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Oral History of Political Prisoners Shows Enduring Power of Revolutionary Hope

Edited by abolitionist Josh Davidson and political prisoner Eric King, “Rattling the Cages” is an archive of defiance.

Political prisoners “are our messengers, our dreamers, and our pioneers,” writes celebrated Marxist and abolitionist Angela Davis in the preface to Rattling the Cages: Oral Histories of North American Political Prisoners. “They teach us that we do not have to accede to existing modes of organizing our collective existence. They remind us that there is life beyond racial capitalism, beyond heteropatriarchy, beyond the terrible web of carcerality, which they boldly critique even as it has captured their bodies. They are harbingers of the freedom to come.”

Rattling the Cages, edited by abolitionist Josh Davidson and political prisoner Eric King, includes interviews with dozens of current and former political and anarchist prisoners. This collection explores why those interviewed were imprisoned and how they maintained their political convictions while incarcerated. The collection is published by AK Press, a worker-run, collectively managed anarchist publisher and distributor.

“The conversations that follow show resilience, determination, and an unswerving commitment to the struggles for which these freedom fighters continue to fight,” Davidson writes in the preface. “Their principled resistance in the face of the unimaginably cruel and tortuous conditions they survive speaks volumes to their character.”

Collectively these political prisoners, who include radicals and Black liberation militants from the ‘60s and ’70s, current anti-fascists, nonviolent Catholic peace activists, Animal and Earth Liberation Front saboteurs, and more, have spent hundreds of years behind bars.

“I want to really capture what their prison experience was like, what they really feel about support, so the next generation (god willing there will be a next generation) will know what their mothers and fathers went through,” wrote Eric King, who helped to lead these interviews from his prison cell. “We cannot let those experiences go to waste. We cannot turn our backs on these people with apathy or indifference. We need to love them the way they loved the world enough to fight for it.”

King himself has been confined in egregious conditions at some of the most brutal federal prisons across the country after attempting to throw two Molotov cocktails at an empty federal building at nighttime to support the Ferguson uprising in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2014. While incarcerated, he has been the victim of assaults by prison guards and white supremacists, held in solitary confinement for several years, and had his access to mail and phone calls interrupted and withheld.

Despite the hardships he faced while incarcerated because of his political convictions, King has remained a dedicated anti-fascist, anarchist, anti-racist and vegan. His release date from federal prison is February 2024. Royalties from book sales will be split between King’s family and the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) Federation’s Warchest program, which provides financial support to currently imprisoned political prisoners.

The interviews in this collection show not only “the inhumanity of the carceral system and the depravity that the state embraces to maintain power,” in the words of Davidson, but also “that no level of carceral torture can kill the revolutionary hope for a better world.”

Davidson spoke to Truthout’s Zane McNeill about the process of bringing this collection into the world and what we can learn from this “legacy of defiance,” in the words of bell hooks.

Zane McNeill: You mention that this book is the result of years of correspondence and conversation with anarchist political prisoner Eric King. How did your relationship with Eric begin and how did you both work together to compile these stories?

Josh Davidson: I started writing to Eric in 2016 or 2017, after my fellow Certain Days collective member Daniel McGowan suggested it because he thought we both had a lot in common. Turns out he was right, and Eric and I have been corresponding ever since — primarily through letters, but also emails and phone calls when he has had the rare opportunity.

As I describe in the preface to the book, Eric and I were both reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing when he came up with the idea of interviewing political prisoners in order to bring voice to the experiences they endure in struggling to create a better world. Once we got the initial idea, the ball started rolling pretty quickly. We came up with about two dozen questions which I then started sharing with as many current and former political prisoners as I could find.

I conducted the interviews — about 40 of them, which took a few years — but Eric has stayed as involved in the project as possible given his continued confinement. Due to mail bans, mail restrictions and the general cost of sending mail to those inside, Eric has yet to see the final manuscript, so I’m really looking forward to him and the other contributors seeing the final product. I hope that I’ve been able to do justice to their stories, and to highlight their commitments to struggling for something better.

In your preface to Rattling the Cages, you explore how “all prisoners are political.” What do you mean by this? How do those interviewed in this collection define themselves, or not, as “political prisoners”?

Generally speaking, the term “political prisoner” refers to someone being confined for actions, support of or membership in a group struggling for freedom from oppression, an oppressive government, or exploitation of peoples, animals or the Earth. (See more definitions like that in the Certain Days calendar.) However, at a larger level, from the cops to the courts, the politicians to the prisons, it’s hard to deny that politics are not involved in the mass imprisonment of nonwhite peoples the world over.

Those I interviewed were either “political prisoners” as defined above, or individuals who became more politically conscious while incarcerated, often referred to as “politicized prisoners.” As Sara Falconer wrote in her beautiful introduction, those interviewed “are organizers, contributing to ongoing struggles and sharing radical critiques.” And I think “organizers” works well here, because whether inside or out, those I interviewed have spent their lives organizing to create a better future.

Eric mentions in his acknowledgment that “this book was a labor of love, and also risk.” What risks have you both faced by putting this book out into the world? What risks have those interviewed considered when speaking with you?

There are always risks involved when retelling histories, especially of those who have faced the most repressive arms of the state. I was cautious with certain questions and made a point of avoiding anything incriminating, and the contributors, I’m sure, took the same precautions. But I think those who took the biggest risks here are the contributors who remain imprisoned — those who decided to speak up even while confined.

As Eric said, though, the book is also a labor of love. I feel so honored to be able to collaborate with him on this project and to be able to help amplify the voices of each of those who chose to contribute to Rattling the Cages. The outpouring of love and solidarity that the contributors and others who have helped with this project have shared with Eric is truly amazing, and I hope that it continues after he is finally released.

What do these interviews teach us about prison life and the political commitments that continue to lead prisoners into direct confrontation with state authorities and institutions?

I think there are several lessons to be gleaned from these interviews, and from the experiences and repression that those interviewed were able to survive. There are three important things we can learn, which just about everyone I interviewed made a point of mentioning.

First, prison isn’t the end of the line; prison is another front in the ongoing struggle to create a better world. The same problems that exist in the world also exist in prison, and are sometimes amplified. Knowing that, and being prepared to continue the struggle behind bars is important to keep in mind — both for imprisoned activists and for outside organizers providing prisoner support.

Second, don’t lose hope. Prisons are the epicenter of state repression, and those locked up face a lifetime of trauma, but the carceral system has utterly failed in terms of suppressing the revolutionary determination of people fighting for something better. I think Jalil Muntaqim provides an excellent example. Jalil spent 50 years in prison for his involvement with the Black Liberation Army. Fifty years. Yet, when I interviewed him a few months after his release from prison, he was just as pumped about getting out into the streets to make some change as I imagine he was back in the late 1960s, when he joined the Black Panther Party. I find that commitment extremely inspiring.

“No level of carceral torture can kill the revolutionary hope for a better world.”

The third lesson, which every contributor made a point of discussing, is the importance of outside support, not only for political prisoners, but for all people in the carceral system. Don’t let prison walls and bars act as a barrier to the relationships that exist between people inside and outside of prisons. It’s these relationships that are key — they help keep those locked up alive; they allow amazing inside-outside projects to flourish (e.g. Certain Days, Ear Hustle, 4strugglemag, Fire Ant, Children’s Art Project, Mongoose Distro, and the list goes on and on); and sometimes they culminate in successful freedom campaigns that see these freedom fighters coming home where they belong.

Eric says that one of the goals of this project is to look beyond the suffering that political prisoners have faced by the state and while incarcerated. What are some of the moments you learned about in your interviews that show the joy that political prisoners have created in their lives and resistance work?

There were, surprisingly, many moments of joy that people shared from their time incarcerated. The majority of that joy came from the very relationships I just mentioned above. Whether seeing family or comrades in the visiting room or building friendships through political education and walking the prison yard, it’s the connections to others — the humanity and the solidarity in struggle — where those I interviewed found joy.

They also found joy in acts of resistance to the prison system. This nonstop resistance was also something that came through very clearly in many of the interviews. From organizing strikes to collectively stopping abusers, from facility-wide closures to personal triumphs, these political prisoners — these organizers — found joy in the struggle itself. As Michael Kimble, one of the contributors, wrote to me, “Josh, things are dismal, but I do find moments of joy. But real joy comes from resistance, struggle, striking a blow against the system. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t desire to do anything else.”

This book itself is an act of resistance in that it amplifies the voices of those who the carceral system is attempting to silence. Eric has spent years on end in solitary confinement, shipped around the U.S. simply to be kept in a cage, and his communication restrictions have been unprecedented. Still, together we made this oral history collection happen — in spite of the mail restrictions, in spite of the surveillance and repression, in spite of the walls, cages and razor wire fencing. I think that’s something to be joyous about.

How does this collection move us to join the struggle for liberation and create a legacy for future political prisoners and abolitionists to build upon?

It is my hope that this book serves a dual purpose: to provide an archival abolitionist document that highlights the history of struggle of activists across generations and across movements, and also to serve as a catalyst for younger people, for them to recognize their part in this history and to act upon it, while there is still time. I hope that readers are able to identify with some of the contributors and to recognize that though the movements are diverse — for Black liberation, to protect the Earth and the environment, for LGBTQIA rights, and against capitalism and imperialism etc. — the struggle is one. Our shared future depends on us acting now, in the spirit of those who fought before us and with their same objectives in mind. Straight ahead, like Mutulu said.

As noted above, Rattling the Cages is a fundraiser, with proceeds being split between the ABC’s Warchest, which provides monthly stipends to current political prisoners, and Eric, so that he’s able to have some financial stability once he’s released. Preorders for the book began on September 1, and through September 18, AK Press and Burning Books are collaborating to offer 15 percent off the book, with $5 from each book sold going to the ABC’s annual 5k fundraiser, Running Down the Walls. So, find a Running Down the Walls event near you and purchase Rattling the Cages before September 18, so that you too can support the political prisoners from our liberation movements.

Sara Falconer writes in the introduction that political prisoners “know too well the lengths the state will go to maintain control. They often need help with resources, combatting censorship, and finding platforms for their words — which is something many of us on the outside can give.” What can we do to support political prisoners?

Well, after attending the nearest Running Down the Walls and purchasing Rattling the Cages, I’d suggest writing to someone inside. Find a political prisoner through the ABC’s Illustrated Guide and write to one that interests you. Find a local Anarchist Black Cross group, help out at your nearest Books Through Bars, buy a Certain Days calendar, visit someone in prison and offer support in whatever way you can. Educate, agitate and organize. You too can help amplify the voices of those locked away. Find a way to collaborate with them that makes use of your skills and interests.

Sara also wrote in her introduction, “I do feel that we have a responsibility to support people in prison and to work to dismantle this unjust system. But beyond that, we also gain so much from the relationships we build with each other. At times I have felt even more supported by my friends inside than the other way around. This work is tangible. It keeps me grounded and keeps me committed to struggle even when I’m feeling frustrated and burned out.”

Supporting political prisoners, and anyone behind bars, isn’t easy work, but it is needed. It is an integral part of the tradition of organizing and movement building that will, with our continued effort, lead to something better. So, do what you can to help those locked up, and then do some more. You won’t regret it.

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