The Weekly Margs by

A is for Alcatraz Island

Can you smell what the rock is cooking?

Hi! It’s been a few weeks!

I’d like to welcome you to Season 2 of The Weekly Margs! I thought I was only going to take a week or so gap, but I got out of the habit of planning and posting, and somehow it’s been almost a month. My last issue went out just before the protests for George Floyd became big news, and to post anything but not acknowledge the protests and the general zeitgeist seemed tone deaf to me, so I kind of stewed on it and posted nothing.

I think I’ve found a way to connect, tangentially, so here goes nothing…

A Former Prison

I got the inspiration for this post during an Alcatraz swim I did last week, hence this week’s subject: Alcatraz island, sometimes known as the rock.

Alcatraz has some really interesting history, and most famously as a former federal prison. Thanks to the last month’s worth of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests, conversation about abolishing the police has become more mainstream, which is closely related to conversations about abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex. Literally while swimming, I remembered this NYT Magazine profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore (a longtime prison abolition advocate) that I had read from last year. It had a big part in shaping my current thinking on abolition into what could be summarized as “of course we should abolish prisons.” The whole thing is worth your time, here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite for it:

Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”

From “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind” (April 2019)

A Captivating Island

I don’t know if any one thing makes Alcatraz special, it’s got a lot going for it. The rumors of it being an “unescapable” prison? The fact that from land it kind of feels like a focal point of the San Francisco Bay? It makes for some great pictures.

October 2014. Alcatraz Island (San Francisco, CA)

I did my first Alcatraz swim in 2012, but I don’t have a picture from the boat of that swim. That day, we were on a larger ferry, and jumped off the side of the boat opposite the island, so the first time I went “to” the island, I didn’t actually see it. This is a swim a few years later, where we jumped off at Alcatraz Island and swam to Angel Island. A lot of morning swims from the rock aren’t this pretty, it was a very lucky day.

March 2015. Alcatraz Island (San Francisco, CA)

This was from my first and only time actually stepping foot on the island. My parents were in town, so we took a tour. There was a special exhibit called @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Above is a picture I took of “With Wind,” a large paper dragon made that flowed around the whole room. One of the big draws was “Trace,” a room full of portraits made out of legos laid out on the floor, but somehow I didn’t take any pictures of it (my stomach was upset from a breakfast sandwich I ate that day so I may have been in a rush to get out of there). The lego portraits were special: “176 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliation” and Ai Weiwei himself had recently been arrested for similar reasons. Coincidentally (ironically?), Ai Weiwei was not allowed to travel outside of China to help set up this particular exhibit, so he drew out plans and over 80 SF volunteers actually assembled the portraits.

May 2018. Fort Mason (San Francisco, CA)

The north side of Fort Mason has this path to walk along with great views of the bay. This picture captures that part of Alcatraz where on a clear day, the island becomes the focal point of the bay. I walk long that path every-so-often, and honestly, I’m surprised that this is one of the only photos of the island I have from this spot.

January 2020. Aquatic Park (San Francisco, CA)

This is another common angle of Alcatraz for me. When I walk to Aquatic Park in the mornings, sometimes you look up and boom—there the island is. This was a particular gorgeous sunrise, and I was trying to capture the entirely of the sunrise instead of focusing on Alcatraz in particular, but it’s there! Somewhere. This was not just me trying to find a fourth picture to round out the issue, definitely not.

Thanks for reading and sticking around! Please do read that NYT Magazine article, I’m going to try to link more good reads in my newsletter issues this season. Again, this particular one is a great one to read, absorb, and share because I think if we really do want to abolish the prison industrial complex, more people need to understand the bigger picture of what that means.