My first serious demonstration was a 10-day march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, a total of 113 miles, in the summer of 2013. The “March for a People’s Budget” occurred from May 25-June 3, and was organized by Decarcerate PA. The march was prompted by the closing of over 23 Philadelphia public schools that year, which coincided with the construction of two new prisons in PA. The Corbett administration designated $400 million in the budget to construct the two new prisons, which, if used for education, could have easily prevented all the schools from closing down.
The organizers of the march made three demands: a decrease in the prison budget; the immediate cancelation of new prison construction in Montgomery County; and full funding for education, health care and social services. During the march nearly every person I spoke with agreed with these demands, especially in poorer areas.
I joined the 10-day march without knowing a single person involved. Luckily the members of Decarcerate PA were caring and dedicated people. Out of the 40 persons who marched, most of them were in their older 20s, had college degrees, and were involved in Occupy Philadelphia a few years earlier. They were much more knowledgeable and experienced than I was, and I enjoyed learning from them.
The march began on May 25 with a kick-off rally at Love Park in Philadelphia. I packed my two bags in a van and received a construction vest that all the walkers received, representing our demand for construction of new social and economic policies in PA. Over 150 persons marched from Love Park to the Art Museum. I was immediately radicalized by the experience when I was told to grab one end of a banner at the head of the march. It was empowering to hear hundreds of people behind me in the street, chanting for a new way of life. There was a quick rally at the Art Museum. The rally concluded with the send-off of the 40 walkers down the road to continue our journey. Shortly afterward, we were pulled over by the police for using a bullhorn as we marched. The police pulled up within the first two minutes that we entered a nice suburban neighborhood, in contrast to the poor area where we used the bullhorn freely without any problems. Our lawyers spoke with the police, and no one was penalized in anyway. This marked our first encounter with the police. After marching for several hours, I was happy to get off my feet and take shelter at a Quaker building.
The 2nd day we marched to the County Courthouse in Norristown for the rally, “Invest in the Future, not Fear!” The rally supported the Mexican-American community in Norristown, who were constantly harassed for entering the country as illegal aliens. Families shared stories about being imprisoned for over a long period of time when they first entered the country. Nearly a hundred persons attended the bilingual rally.
After the rally I marched next to OG Law. An older black man, he marched the entire way to Harrisburg wearing a bright orange prison jumpsuit with the words “Jail is 4 Suckaz’!” inscribed on the back, and had chains wrapped around both legs as if he was in prison. OG Law was imprisoned for several years, but like Malcolm X, he spent most of his time reading. When he came out of prison he preached nothing but love and God. With all of his charisma and creative actions he was a one-man revolution. He could impressively talk for hours about various subjects, but most of the time chose to rap about them, instead. Without a doubt he is the most unique activist I ever met, and has a personality only comparable to civil rights activist James Bevel.
In the first hour of marching with OG Law, we had our second encounter with the police. We had marched several miles in a lower-class neighborhood from the rally, and took a break at a store nearby. When we stopped at the store a police car pulled up and two officers began speaking with us in a friendly manner. Apparently someone was startled to see a man walking around the neighborhood in a prison outfit, and therefore called the police. When the officers realized what had happened, they laughed along with us and let us go without any hassle. This marked our second encounter with the police in only two days.
We took shelter in a church the second night, and like every other night during the march, we held an hour-long community session before bed. This was when we sat in a circle and each person described how they felt or shared their favorite experience of the day. Every night I said this was the best experience of my life. The first night home after the march I remember being sad because I was alone during the time we usually came together.
On the third day we marched into Collegeville, where we held a short rally at an intersection not too far from the site of the Graterford prison construction project. Nearly every car that passed us honked in support, and when I went to the gas station across the street, a stranger bought an entire case of water and gave it to me to share with the group. As we marched through Collegeville we were joined by a young girl who learned we were marching through the town only earlier that day. She was the first of many people to join us for a part of the way.
Later on in the day we reached Pottstown, which turned out to be my least favorite place during the entire march. Throughout the entire march I can only remember a handful of people who disagreed with us, and nearly all these experiences derive from Pottstown. I recall that in the first few minutes of entering Pottstown, a man on a motorcycle flipped me off for carrying a sign that read: “Stop building prisons.” As we moved further into the town the people seemed to have become nastier and nastier. A group of five of us walked by an old white couple sitting on their stoop, when they called us over to learn what we were doing. When we told them our mission, they immediately began hurling insults at us. It was clear to all of us that when they angrily screamed “criminal,” they really meant “nigger” because they continuously brought up black people as being degenerates in society.
This became the norm while marching through Pottstown. It was clearly a patriotic town, since I remember every lawn being filled with American flags for the holiday. But it was a lower-middle-class neighborhood, far past its glory days when Bethlehem Steel factories employed the majority of the town. Now the factories were run-down, empty, and meaningless; leaving a nasty residue for all who remain. This was the atmosphere that I dreaded: the division of the lower classes through the propaganda of racism, leaving those in power unharmed.
At a mechanic shop, I stopped and spoke with a man with only one leg. When I began telling him what I was doing, he stopped me, saying the government should build the prisons even bigger and start executing the “criminals.” I explained that I thought the money should be invested in providing social services and free healthcare, so that men like him could be treated without any cost. In the end he decided he preferred investing his tax money in prisons, and not into his own health. After a long day we finally reached our rally point on Main Street. Several bystanders stopped and supported our rally, which was delightful since across the street we were counter-picketed by three old women who needed strollers just to push themselves back and forth on the picket line.
Even though it was an awful day, I began to feel better after several dozen church members volunteered their time to cook us dinner that night. Then they drove us half-an-hour away to a motel, where we received free room and board. After three days without a shower or bed, the motel room felt like a palace. I was completely repaired from the day’s events after I had a talk with Sean Wispy, a remarkably caring man who patiently listens to every word one has to say. I have considered him a good friend since then.
On the 4th day we met with an intelligent religious leader before we set off into the woods for over a 15-mile walk. He motivated us by quoting an old black woman during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 who said: “My Feet Is Tired, but My Soul Is Rested.” We marched from morning to night until we finally reached Reading. We only marched several blocks in Reading before we reached our destination, but those few blocks made the entire day worthwhile. The several blocks we marched through were quite poor, and people sat on their stoops or stood on the sidewalk. Nearly everyone on the street became excited as we chanted freedom songs and handed out leaflets. The amount of people marching nearly doubled immediately. Several Mexicans began saying their own chants: “No more deportations.” One of our members went over and provided them with the contact information for Mexican activists in Norristown, and also managed to get down their contact information for future events. When we reached the church in Reading, it took a little over an hour before we began to lose our high from the march.
A good portion of people left that night because the next day we were to remain in Reading. During the day I passed out over a thousand fliers on the main street in Reading for a panel discussion we were hosting that night. At first it was hard to pass out fliers to strangers, but I began holding their attention when I mentioned we aimed at dismantling the drug war, which was true, but wasn’t emphasized as much during the march. It soon became clear that nearly everyone knew someone else in prison for mere drug possession, so I connected to them through that. Little did I know that I would eventually join the marijuana and antidrug movement full time to help end mass incarceration.
That night over a hundred persons attended Hopewell Mennonite Church for the panel topic: “From the Underground Railroad to the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Freedom Struggles Then and Now.” Panel speakers discussed the relation of budget cuts and mass incarceration. Local community leaders attended the panel and initiated discussions with other community members. At the end of the panel several persons renounced their former apathy, and promised to get more involved in local education meetings to prevent school budgets from being cut. Another delightful surprise that night was meeting Jesse Epps, who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the sanitation workers in New Orleans that King supported right up to his death. Jesse Epps claimed to have spoken with King only an hour before he was assassinated in 1968.
The 6th day was another long day of walking. We marched toward Womelsdorf and along the way we were joined by an elderly man who came from the nursing home nearby. He heard what we were doing and wanted to join. He marched with us for several hours until he had to turn around and return to the nursing home. His presence actually turned out to be very uplifting, especially since elderly people tended to oppose our march.
On the 7th day I only marched for a few miles before I had to stop. I did not bring proper walking shoes with me for the march, and I ended up with three large blisters on each foot. For the next two days I didn’t march, but I did get to perform other tasks. For the next two days I drove the van that held all our materials, and I would setup lunch at each rest stop. I also printed fliers to be distributed and was put in charge of filling out the cards that were to be sent to each assemblyperson when we reached Harrisburg.
On day-9 we entered Harrisburg. Like most cities, Harrisburg has a lot of wealth in the areas near government buildings, but the surrounding areas are impoverished ghettos. Only several blocks away from our destination that night at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, we marched through an impoverished area with mostly black citizens. Immediately prior to entering the poor area, one marcher announced that this was the poorest section in all of Harrisburg and we should try and connect with as many people as possible. Exactly like in previous areas: the poorer the area, the better reception we received. Unmatched throughout the entire march, we were swarmed by sympathetic people. We were preaching to the people who were oppressed by the prison system for years. Within minutes dozens of persons joined our march, while two sympathetic ladies drove in a car in front of us telling the rest of the community to come out and support our march. A few blocks down our march came to a halt when we noticed people coming from every direction to hear what we had to say. We had a minor rally right there on the corner with at least 50 local citizens standing by. I remember Leon giving his speech about being locked up in prison for years without proper medical treatment, while his kids remained home without a father. It was a story all too well-known by the local people and everyone applauded Leon for his courage. When we finally reached the Unitarian Church, several local citizens stood outside the church and talked to us about their grievances. We listened and shared our advice, and concluded by telling them about the demonstration the next day, and handed out several leaflets explaining what they could do in their local areas to gain more control for the people. It was certainly an experience I was proud to be part of.
On day 10 we were filled with excitement. Being away from home for 10 days is not easy, especially when working on a complicated project that requires sleeping on floors and marching more than 10 miles each day. Even though it was a rough journey we all felt like one big family that day. I once again carried the main banner at the front of the parade when we marched across the bridge to enter the government sector of the city. Behind me people carried signs attached to ropes that were personally filled out by people along the march. At the top they read: “Instead of Prisons…” and people wrote down whatever they preferred to invest in over prisons. I wrote down “Full Green Employment.”
The march concluded with a rally on the capital building’s steps. Nearly 200 persons came out for the event, including 2 buses of people from Philadelphia who made the trip to Harrisburg that day to lend their support to the rally. Speeches were made by several Decarcerate PA members, political officials, and Jesse Epps, who I was happy to see again.
One of the most moving parts for me during the speeches was when someone read aloud a letter written by Michelle Alexander in support of our march. Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” was possibly the biggest influence in my decision to participate in the march. I read her book the year before in one of my courses at Rutgers, and it completely changed my viewpoint on the US prison system and the racist procedures used for incarceration. It was a delightful surprise during the march that I discovered that nearly every other walker read her book at some point. I had admired her work for over a year and now I received a compliment from her about the significant work I was doing. In her letter she congratulated us for our outstanding work and said we were the new generation of civil rights workers. We were the true soldiers to be admired in this country, she wrote. Coming from her, this message really had an impact on me. The person I admired now admired me back. It was a mutual admiration between two people fighting the same upward battle.
After the speeches, all the walkers lined up in a row at the microphone and each one read aloud their sign’s message of what they preferred over prisons. After this the rally came to an end and the walkers split into groups of two and presented our anti-prison financial packets to Senators and Congressmen inside the state building. We regrouped an hour later on the building’s steps to say goodbye to one another. It felt like saying goodbye to a family member you knew you wouldn’t see again for some time. The march brought us together, but now it was over. In the last act of kindness I received a free ride home by Nick. When I got home that night I was sad when I realized there wouldn’t be a group circle that night to talk about how I felt. I was back to the way things were expected – isolated and alone. But I knew I wasn’t isolated or alone anymore. That feeling was gone. I felt excited because the opposite was true; I was surrounded by gifted and caring people who cut through the lies of society and showed me the path of a new way to live. A life filled with compassion, sacrifice, and activism.