Reportback: March on GBCI

Marching on the front entrance to Green Bay CI. Photo credit: PSL MKE

Around noon on Saturday, August 28, 2021, dozens of activists descended on the sprawling maximum-security Green Bay Correctional Institute (GBCI) in Allouez, WI. The direct action event was organized autonomously by a coalition including ABOLISHmke and members of the local Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). Our goals were manifold: to expose the routine atrocities committed by staff with tacit support of local and state authorities; to confidently assure those still trapped inside that we love, care for, and honor them; and to highlight and signal boost the experiences of formerly incarcerated people and loved ones of current captives. We also came with a set of demands for Warden Dylon Radtke and executives like Governor Tony Evers which we attempted to deliver to the front office.

In a previous article we described in harrowing detail the conditions inside GBCI and outlined our motivations. Today we want to provide an after action report, reflecting on the successful elements of the march while debriefing on its many lessons.

Map of the direct action showing the routes taken throughout the event.

Timeline of events

Activists marched southwest (red) along Webster Avenue and stopped at the intersection with Broadview Drive, just outside the housing unit that includes solitary confinement. For about two hours a series of speakers recounted their experiences with the facility and read abolitionist poetry about the atrocities within, in between noise demonstrations and friendly encouragement from passing traffic. Around 1:40 PM activists began marching again (green) along the southwest wall of the facility on their way to deliver demands to the Warden before being directed by prison guards onto Coolidge Street. This brief detour sent the group into a residential neighborhood before ultimately coming around to the front entrance, up the long driveway, and to the facility’s front door.

Organizers of the event had planned to gather just outside the extreme southwest corner of the maximum security facility, where captives are held in solitary confinement. This position was chosen because the human souls trapped there are subject to unimaginable cruelty, isolation, and malnourishment, all for transgressions as trivial as speaking out of turn. Survivors report being able to hear cars pass by on the busy thoroughfare that is Webster Avenue, a mere tens of feet just beyond their reach. It was here where we thought a message of love and solidarity could be most easily heard, and most impactful to the people who needed to hear it.

Photo credit: PSL MKE

The crowd arrived bearing a massive black banner reading “NO MORE PRISONS” as well as smaller person-sized protest signs with similar messaging. On a small clearing just around the southernmost corner of the facility, we planted a small PA system to serve as a makeshift podium where speakers could address the gathered crowd. For around two hours passing traffic occasionally honked in support, which was far and away the majority of public reception. The local Sheriff’s office only intervened with this part of the event once, to clear a couple of cars who had been providing security out of the road on Webster Ave.

The most prolific speaker of the day was Segdrick Farley, a man who spent time in solitary for the most minor of infractions. Segdrick came to the event from Eau Claire with his wife and two children, who quickly won over the crowd. Segdrick’s words on the day capably say more than this report could ever hope to.

Next up was ABOLISHmke friend Tai reading out the group’s demands to Warden Radtke.

Finally, another ABOLISHmke friend Ben read poetry about hunger strikes at GBCI, how authorities retaliated, and how the state Department of Corrections responded.

After a couple hours of speakers, readings, noise demonstrations, and chants of solidarity, around 1:40 PM the group once again marched, this time to the northwest along the outer wall of GBCI, determined to deliver a letter of demands to Warden Radtke. About halfway up this section of wall, some prison guards instructed us to move away from the facility. We peacefully complied and took a quick detour through a shockingly adjacent residential neighborhood pockmarked with Trump flags, but not before lightly hassling the guards in response.

Before long we had reached the front gate of the facility, redoubling defiant chants and moving resolute up towards the main entrance of this “reformatory”:

Video from ABOLISHmke’s Twitter.

“1, 2, 3, 4, open up the prison door! 5, 6, 7, 8, we don’t want no prison state! 9, 10, 11… FUCK 12!”

“You are not forgotten! You are not alone! We are gonna fight to bring you home!”

Things escalated to a mild spice level when a decently sized contingent of activists attempted to enter through the front doors. Guards inside really did not care for this and a bickering match broke out, ending with a call to the sheriff’s office. As a long-gathering thunderstorm opened wide on the crowd of activists outside, folx retreated to the line of trees behind the parking lot while those of us with cars slowly ferried others back to our original meeting place.

Over the course of 20-30 minutes the crowd at the front entrance to GBCI slowly dwindled. Only two activists remained on the ground when three sheriff’s deputies (driving separate cruisers) finally arrived at the scene. One, a friendly guy who did all the talking, was first to approach while the other two who did their level best to project mean authority. Officer Friendly attempted to reason with the two activists, asking them about future actions they have planned and insisting they clear any such actions with the sheriff’s office beforehand. This interaction was interrupted when the final ride showed up, and the last two activists departed without further incident.

Analysis

Probably the most practical lesson learned from this demonstration is the response time of local authorities. It’s believed that on-site prison guards do not have the jurisdiction to detain protestors, which is supported by the observation that they didn’t even try — in fact, guards were essentially begging activists to move away from the door so they could leave for a 2:00 PM shift change. They very much wanted to avoid confrontation, which illustrates that to a certain extent engaging with prison staff is a relatively safe tactic. Without a doubt, the most direct safety threat to operations came from the local Brown County sheriff’s office. At this event, sheriff’s deputies seemed uninterested in detaining protestors; it helped that by the time they showed up, rainfall had become torrential and the activist crowd had largely dispersed.

We should always keep in mind that any confrontation with police puts the formerly incarcerated among us at risk. At least two people with felony records were among the crowd marching on GBCI. Local authorities have our number now; we are a known quantity to them, and as such it’s always possible future public actions will have a higher sheriff presence. Of course, antagonizing prison staff to waste their time and render their jobs unpleasant is an explicit goal for abolition actions. Many activists, including those with felony records, consider achieving this goal to be well worth the risk of police confrontation.

Overall, the event had many overt and emphatic successes. Turnout was quite hefty with dozens making the drive from Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and Madison. Solidarity between and among the activists on the ground was palpable. Messaging was highly visible to passersby, who largely expressed support. The atmosphere remained friendly enough that two small children felt very comfortable and remained engaged. The gallery of speakers, especially Segdrick, gave moving testimony to despicable and inhumane conditions within the walls of GBCI. Security, location, and messaging were taken seriously by organizers and the event remained flexible enough that a handful of extra people spontaneously joined up, and spoke out.

One crucially important question remains: how was the event received by those held inside? This is difficult to know for sure until we hear from our friends trapped at the facility, which can take time.

Photo credit: PSL MKE

Looking ahead

This event was organized as part of Shut ‘Em Down 2021, a nationwide grassroots mobilization for prison abolition called for by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). In 2022, JLS plans for actions inside prisons through the same dates as this year’s events, including prisoner-initiated protests, work stoppages, and demonstrations. This year’s event loudly emphasized that a durable network of solidarity has been built outside, which our incarcerated friends will be counting on. Next year we anticipate, among other things, more direct confrontation with prison authorities. As we plan out actions of solidarity, we must also forefront the safety and protection of people held at GBCI. Finally, we must apply the valuable information we learned in ways strategic, robust, and agile.

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