Freedom From Violence: Lessons From Black Prisoner Organizing

From the cover of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. (Image: The University of North Carolina Press)From the cover of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. (Image: The University of North Carolina Press)

The following is an excerpt from Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians.

Collective rebellions are episodic. Expanded technologies of control and limited leftist movements on the outside have made such rebellions even rarer in prisons. But the long-standing black critique of the American criminal justice as a system of racial dominance continues, aided and abetted by the existence of resurgent opposition to prisons beginning in the late 1990s and with added ferocity since the economic collapse of 2008. In 1998, two organizations formed with direct connections to the previous generation of prison protest. Bo Brown, who spent seven years in prison for her involvement with the Seattle-based clandestine George Jackson Brigade, and Angela Davis were part of the intergenerational founding collective of Critical Resistance (CR). CR helped popularize a systemic analysis of prisons as part of a wider organization of the political economy — a prison-industrial complex. Alongside feminist antiviolence organizations such as Incite!: Women of Color against Violence, CR has worked to reengage a politics of (prison) abolition that updates 1970s innovations.

(Image: The University of North Carolina Press)(Image: The University of North Carolina Press)The same year that CR began, former Black Panther and longtime political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim initiated the Jericho Amnesty Movement, an organization dedicated to freeing U.S. political prisoners, especially the dozens of women and men still incarcerated for political actions and associations of the civil rights era. One of Jericho’s stalwart organizers on the outside was Safiya Bukhari, a former Black Panther who served nine years as a political prisoner. Prior to her death in 2003, Bukhari also worked with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, formed by people close to the Republic of New Afrika. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has organized against stop-and-frisk policing and for the freedom of black political prisoners. They turned Black August into an international hip-hop celebration of black resistance to confinement throughout history. CR began with a large conference, Jericho with a large march, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement circulates prison struggle through hip-hop: the response to captivity continues to be a combination of knowledge production, direct action, and cultural work.

To this list could be added a variety of local and regional organizations and campaigns that have worked to end the war on drugs; lift the barriers to the civil and human rights of formerly incarcerated people; support current and former prisoners in circulating their ideas or gaining their freedom; stop the construction of prisons, jails, and detention centers; abolish solitary confinement and the death penalty; and shift budgetary resources back to community institutions, among other priorities. Other veterans from the civil rights era’s prison organizing have contributed to these developments on both sides of the wall though organizations such as All of Us or None and various prison moratorium projects. Current prisoners, from veterans of the 1960s-era social movements to more recent internees, have worked to confront the AIDS crisis and medical neglect in prisons, protest solitary confinement, and challenge the global reach of the U.S. carceral state. They have confronted mass incarceration through creative proposals for mass decarceration that link the reduction of imprisonment to the expansion of social justice.

As prison organizing demonstrates, the pursuit of freedom from violence is rooted in care and creativity. Throughout the civil rights era, black prisoners and their allies devised a series of ways to forge freedom from violence that were most dramatically located in exposure. Through writing, uprisings, and court cases, they worked to reveal the horrors of confinement. In exposing prison abuses, they worked to expose the larger brutalities of racism. Civil rights workers rushed to fill southern jails, and Black Power organizers leveraged their experiences with incarceration for the same reason: to eradicate the many ways in which black communities have faced oppression and premature death.

The daily work of prison organizing relies on labor typically gendered as female, a broadly defined notion of support that includes participating in and facilitating communication and person-to-person social networks, expanding communal ties, organizing coalitions, and providing services to those in need. In addition, standing up to the carceral state has required a great deal of ingenuity to overcome the many factors that make prisons difficult institutions around which to organize: their geographic remove from population centers, the stigma of criminalization, the oblique ways in which prisons are funded and governed. Artists, musicians, writers, and other cultural workers have been at the forefront of prison organizing precisely because such creativity has kept the prison in public memory and consciousness. This need for creative forms of resistance against such violence helps explain why prison activism, especially its abolitionist incarnations, has appealed to so many queer and trans people; the ability to imagine, in practical, daily terms, something beyond the seemingly naturalized gender binary lends itself well to the capacity to imagine a world without walls and cages. Such imagination has been instrumental in the ranks of contemporary antiprison movements, where organizers experiment with a series of alternative institutions, including modes of addressing interpersonal (especially sexual) harm in the context of systemic inequality.

Black prison organizing is a complex, contradictory, and robust example of the wider black freedom struggle. The tactics and strategies of that larger freedom struggle, continually revised since slavery, inform the shape and substance of black prison organizing. Because it takes shape amid extreme deprivation and violence, prison organizing is by nature episodic and disparate. Yet its impacts have been enormous. In the civil rights era, black prison organizing informed popular conceptions of race, alienation, and freedom. While the neoliberal era has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of the carceral state, prison organizing has not disappeared. The prominence of the phrase “prison-industrial complex” in scholarship, hip-hop music, and now even popular journalism testifies to the ways in which terminology developed through political struggle has become part of a larger common sense that names the centrality of the criminal justice system — prisons, policing, surveillance — as it connects with schools, media, private industry, and American governance.

Contemporary opponents of the carceral state might take three major and interrelated actions from black prison organizing in the civil rights era: to care, to chronicle, and to coalesce.

Care: What social scientists at the time called “the convict code” was a robust network of communal care outside the frameworks of liberalism. Prisoners pledged loyalty to one another, at least temporarily overlooking differences in the service of a larger unity that was, in moments of uprising, leveraged in a fight for prisoner rights. Further, the work of prison organizers on the outside — lawyer Fay Stender, journalist Jessica Mitford, nurse Phyllis Prentice, scholar Angela Davis, activist Karen Wald, and thousands of others — was premised on caring for people facing extreme state violence. Prison organizing, then and now, is about expanding a circle of care. Prison organizing lost sight of that directive at several key moments, facilitated partly by state infiltration. The long list of casualties in California from internecine battles in the movement’s later years — Fay Stender, Fleeta Drumgo, Huey Newton, Fred Bennett, James Carr, Popeye Jackson, and several others, on top of the many who had been killed by the state — scared many committed activists and would-be activists away from prison organizing there and facilitated an expanded push for “law and order.” Care in and of itself did not win much, but its absence contributed to heavy losses. Further, this care ought to be understood through vulnerability rather than deservingness. As contemporary critiques of mass incarceration focus on “nonviolent drug offenders,” there is a danger of asking or being asked to limit our care only to those who meet some preordained moral standard akin to “innocence.” But genuine care extends to those facing harm, those who have harmed, and those who do the work of maintaining communal ties. The deservingness of care ought to be premised on a recognition of shared humanity rather than jurisprudent categories.

Chronicle: All organizing is, at root, about telling stories. Whatever the issue, political success belongs to the most believable (though sadly not always the most true) story. These stories are crafted collectively and dialogically: they are the work not of one storyteller but rather of a convergence of tellers speaking through a variety of media. “Law and order” was a story about safety for certain people premised on incapacitating “those people” deemed threatening. Black prison organizing was a story about generational captivity and fugitive freedom. It was also a story about brutal conditions and a better treatment. Many people — most centrally, prisoners themselves — participated in crafting this story. They told this story through uprisings, letters, poetry, newspapers, and manifestos. It was reiterated by others through conferences, books, bombs, protests, and other means. What united these various efforts was a visionary critique of the world as it was. George Jackson’s Soledad Brother remains a poignant text because it so eloquently captures the horrors of his prison environment as well as his refusal to be reduced to those horrors. Throughout, he expressed a palpable belief in transformative social change. He invited readers to be horrified by what was and inspired by what could be. As his conditions worsened in the context of revolutionary upheaval worldwide, he hoped that immediate revolutionary assault would create change. With a tunnel vision shaped by years in isolation, he drastically overestimated how many people agreed with his story and saw no need to keep breathing life into an alternate story of fugitive freedom. Some of his supporters abnegated dialogue for devotion, failing to disabuse him of his militarism or keep intervening in what stories were told about crime, justice, and prisons. They stopped telling their own stories. Amid an aggressive counterrevolution, they lost the balance of chronicling what is and what could be.

Coalesce: At its height, the prison movement had a large and surprising coalition. It consisted of activists from different communities and movements, a wide variety of sympathetic professionals and politicians, musicians and artists of all stripes, friends and family members of the currently and formerly incarcerated, with all of them gathered around the symbol and message of dissident prisoners. The movement’s success lay in a constant expansion of the coalition. Uprisings, interviews, and poetry helped raise awareness and enlist new members. This coalition offered its members a chance to feel directly affected by and connected to the issue across a wide variety of social locations and personal experiences. “The prison” signified both a bricks-and-mortar institution and a diverse set of antagonisms. It could be an overly malleable concept, taken up for cynical or narcissistic as well as reactionary aims. But to the extent that it was anchored in prisoner demands through grassroots organizing and direct action, through an escalating sense of the “we,” a critique of the prison enabled a political opposition to confinement and a cultural language of expanded freedom. A belief in universal confinement, a belief that “America is the prison,” as Malcolm X and then the Black Panther Party and Republic of New Afrika put it, popularized a Black Power analysis. It created the conditions under which diverse movements could challenge the criminal justice system based on their negative experiences with police, prisons, and other forms of state inequality. The drive for an ever-expanding coalition of people and issues allowed organizers to break the divisions that the prison works so hard to instill: by identity and geography, by walls and gates.

Direct action unites these modalities of care, chronicle, and coalition. The most successful and enduring forms of organizing freedom from violence have been found in direct confrontation with the state. During the civil rights era and perhaps again today, activist prisoners demonstrated that confinement would not sap their energy or their intellect. Through a series of dramatic encounters — in courtrooms and prison cells, in the pages of books and letters — prisoners displayed a collective initiative, political sophistication, and global imagination. They showed that it is possible to enact radical visions and social structures even — or especially — in situations where state power was at its most abusive and restrictive. From solitary confinement, George Jackson and Angela Davis made the world aware of the prison’s racist violence. Ruchell Magee, the San Quentin 6, and other prisoners in solitary confinement (as well as in the general population) showed that the prison was deeply entwined with the afterlife of slavery.

In the connections they made between people they knew well and those they never met, between other prisoners and outside supporters, prisoners expressed an auspicious transformative potential that still has the power to recalibrate notions of race and gender in ways that might undermine bedrock structures of state violence. Through such challenges to the U.S. state, prison organizers learn to develop their own modes of governance. To succeed, they must create an affirmative freedom from violence as well as an opposition to the dominant form of freedom with violence. And to the extent that they succeed in any element of their work, campaigns and initiatives that reduce and supplant the life and scope of the carceral state remain the most urgent, life-affirming political task imaginable.

Captivity and nationality lie at the heart of race in the United States. They form a dialectic found in terms of both how the U.S. state racializes certain populations and how such populations respond to and make sense of their conditions. Captivity continues to animate black social life. 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.

Yet the fact that black prisoners have, time and again, emerged as spokespeople for and theorists of a different kind of freedom shows that nothing can be taken for granted and that the tragedy of American imprisonment — like the greater tragedy of the violent racial state of which it is a part — is neither preordained nor permanent. That knowledge provides a potent and poignant glimpse of freedom, the contingent and courageous struggle for freedom from violence, that always haunts systems of captivity. It is an expansive, reparative, and transformative freedom. It is a future-oriented freedom with deep roots and sprouting seeds to be nurtured. It is a freedom hopeful that the world can be defined by something greater than captivity, something more meaningful than nationality.

Copyright (2014) of Dan Berger. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, The University of North Carolina Press.