No walls, no cages: From migrant justice to prison abolition

In this episode we focus on the joint struggle for migrant justice and prison abolition. We speak with Abraham Paulos, Executive Director of Families for Freedom: an abolitionist organization fighting deportations in New York City; and Aly Wayne, an undocumented organizer based in Syracuse, one of upstate New York’s rustbelt cities. Together, we examine the tensions between demanding citizenship and fighting for freedom, as well as the need to hold Blackness and criminality within the migrant justice movement.

We close today’s show with two firsthand narratives. One from Curtis, a local Detroiter whose family has been turned upside down by the carceral state and racial capitalism, and another from Harold Gonzales, currently incarcerated inside Michigan’s Kinross prison. Harold’s entire letter is available online, here.

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Episode Transcript:

Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andrés. In today’s episode, “No Walls, No Cages”, we focus on the joint struggle for migrant justice and prison abolition. We speak with Abraham Paulos, Executive Director of Families for Freedom: an abolitionist organization fighting deportations in New York City. We also talk with Aly Wayne, an undocumented organizer based in Syracuse, one of upstate New York’s Rustbelt cities. We close today’s show with two firsthand narratives. One from Curtis, a local Detroiter whose family has been turned upside down by the carceral state and racial capitalism. And another from Harold Gonzales, currently incarcerated inside Michigan’s Kinross prison. But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.

NEWS HEADLINES

Kaif Syed: On February 2nd, prisoners in the James T. Vaughn Correctional Facility in Smyrna, Delaware sparked an uprising. Prisoners, who took over a building and held multiple guards hostage, made demands regarding education, rehabilitation, and budget transparency.

On February 9th, US President Donald Trump continued his anti-black, anti-poor, law and order agenda, signing three executive orders expanding the power of police for reasons of quote “public safety” and tackling a non-existent “threat of rising crime”.

Near the end of January Michigan’s prison food contractor, Trinity Services Group, was penalized for over $2 million dollars for unauthorized meal substitutions, delays in serving meals, inadequate staffing, sanitation violations, and more.

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a 35 year old mother of two with a felony charge, was deported to Mexico on February 8th after living in the US for 21 years. Along with members of Puente Arizona, hundreds gathered in Phoenix that same day, attempting to block the Immigration and Customs Enforcement van transporting her and other detained immigrants. Francisca Porchas, organizing director of Puente Arizona, says that this deportation machine is quote “a very well-oiled machine that President Obama built and now Trump is operating at 100 miles an hour.”

See “News From the Streets” at rustbeltradio.org for links to these issues.

INTRO

a Maria: I’m a Maria joining Kaif Syed, and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

Kaif Syed: In this show we amplify the voices of those impacted by mass incarceration, and explore ongoing work in our movement to abolish the carceral state — that is: prisons, police, courts, as well as racial domination and capitalist exploitation.

a Maria: What does a world without prisons, police, and property look like? What kind of society becomes possible when we stop maintaining nations –and neighborhoods– in which specific populations become fundamentally criminalized? These are the kinds of questions that abolitionists ask.

Kaif Syed: Prison abolition isn’t just about letting go of an old form of solving problems – putting people in cages – it also entails reshaping the ways in which we relate with one another … in all scales.

a Maria: Now we turn to Alejo Stark for an interview with Abraham Paulos.

FAMILIES FOR FREEDOM: ABRAHAM PAULOS SEGMENT

Alejo Stark: a Maria and I spoke with Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, on the ways in which his organization works toward migrant justice and prison abolition.

Abraham Paulos: My name is Abraham Paulos. I was born in Sudan, I came to the United States as a refugee. Before the age of one I grew up in Chicago, during the 80s and 90s, in poverty or what have you. I had contact with the criminal system. Not only that, family members had been affected by detention and deportation. I was picked up in Brooklyn five years ago, for a robbery that happened on my block. I ended up going through the system, the precinct, booking. And I was in Ryker’s Island, a city jail in New York City. And it was there that a fellow prisoner of mine had told me about Immigration, Customs Enforcement having an office. And we accessed what they had, to the jail, to deport non citizens who were convicted of certain crimes or what have you. And so I was able to bond out, I was able to bail out, thanks to the knowledge that this prisoner had.

I came out, looking for a lot of organizations to help out. Not a lot of organizations would, due to the criminal conviction, and due to the fact that I was a non citizen. Families for Freedom was an organization that was there, that helped me out with my case. And after a year of becoming a member, I was in the Executive Director position, and it’s been about five years.

a Maria: Can you tell me about the work that Families for Freedom does, and how does it differ from other migrant justice organizations?

Abraham Paulos: I think what makes it different is that one, we fight by and stand by those who have been convicted of crime, who were not born here. When I say we stand by them, we really do mean that, because of our critique of the criminal legal system. A system in which 92% to 97% of people who are in front of a judge are found guilty. The fact and point I want to make is about an analysis that we have, you know, we are abolitionists. We do not believe in detention, we do not believe in prison. We do not think that problems with the prison situation in the United States is that there are too many prisons, we do not think that that is the problem. We think that the fact that there are prisons, and that is the problem.

We think that this goes beyond getting citizenship, right? I don’t think that, in our community, citizenship is what folks really want. I mean, I think we come from a space in which our community needs to be free from the fear of deportation and detention. So what I’d like to say is that, we didn’t have a prison problem during slavery. There was a reason for that. I can’t even name a prison during slavery. And so in that analysis of really understanding, it’s about resources for our community and for our people, is really what we come from and that’s where we stand. It’s not a solution, prison is not a solution to meet the lack of resources that we have in our community. Deportation is not a solution to an immigration system. That is the analysis that we really bring to it.

We believe in open borders. And we don’t think that’s a crazy act, at all. Because if you are a US citizen with a passport, and particularly if you have money and your white, you live in an open borders world. There is hardly any kind of country that would not accept you, maybe North Korea and Somalia. So folks are living in an open borders world, it’s just that it’s not for everyone, and we question why it’s not for everyone.

a Maria: Late last year, you moderated a phenomenal panel with long time prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and Mujahid Fareed, that was organized by Critical Resistance. What does abolition mean to you, and what are the concrete practices that Families for Freedom engages to further abolition?

Abraham Paulos: I think abolition for me just really means that these aren’t solutions. And their own existence, the fundamental existence of prison, is racist and capitalist so it’s flawed. And so like I said earlier, I was like “there were no prisons during slavery and why were there no prisons during slavery”, cuz there was this economic industry that essentially let people work free labor and we were basically where they wanted us to be. But I think abolition is really about abolishing the fundamental premise of white supremacy and capitalism, and a reason for anything really. And I think abolition really looks at it in such a way in which we understand, like for me it’s about resources. Don’t tell me we need prisons when you don’t give us food, housing, jobs. And then I think once we get those resources, then we can see if we really need those things, which I highly doubt.

And it’s also: there are people living in an abolitionist world, people who walk around and don’t have to worry about prisons like we do. They don’t have to worry about police officers like we have to worry about police officers. There’s no police officers in the Hamptons like there are in Brooklyn. So that exists already, that reality exists already, but we’re denied it. And why are we denied it? That’s because of capitalism.

So that’s what abolition means to me, it’s abolishing fundamental premises that are rooted in white supremacy and capitalism. And so, how do we move forward with that? It’s a long hard road. In the beginning, the first conversations were around mandatory detentions, and we were against mandatory detentions. And then it was like, ok we want to end all immigration detention. And then we thought about it and said, well aren’t we throwing other black and brown people under the bus? We got to a place that basically said, look: we want no prisons, essentially.

On the practical look at things, I think one of the things is because we are abolitionists, we do not turn anyone away because of their criminal convictions. We don’t care what it is, because it really doesn’t matter. Because if you have that analysis particularly towards the prison industrial complex, you can’t be an abolitionist and then run around and and start saying, we’re not gonna take folks that have these type of criminal convictions or violent convictions or what have you. That’s one concrete thing that we do, is that we do not have a hierarchy for criminal convictions. So anyone that comes to us will not get turned away for the type of criminal conviction that they have.

Alejo Stark: Can you also tell us a little bit about, in relation to what Families for Freedom does you were talking about your analysis race and class being kind of central, and freedom rather than citizenship being the long term goal. What possibilities and challenges do you see in this historical conjuncture we find ourselves in?

Abraham Paulos: So, I’ll try to break that down piece by piece. Citizenship is not the goal. Because you have to understand that there is fear for black people who are citizens, brown people who are citizens, going through pretty much a lie. No housing, no food, no student loans, no school. So citizenship hasn’t really brought us access to rights and services like it should, right? And so that’s never for the long term or the short term. Yes, it’s great if people can get citizenship, but really the only reason that we project that is to be from the fear of deportation.

Alejo Stark: What is your response to folks that are pushing sanctuary cities now, and working within the state?

Abraham Paulos: I get it you know, it’s cute. Right now what I would say, real practically, people have to be clear about who the sanctuary is for. Folks are running with this term, and they’re being reckless, and they’re getting people in our community hurt. You can’t be running around saying we’re a sanctuary city, and you don’t provide sanctuary for black and brown people when the police are still on the block, or people with weapons. This is a division tactic. They’re only gonna provide sanctuary for a certain type, they’re only gonna save the ones that they want to save. There’s only gonna be a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants who don’t have a criminal conviction.

The one thing I want to say is to get it real practical, because I think there needs to be a real clear definition of who’s worthy in their eyes of sanctuary. So that our community doesn’t get hurt, running around thinking that they’re living in a sanctuary city when they’re actually not. That’s reckless, and be wary of those who are calling for there to be sanctuary, if they’re not willing to open up their homes.

a Maria: Thank you so much Abraham!

Abraham Paulos: Yeah yeah, you guys stay strong!

ALY WAYNE SEGMENT

a Maria: Alejo also spoke with long-time undocumented organizer Aly Wane.

Aly Wayne: So, my name is Aly Wayne. I’m originally from Senegal. I’m an undocumented activist from Senegal. I work with a couple of groups, including the Syracuse Peace Council, the Undocumented and Black Network, Black Lives Matter Syracuse, the Black Alliance, the Black Immigration Network. And I’ve been working on economic justice issues, anti-war issues, and obviously migrant’s rights issues for awhile.

Alejo Stark: You talk about the migrant rights struggle, what do you make of the state of the migrant rights struggle today?

Aly Wayne: Yeah, I mean, we’re in real trouble right now. I think that the state of the migrant rights movement right now is just about as bad as it could be. You know, over the years there’s been this kind of struggle within the mainstream “reform” movement, right… there’s been a struggle between organizers at the grassroots level like myself, and a lot of other organizers who have been openly critical of this immigration system. In terms of talking about how the immigration system is part of capitalist oppression, and that we haven’t been wanting to make compromises with either Republicans and Democrats, and we’ve actually been able to do amazing liberation work through that.

I think that many of the policies that we did get that were somewhat positive, including the deferred action program, were things that came out of some pretty radical action. And it actually kind of became exhausting to see the cycle as it happened, because very often what would happen would be the more radical organizers would come in and speak to a politician, you know, tell them about our radical tactics, sort of what to do, how to move things forward. And that politician would turn around and tell us that we don’t know how strategy works, and that we don’t know how Washington works.  And then we would say, you know,  thank you for your input, then we’d go down and shut down deportation buses, or infiltrate detention centers, or do whatever the hell that we needed to do. And that would often to lead to some slightly progressive push in the legislative battle, but because we became sort of like the bad immigrants we would lose access, and then politicians would turn around and take credit for sort of moving things forward.

Hence looking at the vision of the current immigration reform movement, it is very narrow, it’s about providing access to the most privileged and well advantaged members of our community. And I’m not saying, I’m not one of those bitter activists who is just kind of like, “oh, they don’t know how politics works,” you know, these are terrible things, I’m… every single time some of us have access to more rights, I’m glad. Even if it comes in the form of something like DACA, but we need to realize the limitations of that kind of vision and the trap that it sets for us in terms of dividing our community. I mean right now, obviously, if I were someone who just received DACA and who didn’t know about the broader struggle for immigration, I’d be very comfortable throwing “criminal aliens” under the bus in order to be secure. If our struggle for liberation is only about our own individual struggle for liberation, then we all lose, and I think that’s unfortunately what’s happening.

I think another aspect of this, or the racial justice aspect that is so dangerous is the immigration reform conversation is, has been mostly sort of a Latino issue, right. So other communities, Asian Americans, Black communities, have been often times kind of left out. I think toward the end of the Obama administration, some mainstream immigration reform organizations started to remember they had black undocumented folks in their midst, and started to sort of talk a good game about involving us. But there hasn’t been a strong effort at listening to those other voices, especially black undocumented immigrants, who oftentimes have the deepest critiques of the broader system and see the immigration system as an oppressive system that is part of oppressing people of color everywhere.

Alejo Stark: You mentioned you were born in Senegal.  How do you see the history of colonialism and empire and the dynamics of the system we call, maybe, racial capitalism, play out in your personal story and the struggle for migrant justice today?

Aly Wayne: I’ve been thinking about this obviously for a while. And the more you analyze it, the deeper you get, the more you realize how colonialism and empire play out in these stories of migration. So like I said, I was born in Senegal in west Africa, which by the way is the home of the Gorée Islands, which are the islands where slave ships went from west Africa and were imported into America. So the Gorée Islands were sort of like one of the key points in the transatlantic slave trade. The interesting thing about African countries, right, is that they are postcolonial projects. You know there’s a lot of nostalgia that African Americans have about sort of like, you know, going back to Africa, going back to the land of Africa. And the interesting thing about that is that most of the countries in Africa right now, they were carved out through colonialist histories. So even, I can say, you know Senegal is my home country, but Senegal is something that was carved out by colonialist powers. It was basically a country that was the amalgam of many different tribes and ethnicities and that created this sort of national identity of Senegal out of that. Many of us talk about neocolonialism, which is the fact that still the major financial interests like the IMF and the World Bank are still basically plundering these nations, through onerous debts and through the project of neoliberal capitalism. And so, you know, it’s kind of… you can’t divorce migration, colonialism, and capitalism.  All of these process are connected to the exploitation of black labor, and that continues on into this country.

Alejo Stark: Thank you so much Aly. Is there anything else you want to add?

Aly Wayne: One of things that I could potentially add is that, I think those of us who have been grassroots organizers for a long time do have some ideas in terms of how to resist what’s coming ahead.  You know for example, a lot of folks are talking about sanctuary right now, and only thinking about sanctuary in terms of legislation. But I remember working with a couple of grassroots organizers here in Syracuse a couple of years ago, when things were really bad with Border Patrol.

For us, sanctuary wasn’t simply legislation and it wasn’t simply also stashing people in churches. But it was literally about creating networks of houses where undocumented folks could hide if they were in deportation proceedings, and in fact we called it the Overground Railroad, because we live here in central New York. It’s the home of the abolitionists. And I think those kinds of tactics should be revisited now because I think that we are in a dangerous moment, and I think that we all need to really be prepared.

You know I don’t want to sound too frustrated… but I feel like many of us who have been at the grassroots ultimately have been proven right in terms of our analysis. But we are often shut out from Democratic Party offices for our temerity, for the temerity of basically asserting our humanity. And I hope that folks who are in mainstream immigration reform movements, as they unfortunately have to go through and experience the viciousness of the system, start actually critiquing the system as a whole instead of accepting its premises. I think that’s the way to liberation, and I think that there are other organizers out there who know how to do this. It’s just about actually listening to them, but unfortunately there hasn’t been a good track record of listening to these activists.

So I have a lot of hope for folks at the grassroots, I have a lot of hope for the strength of undocumented organizers, but I’m definitely not going to sugarcoat it… we are in very, dangerous, dangerous times and we have to resist this.

Alejo Stark: Thank you so much Aly. Thank you so much for your time and your work.

— MUSIC TRANSITION —

CURTIS HARRIS SEGMENT

Kaif Syed: Now we turn to Curtis Harris, a Detroit area resident whose life and family has been impacted by racial capitalism and the carceral state. We join him as he discusses his older brother, who is now serving a 30 year prison sentence.

Curtis Harris: The struggle of life like got to my older brother. And I remember one day in specific, I was like, driving him home or something. And he was just like, I can’t do this shit anymore, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. Like, he meant, just life, like this whole society, like this role that he has to perform or fulfill. He was an intellectual too, like anybody who understands the like faults in society, has probably like, you know, gone there, has like went there with life. I just can’t do this shit anymore, you know? So, um, he get’s caught up in like trappin’, like bustin out the fuckin bendo, like hardcore. He went straight into it, selling heroin, he had custos coming from fuckin 18 mile, coming to the projects picking that shit up from him, and what? It was just like wild, and like with me missing him so much, who was I to like police him. Quite honestly, like I was too young, and like… I don’t know, like whatever about it, so… yeah, he got caught up in that situation.

There was an incident where a few months down the line he was arguing with his baby mama and shit, in a house that they owned, and she like busts him upside his head with like a frying pan. And it was like so dramatic, my mom was down in the projects and my brother calls her up and he’s like crying. Yeah she get’s there, the ambulance is there, super dramatic scene… He’s at the hospital, on our way there he calls her and he’s like super pissed for whatever reason. I think my mom wasn’t there on time was what it was. It was wild, he had this like inmate demeanor, and so like my mom just kind of like she wasn’t having it, fuck. She goes up to the hospital, and um, she picks him up, he gets in the car, and she lays it to him like nobody has ever laid it to him before. His big ass was crying, like and I’m sitting in the back seat biting my nails, she’s like, “Everything I did for you.”  The baby was born at this time. My mom had pawned 2 grand worth of her jewelry, gold, like rings to provide for this child, because that’s what, she loved him. She understood how difficult it was as a black man who just was released from prison you know, so I understand how frustrated she was with him.  So we get back to the projects, you know, he was released from the hospital, we literally didn’t even put the car in park and he hops out the car and he strolls into the building complexes. You know, the walkway through the building complexes.

And I swear to you it was like someone walking into the abyss. It was like he just walked into the Amazon and it was gonna take like, it’s gonna take a whole squad to search for him. And I… really though? That was the like the last time that I saw him.

— MUSIC TRANSITION —

EPILOGUE  

Andrés: Today we close our show with an excerpt from a letter written by Harold Gonzales, currently incarcerated inside Michigan’s Kinross prison facility. The entire letter was published in the San Francisco Bay View, by courtesy of the Michigan Abolition and Prison Solidarity crew (MAPS). When Harold refers to the M-D-O-C he is speaking about the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“Men like me are the perfect patsy for the MDOC. We are supposed to take the abuse and make no waves. They pit our desire to go home against our desire for humane treatment. Ninety percent accept the abuse, but the abuse throughout MDOC is reaching epic levels! Sure, on the surface they have a system of checks and balances, but the checks don’t balance the scales. They cover up the transgressions, so in essence the checks balance the scales so that they ever favor Big Business!

We need help, I’m shouting out from this 8-by-10 cell, help us! Don’t let them quiet our voice; be an amplifier for us. Don’t let what they are doing to us and throughout the MDOC fade into oblivion. We were not angels, but we don’t deserve this!

I cannot express adequately my appreciation and gratitude, or the humbling effect that knowing I’m not in this alone has had on me. I’m thankful for the strength and inspiration that your support provides at the times when things get overwhelming. I will not run from this or hide. There are too many inmates that are counting on me to be their voice, and since that’s where this started for me, that’s where I’ll be until the end!”

CREDITS

Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This was show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark.