On Strategy…

As we continue this movement to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex there will always be several demands upon us that need constant attention: the development of new leaders, and the honing of strategy.  I will leave leadership development for another day, as I want to weigh in about one particular facet of strategy: Public Speaking.

Public Speaking has long been determined as The Most Dangerous Weapon of freedom fighters throughout time.  Although the American government was founded on this principal that radical ideas should be raised freely so public discourse can separate the wheat from the chaff… and although those figures repeatedly warned against the rise of tyranny… they likely could not have predicted the likes of a J. Edgar Hoover who, from a clandestine position in the FBI, could target the most charismatic American public speakers for elimination.  Correction: the most charismatic Black, Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Native American public speakers.

Why public speaking?  The pen, and the voice that can deliver, are mightier than the sword.  Hoover feared the “Rise of the Black Messiah,” and hoped that the FBI or similar power structure entities could “install” their own Black Messiah.  Give Black America a hero who has been approved by the White plutocracy, who does not come from the ranks of the oppressed.  Rather than Martin, Malcolm, or Stokely, perhaps Hoover would have liked someone with a White mother, whose father was African (not a descendant of American Slavery), who went to a private school and never saw all his friends harassed and arrested by the police, gone on to Ivy League colleges, worked for a corporate law firm… let him speak for Black America and inspire the masses to prop up Wall Street money-changers as the most American thing since Ford made a pick-up truck.

But I digress.  On Strategy, in public speaking (the most dangerous weapon):

Consider one thing above all else:  The opposition are always looking for an opportunity to say, “You see: I told you he was a savage.  He can not be taken seriously.  His ideas are equally uncivilized and savage.”

You see it in foreign policy on a regular basis.  A home destroyed; family members murdered; economies ravaged; no electricity… and the mainstream media will portray some Angry Arab in the context of “these people deserve to be bombed, look how they are out for blood.”  But consider also your own experience, for those who have been under the boot.  They will strip you naked, put you in a cold, dark cell for days.  Leave you there for weeks.  Awaken you every hour on the hour, and various forms of psychological warfare… and then say, “See, she is acting like a lunatic.  She is not fit for general population.”

As someone who has been effective with public speaking, I can share with you four words:  “Take The High Road.”  When someone tries to drag you into the muck, taunt you with some irrelevant detail or an extremist position… or your personal past which may not be so squeaky clean, remind them “I’m here to speak about broader issues.  This isn’t about me, or that one particular case you mention, it is about the issues that affect our entire society.  It is about looking at systemic problems, not individual exceptions.  If you can’t stick to that, I’m not interested in the conversation.”

Never show your pain.  Remember, it isn’t about an individual, it is about a System.  When someone in the media asked me about prisons charging prisoners “rent” (in the form of various fees) I calmly replied, “Well it depends on what the community is trying to accomplish, because they own the prison.  On the one hand, if they want people to leave prison with an opportunity to pursue an education, or work, to rent an apartment and get on with their lives then this isn’t a good idea.  But if what they want to do is create a deep resentment of society by prisoners and their families, who can’t afford these fees, and have people getting out of prison with more debt, more obstacles, and more bitterness thereby increasing the possibilities of their turning back to addiction or crime… if that’s what society wants, then yes, they should have these fees.  They should probably raise them.  But first we have to be clear about what the people want.”

Communication is about what is heard, not what is spoken.  I need not be a complaining prisoner, if I just lay out the facts.  Let them do the work.  Let others’ imaginations fill in the gaps.  Clearly my face has healed since three guards handcuffed me to a chair and took turns punching me, apparently in response to my submitting a request for a phone call.  The fact that I can recount it with such normality further illustrates that this is normal in our world.  We need to put it back onto the legislators, the voters, the judges, the masses, and the media: What is it YOU are trying to accomplish with YOUR penal system?  They need to take ownership of what is being done in their name, and decide if it is fulfilling their goals with prisons.  They are clearly ready for new ideas, but we must also continue to build their understanding of specific issues.

It is also important to narrow any conversation as much as possible.  “Information Overload” is a sure way to shut people down, or to be painting such broad strokes as to be irrelevant when it comes to detail.  We are talking about an industry here, a System, with many moving parts rotating on various ellipses.  If your issue was about the struggle to unionize in Walmart (the world’s top private employer) you can’t spend all your time trying to describe every ailment in capitalism.

Be concise.  Get in, get out.  Remember that the facts are brutal enough not to need opinions.  And the biggest problem is ignorance- most folks have no idea of any realistic alternatives… but that is where we come in,

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About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on www.Unprison.org.
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One Response to On Strategy…

  1. Pingback: Unprison 2011-2013 Index | unprison

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