Meet the anarchist, prison abolitionist, author, editor, and mother who became an activist after being arrested for armed robbery at age 16.
Victoria Law, who goes by Vikki, is an anarchist, a prison abolitionist, a freelance writer, author, editor, and a mother.
Vikki grew up in Flushing, Queens in the 80s and 90s, and at the age of 16, she was arrested for participating in an armed robbery. After avoiding a jail sentence on probation, she became a prison abolitionist and writer. She is a rare individual who has made a career writing about women’s prison organizing and resistance after seeing her social circle trapped in the prison-industrial complex. She’s the author of the book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2009) , and co-editor of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (PM Press 2012). She’s a regular contributor to Truthout and BitchMedia, where she covers mass incarceration and women’s prison issues, among other things.
I met Vikki at the social center and former squat ABC No Rio on New York City’s Lower East Side in early December, the day after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo and a night of spontaneous protests caused chaos on the streets of New York City.
In the introduction to your book Resistance Behind Bars – The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, you talk about getting arrested at age 16, and that being an moment that contributed to you becoming a prison abolitionist. What were some of the conditions leading up to that? What was the path to you starting to think critically about prisons?
I was born in Flushing, Queens, and grew up in Forest Hills. Forest Hills is a place usually thought of as fancy houses and rich people. But there’s a dividing line at 71st avenue, and on the other side there are many smaller, connected houses, often inhabited by immigrant families who moved here to buy their first house. So the part of Flushing where I lived was full of people of different races and cultures.
One of the funny things about the New York City school system is that, even if you’re a couple of blocks away from a high school, it may not be the high school you’re zoned for. You might be zoned to go to a totally different school. My mom didn’t have the kind of social capital that would have enabled her to navigate these social and political systems. She didn’t realize she should be asking people how to make sure I went to the school two blocks away from my house.
So I went to Hillcrest High School, which is in a section of Jamaica that is predominantly people of color, predominantly low-income. The school itself is massively overcrowded. Outside the school, what used to be a track is littered with crack vials and occasionally bullet casings, so nobody actually goes outside for gym. It’s the kind of school where a lot of students don’t see the point to engage, they don’t feel like they need an education. It was a great recruiting ground in the 1990s for a lot of the street gangs. Gangs would send somebody in to recruit, or they’d have one of the students recruit. They’d be like, “Do you really wanna do this? Or would you rather make a few hundred dollars at night?” To most teenagers, the answer is pretty clear. Of course you’d rather make a couple hundred dollars in the night rather than sit in a classroom where nobody cares. Maybe be able to buy a new pair of sneakers and have some money leftover to give to your mom who’s working two jobs. Be able to take your girlfriend out. Be able to hang out with your friends and not have to be like, okay, “Who’s gonna buy the hamburger this time so all five of us can sit at McDonalds?” At that age, you don’t think, “Oh wait, I might get arrested, and I might spend a lot of time in prison, and it’ll fuck up my life forever.”
One thing that’s perverse about New York City is that supposedly we can’t afford quality education for everybody, but we do have money for an entire jail –Rikers Island. Rikers Island is right by La Guardia airport, just across the Rikers Island Channel. It’s an island that’s devoted to mostly pre-trial detention, people who can’t afford bail, and people who’ve been sentenced to less than a year. So this is where we put our resources. And this is where a lot of my friends ended up.