Interview by Spanish Trade Union

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This is the English translation of an interview of Melvin Ray of Free Alabama Movement and Cole Dorsey of Oakland IWOC. It was originally printed before the strike began, in Solidaridad Obrera, a publication of the CNT, a radical Spanish trade union. Founded in 1910, the CNT participated in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists from 1936-39. The interview was originally printed here in Catalan, the language of northeastern Spain: http://lasoli.cnt.cat/09/09/2016/eua-entendre-vaga-presos-9-setembre-entrevista-melvin-ray-colle-dorsey-free-alabama-movement-iww

UNDERSTAND THE SEPTEMBER 9 PRISON STRIKE. INTERVIEW WITH MELVIN RAY OF THE FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT AND COLE DORSEY OF THE IWW AND OAKLAND IWOC

Bennu Hannibal Sun-Ra (Melvin Ray), from Holman prison in Alabama, is a co-founder and representative of the Free Alabama Movement.

Cole Dorsey spent three years in prison in Michigan, and joined the IWW a month after his release in 2004. He is currently part of Oakland IWOC and the Bay Area IWW.

ROCA BELTRAN

What can you tell us about the background to this strike?

COLE DORSEY

From my experience in prison, collective action is usually taken for a variety of reasons: the quality of food, access to recreation, access to commissary…. It is nothing new that prisoners have organized and try to change things from within. What’s new is that now we are building a solid network of people outside to support, publicize, and amplify these collective actions that prisoners are doing.

There has been a resurgence of activity in recent years. From the prison strike Georgia in 2010 to the hunger strikes of prisoners in California, prisoners are taking more and more actions to deal with their conditions.

The Free Alabama Movement (FAM) started in 2014. That year there was an uprising at Holman Prison in Alabama. In this struggle, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began working with Melvin Ray and FAM to support them. At this time the IWW also contacted Texas prisoners who claimed they wanted to organize. All this culminated in the creation of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) by IWW members.

September 9 is a significant date because this year marks the 45th anniversary of that day’s Attica riot. The prisoners have called for action on 9 September to end slavery in prison, “refusing to be slaves anymore.”

MELVIN RAY

For us in the Free Alabama Movement these protests are following three years of existence and participation in protests and awareness about slavery and mass incarceration. Our first protest in January 2014 at Holman Prison, was the starting point of the movement. In 2015 after a successful new round of protests, we began to develop the concept and to call a national protest in a document called the Six Step Plan of Action 2015. After that, we began the process of organization. Today that day has arrived.

ROCA BELTRAN

Can you explain how corporations are  connected with the management of prisons and the criminal justice system of the United States?

COLE DORSEY

Companies have learned they can get huge profits from slavery in prison. Before, outsourcing the work to China, India, and Mexico gave them the benefit of paying low wages in these countries. These same companies are now “outsourcing” these jobs within the country through the prisons. Since prisoners are considered “custody” of the state, companies do not have to pay insurance or taxes, or worry if a worker has an accident. All labor issues are managed by the prison administration. Refusing to work may result in a longer sentence, solitary confinement and other restrictions. Companies have a skilled workforce which they only have to pay pennies per hour within their own  country.

The prison industrial complex generates billions of dollars. It is a lucrative business that has grown with private prisons. Although the Department of Justice recently announced it is closing private prisons, this will only affect about 10 federal prisons. There are still private prisons at state level, plus all these inmates will simply be transferred to other centers.

With the industrialization of this country, the response of states to control people has been the mass imprisonment which disproportionately affects people of color. Having a huge mass of workers that are barely paid, there is the threat that the bulk of American workers could lose if they are not compliant, with their employment outsourced to the prison population.

Although statistically crime rates have declined over the years, the number of prisoners has skyrocketed. 80% of black men have been in the system of “justice” US sometime. The police indiscriminately killing black people, the school to prison pipeline, and slavery in prison, perpetuate white supremacy in the US.

MELVIN RAY

Corporations run the prison industrial complex. There are more businessmen involved in politics than ever. Prisons represent savings in operating costs for companies because normal expenses such as taxes, social security … there is no overtime when the work is done by inmates.

Companies finance PACs (Political Action Committees created to raise funds to support candidates in political elections), then pressure politicians to their advantage to pass laws that allow them to access prison labor. Sometimes there are even companies that buy or build prisons directly. But for this investment to work, the company must guarantee that the work is available in the long term. Therefore, politicians tend to pass laws such as “mandatory minimums”, “three strikes” and all kinds of sentences for drug possession. The result is that there is a mass imprisonment in the US, with deplorable conditions and abuses … and profits remain very high.

ROCA BELTRAN

Why speak of modern slavery?

COLE DORSEY

Slavery never ended in this country. This is one of the key messages we want to give the average citizen through our movement. It is written in our constitution. The thirteenth amendment “abolished” slavery “except as a punishment for a crime.

MELVIN RAY

From my point of view the term “modern slavery” is wrong, because slavery never ended. There is nowhere in the US Constitution that says it’s done. In fact, many prisons such as Angola in Louisiana were built on old plantations. The plantation became a prison. The slave became convict. The owner became jailer. I simply followed the money circulating at the expense of black people. In our article “Let the Crops Rot In The Field,” I cite research showing that in the mid-1870s Alabama received around 70% of its state budget from convict slave labor. Most state governments still balance their budgets with labor decisions, fines, and legal exploitation through phones, commissary, incentives … even charging a medical co-payment. But keep in mind that all these costs are borne by people working for free. This is how slavery has always worked.

ROCA BELTRAN

What are the objectives of the strike? What effect do you think it will have?

MELVIN RAY

The main objective is to raise awareness about the deception and what is happening, and show that there is a real and viable solution to the problem of mass incarceration. I demonstrated the ability to solve this problem is in our hands, literally, through the work we do as prisoners. Not lawyers, or politicians, or the President; an organization that is not only us who we are inside. All you have to do is let the crops rot in the ground. Let the factories remain idle. Let the products of the cafeteria rot.

COLE DORSEY

When you remove the economic motivation and improve the conditions of workers in the prison system, all the judicial and police structures for control and capture of prisoners must change and treat us like human beings, rather than as slaves.

Initially, I think the state repression will be very hard against the prisoners on strike. I have no doubt they will be placed in isolation or segregation, and their belongings will be confiscated and their few rights will be restricted indefinitely. So we think it’s important to create a strong network of support from outside, so that we can mobilize and help them against repression. But the long-term hope is to open a national discussion about the fact that slavery must end. The companies and the state are making a lot of money putting people in prison, and mass imprisonment has been used as a means of social control and to perpetuate white supremacy. I see our efforts inside and outside prison leading to a mass-movement to end slavery and white supremacy…. And a general strike to end the capitalist system that sustains it.

ROCA BELTRAN

What organizations are supporting the strike?

COLE DORSEY

The prisoners are those who call the strike. IWOC is fully in support, informing its imprisoned members and trying to promote the strike all possible ways. The National Lawyers Guild has decided to support each prisoner who suffers reprisals for participating in the strike.

IWOC has created a hotline which prisoners can call 24 hours: 816-866-3808.

This link lists groups that have supported the strike: https: //supportprisonerresistance.noblogs.org/endorsements/

ROCA BELTRAN

What is the relationship between the IWW and IWOC? How many members has IWOC?

COLE DORSEY

IWOC was created by members of the IWW. IWOC is a link for prisoners organizing themselves to build solid bridges among themselves and with outside workers. There is a national IWOC committee and a dozen local groups. There are about 800 prisoners and IWW members who are also part of IWOC throughout the country.

MELVIN RAY

IWOC was created to work with FAM because we had many differences with purely union organizations that focus exclusively on wages and working conditions. We in the FAM could not even ask how prisoners are treated like slaves to organize employees. A slave on a plantation cannot pay union dues. For us, especially for the Black masses, this is part of our 460 years of struggle for freedom from slavery in America.

ROCA BELTRAN

What is the attitude towards prisoners on strike? Is there a lot of tension in the prisons? How have the authorities responded so far?

MELVIN RAY

No one has seen or experienced anything like this, so there is a wide range of feelings. There is tension, but there is always tension in the prison. Authorities are responding as their owners say to respond to a threat to a multimillion dollar business: repression without worrying about the consequences. Remember, judges and prosecutors are all in the same boat.

COLE DORSEY

For example, Sidique Hasan of Lucasville and member of the Free Ohio Movement has been visited by the FBI and has been put in solitary confinement for being spokesman of the movement.

ROCA BELTRAN

What actions are called for September 9?

COLE DORSEY

There are planned actions in prisons and against companies that benefit from slave labor in about 50 cities. Many cities are planning to view of films and hold public debates on that date and afterwards. Other actions will include noise demonstrations outside prisons throughout the country, to let the prisoners know they are not alone in their struggle. At the following link there is more information about these actions: https: //itsgoingdown.org/spreading-strike-solidarity-actions-across-north-america-september-9th/

ROCA BELTRAN

How can we support this fight from abroad?

MELVIN RAY

Continue posting and reporting. Ask people to support the protests in the prisons. Investigate and identify companies that use inmate labor, such as McDonald’s, protest their establishments and to boycott them. And, most importantly, help us inside. Help increase the movement. You can make donations to the Free Movement PayPal at famfamalabama@gmail.com

COLE DORSEY

The statements of solidarity help. These have been received from prisoners in Greece, Bulgaria and Mexico. We ask people not to buy products from companies that profit from prison slavery. We would like to see prisoners organized globally as part of “one big union” that uses the strike as a weapon to fight against austerity and white supremacy. IWOC has representation in England and hopefully more unions, prisoners, and other people involved in supporting prisoners and their collective actions worldwide.

An injury to one is an injury to all!

 

 

 

AUTHOR

 

Beltran Roca is a professor of Sociology at the University of Cadiz. Among his research interests are trade unions, social movements and the “third sector.” He has been affiliated with the CNT for almost 20 years and currently works as an advisor to the Sindicat d’Oficis Varis of the Port of Santa María.

 

Solidaridad Obrera is published by CNT Catalonia and the Balearic Islands.

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Melvin Ray’s message to Oakland (part 4 of 4)

…we are the unheard voices in this country…. But these walls are not big enough or strong enough to contain our spirit…”

These recordings were made by co-founders of Free Alabama Movement while in solitary confinement. They were played over loudspeakers at various stops during the prison strike solidarity march in Oakland, Calif., on September 10, 2016.

 

…we just wanted to acknowledge the brothers, the hunger strikers, the brothers in solitary confinement, showing us that we can still lead from solitary confinement.”

Transcript:

I appreciate all the great people out there that’s been working with us, helping us to put this thing into action. People out in the Bay Area, you know, they’ve been great, they’ve been sponsoring us, they’ve been sending us books, material, and they’ve been connecting us with people, media people to help us get the message out, because as one of our other members said, we are the unheard voices in this country. And so by us taking the initiative to use these cellphones, and someone has taken the initiative to extend us their platforms and resources, you know, that’s what makes it all possible. We take a lot of inspiration from a lot of people around the country, but you know there is no question about who is leading the spirit of this movement, and it’s definitely coming out of California. So we just wanted to acknowledge the brothers, the hunger strikers, the brothers in solitary confinement, showing us that, you know, we can still lead from solitary confinement. You know I’m in solitary confinement right now. Our co-founder, Kinetic Justice Amun, brother Rob Council, he’s also in solitary confinement. Brother Dhati Khalid, James Pleasant, he’s also in solitary confinement right now. But these walls are not big enough or strong enough to contain our spirit, and it’s because people have shown us examples around the nation.

Melvin Ray – A Message to the People (part 3 of 4)

…when we call for marches and demonstrations, we need people at the prisons to help us put pressure on the prison system, and to help us, you know, build the spirit up. You know, guys need encouragement sometimes.”

These recordings were made by co-founders of Free Alabama Movement while in solitary confinement. They were played over loudspeakers at various stops during the prison strike solidarity march in Oakland, Calif., on September 10, 2016.

 

…To the government, the corporations, the politicians, everyone who is involved in exploiting and making money off of mass-incarceration that the end is near.”

Transcript:

To the people out there who are listening, you know, the supporters, we need y’all at the prisons. We appreciate people marching in the streets, we appreciate people marching downtown, we appreciate all the things that are going on. But the suffering is taking place in the prisons. The soul and the spirits are at these prisons. And when we call for marches and demonstrations, we need people at the prisons to help us put pressure on the prison system, and to help us, you know, build the spirit up. You know, guys need encouragement sometimes. These walls, they have an impact on people. So when you’re organizing and planning, please don’t forget to organize and plan demonstrations at these prisons, because we need all the help we can get. On visitation days we need people out there distributing pamphlets, giving out information, helping the family members get involved and have a better understanding about what’s going on. To the government, the corporations, the politicians, everyone who is involved in exploiting and making money off of mass-incarceration that the end is near.

Holman Update: Truce and Self-Defense

A few days ago, we posted EMERGENCY ALERT: Free Alabama Movement Press Release for Holman Prison, when the warden dumped 20 prisoners with beef from solitary back into General Population – clearly a move to escalate violence and destabilize the whole of the inmate population. Just like on the outside, Power seeds conflict and violence to maintain its own position. We’ve got two updates.

Truce

In response, Holman prisoners held a summit between sets and established a “NO STAND OFF POLICY” – essentially an agreement to squash hostilities amongst themselves. Here’s the announcement from Free Alabama Movement:

FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT STEPS UP

On Saturday September 17, 2016, the men at HOLMAN CF held the 1st UNIVERSAL PEACE & UNITY SUMMIT in which it was established that there would be a “NO STAND OFF POLICY”. All street organizations (Bloods, Crips, Growth n Development and SB’s) have vowed to respect the policy for the sake of all men housed at Holman. Since then there has been No Violence.

FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT has taken on the responsibilty to provided protection for one another and to resolve all disagreements-as the ADOC has abandoned their duty and responsibilty.

So if you have a loved one at Holman prison, you should be demanding answers from Commissioner Jeff Dunn and his staff.

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This truce echoes the California “Agreement to End Hostilities” that came out of the Pelican Bay short corridor collective, preceding the massive hunger strike of 2013:

…all hostilities between our racial groups… in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and County Jails, will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end… and if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues!!

Self Defense

An anonymous prisoner at Holman sent a report of prisoners resisting repression:

Just ten minutes ago members of the riot team and warden entered c dorm and attempted to confiscate a cellphone from a prisoner and whole c dorm rose up and forced them out of c dorm. The resistance at Holland prison in Alabama is strong. Fuck the police! 9/21/16 /2:48

We were able to force them [out] by showing a collective front of unity….

Full report on It’s Going Down.

 

Melvin Ray – Slavery Is Not Over (part 2 of 4)

…we have to fight for our freedom, it’s not going to be given to us.”

These recordings were made by co-founders of Free Alabama Movement while in solitary confinement. They were played over loudspeakers at various stops during the prison strike solidarity march in Oakland, Calif., on September 10, 2016.

 

…slavery never ended in this country; the only thing that happened was that the institution changed hands. …Instead of being the property of a private individual, we became state property.”

Transcript:

The main thing we’re going to come out of this strike different is that awareness is built. The more people to understand more about why we’re here, what is the dynamics involved, what role does the 13th Amendment play, what role are corporations playing in it, what role are businesspeople playing in it. That’s what we’re fighting to make sure that the awareness is there. The thing for us is that September 9th is not a commemorated day, it’s not a holiday, it’s not an anniversary. It’s a continuation of what the many who made the sacrifice in Attica. They were fighting for something 45 years ago, and that fight has not been won yet, it has not been complete.

We understand that slavery never ended in this country; the only thing that happened was that the institution changed hands. They went from private owners to public ownership. We became instead of being the property of a private individual, we became state property. But the rest of the dynamics remain the same: the living conditions, the free labor, and everything that goes along with that. So we want to make sure that we acknowledge that that was the spirit that was captured in Attica prison, and that spirit was a call for resistance against the 13th Amendment. It was a call for resistance against cruel and unusual punishment, inhumane punishment, using people for monetary gain. So that’s what we’re doing, we’re just acknowledging what took place, acknowledging that, you know, the fight is not won, that we’re now in Attica. There’s an Attica everywhere in this country. So we want the spirit of Attica to be embraced around this country, so people can understand that we have to fight for our freedom, it’s not going to be given to us.

Prisons Censor Bay View Newspaper

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New Folsom Prison, 100 Prison Road, Represa, Calif.

The San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, a communications network for the Black community worldwide, has hundreds of subscribers in prison. Because of an article about the prison strike, the paper has been rejected from New Folsom prison in California – and subsequently from the entire state of Pennsylvania.

The Bay View is still developing its response, and their editor’s letters include calls for support. Until more direct actions are decided upon, consider supporting the paper by donating or subscribing.

Here are two letters on the situation as it unfolded by editor Mary Ratcliff:

Sunday, September 18

I’d like to nip this in the bud. I’ve been churning out appeals to state after state and prison after prison that rejected the last several Bay Views (different issues for different reasons, though prison strikes seem to scare them the most) and even winning a few, but this is California, and we can’t let them get away with this here at home.

Though this rejection applies to only one prison, New Folsom, it’s the one that’s wired to the capitol — and the guards’ union, CCPOA, is still one of the most powerful lobbies there, not to mention the insatiable budget appetite of CDCr. So New Folsom is a bellwether; other California prisons will follow suit if New Folsom succeeds.

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New Folsom Prison

Their objection is to a story headlined “Sept. 9: Strike against prison slavery …” You can read it here or the way it appears in the print edition here. The major media are calling this Sept. 9 strike the largest prison strike in history. Getting reports from inside is hard and slow, and the strike hasn’t been covered as it should, but there’s coverage by some mainstream press and by the major alternative outlets. CDCr is telling reporters that no California prisoner participated, but some prisoners say otherwise.

Officials at New Folsom who imagine they can stop word of this revolutionary movement at the California border are delusional. One of the men in a multi-state collaboration (and most of you seeing this know the towering obstacles to prisoner-with-prisoner collaboration) who hatched the idea for a nationwide protest against prison slavery about three years ago is from California; others in the core group are from Alabama, Texas and Ohio.

The recognition that the 13th Amendment permits actual slavery for prisoners is being feverishly discussed in cell blocks across the country, and a demand is growing to strike the “punishment clause” from it. Here’s that clause: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The great minds locked up in California will certainly have a lot to say about this, whether or not they participated in any kind of strike this month.

In Alabama, where three prisoners at Holman Prison, founders of the Free Alabama Movement, are the main organizers of the nationwide strike, they reported yesterday that the guards are coming to them and asking them to use their organizing magic to quell rebellion by those who haven’t yet shaken their “criminal mentality” and have been attacking and even killing guards lately. So many guards have quit that those who remain are afraid to enter the dorms, and prisoners are doing count themselves.

But back to California, please put your great mind to ways we can resist these attacks on the Bay View. In August, you’ll recall, the FBI released a bulletin blaming the Bay View for what they predicted would be a Black August blood bath for police and prison guards — a bulletin leaked to and reported by KGO-ABC7. I remain convinced that California guards instigated the bulletin’s targeting of the Bay View. But regardless, the FBI prediction was wrong.

The prediction in New Folsom’s letter that the September Bay View would “disrupt the order, or breach the security” of New Folsom or any other prison is just as wrong. The prison’s decision to censor needs to be appealed, and I’d love help with that. Would it also be effective, do you think, to ask people to call the warden? Any other suggestions?

One suggestion I’ve been making in appeals to censorship in other parts of the country is for prison officials to sit down with reps chosen by the prisoners and discuss their complaints and demands — and actually address them. I tell them that California’s doing that, and the prison admins and guards haven’t suffered — in fact, their budget is up once again. We could urge New Folsom to set up meetings like that.

Thanks to each and every one of you for caring that the Bay View survives and reaches its subscribers behind the walls, where, according to CDCr, it persuaded 30,000 California prisoners to participate in the 2013 hunger strike. Many of you know that we’re currently hanging by a threadbare shoelace financially; if it breaks, CDCr can claim the victory. But if we’re able to keep printing the paper, I’ll be damned if CDCr gets away with censoring it.

Mary Ratcliff
SF Bay View

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Monday, September 19

Now the September Bay View is banned in the whole state of Pennsylvania, where we have hundreds of subscribers. The excuse, as at New Folsom Prison in California, is the Sept. 9 prison strike stories.

Strangely, Pennsylvania also banned our August paper for a bizarre reason: They

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Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections, John E. Wetzel

misinterpreted Black August to be a call for a hunger strike. Black August is commemorated partly by fasting during the daytime and breaking the fast in the evening, much like Ramadan. I appealed that but haven’t heard back yet. So I don’t know whether Mumia and hundreds of his comrades in PA ever got their August papers.

Thanks to those of you who have responded to the message I sent out yesterday (below). I’m told the PHSS (Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity) coalition will be discussing it tonight, and Terry Collins will cover the issue on his show tomorrow on KPOO (10pm-midnight).

Please keep in mind that this retaliation against the Bay View is nothing compared to the nationwide retaliation against the strikers and especially anyone fingered as a leader — people in many cases whose words you’ve read in the Bay View, the best and brightest. Remember the retaliation against Georgia prisoners when thousands refused to work for only one day in December 2010: Two of them were beaten with hammers by guards (yes, there’s video on sfbayview.com), another thrown off a tier and dozens disappeared (incommunicado with loved ones) for a month.

While we work to abolish prisons, let’s bring the light of the First Amendment into those dark dungeons. Prisoners must be allowed to COMMUNICATE, a most fundamental human right, and a necessity if we’re going to know what kind of torture we’re paying for.

Since we don’t yet know exactly who is being punished for the strike, taking a united stand against censorship of the Bay View will warn prison officials everywhere not to mess with the prisoners who are only demanding their basic human rights — respect for their humanity.

More suggestions of WHAT WE CAN DO would be greatly appreciated. I know you care, but these prison officials have to know it too.

Mary Ratcliff
SF Bay View

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“Censorship in Solitary Confinement is Psychological Torture” by Michael D. Russell

 

Melvin Ray’s message to Oakland (part 1 of 4)

We understand that this is a continuation of struggles that have been going on much longer than Free Alabama Movement has been in existence.”

These recordings were made by co-founders of Free Alabama Movement while in solitary confinement. They were played over loudspeakers at various stops during the prison strike solidarity march in Oakland, Calif., on September 10, 2016.

 

We always keep the same thing in mind: that Attica was one prison, and the spirit in the demonstration that took place in Attica prison, it changed the entire country.”

Transcript:

Hey what’s up Oakland, all the people out there around the country, this is Bennu Hannibal for Free Alabama Movement, also known as Melvin Ray. We’re down here organizing in the south, glad to be a part of this national demonstration. We understand that this is a continuation of struggles that have been going on much longer than Free Alabama Movement has been in existence. So we ain’t taking no credit for nothing, we’re just assuming our responsibility in the struggle. And we’re glad that so many other people have embraced this nationwide call for a work strike, and we appreciate all the help from all the great people around the country.

Down here in Alabama, you know, we’ve been up against a lot of repression. They’ve been moving several of us around, solitary confinement, moving us from block to block, all different types of things, you know. They put a few of us on isolation where we’re not allowed to access anyone. But you know it has not killed the spirit of what we’re doing. We always keep the same thing in mind: that Attica was one prison, and the spirit in the demonstration that took place in Attica prison, it changed the entire country. So we understand that it doesn’t have to be in Alabama, it doesn’t have to be in Texas, it doesn’t have to be in Florida. It can be at any one prison around the country where the demonstration and the spirit is strong enough to carry the rest of the people. This is what we’re going to do once here we get these issues resolved, alter the 13th Amendment, prison slavery, mass incarceration as a whole, whatever you want to call it. We’re in this fight until the end.