“People Change, People Change the World” exhibit and assembly celebrates human rights activism by people in prison

Photos, videos and article by Suzy Subways

Almost a hundred people gathered at Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia on the afternoon of Saturday March 24th to talk about redemption and celebrate the inspiration of currently incarcerated human rights activist Kerry Shakaboona Marshall. Shakaboona is a co-founder of Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, editor of The Movement magazine, and has been active with the Lifers’ Association at Graterford and other organizations in Pennsylvania prisons. He has been incarcerated since 1988, when he was 17, but he will be in court for a re-sentencing hearing on May 17th. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that people sentenced to death by incarceration (life without parole) when they were under 18 must have a chance at parole.

Organized by members of Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), Human Rights Coalition, Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law ProjectGlobal Women’s Strike and The Redemption Project, the event began with an exhibit tracing Shakaboona’s life as a teenager in Philadelphia and the “Tough on Crime” policies that sought to punish, rather than heal, communities impacted by crack and violence.

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Exhibit panels created by Shakaboona’s sister show the values corporate media instilled in young men in the 1980s: expensive sneakers, gold chains, and anti-social violence.
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Shakaboona’s mother, Patricia Marshall Vickers, an organizer with the Human Rights Coalition, next to a 1980s photo of her children, trophies and other treasured things from her son’s youth.
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A timeline situated Shakaboona’s early life in Georgia and Philadelphia in the 1970s in the context of the “War on Drugs” and police violence against Black activists.
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At Shakaboona’s request, the exhibit featured a memorial to Suzette Richardson, who was killed during a robbery by Shakaboona and his friend in 1988. She was 23 and had two children.
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An exhibit panel with photos and fliers explained how, from prison, Shakaboona helped start activist groups to organize families of people in prison.

At 3 pm, the exhibit was cleared away and Kempis “Ghani” Songster addressed the crowd (click on video to watch):

“This is about injecting a dose of hope back into this hopeless narrative about crime and punishment,” Songster said. “There is no service, no justice being done by continuing Shakaboona’s imprisonment after 30 years, with all that we’re facing in this world, all that we’re dealing with. This human rights activist, this brilliant mind, this person who defied all odds and transformed himself against and in defiance of everything within the prison system and in his prison experience that wanted to corrupt him and drag him into the prison culture. He fought against that and is a shining example of the human capacity for transformation and redemption. We need his hands on the issues of violence in the street. We need him in this fight to make violence no longer a national epidemic. We need him in the fight against poverty. We need him in the fight.”

Songster was released in December after serving decades of a juvenile life without parole sentence. He works for Amistad Law Project.

Organizers then set up a phone call with Shakaboona so he could speak — from prison — to those gathered, via a cell phone with a microphone held up to it by Sean “Wispy” Damon of Amistad Law Project (click on video to watch):

Shakaboona said, “When I think of changing the world, I think of changed people. I think of some of my fellow juvenile lifer friends who have turned their lives around while in prison, and how they have returned to society and are now making their community a better place to live…. When I think of people changing the world who should be immediately released from prison, I think of the Black political prisoners in Pennsylvania that taught or assisted me and thousands of others in the journey to become a new man, like Russell Maroon Shoatz, Joseph Joe-Joe Bowen, the MOVE 9 family, and Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

State Senator Sharif Street spoke about his bill to expand parole in Pennsylvania, SB942. He asked everyone to attend a rally in Harrisburg this Tuesday, March 27. Free buses will leave from Philadelphia Beckett Life Center, 1410 N. 16th Street at 8 am.

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The event then shifted into an assembly, during which people attending the event could get up and speak about their own experiences in prison and their visions for a better world.

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Robert Saleem Holbrook

Robert Saleem Holbrook spoke about meeting Shakaboona as a teenager while they both faced life without the possibility of parole. Holbrook, a longtime organizer in prison collaborating with community groups on the outside, was released a month ago and works for the Abolitionist Law Center.

Holbrook and Sarah Small, a CADBI organizer, facilitated those assembled to collectively create this list of human rights worth fighting for, including justice, education, healthcare, community control, fair wages, redemption, peace, and the right to love who we want to love.

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Everyone was encouraged to attend Shakaboona’s re-sentencing hearing, which will be held May 17th. Stay tuned for the exact location and time!

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