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Interview with Vicente “Panama” Alba, by Molly Porzig
hat was the Lincoln Detox Center? How did it start and why?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York, we were living through a drug epidemic. In November of 1970, I was 19 years old and had been a heroin addict for five years. I began using heroin when I was 14, which was very common for young men and young women of my generation. Fifteen percent of the population was addicted (communities in the South Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side, Bushwick in Brooklyn, including everyone from a newborn baby to an elderly person ready to pass on). The concentration of addiction was on teenagers and people in their early 20s and 30s. Addiction at that time was primarily to heroin.
In the 1960s, the U.S. government engaged in a war in Southeast Asia commonly known as the Vietnam War, but the United States was involved in all of Southeast Asia. There was an airline that was an operation of the CIA transporting heroin from Southeast Asia to the U.S. We see now in Hollywood movies “gangsters” importing heroin, but the bulk of heroin imported to the United States was a United States government operation, targeting poor communities of color, black and Latino communities.
In New York, heroin devastated most of Harlem and the South Bronx. Young people utilized heroin very publicly, sniffing heroin at dance halls or in school bathrooms, which led to shooting up intravenously. This was an epidemic that Black Panther Michael Cetewayo Tabua, one of the New York 21, wrote a pamphlet on called “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide,” which we used widely. In 1969, the Black Panther Party in New York City was decimated by the indictment of 21 Black Panthers and needed to focus on the trial, becoming inactive in other areas at that time. Because of the relationship the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords had, together we began looking at the heroin epidemic, the general health of our communities and the public health positions of institutions against our communities.
Lincoln Hospital was built in 1839 to receive former slaves migrating from the South. By 1970, it was the only medical facility in the South Bronx. It was a dilapidated brick structure, from the previous century that had never been upgraded. It was known as the “butcher shop of the South Bronx.” In the old Lincoln Hospital (and even today) you walk down the hall and see blood everywhere—blood on the walls, the sheets, the gurneys, your shoes. Doctors were assigned there for internships and learned on Blacks, Puerto Ricans and a very small diminishing white community in the South Bronx.
In early 1970, there was a woman by the name of Carmen Rodriguez who was butchered in the hospital and bled to death on a gurney. Following that death, the Young Lords, with the participation of some Black Panthers, took over Lincoln Hospital for the first time and demanded better health care delivery for people in that community.
During the takeover, the Young Lords, Panthers, supporters and translators set up tables where people came to document their experiences of the medical treatment. A major part of the takeover focused on how there were no translators at Lincoln Hospital. South Bronx is a predominantly Puerto Rican community, primarily of Spanish-speaking people newly arrived or second generation who spoke little-to-no English. People would walk in Lincoln Hospital for medical treatment and there was nobody there to understand your ailment or problem. The hospital administration had also been confronted about the lack of services for people with addictions, primarily heroin addiction. The community had told the hospital one of its shortcomings was that you come to the hospital and you get no treatment whatsoever. The hospital administration paid no mind to it.
Months later on November 10, 1970, a group of the Young Lords, a South Bronx anti-drug coalition, and members of the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (a mass organization of health workers) with the support of the Lincoln Collective took over the Nurses’ Residence building of Lincoln Hospital and established a drug treatment program called The People’s Drug Program, which became known as Lincoln Detox Center.
The police surrounded us and we said we weren’t leaving. By day two, the takeover had spread by word of mouth and we had hundreds of people lined up wanting to get treatment for addiction. About a month later, the administration had to come to terms with the fact that we weren’t leaving. They had been sitting on the proposal of some monies that had been earmarked for treatment that hadn’t been implemented. The money was brought and staff was hired from the very volunteers of the Lincoln Detox program we started. Of course the powers that be did not want us there but could not figure out how to deal with people saying we ain’t going. We’re staying and we’re going to serve our people.
We were very effective in doing so, and kept our program running until 1979.
What was your involvement?
Ashanti Alston and Masai Ehehosi with Molly Porzig
From The Abolitionist No. 18: Surveillance
ditors Note: In exploring the role of surveillance as a cornerstone of the prison industrial complex (PIC), The Abolitionist wanted to examine it through its history, how it has been used and continues to repress struggles for liberation and self-determination. We interviewed two long-time revolutionaries and Critical Resistance members, Ashanti Alston and Masai Ehehosi, to outline some of this history as well as their own experiences organizing under surveillance during for more than 40 years.
A lot of people have very different definitions of surveillance. Can you explain what surveillance means to you?
Ashanti: It’s really important that people have a historical understanding. We have to always deal with what surveillance meant when there was this European conquest of the African continent–capturing and enslaving millions of Africans over to what became the United States; setting up slave ports and always having to have people keep an eye on those you’ve captured and on possible opposition to your quest to conquer the world. The whole system of slavery is one that is constant surveillance, as it is part of the mechanisms of conquest. When have colonized people not been under surveillance?
It’s important to understand what that means for those of us who are still victims of that original surveillance that came with the conquest of our people that we still have not been able to get off our backs yet in 2012.
Masai: That relates to how I see surveillance–it’s continuous. Years ago when Ashanti and I first started working together, we started to be surveilled and have been ever since. One of the definitions of surveillance is the continued observation of a person or group, especially if they are from one perspective doing something “illegal”. Revolution is always illegal to the oppressor since the independence struggle began. Independence is always considered illegal; just struggling for a just society is always illegal to the oppressor. If we’re talking about anything to cause real change, then we’re also talking about surveillance.
How has surveillance changed over time? What tactics have been used, how have they developed and how are they used now?
Masai: There’s always a greater use of technology to evolve more serious surveillance as time goes on and more advancements are invented. A lot of people who are targets or potential targets help a lot more now with surveillance than before, in the sense of smart phones, Facebook, [credit] cards and things that we do every day and we just don’t think about as surveillance. It may not be a thing where someone is visually seeing us, but our movements, actions and choices are being tracked. We contribute to it. We just don’t think there’s any other way.
When I used to work for the health department as a Communal Disease Control Investigator, we would ask people questions about their relationships, their lives, lots of private things. This was over 20 years ago and even back then a lot of people didn’t really realize what was going on. They would just give up information–about who partners were, gave network information and so on. Some the government already had, but a lot they didn’t. They then could make links of people based on information one person gave.
In terms of technology like cameras, some of those things that we got now couldn’t have even been done openly twenty years ago, because people would challenge it, but now people are accepting it. It comes back to the level of organizing that people are actually doing, because obviously a lot of the time people don’t actually feel safe, so they rely on the system’s tools either directly or indirectly. Some of us aren’t doing the organizing that we should be doing in the community that will actually make people feel and be safe. There’s a reason why they don’t feel safe—they’re buying into the propaganda, and we’re supposed to counteract that.
Ashanti: Technology is doing a hell of job, and those of us who want to challenge it have to think of how to do this differently. There’s an evolution of these agencies of conquest, but I keep focus on the role of the police, government, agencies, government programs, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, neighbors, business, media—all of these things are here to surveil or to create the conditions whereby the people that rule this country can keep the people under control, abiding by the law or rule. In some ways, things have changed drastically and in other ways not, because the key groups of people are still under this specific surveillance. This system does what it’s supposed to do to maintain white supremacy. I want people not to be naïve in what we face when we say we want to change this world. This reality and the history behind it, calls for abolition, not reform.
One example is a young activist brother in Cleveland, Ohio, saw them cameras up in the neighborhood and he also knew people in the neighborhood were calling for cameras because of the level of crime. He was trying to explain to everyone what those cameras really meant, but it fell on deaf ears. So he took it upon himself to actually start knocking them cameras out, regardless of what people thought. After so many generations of conquest, even those most impacted by the system begin to call for their own surveillance, repression. This tells you what the new challenge for those of us who say they want change. How do we get people to see that some of the very things that they’re asking for from government are not in their best interest? Continue reading
By Isaac Ontiveros and Rachel Herzing
From The Abolitionist No. 18: Surveillance
These days, systems of surveillance are astoundingly complex, pervasive, and have extraordinary reach. Understanding surveillance helps us understand technologies that provide the connective tissue between policing, militarization, imprisonment and detention, border control, immigration, urbanization, and transnational capitalism. Keeping tabs on where people go, how they get there, whom they go with, and what they do is key in maintaining the state’s power and control.In Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault traces the history of imprisonment and explores how Western societies began to define order in relationship to how they punished and imprisoned people. Foucault also discusses how these definitions of order, in turn, were used to discipline different strata of the population, whether they were prisoners, workers, or children. One of Foucault’s significant contributions to current understandings of how power and control work, is his analysis of how the logic of containment and violence perfected in the prison was extended back out into wider society. Modern philosophies, theories, techniques, and technologies of surveillance have largely been developed and perfected in prisons, settings in which nearly every aspect of life of people in prison was watched, categorized, documented, catalogued, and regulated and in which the idea being stripped of freedom of any kind is intertwined with the of being overseen, at all times. What gets tested and honed within prison walls then flows back into society at large and again back into prisons in a continuous loop. The core of surveillance explored by Foucault rests on idea that surveillance functions most effectively when it is as pervasive as possible, when everyone is certain that they are somehow being watched at all times, and when the feeling of being watched is deep seated and coerces us into acting accordingly to stay in line. Over 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. And as our populations swell in smaller and smaller spaces, surveillance is increasingly used to monitor and control people’s activities. Similarly, the threats of people consolidated in limited geographic spaces for mass events—large gatherings such as demonstrations, encampments, and sporting events—tend to trigger mass surveillance. Mass events employ a high concentration of existing surveillance technologies. They are sites for the development and implementation of new technologies. Even as they are by definition not permanent, mass events are sites of legalization and normalization of a culture of surveillance. They extend and expand the criminalization of populations labeled as threats by the state. Mass events generate incredible profits for security firms and companies that produce surveillance and other policing technologies. Finally, and, maybe most importantly, mass events generate a high potential for violence by government and private entities employing the surveillance tools in law enforcement.
The use of police and military surveillance at large scale protests and demonstrations is something that probably won’t strike too many readers as surprising, even as the intensity of surveillance and its relationship to the militarization of policing is truly disturbing. Demonstrations and encampments from Tahrir Square in Cairo, to Occupy Oakland, to protests against NATO in Chicago have been met with intense surveillance in the form of video cameras, undercover agents, informants, aerial observation, phone taps, digital communications interception, and the confiscation of computers and cameras. For readers familiar with the history of state counterintelligence programs, you know that the information gathered through these surveillance methods may then be used to target leaders, disrupt the public’s ability to know about and participate in political events, instill fear, suspicion, and spread lies, coordinate violent crackdowns, and otherwise neutralize political demands, and impacts. When it comes to state repression of political mass mobilization, surveillance is a very important tool.
But in thinking about surveillance as a tool of state repression, it might be less obvious for us to think about other mass events, ones that seem less political and more about fun and games. Take the Olympics for example. Aren’t they simply a time when masses of people gather to be awed by the physicality and triumphs of athletes from all over the world, coming together in a spirit of lively competition? No doubt we have all sorts of different reasons why we might be enchanted and excited by these sorts of sporting events. Whether we are sports fans or not, the magnitude of events such as the Olympic Games grabs our attention.
Upon the writing of the article, as many as 500,000 are people expected to attend the Summer Olympic Games in London in this year with roughly 2,000,000,000 expected to tune in to watch on television. No doubt the Olympics are big business. Host cities spend billions of dollars on construction, promotion, and advertisement in order to court event attendees who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend the games. In turn, sponsors such as McDonalds, Dow Chemicals, and Coca Cola make millions and millions of dollars in exclusive sponsorship deals. Continue reading
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As we know, surveillance is an integral component of the prison industrial complex. Equally as important is our ability to confront surveillance in order to create a society in which people are free of constant tracking and cataloging as a means of driving them into cages or turning their homes and neighborhoods into virtual prisons. This issue seeks not only to document the terrifying sophistication of surveillance systems, while offering examples and spurring dialogue about how to abolish them.
While the topic of surveillance spans a vast variety of issues and sectors, the pieces in this installment of The Abolitionist offer some points of entry for understanding the topic. From how it is used to limit funding of political organizations, to its role inside Security Housing Units (SHUs), the authors and artists featured in this issue of The Abolitionist help us think about both the impacts of surveillance, and means of resisting those impacts. In these pages, we will see the socio-economic costs of surveillance as well as the history of surveillance used against our organizations and our responses to that pressure. While not directly addressing the surveillance, we are also excited to bring you Letters to The Abolitionist in response to past issues of the paper, and two authors, David Gilbert and Eric A. Stanley in dialogue via reviews of each other’s books.
Walking the fine line between caution and paralysis takes patience and care. We hope that the sampling of perspectives offered here provides new insights and information and generates energy and a renewed commitment to fighting for a world free of the fear and mistrust on which surveillance depends.
Thanks to all our contributors!
Kijana Tashiri Askari
Inger P. Brink
Larry James DeRossett
Eric A. Stanley
Hello CA Hunger Strike Supporters!
As you know, last year when prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison launched a hunger strike, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition worked tirelessly to get mainstream media to cover the strike and expose the torturous conditions within California’s Security Housing Units, as well as within prisons in general. During the first week of the strike in 2011, CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said only a few dozen prisoners were on strike. When Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity members pressured the LA Times to get true numbers from the CDCR, it was revealed that more than 6,600 prisoners were striking, reaching at least a third of the state’s prisons. Some of the very same prisoners involved in the 2011 CA Hunger Strike organized a similar hunger strike in the early 2000′s, but had serious trouble getting the word out due to a media blackout imposed by the prison administration.
Media exposure helped spread awareness and grew strong support for the 2011 CA Hunger Strike. Forceful media work along with grassroots mobilization played an important role in supporting one of the largest prisoner strikes in recent history and pressuring the CDCR to negotiate with the strike leaders. There is still much to be done to help the strikers win their demands. One way of helping to amplify the demands of the strikers is to push California decision makers to lift the media ban on California prisons.
Assembly Bill 1270 is a prison media access bill that was introduced by Assembly member Tom Ammiano to lift the media ban on CA prisons. It will allow journalists greater access to interview California state prisoners and could help amplify the voices of prisoners held in cells meant to silence and disappear them. The CA Appropriations Committee will be making an important vote concerning AB1270 on Monday, August 13th.
BEFORE MONDAY, AUGUST 13th: Help Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity get more signatures on the petition in favor of this bill and support the prisoners in their struggle for human rights!
You can also support by making a quick phone call to Committee members. Click here for phone numbers and sample phone script.
Update & Call for Support from Prison Books Chapel Hill:
First, we are announcing and encouraging people to participate in a call-in day to support NC prison hunger strikers on Wednesday, July 25th. You can find phone and fax numbers here. Because the strike may have spread to facilities we don’t yet know about, folks are especially encouraged to call the Division of Prisons HQ in Raleigh.
Second, the Asheville Prison Book Program has set up a petition for the strikers which supporters can sign here.
On Monday July 16th, prisoners began hunger strikes at Bertie CI in Windsor, Scotland CI in Laurinburg, and Central Prison in Raleigh (North Carolina). Targeting a wide range of conditions related but not exclusive to solitary confinement, the prisoners have vowed not to eat until their demands are met.
Issue 17 of The Abolitionist focuses on “Prisoner Organizing.” Subscribe today to support thousands of prisoners in getting the publication free of charge, and connect struggles against powerlessness and inequality across prison walls!