Tara-Michelle Ziniuk investigates the growing role the DIY arts are playing in reflecting the experiences of political prisoners in North America.
System-slamming radicals have used art to convey messages since before postering was illegal. Art stemming from struggle is nothing new. But as mass arrests and longer sentences for crimes related to political protest become the norm, more and more people are turning to the DIY medium – comics, photos, blogs and zines – to provide in-the-moment updates. What follows is a roundup of some of this material, its very existence making the obvious and important point that incarceration doesn’t stop social or political change, nor does it silence shit-disturbers of the writer or artist variety. As Adam Lewis writes in his own written-from-jail zine: “We know the fires in our hearts burn. No matter how cold the cell.”
These Burning Streets is a poetry book by Kitchener-based student, writer and activist Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, who is serving time at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton for her role in opposing the G20 summit in Toronto. Completed after her initial stint in prison at the time of her original arrest, but before she was sentenced to 15 months, the book (released in summer 2012 through Combustion Books and Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness) contains poetry and essays on her experience in the system. Pflug-Back is known as a tough-but-kind radical, involved in ground-level projects aimed at feeding and supporting street youth, and as an editor for various radical publications. While mainstream media tried its best to show her as a brash, masked nobody, Pflug-Back’s writing proves her wise, thoughtful and sensitive. A poem she wrote for Ideomancer Magazine about being separated from her then-partner during their protest arrest uses Carl Jung’s concept of ancestral memory to relate their experience to those of many others throughout history. Her blog, written with a golf pencil and help from friends, will be updated occasionally during her 15-month sentence and can be found here.
Bored But Not Broken
Bored But Not Broken is a blog written by Guelph activist (and, full disclosure, my friend) Mandy Hiscocks. Hiscocks is at the halfway point of a year-long jail sentence for her part in organizing protests against the G20 meetings in Toronto in June 2010. She was arrested before the protests even started following an invasive and lengthy undercover investigation. Eventually Mandy took a plea deal with a group of 17 co-accused because they believed it was the best solution for the most people in the group and, in particular, those facing the highest risks (such as deportation).
The blog discusses different aspects of her time inside Vanier, including things like arguments over TV-watching, the questions people who write to her ask the most, and what prison food is like. She also discusses more serious topics like how she’s getting through her sentence and the ongoing struggle with power-hungry authorities.
The blog acts as a communication tool but also takes away some of the fear and mystery around prison.
People often assume Mandy is typing these entries from the prison computer lab, but she is writing them with a tiny pencil and mailing them to friends on the outside who transcribe them to the blog. There is no such thing as a prison computer lab.
More info on Mandy’s case, her co-accused and their back-story can be found here.
Raise You is a poem by Hannah Eiseman-Renyard, UK writer, editor and performance poet. Hannah’s crime was not smashing the window of a Starbucks, but standing inside of one dressed as a zombie bride. She did so during the royal wedding, on her way to a zombie flash mob. Eiseman-Renyard was aggressively cuffed, arrested and dragged into custody in a local police station. She was reporting on the event, organized in part by Queer Resistance (a collective of UK queers and allies opposed to ongoing cuts and ideological changes) for a friend’s zombie blog.
Her poem, personal account and other writing can be found on her blog here.
EXCERPT FROM RAISE YOU
I say “that’s my bike chain. See my bike helmet?
See my bike? That’s my sodding bike chain.”
You say I’m carrying a weapon.
But we’ll see your bullshit
And we’ll raise you.
PISS AND VINEGAR
Piss and Vinegar was distributed by the Anti-Capitalist Tranny Brigade following the transphobic arrests of Craig Willse and Dean Spade, who is now well-known as a trans-rights lawyer, speaker and author.
Protesting the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002, Spade, a female-to-male transsexual, was assaulted and arrested for using the men’s room in Grand Central Station. His friend Willse was arrested upon trying to intervene. You can read an excellent interview with Dean and Craig conducted by Mimi Nguyen from Maximum Rock n’ Roll here. You can get a copy of the zine Piss and Vinegar by writing to Craig Willse, PO Box 321855, New York, NY 10032.
Do Not Cover Your Face
In 1960 Richmond, Virginia passed a “no-masks allowed in public” law. Breaking this law can land a person in jail for one to five years, or jail time of under a year with up to $2,500 in fines.
Do Not Cover Your Face is a zine produced by Gary Llama after two protestors — Eric Scott and Hunter Singleton — were arrested at Occupy Richmond in 2011 and charged under this absurd law. Both had soaked bandanas in apple cider vinegar, a popular advance-planning move for protestors in places where the police are known to use tear gas. Apple cider vinegar makes it possible to breathe through the gas. Llama’s zines are available through somethingsomethingpress.com.
Marie Mason and Eric McDavid Support Zines
Marie Mason and Eric McDavid are both US environmental activists-turned-political prisoners who were swept up in the “Green Scare.” The Green Scare is a term introduced in the early 2000s by radicals critical of the U.S. government’s fear mongering about “eco-terrorism.”
Marie Mason was arrested by FBI agents in 2008 for actions that took place nearly a decade earlier, after her ex-husband (a former activist himself) became an FBI informant. She was convicted on arson charges relating to property destruction of a genetics lab, during which no one was injured. Her 22-year sentence (which she began at age 46) is the longest sentence of any U.S. environmental activist to date. Mason is an avid gardener, a mother of two and a volunteer with an herbal healthcare collective. She is a poet and painter whose work can be seen at
Eric McDavid is serving a 20-year sentence, after being targeted as an environmental justice activist and vegan and entrapped in a crime planned by an informant. He is serving time for a “thought crime” — a conspiracy to commit an act that never occurred — and property destruction. McDavid puts out his own zine, Toward A Re-Cognition of Choice, which he writes and draws and sends to volunteer supporters to print and distribute.
In April of this year a tour called Never Alone: National Long-Term Anarchist Prisoner Support Tour, put on by Sacramento Prisoner Support and the Marie Mason Support Crew, travelled the U.S. with support zines about both Mason and McDavid’s cases and prisoner support. Both can be downloaded from breakthechains.info.
G20: A LOVE (AND RAGE) STORY
Micro-comic from Vancouver printmaker, illustrator and zinester Megan Speers inspired by a Craigslist Missed
Connection placed after the demonstrations.
78 poems written in 78 hours protesting Bill 78, launched in solidarity with striking students in Montreal.
A CATASTROPHIC SUCCESS: REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION PROTESTS
A compilation zine about the experiences of protesters in New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Includes a CD.
DISPATCHES FROM ONTARIO PRISONS
The Prison Issue of the Guelph Peak features writing and art from prisoners around Ontario.
Views, thoughts and analysis from the hearts and minds of North American political prisoners and friends.
CERTAIN DAYS FREEDOM FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS CALENDAR
Fundraising and educational project coordinated by outside organizers in Montreal and Toronto and political
prisoners being held in maximum-security prisons in New York State. The 2013 edition looks at: Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the California prison hunger strikes and Quebec student strike.
Brett Gundlock’s portrait series chronicles the individuals that were part of Canada’s largest mass arrest at the G-20 summit in the summer of 2010 in Toronto and may be updated to include arrestees from the Montreal student strikes.
CONSPIRACY TO RIOT IN FURTHERANCE OF TERRORISM: THE COLLECTIVE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE RNC 8
Edited by Leslie James Pickering, available through Burning Books.
Contains sections on prison-related works, Indigenous resistance and the 2010 Olympics.