Meet Heshima Denham
Heshima Denham is a lifelong activist and artist. He has been in prison in California since 1993. 19 years of that time has been in solitary confinement. The text of this interview is from a recorded phone conversation with Heshima, who was speaking to us from Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, CA.
How does this art piece connect to your broader vision for the world?
I have been a social justice activist for well over a quarter century. In that time I have developed or contributed to numerous community development initiatives to leverage the collective work and responsibilities of our communities. Over a decade ago I developed a sustainable agricultural blueprint for community-scale food independence (go to http://www.sustainableagriculturalcommune.org/). When I saw Planting Justices’ programs, I saw many parallels and points of mutual interest. I envision a world of interconnected, community-based food systems, supported by collectively owned and operated farms in adjacent rural areas. By taking the responsibility of our own food production, we ensure quality control of sustainable agricultural practices, organic food production, and a collective interest in maintaining as many green spaces as possible in our communities. I wanted the piece to encompass this vision, a world that cannot be contained by handcuffs and prison cells. We will rise above these systems of oppression to usher in a new day of freedom, justice, and equality for all.
Why does Planting Justices’ work matter to you?
Planting Justice has created a program that encourages functional social cooperation with the most disenfranchised segments of society--prisoners and former prisoners--and provides people with the most basic need: accessible and nutritious food. There are 20 men that, after being released from prison, now have good jobs and remain on the outside. They have created over 400 edible gardens in their community. Let’s not put a price on our community’s health or the health of our natural world. Planting Justice is providing a model example of success of how social justice and food justice can converge to have significant impact on our communities and those returning to them. The work Planting Justice does matters to me because my comrades and I are doing similar work. We are finding points of cooperation to move society closer to the world we all want to live in.
When you think about the structures of violence facing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in the U.S., what do you see that gives you energy and hope to continue the struggle?
I see oppression and hate. I see the systems that give rise to violence-- systems that I, as a black man, have been subjected to my entire life. The rational response is to resist them, and to educate and mobilize others to resist them. The Prison Industrial Slave Complex (PISC) is merely the perpetuation of U.S. systems of exploitation and social control as they have existed since its inception. It’s the same systematic dehumanization, stigmatization, and commoditization that has always been embedded in U.S. capitalist society and continues to be the foundation of every institution today. As it has always been. The values of the U.S. capitalist class have always been naked self-interest, direct exploitation, white male supremacy, overt racism, human brutality, and open, unashamed oppression. The institutions of U.S. society from religious to educational to law enforcement are designed to further these values and their underlying basis. Dehumanization of oppressed people have been codified into law. They have been woven into the fabric of U.S. culture to ensure that it will continue to reinvent itself as long as the ruling class and state power remains in power. The election of Donald Trump is only one of the more recent examples of U.S. institutions functioning as they were designed to function. The systems of violence they manufactured, like the Prison Industrial Slave Complex, cannot be reformed, they must be transformed. This is my purpose: to understand our duties to end the oppression of man and women, by man and women. A goal I will not see in this life, but a goal I have committed my lifetime to. This is why it’s called the struggle.
What message do you have for folks in the Bay Area striving to act in solidarity with incarcerated people, particularly people of color?
The greatest minds of our time have come out of prison. Of those actively engaged in the struggle, the vast majority are people of color. If you are sincere about working in solidarity with imprisoned activists, support them with your time, talent, and treasure. Donate. Volunteer. There are currently three serious organizations I’m involved with that need supporters to act as P.O. Box holders, local volunteers, legal consultants, copy service providers and distributors, donors, or sponsors. Amend the 13th is a community-based organizing effort determined to remove the legal and social basis for the dehumanization of people in U.S. courts and finally abolish slavery in America once and for all. The Free Speech Society (freespeechsociety.org) is an initiative that seeks to preserve the 1st amendment rights of imprisoned and community-based activists fighting censorship and oppression by organizing activists and legal professionals into a single organization that defends our right to speak and act on the social contradictions which impact us all. The final one is the Insurrectionist Art Collective (insurrectionistsartcollective.com). This is an initiative artists and art lovers to combat some of the most pressing issues of our day. We support artists materially, socially, and politically by providing the space to promote and sell their art while supporting their work to free society of the social ills that impact all of us. All of these efforts are in need of human and financial resources. You can be an active support for change. If interested, contact my collaborator Annabelle Parker (amendthe13th [at] gmail [dot] com). I do hope you enjoy this piece and that we hear from you soon.
You can share your thoughts and reactions with Heshima by writing to him:
J. Heshima Denham J-38283
Kern Valley State Prison B2-117
PO Box 3481
Delano, CA 93216