They marched in orange jumpsuits with cuffs on their wrists and bags over their heads, representing a group of incarcerated men who they say have endured prolonged solitary confinement in prison.
And as they marched through Black Lives Matter Plaza, they sang.
“Mama, Mama, can’t you see what this prison’s done to me?”
The activists, led by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) in D.C. and including a daughter whose father was in prison, settled outside the White House. They stood in silent protest for a moment as one held a sign that said, “End Prison Slavery.”
They had come to call for the release of 16 men who they said have been in solitary confinement since they were accused of participating in a prison uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del., in which one correctional officer was killed. One man was convicted of murder while others faced lesser charges or were acquitted.
As the 16 people in orange jumpsuits lined up in front of the White House, Qiana Johnson, the executive director of Life After Release, an organization in Prince George’s County, Md., spoke through a megaphone.
“I am a formerly incarcerated Black woman in America,” she said, speaking passionately about what she called injustices from prosecutors and judges that lead to mass incarceration. “Just because it isn’t you doesn’t mean it can’t be you,” Johnson said. “Until we get that mind-set together we will always be in a mental cage.”
Johnson, who is also a court organizer with BLM DC, spoke about the disparity she sees between how the criminal justice system treats young Black people compared with young White people.
She used Kyle Rittenhouse, the White 17-year-old charged with fatally shooting two demonstrators in Wisconsin, as an example.
“If it was my son,” she said, the police “would have put five bullets in his back. Trust that.”
Fariha Huriya, a 31-year-old IWOC activist, said the prisoners would not have believed three years ago that anyone would be calling for justice for them outside the White House.
“Having been one of their closest comrades all these years,” she said, “Watching what solitary confinement has done to them, you lose your sense of trust in humanity. They feel almost hopeless inside. … It makes me almost in tears today seeing people stand up for them.”