What Will it Take to Free Our Political Prisoners?
By Liz Derias, MXGM
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a revolutionary human rights organization based in the u.s. that fights to uphold the self-determination and rights of Black people in the world has been working to free political prisoners for over three decades. The organization has actively worked on the cases of Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu Jamal, Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, the San Francisco 8, the MOVE 9, the Cuban 5, and more.
This article will describe the history and current context of political prisoners in the u.s., the conditions for them while incarcerated, and the organizing strategies to free them.
The Legacy of COINTELPRO
We cannot discuss the case of political prisoners in the u.s. without having an understanding of COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO, or the COunter INtelligence PROgram, was the federal government’s secret program during the 1950s-70s used against many forces of the Black Liberation movement, leftists, and political dissidents in the U.S. including the Chicano Nationalist Movement and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. It was secret because it was illegal.
Under COINTELPRO, the FBI and local police forces assassinated, arrested, tortured and framed hundreds of leftists, particularly Black leftists, who were considered to pose the greatest threat to the racist status quo of US society. The tactics of COINTELPRO can be categorized in four main areas: infiltration of organizations, psychological warfare from the outside, harassment through the legal system and extralegal force and violence, and extrajudicial killing and murder. FBI’s stated motivation was “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.”
The program was revealed to the public after a group of activists retrieved documents from an FBI office in Media, PA about the program, and forced news agencies to publish them.
In 1976, a major investigation was launched by the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the "Church Committee", under committee head, Frank Church (D-ID), which found that the program indeed violated constitutional rights.
With funds made available by Homeland Security’s post 9/11 “war against terrorism”, an Anti-Terrorism Task Force housed in the Dept of Homeland Security was strengthened. This Task Force is COINTELPRO on steroids. Detectives, many who had been agents of COINTELPRO, came out of retirement to serve on this Task Force and worked with local police forces to conduct sweeps across the country that primarily arrested former Black Panther Party members. These Panthers were faced with grand jury subpoenas, as we saw in the case of the SF8 in 2006. These grand jury subpoenas continue today, and as recently as a year ago many activists have been summoned, particularly those who are working on environmental issues in the North West states, and those working on issues of Palestine, including Hatem Abudayyah renowned Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, IL.
Isolation in u.s. prisons
A key and defining characteristic of political prisoners’ incarceration in u.s. prisons is their forced isolation. Additionally, the severity of the conditions that PP’s are subjected to and the extraordinary lengths of time that have been imposed on them, have sparked international campaigns, such as in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, Russel Maroon Shoaltz, and others, to be released. Their campaigns have also been championed by leading national u.s. based human rights orgs such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the National Lawyers Guild.
In many cases, PP’s their natural leadership qualities is seen as a threat to the facility, and they are consequentially isolated in solitary confinement. In an article, “Solitary confinement: Torture chambers for black revolutionaries”, written August 10, 2012 by the Human Rights Watch, a PA based human rights organization, authors state,
“Any discussion on solitary confinement begins and ends with a number: a prisoner is kept in his or her cell 23 or 24 hours per day, allowed three showers every week and served three meals a day. According to a report by United Nations Special Rapporteur [on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Juan] Mendez prisoners should not be held in isolation for more than 15 days at a stretch. But in the US, it is typical for hundreds of thousands of prisoners to pass in and out of solitary confinement for 30 or 60 days at a time each year.”
Human Rights Watch estimated that there were, “… approximately 20,000 prisoners being held in Supermax prisons, which are entire facilities dedicated to solitary confinement or near-solitary. It is estimated that at least 80,000 men, women and even children are being held in solitary confinement on any given day in US jails and prisons.”
It’s simply inhumane-the physical and psychological tactics used against PP’s: sensory deprivation, lack of social contact, and restricted access to all intellectual and emotional stimuli. The Prison Discipline study, a mass national survey assessing formal and informal punitive practices in u.s. prisons conducted in 1989, revealed that, “Black prisoners and the mentally ill were also targeted for especially harsh treatment.” Perhaps the most notorious case of this is the case of the Angola 3, three Black Panthers who have been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana. Robert King was released after 29 years in solitary, but his comrades - Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace - recently began their 40th years in solitary confinement. The three have spent a combined 100 years in solitary confinement.
Additionally, in working with political prisoners, the issue of torture in prisons and detention facilities were explicitly highlighted for me. These have come to light in the world’s eye in cases of Abu Ghrahib and Guantanamo. My colleagues on the panel- lawyers or who have dealt with international law-know that this is in direct violation of international law. In my experience working with the SF8 the bros shared experiences of when they were first arrested in 1973 and tortured for evidence. What became a challenge in the case of the SF8 in 2005 was that the law had changed under the Patriot Act so that any evidence extracted under torture became admissible, meaning it could be unearthed and in that case from the late 70s in that case to be used in the 2005 case.
And so what does this mean for us as those working to free political prisoners? It means that despite the international outcry, and as a result of 9/11, the u.s. has attempted to legitimize torture as a necessary and acceptable practice in a domestic case. We must pay attention to this as movement workers, and actively employ strategies that counter our current context.
Strategies and Objectives to Free Political Prisoners
We must develop sound objectives and the strategies to free our prisoners. In the case of the SF 0, MXGM employed these strategies that effectively freed the brothers, and can be replicated in other cases of political prisoners.
In 1973 several former Black Panthers, had been arrested in New Orleans due to an unidentified shooting of a SF officer. With no justifiable charges they were detained and tortured, including being subjected to electric probes to their genital areas and severe beatings while blindfolded. Frank McCoy and Ed Erlatz were the two arresting and questioning officers. All charges were dropped in 1975 because of the torture and because of lack of evidence. In 2003, these same arresting officers came out of retirement, were promoted to the US anti-terrorism task force and deputized to interrogate the bros once again. On January 23, 2006 several police officers and government authorities desperately in need of upholding Cointelpro, arrest 5 bros, Hank Jones, Harold Taylor, Richard Brown, Ray Bodreaux, Ronald Bridgeforth, Francisco Torres, and Jalil Muntaquim and Herman Bell who were already incarcerated were also implicated in the case. They were subpoenaed to appear in front of grand juries, and after refusing to cooperate spent many months in jail. Bail was set between 3 and 5 million for them, until we had a hearing to reduce it.
Our objectives in supporting the case were to:
1. defeat the prosecution of the 8,
2. to build a culture of non-compliance to their prosecution,
3. to build a case for the parole of the 2 of sf 8 who were incarcerated since the 70s on non-related cases, and
4. to weaken the political and social initiative of the advancing war on terror.
In order to meet our objectives, our strategies included:
1. broadly politicizing the case in general and build a multi-racial alliance that would support the bros (especially in the Asian community, as that was a rather large community of potential jury members in SF)
2. exerting constant pressure on the court and impact the jury (both the pool and the sitting jury itself),
3. questioning the motives of the attorney general and isolate his position, and
4. raising considerable media coverage
- One thing that was on our side, was that the bros were held in SF County Jail, and so it made establishing a support committee, The SF committee for the defense of human rights easier. In the case of the Cuban there was a political intent to isolate the brothers from each other and their families. Of which I’ve read that the wives of two of the bros have been denied visas to see their husbands after applying up to 12 times.
- Visits often times keep the bros spirits high.
- We were intentional about building with white allies who had capital or wealth to contribute to bail funds and other related court costs.
- Legacy of Torture video, a 27 minute video that features footage of the brothers, family members, supporters speaking on the case.
- Education of supporters across California to draw in college student in particular, as in many cases they were able to provide a physical presence of support by attending court hearings, organizing actions on their campus or their cities.
- Fundraising particularly to help pay bills, etc. as in many cases they were the primary income provider in their homes, buy phone cards for family members, purchase medicines.
- Advocate for their care-physical care.
- Organizing strategy that included conducting surveys to gather supporters, particularly on police brutality, police repression, and conditions in prison. In some cases, this helped us to engage regular folks convos that related to the treatment of those incarcerated, and garner more supporters.
- Four and a half years of mass support for the brothers, including resolutions from the San Francisco Central Labor Council, the Berkeley City Council, and several San Francisco Supervisors.
- When the bros were released on bail, we actively spent time with them on strategizing sessions to determine who we needed to put pressure on for their release and who were strategic communities to organize with.
- Community awareness and celebration when a victory, even minor, was important as it replenished the spirit of the organizers and the bros.
In January 2008, charges of conspiracy were dropped against five of the defendants, and Richard O'Neal was removed from the case all together, changing the name of the case to the San Francisco 7. On June 29, 2009, Bell pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Young. The following month, charges were dropped against Boudreaux, Brown, Jones, and Taylor, and Muntaquim pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit voluntary manslaughter.
What We Have to Do
In closing, well resourced, strategically timed, intelligent legal strategies coupled with grassroots organizing today is a necessity to free political prisoners. Moreover and on a larger scale, we have to challenge the mass incarceration and imprisonment of peoples in this country, and we have to challenge the post 9-11 war on terror that spread. Additionally we have to keep alive the legacy of political prisoners to u.s. led imperialism, white supremacy and u.s. hegemony. The u.s.’ attempt to erase the stories of PP’s is an attempt to erase the legacy of resistance of the Black Liberation Movement.
Movement workers should stay updated on cases of political prisoners by signing up for updates on various support committee websites, connect with international committees to free PP’s such as the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5, creating your own support committee, attend and host local events in support of PP’s, raise awareness with friends, family, and community members through fact sheets, organizing events, letter writing parties, and concerts such as MXGM’s annual Black August concert. Additionally, video and media are always good resources, such as COINTELPRO 101, which can be purchased from the Freedom Archives website, www.freedomarchives.org.
Free em all!
For more information on the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, visit www.mxgm.org.