Slingshots, Anyone? : Happy Jail Year

Transcribed below is a statement given to me from an anonymous participant of the Noise Demo that took place New Year’s Eve at Orleans Parish Prison. The author wishes me to specify that it is their own personal opinions and insights on the event and not those of all the participants. Duh. Additionally, it should not necessarily be conflated with the views and opinions of the writer of this column [or ANTIGRAVITY for that matter], whose life is so uneventful that he has taken a backseat this month and solicited the work of another writer

“Who’s the leader here?” the blue-uniformed officer asked. We had gathered at a nearby field across Tulane Avenue to wait for all our numbers to arrive, when a cop car pulled up across the street to scope us out. So it was clear: the NOPD knew pre-emptively of our plans to hold a “noise demo” for the prisoners inside Orleans Parish Prison. Kind of impressive, considering NOPD’s usual streak of incompetence. But his question was still pretty dense—after all, what decentralized body of ragamuffin musicians needs a leader? As the officer tried to chat us up, those standing by just smirked, an indication of disrespect for perceived authority (whether his or within our own ranks) and looked down at their feet.

He took a stab at a few more questions, before our general lack of loquaciousness— and I’ll admit, maybe even a few rolled eyes and outright snickers— yielded the slightest hint of petulance. “I was just like you once,” he snapped. “But now I have a job and a family I have to feed.” His outburst seemed to be saying: I know you think I’m a joke, and maybe I do too, but I have no other choice! I have been forced to wear this clown suit and masquerade as though I’m defending law-abiding citizens from criminal boogeymen. But he checked himself, the glitch in his façade quickly reverting back to its outwardly collected state. Having your protest is fine, he assured us. “I’m just trying to tell you what you need to do to stay out of jail.” And then, “But if you’re dying to go to jail I can tell you how to do that.” He elaborated: don’t blockade any streets (awww!), don’t start any fires (oh, c’mon, it’s New Year’s!) and don’t flip over any cars a la the Russian anarchist “art” collective Voina. Great– now stop being so patronizing and just go away, I heard myself saying. Which he did shortly thereafter, thankfully.

“It’s not a good time to go to jail right now,” he told us. “They’re low on food in there.”

The crowd marched, about 25 strong, to the jail. The last and only time I’d ever participated in a noise demo was when a friend and I went down to the inmate processing area after some folks got arrested at a sit-in and proceeded to bang on pots and pans. On that occasion, a sheriff finally came out after ten minutes and told us to stop. “It’s not a good time to go to jail right now,” he told us. “They’re low on food in there.” For a moment we considered staging another demo to protest what this bumbling sheriff just admitted was, ya know, a basic human rights violation, but we ultimately collected our pans and called it a night. Though that occasion was entertaining, our new year’s event was definitely more a force to be reckoned with. Cops hovered about us every step of the way and stayed present as the banners flew (“Fuck OPP” and another with “Free All Prisoners” or some other such sentiment).

As we neared the jail the rudimentary drums pounded and the horns wailed. It was off to a great start. No sooner had we arrived than inside the prisoners could be seen waving sheets and growing visibly riled up. Meanwhile, amidst the cacophony, two participants set to the task of projecting some action-packed street visuals onto an adjacent wall for those upstairs to enjoy; the cops who had gathered outside to watch the spectacle, however, bustled over and ordered them to turn it off. They always spoil the fun, don’t they? But they tolerated the bucket-beating, saxophone-bleating, screaming chants that we sent to our brothers and sisters locked away inside this prison fortress. Our elation soared as one inmate returned our greeting with a burning sheet of toilet paper! Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt a tingling sensation in my arms—probably also attributed to several minutes’ banging on a bucket but also because I was completely overwhelmed with joy. The sheriffs congregating nearby, even gettin’ down a little to our improvised tunes, pointed up at the cell from which the fiery wads came from. I think many of us felt infinitely rewarded from this moment of connection alone. I mean, what a big courageous “fuck you” to the system that keeps us all caged in cells, literal and figurative. It was a gesture—like the hunger strikes from Angola to Pelican Bay—that screamed, You can strip me of my freedom and every one I love, but I’ll be goddamned if you expect to have my dignity and obedience as well! I don’t know what circumstances condemned this man to the hellhole of this prison, if he was a vicious murderer or sex offender, but in this moment I loved him all the same. It is unpleasant to consider the repercussions of his act of autonomy: perhaps a beating by guards or some other violent punishment. But I will say I was not alone in marveling at the symbiosis of our resistance coupled with his—and wondering how those of us on the outside could up the ante next time to express our gratitude for his display.

We wound our way to the opposite side of the jail. Many later expressed regret at this move, for by the time we reached the other end a few minutes later, the guards had taken control of the floors and locked down the inmates– a measure quite predictable on the part of the guards, considering the volatile implications of getting a bunch of people with barely anything left to lose all fired up. Granted, our noise no doubt reached them, which was obviously the most important goal. But we lost some momentum. Returning to our original location and spotting a blue uniform up in the windows rather than the outstretched arms of the prisoners, it became clear that the celebratory rupture had passed. A cop took the opportunity to take pictures of us with his camera—which I can bet aren’t intended for his personal photo album, if you know what I mean. Most of us ducked behind banners and stuck our fingers out. One person walked up with their own camera and took the cop’s picture as a retort. We’d made an impression, and it seemed like the appropriate time to make our exit.

“Happy New Year!” an inmate called, after we rested our instruments, to which we shouted back as heartily as we could. “Don’t leave,” another called as we made our way from the jail. It was a sad parting, especially given the fact that while the rest of us went off to celebrate the new year, those inside would be languishing in their barren cells. But we knew we’d be back.

One aspect that was informative for some of us was the possibility offered by this action. Yeah, sure—it was a protest of the prison industrial complex and all that. But it presented no demands for reform. Far more significantly, a noise demo is an act of solidarity with one of the most exploited classes of people under capitalism—prisoners. It is a way to support prisoners that goes in tandem with letterwriting or supplying books. Although it may be impossible to catch a glimpse of the glow on their faces when they witness a parade of rabble-rousers hooting outside, the point is to empower and make life for those locked up a little more bearable. And also to build networks of resistance. We caused an uproar within the walls of that place—an institution which thrives on rigid order and submission, where the guards want nothing more than to avoid confrontation. We suspect that the cops will be less approving of our presence next time. But more importantly, we guarantee that there will be a next time.