Much of the space of the Boxcar Books and Community Center, Inc. is filled with political posters, fanzines and various texts on socialist, anarchic and rebellious subjects.
Alexander Berkman, a representative of the Bloomington Anarchist Black Cross, said this location serves as a safe space for people who believe they are being prosecuted or targeted by the society surrounding them.
“Boxcar is one of the places that represents an anti-authoritarian view with the world,” Berkman said.
On Monday, the anarchist organization put on an event at Boxcar Books where members and attendees created holiday cards for prisoners who were incarcerated in the Bloomington area. On every table where the attendees sat, a document detailing the instructions and a short biography of all the prisoners was included. When they were finished making the cards, they would place them in small brown boxes featuring silver and gold snowflakes and the names of the prisoners.
While the list of possible prisoners to write to included those who in some way fought for anarchist rights, Berkman encouraged attendees to write to any prisoner they chose.
During the event, a projector sitting in the corner of the bookstore’s lounge screened the 2000 animated film “Chicken Run,” a film about anthropomorphic chickens who plan on escaping the farmers who plan to kill them for produce. A banner hanging over the lounge reads “Free the anarchist fighters.”
The purpose of the event, Berkman said, was to send some sort of greeting to prisoners who struggle significantly during the holiday season because of their separation from their families and loved ones. It is a way to let them know there are others who care about them and are fighting for their rights.
“It’s less about me struggling for prisoners as much as it’s about struggling with prisoners,” Berkman said. “Their struggles are our struggles.”
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has an estimated prison population of more than 2.2 million people, the highest prison population in the world.
Berkman said they believe this is because the U.S. has a wholesale repression for its community, particularly for people of color and transgender people.
The entire foundation of the U.S. is based on the oppression of indigenous people and people of color, Berkman said. They said this affinity for repression has been incorporated into the system of mass incarceration of these people.
Berkman said this is especially true for African-American men. As of 2013, there were about 1.68 million African-American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is about 800,000 more than the number of enslaved African-American men in 1850.
“I believe the existence of prisons is an extension of plantation slavery,” Berkman said.
Berkman said the conditions prisoners are placed under especially reflect the comparison to slavery. They said the wages prisoners are paid are “outrageously low” and are not adequate for a standard of living. They also compared the labor implemented on these prisoners to the labor forced on sweatshop workers overseas.
Berkman’s personal focus in regards to changing the prison system is making conditions better for transgender people currently in prison. As a non-binary person, they said the issue of violence against the transgender women required to live in men’s prisons is one Berkman is inclined to combat.
Attendees also said they believed a change needed to be made in the current prison system. IU freshman Payton Goodman said she believes it is unfair a person who is arrested for smoking marijuana can receive a sentence as long as someone who commits a more violent crime.
In order to make changes in this system, she said people must continue conversing about these issues. She said she came to this event as a means of showing her support for the prisoners facing these conditions.
“It doesn’t matter to me if they’re prisoners,” Goodman said. “They’re people, and they don’t often get the chance to experience the outside world.”
Despite the efforts of the event itself and those fighting for it, Berkman said they can only see the conditions for prisoners growing worse in the future based on the current elected officials.
Berkman said President-elect Donald Trump’s promises of the deportation and incarcerations of certain citizens worries Berkman, they said.
“I think we have dark times ahead,” Berkman said.
However, Berkman said a presidency under former-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would not have been an improvement either. They said her support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which led to the U.S.’s current mass incarceration population, didn’t make her an ideal candidate to improve prisoner conditions.
“The state needs to be destroyed if we are able to create a world without prisons,” Berkman said.
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