Last week, Shaping San Francisco’s kickoff to the Fall/Winter/Spring 2010-2011 Public TALKS! Series was a perfect way to begin our next round of free discussions. We were proud to co-sponsor the evening with PM Press, whose Ramsey Kanaan pulled together a spectacular collection of speakers to speak to the topic “Imprisoned but Unbowed: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.”
Sin Soracco, author of Low Bite, the story of the time she spent in prison, started the evening and in telling her own herstory, impressed upon us a reminder to look past some commonly unquestioned traits of female prisoners, that they are victims, oppressed, or helpless. No, indeed, prison is where rebellious women are collected, women who aren’t following the rules of how a woman should act, the “bad” girls, as it were. Something in that simple declaration clicked for me, as I, too, sitting in the audience, reëxamined my assumptions about who finds their way to jail, newspaper articles flashing through my mind of reports of crimes throughout the decades of unruly mothers and wives, movies immortalizing certain women who eschew the boundaries of gender or domestic life, of what society offers them as a “nice life,” most often controlled by anyone other than themselves. Two of the three women sharing their stories Wednesday had also turned away, or woken up, from the American Dream as well, and searched for other contexts through which to experience their world.
All three women, including Ida McCray, former black conscious feminist prisoner, and Rita B♀ Brown, former member of the George Jackson Brigade, had been politically outspoken, imprisoned, and active around prisoners’ rights in the 1970s, a fact that made their stories all that much more exciting to us at Shaping San Francisco, as we’re just sending our forthcoming book Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1968 to the printer (to be published June 2011). The 26 essays included in the book cover a wide range of social movements and collective investigations of “the System,” more than one of which overlap with the experiences and critiques of the women panelists. From the beginnings of women’s consciousness-raising and second-wave feminism, to the imperative for many People’s Food System members to support the prison rights movement, to the Black and Brown Power movements, these women’s actions and beliefs threaded through and added dimension to so much of what our essayists remember and share. On the George Jackson Brigade Information Project website, they underscore how the movements of the time were interwoven and drawing inspiration from each other:
The chemistry present in the group was the same that had been combusting across the country: society’s most oppressed members allied with college educated youth who refused to continue their class and white skin privilege. In the case of the Brigade, women took center stage, queers challenged straights, convicts communicated with college students, and a black man enthusiastically aided whites. The story of the Brigade takes place against a backdrop of the domestic activism of Black, Chicano, Native American, gay and white prisoners, and armed struggle in the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
Ida, in the vein of empowerment and armed struggle, also shared a firsthand account of experiencing her neighborhood, Hunter’s Point, being invaded by National Guardsmen and the riot that followed the murder by police of a 17-year old in 1966. Historically forgotten, but archived in our online SF history encyclopedia, FoundSF.org, it was fascinating to hear the perspective on the riot of a young woman (at the time) caught up in the defense of her community. Thomas Fleming’s memoir of the riot can also be found at FoundSF.org.
We heard a lot of the women’s backgrounds and the combinations of forces that led them to make the decisions they did to actively resist, but what we didn’t cover in the course of the evening was a strong connection to the prison activist movement today and so I wanted to list a couple of current resources around prison activism (with the hope that our panelists and others will add more!):
and also, an organization working to support those who seek withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and who support dissenting soldiers, Iraq Veterans Against the War.
If you missed it and would like to listen to the evening’s discussion, a podcast is available online.
Our Public TALKS! is an ongoing series and always FREE, on the 2nd through last Wednesdays of each month through May 2011. PM Press is back on October 13 with Outspoken Authors Speak Out featuring Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson, and Gary Phillips and again on October 20 with Hardboiled For Hard Times: Crime in the City and panelists Owen Hill, Jim Nisbet, Summer Brenner, Benjamin Whitmer, and Michael Harris.
This Wednesday, September 22, local artist and muralist Rigo will talk about his work locally and globally in our next Art & Politics presentation. 7:30 PM, and always FREE!