We Demand the Right to Vote: The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People's Movement Counters Voter Suppression
by Victoria Law
On Sunday, March 7, 1964, 600 civil rights activists attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the police murder of fellow demonstrator 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson and to demand their rights. As the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were brutally attacked by white state troopers, many of whom had been deputized that very morning. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized; the day became known as "Bloody Sunday." After a federal district court issued a restraining order preventing a second march across the bridge, a third march was successfully organized and carried out. The bridge became a symbol of the Civil Rights struggle.
Nearly fifty years later, the dreams of the Civil Rights movement remain unfulfilled. Mass incarceration has replaced Jim Crow as a means of racial and social control: In the fall of 1965, in a special message to Congress, Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Crime: “I hope that 1965 will be regarded as the year when this country began in earnest a thorough and effective war against crime.” In his 1973 State of the Union message, Richard Nixon vowed to continue and expand that war, linking the growing civil unrest to violent street crime. Reagan further intensified the amount of policing and prisons with his 1982 “War on Drugs” launched three years before the 1985 emergence of crack cocaine. These "wars" came at a time when economic conditions were deteriorating, particularly in communities of color; both served to lock poor people, particularly poor people of color, away before they could organize and challenge social conditions and the social order.
On February 28, 2011, more than fifty formerly incarcerated people from around the country convened in Alabama. All had worked on issues affecting incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in their respective states. Over the course of the weekend, attendees asked themselves and each other, "How do we bring people together and align people with the work that they're doing individually from a collective perspective?"
The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People's Movement emerged from this inaugural meeting. Its goal is to organize a national movement to restore formerly incarcerated people's civil rights, halt prison expansion, demand an end to mass incarceration, eliminate prison abuses, and protect the dignity of family members and their communities. The organizers drew connections between the Civil Rights movement and their own movement for civil and human rights, illustrating the connection by walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
After returning to their home states, members of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People's Movement continued to build together. "We've held rallies and acknowledged prison actions. We've collectively held events on historic days. For instance, the War on Drugs was enacted on June 17, 1971. All of us held an event within our respective states around the War on Drugs. When the prisons in Georgia had their strike, we recognized that. We just recognized the fortieth anniversary of the Attica uprising. We've recognized the Pelican Bay hunger strike. We've recognized the common issues that people who have been incarcerated have stood up and fought against in building this movement. The commonalities in our collective actions have brought us together to end mass incarceration," stated Tina Reynolds, co-chair of the NYC organization WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling HerStory), an organization of formerly and currently incarcerated women) and one of the original twenty people who began the discussion leading to the convening.
On November 2, 2011, the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People's Movement held its second national gathering in Los Angeles. Over 270 people from twenty states converged for a one-day conference to share their experiences and vision and to strategize fighting against policies leading to racial profiling, gang labeling, inhumane sentencing, voter disenfranchisement and hiring discrimination. They learned about the issues, organizing, and, in some cases, successes in other states.
The conference included not only seasoned organizers, but also those who were new to prison justice organizing. "Pilar," a formerly incarcerated woman, remembered that she had never before been in a public space with hundreds of people who shared her experience. Even those already organizing in their home states like Mercedes Smith, a formerly incarcerated woman and current organizer with WORTH, were impressed. "I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever heard—a movement that was made up of nothing but formerly incarcerated people. It had to be a powerful movement and I wanted to be a part of it," she recalled. "Once I got there, it showed me how important the work is that I do and it made me eager to come home and jump back into it."
The one-day convening was packed with trainings on juvenile justice and youth organizing, Ban the Box , voter disenfranchisement, gender issues and other issues. Attendees also adopted a national platform, addressing fourteen points related to incarceration:
I. We Demand an End to Mass Incarceration;
II. We Demand Equality and Opportunity for All People;
III. We Demand the Right to Vote;
IV. We Demand Respect and Dignity for Our Children;
V. We Demand Community Development, Not Prison Profit;
VI. End Immigration Detention and Deportation;
VII. End Racial Profiling Inside Prison and In Our Communities;
VIII. End Extortion and Slavery In Prisons;
IX. End Sexual Harassment of People In Prisons;
X. Human Contact is a Human Right;
XI. End Cruel and Unusual Punishment;
XII. We Demand Proper Medical Treatment;
XIII. End the Incarceration of Children;
XIV. Free Our Political Prisoners.
"While the platform points are broad, we believe we've at least touched on all of the aspects that people have experienced while doing time in prison and beyond," Reynolds noted, adding that, although ratified by the conference attendees, the platform is still a work-in-progress. "The issues addressed in the platform are the basic foundational issues involving the inhumane and oppressive treatment within the criminal justice system. We are taking a stand and saying that we're going to stop it, that things need to change."
By the end of the conference, attendees set a goal of registering one million voters in 2012.
Smith, who attended a training session on voters' rights at the conference, returned with a resolve to help formerly incarcerated and convicted people know their rights. "I'm going to put a training together for voters' rights and get voter registration cards so that people can register to vote. We're also going to tell people who are formerly incarcerated how to go about being able to vote." Smith notes that, in New York State, former convictions are not barriers to voting: "As long as you're on parole, you can't vote, but if you have your Certificate of Relief, you can vote while you're on parole. For women who don't have their Certificate of Relief, I want to tell them how to get it so that they can vote. Once you're off parole or if you have a misdemeanor, you can vote."
The movement is also including people who are currently behind bars in their mass registration campaign: "If you're sentenced to a year and a day and you have to go upstate on a misdemeanor charge, you're allowed to vote. If you're in jail and you haven't been sentenced, you're allowed to vote," Reynolds explained. "Why aren't these people given their right to vote?"
So what are the next steps towards this goal?
"Our first step is to hold a training on voters' rights," Smith explained. "Before we go out, we need to know what we're going out to say and do…I'm going to try to go to as many organizations and give them the training that I receive. I'm going to take voter registration cards with me and have everybody get people registered to vote. When I agreed to get people registered to vote, I took it seriously. I wouldn't have raised my hand if I hadn't taken it seriously. I raised my hand and I've been on it since I've come back. By the time the election comes, they're going to be registered to vote. I'm going to tell them that you can't just complain about who's in office. Learn who wants to be in office, learn if that's who you want to be in office to work with. You can't just complain about them and not want to change things or do anything about it. Learn your rights about voting, get registered to vote!"
However, registering one million formerly incarcerated and convicted people is just the beginning: "I'm going to work on some other things, but one thing at a time," Smith stated. "One of the things I learned at the convening was that people have worked on issues such as Ban the Box and they have been successful in their states. It makes you say, 'If they could pass that law there, we can pass that law here.' Before, I would say, 'I don't want to work on that. That's too hard.' Now I feel the fight is worth it. As a formerly incarcerated person, I want all of that—not only for myself, but for all my sisters and brothers that are formerly incarcerated. I want them to be able to vote, to be able to get a job, to get housing, to be treated like human beings."
"It's not just about them having the right to vote," reflected Reynolds. "It's having an opportunity to be a part of this movement because here is an opportunity for us to talk about the movement, to talk about a political analysis, to talk about education, to talk about the history of incarceration and how it's impacted us over the last forty years with the War on Drugs. There is life after prison; there are rights that we are supposed to have. If we're not seeking them, why aren't we seeking them? Why aren't we fighting for our rights as far as what is available to us?"
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars - NYC. She is currently working on transforming "Don't Leave Your Friends Behind," a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.
† © Copyright 2010-2011, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and criticalmassprogress.com.