[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 
charges (like 
Panther 21 in New York). The Black Panthers were 
attacked by police because of their political 
work and were subjected to intense police 
surveillance under 
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 
<http://www.malcolmxonline.com/>Malcolm X.

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.

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