In this episode we examine the expansion of the carceral state as a response to anti-racist movements and urban rebellions of the 1960s, the political economic underpinnings of these social transformations, and the ways in which historic instances of prisoner rebellion are continuous with present-day resistance behind bars and point toward upheavals yet to come.
We speak with historian Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, and Dr. Austin McCoy, an organizer and historian who explores the relationship between urban political economy and social movements. We also talk with Adine, whose son was recently transferred to Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility following an “inciting a riot” charge in the aftermath of the Kinross rebellion.
Click here to display the episode transcript.
Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio. My name is Andrés. In today’s episode “The Riots will Continue”, we examine the expansion of the carceral state as a response to anti-racist movements and urban rebellions of the 1960s, the political economic underpinnings of these social transformations, and the ways in which historic instances of prisoner rebellion are continuous with present-day resistance behind bars and point toward upheavals yet to come.
We speak with historian Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, and Dr. Austin McCoy, an organizer and historian who explores the relationship between urban political economy and social movements. We also talk with Adine, whose son was recently transferred to Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility following an “inciting a riot” charge in the aftermath of the Kinross rebellion. But first, here’s David Langstaff with some news you may have missed.
David Langstaff: The Denver Contract Detention facility is currently being sued for human rights abuse and violation of labor law, after forcing thousands of detained immigrants to work for just one dollar per day. Inmates were threatened with solitary confinement if they refused to work. The lawsuit, originally filed in 2014, has just acquired class action status.
On February 27th, Ohio prisoners Sadiq Abdullah Hasan and Jason Rob began a hunger strike after officials at the Ohio State Penitentiary suspended their phone and email access for ninety days. Prison officials accused the men of accepting compensation to appear without authorization on an episode of the Netflix show Captive. The episode covered the 1993 prison rebellion known as the “Lucasville Uprising”. Hasan and Rob, who argue their role in the rebellion was to negotiate a peaceful ending, were pegged as two of its leaders and sentenced to death for the killing of a corrections officer.
And on March 2nd, for the second time in two years, a Nebraska prison rebellion succeeded in taking control of a portion of Tecumseh Maximum Security State prison. After an estimated 40 inmates refused to return to their cells, two prisoners were killed in the midst of the upheaval. See news from the streets at rustbeltradio.org for links to these news items.
Kaif Syed: I’m Kaif Syed here with a Maria and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.
a Maria: 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. Co-producer Alejo Stark and I recently spoke to Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its legacy. She spent ten years uncovering history of the rebellion that was deliberately kept secret from the public, including the organizing that led to the uprising and the violent state repression that followed it. She connects the ways radical political ground swells in cities like Detroit were repressed through criminalization of their base, as well as the ways in which those political movements were connected to historic and ongoing organizing behind bars.
INTERVIEW WITH DR. HEATHER ANN THOMPSON
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson: My name is Heather Ann Thompson and I’m a historian. But I am someone who also works on the present day implications of the carceral state, punishment, control, containment, and I work on cities like Detroit but also on prisons — my last book was on the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. Both as a means to rescue a story that has really been distorted by state actors but also to think about the ways in which previous prison uprisings might inform both how we got here in terms of the current prison crisis, but also what might happen to undo the current crisis — what lessons exist from the past in terms of organizing, and frankly repression — that we need to be aware of today when we think about dealing with today’s prison crisis.
Alejo Stark: Can you briefly describe the history of incarceration of this prison crisis in Michigan in particular, and more broadly the Rustbelt?
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson: When you talk about the history of incarceration, there’s sort of a meta-story. A large story about the criminalization of blackness and browness from the very very beginning of the colonization of this country, but even the foundation of this country as the United States of America. There’s always been a tendency to use containment, whether it’s prisons or reservations or boarding schools or any number of things, as a means to use the carceral state to control and maintain power for whoever the governing body is at the time. Always white people, but depending on the city, depending on the place, different people. But the current carceral crisis that we are now in has a very unique dimension, which is that it has many features of the past, which is that it is deeply racialized and it disproportionately has ensnared poor people. But the sheer scale of it is something that is quite new. And the sheer scale of it is what I was interested in locating, and there’s many many drivers that historians have located as why we get this. But one of the most important is that we get a real freedom struggle in the 1960’s — African Americans but not only African Americans certainly Chicano students Native American activists and it goes on and on.
There’s no question that we begin a war on crime –the one that will manifest itself in carceration that we see today– we began a war on crime in response to that. In response to the social unrest and protest, and indeed we began this war on crime well before there was a crime crisis. It started in 1965, it was Lyndon Johnson and he was very specifically responding to the “riots”, but we would call them rebellions that took place in Philadelphia, Rochester, Harlem. And once we started to connote urban unrest with criminality and disorder with criminality, it was a slippery slope upwards that we then began to police cities much more intensely. And very quickly over the course of the 60s and certainly after 1972, there’s this dramatic incarceration in America that is confined primarily to major inner cities.
Detroit is one of those inner cities and incarceration came to Detroit particularly aggressively because, by the time we begin the war on crime, Detroit was in the midst of its own demographic shift after its rebellion in ‘67 and certainly after it got a black mayor in ‘73, Detroit becomes an overwhelmingly black city. There’s still a large Latino population, but it’s overwhelmingly an African American city. And so incarceration came there with a particular vengeance, and indeed for Michigan, Detroit became the feeder along with some other largely black and poor cities like Flint or Pontiac become the major feeders for the Michigan prison system. In Michigan what that looked like was over a very very short period of time, Michigan builds 56 penal institutions I believe the number. It starts shipping people into those facilities from cities like Detroit, and in doing so taking census population to those upstate locations, which had a devastating effect on Detroit in particular but also again on places like Flint or Pontiac.
It literally meant that the next 40 years of Michigan’s history that we think about through the lens of the industrialization or we think about it through sort of a rustbelt lens –it’s not that it’s not important, it is, the industrialization is important, globalization is important– but what we really missed is that the most devastating blow or at least one of the most devastating blows that these cities experience is incarceration. Detroit really suffers when it loses its population to incarceration, because of course incarceration tears at the social fabric of these cities at a whole different level even than job loss alone.
a Maria: What was at stake in 1971 when those inside Attica rose up, and what were their material demands?
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson: What was at stake in Attica was the same thing that was at stake in cities like Detroit or Buffalo or New York, and that was a complicated mix of material demands and needs that weren’t being met. And an absolute sense that black and brown bodies were dispensable and subjugated, and that there was something about this moment that gave folks a feeling that activism was merited of course, but would net something. That it would actually bring something different. So when it was in a city like Detroit taking over the newspaper, the South End, or erupting in the city streets, or creating organizations like “Parents and Students for Community Control”, that was all the same thing that was driving the Attica brothers to resist the conditions of their confinement.
For most of the people in Attica was very materially driven. It was very basic, like you couldn’t get parole without looking in an old phone book and writing to an employer, or you had parole but couldn’t get out until you had a job, and you were being fed on 63 cents a day, and you had one square of toilet paper a day, and you couldn’t see your children if you weren’t married to their mother, and you could get no letters from home if you wrote in spanish because those letters were thrown away. And so I think that sometimes as activists we underestimate the power of the material demand, and somehow it gets minimized as less radical or pure or meaningful or significant or interesting. But it was in fact those very practical demands that took men, many of whom by their own admission had never considered themselves as very political, and it brought them together at enormous odds with enormous risk. And not only brought them together, but actually kept so many of them together for the next 40 years to tell their story.
The politics though are important because those who had kind of articulated the demands beyond the material were those who were able to help those other guys frame what they were doing, and to imagine that it wasn’t just about the 63 cents a day. It was a broader question about why are you locked up in the first place and so forth and so on. So I think it’s again it’s sort of like a question of racial capitalism and it’s a question of drivers, it isn’t either/or and I think it is really important when we think about these questions to not minimize what we think is not radical enough. And instead to think about how do these things in fact work together all the time to in fact build a movement or make something very powerful.
Alejo Stark: We were talking about this what you call a cocktail of the rebellions at Folsom, San Quentin, Attica, and Auburn, and now we stand decades later in the largest prison strike in the history of the United States on September 9th, 2016. What do you make of these two flash points and what does it mean for the short term and long term?
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson: I think that it is really really significant what happened in September of 2016 on the 45th anniversary of Attica. It was significant on a number of levels. It was significant because again institutions across the country just like it happened in 71 or 70 and 71, erupt at the same time and that prisoners in multiple institutions in various locals are speaking the same language of what they need, and taking real action to demand what they need. And those flashpoints have interesting things in common.
On the one hand they’re motivated by the real intensification of repression, and in 1971 just like in 2016, these were moments when the tensions within the prisons had reached a real fever pitch. There was severe overcrowding, it was on the both cases on the heels of this sort of new intensification of policing that had led to these prisons being intensely overpopulated, and it was a particularly racialized jump in the prison population. These are both kind of happening in both of these moments. I actually think that this is just the beginning. I mean I think that we are on the eve of a lot more protests, and it will be very interesting to see what it means now that we’ve also had this political shift nationally in the White House. You know, what will that mean because this is a similar shift to when we get, you know, I mean, hell Nixon looks like a complete lefty compared to Trump. But it is an interesting similarity and the repression that rains down on Attica, my fear of course, is that it could happen again in the Trump era.
On the other hand the Attica brothers don’t go away, and clearly the men in Kinross, and the women at these facilities in Kansas, and the scores and scores of undocumented families, and nobody is gonna go away. So it’s just a question of really looking at the past so that hopefully next time around, one of the human rights struggles, does not get told by the state and does not get spun by the state, because the consequences of that were devastating. It meant that a generation never understood what had happened at Attica, both to the good meaning what organizational strengths were in there, what led to it, what brought people together — they didn’t learn about the legal defense — they didn’t learn anything. But one thing the state learned or taught everybody were that prisoners are animals — that’s all they “learned” right. And so we need to learn our history for if we are in one of those moments again, and I think we are in one of those moments again, so you wouldn’t be surprised to hear historians say that history matters.
a Maria: Thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson: Thank you so much.
INTERVIEW WITH DR. AUSTIN MCCOY
Alejo Stark: We talked with Dr. Austin McCoy about his work on how the political economic crisis of racial capitalism and processes of automation; that is, the replacement of workers by machines; led to the formation of the rustbelt and the age of mass incarceration. We also discuss how these crises have lead to our contemporary moment, and what may be a path forward towards ending mass incarceration. Perhaps until these fundamental social contradictions are resolved, The Riots Will Continue, both behind and beyond prison walls.
Dr. Austin McCoy: My name is Austin McCoy. I am a historian. I study social movements in the 20th century, especially after the 1970’s movements in the midwest around, you know, issues of like war and empire, the industrialization, and police killings. But I am also an organizer. I’ve done community organizing, campus organizing work around issues of racial justice, organizing around the Aura Rosser killing a couple years ago, organizing against white supremacists. So those are like, basically, like my main roles.
a Maria: Can you begin by briefly describing the political economy of the rustbelt?
Dr. Austin McCoy: The rustbelt is the states and these regions and these cities and rural areas, right, that have deteriorated manufacturing bases mostly. And when I typically think of the rustbelt, like it will extend from you know, northern New York in through the Midwest and even reaching places like Oakland, California. And the places that I study like the Midwest, we are thinking about Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, to a degree, and Minnesota, I think of heavy manufacturing as opposed to the textile industry on the east coast. Manufacturing automobiles, tires, you know, rubber, steel, appliances, like the Midwest, it’s manufacturing base was already sort of on the upswing in the 1920s.
But after the depression, the state invests in World War II and that sort of picks up auto production, steel production, rubber, etc. in cities like Detroit, obviously; Akron, Ohio; Youngstown, my home town of Mansfield, Ohio. You get bases of manufacturing around those industries. And starting in the 1950s you get General Motors and all these other multinational corporations who begin to move factories and plants from the cities to the suburbs, and then eventually from the suburbs to the southern states, which were mostly right to work. But then also, you would have multinational corporations, they’re always investing, opening up markets, in production overseas. But then also automation, which has been a big conversation in the midst of the election. Like you have now President Trump, unfortunately, appealing to disaffected, mostly white, but there’s still obviously multiracial working class that came out of the manufacturing belt in the Midwest. Especially, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, these places that he won, these factories had left because of mostly automation, even though he typically blamed trade. Even though trade deals have something to do with it, it’s mostly capitalists controlling technology and investment, and being able to use that against workers. And well are these jobs coming back? I mean, I have had that conversation before with white folks in the Midwest. Even back when Obama was elected, people had been voting for people who they believe will quote on quote bring the jobs back, but no one tells them that these jobs are not coming back.
So then the next question becomes, what do we do? The response to that is, what kind of society do you want to live in? And do you want to be able to live in a society where you can be productive in ways that you feel like you want to be productive? But then that is willing to invest in the public good.
Alejo Stark: You also recently part of the dossier on Cedric Robinson, the great black intellectual who wrote about Marxism and many other texts and he is often cited as the one who talks about racial capitalism. Which as Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, is also not just a part of capitalism but all of capitalism. How do we understand the ways in which Cedric Robinson talks about racial capitalism in relation to these processes that you just described?
Dr. Austin McCoy: The concept of racial capitalism places slavery, systems of enslavement, and conquest in the center of global political economy. We’re thinking about the ways in which race and class, racism and capitalism, are inextricably linked. And thinking about the ways in which black populations; but not only black populations but native populations, brown populations; have been exploited, have been forced to participate in the construction of global capital. So when you start to think about it coming to the present, there’s always the policing of other populations. And I think with these crises that occur, whether political or economic, there’s still these populations that have been marked since settler colonialism; since slavery; that are always getting policed. And policed now in ways in which cens–, you know, most of these people aren’t slaves or even needed for the economy and can just be warehoused. You can think about the prison industrial complex for instance, it has a modern manifestation in that tradition of racial capitalism.
a Maria: So, essentially, the black urban proletariat is incarcerated and the white rural proletariat is hired on as prison guards over the incarcerated. Can you talk about how this helps us to understand the Trump election and the political conditions we are facing now?
Dr. Austin McCoy: I mean, mass incarceration obviously is a negative effect on– if we are talking about representative democracy as we have it, it’s a negative effect on the Democrats, you know, the other party. So the more folks that are incarcerated, those folks can count towards representation in red districts because that’s where a lot of prisons are built and stored, and it drains the population from these urban centers. But then also mass incarceration, when you talk about the urban proletariat, it’s been a base for organizing for a long time. Whether we are talking about, you know, there were slaves working in cities or you talking about folks who, you know, the great migration, folks moving to Chicago or even to just Birmingham. Black folks, black workers in cities have always been a base and mass incarceration, political repression basically killed that; helped to contribute to the demobilization of black radical politics — in general– for the last 40 years.
I think, if we were to have stronger labor movements, if we had stronger black radical politics, we might not be talking about a Trump presidency in some ways. Because you would have these movements that would be able to create their own sorts of spaces of politics or political autonomy or political power. The absence of these strong movements, and I think we are starting to see the presence of them now, but almost too late when we talk about electoral politics within the system we have. So you get white folks who are living in these rural areas, either working in agriculture, if they are lucky, or working in these prison populations who are feeling more disaffected by the year. Whether it’s because of loss of jobs, whether it’s because they perceive the Democratic party as against their interests, which they are, to be completely frank, but they believe that nationalism, xenophobia, racism in some ways become a sort of default setting for some of these folks. Where it is like; well, here’s a candidate who is basically promising us jobs, promising secure borders, quote on quote, promising a stronger foreign policy, quote on quote, promising all the things that we believe we weren’t getting under the Obama administration, so let’s vote for him.
And what is ironic is, some of the problems– a lot of the social problems that black folks were suffering, when it comes to drug use, poverty, extended to white folks in these rural areas. Heroin use is up, overdoses, the feeling that there power is shrinking, they are no longer the center, then their also suffering leads them to Trump.
Alejo Stark: One of the solutions, as it were maybe, that you provided in the article; you say, from mass incarceration to mass employment. How do you think that can be done and what would that entail?
Dr. Austin McCoy: Really, there’s two options, obviously. I think mass employment, or even just a guaranteed income. And the guaranteed income, when you really think about it, might be a little more realistic in some ways because it is not relying on creating a whole lot of jobs. Either solution is obviously going to depend upon whether or not you can build– you would have to build a mass politics around it. And that would include being able to make the argument for this, that doesn’t fall into the red baiting trap that any sort of state investment in its people or in the public sector and good often falls into. And we might be heading there, as folks began to learn that the economic and racial nationalist concept of trade and politics doesn’t work with Trump, what else is there going to be? What’s going to be left is folks who are going to be arg– folks on the left arguing for either massive jobs programs, which might be the next best thing that we can do, but anytime that the federal government wants to do anything that has to do with the public good it’s smeared as communist or socialist. Or mass incomes, guaranteed incomes, which is something that Dr. Martin Luther King even advocated for many times, especially towards the end of his life. If you can’t give jobs you give people income.
REPRESSION BY MDOC: INTERVIEW WITH ADINE
David Langstaff: We now turn to Adine, whose son was recently transferred to Baraga maximum correctional facility, after being charged with inciting a riot in the aftermath of the September 2016 Kinross Rebellion. Adine’s story provides a window into just one instance of the widespread state repression that has been deployed in the wake of the largest prison strike in US history. Alejo spoke with her about her son’s situation.
Adine: Hey, my name is Adine and I live in Flint, Michigan. I am Reginald’s mother and he went to prison in 1989, when he had just turned 19 years old. And he has been in there ever since. Now, when that happened, at Kinross, he said that they said that he incited a riot which I don’t believe. And he said he didn’t do it. But then they had shipped him to Baraga prison up there. I guess that is maximum security?
Alejo Stark: Right.
Adine: He told me in his letter in December the 28th, 2016, he was up there. And when he got up there he was weighing 285 pounds, and he dropped down to 185 pounds because he thought they were putting something in his food, so he wouldn’t eat. Speaking of food, he only ate the stuff that was wrapped up in packages and he had asked them to give him other stuff but they didn’t.
Alejo Stark: What are your concerns with your son? When is the last time you heard from him?
Adine: I got two letters from him about two weeks ago, and I am worried because he knows as long as they don’t have him locked down, he would be writing and he calls me a lot because I accept all his calls. Since all this happened it has started in between– I would be sending him about 5 or 6 letters and he was supposed to call me March the 1st, well I ain’t heard from him. And that is what I am concerned about. I am not hearing from him.
Alejo Stark: He is in administrative segregation. Potentially in “The Hole” as they say.
Adine: It’s not right to me because that’s my child up there.
Alejo Stark: If you could ask anything or tell anything to the Director of Corrections Hydie Washington, she is the head of the Michigan department of corrections, what would you ask her? What would you tell her?
Adine: I would tell her that my son has finished up his school in there and he was trying to get into another program, which they ain’t letting him get in the program that he could get in. There’s a couple of programs that he wanted to get in. And I want– I would tell her that she needs to investigate and find out why he can’t get in some of these programs that he’s been trying to get into. Take a look at his– the reasons why they have taken away his typewriter, his watch, and his ipod. And they need to start rehabilitating prisoners better, because the reason they have so many of them going back as repeat offenders, is because they really don’t rehabilitate them like they should. They just throw them in there, and they need to get more programs going on in there for them.
Alejo Stark: If you could tell your son anything, what would you tell him? If you could speak to him right now?
Adine: I would tell him do what it is he has to do to so he can come out of there, because he has been in there too long. He has been in there 26, 27 years.
Alejo Stark: Well, thank you so much for your time Adine, really appreciate it.
Adine: I really appreciate you all taking an interest in this case. May you be blessed and have a blessed day.
Andrés: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The lessons from the rebellions of the 1960s, the Attica uprising, and last fall’s nationwide prison strike, teach us that as long as the conditions are unlivable, The Riots Will Continue. As long as the carceral state and racial capitalism continue to criminalize, jail, exploit, and abuse, The Riots Will Continue. And so long as we live in a society, racial capitalism, that benefits those who have everything over those who have nothing, The Riots Will Continue. Both inside and outside.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at www.rustbeltradio.org. This show is co produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio team: Andrés, David Langstaff, a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark.