“With Jomo it’s clearly mixed because he was both a Panther and in Attica, so it’s hard for me to seperate how the movement went from how he went. I mean I think the Panthers became very, for him, the organizing and the thinking around prison came as much from being in Attica as from being a Panther” -Elizabeth Gaynes [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip7.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip7]
Cleveland “Jomo” Davis came of age in an era of political consciousness. Across the country African Americans were fighting for their civil rights — leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were preaching the idea that black people had self-worth and a proud history that they needed to stand up for. In prison, Jomo read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and joined the Black Panther Party. As a member of the party he helped run community programs meant to educate individuals and help them to overcome the adversity perpetuated by the American system.
As the Panthers and other black power organizations were labeled threats to the stability of the nation, and government programs such as COINTELPRO began to infiltrate their ranks, many party members found themselves locked in jail for what Jomo calls “trumped up charges.” Jomo would soon find himself in jail again, and he would spend much of his adult life behind bars for various offenses.
Just as an awakening to political consciousness was happening outside the prison walls, prisoners like Jomo began to educate individuals inside about their rights and the oppressive system they were a part of. Borrowing from the organizing practices used on the streets, prisoners began to demand their rights in a more visible way than had ever occurred before. These efforts reached a climactic head in the Attica prison riots that left thirty-seven dead.
The stand taken by Jomo and the other Attica Brothers would lead to a series of prison reform suits and legislation. However, as prisons cracked down on prisoners’ ability to organize (without being monitored), and as new laws that further criminalized urban spaces (and thus black youth) were instituted, the focus on organizing around the justice system would shift towards mass incarceration. Organizers like Jomo would be left to be individual champions of education.
Only in 2010 would this country begin to see the level of organizing that took place in Attica again in a series of Georgia prison strikes. Mass attention is again being directed towards the prison system where Jomo and his contemporaries fought to gain a margin of human dignity.
Jomo’s experiences speak to how the political consciousness sparked by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalist groups translated into demands for fair treatment within the prison system. On this website we trace how Attica’s visibility affected later prison advocacy and prisoners’ ability to organize. Jomo’s story thus helps us to understand this moment in American history.
“[Elizabeth] There’s a really interesting relationship between the organizing inside and the organizing outside. . . . [Caitlin] it seems like it started with the organizing that happened outside, and that environment, that time period. [Elizabeth] Yes, and then people who were organizers went to prison and then they started organizing inside, and then it sort of connected to people that were organizing outside that were caring about what was going on with the people inside.” [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip29.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip29]