By Dorsey Nunn
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
We are grateful that President Biden recently signed legislation designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Many comrades have worked many years to get the U.S. government to recognize the legacy of slavery, and we especially recognize Opal Lee, whose 2016 campaign to walk from Texas to D.C. at age 89 galvanized and inspired today’s victory. “Nothing has ever been given to us,” she said yesterday on a panel at Harvard School of Public Health. “We’ve had to push for everything we get.”
The designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is an important step in reconciling America’s legacy with chattle slavery. It is also an opportunity to see how the institutions of slavery and involuntary servitude still exist today—written into our laws and currently practiced in our society—and how we can take another step towards true freedom for all of us.
Juneteenth celebrates the arrival of the news of “Freedom!” to African American communities in Texas in 1865—two years after the Emancipation Declaration was signed by President Lincoln.
One look at the currently incarcerated thousands still laboring for pennies, however, makes you think that, 156 years later, some didn’t get the message.
See incarcerated firefighters saving lives and homes—saving California $100 million a year while being paid dollars a day—during the summer and repairing dikes and other infrastructure in the winter, watch incarcerated people being leased out to private corporations for a fraction of minimum wage, stand on the levy at Angola and see hundreds of captive Black and Brown bodies working the fields, then you understand how we—the millions of formerly and currently incarcerated people and family members—see Juneteenth not as a day of Freedom but as a day which highlights that “the gross injustice and cruelty” of slavery and Jim Crow still exist.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment might have ended unrestricted private slavery, but the 13th Amendment’s “exception clause” and California’s Article 1, Section 6 codify slavery and involuntary servitude (respectively) in foundational governing documents, effectively creating, through a system of Jim Crow laws and convict leasing, the modern prison industrial complex.
Indeed—has there been a family in any generation since Juneteenth, 1866, that hasn’t had a loved one serving as a Slave of the State?
Recently I looked around our small office at each person and tallied up over 150 years of prison time served between staff members. How many hours, days, weeks, years of work did we do for the state during our incarceration? How much money did we save the State of California in labor costs, or how much did we make for the private companies that exploited our “voluntary” toil and sweat? Work that—if refused—would result in write ups, stints in solitary, or denial of parole.
We are still struggling with how heavy the vestiges of slavery still weigh on us.
156 years after Juneteenth, and slavery and involuntary servitude are still legal and on the books! And not only that, but groups (including Sheriffs and Corrections officials) are fighting to keep prison labor possible! In 2021!
But what is surprising: in California—with its reputation as a liberal, progressive state—no one has already stood up to strip slavery from our state constitution. Colorado and Nebraska have already done it. Now it is our time.
As the Executive Director of an organization led, staffed, and serving formerly and currently incarcerated people and family members, I stand up and say “I object!” to legalized slavery and involuntary servitude, both in our state and in our country.
Artwork by 2021 LSPC Communications Fellow William “Tariq” Palmer.
It’s time to fundamentally recognize people as people, and to remove the mechanism that allows for the exploitation of the labor of our loved ones.
I call on all Californians to join us and the Abolish Bondage Collective (ABC) campaign to eradicate the vestiges of Jim Crow slavery and involuntary servitude from our legal code and our governing documents.
To learn more about this vital civil and human rights movement, please watch the ABC campaign kickoff event, a webinar panel discussion on “Jim Crow: From Then To Now” (May 7) with Dr. Angela Davis, Dr. Dennis Childs, and Journalist / LSPC Communications Manager Troy Williams, moderated by LSPC Policy Manager Joanna Billingy.
We, as formerly and currently incarcerated organizers and criminal justice experts, have the experience and the skills to finish the legal work Lincoln started. We have a long, successful record of restoring rights and eliminating barriers to our community through the passage of Ban the Box policies, sentencing reform, and voting rights, and are already moving many bills through legislative committees. Right now, we are working with city, county, and state policymakers to amend Article 1, Section 6 to strip involuntary servitude from the California Constitution.
169 years ago, a decade before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass stated, “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”
Today, WE are those forces.
In the flesh.
Doing the work.
We invite you to join us and the Abolish Bondage Collectively campaign so that the next Juneteenth will finally bring a message of real Freedom to us all.