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“If They Build It, They Will Fill It”: Prison Abolitionists Protest Outside the Ford Foundation

Over 50 protestors gathered outside the Ford Foundation’s Manhattan headquarters, responding to the foundation president’s statements in support of New York City’s plan to close Rikers Island prison complex and build smaller detention facilities in its place.

Protestors outside the Ford Foundation in Manhattan (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

“If they build it, they will fill it,” activists chanted this morning, September 27, in a protest held outside the Ford Foundation’s headquarters in Manhattan. Over 50 protestors from grassroots organizations No New Jails, Decolonize This Place, and Take Back the Bronx congregated outside the building’s entrance on East 43rd Street to protest statements made by the foundation’s president, Darren Walker, in support of a City plan to build smaller detention facilities in New York City in lieu of the infamous Rikers Island prison complex. The protesters attempted to storm the foundation’s atrium but were blocked by the building’s security and New York Police Department (NYPD) officers.

The activists were met with a large police force (equipped with zip ties) in addition to the foundation’s security personnel. (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

“This is a message to the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and all the organizations that want to tell us how to fight for our freedom, that tell us that building new jails is humane,” said Brittany Williams, an organizer with No New Jails NYC. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” she continued, “we have nothing to lose but our chains.” Protesters followed with the chant: “Darren Walker, we won’t let you sabotage abolition with reformist camouflage.”

The activists were met with a large police force (equipped with zip ties) in addition to the foundation’s security personnel. “You can’t call yourself abolitionists if you call the police,” a speaker from Take Back the Bronx said, addressing the foundation. “We will not stand by and let you build new skyscraper jails.”

The protesters attempted to storm the foundation’s building but were blocked by the building’s security and NYPD officers. (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

In a controversial blog post, titled “In Defense of Nuance,” published last week, Walker defended a decision by the Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, of which he is a member, to build the four new prisons and accused the activists of blindness to nuance. “We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of progress,” he wrote. “If we skip steps, we risk creating a new kind of gap — a gap of missed opportunities and lost alliances.”

In response to Walker’s post, a group of 100 Ford Foundation Fellows published an open letter yesterday criticizing the foundation’s policy of replacement jails. The list of signatories has since grown to 256 fellows.

In a new blog post this morning, Walker responded to the outcry raised by the activists and Ford Fellows with a conciliatory message. “The Ford Foundation is unwavering in its commitment to ending mass incarceration,” Walker wrote. “We envision a world where people are not locked up in cages, treated inhumanely, and stripped of their dignity. To work toward this goal we support a range of initiatives and organizations working to eradicate the harmful footprint of mass incarceration and protect and promote the humanity and dignity of all people.”

“As a black man with many family members who have been ensnared in the system, I know, personally, that the distance between justice and injustice is perilously, painfully short — especially as a result of entrenched discrimination and economic inequality,” Walker added in a personal note. “I am proud of our work — all of it — to reform a discriminatory system that treats millions of people so unfairly.”

“Jails are not philanthropic,” said Sandy Grande, a Ford Fellow and Indigenous scholar at the protest. “Social science research supports that new jails mean more incarceration; New Jails mean poor health; New jails mean gentrification communities; and we do not support that as fellows of the Ford Foundation.” 

Workers of the Ford Foundation carried a No New Jails poster in solidarity with the protestors (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

“Darren Walker’s remarks and endorsement of ‘replacement jails’ is a continuation of the Ford Foundation’s long history of repressing and co-opting liberation and abolitionist movements,” Jasmine Salters, another Ford Fellow, told Hyperallergic during the protest. “The push for new jails, the attempts to silence us, the strategic deployment of identity politics to legitimize institutions of oppression, and the presence of the NYPD today are all clear reminders that this foundation is not invested in our safety or our liberation,” she added. “Liberal reform is not liberation. No new jails.”

As protesters were carrying their speeches outside, two workers at the foundation, showed their solidarity with the activists by carrying a sign that read “No New Jails” and raising their fists up in the air. The protesters replied to the workers’ gesture with cheers.

“Angela Davis brought us here,” said Williams, referencing the writer’s call to mobilize against the Ford Foundation during a panel discussion at Riverside Church in Manhattan earlier this week. Davis, who did not attend the protest today, sent the protesters a message of support, which they later shared with Hyperallergic. Davis wrote:

I am truly sorry that I am not able to be present during the protest at the Ford Foundation, which is also an important educational moment.  The entire history of imprisonment reveals that new forms of incarceration have never succeeded in solving the problems of violent and repressive jails and prisons.  I join those who applaud Ford Fellows, No New Jails activists, and others who are attempting to break the historical cycle of replacing violent jails with facilities produced according to newer penalogical and architectural standards.  In virtually every attempt at reform through replacement, the new jail or prison eventually becomes equally or more repressive, as it promotes the further expansion of imprisoned populations. One salient example is the closing of the old Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, where I myself spent several months in 1970.  The promise of better conditions for women on Riker’s Island was never fulfilled.  The Riker’s Island complex has become a national symbol of carceral violence and structural racism and if the four proposed new jails are constructed, they are destined to follow the same trajectory. People all over the country – and indeed in other parts of the world – are closely watching the process of closing Riker’s.  If this closure is accompanied, not by new jails, but by mental health services, housing, education and the strengthening of those communities affected by hyper policing and overincarceration, New York will have clearly demonstrated that abolitionist pathways can help create more sustainable futures.

“Jails are not philanthropic.” Ford Fellow Sandy Grande. (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

In a phone conversation this evening, Walker told Hyperallergic: “Unfortunately, the characterization is that I’m in support of increasing the capacity of incarceration in New York City, and that is absolutely untrue.”

“The goal is to have fewer total beds in New York City and to address the issue of inhumane incarceration,” he added. “I regret that it’s been articulated in simplistic terms, when the commission’s goal is to actually reduce the number of incarcerated people.”

In response to No New Jails’s demand from Walker to “stop all funding for new jails,” he asked: “How are we investing in jails? Part of the storyline today was that the Ford Foundation is using its money to build jails. We’re not using our money to build jails.”

When asked if he sympathizes with the protestors, Walker said: “A prison is not an abstract idea to me. I’ve been to prisons, not on a research project, but to visit relatives.”

“I understand the pain, and I understand seeing someone you love be treated inhumanely,” he added. “I am very mindful of the suffering that families and communities experience because of mass incarceration.”

In an article published on Medium today, No New Jails NYC reported that Walker requested a meeting with the group’s organizers. The group stated two conditions for meeting with Walker: “First, we join over 200 Ford Fellows calling for President Walker to retract his statement and to stop all funding for new jails. In addition, we will meet with representatives from the Foundation, as long as it is a public meeting before the Oct 17th jail vote to tell New Yorkers why he opposes the fight to Close Rikers with No New Jails and the decades of funding ‘black capitalism’ at the expense of our Black liberation.”

“Darren Walker, you can’t hide,” Williams said in closing. The protestors broke in a serious of  joyous dances and dispersed while chanting, “We’ll be back!”

Editor’s note 9/27/19 8:43pm: This article has been updated to include  comments provided by Darren Walker following this morning’s protest.

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