At the crossroads of rape culture, classicism, racism, and gender inequality lies the abuse of women and sexual minorities in our state penitentiaries.
In Massachusetts alone, the rising number of incarcerated individuals parallels the staggering number of sexual assault cases against inmates. To address this pressing civil rights issue, more than 75 advocates from the LGBT community and beyond gathered at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common last Saturday for what they dubbed a Break Out! March Against Mass Incarceration, primarily devoted to increasing awareness about the silent rape epidemic happening behind the wall.
“More often than not, feminism has worked hand-in-hand against the policing and incarceration of people,” said Nicole Sullivan, a member of Boston Feminists for Liberation (BFL), who organized the demonstration. Sullivan went on to explain the perils of mass incarceration ignored by the public, as well as feminism’s history within the confines of carceral institutions. “Even with this advocacy, less than 1 percent of rapists go to jail. All this does is actually give police free reign to surveil a community, which usually ends with sexual, domestic, and gender violence [by prison guards] not being addressed and police having more excuses to go after the black community.”
The numbers support claims of disparity. In a report researched by MassINC (a non-partisan, public policy think tank) and published by the Boston-based Jobs Not Jails–an advocacy group that aims to redirect $2 billion in state prison funding toward economic reform–incarceration rates for African Americans were found to be eight times higher than for white residents. As for the culprit … in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander writes that “nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.”
On Saturday, protesters sought to trace the direct lineage between bigotry and sexual misconduct in prisons. Kelly Chudler, a BFL activist, believes that addressing the intersection of rape culture, racism, and violence simultaneously highlights multiple concerns within the penal system on a larger scale.
“I’m really stoked to keep working with the BFL and to keep working on issues that are really intersectional with feminism,” Chudler said. “I feel like we’re starting to change the idea of what feminism is because as much as I strongly believe about ending rape culture and street harassment, it also connects to mass incarceration and racism and classism.”
At around 1pm, local organizations including Hollaback Boston–a movement to end street harassment–and Jobs Not Jails began marching. And marching. And marching. With other groups joining in solidarity, BFL members and a host of individuals walked the streets of Boston for more than two hours, hoisting signs–“Feminists Against Mass Incarceration,” “Close Prisons Not Schools”–and obstructing traffic in Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. At one point, the roaming rally stopped in the area once known as the Combat Zone–the Hub’s former adult entertainment district–giving Sullivan a ripe opportunity to speak about the mistreatment of sex workers by the Boston Police Department.
Other stops included Macy’s in Downtown Crossing, Citizens Bank on Exchange Street, Government Center, and the Department of Mental Health, where poets and speakers lectured on capitalism, corporate greed, gay rights, and psychiatric abuse against inmates. As the march moved past Government Center, mild policing from the BPD hardly slowed down protestors, who dutifully marched up Congress and Merrimack Streets towards their last stop at the Nashua Street Jail.
Approaching the prison, protesters raised their fists in solidarity with inmates, many of whom responded by banging on their windows in appreciation. A member of Black and Pink–an organization supporting LGBTQ people caught in the prison industrial gauntlet–addressed the incarcerated onlookers and approaching demonstrators alike: “There are 639 people locked up in this jail as of yesterday. Almost everyone locked up here is awaiting trial. Black and Pink members have been locked up here over the past year-and-a-half or so. And thankfully … we’ve bailed them all out. But there are still 639 people that we need on this side of the wall.”
Following the Break Out march, movement members gathered at the Community Church on Boylston Street to write holiday cards for inmates, share a vegetarian potluck dinner, and listen to performances by Flatline Poetry and the Boston folk punk outfit Absinthe Rose. In the spirit of the afternoon, the special guests were all colorfully on message.
“You don’t have to be the person that organizes everything or goes to every fucking meeting,” said Kimbo Rose, the band’s lead singer. “Activism to me is discovering this smallest, most minute thing that you can do to help support a cause. Everything you do is powerful, no matter how small it is.”