Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Panthers, Black Liberation Army and the Struggle to Free all Political Prisoners

by Ashanti Omowali Alston

I want to get started off in a way that helps me get rid of the butterflies, and helps get us stirred as well. You know we always say, “Power to the People.” And usually the response back is, “All Power to the People.” If you don’t mind indulging me: “Power to the People!” (audience response) “All Power to the People!

Second thing, to just take us back, again. There’s a little chant that goes along with a little march, that we used to do. I need your participation with it, if I may. It’s gonna go something like this: I’m gonna say, “Hold Your Head Up High, Panther’s Marching By. We Don’t Take No Jive.” When I say, “Sound Off,” you say, “Free the People!” Then at a certain point I’m gonna say, “Break it on down.” And you’re gonna say, “Free the People, Free the People, Free the People,” and then one loud one, “Free the People!” We got it? “Hold Your Head Up High, Panther’s Marching By. We Don’t Take No Jive, Got a Loaded .45. Sound Off!” (audience) “Free the People!” “Sound off!” “Free the People!” Right on!
Now imagine, in certain cities and certain towns where there were chapters, there were rank and file Panthers marching down the street. And here we are with this chant. It is performance, but it’s performance that’s really important. We are trying to show people that we are a disciplined force that is ready to act. We are trying to show people that there is a new role for us to play. And here we are: we’re the Black Panther Party. And it’s not only about the .45, but not without it.

It was the organizing, it was the educating, it was being available to help people to figure out ways to resist that made the Black Panther Party what it became. You know, we did the best we could. I was young: Plainfield, New Jersey, small town. But hey, Plainfield had the same problems as every other town that had Black folks in ‘em. We was treated bad. We stepped forward like so many other young folks—teenagers—in high school.

You gotta imagine what our parents thought. I didn’t come up to them one day and say, “Mom and Pops, I’m joining the Black Panther Party.” They just kind of noticed that I was hanging out with some different people, you know? And now I’m not sitting in front of the television anymore, watching the comedies, or whatever. I’m sitting up here reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and Malcolm X Speaks, to the point where my father would actually get angry at me. Why is my head always stuck in this book? And sometimes he’d say, “Get out of the living room.” And I’d be like, “OK, I guess I’ll go outside and find my crew.”

But it was where my head was at because I was a product of the ‘60s. A product that was, in every sense of the word, magical for so many of us. And when I tell people about the ‘60s, the thing I want them to get, as far as the Black community is concerned, is that we came alive as no other generation in this country since we were kidnapped and brought here 400 years before. We had been brainwashed, whipped, beat down, denied; everything that had trained us to not think of any possibility that things could be different than what white supremacy had laid down for us. But now here’s the ‘60s and the ‘60s is telling us, “You can be everything.” But specifically, “Black is Beautiful! Africa is our roots. And be proud of it.”

We had just came from a generation, and all them generations that just accepted that niggers ain’t shit. Niggers will never organize, will never get it together. You’ll never do it. Now all of a sudden, there’s something capturing us, there’s something in the air. They’re saying Black Power, that’s tying us into struggles not only in Africa, but in Asia, Latin America, and right here within the United Statesbecause the Civil Rights movement was in its upswing. The Native American struggles were coming up, the Puerto Rican struggles, the Chicano struggles, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement: it was in the air.

So why not little thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old Ashanti (known as Michael at the time), you know? Why not get involved? Just like any other, I want to know what I can do. And I don’t think I was any different from a Palestinian teenager, who is answering those questions right now, inoccupied Palestine. I saw what the Civil Rights movement was doing, and respected it. But when I seen those Panthers, and when my best friend Jihad saw those Panthers; their magazine had a particular cover that had Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale on the cover: black berets, black leather jackets, powder blue shirt, all down to the combat boots and weapons—one on the side and one in the hand—we knew right then and there we wanted to find out about them. And then to find out that they organized survival programs, and they had liberation schools, where they were actually teaching Black people how to defend themselves cause they said it was our right. Going contrary to all the things we were seeing on television where the white reaction in the south was brutalizing Black people down there; killing folks, not only Black folks, but even white activists who was coming down there to help, in solidarity. Disappearing them. And then maybe finding them years later, and I’m sure there’s a lot of other bodies that are still in swamps somewhere.

You know, but still, we’re coming in. Seeing all this didn’t frighten us or discourage us, it made us want to step up more. So now we are learning; Panthers from New York and Newark, different places, are coming to Plainfield to show us what it means to be a Panther. And the first thing we was hoping to get, or get close to, was the guns! But just like the other comrades, they shared the stories that the things we get is not the physical guns, but we get the books, which was the guns that we were first given; placed in our hands, we’re gonna read! Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Mao Tse-Tung’s Quotations, everybody had a Red Book, W.E.B. DuBois, Robert Williams’ Negroes With Guns: We are reading! And many, like me, didn’t like to read at all because of what school has done to us. I didn’t like to read. But you inspired now. There’s something in you that’s different now, and you want to know. I want to know everything about Africa; I want to know everything about DuBois; I want to know all this stuff. So yeah, I’m reading now.

We got study groups: here is Black folks sitting together, in study circles, helping each other learn. Here we are now learning how to go out in the community and help tenants figure out ways to resist all the stuff that landlords do. Here we are now trying to show people how to fight back against these racist, killer police. Heavy duty. And I’m telling you when we first stepped out in our community, people did not trust us. Because like me, and others, we were called lumpen, and a lot of us were. A lot of us were into a little hustle, maybe gangs, but nothing like the gangs now. But me, I was on the border between wanting to be a burglar and a revolutionary. And actually, later on, kind of combined both of them.
But the Panthers showed us that revolution involved engaging your community and organizing them. Helping to give them a sense of hope, that we could change our circumstances. And to know that we were doing it in concert with all these other communities and movements was heavy.

I did not like white folks. I was a stone nationalist. Didn’t want to work with ‘em. And it was the Panthers that helped to kinda broaden my perspective on that, you know, you can’t be hating all men ‘cause they’re white. You know, you might not want to deal with them because of what they do, but if you got a white revolutionary that’s here to support you and to be your ally, you can embrace him or her. And even moving into that grudgingly, I learned to relax and accept white folks. Plainfield did not encourage that because it’s a very racist place. But we’re seeing a very different kind of revolution, especially for a revolutionary nationalist group. It was heavy.

Gradually, the community started to support us. The back and forth between our desire to break a certain hypnosis, and a certain psychosis, around being a victim in society to learning that you can be free individuals, and actually start to love each other, was powerful. But the government—of course, this is not a loving society, it’s a very death-oriented society, a very hateful society—don’t stand for that. No group that has been kept systematically on the bottom of the society is going to be allowed to come from the bottom of that society. You ain’t disturbing nothin.’ The history of this country says so. We understood: 500-Year War. This is 500 years of continuation. No break. From when the Europeans first came here and did what they did: Christopher Columbus and all of them. We understood that it’s a liberation war. No different from the DuBois, no different from the Indigenous Nations fightin’ for sovereignty. No different than the Vietnamese fighting to get the United States out of their country. We said, “The United States out of the Ghettos!” That may have been where they confined us. But then we began to look at the ghettos as, “You got us here, now it’s ours! You get out.” And we’re gonna take over the institutions, the voice of Malcolm X. Take ‘em over. We became revolutionaries, but we understood we are up against a monster that will kill us without a blink of an eye.

Huey P. Newton had already been in jail. They were trying to frame him for the cop that got killed. Bobby Seale was being framed for murder, him and Erika Huggins, in New Haven, Connecticut. Fred Hampton had got killed, and Mark Clark, in 1969. We understood, but it didn’t stop us. As we read, we organized. As we read, we fought. That’s praxis. That’s putting it right into practice. We are developing as we go. We don’t have to wait to have no developed ideology, don’t have to wait to have all the answers; we figure it out as we go. Because our situation is that bad. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and doing all sorts of fanciful ideological positions: we’ll figure it out as we go. But we took hits.
My first hit, and Jihad’s first hit, was when a cop got killed in my hometown. So what do they do? They get the two main organizers, and they blame it on them, me and Jihad; seventeen years old, seniors in high school. They know we didn’t do it. They know that. They know Mumia didn’t kill a cop. They know that. It’s not a question of innocent or guilty. They know what they’re doing: break the potential of this becoming a solid movement in Plainfield, New Jersey. Get Michael and David off the streets. Fourteen months; the last four months was the trial. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had good lawyers, no telling. I never say that we would have been on Death Row, or we would have been in prison for life. My thing is we would have found a way to get out of there. Because even during that fourteen months, we was on a hack saw blade, cutting this window, trying to get out even before the jury got the case. Seventeen! Because we understood, we are warriors, at war. No if, ands, and buts. White jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict. Lawyers were able to show, classic frame up. We’re out. We’re back in the ranks. New York and New Jersey chapters are under heavy attack: FBI forces, local police departments, they’re losing numbers, the government, the media, police forces were very successful at isolating us from our communities. They were very successful: calling us thugs, murderers, or just by terrorizing people we were dealing with.

I was back and forth between the New York and the Plainfield chapter. The free breakfast program in New York had always been very successful, in Harlem. The Harlem chapter program—every day, feeding the children. One day, some of the children get sick. And all of a sudden some of the parents start pulling their children out. We find out years later through the COINTELPRO papers that the police poisoned the fruit. So that’s why they pulled the children out. It’s no big deal what they’re going to go through because they are that cold blooded. They’re not going to let anybody come in and mess this thing up. Gotta kill you, kill you. Gotta discourage people from coming to you, gotta discourage them. Right? But they were good. We get isolated, then one day, they have charges against us and they pick us up, people not quick to come to our support. They had Panthers who were part of the Black Liberation Army, who were locked up in the Manhattan House of Detention. They are political prisoners. They’re being charged with an ambush in New York and an ambush out in San Francisco. It’s actually the San Francisco Eight case. Here I am, nineteen years old. And I’m approached by one of the members of the Panther Party, who asks me, would I become a member of a cell, the Black Liberation Army.

My partner at the time was pregnant. I have to think now, what am I going to do? I want to be around for this child. Daddy. I don’t know nothing about being a daddy for real at nineteen. But just the idea, you know? But also, I want to win this revolution. So my decision is, goin’ under. Maybe I won’t be around for the victory, cause we still thought it was right around the corner. But maybe the child will come into a free world.

Alright, so here I am, I come back to the Sister and I’m like, “You got me, and you got one of my comrades, who’s a year younger than me. We are here. We were waiting. It is an honor to join the ranks of the Black Liberation Army.” I’m proud of it to this day, and actually my children are too, and I’m happy about that. But the thing is we went to get these political prisoners out of the Manhattan House of Detention.

I’m bringing this up for a reason. To be free, you have to be a little crazy. Harriet Tubman back and forth, how many times? She’s gotta be a little crazy. Nat Turner: little crazy. All those movements that gotta face the viciousness of white supremacy, you gotta be a little crazy. You ain’t gonna be free otherwise, by doing things so careful, and so convenient. You know, you wanna be free, it’s the same thing if you want to learn something, you gotta be a little daring with the material you pick up and read. ‘Cause it may change your whole life.

So here we are. Manhattan House of Detention is just concrete, steel, buildings. The Manhattan area, the Federal Building is down there, immigration, police, all around. But here’s the Black Liberation Army. We are no different from them Vietnamese guerrillas, up against the United States. American imperialism is a paper tiger. We read Frantz Fanon. And we learned from Frantz Fanon that if you can look your enemy in the eye, that fear will drop. Break the fear, and you’ll see that they’re not invincible. It’s our fear of them that keeps them in power. So here we go. They’re on trial every day. We’re allowed to bring ‘em food. Take the food to the jail, we give the bag to the police, he goes through it, gives it to the prisoners. But on one particular day, when we put that bag on the table, we don’t let the police go through the bag. We open it up, and we pull out the guns. We take them guards, we put them in the bathroom. And I always verify to say this, we handcuff them to the toilets. Because that’s the job that they do. Their attitude, I say this because of their attitude, to be free—attitude is very important. You gotta believe it. You cannot have fear of these people.

So here they go, we’re off to the second floor, to the visiting room; a solid wall of steel, windows, telephones. No contact. Got the bag with us. Next thing that comes out of the bag is an acetylene torch, and I proceed to cut. I wasn’t supposed to be the one to cut, it was supposed to be someone else who was a professional, who couldn’t make it at the time. Somebody had to do it. I gave myself a crash course, I did the best I could. I’m cutting. The prisoners on the other side have taken care of the guards. The visitors on the other side are just regular people, they watchin’ me, but this is New York, ain’t nobody, you know, I’m cutting. But if I was experienced, I could’a been zip, zip, zip, push it out, you all come on. And I’m sure some of them other prisoners would have come out too. But it took me a long time, to the point where I had two inches to go, and the tank ran out. And that’s the thing that really cuts into the metal when you got that flame on it. So then I got to look at the political prisoners, and I got to look at my comrades, you know, and you got to make a decision, we gotta go! We gotta go. It was hard for me for two reasons. One, we’re not getting ‘em out. Two, two of the women in our cell, it was their partners behind that wall too. And their families was waiting, we had them, somewhere else. And we was all gonna hook up after we got everybody out. So quickly, we gotta go. You turn to your comrades, “Power to the People. We out.” They understood. We’re gone.

Next thing you know, my family jokes about it to this day, usually when I disappear, they just gotta turn on the news, you know. So they turn on the news, and here’s the thing about the Manhattan House of Detention: there’s their son’s picture. Alright, we know where Michael is. Or we know where he was. In the course of other things, bank expropriations, in New Haven, Connecticut. Now, I did not say robbery, ‘cause we’re revolutionaries; we don’t commit crime. But we will go after them banks’ money, ‘cause that’s blood money. We will fund the revolution. We will hit drug dealers. We will hit banks. We will hit insurance companies. We will hit armored cars. We are at war! And that’s certainly what we did. But doing this bank expropriation in New Haven, Connecticut, Wild West shoot out, three of us are captured, I’m one of them. First day in court, we tell them, you have no right to even try us: we are soldiers of the Black Liberation Army. We ain’t in here for no justice. We’re soldiers. We ain’t askin’ for nothin.’ We know what the deal is gonna be. This is a firefight. They had guns, we had guns. We are prisoners of war, at this point. When they is tryin’ to frame us, we was political prisoners. With this, we’re prisoners of war. That type of action, and others; many of the political prisoners that Jericho represents: Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, Albert Nuh Washington, and a whole bunch of others out of the Black Liberation Army. And we represent folks from the Weather Underground, who placed bombs in a lot of places. We make no ifs, ands, and buts about it: we are at war. This is revolution; we want to bring this Empire, as George Jackson says, to its knees. No ifs and buts. But here we are.

We didn’t get a lot of support. The Left backed up from us. They called us “infantile Leftists.” They used every Marxist expression they could find. You know, the liberals, of course, are not going to touch us. But they terrified our communities. So they were scared. And it wasn’t but maybe the nationalist groups, or the really solid white supporters, who stuck with us. We didn’t make it out of them jails, but boy did we try. We tried. Got sentenced to 45 years. Here I am off to Wisconsin. Next thing, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Next thing, Marion, Illinois. Then Lompac, California. Then I gotta come back to Connecticut. But they moved us around like that, they would not allow us to be anybody in the same place, together. At one point there were so many of us, we had collectives: Panthers, BLA, Weather Underground, Puerto Rican Independentistas: we’re fighting, we’re organizing inside. Trying to figure out ways to get out. These are many of the individuals who Jericho represent. ‘Cause we come out of liberation movements here, that operate out of that 500-year war understanding that this system is not able to reform or do anything humane. Our freedom, and its death, go together. Fear. But we don’t get a lot of support.

To this day, we don’t get money; foundations don’t give us money. People in community don’t even know who we are. That’s the deal. Why? Because this system was very effective in not only putting down resistance, but giving people so many diversions that encourage them to forget about that. And many parents, neighbors, family, friends, communities, for the sake of survival, and not endangering their families and children, didn’t talk about it. Other communities, it’s part of what they do; you pass the stories on. Ours didn’t do it.

People don’t know about us today. I get out of prison, first time I get out is ‘85, I go to New Haven, Connecticut, I ask a high school student, “What do you know about the Black Panther Party?” He asks me, “Was it a martial arts group?” Eleven years! How did that happen? Because the system is good at reconquest. The ‘60s shook ‘em up. We shook ‘em up. Even for a minute. It was good. Even for a minute. But they got it together very quickly too. And they know what to do. You see what they do in Iraq, you know? Knock all that stuff down, put American ideology in there, from prostitution to all the other bullshit about this fake democracy.

But they did it in our communities, when they destroyed Panthers and other groups, they flooded our communities with drugs and guns. Culturally, just dealing with television and movies, blacksploitation movies. Turn on the television, you get comedy and athletes. Who are the spokespersons now? Integrationists, people that’s into Black capitalism; you don’t hear our voices no more, you don’t hear Angela Davis, you don’t hear Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver. You hear people who are trying to fit in. ‘Cause in this new neo-colonial situation, you gotta get those who are willing to be Uncle Toms, so that potential resistance is quelled, quickly, even before it starts.
So the end of the ‘80s, there’s nothing, going into the ‘90s. Nothing. And it wasn’t until the Panther movie comes out that people start to ask questions. And then begin to find out there’s still Panthers. Geronimo Pratt is still in (1). All these other people are still in from the Weather Underground. Then people start asking questions.

But then 9/11 happens. So then we get knocked back again. People don’t even want to ask about it. They don’t even want to bring up the topic, because of all the hyper-patriotism that’s going on. But our fighters, our revolutionaries, our organizers, our thinkers are still behind walls. And now some of them are dying. I went in with them. We was all there in the ‘70s, I mean we were in the same places together, we made a commitment to each other, like, “Ashanti, you got parole,” I’m like, “Yeah, OK man.”
You know, the thing is, I get out, I work for them, to help get them out. And even back then it was still, “We’ll get you out by any means necessary, whatever works.” You know, but things had changed. You just can’t be on the corners anymore and talk about revolution, and brother and sister would be like, “Yo, what you want me to do?” Then it’s like people are like, “Yo, what, you from that period? I thought all you was dead.” Different, but it hurts. Now you gotta figure out how to get that attention again.
And I’m telling you the truth, we haven’t figured that out. We still haven’t. Because the power of the dollar bill, the power of American cultural capitalism, is great: “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” And they’re even trying to push the Black Republicans. They continue to bombard our communities, and they do this to other people of color communities, other poor communities, and people in general: keep them in sync, keep them in line, so their minds don’t go to revolution, rebellion, insurgency. Do it.

But we show the possibilities. Even when it seems like they got us, here comes something happening, here comes Seattle, then here comes the Zapatistas, and then all these other incidents where people from nowhere, seemingly…they uprise. And sometimes in very creative ways, and lots of different ways to organize. So I look at ‘em, and I’m like, “OK, I don’t have to be depressed. We can still do this. If one person fights back, we can do this. If one person still dreams, we can do this.”

But we gotta get to them political prisoners. It’s hard. When you gotta go visit them. You want to lie to them, and say, “Hey man, I think they got us.” But when you don’t have to, you can tell them, “Yeah man, I know we haven’t quite pulled it together yet, but people are fighting back. They’re fighting back.” And they say, “Well listen, just figure out ways that involve us.” Some of them can come to terms with dying inside, as long as they know that we’re carrying it on, out here, and have not forgotten them.
They know it’s tough, because what goes on in the prison is a microcosm of what goes on out here. It’s a microcosm. They just want us to remember them. They want to be free. They would love to be free. But we know on the outside, and they know too from the Panther days in the ‘60s, that power is really with the people. It’s with the people.

one of the reasons why I increasingly became an anarchist. Because I want power to the people where it stays with the people. Everything is with the people. And not just you say that, and then after all is said and done, you got a small clique of people who are really calling the shots. I want to figure out how to make a Zapatista-style revolution here in the United States, that brings all of us into this picture how we are, not erasing who we are. But also respecting all of our ways of fighting back. But I know that ultimately to get them political prisoners out; from Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, to the MOVE 9, to Marilyn Buck(2), David Gilbert, all the Panthers, and others in prison: it’s got to come from us! It’s got to come from us in a way that poses a political consequence to this system if they don’t free Mumia; if they don’t give medical attention to Seth Hayes. We got to be that fist that says, “If you don’t, other things may well happen.” Now that’s not necessarily nice. It’s just like when Rob Los Ricos spoke, and Jeff Luers—and I got to tell you, I’m very proud of you all, I’m very proud of you—but they bring up just how murderous this system is.

There’s a sense of urgency here, you know, and we can’t take it lightly. All of our lives are on the line, all of them. Indigenous Nations say, “Think of the next seven generations.” We gotta do that, and we also gotta think about those who’ve been in prison for the last thirty, forty years. ‘Cause if we get them, we are bringing not only them, but whose shoulders they stood on. So we’re bringing the ancestors, and the children who are yet to be born, into our scope, knowing that there’s nothing this system can do for us. Nothing. Not a solid thing. Unless we make them. And we’re making them only until we can finally get ourselves in the position to, as we used to say in the ‘60s also, a blade in the throat of fascism. I hate to get graphic. But, when you feel the pain, that’s what you want. When Kent Ford tells me about his son, Patrice Lumumba, I feel the pain, you know, in him. Oh man, they snatched up another one of our children. Can’t theorize about it too much. You can’t just be on the, you want the correct political position. We gotta figure out how to get his son home. Guilty, innocent, don’t matter to me. Mumia, guilty or innocent, don’t matter to me. It matters what we do.

The best things that have been happening in terms of political prisoners is that groups that had really not been working together, maybe really saw no reason, have begun to work together: the liberation movements and the animal and the Earth movements. ‘Cause many of us in the liberation movements look at the animal movements in the way that the media projects you, that you’re all these young white kids, with these funny looks, and you’re huggin’ trees, and you’re throwing red paint on people with fur coats, and we’re like, “Why do we want to mess with them?” Until you are in situations where you may be able to talk. Which I was. Daniel McGowan, Andy Stepanian, and people around the SHAC, I’m from New York. And then I got to step back and say, “Oh, that’s what you’re about. Now I get it.” You go to one of the conferences and you see these documentaries on what they do to the animals, and you think, “Boy, Man is a motherfucker. A motherfucker.” The same ones that did this to us, Africans. And they enslaved the indigenous folks too: enslaved them, lynched them. Even the Italians, and the Irish, everybody almost had a taste of this lynching, being treated bad. But it’s when you see this, you gotta see how you can change this thing, get rid of it.

It’s that we gave it our best, in the ‘60s. Some of them have been in there, the same as your age right now. You can’t do it without having them in your plans. You gotta put them on your agenda. You got to. They are our Mandelas. And I said to one of them a couple of months ago, they’re “even better than Mandela.” At least Nelson Mandela. I go with Winnie. You know, in many ways, Nelson walked them into neo-liberalism. I’m telling you that our political prisoners still want a revolution. We gotta get ‘em.
So whatever your issues are: Earth, animals, and like the indigenous folks say, “I’m talking about the two-legged, the rock people, the wing people”; that’s how the indigenous folks talk, I love it. I love it because it’s picturesque. Deep down, we’re all very picturesque, and when we get Western, we get very clinical. We take the color out of life. When we think that way then we can decenter “Man” and begin to see ourselves as part of all these living systems again and begin to figure out how to change these oppressive dynamics that we’re a part of. I look at the New York City skyline and I’m like, “Man, I would love to see that thing go.” Industrialism, industrialization, we see what it has done.

Also, when the movements interact, we not only really learn about each other, for the first time, but we get to share visions. And sometimes, your vision gets enriched by the other people’s visions, ‘cause it’s things you didn’t think about. From the Feminist movement, you know, men, we’ve lead the movements for so long, but what happens when the women say, “Stop it, hold it, no more.” And then you have to enrich your vision ’cause you have historically left women out. And the first time I read queer theory, it shook me up when one of my best friends, who was queer, brought up to me that I made a very fucked up statement about queer people. So she gave me a book, Queer Theory; real quick: I’m on the subway, New York City—I love the subways, I do most of my reading on the subways. Yeah, I got the book Queer Theory. I’m sitting down, but I kinda hold the book down, I mean I still got my macho shit, right? So I don’t want people to see that I’ve got a book that says Queer Theory; they might think I’m queer. As I’m struggling with this, I am internally going through this process. Until I get like, “What the fuck am I doin’? Read the book! Like you normally read it.” And so in reading it, I’m also challenging myself in terms of my perspective, ‘cause queer theory is telling me something about identity, different lifestyles, and what historical forces have done, and what capitalism does, more than just exploit a class. It ruins people for all kinds of different reasons. So now my vision of the world changes more. It becomes more inclusive, a lot more lifestyles, than I had, maybe in the ‘60s.

And that’s always the challenge, when you meet these political prisoners and you start talking to them, they open your mind up to a reality that you probably didn’t know. And I’m not talking about the reality of the prisons, you probably learned about that if you ever go visit. But when they start telling you their stories about their people’s struggles, then you have to begin to include that in who you are, if we’re going to make this revolution work. So like the Zapatistas say, “We can make a world with many worlds that exist,” but that starts with where we are right now, including folks who have historically been left out. From the voices of women to the bodies of prisoners, and especially political prisoners. So figure out ways to put them into what you do. Just today, I sat down and wrote Patrice Lumumba. I said yesterday I was gonna do it, and Paulette knows me writing letters to the political prisoners, I ain’t that good at it. But I just felt ya yesterday, and I’m like, “Oh my god, that could be my son.” You know, I got to write him a letter, ’cause sometimes, that’s all it calls for. And when it calls for something like just writing a letter, or the political prisoners say, “Call this number, ‘cause they’re treating me like this, I need a doctor.” That may be all they’re asking us to do, and we should be jumping on that like…ice cream. Vegan ice cream! I want you to feel, I am, I’m playful and I’m optimistic. I am that way because you stay optimistic, you do things that give me a reason to go on, ’cause it’s been rough. I will not let this Empire have the pleasure of having a victory over me.

. Rob Los Ricos is out, Jeff Luers is out, Tre is out. All three of them, actually, I have seen for the first time. I knew all about ‘em, because others in their movements and us started collaborating. And I’m like, “Oh man, that’s who they are, that’s what they did, right on. Right on. Right on.” We can do this together.

We can figure out how we can do it together in ways that respect who we are, and in ways that enrich our vision, so that we can get the world—or worlds, many worlds exist—that we deserve! We deserve the best. We deserve it. Empire down. Down, down, down. And then, we can have a party where we’re dancing on it, you know what I’m saying? We can do that.

So let’s get ready, by doing it in ways that we really do enjoy each other, but we also know that we gotta be loving, we gotta be nurturing, we gotta be understanding, because it’s hard. Lot of wear and tear. And they’re going to hit us. But we’re going to develop to the point where we can hit them back.
And the last thing, there’s an anarchist saying that says, “It’s not so much about overthrowing the government, it’s really about us pulling out and creating our own world so that the government gets lost in the shuffle.” Because really it’s our energy, and I think Rob was saying that too, it’s our energy, that really keeps them going. Let’s stop giving it to them, let’s start giving it to each other. The ‘60s taught us that. Let’s do this people, we are together. We are the people. Right on. Power to the People! (audience response) “All Power to the People!”

This is a transcript of a talk given at the Law and Disorder conference, held in Portland, Oregon from April 14 – 16, 2010. Transcription by Paul Messersmith-Glavin. 1. Geronimo Pratt died on June 2, 2011 
2. Marilyn Buck passed away on August 3, 2010.

Ashanti Omowali Alston help found a Black Panther Party chapter in Plainfield, NJ while still in high school. He later went on to join the Black Liberation Army. He did twelve years as a Prisoner of War, and became an anarchist while incarcerated. Sometimes referring to himself as the ‘Anarchist Panther,’ he occasionally publishes a ‘zine with that name. Ashanti is a former board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS), is a part of the IAS’ Mutual Aid Speakers Bureau, and works with the National Jericho Movement to free all Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War. He’s also recently had a child, and is writing his memoirs

Amerika Is Addicted And Dependent On Slavery

The prison industry in the United States: big business or a new form of slavery? The prison industry in the United States: big business or a new form of slavery? by Vicky Pelaez Human rights org…anizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States, where they say a prison population of up to 2 million – mostly Black and Hispanic – are working for various industries for a pittance. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells. There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports. What has happened over the last 10 years? Why are there so many prisoners? “The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. 
The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.” The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.” According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people. CRIME GOES DOWN, JAIL POPULATION GOES UP According to reports by human rights organizations, these are the factors that increase the profit potential for those who invest in the prison industry complex: . Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs. Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine. 
In Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana. Here in New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug. . The passage in 13 states of the “three strikes” laws (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies), made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who for stealing a car and two bicycles received three 25-year sentences. . Longer sentences. . The passage of laws that require minimum sentencing, without regard for circumstances. . A large expansion of work by prisoners creating profits that motivate the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time. . More punishment of prisoners, so as to lengthen their sentences. HISTORY OF PRISON LABOR IN THE UNITED STATES Prison labor has its roots in slavery. After the 1861-1865 Civil War, a system of “hiring out prisoners” was introduced in order to continue the slavery tradition. Freed slaves were charged with not carrying out their sharecropping commitments (cultivating someone else’s land in exchange for part of the harvest) or petty thievery – which were almost never proven – and were then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were Black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were Black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. 

The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972. During the post-Civil War period, Jim Crow racial segregation laws were imposed on every state, with legal segregation in schools, housing, marriages and many other aspects of daily life. “Today, a new set of markedly racist laws is imposing slave labor and sweatshops on the criminal justice system, now known as the prison industry complex,” comments the Left Business Observer. Who is investing? At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. 
The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month. Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq. [Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that “there won’t be any transportation costs; we’re offering you competitive prison labor (here).” PRIVATE PRISONS The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under the governments of Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., but reached its height in 1990 under William Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. Clinton’s program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice Departments contracting of private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.
 Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry complex. About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut, which together control 75%. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, “the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners.” The CCA has an ultra-modern prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, they get 30 days added – which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons. IMPORTING AND EXPORTING INMATES

Untold Rebellion of Mingoe in Virginia


A slave named Mingoe, who had fled his master in Middlesex County, Virginia, gathered a large number of followers and ravaged plantations, particularly in Rappahannock County. These Negroes not only took cattle and hogs, but “two guns, a Carbyne & other things.” What became of this incident of rebellion in not recorded. [MS. Order Book, Middlesex County, 1680-1694, pp. 526-27.]

Mingoe Rebellion Background:
According to several historians, John Nickson's co-conspirators almost certainly included the slaves Lawrence and Mingoe, as well as a white servant named Richard Wilkins. In 1689 these men, perhaps inspired by Nickson's earlier plans, escaped from Wormeley's plantation and, having acquired some followers from the neighborhood, spent the next two years raiding the esta...tes of Rappahannock County and stealing livestock from the local planters. In 1691 the depredations of these three men were the source of far greater concern, as they stole several firearms, encouraging local officials to increase their efforts to capture these outlaws. All three were tried in the courts of Middlesex County: Mingoe was sentenced to thirty-nine lashes, while Wilkins's term of indenture was extended by five years. Because Lawrence was captured while in possession of a gun, he was charged as a felon and held in the county jail until he could receive his sentence from Virginia's General Court; the outcome of his case is not known, but, according to the historian Anthony S. Parent Jr., it is probable that, as a slave found with a gun, he was hanged.

Because Nickson and his followers' plans were uncovered before they could be set in motion, it could be argued that the conspiracy was of little historical importance; however, it is instructive to place Nickson's plot within the wider picture of the racial politics of late seventeenth-century Virginia. Throughout the previous fifty years, cooperation was common between white servants and black slaves, as legal definitions of slavery and servitude were vague and inconsistent, and in many instances the two groups were moved to make common cause against the colony's elite, particularly their own masters. Following Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677), though, colonial legal codes were adjusted in order to draw obvious distinctions between laborers of European descent and those of African heritage, thus to a large extent encouraging poor whites to identify themselves more with planters than with nonwhites of their own class. Although servants and slaves continued to work together as plantation laborers until well into the eighteenth century, racial identity soon came to outrank class solidarity, and instances of interracial labor resistance became less and less common. John Nickson's conspiracy may well have been the last true interracial conspiracy in the history of colonial Virginia.

Time Line
1687 - John Nickson is arrested by Middlesex County authorities and charged with leading a conspiracy of servants and slaves on Ralph Wormeley II's plantation. The court decision is recorded in the Middlesex County Order Book, but his fate remains unknown.
1689 - Two slaves, Mingoe and Lawrence, and a servant, Richard Wilkins, escape from Ralph Wormeley II's estate in Middlesex County. They gather followers and for two years raid plantations in Rappahannock County, stealing livestock and other goods.
1691 - Two slaves, Mingoe and Lawrence, and a servant, Richard Wilkins, are captured and tried in the Middlesex County court for the theft of firearms.
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Safiyah Bukhari Lioness of Liberation

It’s February, 2000. I’m in Comstock prison and heartbroken. My dear friend, the beloved political prisoner of war Nuh Washington, is in the infirmary with terminal liver cancer. Nuh, an extraordinarily soulful and compassionate comrade, has been in prison for close to 30 years as a result of the government’s war against the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Black liberation struggle. Even though he’s close by, I can’t see him because general population prisoners are not allowed to visit the infirmary. The guys who work up there look out for him the best they can, but some of the COs are taking advantage of Nuh’s weakened condition to harass him.
Then, almost miraculously, I get to spend a day with him. Two leaders of the Jericho Movement for U.S. Political Prisoners have organized a visit on February 28, Nuh’s 59th birthday, bringing up his elderly mother and his brother. While the family members call Nuh down, Safiya and Paulette call me and–with good timing and good fortune–we all get to sit together. The six of us have this unbelievably relaxed, loving, joyous birthday party, a truly splendid day. At the end, as I take him in his wheel chair to the infirmary orderly, I say one last time, “Happy Birthday.” Nuh looks back at me, with glistening eyes and, a sweet smile, and says, “It has been, a very happy birthday.”
The person who accomplished this magic was Safiya Bukhari, along with her New York Jericho co-coordinator Paulette Dauteuil. It was no mean feat. Safiya, who had a full time job, was not only an initiator and leader of Jericho but also a founder and chair of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Campaign in New York City, and she was a vice president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (a revolutionary Black nationalist formation) as well. Safiya was unparalleled in how hard she worked and in how much she did to support and strive to free political prisoners and prisoners of war (PP/POWs). Tragically Safiya died all too early of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 53 in 2003.
Now thanks to the initiative of her daughter, Wonda Jones, and an Amazonian editing effort by Laura Whitehorn, many of Safiya’s writings and speeches have been collected into The War Before–a sparkling gem of a book where even the preface by Wonda Jones brought tears to my eyes. It turns out that in addition to being a stellar organizer, Safiya provided astute and invaluable reflections on that work and on the challenges to building a movement. Her style is direct and accessible–reading these selections is almost like having a conversation–and Laura Whitehorn provides very helpful brief introductions to each piece. Those, along with the useful footnotes, provide today’s readers with the context and meanings of the different cases and organizations mentioned.
Safiya herself spent 8 1/2 years as a political prisoner, from January 1975 to August 1983, in Virginia’s harsh prisons. She had to fight to save her own life threatened by medical neglect. She was one of the founders there of a program with the delicious title MILK, Mothers Inside Loving Kids, as a way to prevent the separation of children from their incarcerated mothers. She also fought for an adequate law library, decent job training, and religious freedom.
But Safiya’s dedication to PP/POWs preceded her own stint in prison and flowed from her political understanding. As early as 1972 she tried to form a National Committee to Defend Political Prisoners, but she was soon forced underground and then busted. She remained clear on the reasons for the rest of her life. Such efforts aren’t a distraction from other work but rather the continuity of the struggles for social justice: “The issue of political prisoners is [...] an integral part of [the] movement [...] It must be woven into the very fiber” (102).
This book goes way beyond her trailblazing work around PP/POWs. She provides about the best sense I’ve seen of what it was like to be a Panther in those breakthrough but dangerous years of 1966-1973. She does so by being very concrete about day-to-day activities–working in the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, running an office, political education, physical fitness, criticism/self-criticism. And she has an amazingly balanced and nuanced view of the history. She accomplished that almost impossible dual task for revolutionaries: stand firm on fundamental principles; openly examine and criticize mistakes.
Safiya provides a valuable lesson on security for organizations under attack by the state. The pitfall is posturing–trying to show how tough or technically adept we are. The sound approach is to stay rooted in our principles and our commitment to the oppressed. Instead of rumors and backbiting against comrades and instead of the liberalism of not raising differences directly, we need open and constructive discussion. Instead of labeling someone a snitch based on a hunch (placing false snitch jackets on comrades was one of the FBI’s most successful disruptive tactics against the BPP) we need thorough and fair ways to investigate and adjudicate such charges: “We can no longer afford the luxury of rumormongering, making unsubstantiated, allegations, or harboring ill feelings without airing them” (47).
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal and murderous assault against the BPP and other radical organizations, figures prominently in her writings. But Safiya does not place all the blame for the demise of the BPP there. She looks frankly at internal weaknesses. People who got caught up in ego, who put self-advancement ahead of basic principles, became vulnerable to the pressures and tricks of COINTELPRO:
“[...P]eople in the Party allowed liberalism and egos to become more important than what we were working for [...] The people and advancing the struggle are more important than any individual” (120). At its height, the bitter split in the BPP led to tragic, fratricidal violence:
“After the split, it was a time of paranoia. The resulting violence was totally opposite to what the Party was about. COINTELPRO brought about a war inside the Party. Through COINTELPRO, people worked under the guise of being Panthers and instigated incidents. Threats were made over the phone and we feared for our lives. They created a war atmosphere” (29).
Safiya stays rooted in the historical context of what created these cracks under superhuman pressure on a very young and inexperienced organization. At the same time that principles required the Party to defend a Black community faced with brutality and killings by the police, the Panthers themselves were under police fire and attack in offices and homes around the country. Safiya neither glorifies the BPP and subsequently the Black Liberation Army’s use of armed self-defense nor airbrushes it out of the history. Where she’s emphatic is on the primacy of politics, a politics rooted in serving the people.
One of the most controversial topics is sexism within the BPP. Safiya neither glosses over the problem nor allows it to be used–as several white left groups, themselves very sexist, tried to do–to discredit the Panthers. She describes some of the problems and is unambiguous: “[...] we must deal with the problems of male chauvinism–along with domestic violence–in our communities” (60). She’s also clear about the history of oppression of Black people and how that has created a different framework than the dominant society for the development and overcoming of sexism. Like society as a whole and pretty much all left groups at the time, sexism was a big problem in the BPP. But the Party also took a monumental step forward for the times in having the courage to address women’s liberation and in being almost unique in affording Black women opportunities to be active organizers and have high levels of responsibility within the organization.
Since Safiya didn’t get to edit or update essays for this book, some of her positions get frozen in time. She may well have had more to say about sexism and the role of women in the movement a decade after that piece was written. Or, as Laura Whitehorn points out in her introduction, Safiya’s subsequent years of work with allies in PP campaigns undoubtedly led to a more supportive view of lesbians and gays than implied in the negative connotations of her late 1980s remark about homosexuality as a “temptation” to be resisted. But the point is not that the reader has to agree with every sentence in the book or even that Safiya would stand by each and every line, but rather that The War Before offers a wealth of experience and insightful reflections about principled organizing. For me, the most powerful, poignant piece in this book is “Lest We Forget,” a pamphlet she put together in the early 1980s. So many bright, idealistic, young Black revolutionaries died in the chaos of the police attacks that it’s hard to remember who they were. Safiya took on the extremely painful but tender, loving effort to list, with brief profiles, 43 people who lost their lives in the Black liberation struggle from 1966 to 1981, 28 of whom were killed between 3/68 and 11/73. This accounting is stirring in capturing the intensity of the struggle–the sacrifices involved–and in simultaneously reminding us that each person was a real, precious human being.
Safiya is very clear about the challenges ahead: “We have taken on, in our movement, the biggest enemy of human beings in the world: the U.S. system of capitalism” (215). At the same time she underscores our source of strength. For each of us changing the world “[...] begins with rebuilding the character into a revolutionary character of which the central component is love” (93).
There is much more in The War Before–her own process of radicalization, her belief that Islam and revolution are compatible and complementary, her astute analysis of how post-traumatic stress disorder affected veterans of the struggle, her cogent advocacy for death row PP Mumia Abu-Jamal, her closing essay on the incredible and little known injustice to Kamau Sadiki, and more. But I’ll end the review here with:
  • Wonda Jones and Laura Whitehorn, THANK YOU for retrieving and making this treasure trove available.
  • Safiya Bukhari, PRESENTE, your organizing, your love, your lessons live on with us.