Our Willpower is Stronger Than Their Chains: NYC, Palestine, and the Fight for Prison Abolition
On October 17, New York City Council voted in favor of sell-out Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $11 billion plan to build four new jails in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan. While the political establishment and media hailed the vote as a model for prison reform in the US, the reality is that de Blasio’s plan only serves to inflate and empower the prison system in New York City. This was not a vote to close Rikers as politicians are claiming credit for, but to expand Rikers into four jails instead of one. In a pathetic attempt to whitewash his $11 billion plan and co-opt the language used by communities mobilizing against new jails in NYC, de Blasio declared “the era of mass incarceration did not begin in New York City, but it will end here.”
This is neoliberalism in a nutshell, politicians entrenching and expanding mass incarceration while saying they’re doing the opposite. We have seen these systems of oppression do this time and time again. Whenever there are mass movements and shifts in discourse that expose the cracks in the system, they steal the language and concepts from those movements and reshape the narrative to neutralize that resistance. We can expect this attempt to co-opt and pacify rage against the mass incarceration system to continue in the coming months, evidenced by New York State’s much-heralded criminal “justice” reforms starting January 1st, 2020. However, these reforms do not fundamentally change the relationship between the State and oppressed communities. Black, Brown, and immigrant communities throughout the city will continue to organize against state violence and incarceration.
The resistance against de Blasio’s jail expansion plan is taking place against the back-drop of massive cuts to public spending and increased funding for the racist police state in NYC and israeli occupation. In 2018 alone, $1.4 billion in NYC taxes was spent on the jail system and another $5.6 billion was spent on the NYPD. During this time, US military aid to israel amounted to $4 billion, over $140 million of which was funded by tax revenue from NYC communities. These figures, far from being disconnected, reflect the priorities of politicians in NYC and across the US. A new world is possible but it will not be built by those like de Blasio who spend billions of dollars of our taxes to fund more police, more prisons and more military aid to israel. New Yorkers who are struggling to pay rent and put food on their table know that this money is desperately neededfor affordable housing, public education, health care, public transit and so much more.
It is important to stress that our opposition to de Blasio and the political establishment in NYC extends far beyond their support for new jails. During his tenure as Mayor, de Blasio, has defended israeli colonialism at every turn, while praising israel as “a multi-racial democracy.” He has spoken at the AIPAC conference every year despite a growing pivot away from the organization by liberal Democrats, and has gone as far as attacking the BDS movement as being a “threat to progress.” Considering de Blasio’s unwavering support for the ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians, his championing of new jails in NYC is anything but a surprise.
We stand opposed to jail expansion in New York City because the fight against mass incarceration in the US is the same as the fight for a free and dignified Palestine. We cannot struggle against a settler system with our left hand and legitimize another with our right. Just as we recognize and reaffirm the right of Palestinian prisoners to resist political imprisonment, torture and settler colonial occupation by any means necessary, we recognize and reaffirm the right of Black and Brown and oppressed nationality communities to resist the same forces here in New York City. And just as we fight for the abolition of the zionist occupation, we fight for the abolition of prisons.
Abolition means much more than simply doing away with the brick-and-mortar of buildings used to incarcerate people, it means an end to the fascist, settler colonial regimes that build and run the prisons. Abolition as a framework also allows us to envision a future in which colonized and oppressed people are in control of their land and their destinies. As Assata Shakur once wrote, “The struggle for an abolitionist democracy is aspiring to create the institutions that will truly allow for a democratic society.” At the heart of this proposition is a simple principle that we can take care of our communities. We can build institutions based on justice, self-determination, empathy, and power that render prisons, the police and the entire political system obsolete. It is in this spirit that we connect the dots between the resistance against the racist prison system in NYC and the resistance against the racist israeli occupation in Palestine.
Since 1967, israel has imprisoned an estimated 800,000 Palestinians. 40% of Palestinian men have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. In the US Black people are imprisoned at more than 5x the rate of white people and 88% of the people currently being incarcerated in NYC jails are Black or Latino. Today there are currently 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners. Of this number, 425 are being held without charge or trial under “administrative detention.” Similarly, New York is one of 10 states where prosecutors can wait until a trial to share evidence, meaning many people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit without even knowing what evidence prosecutors have against them. Rikers Island is, on average 78% filled with people who are awaiting trial. Meaning their guilt or innocence for the charge they are facing has not yet been proven, yet they are still in jail because they are too poor to pay bail, and are quite literally incarcerated because of poverty.
In the occupied West Bank, where zionist military courts claim jurisdiction, the conviction rate of Palestinians is 99.7%. While zionist settlers in the occupied West Bank are supposed to be tried under these courts, in practice, they are tried under the infinitely more lax israeli civilian court system. This is demonstrative of the legal apartheid system in occupied Palestine. In a similar way, the U.S. criminal justice system is fundamentally rigged against Black and Brown communities. A full 96% of criminal trials in the United States do not go to trial at all, and instead are “pleaded out.” This means people being charged with crimes are coerced, threatened, and lied to by police and prosecutors into waiving their right to a trial and instead entering a plea bargain for a lower sentence, regardless of their “guilt” or “innocence”. Many people plead out because their court-appointed lawyers are disinterested, over-worked and have no interest in a time consuming trial and convince their clients to take the lower sentence. However, the rich and powerful are not subject to this cruel system that funnels colonized people into prisons. They have the ability to purchase the best lawyers money can buy, creating in effect, two separate legal systems, contributing to the unique system of American apartheid.
However, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that only if these courts had more fair and equitable outcomes for Palestinians that the problem would be solved. No matter what reform is made, the entirety of the zionist project is fundamentally illegitimate and we must think and act of it as such. As we reject administrative detention and the entirety of the zionist incarceration regime, we must also reject the cruelty and illegitimacy of the American criminal injustice system. In the words of 18-year old Palestinian freedom fighter and former political prisoner Ahed Tamimi, “There is no justice under occupation.”
In recent weeks, the struggle of Palestinian political prisoners has escalated. On September 26, Heba-al-Labadi, a 24-year old Palestinian who holds Jordanian citizenship, went on hunger strike after being tortured and held in administrative detention (without charge or trial) for weeks. When she started her strike, she joined six other Palestinian political prisoners hunger striking in protest of their administrative detention. The day before Heba began her hunger strike, Samer Arbeed, 44, was abducted by occupation forces in the West Bank and tortured by israeli interrogators. After being left in critical condition with a broken rib cage and severe kidney failure, Arbeed was transferred to a hospital and detained further without charge or trial. Just days ago, his detention order was extended for another eight days. During his incarceration, he has been denied legal visitation and interrogated without a lawyer present.
Historically, the Palestinian prisoners movement has been the vanguard of the struggle for national liberation. While the occupation attempts to use imprisonment as a tool of social control and a means of weakening the resistance, the detention of Palestinian revolutionaries since the Nakba has had the polar opposite effect. Generations of Palestinians and their allies have been inspired by the prisoner movement themselves to join this struggle. In the fight against zionist settler colonialism, much like the fight within the United States, the resistance has always come from both outside and within the prison walls. The hunger strike has long been taken up by Palestinian political prisoners as a weapon in the fight against zionism, and the current hunger strike being waged by Palestinian prisoners including Heba al-Labadi, follows in this legacy, captured by the revolutionary slogan, “Our willpower is stronger than their chains.”
At the end of the day, we cannot talk about prisons, abolition and justice without touching on the ways that the prison-industrial-complex have ravaged the communities we come from. For decades, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general have been subjected to a regime of suspicion, surveillance and entrapment. It is crucially important that we frame and think of those caught in this reign of state terror as political prisoners. The most obvious example of which is the Holy Land 5: Ghassan Elashi (sentenced to 65 years in prison), Shukri Abu-Baker (65 years), Abdulrahman Odeh (15 years), and Mohammad El-Mezain (15 years). These five men, who were involved in the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Islamic charity in the United States, were arrested for the egregious crime of feeding Palestinian orphans and raising money for medical equipment and other social services in Palestine. These men were railroaded into prison, with the government using secret evidence on behest of the zionist government after initially being found innocent of all charges. Their arrests were an outright attack on Palestinian political life in the United States. So too were the arrests of Sami Al-Arian, Mazen Al-Najjar, Rasmea Odeh and countless others whose sole crime was to speak out for the freedom of their homeland.
With this in mind, standing alongside communities resisting mass incarceration in the US is not just a matter of solidarity, but rather a collective struggle against a system that imprisons, deports, and murders colonized people in the US, Palestine and around the world. As we assess the present moment, it is crucially important that we not only condemn the actions that NYC politicians have taken, but mobilize to defeat de Blasio’s $11 billion plan for new jails. These facilities are not scheduled to open until 2026, a full six years away. This fight is not over. We call on all of our supporters to get involved in the Palestinian liberation movement and the fight to end mass incarceration in the US. From Rikers to Ashkelon and beyond, Black, Brown and Palestinian political prisoners will continue to resist, until liberation and return.