Déqui Kioni-sadiki & Sekou Odinga. Socialism & Democracy. Volume 28, Issue 3. November 2014.
“America means prisons,” said black nationalist pan-Africanist leader Malcolm X in a television interview some 40 years ago. It was not crime he was talking about. A similar sentiment was shared by Frederick Douglass little more than a century before when he questioned the new form amerikkka’s “peculiar institution” (slavery) would take in the years and centuries following its formal abolition. Today, in federal and state prisons across the country, amerikkka holds upwards of 2.5 million men, womyn and children, dozens of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War (PP/POWs) from the progressive/revolutionary Movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, thousands of New Afrikan/black, Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani and other Muslim nationals imprisoned under Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, immigrants, environmentalists, animal rights and technology-information activists. This so-called “land of the free” is home to the world’s largest prison population, only 4% of the world’s population, yet a grotesque 25% of the world’s prisoners, number one when it comes to prisons and 43 when it comes to education.
For the descendants of enslaved Afrikans, mass imprisonment and political imprisonment is neither new nor a thirty-year phenomenon, but a practice rooted in centuries of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism beginning with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, continuing through post-Reconstruction, peonage labor, convict leasing, Jim Crow apartheid right through the so-called War on Poverty that led to the War on Black Liberation into the so-called War on Drugs and now the so-called War on Terror. It is this history that led revolutionary Pan-Africanist Kwame Toure to respond, “I was born in prison” when asked if he was concerned about going to prison. Both Malcolm’s and Toure’s statements are indicative of the generations-deep oppression and repression experienced by millions of poor and working-class black men in a system that perpetuates mass and political imprisonment, and exposes the hypocrisy of its Constitution and the mythology within the Declaration of Independence. For black folk in amerikkka, mass and political imprisonment is 400 years of white supremacy, kidnapping, enslavement, brutality, rape, maiming, murder, voter suppression, infinite levels of social, mental, emotional, spiritual, cultural, political and economic terror.
For poor and working-class black/brown families and communities, mass and political imprisonment is the invisibility of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, husbands, wives, cousins, family members and neighbors, both inside and outside of prison. It is riding through upstate New York communities and instead of seeing farmland and cows and horses and chickens and cornfields, seeing uniformed white men and women as overseers behind walls and walls of concrete prison towers. It is the marginalization and frustration of the formerly imprisoned, on parole, probation and/or performing community service, who realize they lack the race and class resources to avoid going back in. It is the trauma and sadness that grass-roots activists, caring communities, teachers, social workers, psychologists and therapists see in the eyes of impacted children; it is the economic exploitation of bail bondsmen, public defenders, ineffective and shady lawyers, real estate developers, urban planners, gentrifying displacers and businesses who thrive on their hardship. It is the punishing institutionalization imposed by concentration camps, boot camps, detention centers, group homes, ghettos, housing projects, trailer parks, barrios, homeless shelters and Reservations. For radicals and revolutionaries, mass imprisonment is the fire-breathing dragon of repression meant to crush dissent and resistance, suppress those who fight for self-determination, justice and Liberation while punishing them with a cruel and usual vengeance—and in the New York State prison system ensuring that no two PP/POWs are ever in the same facility at the same time. For millions of poor and working-class black/brown indigenous, Chicano, Asian and white people, mass and political imprisonment is “Life under the Peculiar Institution” that is as amerikkkan as apple pie.
It was the socio-political injustices of the 1960s that led thousands of poor and working-class, and some middle- and upper-middle class young people to join the ranks of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP)/Black Liberation Army (BLA), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), The Weathermen, Prairie Fire, May 19th, Brown Berets, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), Young Lords Party, the Red Guard and other revolutionary organizations. It was a time when young people truly believed another world was possible and were willing to commit their lives to fighting for the radical belief that all people—regardless of race, class or gender—have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As young revolutionaries, they were inspired and motivated to join the People’s struggle for national Liberation, witnessing liberation struggles winning out over colonialism throughout South East Asia, Afrika, the Caribbean, South and Central America. They too believed revolution would occur in their lifetime. It did not. And still has not.
In hindsight, we recognize how unprepared and ill-equipped the Movement was to counter the vicious state repression that swooped down to crush that resistance and destroy the revolutionary struggles spreading like wildfire across the country and the world. The casualties we suffer are the decades-long political imprisonment, indeterminate prison sentences, death row, long-term solitary confinement, persistent parole denials, aging in prison, near-death experiences and state-sanctioned murder from poor nutrition, and the non-existent/negligent prison healthcare of a now much older generation of revolutionaries. Still our PPs continue to suffer criminalization disappearance and the silencing of the Movements from which they emerged, our inability to organize a unified strategy for their release, and a power structure and ruling class that continue to fear the impact of their revolutionary example, vision and courage on the masses of people.
That amerikkka means prisons is the nightmare reality shared by PP/POWs and their families and all people in prison and their families. They are the living proof of this country’s 240 years of trading black bodies as commodities in the slave economy, followed by over 150 years of a criminal justice system trading them as commodities in the prison economy. For enslaved Afrikans, this was the forced labor and production of raw materials that allowed white slave owners, slave traders and their descendants to build and inherit vast family fortunes. Today, this is the exploited labor of an imprisoned population that allows corporations, shareholders and their families to accumulate wealth. As history has shown us, naturally in this capitalist society, there is profit to be gained in imprisonment. Today that profit is for those who build and maintain prisons, make and sell the uniforms, the shoes, badges and guns, sell the food and cooking utensils, service the vending machines, maintenance equipment and supply the offices, etc., added to which are the wardens, secretaries, and prison guards who maintain their middle-class stability, steady employment, retirement pensions, cars, homes and vacations on the mass and political imprisonment of black/brown bodies.
This is the business as usual of mass and political imprisonment, but profit is not the only or even primary motive. What is? Control! Control of the enslaved! Control of the masses. The Lumpen Proletarian. The non-white population that makes up the underground economy, hustlers (semi-legal and illegal), unemployed, under-employed and a significant percentage of poor whites. Control of those who rebel and those who might rebel. Control of those that society either cannot or will not employ. Control, as in the Fugitive Slave Act and what that meant for the Afrikans captured under that law—whether enslaved or free—just as we see with the NYPD Stop & Frisk policy and what that means for their descendants. These are the people for whom the clause in the 13th Amendment about the allowance of slavery was intended: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States … ” The formerly enslaved—particularly the men—who were arrested and imprisoned for just about anything and everything and for nothing as well, were loaned or rented out by the state to southern white farmers and businessmen who, after slavery, could no longer benefit from the labor of an enslaved population. For the people at the bottom of today’s class well, who might resort to extra-legal activities to meet their basic survival needs and for those who seek the power, prestige and material possessions a capitalist system glorifies, it means being loaned out to corporations for 7 cents to $1.50 per hour.
The spontaneous rebellions that erupted throughout predominantly poor and working-class New Afrikan ghettos from Newark to New York City to Watts to Cincinnati and across the country in the 1960s created renewed focus on the part of the state for the project of mass imprisonment. These rebellions were the people’s pent-up rage and frustration at being forced to endure and scrape by under endless poverty, slum landlords, police terror/murder, mass unemployment, inferior parks, schools and playgrounds, lack of access to healthcare and decent housing, all the material discomforts a racist capitalist system reserves for poor and working-class black/brown people. The rebellions caught the power structure by surprise. In their scramble to gain control, they did the only thing capitalists know to do: they threw money and of course, more police into the hood.
Police and Programs: the two occupying forces placed in poor and working-class black/brown communities used alternately to appease and control, and when necessary apply repression to ensure the smooth running of capitalist oppression. As anti-poverty programs spread through black/brown communities—especially where rebellions had taken place—it didn’t sit well with the bankers, industry leaders and ruling class who had grown accustomed to taking money out of these communities, and had no interest in sharing their “economic pot” with people who needed assistance to meet their basic needs. This laid the foundation for a new set of demands on politicians and police to “put blacks back in their place” so the capitalists could continue their robbery of the masses. The difference was that now people were fighting back. What to do? The push was to get rid of liberal politicians and replace them with right-wing conservatives. As evidenced by the conditions that precipitated the rebellions, poor people’s children were the least of the ruling-class concerns. For them it was a matter of making more money, paying workers less and downsizing their industries. This marked the beginning of the outsourcing and relocation of amerikkkan manufacturing jobs and industries to so-called Third World countries where multinational corporations could exploit the differences in labor laws, pay sub-standard wages, and reap larger profits. In poor and working-class communities this created even higher levels of unemployment, exacerbating the already wide economic disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
It was during this time that the Civil Rights Bill was awaiting passage. Initially, Congress was resisting it, but the rebellions of that long hot summer (1965) swayed their reluctant indifference and the bill passed. Once President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law, there began the selection process in which “non-violent” black leadership would be pushed forward to take credit for civil rights and for other gains won through struggle. However, the people whose lives were harsh, grinding and unrelenting knew that it was not the state-anointed “non-violent” middle-class black leadership that shook the system to its core, but the demands and fear of the “violent rebellions” that forced their attention. As dissatisfaction, unrest and the process of politicization grew, more and more of the poor and working-class rejected King’s strategy of non-violence and became less willing to accept the crumbs being thrown their way. The power structure and ruling class realized something needed to be done to quiet these “niggers” (of all races). The two strategies devised to bring about immediate and long-term solutions were war and drugs! The US invasions in South East Asia were escalated and more drugs than ever got dumped in poor and working-class black/brown communities across the country. This accomplished several things: (1) it sent a lot of black men out of the ghettos of amerikkka into South East Asia; (2) a lot of them never came back; (3) it turned many of those returning to the states into drug addicts; and (4) it politicized and taught important military strategies that ended up helping the revolutionary struggle.
As drugs proliferated in black/brown communities, adding to their social, economic and cultural decline, the politicians responsible for dumping the drugs began pressing for “get tough on crime” laws. With a rise in crimes committed by addicts trying to feed their habits, politicians quickly saw how they could easily exploit the people’s fears and frustrations by promising to make the streets safe in black/brown urban communities while creating well-paying jobs in rural white communities. Thus began the Rockefellers’ and right-wing conservatives’ crusade to pass legislation to “lock the colored up” and have the whites “guard” them. Not surprisingly, many bourgeois black people—those with mortgages, cars, careers—and especially whites supported these policies, convinced by right-wing politicians and the bourgeois media that poor and working-class black/brown people were the real criminals. The draconian Rockefeller drug and crime laws resulted in inordinately long prison sentences for the sale and use of drugs, allowing the mass imprisonment of poor and working-class black/brown people to become not only acceptable, but the norm.
The passage of these drug-sentencing laws also paved the way for more repressive laws. With right-wing and ruling-class propaganda fueling concern, fear and hysteria about the “inherent” nature of black criminality and lawlessness, revolutionary speech, thought, and action were soon outlawed. This allowed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to go after those thought to pose a substantial threat to the capitalist and imperialist power structure: Black Revolutionaries. These were the people who listened to and followed New Afrikan leaders like Robert Williams, Max Stanford, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and joined organizations like Malcolm X’s Organization for Afro-American Unity, RAM, the BPP and RNA. Hoover saw feeding hungry children a decent breakfast as a subversive act, especially when those children were learning that a responsible government would make it possible for their parents to feed them. Hoover called the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the US” and made them target number one in the FBI’s Cointelpro (Counter-Intelligence Program) war on progressive/revolutionary individuals and organizations.
Under Hoover’s leadership, Cointelpro waged war on the BPP to “disrupt, misdirect and otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist organizations and groups and their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.” Its objectives were to: (1) prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups; (2) prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement; (3) prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability; and (4) prevent the long-term influence and growth of militant black nationalist organizations among youth. Between 1968 and 1981, Cointelpro’s War on Black Liberation used every branch of law enforcement, the courts and the media to attack the work of the BPP. The result was 32 BPP/BLA assassinations, dozens forced into exile, the criminal frame-ups and prosecutions of others, countless police shoot-ins of Panther homes and chapter offices, and the criminalization of the entire Black Liberation Movement. Under this level of repression, political imprisonment would be a logical and predictable consequence. More than 40 years later, there are still 19 members of the BPP/BLA held in political imprisonment.
Given this history, it would seem a reasonable expectation that PP/POWs be included in the discussion or organizing about almost any social justice issue, especially mass imprisonment. Not so. As numerous activists in the political prisoner movement have noticed, despite the growing national discussion on mass incarceration, there has been little or no attention to the plight of PP/POWs. This marginalization reflects a lack of political education, historical context and critical analysis about the root causes of mass and political imprisonment.
The way forward is through remembering that the past, present and future are intricately interwoven into the fabric of a people’s lives, their struggles and any movement for social justice. The Akan people in Ghana, West Afrika, honor Sankofa, a principle that reminds them of the need to go back into the past to build for the future. The eminent historian Dr. John Henrick Clarke taught a similar principle when he reminded us of the need to study where we were, where we are and where we are going. All are instructive in developing a better understanding about the who, what, where, when, how and why of mass and political imprisonment, and why we must go back to reclaim our captured freedom fighters and bring the issue of their political imprisonment into the work to end mass imprisonment. It is impossible to theorize about (re)building a Movement to end mass imprisonment without analyzing some of the history of the Black Liberation Movement, Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the so-called “non-violent” Civil Rights Movement (whose trajectory was anything but non-violent), the Chicano Movement, Labor Movement, the Attica and Marin County Court House Rebellions, and prisoner work stoppages and hunger strikes.
Mass and political imprisonment do not exist in a vacuum, they are functions and consequences of a war amerikkka has waged on Black Liberation from the 1619 slave ships and plantations to the streets of 2014. Wars are not just bullets and bombs and drones dropped in other countries; war is also seen in the capitalist, imperialist and colonial oppression and repression that poor and working-class black/brown people are forced to endure from generation to generation. Dr Clarke reminds us of this when he says, “first it must be recognized that we were brought here against our will, thereby making us, en masse, political prisoners. … We must always look at our situation differently from those who have been included in American society. Ours has been a continuous struggle starting with the capture, the middle passage, slave revolts and each successive generation of revolutionaries. The Black Freedom Fighters who resisted militarily in the 1960s, 70s and 80s follow in the tradition of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Malcolm X.” With that said, the political imprisonment of black/New Afrikan PP/POWs—Sekou Odinga, Abdullah Majid, Jalil Muntaqim, Sundiata Acoli, Jamil Al-Amin, Herman Bell, Veronza Bowers, Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, Robert “Seth” Hayes, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Mondo we Langa, Ruchelle “Cinque” Magee, Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, Ed Poindexter, Kamau Sadiki, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz and Albert Woodfox—is as germane to the issue of mass imprisonment as are oppression, black resistance, and state repression, and ought to be reflected in the organizing. They are freedom fighters who stand as living reminders of the Black Freedom struggle, the criminalization of black resistance, and a Black Liberation Movement that started centuries before their birth.
These freedom fighters carry the spirit of resistance as exemplified by kidnapped Afrikans on board the Amistad, Jesus, Faith, Hope, Charity, John the Baptist, Good Ship Jesuses who jumped ship or killed their captors. They are Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, David Walker and John Brown practicing armed resistance and self-defense against state violence and terror. They are Ida B. Wells, the Deacons of Self-Defense, Rosa Parks and thousands of black southerners who took up arms to defend and protect themselves/families/communities/Nation against the terror of white violence/murder—state and private. They are not criminals. If we allow the state to label them criminals, what do we call those ancestors who resisted? What would they think about the criminalization of self-defense, armed resistance, about the political imprisonment of these black/New Afrikan freedom fighters who follow in their footsteps? The political imprisonment of these black/New Afrikan freedom fighters is the story of black resistance and the Black Freedom struggle. If these herstories/histories are to survive, we must teach them to the generations coming so they will hopefully carry on the struggle.
In 1966, when the BPP set out to politicize and organize poor and working-class people, it was on the basis of their need for food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare, safety, peace, justice and Freedom. It is now 2014, and although the BPP and the revolutionary movements they were part of have disappeared, the needs of the people remain the same, if not greater. With a 10-Point Platform & Program the BPP said “we want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings” and “we want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.” The BPP platform spoke in a language that was clearly understood by the masses and the power structure: The oppression and repression of black life was no longer going to be accepted. Just as the 1960s urban rebellions had taken the power structure by surprise, these demands also took them by surprise. That these were young adults, many of them teenagers, who challenged and confronted the power structure must never be dismissed or forgotten. Black people continue to live in a socio-political climate in which they are denied access to decent and affordable housing on the basis of race and class, and where the rampant police murder of unarmed black men, womyn and children continues with impunity. That there is today no comparable community response like that of the BPP/BLA, is testament to the historic role the BPP/BLA served, and to the urgent need for such a response today.
It must be made clear that black resistance to black oppression is not a crime. For this reason black political imprisonment is not an issue of “guilt” or “innocence.” The soldiers in the US armed forces who carry out imperialist crimes are never judged guilty or innocent for their actions in battle. Why then are soldiers for Black Liberation “guilty” for alleged actions in the battle for justice and freedom for the black nation and all oppressed people? The BPP/BLA stood in to take vicious state beatings, bullets and torture for the people; they sacrificed their lives, families and freedom. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics of armed resistance, the BPP/BLA didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk. They should not be criminalized and punished for participating in the revolutionary Movements that took place throughout this country and the world during the 1960s and 70s. More importantly, we shouldn’t allow it.
That there are black and white people who take issue with PP/POWs convicted for the alleged murder and/or attempted murder(s) of police is paradoxical and disturbing given the historical nature of white violence, terror and murder—state and private—to which black people have been subjected. All life is sacred. Police and white people’s lives are no more sacred than the lives of black men, womyn or children. The BPP/BLA sought to end police terror because they grew sick and tired of witnessing tear-stained, heartbroken mothers and grandmothers whose dead sons and grandsons had been thrown off rooftops and/or shot. Should the rampant police murder of unarmed black men, womyn and children have been allowed to continue unchallenged? If elected officials, grand juries, trial juries and police administrations refuse to hold police accountable for the murders of unarmed black people, what social, political or legal recourse did the people have? We are now some 50 years past the BPP/BLA taking to the streets to end police terror, and somewhere in the streets of amerikkka a black man, womyn or child is murdered every 26 hours by some racist—in or out of uniform. How long will this be allowed to go on?
When the BPP/BLA defended black people against oppression and repression, they didn’t ask permission. They did what people all over the world do to save the lives of their children. They resisted. They were not content to simply chant “no justice, no peace” in the face of non-existent justice. We must not allow revisionist history to minimize the police terror, white violence and murder to which black people have been subjected in this amerikkka. If every person in this country took issue with the police practice of taking a black life, these murders would stop, but it hasn’t because black life is not valued in racist amerikkka. The BPP/BLA understood that poverty, oppression, repression and police terror were functions of the capitalist system. The BPP ideology was not about guns and hating white people. It was not about vendettas against police. It was about defending the black community from the violence of the police, and a 10-Point Platform & Program that also meant leaving the comfort of one’s own bed at 3:00 a.m. to serve and defend the material needs of poor and working-class black people. It was about self-determination, justice and Liberation. One of our PP/POWs, Abdullah Majid often says, “freedom ain’t free and it don’t come cheap.” No truer statement could be made about the 19 imprisoned members of BPP/BLA and their families who have paid the ultimate price with their lives and freedom. This is as true for these freedom fighters as it was for the enslaved Afrikans who declared “freedom or death” before burning down and over/under harvesting crops, letting farm animals escape, plotting rebellions, refusing to be bred, running away, killing slave masters, and taking their freedom into their own hands.
This speaks to why the politics of mass and political imprisonment must never be separated from the fight against capitalism, colonialism, racism and classism. Unfortunately, this happens frequently because the dialogue has been surrendered to the celebrity professional lecture circuit, intellectuals, corporate non-profits, self and state-appointed black leadership, bestselling authors, revisionists and opportunists whose quest to make a living, build resumés, and achieve mainstream popularity leads them to leave out the nature of white supremacy and the inherent race, class and gender oppression in a capitalist system. Take The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The book is popular among prison ministries, study groups, activists, progressives and liberal whites alike, in its examination of mass imprisonment in the context of the War on Drugs. Yet, the author completely ignores one of the most significant and turbulent periods of political upheaval in the struggle for social justice in this country, the Black Liberation Movement, and how the criminalization and incarceration of black dissidents was used prior to the War on Drugs to crush dissent and resistance, just as the War on Drugs now criminalizes an entire population, especially young people, using mass imprisonment to subvert the potential for politicization, dissent, resistance and building of a revolutionary youth-led Movement. Both have caused the mass destruction of poor and working-class black/brown families and communities, and led people to accept things the way they are instead of imagining the power of organized resistance. The popularity and promotion of this book obfuscates and dilutes the truth about mass and political imprisonment. While it is unclear why the author chose to ignore the correlations between the War on Black Liberation and the War on Drugs, mass and political imprisonment, capitalism and colonialism, the 13th Amendment and the criminal justice system as tools for repressing poor and working-class black/brown people, we must challenge what it didn’t say, and counter its analysis with grassroots voices that are not beholden to the power structure and ruling class.
This includes dialogue that speaks truth to power about the normalization and acceptance of state-sanctioned violence and crime under capitalism. The violence Harriet Tubman experienced running in and out of freedom trails with a $40,000 reward offered for her capture and the violence of the $2 million “Wanted” reward and “terrorist” label for runaway Assata Shakur must be contextualized with the question of violence as it relates to hunger, poverty, homelessness, the foster care system, chronic unemployment, having to trade sex for everyday survival, the inability to see a doctor when sick, not knowing whether your husband, son, brother, wife, sister, daughter will come back home, be shot or killed by police or any racist, being a high school graduate and unable to complete a job application, write a thesis paragraph or complete a freshman college-level course, the inter-generational death and destruction caused by the deliberate planting of drugs and military-style weaponry in poor black/brown communities, the untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of living a lifetime of grueling race, class and gender oppression, kindergarten through public high schools serving as detention centers and prison incubators that crush black/brown children’s intellect and spirit, and children sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and being put to death by the state.
The dialogue must also include the history and legacy of broken treaties, germ warfare, lynch mobs, the assassination of world leaders, military invasions and occupations of Afrikan/indigenous countries to steal their natural resources and crush their resistance struggles, de facto prison death squads disguised as parole commissions, prison guards beating and killing prisoners while administrators look the other way and/or disregard court rulings in favor of prisoners. It must take into account corrupt killer police, corporate raiders stealing working people’s pensions and committing stock fraud, bankers laundering billions of dollars while extorting double-digit interest rates from working people. Poet Nikki Giovanni suggests that if crime meant punishment, there would be no white men on Wall Street, in boardrooms, in academia, in Congress or the White House. Truth is if there were such a thing as justice for all, there would be more white men in prison, “where they belong,” than any other racial or ethnic group.
This is the history that created black resistance, the BPP/BLA and PP/POWs. This is why we must pay close attention to Malcolm’s warning about the US media having us hating our friends and loving our enemies; why we must challenge, reclaim and redefine the current narratives about the Black Freedom struggle in relation to revolutionary struggle; why we must alter the 50 years of incessant praise for the “non-violent,” passive-resistance, civil-disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement while the revolutionary black nationalism and self-defense of the Black Liberation Movement and the BPP are distorted, criminalized, and demonized. The problem is a great many black people and the majority of whites accept this narrative as truth not knowing that in its earliest stages Dr King and the Civil Rights Movement were also demonized and criminalized. It was only when growing numbers of young people gravitated to the Black Liberation Movement that the power structure embraced the Civil Rights Movement as the more controllable and less threatening of the two movements. The result is that now most black elected officials, corporate-funded black organizations, black press, black middle- and the upper-middle professional class have distanced themselves from the Black Liberation Movement to align themselves with the more acceptable Civil Rights Movement. This adds to the invisibility of PP/POWs in just about all areas of study on the history of the Black Freedom Movement, as well as in organizing to end mass imprisonment or attain any other social justice objective.
We are now 40 years into white amerikkkan and bourgeois black acceptance of the mass and political imprisonment of black/brown “criminals” to keep them safe. Attention is now being paid to the tremendous taxpayer costs of $40,000 per year to imprison one person for such a large prison population. Couple that with prison guards’ union organizing, the overall costs of, in particular, the aging and the sick, and it is becoming too expensive to continue “locking ’em up and throwing away the keys.” Thankfully, this has meant some of the more draconian drug sentencing laws have been rescinded and prison populations are dropping, but what does and will this mean for non-white communities? The state is considering a number of options, but few if any will have any positive outcomes for the people in prison. The most troubling is the consideration that prisoners work for and pay for their imprisonment. Some politicians have even suggested expanding the federal system to pay prisoners a living wage, and then charging them for food, shelter, clothing and medical insurance. The opposing argument is “this will take decent jobs from law abiding citizens on the outside” whose job market—especially for young people—has been devastated by the removal of jobs that once produced goods in amerikkka, but now make them in countries where salaries are vastly lower.
What will happen to the thousands of formerly imprisoned black/brown youth (men and women) who return home from long prison sentences with no job or economic prospects and little or no education? What options will be available to them to survive and feed their families? What can communities do to educate and create jobs for them? In addition to employment opportunities, people need access to and the ability to start their own businesses. This would require a reorganizing of amerikkka’s economic system; definitely not an easy process. It means that if the free enterprise system cannot or will not employ the vast majority of people—formerly imprisoned included—the state and federal government must step in to ensure that all people—no matter their race, color, gender, etc.—are educated and employable. A factory built in a working-class community paying its employees a livable wage could bring political, economic and social benefits to that community. Instead of business owners being allowed to rake in record profits, collective-minded enterprises should be developed to create jobs for the community and for eventual ownership by the community and its employees.
If poor and working-class black people are to survive amerikkka’s mass and political imprisonment, a movement to end it must untangle the web of propaganda about black criminality and violence, about prisons as punishment and “corrections.” We must challenge the exclusion of political imprisonment by integrating an analysis of black resistance and the Black Freedom struggle. We must study how race and class and capitalism and oppression and repression are the engines behind the system of mass and political imprisonment. The history of the Black Freedom struggle reveals that if we “dare to struggle, we dare to win.” This means that people who are conscious must develop programs that will help to educate and mobilize the masses. We must educate ourselves and the people about the ideologies and tactics of revolutionary organizations, learn from their successes and their failures, study the enemy, its strengths and weaknesses, its strategies and tactics. We must be fully aware of the methods used by government to crush resistance. We must create survival programs for revolutionary individuals and organizations. We must also create community survival programs to help the people feed themselves and their children. Our youth need programs that will help them survive the public school system, the streets and unsafe home environments. Our elderly and womyn need programs that will help them be safe from the insidious hyper-misogynistic violence of being black, female and poor in amerikkka.
There is a blueprint that can help us move forward and inspire a new generation to join this struggle in defense of the people. What the BPP accomplished in the 1960s has not been done successfully since, but we know it can be done. The idea is not to recreate the BPP, but to recognize how their strategies of grassroots organizing grounded in a class analysis, with political education classes and a radical/revolutionary practice of addressing the people’s material needs, worked. The BPP led by example. Thousands joined the BPP, and where there weren’t chapters, they started them—nationally and internationally. This is what self-determination looks like—grassroots people and organizations defining for themselves how to struggle, their tactics and strategies, leadership, heroes/sheroes and which way forward; not the black bourgeoisie and certainly, not the power structure and ruling class. For a few years, the BPP was successful and then Cointelpro, the courts and the corporate propaganda machinery helped to destroy it, minimize its legacy, and co-opt its survival programs. Today, most people don’t know that free breakfast programs, routine sickle-cell anemia testing, free health clinics, Patient Bill of Rights, food pantries, ethnic and women’s studies programs, and a host of social service programs are the work of the BPP.
These gifts of revolutionary love, commitment to struggle and tremendous sacrifices ought to be the example that we honor and in whose name we speak and act. This is not only the work of the Jericho Movement for Amnesty & Recognition of U.S. PP/POWs, the Safiya Bukhari/Albert ‘Nuh’ Washington Foundation, the New York City People’s Survival Program, individual defense committees, a few stalwart Movement attorneys, former PP/POWs, and committed activists. The struggle to end mass and political imprisonment is one that ought to unite all poor and working-class black/brown, Asian, Chicano, indigenous and white people. We must leave no one behind, most especially, not our veteran survivors in the capitalist/imperialist wars that have been waged on the people since 1492. We need the hard work, commitment and sacrifice of all of us—activists, educators, cultural workers, young people, older people, the many—determined to (re)build a national and international Movement to walk our captured freedom fighters to the other side of those prison walls.