Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex
Critical Resistance was formed in 1997 when activists challenging the idea that imprisonment and policing are a solution for social, political, and economic problems came together to organize a conference that examined and challenged what we have come to call the prison industrial complex (PIC).
Held in Berkeley, California, in September 1998, the conference brought together over 3,500 activists, academics, former and current prisoners, labor leaders, religious organizations, feminists, gay, lesbian and transgender activists, youth, families, and policy makers from literally every state and other countries. The three-day event featured nearly 200 different panels and workshops. The conference also included a number of cultural events and a ﬁlm festival.
While the conference was a huge success, CR recognized that its work had only begun. The goal of CR was, and continues to be, building a movement to eliminate the prison industrial complex.
Critical Resistance East
In 1999, a group of people in the Northeast U.S. began talking with the ‘98 conference organizers about the possibility of holding a Northeast Regional Conference under the CR name and with the vision of the Bay Area organizers, as a regional follow-up to the national conference the previous year.
In December 1999, about twenty people from around the Northeast met in Philadelphia and agreed to begin the work of organizing the Northeast Regional Conference. Critical Resistance East (CR East) was held March 9-11, 2001, in New York City, and drew over 2000 people during its three days. During the year and three months between the ﬁrst organizing meeting and the conference, people worked to create a regional conference that would focus on presenters from the region talking about strategies and skills for organizing against the PIC and prioritized the participation and leadership of people most impacted by the PIC. While the conference carried on the prison abolitionist call raised by CR organizers in ‘98, CR East was geared toward developing strategies and sharing skills to make local organizing against the PIC more effective.
From the beginning, conference organizers knew that this was only a jumping-off point for a regional component of CR’s movement building project, and for smaller groups to ﬁnd their way into organizing locally in their areas. As CR East planners were putting the regional conference together, Critical Resistance continued to grow nationally, including beginning initial planning for Critical Resistance South, and local groups getting involved in CR East outreach and organizing. It became clear that CR needed to develop a national structure and to come up with a strategic plan for moving forward.
Critical Resistance South
In April 2003, CR continued its movement building efforts by holding Critical Resistance South, a regional conference, in New Orleans, Louisiana. CR South was a year and a half in the making and brought together prisoners, family members, former prisoners, teachers, activists, communities of faith, and community members from across the South to strategize resistance to the PIC in the southern US. Over the course of the weekend nearly 1500 people came together to share tactics and forge new alliances. CR was also able to build its base, as new chapters and partnerships have emerged from the conference planning and the event itself.
A National Organization
In late May 2001, 20 CR organizers from California, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Georgia came together to develop a plan for a national structure, to articulate our political ideology, and generate ideas about how to do CR work locally. What came out of that meeting was a plan for CR to become a national organization structured through local chapters that would be connected under a shared mission and organizing principles, but that would operate largely autonomously. While the chapter members develop campaigns and projects based on the issues they ﬁnd most compelling where they live and use strategies that reﬂect local understandings, CR shares strategies across chapters and make all work as coherent as possible. Critical Resistance National truly is the sum of our members. CR currently has chapters in: Oakland, Los Angeles, New York City, and Portland.
After CR South, we collectively made a decision to not begin any other conference planning projects and to focus, instead on nurturing our new chapters and our emerging national organizational model., We also added a Southern Regional Coordinator to the staff to help support new chapters in the region and to keep the momentum started at the conference going throughout the region.
The local chapters began to develop internal structures, learn more about PIC abolition, and decide what their priorities for campaigns and projects were. Chapter activities ranged from ﬁghting prison construction and expansion, to working with public housing residents on surveillance and gentriﬁcation issues, to ﬁghting to close a juvenile detention center, to developing political education programs for women in residential treatment centers. Members have also participated in a wide range of coalition efforts. Although our chapter projects and campaigns have evolved over the course of CR’s history, many of these projects and issues are still at the core of CR’s work across the country.
In January 2007, we began planning a project to celebrate CR’s 10 years of participation in the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. That project, CR10, was a nearly two year organizing project engaging people living inside and outside of prisons, jails, and detention centers and around the world. Going back to our roots, CR10 culminated in a conference; our ﬁrst in ﬁve years. The conference, held in September 2008, in Oakland, brought about 3000 people together and marked a new phase for CR conferences with the biggest planning group and most expansive conference plan in our short history.
While conferences are part of what has made CR what it is today, our primary work since CR South has been to advance the call for PIC abolition through local projects and campaigns. CR’s members have helped stem the tide of prison and jail construction. They have shifted common sense about policing and what makes our neighborhoods safe. They have supported efforts to resist state repression and to silence dissent. They have developed tools to help people envision life without the PIC.