Hamilton, ON: Two Demos for Barton Prisoners: What’s possible in the streets during Covid?

Anonymous submission to North Shore Counter-Info. Reportback on just the car demo from Barton Prisoner Solidarity is below.

Last Friday, April 10, the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project (BAPSOP) published a report that some prisoners had been attacked by guards after refusing a lockdown, and today two actions occurred to support the prisoners and call for their immediate release. During the day, there was a public call for a car demo, then at night, an invite-only action to go set off lights and fireworks.

This kind of solidarity mobilizing happens not infrequently around here, but this time felt a bit different because of the virus and the repressive social context around it. As an anarchist who participated in both actions, I wanted to share a few reflections on this campaign and on doing demos in the covid era, as a letter to others who are also asking what’s possible in these strange times.

The conflict inside Barton can’t be separated from the prisoners’ repeated and public demands (relayed by BAPSOP and the mainstream media) for better access to sanitation supplies, a huge reduction in crowding, and better screening and testing. Corrections staff wants to play it off as a fight between prisoners that they intervened in, as if prisoners haven’t been left on their own to try to enforce their own quarantine measures for weeks. The increase in violence hasn’t been a secret, and it’s gross that the guards would try to depoliticize it and situate themselves as the protectors.

On the outside, the mood is also pretty tense — no one seems immune from the ambient strain of these times. The increasingly obvious and urgent ways that virus measures are aggravating inequalities runs up against an unfamiliar context for organizing we’re all still figuring out. But as the estimated timeline for shutdown measures continues to increase, sticking to the kind of restrictive stay-at-home-see-no-one measures simply trusting the state to do the right thing. The various mutual aid and rent strike groups already showed that a lot of people were going to find their own balance between virus measures and what is required to organize in these times, to not be stupid or callous while also refusing passivity and being exiled to the internet.

These two different actions called for the same location to respond to the same event feel like experiments: how do we stay in the streets without being the kind of crowd viruses love (and that cops now love to ticket)? How do we make spaces that respect the different health needs and boundaries people will have? How do we still insist that action be empowering and on our own terms, without mediation?

The car demo in the afternoon was the first of its kind in the area, though it’s been getting tried all over, including in Montreal. It was also the first public demonstration since covid started (which was like just a few days after the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement got broken up, 2020 is a wild ride so far). BAPSOP called for it publicly with a couple of days notice, and although I was sceptical (how will we feel empowered and connect with prisoners from inside cars?) it totally exceded my expectations and was a lot of fun. Cars stopped all along the east and west sides of the jail, blaring horns and music, with people leaning out their windows, climbing on roofs, or just getting out to wave to prisoners. People stayed very spaced out, but the cars made the whole road feel full, and prisoners answered with tons of banging from the inside.

Apart from the occasional highway blockade, cars aren’t really a big part of demo culture around here, and continuing to explore the strengths and limitations of that will be interesting as covid drags on. In this case, the use of cars did dictate the tone, since a license plate is basically a name tag, but since the goal was to get people out for the first time and be very public and visible, that wasn’t a restriction and probably made people more comfortable participating. But having virus measures dictate what tones are possible isn’t good — we need to have a range of action available. The action later at night was an experiment in doing a covid-compliant version of the suprise noise demos that are a staple for anarchists in southern Ontario.

About an hour and a half after prisoners locked up, a few dozen people gathered in a very discrete location close to the jail. People stayed spaced out, but most of us have friends we’re doing the virus with, which can fill some of the space that we rely on affinity groups for normally. The idea was to experiment with coordinated small group action, so breaking up and then timing it to begin shining lights and setting off fireworks at several points around the jail at once. This avoids being a crowd and also let us cover the whole jail in about a third the time it normally takes. Being quick felt important because the cops have new repressive tools they would definitely love to use — the covid fines are way higher than trespasing tickets.

Logistically the action went very smoothly and since it’s easier to see in through the windows in the dark, its easier to feel connected to the prisoners waving back. However, being in small groups made the energy a lot less rowdy and celebratory, and for me, being quick and furtive felt too short and more anxious than how it usually feels to do this kind of action. But on thinking about it, that’s part of why it also felt good to see all those eyes above the masks who are still coming out to do the kinds of things we always have, being brave and determined and figuring it out in a new situation.

Because a lot is still possible right now. The biggest take away I have from today is that it broke the stuck, impossible feeling that had been hanging around. They were just small actions, but they’re a sign of thinking about covid — both the virus itself and the state’s power grab — as the context we act within rather than a disruption to be waited out. Thanks to everyone still figuring out how to be strong together.

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Reportback from BAPSOP on the Car Demo
https://www.facebook.com/bartonsolidarityproject

Today Hamilton had it’s first corona-era demo and it was a big success. Taking cues from other cities, and building on the prisoner solidarity work we’ve been doing during the pandemic, we called for a car demo outside of the jail this afternoon. Dozens of cars lined both sides of the jail for an hour, with horns honking and signs waving, while prisoners banged back on the windows. The action was specifically in solidarity with prisoners targeted with violence and reprisals over the weekend for standing up for themselves, to let them know that when they demand safety and dignity they won’t stand alone. The range where guards pepper sprayed inmates Friday for refusing lockdown still seems to be locked down.

Our phone line has been ringing steadily all afternoon, with prisoners sharing gratitude for the display of solidarity.

This tactic has been used in lots of different places and it was quite a bit of fun. The cars created distance between participants and were great for making noise and taking up space, and people could also get out to hold signs and wave. Those without access to cars came on foot and spaced themselves out.

While we are told to stay home to avoid the virus, those inside the Barton Jail are left without basic necessities like soap, hand sanitizer, or physical space. We have seen first hand in other prisons the disastrous effects of this pandemic, as the disease spreads quickly. And here like in Italy’s prisons, the state too often answer requests for basics with violence.

Thanks to everyone who showed up, and also to everyone who has been following and sharing the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project’s updates. Being able to respond quickly to incidents like this can make a real difference, and so we need to always be finding ways to thin the walls and make the voices of prisoners present. We will keep posting more updates as we get more information.

Free all Barton prisoners now!

Links:

Previous statement on violence against prisoners: (https://www.facebook.com/events/919330178524916/)

Car demos at prisons elsewhere: (https://itsgoingdown.org/chicago-il-cook-county-jail-noise…/) (https://itsgoingdown.org/car-demos-surround-the-jail-and-g…/)

On the prisoner uprisings in Italy: https://borderedbysilence.noblogs.org/…/italy-to-the-rebel…/

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