From the Keystone State to the Golden State: The need for a national movement to liberate political prisoners

by Robert Saleem Holbrook

Russell Maroon Shoats by JerichoJoseph Bowens by JerichoFred Muhammad Burton by JerichoSundiata Acoli by Jericho

 

In Pennsylvania, former Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army members Russell Maroon Shoatz, Joseph JoJo Bowens, Clifford Lumumba Futch and Fred Muhammad Burton enter their 40th year in captivity. Up the road in USP Allenwood, Pennsylvania BLA member Sundiata Acoli is denied parole yet again by the state of New Jersey and given a 15-year parole hit, essentially a terminal hit, as Brother Sundiata is in his mid-70s.

In New York, former Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army members Jalil Muntaqim, Sekou Odinga, Herman Bell, Abdul Majid and Robert Seth Hayes enter their fourth decade in prison as well. Until recently in the federal Admax in Florence, Colorado, now at USP Victorville in Adelanto, Calif., former Black Liberation Army member Dr. Mutulu Shakur, the stepfather of the late Tupac Shakur, enters his third decade in captivity.

In Omaha, Nebraska, former Black Panthers Mondo we Langa and Ed Poindexter enter their 40th year in captivity, while in Angola, Louisiana, former Black Panther Albert Woodfox enters his 40th year in captivity, 36 of them in isolation. In California, the “Golden Gulag,” comrades Hugo Pinell and Ruchell Cinque Magee are on the verge of their 50th year of imprisonment. In the federal system, Puerto Rican Independence political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera is entering his 30th year of captivity for fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico.

The names represented in this article are just the “known” political prisoners and no disrespect to any brothas and sistas left off the list. The purpose of the list is to illustrate the current plight of our movement’s political prisoners, who, despite surviving countless hostile encounters with the state’s security forces, are on the verge of succumbing to old age and infirmities behind the walls and gun towers of the empire’s Prison Industrial Complex.

There is no cause celebre movement calling for these men’s release or amnesty because they represent an unrepentant Black-New Afrikan political militancy and drive for self-determination, and their very example is threatening to a United States that currently has the highest disproportion of wealth between the rich and poor than at any time within its history. In addition, in the eyes of the state, these men committed the most deplorable offense an oppressed minority or group can commit and that is to use armed struggle as a political response and expression to state repression and violence.

Our movement’s political prisoners, who, despite surviving countless hostile encounters with the state’s security forces, are on the verge of succumbing to old age and infirmities behind the walls and gun towers of the empire’s Prison Industrial Complex.

The government claims our political prisoners are “terrorists” because they picked up arms in pursuit of political objectives. However, the truth is these groups turned to arms only as a last resort after the government, through COINTELPRO, waged an illegal war against members of the Black Liberation Movement. This illegal war resulted not only in false arrests and imprisonment, but also assassinations and ultimately the destruction of the Black Panther Party as a political representative of the Black underclass within the Black colonies – the hoods and ghettos – of the United States.

Any question of whether our political prisoners were right or wrong in resorting to armed struggle during that turbulent period in Amerikan history should be irrelevant since history has shown their actions were justified by the repressive circumstances of the times. This was a time when state sponsored racial terrorism was practiced extensively in the Southern United States against Afrikan Americans, and unarmed civil rights activists were murdered, disappeared and bombed out of existence by not only white vigilante groups like the KKK and White Citizens Councils (now called Conservative Citizens Councils) but also with the cooperation and tacit support of state actors such as law enforcement, politicians etc.

Jalil Muntaqim by JerichoSekou Odinga by JerichoHerman Bell by JerichoAbdul Majid by Jericho

Meanwhile, up North the Black colonies exploded in riots and rebellion in response to an epidemic of police brutality, mass unemployment and widespread Black disenfranchisement. The period of 1965-1972 has often been described as the second Amerikan civil war and, for members of the Black Liberation Movement, it was a war.

In 2014, however, we are led to believe that the war is long over and the barriers to Afrikan American empowerment have been shattered. Obama is president and Holder is U.S. attorney general.

Yet, if the war is over, why are our political prisoners still detained? Why are they still labeled “terrorists”? The government claims they are terrorists, but our political prisoners never waged war on a defenseless population. Their guns were aimed at armed police or other targets of the government who were also armed. Compare our political prisoners’ conduct with the racist right wing white vigilantes in the South who lynched, shot, raped and bombed unarmed Afrikan American men, women and children to maintain white supremacy while Southern state governments and the federal government looked the other way.

The government also claims amnesty is out of the question because our political prisoners should not be forgiven for targeting and terrorizing law enforcement agencies and government personnel across the empire. Nor for the enduring harm which the government claims was caused to families of fallen police officers. However, why is healing and amnesty always a one-way street? Why are we as Afrikan Americans constantly reminded to forgive and grant amnesty to the perpetrators of the 400 years of terror our ancestors endured in the United States, first during the 300 years of chattel slavery and then during 100 years of Jim Crow-era American apartheid – segregation?

Any question of whether our political prisoners were right or wrong in resorting to armed struggle during that turbulent period in Amerikan history should be irrelevant since history has shown their actions were justified by the repressive circumstances of the times.

The entire soil of the Southern United States is so drenched with the blood and suffering of our ancestors – and of Native Americans – from the eras of colonial expansion, chattel slavery and segregation – crimes against our ancestors’ humanity – that it should not only constitute hallowed ground but should also be identified as one of the largest crime scenes on the planet. This we are asked to pardon?

Even from a more contemporary angle, we are asked to forgive and offer amnesty to the perpetrators who murdered thousands of Afrikan Americans during the struggle to end Jim Crow segregation from 1952 to 1966. “Get over it” or “That was the past” are common rebukes that one encounters when raising this specter of state-sponsored terrorism in America.

Seriously, we are asked to “put this behind us” and move on with our lives as if nothing happened and, even worse, as if it doesn’t matter. At the same time, the government refuses to grant amnesty to an oppressed minority’s freedom fighters who are now imprisoned by the state.

Robert Seth Hayes by JerichoMutulu Shakur by JerichoMondo we Langa by JerichoEd Poindexter by Jericho

 

We should not be surprised that the state would be opposed to amnesty for our political prisoners given that in the United States, Black life has historically been and is presently viewed by the state as “worthless” and held in less regard than white life. This is why our freedom fighters are condemned to die in prison while the white perpetrators of Southern terror against Afrikan Americans are rehabilitated into the “New South,” and the federal agents behind COINTELPRO and their law enforcement partners have retired on comfortable government pensions. The government certainly has not put any challenges to it behind it.

We must also understand that the issue of our political prisoners will not be addressed from a compassionate standpoint in the eyes of the government. As Malcolm X said: “That whole thing about appealing to the moral conscience of America – America’s conscience is bankrupt. She lost all conscience a long time ago.” To deal with this issue we must first deal with ourselves.

No conversation about the plight of our political prisoners can be complete without addressing the dismal failure of the majority of our civil rights, cultural and political movements to keep political prisoners at the forefront of their agendas. This failure is a stain on our national character, and when I say national character, I am referring to the descendants of enslaved Afrikans in the United States, who constitute a distinct nation within the United States.

Many of our misleaders tell us that the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movement struggles are over and obsolete and that enfranchisement and self-determination have been attained. Our misleaders have granted amnesty to the government for its past transgressions, yet apparently the government hasn’t gotten that memo.

In conflict and war, only after the cessation of hostilities is amnesty granted. If widespread racial discrimination and structural racial injustice have been defeated, why are our freedom fighters still imprisoned decades after the supposed attainment of our people’s full rights under the Constitution? Our political prisoners have been left behind.

No conversation about the plight of our political prisoners can be complete without addressing the dismal failure of the majority of our civil rights, cultural and political movements to keep political prisoners at the forefront of their agendas.

Many of our so-called leaders and professors can issue glowing tributes to Mandela on his recent passing that praise his militant opposition to apartheid, yet where are their voices and platform when it comes to our Mandelas in U.S. custody for over four decades?

Even some of our so-called radical and culturally conscious leaders have performed dismally in the struggle to support and liberate our political prisoners. Why do they not travel to Cuba and meet with Assata in a show of solidarity and support? Unfortunately, far too few in number are professors like Georgia State University Akinyele Omowale Umoja, who has produced scholarly work on the political-military history and lessons of Black armed resistance and defense in the United States.

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox by JerichoHugo Pinell by JerichoRuchell Magee by JerichoOscar Lopez Rivera by Jericho

Our so-called leaders and representatives must break free of their fear of consequences for supporting our political prisoners. For if, as many of them tell us, we are free and times have changed, then why do they fear consequences from the government? If they are representatives and/or spokespersons of our people, why are they not speaking out on behalf of our political prisoners who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in our people’s long struggle in the United States?

Herein lies the contradiction: In the United States, we are free only within acceptable boundaries of dissent determined by the state that is responsible for our collective lack of power as a people. To detour from these acceptable boundaries of dissent would invite repercussion from the state.

The sad irony in this is that the repercussions our so-called leaders would face are not mortal consequences nor would they particularly endanger their freedom. That is no longer the primary modus operandi of the government in this so-called post-racial United States.

The repercussions these misleaders would face for siding with the true representatives of our people is ostracism and removal from the corridors of state power and celebrity. They would no longer be invited to grand political photo-op gatherings or power summits; their invitations to speak at conventions and on cable television would dry up.

In short, they would be thrown back to the ‘hood. Tragically, this is what it has come down to: No one wants to be tossed from their comfortable perch in an imperial United States. These are tough and uncomfortable statements but they are also necessary ones in an era of neocolonialism, when the state has us acting against our own interests. We must call out those who claim to represent us and, so long as that criticism is constructive, no one should be immune from it.

Our so-called leaders and representatives must break free of their fear of consequences for supporting our political prisoners. For if, as many of them tell us, we are free and times have changed, then why do they fear consequences from the government?

Presently the plight of our political prisoners is being raised in front of the United Nations Human Rights Committee tasked with studying reports concerning the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty ratified by the United States in 1992. In March of 2014, Efia Nwangaza, a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the U.S. Human Rights Network, accompanied a delegation of activists to Geneva, Switzerland, to specifically represent political prisoners and report to the committee on the United States’ failure to comply with the ICCPR. Among those failures are the continued use of prolonged solitary confinement on political prisoners and the continued imprisonment of political prisoners in the United States due to their political beliefs.

The delegation was successful in convincing Cuba, Venezuela and South Africa to call for the unconditional release of all U.S. political prisoners. China and Russia also denounced the United States human rights record, pointing out its double standard of condemning smaller countries for human rights abuses while ignoring and perpetuating human rights abuses within its own borders.

The delegation was successful in convincing Cuba, Venezuela and South Africa to call for the unconditional release of all U.S. political prisoners.

Dr. Zonke Zaneke Majodina and Efia Nwangaza both participated in the ICCPR in Geneva March 14-15, 2014, Dr. Majodina as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and Nwangaza to testify on behalf of U.S. political prisoners. Dr. Majodina cited Herman Wallace, who died four days after his release, which was blocked for decades solely because of the warden’s fear of “Black Pantherism.” “Cuba, Venezuela and South Africa called for the unconditional release of all U.S. political prisoners,” Ms. Nwangaza said. Both women called for U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to be given unfettered access to all prisons in the U.S.
Dr. Zonke Zaneke Majodina and Efia Nwangaza both participated in the ICCPR in Geneva March 14-15, 2014, Dr. Majodina as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and Nwangaza to testify on behalf of U.S. political prisoners. Dr. Majodina cited Herman Wallace, who died four days after his release, which was blocked for decades solely because of the warden’s fear of “Black Pantherism.” “Cuba, Venezuela and South Africa called for the unconditional release of all U.S. political prisoners,” Ms. Nwangaza said. Both women called for U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to be given unfettered access to all prisons in the U.S.

Sister Nwangaza is preparing another report for submission to the next United Nations Human Rights Committee. If anyone is interested in building support for this delegation and report, please contact Sister Efia Nwangaza at enjericho@gmail.com. Or call Malcolm X Center for Self Determination Executive Director Nwangaza at 864-239-0470 and inquire how you can support her efforts to liberate our political prisoners. The only way we can give these reports muscle is by building a movement behind them.

People can also help by joining your local Jericho Chapter (www.thejerichomovement.com) or starting a chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (www.mxgm.org). Also sign up to say, “Hands Off Assata,” at www. assatashakur.org. Support the Human Rights Coalition (www.hrcoalition.org) and organize to pressure leaders and organizations that claim to represent us socially, politically and culturally to mobilize locally and nationally in support of the freedom of our political prisoners.

Grassroots movements should reach out to our political prisoners and put them on their advisory councils and boards. In Pennsylvania, the Human Rights Coalition has had the privilege of having BLA political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz as its co-founder and advisor, and his counsel has charted and expanded HRC’s vision and reach. We recommend other movements do the same.

The vision and experience of these veteran freedom fighters is essential for our collective struggle to roll back the War on Drugs, a war that has ultimately turned into a war against communities and people of color and spawned in its wake the monster of mass imprisonment, which has bled our communities of their youth and future.

If we respect our struggle, we must honor and bring home our freedom fighters who struggled first to forge the way for us. In the words of Assata Shakur, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

If we respect our struggle, we must honor and bring home our freedom fighters who struggled first to forge the way for us.

Send our brother some love and light: Robert Saleem Holbrook, BL-5140, SCI Coal Township, 1 Kelley Dr., Coal Township PA 17866, salimmwasi@gmail.com.