A pro-Palestinian protester screams at a member of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office after tear gas canisters were shot toward a human barricade at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Tampa Bay Times ]

A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

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“It’s hard to risk arrest when I know what’s waiting for me on the other side.”

For those who are justice involved, the prospect of being returned to prison weighs heavily in our calculations about how we express our beliefs, writes Morgan Godvin in this first-person essay.

Tens of thousands of students have consciously risked arrest to protest Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Palestine, and about 3,000 have been arrested since demonstrations began on campuses earlier this spring. Many of the students are also calling on their universities to cut financial ties with weapons manufacturers and others doing business in Israel. But for those of us who have already been ensnared in the criminal justice system, risking arrest means something altogether different. 

I watch young protestors balk at police orders to disperse, defiantly facing off with police clad in riot gear. Once upon a time, during Portland’s outpost of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011, I did the same thing, even as mounted cavalry trampled us while we linked arms to hold the line. 

Later, I was sent to prison on drug-related charges, sentenced to five years. That experience has made it harder for me to willingly subject myself to arrest by participating in protests, because I already know what is waiting for me on the other side. The mere sight of a police officer fills my mind with scenes from my own arrest: a SWAT raid, being held at gunpoint, and officers saying I may die in prison.

A past criminal record makes any future sentence more punitive, meaning I could be sentenced to more time than my fellow protestors for the same offense. For those on probation or parole, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be sufficient to be shipped back to prison. Merely having police contact can result in a violation, much less getting new criminal charges.

After I was released in 2018, I immediately enrolled at Portland State University in Oregon. Since then, there have been at least two mass waves of protest. Having experienced and witnessed grave injustices in our policing and court system, I am highly sensitized to human rights abuses, dedicating much of my life fighting against them. The war on Palestine is no different.

Yet the lingering legal consequences and traumas of my own experiences keeps me at the farthest edge of the protest, or away altogether. When I do feel brave enough to engage, there is another, more surprising factor that gives me pause: the protesters, with whom I am ostensibly ideologically aligned on our shared crusade, make me feel like I do not belong. For many of them, protests are the first time in their life they are being exposed to police oppression, arrest, and the legal system at large. 

In early May, faculty and students were arrested at the University of Texas at Dallas. History professor Ben Wright wrote in an essay, “What my students and I learned in jail,” about how he and his students were forced to reconcile with the very discord that has, at times, left me feeling alienated from those protesting for justice and against oppression:

“Most of the students were incredulous at policies clearly designed to increase suffering. The other inmates in turn were often incredulous at the students’ surprise. Many knew from past experience that this is how the system works. Now we know that, too.” 

Wright notes that the repression of the Freedom Rides in the 1960s exposed a generation of college students to the stark realities of state violence — something that his students and others across the country are just experiencing now. Their experiences are not those of unique or exceptional brutality, as if they were being targeted for their political activity, but are rather run-of-the-mill encounters with the criminal justice system that those of us who are formerly incarcerated know all too well. 

In 2020, when federal officers roamed the streets of Portland, arresting protesters by snatching them into unmarked white vans, many people were outraged. “That’s not how arrests are supposed to happen! This can’t be legal!” I could only shake my head in disbelief, that people so committed to justice that they’d taken to the streets could be so woefully uninformed as to the experiences of injustice that millions of Americans live through. I hope that this time around, protestors’ sudden exposure to the system makes them committed to fighting for justice there, too, instead of seeing their treatment as political repression for their support of Palestinians. 

Aside from the legal risks, there is the legacy of trauma. People within encampments and those occupying campus buildings defiantly refuse police orders to disperse, but many formerly incarcerated people have visceral memories of police violence, of being awakened by flash bangs and their front door flying off its hinges behind a battering ram, of the flying spittle of snarling police canine. For those who have lived through sudden, random strikes of police action, the prospect of remaining when one is imminent seems unfathomable. 

As with everything in the system, the burdens do not fall evenly, with people of color and the poorest among us always receiving harsher treatment. At Columbia University, which has been the site of high-profile protests, only 19% of first-year students are Pell-eligible, while at The City College of New York it is more than half, showing wide economic disparities in the student bodies. The police were deployed in full force to both, but protestors at Columbia were charged with misdemeanors while those at City College face felony charges that carry up to 7 years in prison.

For those who are forced to remain at the edges of protest and too endangered to engage in civil disobedience, there are other ways we can show our solidarity, whether with the people of Palestine or other causes near to us. I work tirelessly behind the scenes. I publish opinion pieces, speak to the media as a subject-matter expert, conduct academic research, and maintain a strong presence on social media.

Still, I fret over my absence from the protests, worrying it will be seen as indifference. No matter how righteous the cause, those of us who have been churned through the justice system or are barely scraping by must consider the practical, pragmatic implications on our lives. If we are food or housing insecure, we may be forced to think more acutely about our own survival. For those who are already justice involved, the prospect of being returned to prison weighs heavily in our calculations about how we express our beliefs. 

The right to protest should be a right. Someone who is formerly incarcerated should not be hamstrung, forced to choose between incarceration or standing idly by as our country tacitly supports a genocide. 

Morgan Godvin is a writer and the former engagement editor for JSTOR Daily’s American Prison Newspapers collection. Her writing has appeared in The Marshall Project, the Washington Post, and Filter Magazine. She received her degree in public health and Spanish from Portland State University in 2021, and will start PhD in public health at San Diego State University this fall. Follow her on TikTok.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.