“Government’s Arsenal to Destroy Revolutionaries”: Political Imprisonment Persists

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Through recounting the incarceration of activists fighting for black liberation, Native American sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence, economic justice, the abolition of nuclear weapons and more, author Dan Berger illustrates how imprisonment serves as a political tool deployed by the state to maintain the status quo.

Defining “political prisoner” is a risky endeavor, historian Dan Berger notes in the introduction to his recently released book on the topic, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States. Too often, it’s assumed that political prisoners are people who “haven’t done anything” – who are imprisoned simply because of their beliefs. However, as Berger articulates throughout this engrossing, fact-packed primer, most political prisoners did do something: They participated actively in movements to resist state power, often acting outside the bounds of the law. And so, rather than limiting conversations about political prisoners to determinations of “innocence” and “guilt,” it’s much more useful to discuss how and why the state attempted to suppress those movements. Through recounting the incarceration of activists fighting for black liberation, Native American sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence, economic justice, the abolition of nuclear weapons and more, Berger illustrates how imprisonment serves as a political tool deployed to maintain the status quo.

The activists Berger introduces us to aren’t usually protesting legislation or railing against particular politicians housed within current power structures. They’re working to disrupt the deep groundings of those structures – including the legitimacy of the law itself. In other words, they’re shaking the foundation of the very laws that are later used to confine them.

In the foreword to The Struggle Within, activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore points to the recent enthusiasm for prison “reform,” noting that reform-oriented advocacy often ignores the existence of political prisoners, because their struggles contradict the notion that prisons can be fixed. These prisoners – working to wholly upend existing systems of oppression – belie what Gilmore calls “the sentimental maxim that whatever’s wrong with the United States will be fixed by what’s right with it.”

This book is about people who are locked up for revealing what’s wrong with the United States, and Berger’s meticulous documentation of activist struggles shows how incarceration serves as an attempt to erase their dissent. Like the “reformers,” the government can’t acknowledge political prisoners; if it did, it would have to acknowledge the existence of the problems they’re fighting. “The prison can be seen as an extension of the repression that drove many of these people to undertake militant action in the first place,” Berger notes. “It is part of the government’s arsenal to destroy revolutionaries.”

The image of the arsenal is at home in this book about systemic struggle. Occasionally, The Struggle Within paints the landscape of the push toward revolution as a battlefield; incarcerations, like casualties, may come with the territory. Of the Black Liberation Army’s arrests for “expropriations” (the bank robberies the group’s members used to sustain their survival), Berger writes, “As members of a clandestine army fighting to free a colonized people, most captured BLA combatants have defined themselves as ‘prisoners of war.'” Many Puerto Rican independence activists in the ’70s also assumed this position; Berger talks about how some began to “refuse to participate in their own trials, asserting the position of prisoner of war, thus not subject to the colonial courts of the United States.”

The activists that Berger profiles break laws to break down chains, walls, systems, norms and entrenched assumptions. While the law is deployed to repress them, they resist by continually revealing its flimsiness and mutability; they demonstrate that it can not only be “broken,” but that it can, potentially, be broken down.

Though armed struggle plays a large role in The Struggle Within, breaking down systems isn’t simply about literally fighting back. One of the book’s most interesting and nuanced sections delves into movements of revolutionary nonviolence. Berger notes that radical pacifists, though they usually aren’t given long sentences, are known for the way in which they continually go back to prison: “For more than forty years, [nonviolent resistance] has been the political tendency most oriented toward civil disobedience.”

This points to a striking characteristic of many of the prisoners Berger chronicles: Instead of simply being victimized by a repressive government that incarcerates them in order to silence their message, these activists are usingtheir own political imprisonment to amplify their message. Many such activists also draw on their experiences of incarceration to speak out against the prison system itself. And of course, even for those who weren’t aimingto be imprisoned, the amplified attention that prominent incarcerated activists receive still draws attention to the prison-industrial complex: Think of how the movement around Mumia Abu-Jamal mobilized opposition to the death penalty, and how Angela Davis and others began to build the foundations of prison abolitionism while incarcerated.

Drawing links between the prison-industrial complex and other issues shines a light on the core institutions that drive many different forms of oppression. As Gilmore writes in the book’s foreword, “The Struggle Within is about those who believe hierarchies of race, gender, wealth, colonialism and planetary exploitation will never just time out and disappear.” In fact, the recognition of the enduring enormity of these oppressions – and a consciousness of the necessity of building new ways of being – are critical parts of how Berger frames “struggle.” For many of the activists profiled in The Struggle Within, dismantling power structures goes beyond breaking laws; it’s also about acts of creation. Given the concrete reality of what prison does – confining people within a set physical space – it’s significant that many political prisoners’ actions, both before and after incarceration, involve the reclamation of space. Their actions free their physical environment from the confines of the law and its oppressive deployment.

Berger chronicles the efforts of the Republic of New Afrika, which, in the late ’60s, proclaimed five southern states “the territory of the Black Nation”; the indigenous activists who occupied Alcatraz (drawing an analogy between reservations and “abandoned prisons”); the occupation by the American Indian Movement of Wounded Knee, the site of the bloody 1890 massacre; the seizure of the Statue of Liberty by Puerto Rican independence activists; and the occupation of Columbus Park by Chicano activists, who renamed it La Raza. The book tells of the “occupation” of prisons themselves: For example, in the Attica rebellion, prisoners maintained control of the western New York state prison for four days, holding negotiations with the state until the governor sent in troops to retake the prison, leaving 43 people dead. Beyond Attica, Black Panther chapters formed in prisons throughout the country, enacting a type of ongoing “occupation” – using prison space to organize. The “Angola 3” – Herman Wallace, Robert Wilkerson and Albert Woodfox – for instance, formed a chapter of the Black Panthers in Angola prison, a former Louisiana plantation that has long been known as one of the most oppressive prisons in the country.

Revolutionary occupations of space often resulted in incarceration – the denial of space – or, for those within prison already, even worse space deprivation, like solitary confinement. (The Angola 3, for example, were convicted of murder based on concocted evidence and thrown in solitary confinement for decades; Albert Woodfox remains in confinement, despite his conviction having been repeatedly overturned, and Wallace was released only just before his death.) Still, those spaces’ moments of existence demonstrate that other ways of living are possible – that through creative action, not only our minds and our bodies but also our environments can be taken back from dominant power structures.

In The Struggle Within’s afterword, activist, author and filmmakerdream hampton notes, “If prisons are an ‘index of injustice,’ as Berger says, then our resistance to them and connection to those inside can be a measure of our movements as well.” It’s crucial, hampton says, to build links with people behind bars, not only to make sure that their ideas don’t die, but also to support their survival as people: “We must know that we will catch each other when we fall or care for each other if and when the state seeks to treat us in the same way as those who came before us.”

This brings us back to that “risky endeavor” – defining a political prisoner – because so many people who are not allied with specific movements are also targeted by the state for committing acts of resistance. In fact, in the book’s introduction, Berger draws our attention to how “political” doesn’t always mean “movement”-driven. He points to how women of color are targeted for acts of self-defense, mentioning Marissa Alexander, the Florida mother of three who fired a warning shot to stave off an attack by her abusive husband and faces a possible 60 years in prison, and CeCe McDonald, a young trans woman who was locked up for defending herself against a man who attacked her and some friends while walking to the grocery store. “The United States has always had more political prisoners than can be summarized in one small book,” Berger writes.

Nevertheless, the activist portraits sketched in The Struggle Within make allof the many varieties of repression that comprise the criminal legal system more visible. In order to build a liberated future, we’ve got to remember what people have been incarcerated for historically – and why. “Social movements,” Berger writes, “cannot afford to forget.”

The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States is available from PM Press.