BCRW @ 50

1970s: A Time of Anti-Prison Activism

The 1970s saw an uptick in organizing around immunity for revolutionary activists and freeing political prisoners. The Barnard Bulletin published a 1970 article on a basketball game between the Barnard Women’s Liberation and male faculty in which a Barnard student group, Sisters in Struggle, were quoted as saying, “This is an excellent opportunity for Barnard students to see the injustice rampants in the pig courts of Amerikkka [...] Free Bobby Seale! Free Angela Davis! Free Willis Reed!” The revolutionary spirit was tangible throughout Barnard’s campus.

In May 1970, Barnard students joined the National Student Strike to demand the release of political prisoners. Members of the Barnard Strike Coalition wrote a pamphlet called “Why We Strike,” in which they outlined their demands and political alignment with incarcerated activists. They noted that while Barnard community members voiced outrage against the Kent State massacre, that same emotion was absent when news surfaced a week later of the “Augusta 6” —when six working-class Black people were killed in Augusta, Georgia. The pamphlet read, “A rebellion against miserable ghetto conditions is an act much more politically significant than any campus strike, yet students could not view it as political repression worth fighting.” The coalition wrote that Barnard students used the Augusta 6’s looting and breaking the law as an excuse for their lack of anger, to which the pamphleteers responded,  "After a certain point, all effective political action means breaking the law.” They went on to write: 

Kids, the same kids who were outraged about Cambodia and Kent, didn't feel the same urgency and outrage over the murders of six black people in Augusta, over two black students shot at Jackson State, over the trial of Bobby Seale and the continual persecution and murder of members of the black community in general and the Black Panther Party in particular. 

Why are we enraged over Kent, and not about Bobby? Why has the peace movement turned to lobbying congressmen when Black people are being shot down in the streets? And why were we at Barnard constantly crying ‘unity’, meaning striking over Cambodia and not over the national demand calling for the freedom of all political prisoners? The reason is racism, and racism is something that has to be dealt with real quick, if we don't want the Movement to die, and if we don't want all our hopes for meaningful change to die with it.

The Barnard Center for Research on Women, originally called the Barnard Women’s Center, was founded during this momentum of the political prisoner release movement. While advocacy for prisons was never explicitly stated as a part of the mission statement in the Center’s original charter, the political moment that BCRW was born into impacted their work and the events they organized. In 1971, the Women’s Center invited Sharon Avery of the Women’s Prison Committee to speak on incarcerated women’s issues, and on the condition of women in prisons. The Center hoped a formerly incarcerated person could come to speak as well, but was ultimately unsuccessful in this attempt. In various Barnard Alumnae magazine articles, the Center lauded the conferences.

While the Barnard Women’s Center played some part within the conversation on campus around prisons, most of the work in the early 1970s came from the students, organizing in response to the Attica Prison rebellion in September of 1971. The Attica Prison rebellion was a revolt by those incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility, a New York state prison, against the inhumane conditions and abuses at the facility. It gained national attention and garnered much discourse around the ethics of prisons, a discussion which Barnard students vigorously took part in. The Barnard Bulletin published multiple articles and shared events happening around the city about the issue, including a bulletin board posting informing students that WBAI, a popular New York City radio station, would devote its entire non-news programming in the month of February to investigating New York prisons and discussing the criminal justice system. The Barnard Bulletin published information on talks about prison reform, interviews with electoral candidates who discussed the politics of the prison, and an editorial by a prison inmate. Students also created the “Barnard Book-In,” which focused on collecting, buying, and distributing books to those inside the prison, beginning a relationship with women at Rikers prison.

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