Fighting to get them out.
The anger came back, too, that rage and the absolute conviction that oppression, racism, and injustice will never cease until there is a fundamental change of power in this country. The first time I felt that, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I could look around the world and see nations of oppressed people making such fundamental changes. It was the era of the rise of national liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and here inside the borders of the United States.
These conditions gave rise to a period of armed struggle within the radical Black, Puerto Rican, and white anti-imperialist movements in this country, through the 1970s and even into the early 1980s. Those of us who participated in that level of struggle, or who actively tried to support it, had an unstated goal in common: to ensure that all the shooting didn't come from one side; to stop our movements and communities from being sitting ducks for police attack; to refuse to cooperate as our government carried out policies that amounted to genocide, as well as colonialism and racism.
Since September 11, 2001, in the wake of the horror of those few minutes of brutal destruction, and in the collective grief and anguish as we watched people of all classes and races wandering the streets of lower Manhattan in a futile search for some trace of their missing loved ones, all attention has turned to terrorism. Even more, as the flag-waving has taken over, no distinction has been drawn. If it is an armed act, it is terrorism. Overlooked is that it is now more possible than ever to differentiate between the armed revolutionary activities of the 1970s and 1980s and the terror of September 11. The first targeted the military and attempted to protect civilians, aiming to end injustice and promote humane values; the latter destroyed indiscriminately and with brutal rage.
Too easily forgotten in this are the political prisoners, those arrested in that earlier period, who remain in prison 20 and 30 years later. Those prisoners were warriors for justice in the 1970s. At that time, there was Cop Watch; the average number of civilians killed by the cops each year in New York City was 63, not 11 or 12 as it is now. That was before there were national or local organizations to abolish the prisons and free all political prisoners, before the public knew about COINTELPRO, and a time in which those of us who experienced the FBI's illegal investigations were considered fanatics if we tried to tell our less radical friends about it.
In New York State alone, there are at least seven men, six of whom are Black, who have been in prison longer than today's recent college graduates have been alive. Two New York State political prisoners, Albert Nuh Washington and Teddy Jah Heath, have already died in prison. Neither of them was a terrorist; neither of them was a cold-blooded killer; neither of them committed any crime for personal gain. They were ex-Black Panthers, committed to serving and defending their communities. In Nuh's case, the evidence against him was slim indeed--no more than political association and faked evidence. In Jah's case, no one had been hurt. Yet they both died in prison, victims of COINTELPRO, cancer, and the inability of those of us out here to garner enough support and pressure to force the Parole Board and the governor to release them.
Until my release in August 1999, I was a political prisoner. I spent a little more than 14 years in federal prison, convicted for the "Resistance Conspiracy" case, which involved armed acts protesting U.S. government policies. During that time, I witnessed and benefited from the growth of awareness among radicals of the existence of political prisoners. After the passage of enough years since the armed actions in which I had been involved, the divisions in the Left softened--divisions that now seem pointless, but that at one time absorbed much of my energy and my misplaced but righteous indignation. Over time, the question of political prisoners became a unitary issue rather than a point of division. Contingents in gay liberation day marches carried banners with our pictures; educational events featured solidarity statements from various ones of us; thousands of people marched around the White House in 1998, following a call by Jalil Muntaqim, one of the New York State political prisoners, for a Jericho to demand the release of political prisoners.
Toward the end of my prison term, I had visits almost every visiting day, more mail than I could answer, and requests for artwork and poetry to be displayed and read at political occasions in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and points north, south, east, and west. All of this was my lifeblood and helped me to remain a political activist. It allowed me to participate at some small level in political debates and activities against the death penalty and for the freedom of Mumia AbuJamal, and more. Of central importance, this helped to prevent the government from silencing us, the political prisoners, or in isolating us from the movements on the street. On a more personal level, it probably helped to minimize the erosion of one's personality, the emotional damage any prisoner suffers after a term of incarceration.
As I drew closer to my release date (I "maxed out," having served every day of my 23-year sentence, less the mandatory "good time" determined by the pre-1987 sentencing laws), this no longer seemed sufficient to me. I began to urge those working on the outside to more urgently and effectively demand the release of political prisoners. On some days, I would read in the Washington Post about the release of groups of political prisoners in European and Middle Eastern countries. I longed for my release to be part of such a collective freedom. Upon my release, I would leave behind dear comrades whose terms were, or might as well be, life sentences. Among them were Marilyn Buck, a committed activist, teacher, organizer, poet, and human rights warrior, as well as my dear comrade and codefendant of mine in the "Resistance Conspiracy" case, who was serving 80 years; Sundiata Acoli, life plus 30 years; Mutulu Shakur, 60 years; Oscar Lopez Rivera, 70 years; and Leonard Peltier, two consecutive life terms.
Soon after I left prison, there was one collective release of the sort I had longed for. Fifteen of the Puerto Rican Independentista political prisoners were released by Bill Clinton. A little over a year later, Susan Rosenberg and Linda Evans, my co-defendants in the "Resistance Conspiracy" case, also received clemency from Clinton and walked out of prison short of their respective sentences of 58 and 35 years. No words can express the joy I felt at those events, despite the parole restrictions that prohibit us from seeing one another to celebrate together.
The task of winning any form of release for political prisoners--whether collective or individual--is not glamorous or particularly colorful. It involves slow, painstaking work with a series of individuals: lawyers, politicians, and friends, family, and associates of the prisoners. We must persuade people to take the time to write letters of support for each of these prisoners, to show parole boards that the community passionately cares about them and wants them among us to continue their commitment to justice. We need to urge state and local politicians to petition the parole board to release the political prisoners as they come up for parole. This takes patience, because it is both a legal and political situation. Unsurprisingly, not all prisoners are created equal.
One class of prisoners or defendants is represented by the cops in the Louima case. They had the benefit of strict legal interpretations of defendants' rights. Charles Schwarz insisted, despite court admonitions, on choosing a lawyer who also represented the Police Benevolent Association. The appeals court threw out his conviction because this dual representation was deemed a conflict of interest. Those convicted of obstructing the Grand Jury were exonerated. Although the appeals court argued that they had clearly lied and colluded in making up a story to shield themselves and others, it said they had not done so specifically to mislead the Grand Jury, just to mislead everyone generally. They will not be retried on more specifically accurate charges because that is barred by double jeopardy.
All defendants need these legal protections. In the abstract, we might applaud the appeal decision as a triumph for defendants' rights and civil liberties. What is wrong with this picture? The New York 3--Jalil Muntaqim, Herman Bell, and Nuh Washington--were able to prove many irregularities, lies, and violations of procedure in their case. The case rested on questionable informants and evidentiary links between the defendants and an unsolved killing of two New York City police officers. Yet, no court was willing to overturn their convictions as a result; one even called police perjury "harmless." None of it, the courts have judged, is worth a new trial for the defendants. The Queens 2 (Abdul Majid and Bashir Hameed) have uncovered similar issues in their case, but have yet to receive justice. Each of them has spent over 30 years in prison. What would it take for these defendants, and the other political prisoners whose trials and prosecutions were similarly distorted, to get the kind of justice the police in the Louima received?
Beyond the obvious answer, "an end to racism," it would take a real end to COINTELPRO. For many political prisoners, the parole process is the last phase of COINTELPRO. In their cases, the original arrest and trial were deeply flawed by police misconduct. Misconduct was carefully hidden from view by further misconduct. Despite this, their isolation in a prison hundreds of miles from home, little in the way of legal materials, and no money for lawyers, the prisoners have managed to dig up some of the evidence of misconduct. Presented to the courts, the evidence is ignored; after all, these are Black nationalists, revolutionaries.
In the final phase at the Parole Board hearing, if a prisoner is not willing to take full responsibility and admit guilt in the case in which he has been convicted, the board will not even consider him for parole. This is what happened to Geronimo ji Jaga. Year after year, the California Parole Board refused him parole because he would not admit guilt for a crime he was ultimately proven to be innocent of committing. Geronimo's case was won largely because of a fluke. An FBI report whose existence the government had denied for 20 years turned up by accident and was spotted by a colleague of one of Geronimo's attorneys.
Flukes like that come along once in a lifetime. They cannot be counted on to bring justice to the case of political prisoners. Instead, we need to organize our communities to embrace the demand for release of political prisoners and make it their own. We need to convince academics, entertainers, and cultural figures to sign onto this demand. We need to provide legal and other services for the prisoners so that their parole campaigns can have some hope of success.
Is it crazy to demand the release of political prisoners at this time, when the post-September 11 mood reminds us that the ghost of Senator Joe McCarthy is not at peace? I am old enough to remember the 1950s and early 1960s, the years when voicing any kind of opposition to government policies was enough to get you branded a "communist," when the price of dissent was losing your job, going to prison, or at the very least, being ostracized and isolated. I also remember that there were glimmers of hope in those dreary days: the courage of the people who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and who went to prison for their principles. There were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who went to their execution with dignity rather than turn into snitches or renounce their own political convictions. There were the five Puerto Rican nationalist political prisoners, who had sacrificed their freedom and lives to defend their nation against colonialist attack, to carry the demand for independence in Puerto Rico into the heart of the United States.
These figures represented hope and courage. They inspired me and thousands of others, even before we found inspiration in the bravery of Black people fighting the police in the streets of the South, demanding basic democratic rights and being beaten down, set upon with dogs and fire hoses, in response. All of these examples carried us from the deadly 1950s into the struggles for liberation of the 1960s.
Working for the release of political prisoners now can bring into our midst some of the same inspiration and example. These are women and men who have not only survived years of incarceration, but have managed to continue to give voice to the demand for freedom and justice. They are community activists who have managed to continue to serve their communities while in prison. They are individuals who have consistently placed the good of their movements and communities above their own needs. These fine men and women have served more than their time. It is way past time to bring them home.
To engage seriously in campaigns for the freedom of political prisoners, activists will have to work very hard. In the process, we all have to transform ourselves a bit, too. Over the years, the prisoners have been on the receiving end of many promises. Words have been sent flying enthusiastically over the walls; strategies have been hatched. Nothing is more harmful to a prisoner than an unfulfilled promise. Yet fulfilling these promises entails opening oneself up to some of the pain, grief, and sorrow of which prisons are built. It is very important to the state to maintain a divide between those inside prisons and the communities on the outside. Fighting for the release of political prisoners--and for justice for all prisoners--necessitates reaching through that barrier, breaking down the isolation of prisoners. The political prisoners have taken risks and made sacrifices; so have their families. Now, activists on the outside need to reach deep to find the enduring power and strength to carry out sustained programs to win release for political prisoners. It will change all of us for the better, carrying us into a future where prisons will not loom on our daily horizon.
For more information, please contact the New York State Taskforce for Release of Political Prisoners, c/o Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 1195 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11212, 718-622-8292, firstname.lastname@example.org; theJerichoMovement.org.
LAURA WHITEHORN is a revolutionary anti-imperialist who spent over 14 years in federal prison, charged with a series of property bombings (in which no one was injured) that protested police brutality and U.S. foreign policy. Released in August 1999, she currently lives in New York City and works toward the release of leftist political prisoners incarcerated in the United States. A lesbian, Whitehoru has worked since her release as an associate editor at POZ, a national magazine for those affected by HIV; she is currently planning a correspondence course on HIV and Hepatitis C for prisoners. Her writing appears in States of Confinement and Imprisoned Intellectuals.
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|Title Annotation:||II. Internationalists and Anti-Imperialists|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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