Pilar Maschi tells us what it’s like to win.
Liberal reformers in New York City are pushing for skyscraper jails to replace the notorious penal colony on Rikers Island. Supporters of the plan claim these facilities will be humane and rehabilitative, functioning as “justice hubs” and “sites of civic unity” tying communities together. Meanwhile, abolitionists organizing under the banner #NoNewJails demand the closure of Rikers, and substantive investment in the working-class communities of color historically decimated by mass incarceration, not new jails. In the process, abolitionists are pressing fundamental questions about the meanings of safety, community, and justice, amid a national moment of reckoning with the accumulated devastation of decades of mass incarceration. I sat down with veteran organizer Pilar Maschi for a wide-ranging discussion of her path to abolitionism, her sense of strategy and tactics and how the present juncture can point toward a world without human cages.
JS: You’re from New York originally?
PM: Born and raised. I started getting locked up in ’94 for little petty things: possession, loitering, shit like that. Through the years, it seemed like either I was following gentrification or gentrification was following me. I just moved, homeless, through the streets of New York City. If there was any gentrification development project happening, I was getting locked up, and so was the rest of the community that was using. Eventually I ended up at La Casita, a residential, mother/child substance-abuse “therapeutic community” mandated by my felony conviction. I got the chance to have my baby outside as an alternative to having her shackled at Rikers Island.
JS: How did you land at La Casita?
PM: I was pregnant and on the run from the police for a few months pretty bad, and they fucking got me. I had a massive amount of open cases; I had a lot of warrants. I have a lot of stories. I thought I was being set up with a higher charge with many years attached. I really wanted a residential substance-abuse program because I knew if I went to prison upstate I’d be gone for a very long time, and after fifteen months inside I would no longer have custody rights for my kid. I did the footwork and found La Casita. I called them, went through the intake process and was accepted. One of the many court dates came — my baby was growing, she was five-and-a-half-months inside me — and I begged the judge to transfer me to La Casita. She gave me the condition that if I didn’t complete the La Casita Program I would have to do a two-to-four up north. I made it into La Casita. Prevented the state from shackling me to a bed while giving birth to my baby like they did to so many. Stayed mandated at La Casita for two years and stayed in aftercare for a few more months after that. I wanted to get my GED. I wanted to go to college. And I always wanted to be an organizer.
JS: How did you get involved in abolition?
PM: Abolition came to me on the desk of a GED class at The Fortune Society, a prison re-entry project. There was a paper there that said “Imagine a world without prisons.” I was like, Wow, this is deep. Some real shit. Before that I didn’t realize there was an organized group of people who thought this way, even though I also felt this way and knew some people on the streets with me did too. I wanted to be down. I found out about these amazing people organizing the conference because they were the tutors supporting me in getting my GED at Fortune. They invited me to come to a Critical Resistance NYC (CRNYC) chapter meeting.
JS: Can you say a bit about Critical Resistance?
PM: Critical Resistance is an organization that believes prisons and police are not real forms of safety. Safety comes from food, shelter, freedom: our basic necessities, which are also our basic human rights. We believe that if those rights are met, and we’re in thriving communities, we will be free and we won’t need to rely on incarceration. We also believe incarceration is a system that needs to be dismantled and abolished. It does not need to be fixed. It’s not broken. It works very well. And we are in the process of trying to tear that shit down while building new abolitionist ideas up.
JS: How did you start organizing at La Casita?
PM: When I entered the first CRNYC meeting I was embraced by the community there. It was a group of people that were so beautiful, eccentric, diverse, fucking gorgeous, and really smart. I was like, We are a crew! So it was my family, but it also wasn’t my family. The program where I lived, the people I lived on the streets with, we struggled, we hustled, we robbed, slept in abandoned buildings, snuck into apartments like spiders, froze on rooftops – we did all types of shit to survive. That’s the part of my family who this struggle belongs to. This is our struggle. We need to be in the frontlines of this. So I brought abolition to La Casita. I had to push abolition with the staff there. They had to be convinced. People thought we were insane! And this was happening right when 9/11 hit. Can you imagine?
JS: Once you won the confidence of the staff, what kind of organizing did you do?
PM: I organized a leadership development group. We developed workshops for self-determination, life skills, self-defense, yoga, support groups, and we even had a garden. We had a study group in the garden so the women could vent and share without eyes watching. Our Revolutionary Women Leaders workshop series featured screenings of films about Zapatista women and parents organizing against police brutality. Margarita Rosario came to speak. Recovery comes in different forms, and it’s not just from substance use. We’re recovering from trauma, we’re recovering from the bullshit and the oppression that we’ve had to deal with. Recovery programs do some good, but what “therapeutic communities” teach you is how to assimilate. That, I’m not with!
JS: When did you find out they were planning to build a jail in the Bronx?
PM: At the end of 2005, South Bronx organizer Lisa Ortega called an emergency meeting. Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn had revealed there was going to be a 2,040-bed jail, on this private toxic land called Oak Point in the South Bronx, five blocks away from La Casita. We were on board immediately. It just gelled. In that neighborhood at the time there were a lot of live organizations. Right away we started holding community events. If you’re planning some high-impact jail-construction shit, you’re supposed to let the community know what’s going on. So that was the premise: we’re not having it. We’re gonna tell the community what’s up and definitely hold this dude accountable.
JS: So you held your own meetings, but you also went to public meetings when the city started holding them?
PM: We let everybody know what was happening, at whatever meeting was happening, whether it was their meeting or ours. At their meetings, we were disrupting, taking over. This meant standing up, making a lot of noise, taking the mic from somebody and not giving it back, coming to the front and not letting someone from the city speak because we wanted the community to speak. They wanted to make it so all the elected officials went first and the community went after, and we stood up and chanted until they stopped that. We battled all their meeting policies: their fucked-up translation issues, lack of childcare, not telling us when the meetings were. We really blew them up.
JS: Describe the coalition that came to be called Community in Unity (CIU).
PM: We were an abolitionist organization including groups like Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, Critical Resistance NYC, the Ñetas, and others We had meetings, we had working groups, areas where we focused our work, and a general body that everybody was accountable to. We worked by consensus, no voting. We tried to switch our meetings to different places to be as decentralized as possible, and not give one organization too much power. We were like family. We made it like the world we wanted to live in. We wanted to build it, so why not build it with each other?
JS: What were your principles of unity?
PM: Abolition. No jails, nowhere, no compromises.
JS: And you had a storefront!
PM: We had a storefront, 976 Longwood. It was beautiful. It was neutral. There were different street families that held space there. Everyone knew it was a neutral place. We were doing internal work, learning how to live together, street families, queer and straight people, machismo and feministas. There was some shit going on! Things would arise, because we’re trying to transform shit. There’s gonna be transphobia and misogyny in our communities. I can’t say they didn’t happen in our office, but when they did, we dealt with it. We were growing up as people while we were fighting this.
JS: How did you deal with interpersonal problems using an abolitionist framework?
PM: When it happens, you respectfully talk to the person and try to reason and give them another perspective, make sure they recognize where the impacts are. Like, if your kid is gay, and a person is using homophobic language in the office, how will that impact your kid? How will that impact your relationship with your kid? People were open to learning. And they got to live with some queer folks. We worked together, we lived together, we had babies together. We were a family, straight and queer. It was awesome.
JS: What was the makeup of CIU?
PM: We were youth, elders, scientists, street families, lawyers, we were all of it. We were fierce! Women at La Casita were also in the leadership. Even though they were living in a supervised cage, they were allowed, due to the fact that I was a former client. A lot of good shit came out of that. We were very much in the leadership in terms of what alternatives we demanded. We were tight with each other, and we believed in what we were doing so much. It wasn’t something you learn in a book. It wasn’t something you’re taught. It’s something that comes from your fucking gut and heart. From needing to survive everyday. That was beautiful shit. And we won. We stopped it. I hope I get to experience that again in my lifetime. But I don’t know if I’ll be lucky enough.
JS: So you won.
PM: Yes! A couple or a few times, depending on who you ask. The first came in the Uniform Land Review Procedure (ULURP)required for development on Oak Point. The ULURP process was interrupted by an Environmental Specialist we acquired who said that the actual ground was toxic and not safe to build on and so the ULURP process was postponed indefinitely. CIU had put so much pressure on the city that they didn’t pursue the Oak Point project any further, even though publicly they said they were. We know the cleaning and testing costs to prove the land was not toxic would have impacted the city’s pockets greatly. I remember estimates of fifty million or so just to clean up the debris on the Oak Point site. Martin Horn said they would look for another site, but we knew better. Horn and the city knew our hearts were in this fight until the bitter end and that’s why they never pursued another site for the Bronx jail. Towards the end of the Oak Point battle we found out the Bronx jail was part of a $1.5 billion citywide jail-expansion plan. Horn wanted to build a new jail in every borough, and the Oak Point project was just one of them. We also convinced the Comptroller at the time to oppose the borough jail plan, adding another layer.
JS: How did you relate to politicians?
PM: We use them for what we need them for. They work for us. We provided a letter. All they had to do was sign it. Are you with us, or are you not? If we thought a certain official was important, we needed to get them to publicly state they were against the jail. We were really effective. Our direct action strategies were organized, and we were unified. The City tried to infiltrate us. They tried to call one of the organizations and invite them to a private meeting. But the organization told us! So we met, and said, “They want to have a private meeting? OK, let’s say that we will have a private meeting with them.” And when they showed up, the Mothers on the Move office was packed. We had signs displaying fifty alternatives to jail, and we made them listen to each one. We also made sure that when Martin Horn came into the office, he was positioned in the back, unable to leave. We cornered him.
JS: What did the day-to-day organizing in CIU look like?
PM: A lot of outreach, a lot of community board hearings, a lot of disrupting, a lot of marches, meetings. Oh, and parties. We really wanted to be accountable to the community, to meet them. We held a lot of community speak-outs, gritos, which is Spanish for “screaming.” We’d do a march and end up at a church and do a grito, and have people speak out on the issues. Nobody wanted a jail!
JS: When you talked to people about abolition, how did the discussions go?
PM: You don’t have to even say abolition to talk about abolition. We met people where they were at. There are abolitionists all around us. The analysis and the language is just different. People wanted good education, good housing, good food, rec centers, and positive change for youth. We were all voicing the same thing. So it wasn’t hard to talk about abolition.
JS: Right now a lot of the theory around abolition lives in the classroom. How can we put it to work in the service of the people who need it the most, in the places where it’s needed the most?
PM: University classrooms should be open to people like us who are surviving, and therefore fighting the struggles being talked about in the classroom. Why are we not in those rooms, and why are we not getting the same access as people with money and status? Meanwhile, this is our direct struggle, and we’ve survived it! If anything, you can learn a ton from us, but we’re not gonna be your guinea pigs either. I don’t know if we need to bring the universities to the ghetto, ’cause that will fuck everything up — I mean, look at the Upper West Side with Columbia, or NYU wiping out downtown. But academics need to get out of their comfort zone. Everyone has a role. All of us are needed in this fight. Academics can share information with us. It wouldn’t hurt to develop our analysis. I am a better person because of that. I know more, now that I have more language to articulate what I already feel inside.
JS: Here we are ten years later, and they’re at it again with a very similar jail expansion plan. What do today’s organizers have to learn from your experiences?
PM: Being really aggressive is important. Not compromising with elected officials is important. The same goes for not spending too much time on electeds. The majority of time needs to be spent on the people. Electeds are intimidated by a lot of people — when you have a movement, when you have a lot of people that are making their lives difficult, confronting them day after day. You need people to do that, to have as many people confront them as possible. We weren’t asking the politicians anything. We were telling them. We were aggressive, and we set the stage. Even if it was their show, and their event, we took it over.