An interview about anti-police uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement, conducted with Luke O’Donovan, a young white man imprisoned for using a knife to defend himself against a gang of homophobic attackers during a party in Atlanta, GA. He [was] released from prison in late July 2016. You can learn more about his case at letlukego.org.
Washington State Prison
How did you first hear about the anti-police uprisings and #BlackLivesMatter protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, and other cities, of 2014-2015: friends and family, other prisoners, corporate media, and/or radical publications?
Yeah, it was friends and family. The day I went in, I think, is the day Ferguson started. And so first I heard about it on the phone talking to people, and then, maybe even the day before I went in. But people from St. Louis were sending me write-ups on stuff that was happening and keeping me well informed. And I was talking to friends.
(Was news of that also making it into the facility by radio or TV?)
Yeah, but it didn’t feel like a big deal at that point. I was at the county jail then, and it didn’t seem like a big deal. That’s when it was first happening, and then I guess stuff happened again after the non-indictment, and I think that’s when it became a really big thing in here [at the state prison] and that’s when I started hearing people talk about it, like in the chow hall and stuff.
How did you react?
I was kicking myself that I came to prison just as this was happening! And then I was trying to figure out how to take advantage of it in the situation I was in. And so you know I was just, just trying to—for part of that time I was being processed in the diagnostic prison. And there was like no communication out of there, just letters and stuff. The major feeling at the time was just that I was missing out on something. Oh, and really wanting to urge people to act in the situation with a mindset that it will end, and with a vision toward how we can get the most out of it while it lasts.
There were and are a lot of contradictory and conflicting elements to these protests and rebellions. Right-wing media has used coded, racist language blaming “thugs” and “criminals”, while left-wing media and some activists have also at times decried the rioting, blaming it on “outside agitators.” Do you have thoughts on these conflicts over tactics and strategy? Do they resonate with debates going on over resistance inside prisons?
Yeah. You know, one refreshing thing about being in prison is you almost never hear people make moral arguments against militancy or hard tactics. They only ever make tactical arguments against it, and generally not. You’re more likely to hear, “Yeah we can fight back, but we should do it together” than, “We shouldn’t fight back.” So that’s nice. But yeah I do have feelings about these arguments. I was actually thinking today, remembering something like a chief of police, I think during Baltimore, that “police were the last line of defense against the savages”, referring to the rioters in Baltimore as savages. And of course, that’s a really loaded, clearly racist terminology and has a strong connection to a long racist history. And that’s the sort of sentiment that I often hear in here, that “this is how police look at us [Black people].” And unfortunately there’s also the sentiment, that’s probably true, that “that’s how most white people look at us.”
Were other prisoners talking about these rebellions, and if so, what kinds of conversations were they having?: Did it stimulate discussion, organizing, and/or resistance in your facility? Did it feel to you like there was a racial dynamic to how prisoners reacted to the news of these mostly Black uprisings? Was there more or less racial unity with regards to anti-police sentiment in the prison? Did it seem like white or Latino/a prisoners could relate?
Definitely, yeah. So, I kinda went into that with my last answer, but I’ll go more into it. It of course stimulated conversation, but here, I think, not in the way your question hopes for. It didn’t stimulate organizing, or at least not that I was privy to. But it gave me a chance to—like, I don’t know if it’s just Georgia or prison in general…like, I’ve lived in Atlanta my whole life, which is very different than the rest of Georgia, and I didn’t realize until I came to prison how ‘country’ Georgia is, and how racist white people in Georgia are. And like…old school racist, you know?
And so, people rightfully assume that if you’re white you’re probably racist. So, in a way it gave me a good opportunity to make it clear that I’m not that to a lot of people. And then also to confront racist ideas by using…OK, so, certain white prisoners would be against the riots just because they were Black people doing it, but then I could easily say to them that Black people are standing up and fighting the police, and they should be commended for that. You know because almost everyone in prison hates the police. And I could say that white people need to stand up with them in order to start a culture of cooperation between us, and that’s the only thing that will allow us to beat them. And that resonated with a lot of people I think even more than the very deeply ingrained, reactive, racist responses that were happening.
What do you think the relationship can or should be between these anti-police rebellions on the outside and resistance inside prisons? Is there resistance or organizing going on at your facility you want to mention or hold up?
Yeah, absolutely they should be connected. Like, the uprisings and the riots and stuff are only the beginning. And these things [police and prison] are so interconnected that there’s no reason they shouldn’t overlap. The sort of, organizational bonds that these riots and uprisings give us the opportunity to form are the necessary precondition to start sending in what’s necessary to agitate and build up…Like, there’s an underlying level of resistance in all prisoners, because prison accepts and admits that it’s at war with prisoners, whereas society doesn’t admit that it’s at war with those within it.
OK, so just to get concrete, I think it’d be great to see the bonds and the groupings that are being made and formed from uprisings on the outside, during lulls on the outside these shouldn’t be breaking apart but should be trying to spread their organizational tactics, which is really what’s lacking in prison, to the inside. Send literature, different agitational materials. Eventually there will have to be a level of coordination—like, in places like Alabama and California, and probably other prisons in Georgia, I know there’s a lot of coordination and organization going into a lot of these hunger strikes and riots that are happening. So if we can start a culture of this type of coordination that goes beyond the prison wall, so that people on the street are coordinating with people in prison, I think that’s the necessary precondition to make sure that when we storm the bastille, we’re storming all the bastilles. That when there’s a large enough prison revolt, there will be support on the outside strong enough to actually tear down these walls.