Occupy Oakland rallies at San Quentin, turning Presidents Day into Prisoners’ Day
By Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal
Occupy protesters listen to speeches under the watchful eyes of police at the main gate to San Quentin Prison.
As part of a national “day of solidarity” with inmates, about 700 Occupy demonstrators rallied peacefully outside San Quentin State Prison’s East Gate on Monday in support of prison hunger strikers protesting solitary confinement and other human rights issues.
Many of the demonstrators were from Occupy Oakland, whose members clashed with police in January, when 400 were arrested.
As San Quentin guards stared from inside the prison gate and the California Highway Patrol sealed off the roads leading into San Quentin Village, Occupy organizers stressed the importance of demonstrating peacefully.
“Please, let’s keep it
cool,” pleaded activist Jack Bryson, 50, speaking on a makeshift stage over a booming public address system. “Anything you do out here, the prisoners will be retaliated against. Lets not have the prisoners turn against Occupy Oakland.”
Monday’s demonstration was the first Occupy gathering at any prison.
“We want to expand the issues that Occupy Oakland is dealing with,” explained Scott Johnson, a 34-year-old Oakland computer programmer. “We started talking about Wall Street. We’ve been talking about local police harassment. Now we want to expand it to the criminal justice system.”
Because police banned parking on stretches of Sir Francis Drake and East Francisco boulevards, the main thoroughfares leading to the prison, demonstrators had to walk a mile or more to get to the noontime rally. Some arrived from Oakland on a bus, chanting, “Here comes Oakland.”
As protesters streamed onto San Quentin Village’s Main Street, they were greeted by the Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald, a professor at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, who pointed the way to the East Gate. He had on a black baseball cap with “Pastor” in white letters on the front.
“The prison system clearly reflects a part of the economic disaster we’re in,” he said. “We are the most imprisoned country in the world. What we’re saying is that we need to reorganize our priorities, because arresting people isn’t making us safer. It’s costing us economically and creating a new class of people who are disenfranchised.”
Speakers at the three-hour-long rally included Shane Bauer, 29, Sarah Shourd, 33, and Josh Fattal, 29, the much-publicized American hikers accused of being spies and imprisoned in Iran in 2009, Shourd for 14 months, Bauer and Fattal for more than two years, including periods of solitary confinement. Bauer and Fattal staged a hunger strike to win the right to read letters from their friends and family.
“The issue of prison conditions is important to all of us,” Bauer said. “We lived in prison and when we hear of people being held in solitary confinement, either in Iran or here, it’s something we feel very deeply. The fact that there are so many people in solitary confinement in this country is terrible.”
Demonstrators carried signs and banners with such slogans as “Stop the war on working people, jobs not jail” and “mass incarceration profits the 1 percent.” They chanted, “Inside, outside, all on the same side.”
Ron Greene of Greebrae, a 77-year-old former clinical psychologist who worked at San Quentin and Soledad prisons, mingled with the crowd, taking photos.
“I support the general principles of Occupy and I care about the conditions at San Quentin,” he said. “That’s not to say I want to release all the prisoners, but there are many who could do very well on the street.”
Sixty-nine-year-old Elaine Brown, the first woman chairperson of the Oakland Black Panther Party in the 1960s, spoke last. From the stage, she looked out on the many young faces in the crowd, estimated by police at 600 to 700.
“I am happy and proud to see all you young people,” she said before belting out several verses of the gospel song “O Freedom.”