A jail cell in the north wing of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

We are a collective of incarcerated Black people – political prisoners held hostage by the state – and our supporters on the outside who are making this statement on Emancipation Day.

On August 1, African people across the globe celebrate Emancipation Day. This marks the day the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed freeing enslaved Africans across the British colonies, including Canada.

Slavery may be over, but are Black people truly free?

We have learned that there are more Black people in prisons in the United States today than were held in enslavement. We learned that Black women are one of the fastest growing global prison populations, and that our sisters are being put in prison largely because of the war on drugs. We learned that Black incarceration goes up every year in Canada. We have lived out the laws passed that give longer and longer minimum sentences to Black men accused of gun crimes or accused of being in gangs, while white bankers and killer cops and CEOs who don’t give their workers PPE during a pandemic – the real gangsters – are never charged at all.

Are Black people free when prisons and jails across this country are filled with Black people? Is slavery even over when Black people clean and work in the kitchens for less than two dollars a day inside federal prisons? When our mothers and grandmothers come to visit us and are turned away and accused of bringing in contraband. When we are transferred across the country against our will when we stand up against unjust conditions. When we have to go on hunger strikes to demand basic human rights.

Are we free when police taser, and shoot, and kill Black people when they are called for wellness checks? Are we free when the off-duty police officer who beat Dafonte Miller with a metal pipe until he lost an eye is convicted only of assault, while his brother was acquitted of all charges? And while they are acquitted, white juries sentence Black men on no evidence for the crime of only having Black skin.

Are we free when there are police stations on the corner of our communities, but no grocery stores? Are we free when Black families can be evicted from public housing and when there are no safe places for our mothers to live? Are we free when our daughters and sisters can’t walk on the street in their own neighbourhoods without being propositioned by white men?

Are we free when little girls are handcuffed in school and arrested? When we can’t even get the tools to educate ourselves and free our minds and make a life for our families?

Are we free when we have no community or home to be released to because the land has been taken by gentrification or bulldozed or there’s a garbage dump in our community?

Are we free when the legacy of slavery is still being lived out by us every day, when those of us incarcerated still have overseers, when we are called n****r and other racial slurs, when generation after generation we are kicked out of school, kicked onto the streets, denied mental health treatment, and then warehoused in prisons where we can’t get parole?

Are we free when the skin we are born with still defines our condition?

In August 2018, prisoners in Burnside began a prison strike during “Black August.” Black August began in the prison system in California in the 1970s in commemoration of the freedom struggles of incarcerated people of African descent. The month was used to honour the deaths of revolutionaries like George Jackson, to create political awareness, and to build the emancipation struggle among prisoners.

In our research, we found that the original BLM – the Black Liberation Movement – adopted Black August as a radical month focused on the liberation struggles of Africans across the globe. Jonathan Jackson was gunned down outside the Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in August of 1619. Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, and other revolutionaries were born in August.

The Underground Railroad started on August 2, 1850. In 1843, Henry Highland Garnett called a general slave strike on August 22. Gabriel Prosser’s slave rebellion was on August 30, 1800. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion began on August 21, 1831. In August of 1965 the Watts rebellion rose up. The Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE family on August 8, 1978. These are just some of the significant events that mark this month as a time of resistance and struggle.

August 10 in Canada is Prisoner Justice Day. Prisoner Justice Day was started in the 1970s to remember all the people who died in custody. On this day, prisoners across the country fast and strike for all our fallen comrades.

We say again, if this is freedom, we have not seen it, we have not felt it, and we have not lived it.

Emancipation Day is only meaningful if we use the day to organize for our continued freedom struggle. Any celebration of this day without commitment to ending punishing, policing, and prisons rings hollow and does not honour the labour of our ancestors.

This Emancipation Day is taking place while Black people in Canada are calling for defunding the police. On the news, we see people showing how much money goes into the police budget and how that money could be spent on safe housing or clean water on reserves or on beds to treat addiction.

We also want to add that defunding the police also means defunding prisons which in turn means abolition. On this Emancipation Day, we call upon every community where a new prison is being built to say no to more incarceration. It costs over 100, 000 dollars a year to keep the average person in prison, and even more for women. Over 20 billion dollars a year is spent on “corrections” in Canada, but we say that no-one is being corrected.

Black people will never be free while there are cameras on the corners of our communities, while police stop us whenever they want, when they drive around the streets of our communities, while prisons get more and more beds, while lockdowns and segregation have become the new normal, and while white defence lawyers, crowns, judges, juries, parole officers, C.O’s, and parole boards control our lives and freedom.

We cannot be free while prisons stand on stolen Indigenous land.

Black people will never be free while people believe some few small reforms are enough to stop the brutalizing of Black bodies. Black people will never be free when we can’t be safe and happy and feed our families and dream of the future.

On this Emancipation Day, we are still crying out for freedom. The whips and the chains might have been abolished, but until the bars are gone, we are not free, and neither are you.

El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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