August 26, 2017

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#CLOSErikers Campaign Stages Protest at Rikers Island Calling it a Confederate Monument

One week after the announcement of the 90-day review of symbols of hate on City property, dozens gather to draw attention to Rikers Island as a monument to white supremacy

August 26, 2017, New York, NY – Members and supporters of the #CLOSErikers campaign gathered at the Rikers Island sign this morning calling the jail complex a confederate monument and demanding that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio move up his timeline for shutting down the penal colony.  The action comes on the heels of the Mayor’s announcement that the City will conduct a 90-day review of all symbols of hate on City property in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month.

Handcuffed, shackled, and dressed in jail jumpsuits, members of the #CLOSErikers campaign performed a theatrical interpretation of the history of Rikers Island, an action captured in this video.  Participants traced the history of the island and the slave-trading family who owned it, highlighting the evolution from slavery to mass incarceration.

“The removal of the legacy of enslavement should not apply only to flags and statues, but also to closing jails like Rikers Island,” said Marilyn Reyes-Scales, a member of the #CLOSErikers campaign who participated in today’s action.  “There are direct parallels between horrors of slavery and the system of mass incarceration.  Millions of people have been ripped from their families, housed in despicable conditions, and subjected to violence and forced labor.  It’s time to recognize those connections and close Rikers.”

Dr. Kirk A. James, Clinical Assistant Professor of Social Work at New York University, spoke at the action, providing the history and context for it.  “America professes to value democracy and justice; however, the language embedded within the 13th Amendment allows for the ‘legalized’ slavery of its citizens,” James said.  “So as our nation begins to reconcile with its history of white supremacy and racial oppression, let’s not forget that institutions such as Rikers Island are a living embodiment of that history.  If we are to eventually heal and grow as a nation, it’s imperative that we not only close Rikers Island, but really pause to examine all the ways in which we have utilized our ‘justice’ system to facilitate a perverse form of neo-slavery.”

Rikers Island’s history includes direct ties to slavecatching and use as a detention facility during the Civil War.  Purchased by Dutch immigrant Abraham Rycken in 1664, it became known as Rikers Island after the family name was anglicized.

Rycken’s great grandson Richard Riker began serving as Recorder of New York City in 1815 and became responsible for the oversight of the City’s criminal courts.  In that role, he for decades routinely upheld the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and denied free blacks due process in court allowing rogue slavecatchers to sell them as property to the Confederate South.  This group became known as the “Kidnapping Club” for frequently pulling free black children out of school and off the street and claiming they were escaped slaves.

Later in 1862 when the Civil War was underway, the Riker family lent the island to the Union Army to use as a base.  During that time, the kidnapping of black children by slavecatchers transformed into the kidnapping of black teenagers to serve in the Union Army.  The 26th US Colored Troops were held on Rikers in cramped, dilapidated, and freezing quarters.

In 1884, the island was purchased from the Riker family by the City of New York for $180,000, and its transformation into a penal colony began.  According to the #CLOSErikers campaign, it has continued to perpetuate a legacy of white supremacy reflective of its roots in slavecatching.  “Rikers Island is a living, breathing monument to white supremacy,” said Glenn E. Martin, President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA which leads the #CLOSErikers campaign.  “Routine violence and human rights abuses at the jail torment the people caged there, 89 percent of whom are black or Latino.  Yet Mayor de Blasio insists that it must remain open for another 10 years.  Over the course of 10 years, more than 400,000 people of color will be subjected to deplorable conditions and torture at the jail complex.  Mayor de Blasio must be vigilant not just about rooting out symbols of hate on City property but about dismantling the institutions like Rikers Island that continue to serve as active manifestations of confederate values.”

The #CLOSErikers campaign achieved a victory in March when the Mayor made it the official policy of New York City to shut down the jail complex.  Since then, however, the campaign has repeatedly criticized the Mayor’s 10-year timeline as too long and called on him to include people directly harmed by Rikers in the plans to close it.

“We should come together to close Rikers and end mass incarceration,” said Joshua Mulrain, a member of the #CLOSErikers campaign who participated in today’s action. “Rikers Island is a monument that needs to be shut down. As a young person, it is appalling that 95 percent of the youth in New York City’s jails are black and Latino. There are 10 jails on Rikers, and all of them operate in the legacy of white supremacy and continue to harm black and brown people.  Mayor de Blasio, end slavery and mass incarceration by closing Rikers.”

Today’s action by the #CLOSErikers campaign is one of many that have erupted across the country since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, VA to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  View photographs from the action here. A full video of the action is here.

About the #CLOSErikers campaign:

The #CLOSErikers campaign was formed in 2016 to break the political gridlock and achieve real solutions that are guided by directly impacted communities.  Led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with other organizations and formerly incarcerated people, the #CLOSErikers campaign includes community groups, researchers, faith and human rights leaders, criminal justice experts, health and housing service providers, advocacy and legal groups and more.  Through the campaign, over 150 diverse organizations across New York City have joined together to demand the speedy closure of Rikers.  By closing Rikers, New York City can focus on healing and rebuilding the communities where Rikers has brought suffering.  The campaign to #CLOSErikers is calling for New Yorkers to boldly reimagine the city’s failed criminal justice system and become a national leader in ending mass incarceration.