Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Today, we’re going to talk about the 13th Amendment and the effort in California to remove the slavery portion of debt. So joining me today is two organizers and activists who has been working in California to change that, John Cannon and Jeronimo Aguilar. Thanks for joining me, John and Jeronimo.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
John Cannon: Thank you to have us here. It’s an honor to have [inaudible].
Eddie Conway: So let’s start off, Jeronimo, let’s start off with you. Talk a little bit about your work, your past history, and where we are today. And then I’ll go to John in a minute.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir. So I’m a Chicano from Northern California. I grew up in the Bay Area. My parents were both social workers. And so I grew up around people kind of cycling through the criminal justice system, trying to get the lives straight. And so I also have a lot of family that was involved in activism and the Chicano movement and the civil rights movement in the ’60s and ’70s. And so, with that education, I was always taught about my rights and, kind of, our role in making sure that we’re always reaching towards liberation.
And so, growing up, I moved out here, actually, into the rural Yolo County, which is a rural area here in Northern California in the middle of, kind of, Sacramento and the Bay Area. And so I got involved once I started going to school and getting myself educated after various run-ins with the law here in the rural area, the cops are–everybody knows each other.
And so for good and for bad, the police definitely have their eyes on you. And so was definitely profiled and followed, me and my brothers. And so after catching cases as a juvenile for various things and defending myself even against a lot of, kind of, rural racism that goes on out here, I decided to educate myself and go to school. Majored in Chicano studies at Sacramento State and got involved with the Brown Berets. And so as a Brown Beret activist, I started a chapter at Sacramento State and got involved in a statewide coalition. And after that, again, the law enforcement in Sacramento had their eyes on me. I was involved in some high-profile kind of events or movements. I was able to spend time out of Standing Rock when they were fighting the pipeline out there, and various other movements.
And just with that surveillance, again, I had cops following me, come into my house, and those types of things. And so it was right around that time that for the sake of my children–I’ve got two little ones–I decided to get involved with All of Us or None Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. They had a policy fellowship actually opening, the Elder Freeman Policy Fellowship. Elder Freeman is a Black Panther. And so I thought, wow, as a Brown Beret–and I was currently fighting the case against the Sacramento police department. And so none of these nonprofits would really look to hire me because of, kind of, my record and also my involvement with what they call ‘radical activism.’
But Dorsey Nuun over at LSPC was very gracious, and he gave me the opportunity to learn the policy side of things, to be able to learn how bills get made into law, and really just a rigorous fellowship learning how things go down at the Capitol and how we can educate our community on the grassroots level. And so I’ve been here with LSPC since about February. And so it’s been a great experience getting to know the staff. I’ve known about the organization for many years. And All of Us or None also as, kind of, our community organizing arm, where we’re able to just be in the community and talk with folks, and educate, and learn from people, as well. And so it’s been a great experience, has been a blessing and-
Eddie Conway: Jeronimo, let’s stop right there. Let’s stop right there. That’s good, because that gives us some background. John, talk a little bit about yourself. You’ve been inside. How have that impacted your sisters, your brothers, your family, et cetera? Talk a little bit about yourself for minute there.
John Cannon: So I also grew up in Northern California. I grew up in the Bay Area, Richmond, and Oakland area. Live in Oakland now. Even being young, I was impacted by the prison-industrial complex, by the system. My mom was incarcerated most of my life until she passed. My father was incarcerated. Both my older brothers and I–Iwas 16 years old when I caught a case. And they certified me as an adult, sent me to prison at 16. So I was a sophomore in high school. It’s affected my life a lot. So I know the ins and outs of the system. And I wasn’t really hip to a lot of things until I went to prison and got under some older fellows that taught me things.
They put me up on some books. So once I started seeing the injustices and how bigger the issue was, it lit a fire inside of me. So right now, I’m a student of it and I’m just trying to make a change however I can, just like Jeronimo. I was released from prison in November last year. And I got the opportunity to become a Elder Freeman Policy Fellow, met Dorsey Nuun. It’s a big thing for him to enable us to speak in our own voices. We’re doing work for people that are incarcerated, formerly incarcerated. And that’s one of the big things he says, man, you have a space here. This is your space. You need to speak in your own voice. So at first I was a little nervous because I’m not too educated school-wise, but I was educated in prison.
Eddie Conway: OK. Yeah, yeah. Let’s stop right there, because education comes in all different kinds of forms. Jeronimo, talk for a minute about the 13th Amendment. We know kind of what it means. Why are you challenging it? Why is this happening in California?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yes, sir. So I think that a big part of it is that what we’re taught in school is that slavery was ended. Emancipation happened and slavery was a thing of the past. And to the effect that they even say forget about it and move on, slavery was done away with. So as somebody with Indigenous heritage, somebody that understands the weight of slavery, especially here in California with Indigenous people, it’s something that hits home for me. And so knowing that exception exists, the exception that slavery is prohibited except for a punishment of a crime, and knowing that I got so many family and friends and people still in there being worked for $8, or $4, or you name it–just very inhumane wages–that really, again, also like John, it lit a fire under me to really get involved with the efforts in California to amend our constitution.
Eddie Conway: OK. John, just from inside, how was it? I mean, obviously you grew into an adult. They put you in an adult prison, obviously. How was that for you as a juvenile? And like you said, having family members incarcerated, and not really having outside support, how was it for you inside?
John Cannon: It was pretty crazy, especially being so young. I was the youngest person on the yard. And then, even in terms as the 13th Amendment, how the involuntary servitude was, you feel it firsthand. The first thing we did when we got off the bus, they take us off shackles. They strip you naked in front of everybody. And right after that, they sent us to a room and give us a job. And at the time, too, I was kind of excited about a job, because I didn’t have any money. Nobody was sending me money. So I just remember feeling like it was an auction block. They got you naked then they put you on a job. And there was an OG that told me, I’m like, man, I’m about to get paid. He’s like, you don’t get paid for working in here. I’m like, what? You about to be slaving on that yard labor crew. They put me on yard labor.
So me, I was young. I’m like, well, if I’m not getting paid, I’m not working. And he was like, man, don’t work like that. He’s like, you a number now, you belong to the state. So I seen it. If you don’t work in there, it’s all type of consequences. So you’re forced into it, and you don’t get paid at all. And I did all types of jobs, from yard labor, to kitchen work, to warehouse work. And then eventually I was let on a fire crew, which is really dangerous work, and hard work. And you working with firefighters that’s from the outside, and they getting paid more in an hour than you get paid in a whole month. So it’s like–really degrading. You just feel the effects of it. And just even being in prison at that young age, it’s just, it was pretty crazy.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And I guess I’m throwing this back to you, Jeronimo. What made you think … you all. Anytime I say ‘you’ I’m talking about All of Us or None, and I’m talking about the movement itself. What made you think that in the California Capitol they could, or would, do anything about removing that particular clause? Apparently–and this is something I just learned from looking at the research–apparently the California state has a set of laws and regulations to make them in compliance with the United States Constitution about this 13th Amendment, and so on. What made you think y’all could change that in California? And I guess, in addition to that, is, where is that now?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah. I think for us, I mean, it’s really the inspiration of folks like you, Eddie, and people that stood against the system, you know what I mean? Our predecessors. And so it only felt right for us to continue the work and the legacy to really end slavery, knowing that it’s not ended, and California being a really influential state. We’ve got the fifth largest economy, and we have some of the most people incarcerated, 70% of those being Black and Brown. And so when you look at the history in California of Indigenous slavery and African-American slavery, it’s the same type of dynamic going on today, inside the prison-industrial complex. And so that’s why, I mean, I think that we didn’t even really think about how tough it was, it was more, this is something that needs to be done.
And where it’s at now, is–so we introduced resolutions locally, and our resolutions weren’t really tied to any legislation yet, because there wasn’t any legislation on the state level. There is now. There’s ACA-3, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3, which is in the California legislature. And it’s been brought about, and Sydney Kamlager is the author of that bill. She’s the elected assemblywoman, I believe, going to be in the Senate now. And so that bill is in appropriations committee. It moved forward through public safety. It did pass, but it got stuck in the suspense file in the appropriations committee, which means that it got flagged as being too costly. And so we knew off the bat that CDCR and the system was going to oppose the bill for sure.
And we knew that they were going to say it was going to cost too much to pay people a humane wage. And so we’re really not trying to get into the whole debate about the wages. It’s more about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s about being humane, and people should be treated as human. Whether they made a mistake, whether they’re inside of a prison or ICE detention facility, because this is also happening in the ICE detention facilities. We know that the system is using this as a way to exploit and to gain free labor, like they did upon colonization, really. And so we have to interrupt that dynamic for the sake of our children and for the future generations.
Eddie Conway: OK. John, talk a little bit about what you are doing now on the ground to kind of help this effort.
John Cannon: So now, as a policy fellow, I’ve been learning the ins and outs of policy and how to track a bill, how to support a bill. We’ve been doing organizing and just getting the issue raised in our communities, because we got to educate our communities just like we were educated. So we’re just raising the issue. And we got the ABC campaign, which is Abolish Bondage Collectively. And also we have the local resolutions that were getting passed. We have, it’s called ‘Rejects Slavery.’ So whatever city we’re in, Oakland rejects slavery, Sacramento rejects slavery. So Jeronimo has been a big help in this fight. And I’m also learning a lot from him as my brother. So it’s a pretty cool situation that I’m in. It’s a dream come true. I really am able to really just put my foot on the ground and get involved with people I grew up with and everything.
Eddie Conway: OK. You said the resolutions in different cities–I understand y’all are having a drive in Oakland. You want to talk a little bit about that, Jeronimo? What’s happening in Oakland in terms of that resolution, and stuff?
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah. Well, preface it, like John said, we introduced resolutions all over the state of California in order to just build momentum on the grassroots level. We introduced one in Riverside, San Diego; we were able to pass one in San Francisco unanimously, and they did a press conference and such to support those efforts. And so we moved on from San Francisco, and said, we need to go to Oakland now. And Oakland being a cornerstone of the movement, really, as far as the start of the Black Panthers and just so much of the Civil Rights movement, but we thought that it would be just a good experience for us to raise Oakland as that kind of hub of organizing. And so on Aug. 21, we’re going to be honoring Black August and the organizing of the legendary George Jackson.
And we’re also going to be lifting up our resolution, Oakland Rejects Slavery, which is in support of ACA-3 and is in support of denouncing structural racism and vestiges of slavery. And so we’re trying to really build a collective of abolitionists. People that believe that the system needs to be changed and not just reformed, that we need to radically change this thing and rebuild it in a way that’s more humane, that actually serves the interests of the people. And California being so diverse, and Oakland itself being real diverse of Black and Latinos and our AAPI community, I feel it’s the perfect location.
And so we’re going to be at Lil Bobby Hutton Park on Aug.21st, I believe from 12 till 4:30. And we’re going to be barbecuing, we’re going to be having some entertainment. We’re going to be having some speakers up there talking about the movement and different things that they’re involved in on the grassroots level.
And we’re just going to be coming together as a community and letting the Oakland community know that there’s an organization out here that they could tap in with that is trying to end slavery once and for all. And not only end slavery, but abolish the system as it is. And so I think people are getting energized by that. We’re also going to break bread with people and just spend time with our community as we should. And so with COVID and everything else, it’s been a long time coming since people have been able to get together. I think we’re all really looking forward to the 21st, and honoring the Attica uprising, and just so many things that folks sacrificed behind the wall and honoring all of that history on Aug. 21.
And so, yeah, if you follow our page legalservicesforprisonerswithchildren.org, you’ll be able to see kind of the flyer in different ways. If you’re in the area, you’ll be able to come through and spend some time with us, if you’re in California. And if you’re not, there’s other ways that you can impact the community. We’re always accepting donations, or just however you want to get involved. Just tap in with us on our website, or you could always reach out to me or John or any of us, other organizers on the ground.
Eddie Conway: OK. John, you say you got out in November, and you hit the ground, and you actually were lucky because you plugged into some positive people and you got, obviously, a great mentor. What’s happening inside … when you came in contact with the older brothers or mentors inside, and they shoved some books in your face and told you to learn. And obviously you’re in great shape, so they took you to the weight room. So what’s happening inside now? Is there a movement of some sort inside that you are in contact with that can help this effort that you are involved in, now, in terms of their outside family members plugging in? Can you talk a little bit about that? What did you leave behind? And if nothing, then what should be done?
John Cannon: So when I left, I left a lot of good comrades in there, and I’m still in contact with a bunch of the fellows and also getting them to join All of Us or None. We have an All of Us or None inside membership, also. We’re not just outside, so we keep them up to date. We have a newsletter, we keep them up to date. We answer letters. But also, personally, I have–my brothers are in there. So they’re joining a movement, too, spreading the word and trying to spread the knowledge. And it’s a big movement. A lot of my friends still in there, a lot of good people, a lot of good men in there. A lot of good women in there, too.
Eddie Conway: OK. Jeronimo, just bounce for a minute and talk about this movement center that y’all just purchased and developing. Talk about that a little bit. I’m impressed with that.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Yeah. Well, upon getting the fellowship, I headed to the headquarters in Oakland, and it’s called the Freedom and Movement Center. It’s on 4400 Market Street in Oakland. And I was blown away, honestly. When you go in, you see a big banner that says ‘welcome home,’ because Dorsey Nuun, our executive director, prides himself on welcoming people home that are inside for a lot of years. And especially a lot of our elders. A lot of people that have been in there for decades. And so we create a space that it’s all about community. It’s all about welcoming folks after a lot of traumatic years, whether in the system or incarcerated.
And so there we have what’s called the ancestor wall where we, basically, we have pictures of just tons of different activists and leaders over the years. It’s just–it’s really a sight to see. And so the Freedom and Movement Center is somewhere where I know that I have felt at home from day one. It’s somewhere that you can be yourself. Like John said, we’re encouraged to speak on our own voice. And a lot of times it’s a lot of pain. It’s a lot of pain that we go through. And so having a space where we can vent and we can talk with each other and we could really be family and community, it’s integral to the movement. We really need those types of spaces.
So it kind of reminds me of when I used to read about the Panthers and the Berets, and they would have community centers where folks would come together. It’s really a throwback in that sense. Somewhere where we can all break bread and communion and really just love on each other and support each other, and also strategize on how we can make things better in our community. And so anybody that’s ever in California, I would say, man, make sure you make a trip out to 4400 Market Street to the Freedom and Movement Center, pay a visit to us. We’re going to welcome you with some love, with some food, and just talk community, talk movement with you.
And so it’s been a great experience. I think it’s in a great location, being the roots in Oakland. The roots run really deep. And so that movement center is somewhere where people can really dig them roots in, you know what I mean, and get planted. And so the Freedom and Movement Center is a big part of the work that we do.
Eddie Conway: OK. Final words, John. If you had an opportunity to just speak to the public and let them know what that experience does to people, juveniles, adults, men and women, when you throw them in cages, that–what would you say that they should take away from that experience?
John Cannon: I will say that it’s not humane. It’s really traumatizing. It’s really not human. It closes you in and it forces you to be a certain way, because you’re locked in there like animals. So it kind of forces you to act like that. And then people will judge you based off of the circumstance or based off of where you’ve been, but it’s not a humane thing to do. It’s not it.
Eddie Conway: OK. Got you. That’s loud and clear. Jeronimo, you get the final word here. If you want to just speak to the public about your work or what they need to be doing, or why they should be doing something, what would you say?
Jeronimo Aguilar: We got 30 All of Us or None chapters in 16 states, and we’re starting to mobilize on the federal level. I would say whatever state that you’re in, whatever area you’re in, either look up All of Us or None–it don’t have to be us. Look up community orgs that are out there trying to liberate, trying to organize and agitate the system. Get involved. I think that so many of us can sit on the sidelines and just be on social media, these other things, and not really get active. And so I would say get active. Join ABC, Abolish Bondage Collectively, that’s a good way for you to get involved in the abolitionist network that we’re creating. And really, it’s not like you’re joining and we’re going to be telling you, all right, here’s the marching order. You’re going to have a chance to really jump in and get involved and help create, because that’s really what we’re all about–learning from each other, building community, and educating each other.
And so that’s what I would say is, people get involved, look up Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None. Like I said, we got chapters all over the nation. And let’s make sure that we right these wrongs of the past, and that we abolish slavery once and for all. And once we abolish slavery–and I just want to mention that we amend this part of the Constitution, and that’s not the end of the fight. Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, they’ve already done that. But that’s just the beginning. Because it’s not like the system is going to all of a sudden be paying people $20 an hour to do work. They’re going to struggle against us as well.
And so after that is going to be the real fight, and making sure that our people inside are organized. That we’re going on strikes, or we’re unionizing, we’re doing what we need to do in order to make sure that we’re maximizing and capitalizing off that legal right that we have once it’s out of the Constitution. And so I want to emphasize that this is barely the beginning. Once we amend this Constitution on the state level in California, we’ll amend it federally. And once we do that, it’s going to take a big, large organizing effort of our folks to make sure that the system is being held accountable and that people are being treated humanely and being paid a living wage, because that’s only going to help reduce recidivism.
It’s only going to uplift our communities. We understand that our mothers and our families take a lot of the toll when we’re inside. Economically, they’re supporting us. They’re charging us for everything. You just had somebody on here about the phone calls, right? There’s companies out here that are capitalizing off of every single aspect, whether it’s food, a phone call, a visit. And so we want to make sure that we’re struggling against that and that we’re making sure that our next generation don’t have to deal with slavery on any level.
Eddie Conway: I said this was the final word, but you said something that made me want to ask you one more question. You said the constitution were amended in Colorado and a couple other states. Are you saying that second Amendment piece was taken–Talk about that for a minute, because I wasn’t aware of that. How many states, and what does it mean?
Jeronimo Aguilar: So, Utah, Nebraska, and Colorado, to my knowledge–I might be missing one–but there’s a few states that have, through organizing efforts that we’re trying to do, were able to amend their state constitution to remove the exception clause. And so what that did is that gave people inside, as soon as they continue to be exploited, they were able to have legal rights. So whether that’s litigation or lawsuits in order to sue the state and say, hey, hold up, you guys can’t pay us pennies on the dollar anymore, that is removed. And so we have legal bounds now to fight for our rights. And so that’s basically what’s been happening. In Colorado, there’s a lot of lawsuits going down with the inmates, as far as folks fighting for their rights, fighting for the right to be paid some kind of wage.
And so we want to make sure that we’re pushing that line here in California as well. Article 1 Section 6 is where that exception lies. And so we want to make sure once we amend that that people inside know their rights. Because a lot of them are just going to continue to work, continue to be pushed into these systems, not knowing any better. And so we–it’s on us to make sure that our folks inside are educated, and understand that, hold on, now, the constitution removed the exception. So now you have the right to demand a fair wage. And so that’s going to take a whole other phase of organizing and educating. So we’re just excited to be part of this entire process.
And California, man, it’s really–it’s a huge, like I said earlier, it’s a influential state in the nation. So I really, really strongly feel that if we’re able to amend the constitution here, it’s going to have large repercussions across the nation. And so the amount of money that’s made off of exploited labor here in California is exponential. And so once we attack that part of the prison-industrial complex, that’s going to be a cornerstone that falls. And hopefully we continue to just rip away at the system and rebuild it, like I said earlier, and rebuild it in a more humane way, in a way that all of us are treated humanely. And we talk about love and restoration and redemption instead of just punitive laws that keep us in cells, keep us in cages.
Eddie Conway: OK. That was the last word. John, Jeronimo, thanks for joining me.
Jeronimo Aguilar: It’s an honor, Mr. Conway. And like I said earlier, it’s an honor to be with you.
Eddie Conway: OK. All right. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.
The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery except as punishment for a crime. That means that Black and Brown people in prisons all over the country are forced to work for low or no wages, while others profit.
In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Eddie Conway speaks with California organizers Jeronimo Aguilar and John Cannon about why we must fight to eradicate the last vestiges of slavery and how they are using legislation and other methods to get the job done. Jeronimo Aguilar is an Elder Freeman Policy Fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, where he is working on local and statewide legislative efforts including the Vision Act and Oakland Rejects Slavery. John Cannon is a Policy Fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and an organizer with All of Us or None, a grassroots civil and human rights organization fighting for the rights of formerly-and currently-incarcerated people and our families.