A Look Back at Critical Resistance South

By Kim Diehl

To understand the power and significance of Critical Resistance South Conference and Strategy Session, we begin with its ending – a funeral for the prison industrial complex in the form of a second line parade. Led by a traditional brass band on a warm Sunday afternoon in April 2003, thousands of conference attendees and residents of Tremé, the oldest Black neighborhood in the U.S. rejoiced, strutted, danced and swayed past Congo Square, the only space where enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate in the 18th and 19th centuries. The second line slowly marched through the heart of New Orleans declaring the end of mass incarceration, suppression and cages.

The second line funeral for the PIC told the story of CR South: a gathering by and for southerners who organize through the lens of liberation from enslavement. For it is only by living in the South and developing relationships with southern people engaged in freedom struggles that one can truly feel and understand the direct line between the plantation South and the contemporary South.

The site, like the planning of the event, was intentionally chosen because of its historic significance as a community formed by formerly enslaved Africans. One of our primary goals as a conference organizing committee was to draw the line between Southern plantations and present day prisons. Parchment and Angola Prisons are two of the more infamous plantations turned prisons. We wanted to make it clear that the South’s system of enslavement and disposable labor is why the region leads the nation for incarceration of youth and adults and holds more people on death row than any other region in the country.

Kung Li, a member of the Georgia-based work group recalled, “CR South invited us to create the story of criminal justice system from a southern perspective. That story started at the end of the Civil War when in order to maintain white supremacy and control over black labor the white elites created convict leasing out of the loophole in the 13th Amendment.”

Because of this direct line between enslavement and incarceration, we were intentional about centering participation from black communities and rural communities.

“I’m from coal fields of Appalachia where prisons are used as economic development,” said Amelia Kirby, a member of the conference organizing committee. “The coal industry had been in decline and people were being presented with prisons as a solution. Communities were embracing a carceral mindset and wanted the jobs. We were grappling about how to organize against prison construction as the only future for job creation in rural communities.”

It took a year and a half to create the regional organizing committee that would design the conference. Community organizers from across the 12 states of the South formed working groups (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia) who did outreach and held workshops in their communities to develop a shared language and political consciousness about the prison industrial complex and how it was impacting our communities. The work groups organized logistics, outreach, lead-up events, written materials, a media strategy and a wide-ranging program.

“The biggest challenge was logistics to bring several thousand people to New Orleans and have a good experience,” explained Melissa Burch. “We knew we had to do it in a neighborhood, not at a hotel. But the deeper question was how do we build on a movement already there.”

To prioritize and centralize a conference for people most impacted by the PIC meant it would be free and accessible. Therefore, it was a conference for the community. Participants did not have to pay money to register, we offered free food and it was held in the neighborhood.

“We had to figure out how to get around what is typical about conferences in order to meet our values,” explained Tamika Middleton. “We were asking questions like, ‘Can we leave flyers at the bail bond places? How do we door knock in the projects if we’re not residents and not catch a trespassing charge? How can we be in community spaces without police being our security?’ Doing a conference and outreach meant overcoming challenges like these while figuring out how to talk about the prison industrial complex without saying those words.” Middleton added, “This language was not as prevalent as it is now.”

Organizers like Middleton, Kirby, Horowitz-Garcia, and Li took part in thousands of hours of conversations uplifting the politics of abolition with people who did not have abolition at the center of their organizing. These conversations took place on the phone and in small gatherings across the region. As members of the organizing committee, we went through list after list of names and made numerous phone calls to people we had never met. We did not use email except to share information. Primarily, the conference and the infrastructure that was built to create the CR South regional office was done through conversations. We knew our role was not only to put a conference together, but to invest our energy towards a southern-led movement to abolish the PIC. It was exciting, exhausting and fulfilling to participate in designing something directly rooted in our values.

The organizing committee set the conference goals in a planning meeting held at the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee. Those goals were to:

  • Draw attention to issues of the PIC in the South
  • Help to build a movement against the PIC, expand existing networks, and combat feelings of isolation
  • Focus on communities most affected by the PIC
  • Bring new people into the work and increase the level of organizing against the PIC in the South
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Focus on the South and create an event that was southern in content and style

On April 4, 2003, the conference finally began. More than 1,500 people congregated inside the auditorium of the Tremé community center for the opening of Critical Resistance South. Outside the community center a two-story banner with the words “WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE WE LOVE BEHIND BARS?” was dropped. It served as a visual backdrop during the dynamic activities and programming that took place in and around the Tremé community center from April 4-6 2003. Many of the conference workshops were held inside an elementary school and the conference’s cultural activities spilled into Tremé’s porches, hallways, sidewalks, churches and businesses.

A local elementary school served as the centerpiece of the conference. Its three-story high brick walls bore 100 or so 4 by 6-foot banners, featuring paintings by students depicting their family members and friends who are in prison. A photo of the school’s facade appeared on the front page of the local section of the New Orleans Times Picayune. “To open this news conference, we have a question we need to ask of this country,” demanded one speaker at a press conference which opened the conference, “Why are so many people we love behind bars?”

The conference featured about 100 workshops, caucuses, performances, films, exhibitions and informal discussions in two community centers, three neighborhood churches, all three floors of the elementary school and the adjacent Louis Armstrong Park.

Workshops ranged in topic from increased surveillance of communities of color since September 11th, to police brutality, ability-tracking of kids as a pathway to prison, community-based responses to interpersonal violence, the impact of the criminal justice system on women, children and families, abolitionist strategies, family members of prisoners supporting each other, prison journalism, young people as targets of the PIC, rural organizing against new prisons, political prisoners and the connections between militarism and prisons.

“We brought a bus load of young people and folks from community in Mississippi,” explained Ellen Reddy, a southern organizing committee member from the Mississippi Delta. “We wanted to open up the discussion on what was the impact on incarceration on young people. By attending the conference, we realized we’re not in this by ourselves.”

By the final day of the conference, a new southern wave of resistance was sparked and the experiment was over. We went from a year and a half of faithfully theorizing about a conference by and for southerners most impacted by the prison industrial complex to putting it into practice.

Kenyon Farrow, a conference attendee who later became CR’s southern regional coordinator two months after the conference said, “The conference created ripples across the South. It was a significant moment in organizing history and it birthed organizations and campaigns that would not have otherwise been formed. I saw first-hand after Katrina how the people who participated in CR south played important roles in building the Amnesty for Survivors of Hurricane Katrina campaign in New Orleans.” He added, “CR South helped me pull together a personal history of growing up in the housing projects in Cleveland, OH in the 1980s and remembering what it did to our family when relatives had been locked up. It helped me politicize my personal narrative around prisons.”

It is from this generative foundation that we not only reflect and look back, but which we must use to examine the time since, and our collective present struggle.

Kim Diehl was an organizing committee member of CR South.

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