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"No New Jails": Activists Protest at Ford Foundation

Above: Protestors marching to the Ford Foundation. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.
Above: Protestors marching to the Ford Foundation. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

NEW YORK—Around fifty activists—including members of Decolonize This Place, Take Back the Bronx, and other groups that helped spearhead the movement against former Whitney Museum vice chair Warren B. Kanders—staged an action in front of the Ford Foundation on Friday in protest of the $13 billion organization’s president, Darren Walker, who recently voiced his support of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build new jails.

Walker, a gay black man who has helmed the foundation since 2013, has faced fierce backlash since he published a controversial blog post titled “In Defense of Nuance” on September 19, which warns against extremism, emphasizes the need for “complexity and nuance” when addressing issues facing the world today, and defends New York City’s effort to close Rikers Island and move its inmates to four new jails that will be built in the boroughs by 2026. The proposal, which was approved by the City Planning Commission earlier this month, is opposed by prison abolitionists who claim that it is just another form of mass incarceration.

A few days later, at a talk with Angela Davis at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, the political activist and academic responded to an audience question about the foundation’s position on the new jails, which she pointed out is surprising for a funder of so many progressive organizations and scholars. “Maybe somebody needs to organize some kind of demonstration and go to the Ford building,” Davis said. “I would actually be willing to join. This is the kind of work that we will have to do if we want to continue to make abolitionist ideas available to masses of people in this country.”

At the Ford Foundation’s building at 320 East Forty-Third Street on Friday, Brittany Williams, a member of the group No New Jails NYC, said that Davis’s call to arms was one of the reasons why they were there. The demonstrators gathered across the street from the building around 10:45 AM—where they unfurled banners and chanted “No more cages, no more jails, Ford Foundation go to hell” and “What mission? Abolition”—before marching across the street and pushing past security to demonstrate in front of the foundation’s entrance.

After NYPD officers arrived, Williams and Decolonize This Place member Amin Husain criticized the foundation for calling the police on a group protesting prisons. “I’m pretty sure arresting community organizers goes against your mission,” Williams said. Over the course of the action, the police presence dwindled, but Ford security blocked all entrances preventing the demonstrators from accessing the building’s lobby. As the action drew to a close, an unknown employee of the foundation briefly held a “No New Jails” sign in the window on the second floor of the foundation, spurring cheers from the demonstrators.

“People who are funded through Ford to do justice work are really blown away,” Ford fellow Sandy Grande told Artforum. “It’s like: Wow, the president is supporting new jails. I think what also triggered things is his intimating that people who oppose new jails are extremists or ideological purists. So he is dividing activists, and many Ford fellows are activists and community organizers.” She added: “Walker as a person and the foundation as an institution can have their opinions, but there is nothing about jails that is philanthropic, so they shouldn’t be in the business of new jails. Yet, he’s pledging serious Ford money and using the power of the foundation to say this is a nuanced idea.”

Grande also helped organize an open letter addressed to Walker that—at the time of publication—has been signed by 237 Ford fellows. The letter acknowledges the foundation’s advocacy for the closure of Rikers but criticizes Walker’s position on the new jails. It reads: “​As a society, we need to support prisoners and their families, ​not by being ‘patient’ and ‘inclusive’ in pursuing incremental change that leaves offending structures unchallenged,​ but by doing the hard, visionary work of building alternative solutions to a carceral system that has never served in the interest of our communities.” The letter demands that Walker retract his prior statement and pledge that Ford Foundation money will not be used for the construction of the new jails.

In response, Walker released a message declaring that the foundation is “unwavering in its commitment to ending mass incarceration.” It reads: “We envision a world where people are not locked up in cages, treated inhumanely, and stripped of their dignity. To work toward this goal we support a range of initiatives and organizations working to eradicate the harmful footprint of mass incarceration and protect and promote the humanity and dignity of all people. Through the good work of people inside and outside of government, the jail population in New York City is now well below that of most large cities in the United States. However, there is more to be done.”

October 1, 2019