[Ppnews] Letter to a Young Activist: Left to Learn from the 60s
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 6 13:46:42 EDT 2011
Letter to a Young Activist: Left to Learn from the 60s
by Laura Whitehorn
If you saw the film The Weather Underground, you
saw about three minutes of me. The film, through
interviews, narration and clips, describes the
genesis and decline of the radical activist group
by that name from 1969 to the mid-'70s. I gave
some reflections from my participation in it.
Learning about the sixties -- a high tide of
radical uprising, when masses of people in this
country joined with people around the world who
were fighting wars for national liberation and
against colonialism and racism -- can be useful
to anyone engaged in political and social change.
After all, learning the lessons of the past can
help with figuring out what to do in the present.
Weather Underground, unfortunately, focuses on
white radicals, and, in the process, leaves out
two important truths about our history. The film
ignores the rise of mass incarceration in the 70s
and its effects on political activism, and it
skips over the valuable work of the Black Panther
Party, many of whom ended up in prison. The
connecting thread, and what I want you to care
about in your activism today, has to do with
those who were left behind -- the political
prisoners who are still incarcerated.
A very significant outcome of mass incarceration
is how it contributed to preventing an effective
revolutionary mass movement from emerging.
I say these things from my own history. In 1985,
I became a political prisoner myself. It wasn't
that I was framed or hadn't broken the law -- I
fully admit I broke it for radical
(revolutionary) political reasons, as part of a
movement with political goals. Those goals
conformed to the international covenants against
genocide and racism, and were committed to
securing human rights for oppressed people here
in the United States. I was part of the "Resistance Conspiracy Case."
I explain in the introduction to the book,
War Before, how six of us, including Marilyn
Buck, Linda Evans and me, were charged with
conspiracy to bomb several government buildings
that were symbols of domestic racism. One was the
office of the New York City Police Benevolent
Association (known for supporting cops who had
killed innocent civilians). We targeted the PBA
following the murder of
grandmother Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984. We were also
charged with bombing military and government
buildings that were symbols of U.S. foreign
policy, including the Capitol Building after the
invasion of Grenada and shelling of Lebanon in 1983.
We stuck to specific targets and planned with
care, and no one was hurt in any of the bombings.
Our indictment charged us with using "violent and
illegal means," but the government policies we
were opposing were themselves violent and
illegal. We believed that supporting the
struggles of people for freedom meant that you took some risks yourself.
I was sentenced to 23 years in federal prison,
and a little over 14 years later, I maxed out and was released in 1999.
<http://www.marilynbuck.com/>Marilyn Buck, my
dear comrade, was kept behind bars for 25 years.
She was released in July 15, 2011 and died of
cancer 20 days later on August 3, 2011.
Marilyn always insisted on the need for
revolutionary vision: what are we struggling for?
You should know about
interview she gave from prison in 2001. She said,
"We all need to seize our human liberation as
much as possible as women, as lesbians, as
heterosexuals. To support the right of human
beings to have their own nations, their own
liberation, and their own justice." And then she
talked again about that word vision. "I think
about the vision I had when I was a
nineteen-year-old of justice and human rights and
women's equality. It was a wonderful
without a vision, you can't go forward."
Political Prisoners and Your Vision
So I want to tell you about a vision that I have
for activists today, and how supporting political
prisoners brings us in touch with that vision. By
fighting for their release, we fight not merely
to correct or adjust the prison system, but begin
to create a truly egalitarian society, one
capable of freeing humanity and giving wing to human creativity.
However I was treated in prison, many in the
Black Panther movement were treated worse.
Fourteen years is not very long -- not when
compared to an indeterminate life sentence.
The effects of heightened imprisonment for
extended periods were recently exposed in a
brilliant new book on the U.S. prison system,
New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of
Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. As she
points out, ballooning numbers of people have
been incarcerated since the 1970s, especially
young people of color. She notes that
Black men are imprisoned in the U.S. today than
were enslaved in the U.S. before The Civil War.
The parallel effects on the fight for liberation are clear.
My first awareness that this country -- despite
its veneer of democracy -- holds political
prisoners came in the late '60s, when Fred
Hampton, then a 20-year-old leader of the
Illinois Black Panther Party, was framed for a
$77 ice cream truck robbery. I had gotten to know
Fred Hampton, and he was a generous, charismatic
man and a wonderful speaker. But it didn't take
long before the government, and especially the
FBI and local police, opened up a war against the
Panthers. And the Black Panthers' program of
defending Black communities from police attack
and brutality did nothing to win them favor in
the eyes of law enforcement agencies. At age 21,
Fred Hampton was
in his bed in the early morning hours by Chicago
cops and the FBI, events that were clearly
documented later. The government found the
Panthers and their vision of people's power to be
a threat too large to tolerate.
Other Panthers were jailed, many on fraudulent
Panther 21 in New York). The Black Panthers were
attacked by police because of their political
work and were subjected to intense police
the covert FBI program that was
exposed for its domestic spying, assassinations
and other efforts to disrupt progressive activists in the U.S.
You may well be unaware of some people who were
put in prison during those years -- people who
remain locked up today, some 40 years later. You
likely haven't heard of Herman Bell or Ed
Poindexter, Chip Fitzgerald or Sundiata Acoli.
I want you to know about these prisoners, and to
support them. But I want you to find your own
path to do that. You don't have to agree with the
revolutionary politics they and I practiced back
in the day. You don't have to agree with what we
called armed struggle, or the idea that when
oppressed populations fight for their right to
self-determination, it makes sense for people who
believe in a better world to join in. You don't
have to agree that "fight the power" includes
fighting with weapons. Even those of us who
believe those things are well aware that the
world is a very different place now than it was
in the decades following the Second World War,
when colonies like Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and
Viet Nam was able to kick out the French, then
the Americans. Strategies for activism will only
work if they reflect political conditions, and
those conditions have changed vastly since the
1960s and 1970s. And you don't have to believe
that some of the political prisoners are
innocent, though it is true that many are, and
that many had trials skewed by crooked
prosecutions -- including the use of testimony extracted through torture.
I believe that knowing about these political
prisoners will benefit your activist work.
Knowing <http://www.freejalil.com>Jalil Muntaqim,
for instance, and the fact that he has been
behind bars since 1971 is seeing for yourself the
role prisons play in the government's repressive
apparatus against both radical Left movements and
any future serious activist resistance. Muntaqim
was one of the people named specifically in
COINTELPRO documents who needed to be
"neutralized" because of his political
activities. He was charged with murder of two New
York City police officers, and, along with Herman
Bell and Albert Nuh Washington, was found guilty
under dubious and faked evidence after the first
trial ended in a mistrial. He continues to maintain his innocence.
Not only have prisons been enormously successful
in separating communities from their leaders, but
modern prison conditions -- more than in the past
-- have also succeeded in undermining the
potential to develop new leaders in Black and Latino communities.
What would have happened, do you suppose, if
Malcolm Little, instead of serving six years for
petty crimes, had been imprisoned for a much
longer time, locked in the conditions of
long-term isolation common in what's
euphemistically called "special housing" (as, for
instance, the prisoners at Pelican Bay in
California are)? He would not have been allowed
to receive political books, would not have been
able to converse with anyone. The mind that
developed through reading and talking in prison
during the 1950s would probably have been
crushed, and there might have been no
Looking Forward and Reaching Back
Unbearably harsh conditions form the reality for
many U.S. prisoners today. Those political
prisoners who are allowed to apply for parole
face breathtaking obstacles and regular denial.
Still, the political prisoners have continued to
organize in prison, creating ways to grow
personally as well as bettering their community
-- the community of those targeted by the war on
drugs and mass incarceration. Political prisoner
Conway, for just one example, has developed
terrific programs in several Maryland state
prisons that are successfully training young gang
members in different models for social relations.
During her years in prison, Marilyn Buck must
have taught hundreds of her fellow prisoners to
read and do math -- in addition to serving as a
role model for how to promote a humane morality
in resistance to the soul-killing, distorted
ethos of prison. The political prisoners have
learned how to enact creative and effective
strategies for countering repression -- how, in
conditions of powerlessness, with little in the
way of resources, to subvert repressive and capitalist values.
These political prisoners have many lessons to
share with activists. I know them; I visit them;
they are people you would want to know. They're
funny, intelligent, caring, with great interest
in world events, community progress, problems we
all face as we try to mend society. They have insights and history to teach.
Like Marilyn Buck, I don't think we can be
effective activists without a vision. To know
these prisoners -- even more, to fight to free
them -- would make your activism more powerful,
and it would help you shape a vision of action.
"At the risk of seeming ridiculous," a certain
Latin American activist once said, "the true
revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of
love." This was a huge part of the vision that
inspired us to fight back in the '60s. It's a
large part of what draws people to learn about
the history of that era. And it's part of why all
progressive activists should know and support --
and demand the release of -- political prisoners.
Because you can't build a movement that's going
to last if your powerful thinkers and voices are
stifled, oppressed and imprisoned -- nor if you leave your comrades behind.
Laura Whitehorn has been a leftist activist since
the early 1960s. She spent 14 years in federal
prison as a political prisoner and was released
in 1999. She edited the writings of Safiya
Bukhari, a former Black Panther and political
prisoner, published in 2009 as
War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a
Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, &
Fighting for Those Left Behind from The Feminist
Press. She works as an editor at POZ magazine.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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