San Quentin's Day of Peace

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At night you could hear the scraping of men sharpening their shanks in preparation. During the day, they wore baggy clothes with extra layers underneath to help protect against those newly-sharpened shanks. Tension between a set of Black prisoners and a set of Mexican American prisoners threatened to set San Quentin State Prison alight with violence. Under the supervision of the California Department of Corrections (and rehabilitation?), the prison was savagely Balkanized along racial lines, and the conflict at hand promised to drag all players, prisoner and administrator alike, into the fray. Everybody knew the routine, chose their side, and armed themselves for the moment when the war popped off.

But even in these dire times, there were still choices to be made. Jerry Elster had been locked up long enough know the cycles of retaliation well, and he had come to the conclusion that true power was the ability to author your own life. As a lifer and former gang leader, Jerry had the respect of various power-brokers among the prisoners. Trained in restorative justice, Jerry had the tools to navigate the conflict non-violently. So, against the odds, Jerry made the choice to interrupt business as usual at San Quentin. To do so, he started to organize a day of peace. Lasting truces were fragile and seemed to reinforce the inevitability of violence when they collapsed. But if the men could spend one day together on the yard without problems, then nobody could deny that peace was possible. Jerry knew that peace was infectious--once folks tasted it, they would want more, and that could change the whole dynamic.

Organizing the Day of Peace took a full year. Jerry maneuvered through gang hierarchies and state bureaucracies that rivaled each other in their arbitrary exercises of power. A few courageous administrators risked their careers by signing off on the event, and the inmate steering committee swelled as gang leaders who reluctantly agreed to participate made sure that they had some of their soldiers at the organizing table. The group secured outside funding, found a band to play some tunes, and hired a food truck to cater.

2,000 men of all races, creeds, and affiliations filled San Quentin’s main yard. Across gang and color lines, prisoners wore white t-shirts as a sign of peace as they enjoyed an afternoon of music, poetry, and speeches. The administration had put everyone on notice--any incidents or even false alarms and everything gets shut down. Armed guards stalked the gun towers as a reminder. But they never had occasion to deliver on those promises because the Day of Peace went off without a hitch. In the midst of the successful event, a young brother turned to Jerry and asked the question on the minds of many in the yard, “G, is this real?”

From simmering gang war to a powerful show of solidarity in the belly of the beast, Jerry and the other men at San Quentin made real what so many conspire to make impossible: peace, here and now.