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Too Legit To Quit: On the NJ4

the Bay Area NJ4 Solidarity Committee, including Bea Sullivan, Deg Gold, Eric Stanley, Inez Sunwoo, Ralowe Ampu, and Xan West.
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

The following is a reflection on organizing to free the NJ4, written by the Bay Area NJ4 Solidarity Committee, including Bea Sullivan, Deg Gold, Eric Stanley, Inez Sunwoo, Ralowe Ampu, and Xan West.

All of us organizing with the Bay Area NJ4 Solidarity Committee are from pretty different backgrounds but have experienced street violence because we are queer people of color, Black women, faggots, Asian butches, fat dykes, dykes perceived as trans, lesbians, and many other identities. And while we were not surprised that the US criminal injustice system did not side with the young Black lesbians from New Jersey, we were outraged at the criminalization of their basic right to survive and at the racist, homophobic, transphobic, and dehumanizing labels such as "wolf-pack" in the media. Because the times call for radical action, we wanted to be collectively ready and active within a culture of self-defense that would break our loved ones out of prison.  That vision has been our motivation since we began in March of 2007.

Since we were in the Bay, we began by reaching out to queer people of color organizations in New York City. After repeated attempts to make contact with these organizations thought to be working on the case we heard nothing; however we did start building relationships with the folks on the inside and their families. In order to move beyond the emotional challenges raised by these limitations, we chose to ground our organizing in understanding our accountability first to the four incarcerated women. As organizers on the outside, we know the importance of consistency when working with folks on the inside.

From those who already knew much about the NJ4's story to those who barely even knew their names, people came through to bake cupcakes, throw fundraiser dance parties, make t-shirts, set up and break down events, donate their car for a day, make banners and posters and buttons on living room floors, or just show up and support. We flyered at the Folsom Street Fair in September of 2007 and again at a big lesbian event, Sister Comrade, honoring Audre Lorde and Pat Parker. The amazing thing about this case is how quickly young queers of color, old lesbians, and other impacted folks identify with the NJ4.

We also started meeting regularly to help organize a larger movement. Our collective printed thousands of newspapers, which are useful for spreading the word about the case. Amazingly and much to our surprise, Terrain got out of prison just a few days before the Dyke March. With 200 people, we welcomed her to the SF Women's Building at an event called "Who's Got Yo Back," which featured Angela Davis, Ojala, Kimma Walker (Terrain's mother) and us.


Professional activism

Most organizing models of today have inevitably been influenced by the nonprofit-industrial complex (NPIC) and its penchant towards professional activism. Those of us working to realize justice for the New Jersey 4, given our individual and varying experiences with organizing, recognized this as a problem and decided to work around and against it.

Even after many important words have been written about the NPIC, our organizing minds, desires and realities are consistently ensnared and mesmerized by its limitations. The NPIC's legacy is much broader than just the structuring of organizations; it cuts deep into our impoverished dreams of another world and another way to do things. The deadening of our collectively radical, queer imaginations is perhaps the most violent effect of the NPIC.

This is an attempt to open up these conversations and remember that a few people sitting around a kitchen table can achieve more than a well-funded and staffed organization. Our hope in doing this is to simultaneously work to free the NJ4, support cultures of self-defense, and challenge the models of organizing that reproduce oppression.


Radical tomorrow

A number of nonprofits offer vital services necessary for our survival under capitalism. (Some are even nice enough to let us gather in their meeting rooms.) However, we must constantly question what is paid for, what we gain, and how might we continue to organize in ways that do not reproduce the same kinds of domination we wish to undo. We must also continue to question:  Who is doing the labor of organizing compared to who is credited when gains are made? Are we creating multicultural figureheads that give the face of diversity so the homophobic and white supremacist veins of the Left can feel better about diversity? Or are we digging in deep, working with those most affected, and creating worlds that may never make it into a magazine or blog, yet are changing the very realities we live?

Our radical communities must also constantly transform notions of resistance and interrogate why there is so much silence surrounding the NJ4 and cases similar to theirs. The immediate question that comes to bear in the midst of revising strategies for confronting violence is this:  Beyond vigils and annual reports, what does it take to be resourceful enough to connect struggles and do antiviolence work before we are dead and imprisoned?


For updates and information on how to get involved in the Bay Area contact [email protected], or see FreeNJ4