that the suspects were “acting in the name of the ELN,” the Spanish abbreviation of the rebel group.

But are those arrested the hardened guerrillas the government claims? Among the jailed are Jhon Fernando Acosta, a 19-year-old performing arts student active around issues of gender equality, and Heilar Lampara, a 25-year-old representative to the Superior University Council from the National Teacher’s University and an advocate for free higher education. Writer Sergio Esteban Segura Guiza, who has covered the country’s armed conflict and peace process as a correspondent for the independent news outlet Colombia Informa, had his journalistic archive seized at the time of his arrest. Women’s rights lawyer Paola Andrea Salgado Piedrahita, also arrested, could face as many as 30 years in prison if the case goes to trial.

Many are organizers within Colombia’s student movement through the National Student Roundtable, or MANU, and seven are affiliated with Congreso de los Pueblos, a social and political movement fighting, amongst other issues, against displacement by the country’s extractive industry. Two are contractors with the city government. While Fernando Acosta is the youngest of those arrested, none are over the age of 34.

Notably, no members of the ELN have claimed responsibility for either the attack or those arrested. In an interview conducted via Twitter by VICE News, an ELN representative working with their broadcasting outlet, Radio Patria Libre, said, “Absolutely all our structures and fronts do not know any of those captured and not one of them is an ELN militant.”

Although the public explanation for the arrests was the bombing, Adriana Leaño Siado, a lawyer on the case, said that the bulk of the evidence presented by the district attorney in early indictment hearings thus far has been related to a riot and demonstration at the National University in late May. In the wake of the attack, she said, this “is a case of a legal false positive, to show rapid results to the terrified public and citizens.”

Given that those arrested share a background in activism, civil society groups are tying the raids into a large pattern of government repression. According to a press release from Congreso de los Pueblos, 8,600 people were arrested between 2009 and 2012 in Colombia for ties to terrorism; more than 75 percent of those have been declared innocent. The Foundation for the Freedom of the Press also reported that, in 2015 alone, 85 journalists have been “victims of persecution and human rights violations.” According to Amnesty International, there has been “a significant increase in death threats against human rights defenders and social activists” in Colombia.

Congreso de los Pueblos and others are now mounting a campaign to demand — at the very least — that those accused receive a fair trial and due process as the case proceeds. Colombia Informa is enlisting journalists from around the world to call attention to what editors say could set a “frightening precedent for the freedom of press in Colombia.” While most signatories are culled from Venezuela and Argentina, writers from Belgium and France have also joined in the call. The hashtag #LibertadSonInocentes has also emerged as a means to show international solidarity online. Camila Vallejo, the former student movement leader now serving in the Chile’s governing House of Deputies, voiced her support for the cause on Twitter earlier this week.

According to Siado, the district attorney’s initial presentation of evidence revealed that all of the detained have had their phones tapped by authorities in the last several months. “The results of the monitoring and the surveillance,” she noted, “show basically the same: departures and arrivals of the young people from their houses, to the university, to a meeting, to a paper supplies store, to a mall.” Those arrested had computers, phones, hard drives, cameras and USB drives seized as evidence, yet in none of the raids did police find weapons or evidence that students had been building explosives. “Amongst the seized material the only thing allusive to the ELN and ‘other terrorist groups’ (according to the DA) were some flyers and pamphlets and stickers, ‘allusive to the revolution,’” Siado added. Authorities even confiscated supposedly incriminating items of clothing carrying revolutionary cache: berets, overalls, balaclavas and cargo pants.

“The presumption of innocence,” she said, “is a constitutional right. They should not be in prison until the investigation has culminated… when they are judged and put on trial.” Regardless of how this case proceeds, organizers in Colombia are making sure that news of the activists’ fate extends well beyond their own borders.

Family members of prison hunger strikers mobilize against solitary confinement

by Victoria Law

A banner is held at Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza as part of the Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement on March 23. (San Fransisco Bay View)

“By our silence, this is how they’ve gotten away with decades-long isolation,” Dolores Canales told me as this year’s anniversary of the California hunger strikes drew close. In July 2011, Canales’s son Johnny and several thousand others incarcerated in the state’s Security Housing Units, or SHUs, went on hunger strike to protest the policies allowing them to be placed in 23-hour lockdown for an indefinite period of time.

In the SHU, people are locked inside their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. Although prison policy dictates that they be allowed outside for one hour each day, Canales and other family member report that their loved ones are often held in their cells for several days without respite, then allowed outside for a single five-hour stretch. Until recently, those who had been classified as gang affiliates were placed in the SHU for an indeterminate or indefinite period of time. The only way out was to debrief — or supply information on the gang in question, including identifying other gang members and associates. Those who refused remained in the SHU. In Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum-security prison near the Oregon border, nearly half of the prison is devoted to the SHU. Some have spent years, if not decades, in the SHU. Although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, insists that the SHU is not solitary confinement, those within and their loved ones outside dispute this claim.

The hunger strike that began on July 1, 2011, was the first of three. The third, which began on July 8, 2013, rocked California’s prison system when over 30,000 people refused meals the first day. The strike, which lasted 60 days, catapulted California’s prison system — and the issue of solitary confinement in the nation’s prison system — into the national consciousness. It also galvanized family members to connect and begin mobilizing against the conditions that their loved ones had been living in for years. For many, it was their entry into prison justice organizing.

In 2012, the CDCR implemented the Step Down Program to assess those who had been validated as gang affiliates. Each person’s classification is reviewed by the Departmental Review Board which then assigns them to one of five steps. Those assigned to the first two steps remain in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Those assigned to the third and fourth steps are transferred to the SHU at Tehachapi, a 670-mile drive southeast. Those in the fifth step are placed in general population. As of June 12, 2015, 1,274 people have undergone these reviews; 910 have been released directly to Step Five.

For the past four years, I’ve been following and writing about conditions within Pelican Bay, as well as the organizing both inside and outside. I’ve repeatedly interviewed people inside the SHU, those who have since been sent to Step Five, and their family members. As this year’s anniversary of the strikes approached, family members have continued organizing around not only their loved ones’ confinement, but also to end the practice of solitary confinement altogether. In southern California, family members have banded together to form California Families Against Solitary Confinement.

Maribel Aitkins (née Herrera) is one of those family members. Her uncle, Luis Esquivel, had been confined in the SHU for 17 years. In 2011, when he told his sister Martha that he was joining the hunger strike, the entire family sprang into action. Using GPS to guide them through unfamiliar streets, they drove from San Diego to Los Angeles and joined the solidarity rallies. Throughout the strike and in the months after, they continued making the 100-mile drive, connecting with other family members who had also come out to support their loved ones’ efforts and to demand changes. Locally, they connected with the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project, connecting the issue of solitary confinement with issues around race and incarceration and supporting each other’s efforts.

In February 2015, Luis Esquivel was reviewed and assigned to Step Five. He was transferred to the state prison in Calipatria, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Although his family can now visit him more frequently, hug him and buy him food from the vending machine in the visiting room, they continue to press for change for everyone. “My uncle was the reason we were introduced to this type of activism,” Aitkins explained to me. But they want to be sure that no one ever has to endure the SHU again. “We may be called California Families Against Solitary Confinement,” Aitkins said, “but in actuality, we want to abolish solitary confinement.”

Being involved in the movement to end solitary has pushed both Aitkins and her mother Martha into public speaking and political organizing. The day before our conversation, both women had participated in the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project’s annual conference on prisoners and colonialism. Martha facilitated a workshop about the SHU while Aitkins acted as the conference’s emcee, a new role for her. “It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that,” she recounted. “I was nervous, but it was a great opportunity.”

At the conference, she and her mother urged attendees, some of whom had long been involved in prison activism and some of whom have family members in prison, to join their anti-SHU efforts. They told attendees about the July 14 hearing in Sacramento about CDCR’s proposed new regulations for people in the SHU participating in group activities. Currently, those participating in group therapy or other programs are locked in Treatment Modules, which CDCR defines as “heavy steel and mesh telephone booth types of enclosures with transparent high-impact strength plastic on the front and sides.” Each person participates in the group from inside his individual locked cage. The new regulations propose swapping these booths for Security Desks and a Security Table where, rather than being confined to a booth, a person is secured directly to the desk or table. (The Treatment Modules, or booths, will not be discontinued. They will still be used along with the proposed alternatives.)

Canales and other Los Angeles area family members are planning to drive to Sacramento for the hearing. “At least a couple of carloads will be heading up,” she told me.

Aitkins is hopeful that it will be more than a couple of carloads. She’s hoping that the connection with the Chicano-Mexicano Prison Project will gather enough San Diegans to warrant chartering an entire bus for the seven-and-a-half hour drive to the state legislature.

Although many of the people in Pelican Bay’s SHU are originally from southern California, family organizing is also happening in the north. In the Bay Area, Marie Levin, whose brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa had been in the SHU since 1990, has been organizing with Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition formed in 2011 to support the hunger strikers. In response to requests by those still inside the SHU to keep up the momentum and increase public awareness about their everyday conditions, they began holding monthly events. “We chose the 23rd of each month because these guys are spending 23 hours a day in their cell,” she explained.

The first of these monthly actions occurred on March 23, 2015, at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland. Levin and others stood with a banner, handed out information and urged people to get involved. In May, they held two actions. Some canvassed door-to-door in Oakland, while others headed to the pier in San Francisco where tourists catch the ferry to visit Alcatraz. “Many weren’t from the area,” Levin recalled. “They were shocked that these conditions exist.”

More and more family members have been joining the movement. “Since the last time we spoke, there are more family members involved,” Canales told me. “It’s spread out.” Word has spread about the organizing efforts of Canales, Levin, Aitkins and other family members — through media and word-of-mouth, both inside and outside of prison. Now, when a person enters the SHU, others will tell him that their family members should contact California Families Against Solitary Confinement. Other times, SHU prisoners will write directly to Canales with the phone number of the mother of a new arrival. Connecting with these women helps family members navigate the confusion around SHU placement — and gives them the opportunity to become involved with fighting for change.

And these new family members are ready — and eager — to take action. “They really want to get involved with policy change and rule changes,” Canales told me. “There are so many family members who have so many ideas.” One way they’ve been making their voices heard and breaking the shame and stigma of incarceration is by visiting their local legislators and introducing themselves with the words, “I’m a constituent and I have a loved one in prison.”

They’ve also helped each other stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones — pooling resources and sharing information to ease the financial burden of visiting nearly 700 miles away. “If a cheap flight is available, we spread the word and share the cost of car rentals and hotel rooms,” Canales explained.

And, as Aitkins and her family have demonstrated, they don’t drop out even after their loved ones are released from the SHU. Canales recounted getting a call from a reporter who wanted to interview a family member about CDCR’s emergency regulations that allow for strip searching visitors in certain prisons. The regulations do not pertain to Pelican Bay, where the 90-minute visits take place through glass and physical contact is absolutely impossible. But they are in place in other prisons that allow contact visits, including some prisons where people have been sent as part of Step Five. Canales contacted a woman whose husband had been transferred to one of those prisons. Canales recalled that the woman, who had never spoken to media before, was initially hesitant, fearing that speaking out might jeopardize her husband’s new placement. But, Canales told me, she spoke with her husband who “encouraged her to speak out, saying he didn’t care if he was sent back.” The woman agreed and shared her experiences with CDCR’s new strip search policies.

“We have to be able to speak out,” Canales reflected. She’s heartened by the new family members joining the movement and the growing demonstrations that they are not alone. “You see that more people, including legislators, are willing to stand up, speak out and say, ‘No, this is not right.'”

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