[Pnews] Black Prison Organizing - A Hidden Legacy of the Civil Rights Era

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 17 11:00:52 EDT 2015

Weekend Edition April 17-19, 2015

*A Hidden Legacy of the Civil Rights Era*

  Black Prison Organizing


Dan Berger’s latest volume, Captive Nation 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1469618249/counterpunchmaga>, is 
perfectly timed. In a moment where interest in mass incarceration across 
the political spectrum is on the rise, sanitized versions of carceral 
history will doubtless emerge. Berger’s account offers an instant 
antidote to any such efforts. He warns us we will be negating a long 
history of righteous rebellions of the oppressed if we opt for quick fix 
policy packages that do not address the inequalities underlying the 
rapid growth of incarceration.

Berger’s personal profile as an historian casts him in a unique position 
to tell his tale. He represents a bridge between the praxis of the 60s 
and 70s and today’s decarceration campaigners. Back in the day, 
activists connected to those in prison by striking up extensive 
correspondence via snail mail and making in person visits. In this age 
of digital communication, Berger has stepped back in time and used those 
old “analog” methods to establish relationships with a number of those 
still incarcerated for their activities in that era, people such as 
Veronza Bower, Sundiata Acoli, Jalil Muntaqim (also known as Anthony 
Bottom) and David Gilbert. These relationships were key to Berger’s 
framing of the stories he tells as well as his analysis.

*Prison Intellectual Culture: The Case of George Jackson*

Two things particularly struck me as I read /Captive Nation/. The first 
was the amazing radical intellectual culture that emerged in prisons 
during this period, a culture, I should add, that appeared almost 
totally absent in the federal and state prisons where I resided from 
2002-09. Berger’s depictions of the richness of political debate and the 
eagerness of people inside to connect prison resistance to the Black 
liberation struggle and other movements of the era, were staggering. The 
politics of the rebels/revolutionaries Berger describes were not mere 
legal maneuverings aimed at overturning individual cases or re-doing 
legislation. Rather, they aimed to depict and contest the political 
economy and ideological foundations of a “system.”

Not surprisingly, the individual who most embodied this framework was 
California political prisoner George Jackson. Greatly influenced by the 
nationalist and Marxist platforms of thinkers like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah 
and Maritinique-born citizen of the world, Frantz Fanon, Jackson viewed 
himself and those in his prison circle as but one front in an 
intercommunal liberation struggle against imperialism. Moreover, in the 
isolation of hellholes like the San Quentin Adjustment Center (a 
precursor to today’s Security Housing Units or SHUs) Jackson recorded 
his personal and political reflections in two powerfully written 
volumes: the collection of letters published as /Soledad bergercaptive 
and the political essays anthologized as /Blood In My Eye/. In the 
contemporary setting, perhaps only Mumia Abu-Jamal could compare to 
Jackson. But the key difference was that George Jackson lived in a 
period where revolution was in the air, where he could connect to 
powerful and radical mass movements and militant organizations which 
advanced both developed ideological perspectives and vibrant programs of 
action. At the same time, during Jackson’s years behind bars, the armed 
liberation movements of the “Third World” held an almost iconic position 
among US militants. The images of the heroic guerrilla fighter inspired 
many people to cast aside the politics of patient organizing for the 
gun. Ultimately George Jackson, like his seventeen year old brother 
Jonathan, were among them. In August 1970, Jonathan Jackson was shot 
dead by police as he attempted to free his brother. Just over a year 
later, George himself died in a hail of bullets inside San Quentin while 
apparently attempting to pull off his own daring prison escape. For 
many, the martyrdom of George Jackson remains part of his mystique and 
heroic profile.

While the life of George Jackson has become almost legendary (even 
prompting a song by Bob Dylan), the forgotten struggle of Ruchell Magee 
that Berger highlights contains its own unique narrative power. Magee 
didn’t rely on classic political texts to develop his analysis. Magee 
made a simple point (and he still makes that point today after some 52 
years in prison): incarceration equals modern day slavery. In his own 
words, “To some degree, slavery has always been outlawed and condemned 
on the outside by the hypocritical mockery of chattering lips. But on 
the inside of people and prison, where slavery is embedded and proudly 
displayed as a Western way of life and a privilege of god himself, 
slavery is condoned on all of its numerous levels.” In this vein, Magee 
viewed his participation in any activities to free himself and others 
from prison as totally justifiable. While Magee’s “by any means 
necessary” framing doesn’t sit comfortably with many people in 2015, his 
views are a definite reminder of the hothouses of ideas that proliferate 
in a period where people question the very essence of a system, rather 
than accepting the status quo as the sole reference point for making 

*Connecting to “The Movement” *

The second key point of /Captive Nation/ is how prison activists and 
their networks constituted a powerful historical force, the effects of 
which we still feel today. While historians of the 60s have tended to 
focus on the actions of the formal civil rights organizations and the 
anti-war movement, efforts to “free all political prisoners” were part 
of the program of nearly all radical activists of the period. High 
profile cases like those of George Jackson or the Chicago 8 had national 
appeal, but each region had its own set of political prisoners for whom 
a wide range of campaign efforts were marshalled. So while not mentioned 
in /Captive Nation/, people like Martin Sostre in Buffalo, Lee Otis 
Johnson in Dallas, Los Siete de la Raza in California, John Sinclair in 
Detroit, Reies Tijerina in New Mexico and Susan Saxe in Philadelphia 
were the focus of considerable action by a wide range of social 
movements of the day.

Berger makes considerable effort to explain how political prisoners and 
the prison rebellions of the 60’s and 70’s have left a legacy. He 
relates how “before mass incarceration existed, before a variety of 
state concerns and economic concerns converged on cages as their 
panacea, incarcerated black radicals located the prison as the premier 
institution of the American racial state. For them, the prison was the 
centerpiece of nationalist imagination. It structured white nationalism 
and sustained black nationalism.” (p 229) Perhaps a similar process is 
currently in its embryonic stages as groups like Black Lives Matter, 
Ferguson Action and the Dream Defenders increasingly see mass 
incarceration as a metaphor for the overall oppression of people of 
color, especially African Americans.

But the legacy had another side as well. Berger goes on to portray the 
power of prison-based rebels and their community allies as central to 
prompting the restructuring of the state which spawned the prison 
industrial complex. /The New Jim Crow/, Michelle Alexander’s wonderful 
account of mass incarceration, links the rise of the punishment paradigm 
with white backlash against the “civil rights movement.” Berger extends 
the analysis. He points out that “tough on crime” and “lock ‘em up and 
throw away the key” weren’t just payback for the Freedom Rides and the 
events of Selma. They were also a reaction to the urban uprisings of 
Newark, Detroit, and Watts, to the occupation of Alcatraz by Native 
Americans, as well as a counter to Black nationalist organizations and 
individuals who didn’t adhere to non-violence (Black Panther Party, 
Republic of New Afrika, Deacons of Defense). Included among the latter 
were the prison activists who self-defined as revolutionaries: Jackson 
and Magee as well as Imari Obadele who also features prominently in 
Berger’s book.

In addition to this racial accounting, Berger also opens the door to a 
more gender-based critique of prison support work, especially focusing 
on male superheroes and paramilitary solutions to complex political 
problems. In a paragraph that begs for a far richer analysis, Berger 
notes that George Jackson’s “masculinist appeals” revealed “his … 
allegiance to a conservative patriarchal notion of respectability.” For 
Berger, George Jackson was a product of the “patriarchal culture” of his 
era as well as the “sex-segregated institution in which he came of age.” 
(p. 113) We need more work on this complex race-class-gender nexus, both 
from historians but also from those who chronicle the state of the 
prison nation in the 21^st century.

*“California Bias”*

As with all works that attempt to both elucidate a fresh argument and 
offer considerable new evidence, there are certain critical pieces which 
seem to be given inappropriate weight or have been omitted. While George 
Jackson definitely merits a place of honor in such a volume, much of 
what Berger presents about “George, the fire that never went out” has 
been told before. Plus, by dwelling on both Jackson and Magee 
extensively, the “California bias” which is all too familiar in prison 
research, once again resurfaces. By contrast, the Attica Rebellion, a 
major collective organizing effort received far less attention.   
Similarly, the uprising in Pontiac prison in 1978, which ended with a 
mass acquittal of 31 prisoners indicted for the deaths of three officers 
killed in the uprising would have made a compelling chapter. Fortunately 
scholars like Heather Thompson 
and Toussaint Losier 
<https://aha.confex.com/aha/2014/webprogram/Paper13997.html> have delved 
deeply into Attica and Pontiac respectively. We look forward to other 
episodes mentioned in Berger’s book also gaining deeper treatment.

Lastly, Berger speaks occasionally of “learning communities.” As an 
educator, both by way of my formal working life and during my time in 
prison, I looked forward to hearing far more about this aspect of 
organizing behind the walls. The chapter entitled “The Pedagogy of the 
Prison” seemed to promise such an account but in the end dealt only 
peripherally with this issue. I hope that somewhere in the world of 
research lurks a writer who can do for organizing inside U.S. prisons 
what /More Than Just A Game/ 
achieved in describing the political culture of soccer leagues that 
operated on Robben Island during Nelson Mandela’s time behind bars.

Ultimately my critiques of Berger’s book are far less an attack on him 
than a plea for other historians to build on his analysis and evidence 
to paint an even richer canvas of what produced the George Jacksons, 
Ruchell Magees and Attica Brothers of this era. Perhaps more importantly 
a study of this history can point some of the way toward building the 
kind of links between people who are incarcerated and their communities, 
links that can drive a social movement that aims to build healthy, 
prosperous and democratic communities as an alternative to mass 
incarceration. Ultimately, while the personalities that jumped off the 
pages of /Captive Nation/ reminded me of both the power of resistance 
and the pitfalls of an excessive romanticizing of militarism, they also 
forced me to recognize that despite all our efforts to stop prison and 
jail construction or reverse sentencing laws, we are still tinkering 
rather than transforming or even subverting. There is a long way to go.

/*James Kilgore* is an activist, writer and educator based in Urbana, 
Illinois. He writes widely on issues of mass incarceration and also has 
published three novels which he drafted during his six years in state 
and federal prisons. His next book: Understanding Mass Incarceration: A 
People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, will be 
published by The New Press this fall. He can be contacted at 
waazn1 at gmail.com <mailto:waazn1 at gmail.com> or @waazn/

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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