Today In Fact, 11 June

Islands just off the coast have been used for centuries as prisons. I can think of Devil’s Island run by the French and just off the coast of French Guiana, then there’s Robben Island in Table Bay and of course Alcatraz, an island in the San-Francisco Bay.

The Native Americans did not like the island and left it uninhabited, referring to it as “evil island” which is ironic, given its subsequent role in the promotion of Native American rights.

The Spanish who colonized the area referred to the island as the Isle of pelicans, Alcatraces was Spanish for pelican which they borrowed from the Arabic; al-qaṭrās. So Alcatraz got its name for the pelican colony that no longer exists on the island.

After many decades of private ownership, Alcatraz came into the possession of the United States federal authorities who turned it into the infamous prison in which many of the mafia heavyweights spent their time.

Today marks the most mysterious escape from Alcatraz in 1962 by three men; Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin who disappeared from the island without trace.

The prison was closed within months of that last escape by the US Attorney General at the time, Robert F Kennedy ostensibly because it cost too much to maintain.

In 1969, a group of militant Native Americans occupied the deserted Alcatraz. Calling themselves The United Indians of All Tribes, this group occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians.

The occupiers, who stayed on the island for nearly two years, demanded the island’s facilities be adapted and new structures built for an Indian education centre, ecology centre and cultural centre.

Eventually, after much hesitation, Nixon sent in the authorities who today in 1971, forcibly removed the occupiers from the island. The Native American Occupation forced the United States to recognize the right of native Americans to self-determination and returned unused state lands to various native American tribes.

Today Alacatraz is a tourist destination and like Robben Island hosts a variety of exhibitions and tours. Native American organizations hold commemorative events on Alcatraz such as Sunrise gatherings on Columbus Day.

I guess what I am thinking about Alcatraz is that defined and visible public spaces such as Robben Island, Alacatraz and Devil’s Island have all been used to incarcerate citizens who have fallen foul of the state. At least two of these island spaces have also been used to organize against state repression of indigenous peoples. They have also now been used as tourist destinations and sites where history and struggle and prison combine.

The transformation of Alcatraz from “evil Island” to “Isle of Pelicans”- to an infamous prison – to a site of protest for indigenous peoples’ rights – to a tourist destination, shows how public spaces can be transformed and used (abused?) by state and citizen for state repression as well as human flourishing.

– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (