Prisoners see linked struggles in California, Palestine

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Palestinians demand the release of their loved ones imprisoned inside Israeli jails, Ramallah, 3 September.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript: Lara Kiswani and Azadeh Zohrabi on solidarity between prisoner hunger strikers in California and Palestine

The Electronic Intifada: Azadeh, let’s start off with you. can you tell us about the latest news on the hunger strike protests that are still going on inside California prisons, and what they’re demanding, and how the state has responded so far?

Azadeh Zohrabi: Yes. You mentioned earlier that there are about 40 people who are still on hunger strike, and those are people who have been on hunger strike continuously since July 8th — today is their 57th day. However, they’re not the only ones on hunger strike; there are about 150 other people who are also on hunger strike, they just haven’t been on hunger strike continuously. They may have come off hunger strike and restarted their hunger strike.

We also noticed that since two weeks ago, when a federal court in California gave permission to the Department of Corrections to begin force-feeding people, that many protesters have rejoined the hunger strike in protest of this force-feeding order. So we see that numbers are rapidly going up. So far, the state of California has not engaged in negotiations with the hunger strikers, nor have they addressed the demands of the hunger strikers in any reasonable or meaningful way.

The prisoners who are on hunger strike are demanding an end to the administrative abuse that they face, a lot of these things happen with very little due process and very little transparency. And people are spending decades in solitary confinement under these conditions that are not conditions that are given to them as part of their sentence by a court when they’re sentenced to prison, it’s completely done administratively, in secrecy, using confidential evidence that can’t be challenged.

They’re also asking for better food. A lot of them are complaining about the nutritional inadequacy of the food that they’ve been given. A lot of them are asking for more contact with their families, better conditions, more time out of their cells, and an end to long-term solitary confinement — this practice that allows the Department to hold them in cells by themselves for forty or more years.

EI: Lara Kiswani, this sounds shockingly similar to the conditions that Palestinian prisoners are facing in Israeli jails and detention centers. Can you talk about how this struggle in California connects to the Palestinian struggle for human rights, and why are solidarity activists organizing around the hunger strikes inside California prisons?

Lara Kiswani: Yes, definitely. There are very organic connections and links between what’s happening here with prisoners in California and across the US, and what’s happening with prisoners in Palestine or in the Zionist state of Israel. The US exports torture tactics and policing strategies all across the world, and specifically within the state of Israel. And they share surveillance technology, police training and military training. So the fact that a lot of the strategies are shared across the border also means that the struggles within the prisons are very similar.

And just like the system here is racialized, it too is racialized in Palestine. So we find there are direct connections between the interests of the US in the prison industry here, and the interests of the US within the state of Israel, and its expansion of empire and its corporate interests.

So prisoners in Palestine have been struggling for decades with administrative detention, which is very similar to solitary confinement, and 40 percent of the Palestinian male population have been in prison. So given these numbers, there’s obviously a clear connection to the people of color here in the US and the way in which men of color in particular are used as pawns within this industry, and often targeted for the prison industrial complex.

So we’ve been trying really hard to make these connections within our broader bases. But within the prisons themselves, Palestinian prisoners have been making those connections and have been reading up on struggles, from the days of Bobby Sands and after, they’ve been very well-read. The prisons are in essence schools, just like they are here. Where movements are actually created and built within the prisons.

Right after the hunger strikes started here in Pelican Bay, statements started to come out from prisons in Palestine, expressing their solidarity with the struggles here. Because they saw that their struggle was intrinsically linked to the struggle of prisoners here against the US imperialist country that is essentially the root cause of what Palestinians are going through.

EI: Azadeh, how important is it to build solidarity networks around the systems of mass incarceration in the US, especially when the establishment media is not covering these hunger strikes either in California or Palestine, or general prison conditions at all?

AZ: It’s very important, and I think that the people who are in prison and are on a hunger strike in California also see these connections.

I was just at New Folsom Prison last Thursday, where a busload of 50 prisoners was just transferred from Pelican Bay. And during my visits, the people who were on hunger strike in the prison were asking me to look up information on how Israel deals with hunger strikers, and how they have dealt with hunger strikers, because there was a strong feeling that the US and the California state and federal governments were collaborating with Israel in terms of information sharing, just as Lara said, about how to politically repress these peaceful protest actions, and how to delegitimize them, and how to squash it inside prisons.

So today I was reading about Palestinian prisoners being transferred in an attempt to break their hunger strikes, and that’s the exact same thing we’re seeing in California. And there’s a very real consciousness amongst the prisoners in California that this is a global struggle against these same issues, and that what’s happening in California is linked to what’s happening in Palestine, and is linked to what happened in Ireland and what happened in those prisons there.

So there’s a very real connection both in terms of the outside collaborative work that we’re trying to do to build solidarity, and what the prisoners themselves are seeing — their moment in history and their struggle for human rights.

EI: Lara, how can people get in touch with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and what kinds of direct actions are you planning in support of the California prison hunger strikes?

LK: Well, one thing we’re constantly doing is just internal education and sharing stories and experiences. So we’ve created a Pelican Bay to Palestine network, which Azadeh is a part of, as well as other prison organizers in the Bay Area, to talk about the different struggles and what’s happening, different efforts to challenge these systems of oppression.

So one thing is internal education, and the other is developing some sort of action plan as far as being participants in the various actions that the coalition is already in the works of building on. So we’ve already been participating in various efforts, as well as the Cocoran State Prison caravan, and the direct actions that have been happening locally.

People can get in touch with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center through our website, araborganizing.org, that’s probably the best way, and we’ll be updating about various ways for us to stay in the loop about different struggles, prison struggles as well as other solidarity struggles across the US.

EI: And Azadeh, where can people go for more information on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition?

AZ: We are at prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com, we also have a Facebook presence, and @CAHungerStrike on Twitter. On our website, you can find all the information about upcoming actions, statements from the prisoners themselves and all the news and action alerts and upcoming events happening across the country.

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