The sun was shining Saturday morning as the Close Rikers march kicked off. Enlace joined JustLeadership USA, Legal Aid Society, NYCLU, VOCAL-NY and other organizations to demand divestment from prisons and reinvestment in communities. The September 24th march began in Astoria and made its way to the foot of the bridge to Rikers Jail Complex in northern Queens. There were around 250 people in attendance. As the crowd made its way down the streets, families peered out their windows, couples on the sidewalk paused, neighbors came out and shook their fists in the air in support of the cause. One man stopped to ask us what what was going on, after my colleague explained, he asked “What’s Rikers?” The word was spreading. The march was a call to New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to “close Rikers, to shut it down!”. A protesting brass band blared their horns and carried a banner draped with pink balloons calling to “pop the prison.”
People carried photos memorializing Kalief Browder. His words “Ma, I can’t take it any more” emboldened on signs. Browder at the age of 16 spent three years at Rikers, two years in solitary confinement, as he awaited trial for suspicion of stealing a backpack. Charges were subsequently dropped. After his release he went on to graduate high school and made progress. However, the trauma and violence he experienced while on Rikers was too much to bare. In 2015 he ended his life at his mother’s house after serious deterioration to his mental health and well-being. Kalief’s story is tragically one of many.
Bold signs with startling numbers waved in the air. 79%, the percentage of people on the island awaiting trial, not convicted of a crime. 89%, the percentage of men and women imprisoned on the island who are Black and Latino.$205,800, the yearly cost of keeping one person detained on Rikers. The overwhelming majority of these men and women people cannot afford to post bail, spending years waiting for their day in court. Their constitutional right to a “speedy trial” has been violated.The numbers of Rikers represent racist and discriminatory practices that are not exclusive to this island. Jails across the United States disproportionately lock up poor Black and Brown women and men. Enlace has been committed to the cause of addressing this, supporting communities through the Prison Divestment Campaign and demanding reinvestment in communities and reparations.
As community members gathered for the rally across the bridge to Rikers powerful voices took to the stage. Bainey Garcia, an activist who identified as trans-Latina shared her story of being placed in Rikers. She was not granted her request to be housed with her identified gender. Garcia described how her dignity was taken from her and of the horrific sexual attacks she survived in her time on the island.
As people continued to speak cars of visitors to Rikers drove by looking out into the sea of the rally. Another woman who spent years on Rikers spoke of her experience, “Nothing grows there, everything dies, your soul, your confidence, your self-worth, your integrity” She urged Mayor De Blasio and other NYC public officials make it a place where things can grow and life can exist.
Personal stories of men and women currently detained on the island were read by members of Theater of the Oppressed, an artist collective. One story was from a transwoman who is currently imprisoned with men. She described the violence she experiences daily and prays every night to make it out alive. Another from a young man who has been on the island for six years awaiting trial. The graphic stories were first hand accounts of the current levels of violence that exist at Rikers.
The crowd heard from politicians, families of men and women who were imprisoned on Rikers and artists who are committed to the closing of the jail complex. The moral and fiscal argument to close Rikers was made clear. As the rally came to a close the crowd stood in solidarity, tweets and messages to Mayor De Blasio were sent and the crowd began to imagine a life post Rikers.