A School of the Americas Watch march to Ft. Benning in 2019. (Facebook/SOA Watch)

How incarcerated peace activists use their privilege for good

Despite the real dangers of using privilege in solidarity actions, those engaged in prison witness see the potential benefits as worth the risks.
A School of the Americas Watch march to Ft. Benning in 2019. (Facebook/SOA Watch)

This essay is adapted from Anya Stanger’s new book “Incarcerated Resistance: How Identity, Gender, and Privilege Shape the Experiences of America’s Nonviolent Activists

Who would go to jail on purpose? This was the question that motivated my doctoral research, as I studied a group of activists I call justice action prisoners U.S. peace activists who employ an uncommon nonviolent tactic called “prison witness.” Drawn mainly from the Plowshares and School of the Americas Watch movements, those who “go to jail for justice” do so to put particular issues such as war, nuclear weapons, and U.S. foreign policy “on trial.” Prison witness is a high-risk tactic that entails intentionally breaking the law, most often through crimes of trespass or the destruction of federal property, followed by criminal trial and significant jail time (6 months or more, in the case of my research).

Almost all justice action prisoners in the U.S. today are white, elderly, well-educated and professional, financially stable and religious (usually Roman Catholic). They are people of immense privilege, and most often, they know it. Indeed, being “accountable” to one’s privilege is the most common explanation for why participants engaged in resistance in the first place.  They resist because they can.

This constellation of identity, awareness, and resultant action makes the study of justice action prisoners relevant and unique as a group to learn from; they are socially privileged U.S. activists, working “on behalf of” others, who strategically “use” who they are to best protest state violence — using a nonviolent technique that is extraordinarily high-risk and personalized. As such, looking more closely at justice action prisoners’ notions of privileged identity and solidarity action is a productive undertaking, not only for activists who may be thinking about more extreme forms of resistance themselves, but also for people interested in engaging in coalitions of any kind.

Privilege power

One of the most remarkable things about nonviolence is that anybody can participate: you do not have to be a young man (as you do in most forms of military service) — a citizen, or even an adult to make a meaningful impact. In this understanding of how nonviolence works, transformative change occurs through what nonviolent scholars call “people power” — the power of “regular people” doing something in the face of oppression and violence.

While it is true that anybody can participate in nonviolence, in a context of inequality — and especially for a technique as individualized as prison witness — it is misleading to think that “who we are” does not matter in what we can do, or that all bodies can work in the same ways. Instead, identity matters. In the case of prison witness, which relies upon individual action and a notion of “goodness” (for if we do not believe someone to be “good,” their incarceration will not strike us as troublesome), “people power” cannot explain what happens through nonviolent action. Instead, we must include an evaluation of identity and, specifically, what I call “privilege power.” Privilege power is a potent mix of white skin, middle/upper class position, high levels of education, Christian/Catholic faith, heterosexuality/chaste status, and professional achievement that combine to make a person largely un-objectionable within the contemporary mainstream United States. It is an important engine powering prison witness.

In her interview, retired health professional: white, married mother; and convicted felon Rae Kramer explained how privilege works in nonviolent resistance. She said:

The power of the prison witness more publicly was … the more that you are connected to mainstream life, the more effective and powerful is the witness … I am a soccer coach. How do I tell these families that this woman who they have entrusted their children to … is going to jail? Wait a minute, bad people go to prison! The cognitive dissonance right there — that was the magic moment.

Rae explained that it was her status that made her line-crossing at Fort Benning effective. It was her “connection to mainstream life” that enabled wide-scale critical thinking about the SOA in her community. In other words, prison witness partly works because the people going to jail are not those who usually go to jail. Quite simply, when high-status individuals (such as a nun or college professor) are incarcerated, the circle of people who are concerned about their action grows larger. In addition, the privileged activist more readily maintains an identity as “moral” and “good” despite their illegal act — and may be more easily perceived as wrongfully going to jail (while the issue of concern might be considered more problematic). This is a source of power for the privileged activist, but “using it” is not straightforward: the increased scrutiny that prison witness activates can rely upon engrained assumptions about whiteness/wealth/high-status corresponding with virtue and worthiness.

At best then, using privilege is a double-edged sword. On the one side, the mechanism Rae describes is politically and culturally powerful, and she is correct to acknowledge it so clearly. On the other side, the underlying structural violence that activists like Rae are so keen to uproot may be reinforced through such actions. Most basically, “using” privilege may transform into instances of reinforcing whiteness and social class, especially, as stand-ins for integrity, accountability, goodness or seriousness of intent. Despite these dangers, justice action prisoners are among those who have determined that, on balance, the potential benefits of using privilege are worth the risks they entail.

More than half of those I spoke with explained that their white skin provided not just motivation to act, but also relative safety in doing so. (Which, for them, entailed an obligation to act.) Their activism was also supported by their U.S. citizenship, having an identity (priest, mother, professional) that makes others “think twice” about their action and subsequent imprisonment, the “inner strength” to bear lengthy incarceration, the financial security to “step away” from day-to-day life, as well as assuring the “privilege to explain my legal record” after release.

Justice action prisoners often used their privileged identities as resources from which to draw, in order to further movement aims (something, it should be noted, that is not just a tool for the most privileged — “using” who we are is a resource available to all). Participant Nancy Gwin, a retired teacher, explained how one may “use” who one is as a resource when she told me that she always “dresses up” when she goes to a protest. “There’s Nancy, in her flats!” other activists say — but she wants onlookers to see that there are people “like them” (white, middle class and professional) who are interested in issues of disarmament and human rights. “Dressing up” as a middle-class white lady is of course reliant on Nancy’s privilege, but it is also a strategy of connection that productively “works” towards movement goals.

Participants also described using their privileged identities as catalysts that could “make space” for others. Sr. Dorothy Pagosa explained this when she told me that “privilege gives us entrée” during actions, an opening that can be used to “let the people who really know what they’re taking about talk.”  Similarly, Sr. Ardeth Platte explained that when she was the mayor of Saginaw, Michigan, she would tell “everything that was going on” in local politics to the “disadvantaged community” so that they could be “the ones who came to city hall and put the pressure on us.” As their representative, Ardeth was not speaking “for” this community, but empowering them with information needed to be able to speak for themselves. In these cases, the intent is to use the privileges provided by race and status to create a space for others to fill, but not to fill the space oneself. Both Dorothy and Ardeth assured me that “making space” does not challenge traditional hierarchies, but it can create opportunities for those most closely affected to galvanize deeper change.


Another way that these understandings of privilege showed up in my research was through how justice action prisoners discussed solidarity — acts of making the struggle of another your own. In general, justice action prisoners engage in solidarity actions as “advantaged group allies,” in social movement parlance, people who participate not to further their own individual or group needs, but to contribute as an ally — a helper or a friend. Most commonly, advantaged group allies are privileged in ways that movement beneficiaries are not, and are drawn to the work because of personal conviction rather than direct experience. In other words, they are there because they want to be, because they believe that the work is important — but not because they will directly benefit from it.

For these reasons, solidarity actions are plagued by the same issues that “using privilege” brings up in resistance: instances in which more powerful actors may rely upon their social positions in order to contest or illuminate something that more negatively affects another. Solidarity actions are appropriate in a world structured by inequalities (we need ways to work across lines of power) and they are, of course, complicated. Complicated because by using privilege (such as whiteness) to protest violence (such as imperialism), activists may actually reinforce unequal hierarchies rather than upset them.

In researching my book, I met many justice action prisoners who understood the risks involved in engaging, as privileged people, in solidarity activism across borders of geography and power — and had decided to act anyways. They knew that they would invariably mess up. They also understood that only through their continual efforts, reflections, and actions could they help create change, and they were committed to figuring out better ways of doing things.

I interviewed Brian DeRouen during the 2011 conference at Fort Benning. Of his experience protesting the SOA, Brian said:

How many actions in this country today can you take that will put you in solidarity with felons and their families, would engage your family … any classroom you walk into … with prisoners and guards … And by crossing the line, folks are interested. They ask you, “what was prison like?” And 45 minutes later, they’re still listening, but now you’re talking about Gandhi in South Africa, and they are still engaged. Whereas if you just walked up and said “you want to talk about nonviolence?” they’d be like “hell no.”

Brian’s words expand common thinking about solidarity activism — and show it to be about the campesino in Nicaragua, but also what happens here. For Brian, solidarity is about creating relationships with students in U.S. classrooms, prison guards and members of your own community. It forges connection and keeps unlikely conversations going — and so it must include an understanding of oneself, one’s position in the social context, and an awareness of what this position may enable or provide.

Hence, for Brian, those he hopes to reach not just those affected by the school whose existence he protests, but everyone he meets — and about every issue of injustice that he learns about along the way. In this sense, he is a translator, and in this project of solidarity, going to jail is a tactic, and being a justice action prisoner is a way to be “sexy” enough to be published in the newspaper or listened to in a classroom. He uses the tools available to him to bond with people, translate new stories, and challenge what they know.

As the beneficiaries of empire, many justice action prisoners told me that it is precisely U.S. citizens who should protest U.S. policies that harm people in other parts of the world — their location mandates resistance “on behalf of” others. I was repeatedly told that privileged, white Americans are best poised to do this work: they have the power, the resources and the responsibility, and their protest carries more legitimacy and force than would similar actions performed by more marginalized people. Sr. Megan Rice was typical when she told me, “I’m privileged and I’ve got to do it. This is my responsibility, and I’m free to do it.”

For Kathy Kelly, experiencing solidarity means standing alongside people. “Real security,” she explained, “is Afghans knowing other Americans … It is important to be alongside ordinary people in times of war.” Solidarity can also be experienced during the direct actions themselves. For Derrlyn Tom, whose trespass at Fort Benning was inspired by her migrant students at Mission High School in San Francisco, the base fence symbolically represents the border fence. Hence, crossing the line gave her a deeper, more embodied understanding of what that fearful crossing meant for her students and their families. “It was just too tempting,” she said of sneaking through the fence at Fort Benning, a temptation that was followed by the sense that “this is nothing … I’m risking nothing” in comparison to those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Moving forward with privilege

Prison witness is a unique strategy in the nonviolent toolkit, and an important part of what makes it “work” are the privileged identities of the activists who utilize it. This reality is challenging. However, we do not live in a world in which people have the luxury to participate in resistance actions, or coalitions of any type, outside of the influence of our own identities.

Hence, what is required of people of privilege is not to disengage or feel paralyzed by fear of missteps (which will surely occur), but to engage consciously, with clear understandings of who we are, the impacts of our identities on what we are doing, how we do what we do, towards what aims, and with what effects (intended and actual). Some of the ways that justice action prisoners enact their resistance provide useful pathways forward — not as perfect models, but as “better” options to emulate and refine.

Knowing that we live in an unfair world where “acting” as a privileged person risks enlivening inequalities is daunting, but I do not believe that it should be used as a pass for privileged people to do nothing. The solution to eroding oppressive power hierarchies cannot be for those with the most power to feel helpless or afraid to act lest they err; privileged people must still be able to do something. “Using” privilege is — at best — an imperfect tool, but when they do so carefully, I believe that people can use their privileges to help further justice-oriented goals.

However — and this is crucial — privileged people must proceed with a savvy understanding of what they are actually doing and activating in their efforts, both intentionally and not. Acting in relationship with privilege will always achieve imperfect results. But justice action prisoners are among those who believe that people must act, even when their identities insulate them so that even their most strident acts are relational privileged experiences.

This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

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