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An Interview with Rosalyn Baxandall

By Katie Long
On December 20, 2011

Former Old Westbury American Studies chair and Distinguished Teaching Professor Rosalyn Baxandall currently teaches at the Bayview, a female, minimum security, Correctional Facility in Manhattan. Before Baxandall went to Bayview, she taught labor studies at CUNY.

     "I didn't like teaching the Union Semester (an AFL/CIO program to encourage students to become labor organizers) because the students weren't diverse, and uninterested in studying labor history or reading and working," Baxandall said.

     "However, teaching at Bayview is different.  The women are mostly in prison for minor drug charges, and it's a waste of tax payer money to have them there.  If they have drug problems, one or two in my class did, they should get help with prevention."

     The teaching program is run by Bard College, and other colleges like Wesleyan and Grinnell.  Baxandall wrote an email to President Calvin Butts to start a similar program at SUNY OW, but hasn't heard back from him.

     Baxandall thinks that the war on drugs is a way of taking rights away from black and Hispanics. There's an excellent book about the subject, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander.  Her thesis is that the Republicans understood that they lost the civil rights movement and came up with the idea of the war on drugs as a new tactic for disenfranchising black and brown people. The tactic was successful. The jails are filled with overwhelmingly black and brown non-violent, criminals. Democrats supported the war on drugs too because they were afraid to be seen as soft on crime.  Huge amounts were spent, and money for prevention, and helping those on drugs dwindled.

     "The students I teach are hungry for knowledge," Baxandall continued. There is nothing to do in prison. Once a week they can go to the roof and that is their exercise. They have jobs inside the prison like washing floors and laundering uniforms where they don't learn anything. One of my students told me, ‘only my mind can soar, and that's why I love school.'

     "Every student does her home work on time, and attendance is always perfect.  The students take four courses and will earn a BA. At graduation they all write a 100 page term paper. A male prisoner didn't want to leave because he wanted to finish his college degree. Some of the male students when they have graduated have gone on to get Masters Degrees.

     "When you teach in a prison, you are made to feel you are imprisoned too. It takes at least a half an hour to go through the many inspections and pat downs to get to my classroom.  A guard watches outside your class. The facilities are poor, no windows in the tiny classroom, worse than Old Westbury. "Every time I show a film it needs to get approved two weeks in advance. The students can't use the computer because the Internet is banned.

     "The female prisoners are anywhere from 18-34-years-old and they are mainly Spanish and African-American.

     "They are diligent students who are politically concerned. They wish they were out and part of Occupy Wall Street and could be of use to society.  They know all about OWS because they are fans of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now."  

     Baxandall offered to bring letters to Occupy Wall Street from her students but her supervisor said they didn't have the right to send messages. Baxandall suggested a petition of support, but they don't have the right to petition either, a right women had long before they won the vote in 1920.

     Baxandall also has spent some time at Occupy Wall Street. "I've gone there five times. It's uplifting. They have set up an alternative communal participatory way of living. 90% of them have to agree when they make a decision. They have town meetings and every one participates. At Liberty Park there are people from all over from the U.S. Some people are unemployed and owe money for their education. Some of their parents have lost their jobs."  

     Baxandall talked to a few men in uniform who said  they had to re-enlist to get a job.  The soldiers were anti-war and had finally found a place in the real war against the greedy rich.

     "People from all over the world, even from Egypt donate pizzas and food, clothing, sleeping bags, tents. There are lots of donations from unions. A wealthy individual just donated outdoor toilets and the City University Union; the PSC donated a large indoor cooking space. Other unions have donated indoor spaces for the smaller committee meetings. There's lots of learning going on, lectures on the economy, the environment a library and entertainment.  Comedians, rap artists, singers come down to support and entertain.   Occupy Wall Street published three issues of The Occupied Wall Street Journal that look like the Wall Street Journal.

     "There are debates now about whether they should be feeding all of these people. It costs $2,000 dollars a day. Mayor Bloomberg and the police have told the homeless to go there for free food and shelter. A few of the unemployed are disturbed and scream and harass, others participate.

     "People come to OWS because the politicians and corporations don't represent the 99 percent. They want to exercise their rights as citizens' not just consumers. Obama was supposed to represent their hopes, but he hasn't. They are at Wall Street to make their voices heard. Over 3,000 OWS protesters have been arrested but only two traders and bankers, both of Indian descent, were indicted. None of the bankers who brought about this fiscal crisis are in jail.  In fact they are making millions from the bailout."

     Baxandall was asked if she saw any progress due to OWS. "They have already made a difference. There are 400 OWS's throughout the country. Obama for the first time has been forced to talk about jobs, forgiving mortgage debt, and student debt. The corporations are afraid and spying on OWS."

     Baxandall is still the great person that she was at SUNY OW. And with her new job as a teacher at a prison, she'll make a difference in the lives of prisoners just as she made a difference in the lives of OW students.

"I want to continue to teach, write, protest against inequality and injustice, see my grand kids, and friends, and enjoy the cultural riches of New York City," Baxandall said with pride.


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