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Building a Political Prisoner Support Movement

Dan Berger
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    Political prisoners, if largely unacknowledged, are at the crux of debates over incarceration. Their presence testifies to the ongoing legacy of social problems, which in itself is central to the cycle of crime and punishment. As the anti-prison movement continues to grow in strength and stature, the question of political prisoners demands attention because these movement veterans remain part of current endeavors for social justice. Their lengthy incarceration, including many with life sentences, speaks to the vengeful mindset governing imprisonment in the US. Parole is almost uniformly impossible—even after decades of incarceration and despite their having met all the requirements for release.

Supporting and working for the release of political prisoners is at the heart of building movements where activists look after one another and accept collective responsibility. The state uses the imprisonment of political leaders as a bludgeon against movement victories. Their incarceration is a reminder of the strength of radical mass movements. As a result, political prisoners serve collective prison time, for all those who participated in the movements from which they emerged.

Today’s targeted

Now is a critical time for the political prisoner movement. The end of 2005 brought several setbacks. White anti-imperialist Richard Williams, who had been facing severe harassment since 2001, died after twenty years in prison on December 8. Five days later, in a sobering reminder that the state neither forgets nor forgives, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied clemency to Crips founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, based largely on the fact that Williams found redemption in politics and dedicated one of his books to a series of radicals, mainly Black people who had served time in prison like George Jackson.

The US continues to fight for extradition of Gary Freeman, an African-American man arrested in Canada in 2004. Although Freeman had been living there for decades, the US government maintains Freeman is a former Black Panther Party member wanted for the attempted murder of a Chicago police officer in 1969. The rational used against Freeman is similar to that used against five former Panthers in the San Francisco Bay area, who all served time in jail in 2005 for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigating other thirty-five-year-old crimes. Several of the men were tortured as Panther activists in the 1970s by the same police officers now overseeing the resurrected murder investigation.

And federal authorities arrested seven people in four states on December 7, in conjunction with Earth Liberation Front actions dating back to 1998. Three of those arrested are cooperating with police to lessen their sentences, one was found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide, and the remaining three face life imprisonment in a 65-count indictment that named eleven activists—all but three of whom are in custody.

With ex-Panthers, former members of the American Indian Movement, and others still in prison after more than thirty years, with no release date in sight, these new arrests should prove a sobering reminder of the state’s willingness to incarcerate political prisoners forever. Without a vibrant movement to free those who have already been imprisoned for decades, new political prisoners are likely to suffer a similar fate.

The year wasn’t all bad: December also saw a long-awaited victory for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who will now have a hearing in front of the US Third Circuit Court of Appeals—but Mumia remains on death row even after his death sentence has been stayed. The month began with days of action in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco in solidarity with political prisoners worldwide. The five former Panthers turned grand jury resisters were released from jail in November—triumphant in their non-cooperation, although it is unclear whether the expiration of this particular grand jury will also spell the end of harassment for these activists. And thousands of people throughout Puerto Rico, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and the Bay Area protested the September 23 FBI assassination of former political prisoner Filiberto Ojeda Rios, a leader of the clandestine indepentista group Los Macheteros, who had been living quietly under an assumed name in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico.

Battle for amnesty

While the US for denies the existence of political prisoners, it pursues a vengeful policy of lifelong incarceration. To acknowledge the political basis of their incarceration would further expose the depths of social problems that these militants have committed their lives to fighting. The veneer of US democracy and tolerance requires that dissidents be branded as criminals—or terrorists. Working to free political prisoners goes hand in hand with exposing the façade that the US is a country where injustice is minimal and solved through electoral politics: one point necessitates the other.

Most governments routinely release political prisoners every decade or so, and political internees are often incarcerated together or allowed increased family visits, in tacit recognition of the political nature of their “crimes.” Not so in the US, where amnesty is a forbidden term. The FBI, Police Benevolent Associations, US Parole Commission, and similar entities, have routinely lobbied hard to prevent parole, even when people meet all standards for release (e.g., good records, jobs available upon release, community support). The government has regularly pointed to the serious charges and prior political affiliations of the prisoners as reasons for ongoing incarceration—even where it contradicts the normal functioning of parole and release from prison. Thus, building an amnesty movement becomes a priority.

Although support for political prisoners is at the center of movements in some countries, such is not the case in the US today. It was hard to be an activist in the US in the early 1970s and not know about Huey Newton, George Jackson, or the “Attica Brothers.” Today, political prisoners languish largely outside the movement’s consciousness or action. Perhaps it is because letter writing and lobbying are not activities revolutionaries traditionally enjoy. Therefore, securing freedom for the many people who languish behind bars for militant actions taken as part of mass movements will require a thorough challenge to the reigning political culture, as well as a willingness by the radical Left to strategically engage in activities it has generally eschewed.

As months turn into years and years into decades, several political prisoners have become ill. A few have passed away: Merle Africa (1998), Albert Nuh Washington (2000), and Teddy Jah Heath (2001) all died of cancer after more than twenty years inside. Even on their deathbeds, the state remained intransigent about compassionate release or parole for people who pose no threat to society. People are growing old in an environment known for its malign neglect and medical malfeasance, with the government consistently refusing parole because of the supposed seriousness of the offense for which political prisoners are incarcerated.

Prison, then, can be seen as an extension of the repression that drove many of these people to undertake militant action in the first place. It is part of the government’s arsenal to destroy revolutionaries. Then as now, the bulk of such repression is meted out against revolutionary people of color, particularly Black and Native-American radicals. The reasons for this are complex: they involve not just white privilege but the fact that the government has taken a firm position against the release of any political prisoner with a murder conviction. Due to the open levels of confrontation between police and communities of color, the liberation movements often adopted different tactics than white militants. But the state’s intransigence on paroling those with murder convictions has repercussions for political prisoners regardless of race—several white anti-imperialists are also imprisoned for the deaths of law enforcement, seemingly with no recourse to release.

Meanwhile, despite the US Senate investigating committee calling the FBI’s Counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) activities “little more than a sophisticated vigilante operation” that violated “even the most minimal standards of official conduct within a democratic society,” no FBI agents who participated in the repression of legal social movements has been imprisoned for his or her participation in the repression of legal movements. Ronald Reagan’s first act in office was to pardon the only two FBI officials convicted of COINTELPRO wrongdoing.

Yet the political incarceration of people who became active in the 1960s is inextricably tied to state repression. Even when they committed illegal acts or acts of which they themselves are now critical, their continuing incarceration cannot be separated from the legacy of COINTELPRO. The continued incarceration of political prisoners captured as a result of movement work that arose out of the 1960s proves that, as former Panther leader-turned-lawyer Kathleen Cleaver says, “it’s not 30 years later.” Even now, movement veterans are paying for the state’s crimes, Cleaver argues. The ongoing imprisonment of Sixties-era activists—together with a new breed of political prisoners coming from an array of modern movements—presents a direct connection between the struggles of yesterday and those of today.

Fight continues

With public outrage over the Bush administration’s illegal spying comes the opportunity to raise the issue of political prisoners as longtime victims of government repression. An administration on the defensive increases its repressive apparatus, proof that its stranglehold on power is maintained more through force than consent. A movement to defend, support, and free political prisoners, and incorporating political prisoners into the work that we do, is a necessary step to building sustainable movements capable of achieving lasting victories. Indeed, the treatment of political prisoners has been used to establish precedents regarding policing, prosecuting, and imprisoning any enemy of the state. The lack of pre-9/11 resistance to the branding of leftist prisoners as terrorists, the imposition of lengthy sentences, the use of isolation units, and the media portrayal of dissidents as grave threats to civilians, leaves us on weaker ground to fight this same repression now.

There are serious challenges to this work, including limited resources, a strategy that makes use of the legal system, public fear of left-wing “terrorists,” and the difficulty of building working relationships among the various movements who find themselves experiencing state repression. But combating political incarceration, and supporting those in the cross hairs of state repression remains central to creating a better future. After all, the government doesn’t forget who joins and organizes in the movement—why should we?


Dan Berger is a Philadelphia-based activist and author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006). This article is a revised excerpt from that book. Thanks to Laura Whitehorn for editorial comments on this version