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Bruce Poinsette Special to The Skanner News
Published: 22 March 2012

When law enforcement cleared Occupy Portland demonstrators out of their downtown camps last fall, many worried that the movement would falter.

This spring in North and Northeast Portland, a handful of new activist movements against racism, homelessness and foreclosure have been joined by Decolonize PDX -- which is placing the prison industrial complex front and center.

The group -- all activists of color -- have been mobilizing through the winter to highlight the connections between the prison system, racism oppression, and colonialism -- in which a conquering force takes land and freedoms away from an oppressed people.

"It is doing exactly what it was intended to do," says Walidah Imarisha. "Prison is a direct descendent of slavery. There is a loophole in the 13th Amendment. Slavery is prohibited, except as punishment. With the increase in people of color there is an increase of people looked at as bodies."

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Blacks and non-white Hispanics made up over 60 percent of the prison population in 2010. Whites, whose data included Hispanics, made up over 32 percent. In comparison, Blacks and Hispanics accounted for a total of 28.9 percent of the general US population while non-Hispanic whites were 63.7 percent, according to the US Census Bureau.

Incarceration legally strips prisoners of rights such as voting, living in public housing and receiving welfare as long as they are in state or federal custody. It also allows employers to discriminate against them when hiring. According to BJS, there were 7.1 million people in the US correctional population in 2010.

"The system is set up so people go back," says Imarisha. "People who don't have folks incarcerated don't know how it works."

Imarisha and Eliana Machuca have both had incarcerated family members.

They have differing accounts of exactly how Decolonize PDX came together but both say it was a response to the lack of specific action targeting prisons in the Occupy movement.

It is one of many decolonization movements throughout the US but is unique because it's the only one that is autonomous from Occupy.

"Frankly, Occupy was very white," says Machuca. "We saw that there were other radical people of color trying to start things around decolonization and joined together."

According to Machuca, Decolonize PDX currently has a mailing list of 50 and a core group of 15-20 active members.

The group has released online statements and participated in public actions to raise awareness.

On Dec. 31, members of Decolonize PDX rode the MAX with an empty picture frame with the caption, "Should the cops have the right to murder me?" They had riders pose with their faces in the frame and used the visual to discuss police brutality, specifically the shootings of Oscar Grant, Jackie Collins and Aaron Campbell.

On Feb. 20, the group partnered with Portland Community College's (PCC) Black Student Union to screen "Three Thousand Years and Life." The film examines how prisoners ran Walpole State Prison with no violence and how the return of guards brought back negative prison conditions.

"It shows that there are alternatives to the genocidal prison system," says Imarisha.

She says there has been a positive response to Decolonize PDX's actions, with people acknowledging that the current system doesn't make them feel safer. According to BJS, only 7.9 percent of sentenced prisoners in federal prisons were serving for violent crimes in 2009.

The group sees the push to criminalize more activities as a means to fuel an increasingly privatized and corporate supported prison system.

They note that private prisons are only accountable to shareholders and many corporations have access to cheap prison labor.

"When you used to call TWA, you were talking to prisoners," says Imarisha. "Companies like Victoria's Secret, Levi's and IBM use prison labor and the list goes on."

In late February, Decolonize PDX participated in a larger action to raise awareness of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is a group that partners with corporations to draft legislation on issues including law enforcement.

Leah Yacoub Halperin notes that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) played a major part in drafting Arizona's immigration law, SB 1070, which calls for police to check people's immigration status based on suspicion. It also allows the police to detain undocumented immigrants despite the fact that undocumented immigration is only a misdemeanor, according to federal law.

"They have memos that specifically target immigration detention centers as a source of profit," says Halperin. "It's so ingrained in our society to not look at the humanity of people."

Imarisha says that the legacy of colonization and genocide plays a major part in dehumanizing targets of the prison system.

"You can't take everything someone has without dehumanizing him," she says. "It's a lot harder to throw people away if you know they're human and need support."

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