Initial collective response to public letter of JoNina & Lorenzo "Racism at the NA ABC Conference" (USA)

We are writing as the crew that organized the North American ABC Conference, in response to JoNina and Lorenzo’s public letter “Racism at the NA ABC Conference.” We are nine people spread across the country, from New York to Sacramento, in conjunction with Denver ABC, and as such have a range of views on their open letter. This response is not a full statement of all of those views, or even a consensus of what things we all agree on, but rather a response required to urgently address the letter and to clarify information within it. This statement is NOT to discredit, disqualify, disregard, or fault JoNina and Lorenzo for their experience(s). The information provided is correct to the best of our account, and is provided for the purpose of transparency.

We also note that our public response to this matter is made against our preference for dealing with conflicts internal to anarchist movements. We are troubled by JoNina and Lorenzo’s decision to publish their letter on the Internet (including Facebook) in addition to sending it out over our closed listserv. We find it inappropriate to publicly handle internal matters, where anyone and everyone is privy to internal conflict, that typically makes it difficult to move forward and lends itself more to internet flame wars than revolutionary efforts to deal with oppression within our movements. We do not wish to hide these issues or sweep them under the rug, yet we do value resolving internal conflicts present in anarchist movements and our ABC organizing amongst ourselves—autonomously, collectively, internally. Our preference for handling this situation and the issues it raises includes dialogue between JoNina and Lorenzo, us as conference organizers, members of the panel during which the letter was read, and all other conference attendees and their associates. Thus, we would like to make it clear that this response is being made public only in response to JoNina and Lorenzo’s open letter. We do not make any promises to address this matter in public forums in the future.

Before we respond, we are providing some context, especially for international readers who expressed confusion about the situation. At the 2014 North American ABC conference, held outside of Denver, Colorado, there were a variety of panels, workshops, and discussions covering an array of issues around prisoner support. The panel in question was one on “Playing Lawyer,” and featured speakers who talked about working on parole cases, working on their personal and other legal cases, and finally, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on behalf of Jalil Muntaqim’s parole campaign. Jaili’s parole was recently denied, largely due to a letter-writing campaign conducted by prison guards and fraternal police organizations. Racist cops and guards sent dozens of letters to the parole board, and Jalil requested that a white activist, who is involved in his support and was a member of the panel, read the letters to the panel attendees. The letters, most of which were read aloud or had sections of them read aloud, became progressively more racist and disturbing. There was tension in the air, some nervous laughter, and groans accompanied by outbursts of “What the fuck?” and other such exclamations. The final letter read was comprised almost entirely of racial epithets and slurs directed at people of color in general, and displayed a disgusting level of racism leveled against Jalil and all people of color in the name of keeping him from parole. It is this letter, and the reaction or lack of reaction to it, which prompted the open letter from JoNina and Lorenzo.

We acknowledge that internal oppression and privilege exist at the NA ABC conference, within the NA ABC network, and within NA anarchist movements. At the conference, we have experimented with various ways of addressing internal oppression (including, but not limited to, racism) as a group. Last year, we held three fishbowl discussions: one on race, one on class, one on sexism/patriarchy/gender. This year, we held two group exercises exploring privilege and oppression within our groups and at the conference. While these efforts are clearly not sufficient for countering our internal privilege and oppression or from preventing incidents such as this one, we feel it is important to acknowledge the work we have been doing in this area and are committed to do in the future.

As organizers, we are certainly accountable for what happens at the NA ABC conference. With that understanding and with our commitment to addressing all forms of oppression within our organizing, we have organized these conferences under this statement of purpose and these points of unity:

“The Annual North American ABC Conference exists to provide an inter-generational forum for anarchist, autonomous and anti-authoritarian people engaged in anti-repression work with an emphasis on PP / POW support. It is a unique convergence of peers with an expectation of dynamic participation in mutual aid. Moving in a direction of international organizing, we aim to build and sustain working relationships, ultimately existing as a much greater weapon against state repression. This event utilizes group discussions and working groups where everyone is encouraged to participate equitably and where their unique experiences and knowledge are valued. We facilitate a space that is 100% sober from beginning to end out of respect to the boundaries set by the indigenous principles of the event center. An added benefit is the creation of a focused working environment in which to heal, learn, strategize and hopefully emerge with greater strength and resources to better do our work. We seek to dismantle hierarchies, challenge privileges and break down sectarian barriers within ourselves. Engaging in any oppressive behaviors will not be tolerated and will be addressed immediately. We warmly invite the participation of those willing to co-create this space in which we will further strengthen anti-repression work and PP/POW support.”

We included this statement in our registration forms that went out to everyone invited to the conference. We take this statement seriously and worked hard to adhere to it throughout our organizing and during the conference. As conference organizers, we clearly fell short of living up to all the aspirations in this statement, and for that we take responsibility. We deeply regret that our failure to immediately address the harmful effects of the letter being read in the moment hurt some of our comrades and made them feel so unsafe that they are no longer willing to join us at future conferences.

Accordingly, we cannot stand by while blame is unjustifiably directed at people. JoNina and Lorenzo directly called out Paulette D’Auteuil, the National Secretary of the Jericho Movement, for comments she made during the panel discussion. We believe that the statements made about Paulette mischaracterize the content and intent of what she said at that time. Paulette, who neither organized nor was a participant on the panel, proposed a hypothetical in which people of color attending the panel would have been warned of the contents of the letter and would have had full control over how to handle it, whether to read it or not, or indeed, to leave the room during its reading if they chose to do so. We understand that the suggestion that people of color should simply leave during the reading of a racist letter would have been a racist and inappropriate suggestion. Certainly we, as the organizing crew (which is not all white), do not advocate or condone “white radical racial segregation” at this or any conference. To characterize a small part of Paulette’s hypothetical as an actual proposal, however, is unfair.

Paulette has worked to support Black political prisoners and prisoners of war for decades. She was invited to this year’s conference because of her dedicated organizing and will be invited in the future for the same reasons. She can speak for herself as to her motives and intentions for her comments and suggestions, if she so chooses, and we certainly do not hold her or the Jericho Movement responsible for the panel or its content, as neither she nor Jericho had any involvement in organizing it.

Yet there is responsibility to be taken for what happened and that responsibility was taken during the conference, however imperfectly and inadequately in the eyes of JoNina, Lorenzo, and others at the conference. The reader is responsible for reading the letter in an insensitive way. He immediately accepted that responsibility during the panel and engaged in discussions about the issues afterwards. Additionally, all attendees within earshot are responsible for inadequately addressing the situation in the moment. We are upset that the people in the room (many of us were in the room) collectively failed in those responsibilities, and we are glad that most people engaged in difficult and productive conversations about it during the panel, during the anti-oppression group exercise immediately after the panel, and during the rest of the conference. Despite these efforts, JoNina and Lorenzo are right that such inaction and failures reveal internalized oppression that needs to be addressed.

Finally, we would like to address the other quotations included in the open letter from JoNina and Lorenzo. None of the quotes included in the letter were spoken by anyone at the conference to the best of our collective knowledge and it is problematic to present statements as quotes when they were not actually spoken. No one vocalized that the panelist who read the letter “meant no harm,” the person who made the analogy about a letter being from a misogynist never used the term “bragging letter” even though what she did say was not far off from that idea, no one said that JoNina and Lorenzo or any other people of color attending the conference were “too thin-skinned,” and no one said that the protests of the letter being read were “racial agitation from Lorenzo and people he brought.” Additionally, the two attendees insensitively identified as “Hispanic” (a colonizer’s term for colonized peoples) did not make the statements attributed to them in the open letter. To put forth these fragments as direct quotes from anyone attending the conference is simply untrue.

We are in full agreement that North American ABC chapters and our comrades should develop in-depth, comprehensive, and continuous anti-oppression programs, including workshops, readings, discussions, and continued support for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and mass prison movements.

Further thoughts will be forthcoming, privately and individually if not publicly and collectively.

With respect,

The NA ABC Conference Organizing Crew & Denver ABC

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This entry was posted on Monday, September 22nd, 2014 at 1:04 pm and is filed under Prison Struggle.