By: Diana Block
“Street art, George Floyd protest, Minneapolis, MN, June, 2020” by Renoir Gaither
In mid-2020, my friend Nina Serrano, an author/poet/activist who hosts a radio show about books, Cover-to-Cover on KPFA, asked me to do an update of an interview I did with her in 2015 about my novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History. She wanted me to comment on how the futuristic last chapter of my book, which was set in 2020, compared with the unfolding, seemingly fictional reality.
I had been caught up, like most others, in the urgent demands of the pandemic moment. For me that meant ramping up support for the people I work with inside California women’s prisons. They, like other incarcerated people, were trapped inside the most dangerous incubators for the coronavirus without cleaning supplies, options to socially distance, or visits from family and loved ones. Our collective demands to immediately release elders and medically vulnerable people were being ignored by Governor Newsom and other state officials under the guise of protecting public safety, and the people in prison who tested positive for COVID were being placed in an isolated, punitive version of quarantine. I was constantly worried and enraged. I hadn’t remembered that I had dared to imagine the liberatory possibilities of 2020 in my novel. The radio interview with Nina didn’t happen for logistical reasons, but Nina’s question pushed me to look back at what I had invented and hold it up against a present that was exploding in multiple dystopian and visionary directions.
My novel was rooted in stories from my own life, and those of many other people whom I have been close to, about confrontations with the heavy hand of the carceral state. Each character plays out fantasies of escape – from the FBI, state informers, the courts, parole boards and prisons – with mixed success, as they come to grips with the limits of real-life circumstances. I set the last chapter in 2020 to suggest possibilities which conceivably might be enacted within a foreseeable future. Besides, the number 2020 embodied numerological balance and farsighted metaphors, appropriate for the scenarios I wanted to create.
In my imaginary 2020, a clandestine hacktivist group (inspired by the real group Anonymous which was particularly active between 2011-2015) hacks into the systems controlling electronic monitoring “bracelets” in San Francisco and renders them inoperable. People who had been forced to wear these oppressive devices begin to cut their e-shackles off, inspiring a new hashtag- #breakthebracelet– which then goes viral. The formerly incarcerated people, newly liberated from their electronic confinement, begin to gather in different community spaces to collectively defend their newfound freedom and create sustainable ways of surviving together. These community spaces are dubbed urban maroons , referencing the history of escaped slaves who created maroon communities, with a shout out to real-life political prisoner Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, who had earned his middle name after escaping from prison twice.
The hacking project takes off around the country with more and more people released from their electronic bondage, and the urban maroon communities become a model of mutual aid and self -organization. With mounting public support for these self-governing communities, police and sheriffs hold back from invading and taking them over. At the end of the book, the future of the urban maroons is unpredictable. It isn’t clear how long the communities will survive, whether they will be invaded by the police or if they will be able to overcome the type of internal implosions which doomed the Occupy movement and other such radical efforts in the past. Still, a fire has been lit, and this new abolitionist tactic is spreading across the country.
Fast forward to the real 2020. My novel certainly didn’t prefigure the emergence of the novel coronavirus – though both scientists and science fiction writers have foreseen the emergence of such a virus. And contrary to my hacktivist fantasy, the prevalence of electronic monitoring has only expanded. Currently, e-shackles are increasingly offered as an alternative to cages in the era of COVID; the state uses the pandemic to extend its electronic surveillance of communities across the country, and Zoom, Facebook and YouTube exert unfettered control over educational and movement communication (note the recent unprecedented shut down of a forum on gender justice narratives because it included Palestinian icon Leila Khaled) .
But my novel did insist that the seemingly solid walls erected between prison and community are infinitely permeable and are breached in multiple routine ways every day. From the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, the penetrability of prison walls has been exposed as never before by an invisible virus that has entered and exited jails, prisons and detention centers without permission, on a daily basis. Prisons quickly became part of the public conversation regarding COVID because they were identified as petri dishes for the virus that would act as hyper-transmission vectors between cage and community.
Incarcerated people, their loved ones, activists and public health experts across the country immediately sounded the alarm with unprecedented unity, in car caravans, organized phone zaps, open-air demonstrations, and through campaigns to #FreeThemAll. We all made it indisputably clear that decarceration was the only way to prevent widespread infection and death within prisons, a genocidal prospect. In the context of a prison infection rate that is five times higher and a death rate that is three times higher than that of the U.S. population as a whole, radical decarceration does not seem like a fantasy demand. But tragically, all across the country state and Federal officials have shown ruthless disregard for incarcerated lives, shutting down most demands to release even the most medically vulnerable people in order not to threaten “public safety” and the sanctity of a punishment system designed to crush lives and spirits.
The characters in my novel repeatedly dream of breaking through this matrix of normalized carceral control. They plot escape because the “legitimate” avenues for freedom require decades of plodding through legal/political quagmires to prove to a vengeful state their innocence, illness, remorse, and redemption. When release is finally offered, following the stringent paths dictated by the rules of law, it often comes too late for more than a fleeting celebration of freedom before death. Enter my hacktivist fantasy, an insurgent counterpoint to the legislated paths to freedom. Hacking through the shackles of electronic monitoring requires imagination and skill. Building urban maroon communities demands vision and collective care. These are some of the elements needed to turn abolitionist fantasies into realities.
In the last chapter of my book, the characters respond to “a cross-continent death squad of police drilling holes in Black and Brown bodies” (227): the 2014 wave of police violence that brutally took the lives of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alex Nieto, Aura Rain Rosser, Ezell Ford and many more. “A tipping point had been reached and the orange bubble of rage that had been simmering for years barely below the surface exploded in the streets”(228). Now, in the real 2020, that tipping point has again been reached as Black-led uprisings against police terror and the entire racist apparatus sweep across the country. In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, Dejon Kizzee, and Daniel Prude, #Abolish the Police, #Abolish ICE, #Abolish Prisons,and #FreeThemAll are no longer just hashtags or fringe fantasies, but have become the people’s mandates that are shouted in the streets, broadcast on network TV, projected on the walls of corporate skyscrapers, painted on sidewalks and storefronts in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Oakland, Louisville, Rochester, Kenosha.
The moment is ripe with insurgent possibility and racked with portents of uncontrollable cataclysm. In a mounting backlash, white supremacist groups are stoking their festering base with racist cyber-ops, performative demonstrations of armed might, and acts of brutal violence as they are egged on from the pinnacle of the U.S. power pyramid. It will take extraordinary strategic thinking, steadfast commitment and militant imagination to topple the tilting, but still tall, towers of the U.S. empire.
In one of 2020’s fantastical realities, former Black Panther Jalil Muntaqim walked out of prison to freedom on October 7th after surviving COVID and nearly fifty years of continuous incarceration. Clandestine Occupations was dedicated to Jalil and to Marilyn Buck, a white anti-imperialist, political prisoner who died ten years ago on August 3, 2010, 19 days after she received a compassionate release from prison. Marilyn and Jalil ‘s stories were woven into the fabric of my book. Their histories of struggle are part of the freedom fighting legacy being carried forward in 2020’s incendiary uprisings.
With appreciation to Nina Serrano who sparked these reflections.
Diana Block is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an abolitionist organization that is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020. She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History. She writes for various online journals about Cuba, Palestine, political prisoners and other interconnected global subjects.