Dan Berger Illustrates Centrality of Prison to Civil Rights Struggle

Alcatraz prison. (Photo: Alexander C. Kafka)Alcatraz prison. (Photo: Alexander C. Kafka)

Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, by Dan Berger, University of North Carolina Press, 416 pages with 28 illustrations, $34.95 hardcover. (Release date: November 14, 2014).

Dan Berger’s exhaustively-researched study of the ways prison, and the threat of incarceration, impacted the nationalist politics of the 1960s and ’70s zooms in on what he calls “the intersection of black protest and state repression.” Much of the narrative is focused on George Jackson and his effect on activists both inside and outside of lock up. In addition, while the book is steeped in the hyperbolic language of the era, it offers an inspiring glimpse into the lives of men and women who were willing to risk everything for equity, freedom and justice.

Berger situates the development of prisons squarely within the history of the American republic. “The United States has been a leader in carceral violence because of its roots in settler-colonial racism and its egalitarian distrust of state power, which, paradoxically upholds degrading punishment over beneficent state action for those deemed ‘criminals,'” he writes. Skin color, of course, is key.

“Chattel slavery initiated a racial regime rooted in confinement,” he adds, and even when slavery was officially ended, bondage became a tool of authoritarian displeasure, with those deemed guilty of unlawful behavior sentenced to a period of enforced separation from their associates.

“Throughout American history,” Berger continues, “the idea of criminal justice has been bound up with anti-black racism: Black communities have been disproportionately harassed, policed, arrested, tried, convicted, confined, killed and generally thought to be deserving of punishment.”

Needless to say, the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice by police, to say nothing of the many young African Americans who are routinely stopped and questioned for no reason, underscore the veracity of this conclusion. The 2.3 million people currently in US prisons – nearly two-thirds of them of color – further illustrates Berger’s point.

Looking back to the 1960s, however, it is not surprising that civil rights organizers not only questioned prevailing concepts of law-and-order, but also boldly challenged the abuses perpetrated by prison administrators and police forces in every state. Berger reports that a wide swath of groups, including the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, the Republic of New Afrika and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participated in the prison movement; interestingly, he notes that while some of these organizations advanced integrationist policies, when it came to prisons, it was the ideology of “revolutionary nationalism” that held sway.

“Revolutionary nationalism helped black prisoners contest white domination in prison – domination by an almost all-white staff of guards and by white prisoners – by appealing to an imagined community that extended well beyond the prison and well beyond the American nation-state,” he explains. In fact, radicalized prisoners began to refer to themselves as members of a “captive nation,” an idea that kick-started numerous rebellions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Early on, though, Berger notes that civil rights pioneers, many of them middle class, saw short periods of incarceration as a “rite of passage, a form of community and a tool for political mobilization.”

That said, as nonviolence lost favor among activists eager to quicken the pace of change, an awareness of the brutal conditions facing those behind bars became fodder for public discourse. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is one example of a document used to educate mainstream Americans about the conditions of confinement.

But while Berger concludes that “imprisonment gave King power,” he also concedes that it produced a white backlash. Concomitantly, despite early pride in risking incarceration, many civil rights activists tired of presenting jail as “a step on the way to grander freedom.”

Black Panther Stokely Carmichael captured the mood when, in 1966, he declared that “I ain’t going to jail no more . . . What we gonna start saying now is Black Power.”

Carmichael was not alone in making such dramatic pronouncements. Malcolm X spoke of racism as a prison and the Black Panthers continually referred to cities as occupied territories, concentration camps and colonies and pointed out the many ways that criminal “justice” had been racialized.

Meanwhile, as urban unrest manifested in Detroit, Newark, Watts and other metropolitan centers, police departments began to expand their power, with the first Special Weapons and Tactics – SWAT – Teams rolling out in 1967. The Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968 added millions of dollars to law enforcement budgets, much of it specifically targeted at suppressing “black rage,” especially when expressed by imprisoned activists like Panther cofounder Huey Newton and communist professor Angela Davis.

In addition, by 1967-1968, many Panther recruits had had their own brushes with the law, including stints in juvenile detention.

“As black men of working class origins, their experiences with confinement were more typical than the experiences of southern civil rights activists who deliberately sought out the jail cell in protest. Even more than their civil rights counterparts, Black Panther activists used the prison to illustrate the ways that race and class conspired to prevent democratic access. The prison, therefore, was a critical institution in the rise of Black Power as something connected to and separate from the civil rights movement,” Berger writes.

Few exemplify this better than George Jackson, who was incarcerated in San Quentin Prison when his book, Soledad Brother, was released in October, 1970.

Jackson had been sent to prison in 1960, at age 18, and sentenced to one year-to -life for robbery. While inside, he was radicalized and found his voice as a writer and organizer. According to Berger, Jackson “led political education sessions in the San Quentin yard about racism and political economy.” He also talked about socialism and emphasized prisoner unity against the guards.

These words came back to haunt Jackson after prisoners caused the death of a 26-year-old guard in January 1970. “Prison officials focused on Jackson and two others known to be sympathetic to Black Power,” Berger writes. Jackson, alongside Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, were put in isolation for 21 days. Although the three reportedly barely knew one another, they were formally charged with the guard’s murder in February, 1970, and dubbed the Soledad Brothers by supporters.

“The Soledad Brothers case became a valuable prism through which to make sense of the growing connection between race and incarceration,” Berger continues.

In the midst of this political firestorm, Jackson’s lawyer, Fay Stender, came up with the idea of publishing Jackson’s letters in a book; in her mind, Soledad Brother would humanize her client and publicize the prisoners’ grievances.

She was partially right, but although the book went on to win numerous awards and accolades, it could not serve as a protective shield for its author. On August 21, 1971, two days before the Soledad Brothers were scheduled to go on trial, an armed standoff between Jackson and prison personnel led to his death. He was one month shy of his 30th birthday – and an instant martyr.

Many on the left saw Jackson, Drumgo and Cluthchette as political prisoners – symbols of resistance against oppression, torture and tyranny. Groups including the George L. Jackson Assault Squad of the Black Liberation Army, the George Jackson Brigade, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and the Republic of New Afrika formed to continue Jackson’s work and to publicize the existence of other political prisoners locked inside.

Nevertheless, as Berger notes, the violent encounter at San Quentin – in concert with the Attica rebellion less than a year later – ended the public’s “brief, popular romance with the radical prisoner.” As is now obvious, a far more conservative set of ideas would soon gain traction, “viewing prisoners as part of an intellectually inferior, preternaturally violent substratum of society that deserved nothing but force from the American state. From this perspective, prisoners neither needed nor deserved rehabilitation; they needed to be removed from society.”

And there you have it. That 2 percent of US children – most of them black or brown – have at least one parent in prison is staggering. That this fact does not jolt us – or our elected representatives – into reconsidering our views on crime, punishment and safety proves the extent to which racism and classism still impact US politics.

Captive Nation highlights these facts of present-day life. It also addresses gender and the ways prison promotes hyper-masculinity and brings attention to Jackson’s comrades, many of whom have been languishing in cages for more than 40 years.

It’s an important history.

Berger holds out hope that new anti-racist movements will arise to win freedom from violence for all disenfranchised communities. “From poverty and unemployment to mass incarceration and health discrimination, from educational inequity and police violence to diverse forms of disenfranchisement, blackness in the United States remains a marker of premature death, of the ‘poor-butchered half-lives’ of which George Jackson spoke in 1971,” Berger concludes.

Isn’t it high time to say “enough” and demand better for ourselves and our friends and neighbors?