A tribute to Karen Smith, Rest in Power
by Panagioti Tsolkas
Karen passed on to the ancestors’ realm in the early hours of Nov 29, 2020 as the result of a fatal car accident near Waldo, Florida.
[UPDATES: Donations to her children can be made here. There was a public memorial with family and friends at Depot Park in Gainesville on December 2 and there will be a series of memorial actions in the days and weeks ahead.]
It’s hard to describe what organizing alongside Karen Smith was like in a way that won’t sound hyperbolic on account of her absence, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. Movement circles can get bogged down and organizers often get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we face. Its inevitable, yet Karen Smith figured out how to manage it all with a rare style and grace. She dodged the obstacles, confronted the bullshit and stayed focused on her two-pronged mission of supporting prisoners and attacking the prison system, relentlessly. All while being an amazing mother of two and stellar friend to so many.
Since her passing, several of us who had the fortune of organizing closely with her have noted the feeling of disbelief stemming from a view of her as invincible, unstoppable… a supernatural creature walking among muggles. The organizational energy that she could harness in planning protests, conferences, bail funds, social events is unmatched. She could motivate and focus a group without it feeling pushy, and she could host a killer party without seeming stressed, and then totally chill out and relax without seeming all high-strung from pulling these things together. She was also an incredible example to me as a parent, and countless other future parents, that people with kids can balance movement responsibilities and commitments to their children.
She could get wild as hell, then pull it all together to show up for media interviews, professional appointments, her job as a waitress, etc. When she had to step back to handle work or family matters, she didn’t make commitments she couldn’t keep and drop the ball. Wishing she coulda written me a manual on that one.
When our crew held a campout out in front of prison work camp for 10 days, Karen would come after a late work shift to sleep at the camp, roll out of a tent first thing in the morning with a bullhorn in hand to yell raw, unfiltered rage at guards and shout encouragement to prisoners, then drink some coffee and head back to town to the Sunday brunch shift at 706, where she worked for the past 15 years, till they closed for COVID-19.
I know, I told you, it sounds like the kind of things you say to kiss someone’s ass after they’re gone. And she would surely be annoyed by praise like this, but ask around, these are the stories you’ll hear over and over, from people who met her once and people who knew her for decades.
So many times over the past several years I watched in awe at her ability to connect with people and inspire them to action, in many cases just with a paper, pen and stamped envelope. At prison demos, when we were close enough to establish that those inside could hear our bullhorns, she would often say “this is Karen Smith, call us, write our PO Box. Let us know how we can work together.” And they would. On the occasion where someone made the unwise decisions to write something sexist or disrespectful, Karen would tell them firmly to cut that shit out. And they listened. She could command respect like that, even from someone she never met in person.
At any given point in a day, she might step away from a conversation with you to take a phone call, and come back having coordinated a legal defense strategy with someone sitting in solitary. By the end of the day there would be a phone zap going to support their fight for law library access, better sanitary conditions in the kitchen or getting moved out of solitary…
And she could blow a vuvuzelas loud as hell! Its a skill that really should become a prerequisite for all prison abolitionists. Now I’m going to need someone else to try teaching me, again.
Being in her presence had the feeling of working along side a legend, those who got letters from her on the inside will say the same. Perhaps the highest compliment to her work is knowing so many wardens and prison staff across Florida and beyond have cursed her name, surely wondering themselves if she was a real person or some fictitious, omnipresent force out to kick their ass.
In the last conversations we had, we were planning on how to escalate the national #CagingCOVID campaign we created together over the summer with Nation Inside. In her last hours, she helped a friend and homestead-mate on creating a hiphop video highlighting prisons, police and food justice (she was part of an effort to get free produce into the neighborhoods of southeast Gainesville). The last images captured from her life are videos of her dancing around a raging bonfire draped in a protest banner while an effigy of the Florida prison system burned to the ground. Seriously.
Now we get to carry her work of toppling the prison system foward, and though it’s daunting, it truly feels like an honor to be part of that legacy. With her memory and her spirit to drive us, we will fight inside and out, harder than we ever imagined possible, till the walls come crumbling down and every cage is reduced to ash, as were the slave plantations and factories that came before them.
Below is a collection of articles and photos that give a glimpse of her work against prisons in recent years, including stories about her, quoting her or highlighting some people and issues important to her. She was also involved in other efforts that are not touched on here, for example, she worked in a domestic violence legal clinic. If you search “Karen Smith, prison strike” you’ll find dozens more. But her efforts go back much further than this. When I come across any paper copies of her zine “10-20-Life” from the early 2000s, or pictures from the free food program she was part of then, I’ll post more links and pictures. I think I also have a news clipping somewhere from when she got arrested for allegedly spray painting anti-capitalist graffiti in Lake Worth with her crust punk crew back in the day!
“Movement Against Prison Slavery Ramps Up With Operation PUSH in Florida,” by Brian Sonenstein, Shadowproof
“A week-long prison strike started Tuesday. Here’s how Gainesville activists prepared,” by Jessica Curbelo, The Alligator
“From the Ground Up: Panagioti Tsolkas and Karen Smith are Organizing Environmental Justice for Prisoners,” by Deeva Gupta, The Fine Print
“Activists protest against ‘toxic’ Franklin CI,” Lois Swoboda, Apalachee Times
“Prison Abolitionists Shut Down FDOT Offices Leasing out Unpaid Prison Slaves,” by FTP, Its Going Down
“Support Julius Smith”, by Florida Prisoner Solidarity
“Skating on: Life after a 15-year prison sentence,” by Patrick Gross, The Alligator
“Operation PUSH timeline,” by Florida Prisoner Solidarity
“Strike Camp,” by Marcelo Rondon, The Fine Print
“Gainesville Activists Support National Prison Strike,” by Vincent McDonald, WUFT (NPR-affiliate)
AUDIO/VIDEO INTERVIEWS WITH KAREN
Final Straw Radio, interview on Operation PUSH prisoner strike
Its Going Down podcast: Inside, Outside, All on the Same Side
Kite Line Radio, November 27, 2020: Careless With People’s Lives- Violence & Neglect in Florida
Karen on zoom panel “Prison Slavery, Here and Today: Disentangling UF from Prisons”