On Sept. 8, 30 activists and organizers rallied outside Bristol County Jail, Rhode Island. Several progressive groups endorsed the rally, called by FIRE Boston. In attendance were: the Boston branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Justice for Siham, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Workers World Party – Boston, United American Indians of New England, and the Boston May Day Coalition.
Bristol County is known for its brutal Sheriff Hodgson, who organized chain gangs and offered his inmates as slave labor to build Trump’s border wall.
Aug. 28 marked the 500th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade, and slavery has continued to the present day through prison labor. Prisoners in Massachusetts make as little as 14 cents an hour for their work, while in some states they are not paid at all.
The rally expressed solidarity with the nationwide prison strike and with the more than 250 prisoners who chose to hunger strike in July in solidarity with 60 ICE detainees in the Bristol County Jail. According to a statement from Families for Freedom, the detainees’ demands included increased access to medical care, nutritional food, and lower commissary and phone rates. Sixty ICE detainees initiated the strike on July 18, and by July 24, there were 71 prisoners striking in solidarity. By July 26, 258 prisoners were striking in solidarity with the ICE detainees. The Sept. 8 Bristol County rally built on and highlighted the need for solidarity among the workers and oppressed.
Chanting down Babylon’s walls and speeches
Members of PSL’s Boston branch spoke in solidarity with the national prison strike, describing the U.S. as “a prison house of nations.”
A PSL member and organizer of the Jericho Movement’s Boston chapter, Nino Brown, spoke out against the racist prison state and how we can defeat the oppression capitalism breeds:
“Contrary to what is popular liberal opinion, New England is no liberal paradise different than the South when it comes to oppression, particularly that of the state. When we talk about the state, we ain’t talking about the name of the stolen land we reside on – Rhode Island or Massachusetts – we are talking about the prisons, the courts, the police, the law, and so on. We are talking about armed thugs hired by a white supremacist and imperialist system. The comrade on the mic before me talked about this nation being built on the genocide of the Indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans. We all know that’s true. So we bear no illusions that what the police here are protecting is a system that has not stopped doing what it was founded on. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be out here protesting right now!
“We have to realize that prisoners are a part of the working class, and we know for sure they are of the oppressed. But what we also have to realize is that this prison strike is reverberating internationally. The corporations that are making super profits off my people’s backs, of the multinational working class, are also multinational in character. So our struggle has to be multinational and international, and it’s important that we highlight the international character and attention this prison strike movement is gaining. If our oppression and enemies are multinational, if they are international, so must our solidarity and our resistance! We are going to win because we are destined to win. Lines are being drawn, and we got to remember that we are all we got, we are on the freedom side, not the side of the state! All power to the people!”
He finished with an adapted version of the old labor song “Which Side Are You On?”
Malcolm X was a freedom fighter and he taught we how to fight!
So we gon’ fight all day and night until we get it right!
Which side are you on my people, which side are you on?
We on the freedom side!
Organized labor and solidarity
Edward Childs, an organizer of UNITE HERE Local 26, Boston’s hotel and food service union, spoke about worker and union solidarity.
“Our union supports the prison strike. Every worker has an obligation to support any worker fighting horrible working conditions. We fought hard from health and safety regulations and everyone has a human right to safe and sanitary conditions, whether in the hotels or behind prison walls. We are going file an OSHA complaint on behalf of our sisters and brothers behind these walls. How dare the guards say they are a union when every union says an injury to one is an injury to all, yet they have not filed a complaint for the workers behind the walls anywhere in this country.
“Within a year, the White House plans to imprison 450,000 workers and 800,000 students who have TPS status or DACA. They intend to put them in work camps being built around the country. This is a xenophobic attack that will crush the union movement. Wall Street uses this xenophobia and the whole prison system to attack workers; they have no right to put anyone behind bars.”
Former prisoner Siham speaks!
A former prisoner of Bristol County Jail, the beloved community member, activist, and mother Siham Byah, called into the rally from Morocco and denounced the treatment she received while incarcerated. Byah is a single mother who was detained on Nov. 7, 2017, and deported Dec. 27, 2018, effectively separating her from her eight-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen. Though she has lived in the U.S. for 18 years, she was illegally deported by ICE to her birth country of Morocco, from which she is seeking asylum.
Byah denounced the guards for their inhumane treatment to prisoners stating:
“It is a facility that takes pride in mistreating and dehumanizing its inmates. Health care is nonexistent. The food is inedible. It’s not something you would give an animal, never mind people. We did not see the shadow of a fruit or vegetable unless you have a special order from a doctor, and even then you get a rotten apple once a day. People have their basic rights stripped away from them. I certainly didn’t feel like a human being when I was kept in there.”
Solidarity forever, tear down the walls
As the national prison strike comes to an end, activists and organizers all over the country are gearing up to continue to broaden and deepen the struggle against the racist prison state and all of its conditions imposed on the people. The prison strike may formally come to an end, but the struggle continues. Wherever there is oppression, there will be resistance. When the masses of working and oppressed people rise up collectively and consciously, we can tear down the prison walls of this racist society!
On Aug. 25, more than 50 community members came to the City School in Dorchester for a night of explosive performances to raise much-needed funds for the Justice4Siham Campaign. The money raised is going towards obtaining mental health services for Siham’s son Naseem.
The Justice4Siham Campaign began after immigrant mother and community activist Siham Byah was detained during her annual ICE check-in in November 2017 and subsequently deported weeks later. Siham fled her home country of Morocco in 1998 and had been living in Nahant, Mass., for 20 years when she was detained. According to Siham’s immigration attorney, Siham was targeted because of her longstanding activism.
But, as with all cases of detention and deportation, Siham’s struggle was not hers alone. In deporting her back to Morocco, the State ripped her away from her then eight- and now nine-year-old son, Naseem. Naseem, once a high energy smiling boy, has now woken up for over 300 days to no mother. He continues to undergo an immense amount of trauma, and according to Siham, his severe depression continues to grow with each passing day of separation.
Despite the gravity of Siham and Naseem’s struggle, the Jam 4 Justice was a night of community, celebration, and a call to fight against the war on all immigrants. Performers donated their talents for many sets of poetry, music, and tap dancing. Many of the performers brought a political lens to their sets which highlighted the Palestinian struggle, the struggle against gentrification, and of course immigrants rights. Artists donated pieces that were auctioned during a silent auction, and justic4siham organizers were able to secure donations that were raffled off at the end of the night.
The highlight of the event was when Siham and Naseem video-called in. Although they weren’t calling from the same location, it was the first time organizers in the campaign and the larger justice4siham community were able to meet Naseem face to face. The extreme isolation Naseem feels every day was mitigated, however briefly, when he was able to see over 50 people in a room for him, his mother, and their fight for reunification. While on the video-call, Naseem read an incredible statement to the audience. It read in part,
“Being without my mom for almost a year is the hardest thing and most serious thing I’ve ever had to go through. … I deserve to be with my mom. She is a wonderful person, woman, and mother. … She always believed in fighting injustice and always dedicated her time to it. … She always explained to me the causes she was fighting for and taught me not to be selfish … my mom is not a criminal. She has done nothing wrong. … Please reunite me with my mom. I don’t like it here without her. I don’t like anywhere without her. America betrayed me … please help us!”
After Naseem read his statement, the entire crowd chanted “Naseem, we got your back!” It was a painful but beautiful moment of solidarity in struggle.
Later in the evening, Siham addressed the audience again, informing everyone that she had to fight for Naseem to be allowed to speak with the audience earlier that night. She let the crowd know that this is not just an attack on her but an attack on all immigrants. She urged the campaign to continue to “fight for every just cause out there because I refuse to lick my wounds. I am not a victim and I am not going to let them make a victim out of me or my child.”
Siham also pointed out the contradictions of U.S. immigration policy: “Is America any safer when my child is alone and away from me? When he’s lost the will to be a child?” Siham’s words motivated everyone in attendance to continue struggling not just for the reunification of Siham and Naseem but for the liberation of all immigrants and to fight for all struggles against racism and imperialism. She ended her remarks by thanking everyone for being there for Naseem and letting him know he is not alone.
The fundraiser was a phenomenal success. Not only were Siham and Naseem able to video conference into the event and share their words with attendees, but the campaign also raised over $1,000 for mental health services for Naseem. The funds put the larger fundraiser for Naseem’s mental health services over $4,000.
The Justice4Siham Campaign, which the Party for Socialism and Liberation supports, is fighting every day for the reunification of Siham with Naseem and for justice and liberation of all immigrants. You can donate to her struggle by sending funds to Siham’s PayPal.