[Pnews] The unforgettable life of prison rebel Martin Sostre

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 17 10:20:56 EDT 2020


  The unforgettable life of prison rebel Martin Sostre

William C. Anderson - August 12, 2020

*/For more about Martin Sostre:/**/


    The burden of a long sentence would be lightened by the satisfaction
    of knowing that the mission set out for me, that of helping my
    people free themselves from the oppressor, is being accomplished.

    — Martin Sostre

Malcolm X once said, “We’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy … If 
you go to jail, so what? If you’re black, you were born in jail.” For 
Black people in the United States today, this statement is still as true 
as it ever was. The state as prison has been the lived experience for 
countless Black people throughout generations, but sometimes a myriad of 
lives can be crystallized into a single account exposing the oppressive 
realities in intimate detail. The life of the great intellectual, 
imprisoned litigator and revolutionary organizer Martin Sostre was just 

Not enough people know Sostre today, though his impact on the prison 
struggle is as large as Black radicals like George Jackson, Angela Davis 
and Mumia Abu Jamal. Sostre passed away on August 12, 2015 — five years 
ago today. His story is one that demands telling, because were it not 
for him, the world would not be what we know now.

Martin Sostre was born in Harlem in 1923 and came of age during the 
Great Depression. He was inspired early on by Black speakers, thinkers 
and activists around the African National Memorial Bookstore on 125th 
street. But Sostre also received a different type of education, lessons 
on what he later described as “the methods of the streets,” which would 
foreshadow much of what was still to come. He initially joined the army, 
but after multiple run-ins with the law he was “dishonorably” 
discharged. In 1952 Sostre was arrested for drug possession and 
sentenced to 12 years in prison.


Martin Sostre

This was the start of a decades-long journey that would see him pass 
through terrible facilities like Sing Sing Prison, Clinton Prison and 
the infamous Attica Prison and eventually reshape the limited legal 
rights that are /supposed /to be guaranteed to incarcerated people.

In prison, Sostre initially embraced the Nation of Islam, attracted by 
its Black nationalist elements. When prison authorities tried to stifle 
his right to express his beliefs, placing Sostre in solitary confinement 
after accusing him of trying to arouse dissent, he became a self-taught 
student of law and took part in asuccessful lawsuit 
challenging the authorities’ suppression of his beliefs.

In oneletter from prison 
he writes, “Although to some the struggle of a Black high school 
drop-out acting as his own attorney against the massive coercive power 
of this State may seem like a futile struggle, there is no doubt in my 
mind of the ultimate defeat of my oppressors.” In many ways, the legal 
struggles he waged were setting a precedent, and Sostre was only just 
kicking off a series of strategic challenges that would make 
considerable and historic gains for people in prison.

After his release from prison in 1964, Sostre opened the Afro-Asian 
Bookstore in Buffalo, New York. Having undergone a political 
transformation in prison himself, Sostre likened his journey to Malcolm 
X. However, upon observing the Black power politics among the youth on 
the outside, Sostre parted ways with the Nation Of Islam. His bookstore 
would become a place where he cultivated resistance for an entire 
community. He sold radical books covering topics like Black nationalism 
and communism.

He grew to be recognized as an educator among community members who used 
his shop as a space for learning and fellowship. This was at odds with 
the Buffalo Police Department who threatened Sostre for his actions. He 
was politicizing Black youth at a time when the state was increasingly 
concerned and surveilling proponents of anti-capitalist, Black 
empowerment across the United States.

During the “long, hot summer” of 1967, Black uprisings took place around 
the nation. Rebellions flared in response to the many manifestations of 
institutional racism like unemployment, housing discrimination and 
police brutality. The unending police repression of Black America 
happening in the streets was a direct challenge to racist state 
violence. It was around this time that the infamouspolice threat 
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts” was uttered by the Miami 
police chief as well.

When revolt hit Buffalo, Sostre was there doing the work he knew best: 
teaching, distributing radical literature to the Black community — 
especially young people — and providing context to the situation at 
hand. Sostre organized through education and supported the uprising 
using the methods he had learned from the orators, teachers and 
street-level militants during his youth in Harlem. His bookstore became 
safe haven where people could escape tear gas and police brutality. He 
would give out lessons and liberation literature to the people hanging 
out in his store, which the authorities perceived as a threat. It 
remained open and packed well into the night as people rebelled against 
police forces.

Eventually, authorities resolved to deal with the defiant Sostre by 
attacking and ransacking his store. He and Geraldine Robinson (his 
co-defendant) were imprisoned on narcotics and riot charges. He was 
convicted after the rebellion in Buffalo had died down and sentenced to 
31 to 41 years in jail by an all-white jury. Sostre was gagged in court 
but was unfazed by what he described as a “foolish” attempt to silence him.

He later wrote that he was demonstrating “the weakness of this fascist 
beast” in the courtroom and encouraged Black people to look at what he 
was doing to the oppressor. Sostre promised to be consistently 
confrontational, and from prison, he encouraged Black people to “Defy 
white authority!,” setting an example through his actions.

He maintained his innocence, and in the 1974 documentary/Frame-Up!/ 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4Y0n1uvgLA> he distinguishes “between 
a political prisoner in its classical sense and a /politicized/ 
prisoner.” He categorizes himself as the latter, as someone “who has 
become politically aware while in prison, even though the original crime 
that he committed was not a political crime.”

Martin also won a case about thecensorship 
<https://casetext.com/case/sostre-v-otis> of literature in prison. He 
recalled fighting so hard so there could be more political literature in 
prison than there ever had been before. While being imprisoned, he was 
/still/ doing the political education work that he previously did in the 
community. He claimed several victories in court for the rights of those 
in prison, from political and religious freedoms to restricting the use 
ofsolitary confinement 
He himself had been subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, 
had his mail tampered with and was subjected to intimidation — all 
because of his work. But Sostre remained true to his cause.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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