They are coming from Alabama and Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. They are coming from Massachusetts and New York and Connecticut. They are coming from Texas and Colorado and as far west as California and Washington state. They are friends and family members of the more than two million people imprisoned in the United States. They are black, white, and brown. They are small-town activists, nationwide networks, and members of the grassroots sprouting up from the cracks in the prison walls. And they are all heading for Washington, DC, on August 13 as part of a nationwide "Journey for Justice" for America's prisoners and their loved ones.
Energized by opposition to the mindless grinding of the US criminal justice machine, which leads the world in putting its citizens behind bars, march organizers say it will demand an end to mass incarceration as social policy, the return of the vote to people who have done their time, an end to the physical abuse and neglect that is endemic even though hidden by high walls of official silence. They are also demanding an end to the war on drugs, under which nearly half a million Americans now rot for years in prison for "crimes" that had no victim.
The notion that the time is right for a national march to demand redress for the crimes committed against individuals and communities -- most often poor and minority -- by the criminal justice system had its genesis in the homegrown activism of Montgomery, Alabama, radio personality Roberta Franklin, herself a former prisoner. Responding to her own experiences as well as the voices of her listeners, who complained bitterly about the Alabama criminal justice system and the state's notorious prison conditions, Franklin formed a local group, Family and Friends of People Incarcerated (FFPI). When 3,000 people marching under the FFPI banner took to the streets of Montgomery last year, the idea of replicating that protest in the nation's capital took root.
"I'm from Montgomery, the home of the grassroots social justice movement," said Franklin. "This is where Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, and this is where we start saying no more to all these harsh prison sentences. After that march here in Montgomery, I thought it was time for a national march. I mortgaged my house, and other people are making sacrifices, too. We don't have any grant money, but we do have more people coming on board all the time, and we're raising money however we can. We've got women doing fish fries," she told DRCNet.
The November Coalition, an organization devoted to freeing the prisoners of the drug war, is one group that heeded the call. "We're going to be there," said Coalition head Nora Callahan, from the group's offices across the country in Colville, Washington. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. There are lots of grassroots groups coming together on this -- more people than the drug reform movement ever brought together -- and these are people and groups who have been working on state and local issues, but who are ready to go to Washington because they understand that if they want their states to change, they need the federal government to stop being so threatening," she told DRCNet.
"There is a deep sense that the problem lies at the top of the national political structure, and that means Washington," Callahan continued. "In the states, where legislators are accountable and have to hold to their budgets, they are finding it impossible to continue down this path of mass incarceration, but in Washington, it is as if budget constraints don't exist. Who is holding back change? It's the feds. When the Supreme Court threw out the sentencing guidelines in the Blakely and Booker cases, that resounded with thousands of people all over the country. Now Congress is responding with crummy legislation, and that is mobilizing a lot of people who want to march on Washington."
Critical Resistance, a national group devoted to abolishing the prison-industrial complex, was also quick to endorse the march. "We have long been involved in supporting the work led by the people most affected by our nation's prison policies," said Zein El-Amine of the group's DC chapter. "In this case, the people leading the march are actually families and friends of prisoners. I don't remember any time in recent history when there has been a mobilization like this in the nation's capital. This is a real grassroots movement," he told DRCNet.
For Critical Resistance, the war on drugs is a key part of the broader resort to mass incarceration. "Everyone knows the war on drugs is a failure," said El-Amine. "We have had mandatory minimums, we have had three-strike sentences, we have half a million drug offenders behind bars. But every time the American people are given the chance to vote, they have chosen drug treatment over the dead end of incarceration. We have seen that in California, Arizona, and other places, including right here in DC, where a measure to divert drug users into treatment instead of prison passed with 78% of the vote. But our mayor, Anthony Williams, has it tied up in court. The war on drugs is a really important issue to DC, and the people voted one way and the officials are resisting these progressive measures."
Critical Resistance DC is doing what it can to pump up attendance, said El-Amine. "We are mainly going to events where we think people will be open to the march and setting up tables and passing out flyers. Our resources are very limited, but we're doing the best we can and will be working with the March's DC host committee."
"I'll be there, and everyone who can go should be there," said Loretta Nall of the US Marijuana Party, herself an Alabama activist who worked with Franklin on last year's Montgomery march. "We marched in Montgomery because Alabama's prisons are at 214% of capacity, the guards are overworked and underpaid, and the health care is nonexistent, and the state responds by creating a new prison task force -- although they've already done that two or three times. We know what the answers are. If you don't change the drug laws, you'll just keep those prisons full."
Again, it's personal. "I have friends and family members in prison," Nall told DRCNet. "It's inhumane to lock people in cages with violent criminals for smoking a joint. It's just insane. That's one reason I'm going to Washington, DC."
Nall is emblematic of the nascent and tentative relationship between the drug reform movement, and its marijuana component in particular, and the broader, largely minority-based local, grassroots movements to ease the nation's harsh criminal justice policies. The large national marijuana advocacy groups, such as the Marijuana Policy Project and the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, have been silent on the August march. But that may be because no one has asked them about it. Representatives of both groups told DRCNet this week they had not been approached by march organizers.
For many marijuana activists, said Nall, it is a learning curve. "When people first become involved with us, it's about marijuana," she said. "But then they start to focus on what the drug laws do and most people realize it's much broader than just pot; it's a whole system that needs to be destroyed and rebuilt."
Not all drug reform organizations are staying away from the march. Students for Sensible Policy, while mainly focused on campus-related drug policy issues, has signed on as a march endorser. "Students are tired of attending mediocre schools that could be improved with the valuable public resources that are instead being used to construct more and more prisons to lock up more and more nonviolent drug offenders," said SSDP national affairs director Tom Angell. "The government should prioritize education over incarceration," he told DRCNet.
The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform is another reform group that has picked up the gauntlet. "Women are the fastest growing, least violent segment of the prison population. Women are losing their children and families and communities are being destroyed by these harsh drug laws that make people responsible for drug crimes and conspiracies when they aren't really responsible at all," said Jean Marlowe, the group's cofounder and executive director. "We are marching for the 6.5 million children in this country who have a parent in prison in jail or on parole or probation. That's why we think this march is important," she told DRCNet. "When children are abused in the name of war on drugs, when they are taken from their homes and ripped from their families to grow up with no sense of security, it's time for women to step up and say these policies will change."
For WONPR's Marlowe, who did time herself in the federal prison system, her activism is a promise kept. "When I left the Alderson prison camp, I promised those girls I would give them and their children a voice, I promised them that I would let people know how outrageous these drugs laws are. I wish I could have brought them all home with me, but all I can give them is my word, so here I am."
"Not all wisdom resides in Washington, and grassroots leadership around the country deserves to be encouraged," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, who will address the march in Washington. "I am completely sympathetic to the issues that Roberta and others are organizing around and I'm looking forward to the march on August 13. I'm encouraging everyone to come and bring their colleagues," he told DRCNet.
Jennifer Williamson of Rice, Texas, knows the agony of having a family member behind bars, too, and as is the case many others involved, it is that personal experience with the criminal justice system that is fueling her activism. Her mentally disturbed 20-year-old son is in prison in Florida, where both his mental and his physical problems go untreated, she told DRCNet. "I went to see him in jail there, and you wouldn't believe it. He's got a broken bone sticking up out of his shoulder and they don't fix it. He needs mental health treatment, but they don't even want to acknowledge he has a problem. I couldn't do anything but cry when I saw him," she said.
"They are not doing prisoners right throughout the country," Williamson said. "Something has to change. You keep forcing air into a balloon, and it pops. You keep kicking a dog and he will eventually bite. I wrote letters to my senators and representatives, but nobody wrote me back. I wrote to Gov. Bush, and his office said he would look into it, but nothing has happened. I'm going to Washington, DC, even if I have to go alone," said the small-town Texas mother.
Like others involved in the march, Williamson is doing what she can to ensure that she is not alone. "When I went to see my son, I took 150 flyers for the march and plastered them on gas stations and conveniences stores along I-10 from Texas to Florida," she said.
In a low-budget, grassroots campaign like the Journey for Justice, what Williamson did needs to be multiplied a thousand times. We will know on August 13 whether it succeeded.