Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Blue this Christmas – But Love for my Comrades in Struggle



Those who know me are aware that I am struggling with the recent loss of my younger brother who perished – struck by a vehicle – on September 12.  This Christmas is a blue one for me as are many moments, hours, days.  I am sure many others have suffered various losses of their own and understand that Christmas most certainly is NOT the most wonderful time of the year – it is a time for great sorrow for those who suffered losses and great feelings of inadequacy and shame for some who live hand to mouth and feel pressure to spend money they do not have.

That said I do want to express some things that make me happier or that make me feel better about myself.

At the start of 2014 I pledged to myself to do a better job as an activist and to attempt to make an effective contribution to “the struggle” – at least once per month.

I am not sure that I accomplished that but I was able to lend a hand to various efforts.  More importantly – this work has brought me into contact with a growing milieu of activists, organizers and revolutionaries – meeting many face to face and working with others through various social and other networking. 

These are two natural highs that I have experienced this past year . . . the feeling of accomplishment and reflection on the accomplishment in helping to promote more effective struggle and the feeling of connection between myself and others . . . that I have (hopefully) increased my trust-ability to some, that folks have a desire to work together with me, to join organizations and efforts that I am part of, to participate in projects that I am engaged in – and to occasionally share some words of friendship and some laughs.  It is a gush and a rush!

One of the first things I attempted to accomplish early this year was an attempt to mobilize folks for the sentencing hearing of Kwadir Felton – a situation I was made aware of by the writings of Margaret Kimberley and Rania Khalek.  The initial attempts to mobilize were somewhat befuddled by changing dates and my inability to mobilize significant interest.  However – eventually I was contacted by Kwadir’s mother Renee, made contact with his attorney Brooke Barrett and later became successful in at least drumming up some blog articles and participating with Renee in some outreach meetings.  We also through our organization Decarcerate the Garden State were able to help Renee resolve a visitation rights violation by the prison authorities at Southwoods State where Kwadir is held.


The next idea I had was to pitch in with the Newark effort to thwart the school privatization plans by Christie and his puppet Cami Anderson – the state appointed usurper-intendent of Newark schools.  My goal was initially to try to interest the national media, that was doing a lot of reporting about Christie’s Bridge-gate – to recognize the much bigger scandal and more harmful of the Newark privatization as a tentacle of the corruption that surrounds the decadent Christie regime.  While I was unable to interest the “mainstream media” I was able to connect with a handful of national bloggers who were helpful in bringing some national attention to the issue.



One of which, Michele Mattisons, who I have become virtual friends with – we chat regularly, have had a couple of phone conversations and even talk about non – revo stuff occasionally.  Another who I corresponded with frequently initially was Martin King – who’s real name I still do not know – but he coached and advised much of my initial efforts for Newark.

A big part of the experience of assisting with the outreach was the connection I made with probably literally over 100 Newark activists, organizers, concerned parents, teachers . . . most of them people I had not known previously.  When I went to the first event I attended in Newark, a school board meeting (first one after Cami Anderson'sr walk out) there was a woman who told me people already knew who I was (and told me that I was “loved” lol).  I was able to meet many of the movers of the movement against privatization working with MIcheal Dixon, Newark Students Union, New Caucus and others and the Rutgers based FTA to organize a well attended panel discussion in New Brunswick in support of the Newark efforts.   A highlight of my involvement was a spring rally at the Statehouse and my son’s performance of a song we wrote for the occasion there called Reformers of Schools to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War.  


Then came the accusation against Syria of use of chemical weapons – largely speculative and definitely not proven.  There was discussion of imminent war on Syria and I worked with Madelyn Hoffman, Debra Key, Margaret Kimberley on a “Street Discussion” at the fountain in New Brunswick on the topic of opposing the war on Syria.   Son Rob provided Music background to the event.  It was at this event that I first met personally Carlene and her partner Lawrence.


As the year progressed, there was discussion of marijuana legalization and I started ranting on Facebook that if NJ is going to legalize that it was important to include decarceration (and conviction relief) to any law that passes.  Chris Redwood and Milton Conway joined in.  Soon I organized a street discussion on the topic in New Brunswick working with Carlene, Renee Felton came in from Jersey City, Ken Wolski a leader of the Medical Marijuana movement and Skot V. a victim of arrest for his legal use of medical marijuana.  The turn out was not great but it helped set up a model for a similar event more directly focused on decarceration that followed in Newark.

Cassandra Dock who was unable to come down for the New Brunswick event nonetheless offered to help get the ball rolling in Newark.  With Her, Milton Conway, Ruben Mendez and See Asia as well as several others, we had an initial meeting of what would become the Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State.  We ended up organizing our first main event which was a Street Panel Discussion on the steps of Newark City Hall on the topic of decarceration – joined by Peoples Organization for Progress with Jo Ann Sims active participation and the Newark Anti Violence Coalition. Newark’s youthful Micheal Hobbs also was prominently involved in these efforts.  Of course critical to the success of this event was keynote speaker Johanna Fernandez: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lgTuEiyvDI 

 

The event also drew support from the marijuana legalization movement, particularly Kyle Moore, and the 15 NOW minimum wage increase movement, particularly Brian Powers (who at midnight on the eve of the kick off event designed and printed our banner!)


Later in the summer we took our decarceration efforts to the streets of New Brunswick with street petitioning and music performances.  There I met personally for the first time David Rutherford who has since been elected to the Plainfield School Board – he also blogs on Plainfield and related matters for the Plaifield View – he wrote this piece documenting our efforts:



http://plainfieldview.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/decarcerate-nj-takes-aim-at-massive-penal-state/

Isabel Rodriguez, good friend of son Robert was also most helpful at the event as was Dev Ranjo and Brian Powers of the 15 Now movement.

Shortly thereafter at David Rutherford’s urging we joined an anti-violence event in Plainfield organized by the youth group KYSS calling for an end to the fratricidal street killings.  We put together a meeting after the event at a local pizza shop to share our NJ Decarcerator paper and plan for a decarceration event in Plainfield.  Circumstances (explained shortly) interrupted what was the initial plan but it is still on the agenda, working with Sabrina Elise, Amanda Garcia , Nia Lovelee, Bishop Nappyhead, Dwight Eric Massey, Josh Howard and others.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/KyssinPlainfield




Of course as per my tradition for the last 6 years my spring through summer was full of the usual triathlon events.  One of them though is of particular note, activist Joe Arcoleo who I had crossed paths with in the 80s around Central America solidarity work and labor / community issues was preparing for his town’s (Denville) triathlon and as he swam in the lake the race would occur, he suffered a heart attack and drowned.  Hearing of the tragedy I signed up for that race and I completed it in his honor.  It was my first mournful triathlon – usually you have an internal celebration when you finish and share in the athletic commraderie  with the other finishers but I was all alone at this one after the race thinking that while everyone else is happy – he should be there with us but that he was missing.


Then my own tragedy struck, on September 12 – my younger brother Danny Witanek was cut down in a tragic accident at the youthful age of 51 and my life and much of the activist planning I was working on went down the tubes.  I got the call from my Mom at 5:30 am and I had to partake in the dreadful activity of driving up to North Jersey where it happened to retrieve his bags from where he was staying and his wallet from the police station.  I still totally can not deal with it.  I walk around in public half the time trying to keep from bawling my eyes out.  OF course writing this during the “season to be jolly” – I have the blues for Christmas and I know my family will be struggling through these days.







Shortly after his demise – I was already signed up for a half iron man triathlon which is a 70 mile ordeal – I opted to stay in it thinking it would be more depressing to bag it.  It proved to be a feat that was physically as well as emotionally trying.  


 
Shortly thereafter – still licking my wounds from my brother’s demise (which is still true every single day) I came across the news that the administration at Rider University  where my son is a piano major at Westminster Choir College was trying to force concessions and threatening to force a strike on the professors there.  At first it was just a letter I pounded out to the University president.  Soon I sent the letter to the professors that were negotiating with the administration and THEY LOVED IT.  They put it up at their website and I converted it to a petition.  They also posted the video of my son’s performance of a Rzewski fantasy on Which Side Are You On that my son had video recorded.

My son and I ended up coordinating student / parent support for the faculty -  a factor the administration was not ready for.  The faculty was tightly united but I also believe our muscle helped bring about a positive result.  Son Rob and I ended up being the only two “civilians” honored at their contract verification session.


I was mixed in getting involved in this so soon after the loss of my brother but it also proved as a distraction from constantly dwelling on it.  The win in the struggle was also a mixed bag – I did not get the elation that was deserved for having contributed to an actual battle that had been won because it meant losing the distraction and going back to troubling fixation on Danny’s exit.

October rolled in and son Rob and I joined the Cannabis Conference on behalf of Decarcerate the Garden State Committee – and Isaebel Rodriguez.   None of us actually imbibe – they never inhaled and I never exhaled.  My purpose in participating was to inject the politics of decarceration into the marijuana legalization struggle.  Rob provided background music for the smoke out at 4:20 on the day of the event. 

 It was my first direct work with Ed Forchion aka Weedman and it was Kyle Moore who initially had told me about the event at the July 30 Decarceration Street Panel in Newark that was responsible for engaging our participation.  We broke bread with the weed crew at a down town restaurant where I got to hang with them and meet some of the others including Dudeist Priest, Wordsmith Williams, Claudia Litost, Amanda Panda and others.  I suggested the possibility of doing some combined events on campuses connecting the war on drugs and the mass incarceration issue.]



Over the summer I had been contacted by Dr. Justice about doing a decarceration event in Newark.  
 She told me her story about having been set up and incarcerated on bogus charges due to her challenges to corrupt elements in the Democratic Party machine.  She invited Decarcerate the Garden State to participate in the event which occurred at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark.  While she did most of the set up for the event, I assisted with a  press release and outreach for it.  It was a tremendously successful event – here is a full report.  I also had the pleasure of working with Munirah Bomani on this event.





There was a chilling experience I had in the lead up to this event on my way to an organizing meeting at REFAL center – 1 block from that site actually when I heard 6 gunshots ring out.  It turns out that there were two victims – both ending up dead.   I wrote about the connection of the violence to decarceration work in the following article:


Since, we have held a meeting coordinated by Gary Frazier and with participation of Queneke King in Camden and we are working on putting together a panel discussion on mass incarceration scheduled for January 24 in Camden at the Ferry Library.  (Weedman made an appearance with his colorful van).  I am also working with the Plainfied crew mentioned earlier on getting a similar event together there.





There are also random little short term projects I took up in between some of these occurrences, for example, Nyambi Ali was coordinating signatures for a petition against a tuition hike at Brookdale Community College so I spent a couple of hours social networking with her – trying to connect her to student and other activists around NJ.  Not sure how many signatures she got out of it – I do not think too many but it was a rewarding experience to interact with her in that regard.

https://www.change.org/p/brookdale-community-college-board-of-trustees-go-get-our-money

Also I attempted to rally my childhood home town against the placement of toxic mud piles along the Rahway RIver - ran about 10 miles delivering a flier I had drafted.  The Carteret folks like on the page but are unready to make their moves.




The nuts and bolts of the interactions I have had with those named in this article, and many probably hundreds of others in the past year, have provided me with sincere elation – and thinking back on some of these accomplishments has given me strength and perseverance.  It does seem that this sort of involvement is helping me to deal with the tremendous emptiness of having lost a brother.

I also often think about the folks mentioned here (and many others) and the efforts they all represent and it helps stir in my mind schemes and plots of projects I might be able to do with them in the coming year(s).  If I have not mentioned you it does not mean that our work together was any less important than those that are mentioned – only that I have probably forgotten some of the details.  I hope that I have begun to earn some trust and helped build some trust between people through these efforts as developing better trust will help lead to increased convergence of efforts and hopefully eventually – unity – without such we are lost.

In addition to all of the above events, in the past year, I have contributed to:

A petition demanding the passage of the NJ Decarceration Act that will bring about 50% reduction of NJ’s decarcerated population over 4 years.



The drafting of the proposed act with the participation of over a dozen others mostly from Newark.



The printing of 6000 issues of NJ Decarcerator which are still being distributed.



The formation of the Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State
The establishment of a website http://DecarcerateNJ.org , Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/DecarcerateNJ and blog site: http://decarceratenj.blogspot.com .
The nightly production of the NJ Decarcerator Daily 

https://paper.li/DecarcGardState/1416194769  


I am not going to wish everyone a merry Christmas – the holiday is too full of emotional trappings (over family loss) and economic pressure.  

Instead my hope and wish is for a more effective year of effective organizing and a little bit of a lucky wind in our direction in our struggles for system change in 2015.  You all have helped me this year and you all inspire ideas and schemes in my head for projects to pursue in the coming year.  The movement is my therapy and is helping me avert the fixation on my own family loss – which is no more significant than the losses many others have suffered and continue to suffer.

TO ALL MY BELOVED COLLEAGUES  . .  . COMRADES . . . LET 2015 BE OUR YEAR!

2 comments:

  1. Hello it's Isabel here. The year has been very action-packed year to spreading decarcerate nj campaign in Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden along with working on other social issues. I enjoyed the cannabis conference and helping garner signatures. I get most out of meeting in a town square to discuss and share information-large gatherings are exhilirating but also overwhelming. I want to continue working with you on the decarcerate nj campaign and other projects. It is fun and I always learn something new from attending protests/town hall-like meetings.

    I was sorry to learn about your brother's death. It seems that the two of you had a very close bond and had similar interests (in cycling, fitness). I think the social justice work is productive as is writing about your feelings & encounters. I know writing helps me a great deal.

    I agree that holiday season can be very stressful financially and family-wise. Organizing throughout the year and reaching out to new friends can alleviate the pressure. I wish you and other organizers much luck in future endeavors.

    --Isabel R.

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