By Laura Whitehorn*
Beginning in May 1985, I existed for over 14 years in various US jails and federal prisons—about 12 different institutions in all. I lived behind bars through what was probably the steepest rise in the country’s incarcerated population. Although the phenomenon known as “mass incarceration” was well underway, the term itself was not yet in use. When, in August 1999, I was released from a federal prison in Dublin, California, I had lived for years crowded alongside two to three other women in a prison cell originally designed for one.
Walking out into a world where you can find privacy and quiet—where you’re allowed to openly show affection and anger and close a bathroom door—was astonishing. But it was also one of the most subtly traumatic things I’ve ever done, because here, amid this overpowering avalanche of personal choice, where I could rediscover what it meant to be “free,” my heart broke at the thought of my friends, my comrades left behind. I pictured the women I knew living in the suffocating, overcrowded conditions, facing years under the unrelenting psychological and physical attrition those conditions cause.
Now, a decade and a half later, I am still haunted by the thought of imprisoned friends—men and women, immigrants and US citizens, Black, Latino/a, Native American, Asian, white, and almost all poor. Their numbers grew to over 2.4 million, making the term “mass incarceration” crucial in describing what has become an American prison culture. According to an often-cited statistic, the United States, with only 5% of the world’s population, holds 25% of the Earth’s incarcerated people. For women it’s even bleaker: the US has 4% of the world’s female population, but 33% of the world’s incarcerated women.1
Black people are represented among the incarcerated to the most disproportionate extent of all: incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of whites, African Americans constitute approximately 14% of the entire US population, but more than 45% of the prison population. For my first seven years inside, I was in jails and prisons that were filled almost entirely with Black women, where I was often the only white person incarcerated. Most of the women were locked up for petty thefts, minor drug offenses, and some for assault or murder while fighting back against abusive boyfriends or in some cases pimps. Many were mothers who had run out of ways to feed their children and had turned to theft or selling drugs.
In almost all of these cases, the real crime seemed to be having committed the act while Black. I knew (and continued to read) statistics showing that the same acts, if committed by white women, did not normally end up in arrest. If they did end in arrest, the next step was not usually incarceration. If anything made this graphically clear to me, it was those years in Baltimore City Jail, county jails in Maryland, and the DC Jail in Washington.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements had ignited my political awakening, and since those times my central political focus has been solidarity with the Black liberation struggle. When I was sentenced to 23 years behind bars, I already believed that the role of US prisons was to contain cultures and communities of people of color. But even without that perspective, I would have been struck repeatedly, during my years inside, by the vast over-representation of Black people and the extent of the damage prisons do to Black communities. What I saw in prison was the genocide of people of African descent.
The United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as, “any act committed with the idea of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Two aspects are listed: 1) the mental element, meaning the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such,’ and 2) the physical element. The definition includes (Article 2):
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.2
In a historical landscape of concerted attacks on Black communities, mass incarceration is the latest form of genocide. I’m not only talking only about the overrepresentation of Black people in prison. I’m not only talking about the injustice of racism. I’m not only talking about a vast discrepancy, which I witnessed every day, in the ways racism persists behind the walls (fairly consistently, white women in prison had better jobs, fewer write-ups for rule breaking, more legal and social resources, and better treatment by the guards). I’m also talking about the lasting impact Black communities sustain when so many of their members end up in prison—and because of their incarceration, are disenfranchised after release. I’m also talking about the way that Black families are fractured, prevented from thriving from one generation to the next, by mass incarceration. Destruction of family structures incapacitates future generations from advancing; it is part of a definition of genocide: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
I saw the destruction. Every day of my years in prison, I saw the forced disintegration of families by the removal of women from their children. Federal prisons, even more commonly than state prisons, are located thousands of miles away from the women’s homes, making family visits all but impossible. Daily I heard women sobbing on the phone, trying to find their children. From so far away, it is impossible to reach—let alone raise—a child. I saw that; and I also saw the toll taken on incarcerated women by the very failure to surmount those impossible challenges. The scars included both the shredding of the fabric of mother-child relationships and the sense of worthlessness the women (and the children) suffered as a result.
Incarcerating so many Black women during their childbearing and childrearing years visits destruction on Black families, and therefore on the future of the Black population as a whole. Because women play a central role in establishing and maintaining community life, the mass incarceration of Black women also inflicts lasting damage on the ability of their communities to survive and resist.
One bitterly ironic result of this damage is the disproportionate numbers of crime victims who are Black. A disempowered community is unlikely to have the resources to create alternatives for resolving disputes or addressing wrongs. When Black community structures haven’t been permitted to survive, communities have no way to deal with violence other than to turn to the police—the very basis of the problems.
It’s not that prison reform advocates haven’t noticed these things. Advocates—and even much of the mainstream media—have established that the increase in prison population bears no relationship to fluctuations in crime rates. They’ve studied the impact of incarceration on the health (or illness) of affected communities. They’ve documented the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to become incarcerated themselves. They’ve even noted that Black people are more disproportionately incarcerated than any group in the US prison system—that one in three Black men will spend time in prison.
Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, documents brilliantly the ways in which mass incarceration disenfranchises Black communities. She shows how the system has criminalized African-American youth and communities. She writes about how the stigma of incarceration undermines the culture and psychology of Black communities, making it hard to act as a political force, to demand equality and human rights.
But researchers, advocates, and authors most often treat this damage as a series of disparate signs of what has gone wrong with or for Black people. The constant, quiet attrition of ordinary families, the ongoing, mundane degradation of the lives of Black women and men, is almost never recognized as an act of genocide.
Charging Genocide Matters
In 1951, William L. Patterson, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois submitted to the United Nations a document, “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.” Basing their work on the UN Declaration on Genocide, they argued, with meticulous documentation, that lynching, economic inequality, and other situations affecting Black people in the US constitute a wholesale program of destruction. Among other things, they wrote:
Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.3
The genocidal role of the police continued into the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party adopted a program including self-defense against police killings in Black communities. Genocidal police practice still prevailed in 2012, when the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement issued the scathing document, “We Charge Genocide Again!” referring to 313 extrajudicial killings in that year.4 The report defines such killings as “killing by police [as well as security guards and vigilantes] that happens without trial or any due process….an execution in the street,” and places this practice in the context of the lynchings of Black people during the years following the Civil War and the early decades of the 20th century.
This genocidal role of the police persists today, as does the police’s pivotal role in the continuation of the prison system. Although Patterson, Robeson and Du Bois included as examples of genocide the injustice meted out in courts to Black defendants, incarceration did not yet play the central role it has played over the past 40 years. By 1979, when the National Black Human Rights Campaign presented a petition to the United Nations again charging genocide, the charge specified a string of police killings, the FBI’s program of assassinations and disruption of the Black liberation movement (COINTELPRO), and the continued incarceration of former members of the Black Panther Party and other Black freedom organizations.5 By 1996, when the National Black United Front submitted an updated version of the document to the UN, the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration had assumed an expanded place among the charges added to those in the earlier documents:
Whereas, we the undersigned people of African ancestry understand that the proliferation of the distribution and sale of crack cocaine… has reached epidemic proportions, causing serious harm to the African community in the United States. Therefore, we understand that this harm can only be described as acts of genocide by the United States government through its Central Intelligence Agency.
In addition to acts of genocide perpetrated through the CIA and in this recent revelation, acts of genocide can also be attributed to the Government’s use of taxpayers’ resources to wage war on a segment of the US population. This is evidenced by the following: (1) cutting back on welfare; (2) privatization of public housing and land grab schemes; (3) privatization of public education; (4) racist immigration policies; (5) privatization of basic health care; (6) building prisons and the expanding incarceration of millions of African and Latino youth. [italics added]6
The late 1990s had seen an influx of dangerous crack cocaine into large Black communities. In the case of Los Angeles, the cocaine invasion was traced to a CIA operation in which counterrevolutionary forces in Central America were financed through illegal drug sales in the US. The investigative journalist Gary Webb revealed the plot in “Dark Alliance,” a series in the San Jose Mercury News (and later a book). He documented that the US-created and -backed Nicaraguan contras were funded directly by sales of crack to African-Americans in Los Angeles. The crack epidemic undermined Black communities by dramatically destroying people’s health and welfare and also by rendering Black people vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. So the international connection linked not only financial but also political goals, resulting in suppression of revolution in Central America and destabilization of Black communities—the basis of Black resistance—in the US.
Most recently, in “Mass Black Incarceration: Damn Right, We Charge Genocide,” author/activist Glen Ford, brought the charge of genocide, as it relates to incarceration, up to today.7
Why does it matter whether or not you call mass incarceration an aspect of genocide? First, if you don’t recognize what’s been done to Black communities as the systematic leveling of a culture, you can’t see the role that the State plays in creating this system. As Patterson, Robeson and Du Bois put it in 1951,
The direct object of this genocide, as of all genocide, is the perpetuation of economic and political power by the few through the destruction of political protest by the many. Its method is to demoralize and divide an entire nation; its end is to increase the profits and unchallenged control by a reactionary clique.
The authors of this statement did not view the United States as some sort of democracy gone wrong. They believed that ours is inherently a capitalist system that depends for its existence on imperialism—the colonization and exploitation of various “underdeveloped” countries and communities, including some inside the US. They saw the system as protected not only by the actions of corrupt, profit-hungry politicians, but more fundamentally by a repressive apparatus that is at its very core violent: the State.
While the military normally enforces imperialism outside US borders, the police and the prison system act as the main enforcers inside the country. As we live our daily lives amid the relentless flurry of ads for goods and services, as we curse gentrification and bemoan the shrinking stock of housing available to any but the very well-off, we can easily miss the threat of violence that keeps it all going. For the middle class and most white people, who rarely encounter police violence, it can be easy to forget that this country is not a peaceful democracy, but rather a ruthless economic system enforced by a violent State. We are aware of what the government does, but we forget that it is but one element in the State, which also includes the force, via repression, to insure that capitalism is not disrupted.8 Part of American exceptionalism—the idea that, in a world of less enlightened governments, the US is different and better—is the fantasy that the US economic and political system is not backed by a violent State apparatus.
Bringing the State into the equation radicalizes our work against mass incarceration. First, because it leads us to question the government’s characterization of oppressed people and movements as criminal, violent and illegal. If the State were in fact pacific and democratic, then breaking State laws would indeed always be criminal and reprehensible. But if the State itself is based in violence and injustice, that changes—or at least opens to question—the way we view any refusal or failure to abide by its laws. It allows us to deny the framework promulgated by the State, to insist instead that the most far-reaching empire in history should be blocked from defining what tactics and strategies the oppressed may use to resist. Why are leftists who engage in any kind of radical violence—from former Black Panthers promoting self-defense, to anti-imperialists like me and my codefendants doing property damage, to “Green Scare” defendants torching SUVs—branded as “terrorists,” while the government is viewed by the mainstream middle class as benign and peaceful? This, after all, is the same government that carries out the torture at Abu-Ghraib and Guantánamo, that legalizes the theft of Native American lands, that has been complicit in overthrowing democratically elected governments in Chile, Grenada, and a host of other countries, and that regularly wages war around the world to preserve US financial and political interests. (If I were to try to list more examples, this essay would demand an entire volume by itself.)
History of the prison system: counter-insurgency
Rather than slaughtering Black people outright, the prison system carries out genocide through political repression. Mass incarceration works to prevent the emergence of effective, powerful and widely inspiring movements for liberation, like those of the 1960s and 70s. It thereby goes beyond controlling and disabling Black communities. By preventing their access to economic and political power, it blocks their meaningful survival into future generations.
Beginning in the post-Civil War era, the modern US prison system was more about repression than about crime. The slave trade and the unpaid labor of African slaves had accumulated enormous amounts of wealth to fund the development of the industrial factory system based in the North, laying the basis for the US to become a global capitalist power. With the dismantling of the slave system, the white establishment quaked in fear at the loss of its power, and at the prospect of sharing daily life side-by-side with the newly freed Black population. One of the first things it did was to transfer control of Black citizens from the plantation to the courts. And so such minor acts as loitering—fully legal if done by white people—became crimes when the “perpetrator” was Black. This was the birth of the prison industry.
Many analysts cite this development to show how racism is fundamental to the prison system. But Angela Davis adds (and I think this is key) that the large growth of prisons also followed directly on the heels of the Black-led democratic—and completely legal—revolution known as Black Reconstruction (1863 to 1877).9 Incarcerating Black people was a way to overthrow the promise of this revolution.
Black Reconstruction is the period when Black people in the South began to take control of their own lives. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois’ book Black Reconstruction in America is indispensible to understanding today’s prison system (and US history as a whole). Former slaves and their allies enacted statutes that increased freedom—for poor whites and all women as well. (For instance, during Reconstruction laws were passed establishing free universal education and the right of women to divorce.)
Black Reconstruction would have allowed Black people to share in, even control, political and economic benefits, and would have put working and poor people’s interests at the fore. So in 1877, the US government sent troops to crush Black Reconstruction, to protect the nascent factory system in the North and solidify white control of the Southern planter class. After the troops left, the prison system functioned as a means of counterrevolution, enforcing Jim Crow.10
Just as Southern prisons worked to repress Black Reconstruction, today’s mass incarceration plays a similar role, and followed a similar historical pattern. Prison populations began increasing across the country in the 1980s, following the massive civil unrest, urban rebellions, and powerful revolutionary and radical movements of the 60s and 70s—movements inspired and catalyzed by the Black liberation struggle.
Economically, in the 1980s and 90s, as scholar Johanna Fernandez has pointed out,11 the United States became the site of the most egregious transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich that has occurred in recorded history without a coup d’état or revolution. The effects of what is politely called “income inequality” continue today, as Occupy Wall Street’s “1% v. the 99%” protests show.
Why was there no revolution, or at least public outcry, accompanying the gross increase in the gap between rich and poor? Was there some form of repression, counter-insurgency, or mass hypnosis that helps explain this?
To answer this question, I want to paraphrase something said by the late, deeply missed Chokwe Lumumba, revolutionary lawyer and Mayor of Jackson Mississippi, in a speech in Brooklyn eight years ago. Chokwe described how, in the 60s and 70s, the US government tried to break the backbone of the Black revolutionary movement, as well as the Puerto Rican, Mexicano/Chicano, Native American and white anti-imperialist movements—all of which identified with anti-colonialist movements around the world. Government programs imprisoned or assassinated many leaders and destroyed radical organizations. To do this, the FBI instituted a secret, illegal counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, to infiltrate, destroy and “neutralize” these movements. As usual, the Black movement was hit hardest. Then, Chokwe said, the government developed an even more effective—and less transparent—means of repression:
— Lock up hundreds of thousands of young Black and Latino/a people before they can even think about becoming revolutionaries.
— Criminalize the entire Black community, not only the revolutionaries.
— Destroy the potential base of another Black/Black-led revolutionary movement before people can get to the point of forming new organizations and strategies.
In this light, mass incarceration becomes not just mass oppression but also mass repression, mass counterinsurgency. Because mass incarceration delivers lasting destruction to communities, Black neighborhood groups and political resistance movements have nowhere to sink roots. Destroying a people’s ability to resist oppression over time erodes their survival and viability as a group. That is genocide.
By singling out the impact of mass incarceration on Black people I in no way mean to ignore or underestimate the damage done to Latino/a, Native American12 and other oppressed communities, as well as to some poor white people. Michelle Alexander describes in The New Jim Crow how the system that disenfranchises and undermines Black communities wreaks havoc on all those swept into the prison system. But the way the prison system has focused – historically and currently – on Black people is crucial if we are to understand its purpose and its overall nature.
It is not only the fact that Black people are imprisoned at the highest rate. It is also the way US laws and prisons have functioned throughout history, along with other systemic cruelties like slavery, Jim Crow, racism and white supremacy. It is within this context—a systematic and relentless attack on myriad aspects of the ability of Black people to survive and thrive, and on the potential of the Black community to resist its oppression—that mass incarceration can be understood as constituting genocide.
Prisons don’t produce profits
I almost never hear radicals call the prison system or mass incarceration genocide. Instead, I hear activists explain the prison industrial complex by calling it profitable. I think this analysis is misleading. The prison system is fundamental to the continued existence of capitalism, but not by directly creating profits.
It is true that the private prison industry is expanding—particularly in the area of immigrant detention, where privately run facilities dominate the field and fuel the outrageous laws criminalizing and incarcerating undocumented immigrants. It is also true that private prison companies, along with corporations that sell goods and services to prisons, play an outsized role in legislation and policy due to their lobbying power. It is important to pay attention to these trends and resist them, supporting the many groups protesting and resisting the detention of immigrants. But according to former US political prisoner James Kilgore, the three major private prison corporations together “only control about 8 percent of prison ‘beds’ in the system nationwide.”13
Government-run prisons far outnumber private ones. Today, instead of being a source of profits, mass incarceration is a major strain on federal and state budgets. In fact, in New York and elsewhere, government officials and legislators face shrinking resources, and their efforts toward addressing the crisis of mass incarceration are motivated largely by this fiscal strain. Although capitalists can always figure out how to make money off anything (witness Blackwater’s complicity in torture),14 the role of the prison system is not to make profit, but rather to protect profits by safeguarding the larger economic and political system. The prison system does this by preventing Black and Latina/o and other oppressed groups from attaining power or moving into the ruling class—or even, in many cases, into the stable middle class. It also does this by sweeping into the prisons the populations whose needs cannot be met under capitalism without disrupting the growth of wealth and profits for the rulers.
In short, the system prevents resistance and preserves privilege. Prisons support imperialism by virtue of their particular repressive role within the State apparatus.15
Profits Don’t Explain Political Prisoners
Maybe the biggest problem with the popular prisons-make-profits argument is its failure to recognize the existence of US political prisoners and what their incarceration tells us about the prison system as a whole. It certainly doesn’t explain the progression from political incarceration to mass incarceration—the connection Chokwe Lumumba delineated. Consequently, the prisons-make-profits view doesn’t explain why fighting to free political prisoners is intrinsic to the battle against mass incarceration. Seeing prisons as a form of genocide, conversely, connects their existence not only to COINTELPRO and State repression of liberation struggles, but also to questions about the legitimacy of the US State to impose its legal system on oppressed peoples.
It is deeply unjust that the US government indicts powerless people for “crimes” stemming at least in part from their own disenfranchisement—as well as for acts that the rich, white, and powerful commit as a matter of course (recently, for example: thefts by Wall Street finance companies, banks and mortgage lenders). While I don’t think that incarcerating the police officers who killed unarmed Black civilians (Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and many, many others) is the best strategy for achieving justice, the fact that none of those cops ever served time indicates the utter imbalance of power in US laws.16
Fighting such an imbalance of power is exactly what gives rise to political prisoners, incarcerated for participating in anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements—people like Mutulu Shakur, Kamau Sadiki, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, David Gilbert, Tom Manning, Janine Africa, and Oscar Lopez Rivera. They and their movements are dedicated to resisting genocide—resistance that is internationally recognized as legitimate, even necessary.
As a result of the State’s attempts to destroy that resistance, former members of the Black Panthers and other Black revolutionary groups from the 60s and 70s remain in prison today. Sundiata Acoli: 41 years. Herman Bell: 41 years. Jalil Muntaqim: 43 years. Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald: 44 years. Mondo We Langa and Ed Poindexter (the Omaha 2): 44 years. Robert Seth Hayes: 42 years. Sekou Kambui: 39 years. Albert Woodfox: 43 years. Russell Maroon Shoatz: 42 years. Sekou Odinga: 33 years. Abdul Majid: 32 years. And counting.
These political prisoners—and more than 40 other incarcerated comrades—have been involved in some of this country’s most momentous battles for justice: the Black Liberation Movement, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the Native American Sovereignty movement, the anti-imperialist solidarity movement. More recent examples are anti-war, cyber- and environmentalist activists like Jeremy Hammond and Marie Mason. 17 The goals and principles of all these movements are exactly in line with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948), which begins:
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,…18
That is why these political prisoners offer our movements today so much encouragement and inspiration.
Many political prisoners are innocent of their charges, which were meant to silence them. Many endured trials so mired in legal error that it is no longer possible to establish guilt or innocence. Exonerating and freeing the innocent is crucial, as is exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty of a system that often deems innocence insufficient to prevent execution. The voices of the exonerated contribute in a powerful and heart-breaking manner to discussions of the “criminal justice” system in the US.
But you can also support political prisoners without discussing innocence or guilt under existing US law.
It’s easier to argue that a person should be released because s/he is innocent than to push for release of political prisoners because they were fighting genocide. It’s easier to say they were falsely imprisoned than to argue the injustice of holding former Black Panthers inside, while the government fails to account for the crimes of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies against the Black Panther Party and other Black organizations.
But to merit support, political prisoners don’t have to be innocent. “Guilt” and “innocence” do little or nothing to help explain their cases, if you remember how the government has targeted Black people. Internationally, probably the most famous example of a political prisoner is Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for participating in (and founding) the armed struggle against the South African apartheid regime. He was not innocent of the charges against him. In fact, he was politically justified, under international law, to fight against a white supremacist regime.19
US political prisoners—from the Black power movement, especially—have served more than enough time, while the people and agencies that carry out US policies, from Contragate to COINTELPRO to drone attacks on civilians around the world, have served none. Meanwhile, the genocide that the political prisoners and their movements were resisting continues.
Ending mass incarceration is not enough
There has long been a divide between the “prison justice” movement and other forms of social justice activism. That division undermines the effectiveness of all of us. Naming mass incarceration as genocide against the Black population (and repression of other oppressed people) would help bridge this gap. It would encourage radicals and progressives to add an analysis of the prison system to their social justice agendas. In fact, every progressive organization should include in its platform demands for prison justice and to free political prisoners.
Recognizing the attempted genocide of Black people would mean that the struggle to free political prisoners would take on increased significance with a broader range of progressive people, and would be understood as furthering all demands for freedom. The movement for prison abolition would also give greater attention to political prisoners. In particular, the Black political prisoners—the most numerous and longest-incarcerated group among political prisoners in this country—would receive wider attention and support. They would be understood as part of a long narrative of liberation, starting way before the Black Panther Party, in centuries of courageous struggle against genocide. Progressives and radicals would know and be moved by the fact that some of the longest-held political prisoners in the world are locked within US prisons.
Viewing prison injustice this way also means that we cannot define our goal simply as ending mass incarceration. We have to go beyond the “mass-ness” of incarceration, to be sure that any proposed changes or reforms do not serve only as window dressing, making the prison system more “humane” but in the end essentially unchanged.20 Reforms are desperately needed in order to prevent further suffering and destruction—and to help bring back to the community long-incarcerated people who can play a pivotal role in developing alternative justice systems. But any reforms have to be viewed through the lens of a longer-range goal of abolishing the imperialist prison system. What kinds of reforms could alter popular opinion, challenging support for perpetual punishment and racism? How can reforms be constructed so that they don’t exclude people convicted of violence? How can prison reforms undermine genocide?
Why I know we will win
As I was writing this essay, I had the great good fortune to join a celebration for the release of Marshall Eddie Conway, one of the longest-held Black political prisoners: 44 years in Maryland prisons. His release was a hard-won miracle, a legal issue propelled to fruition by great intelligence, consistent work, and committed energy on the part of Eddie, his lawyers and his supporters. For all those 44 years, Eddie remained true to his roots as a Black liberation organizer, creating (and defending) programs inside prisons and steadfastly keeping central the goal of liberation not just for himself but for all Black people and all the oppressed.
The celebration was a welcome-home program in the auditorium of the Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore. The evening felt, to this aging beneficiary of the human rights battles of the 60s and 70s, familiar and profoundly stirring. More than a welcome-home for Eddie, the event blossomed into a welcoming of everyone there into a revolutionary community inspired by Eddie—an embrace into the heart of Black liberation and freedom.
Eddie and the fight to free him had inspired people of African descent of all generations, from children to elders. They now participated in the program with poetry, music and messages. Many—including those now working with Eddie on community projects—were formerly incarcerated men he had mentored over his years inside. When he took the stage, Eddie spoke of his plans to continue and expand Friend of a Friend, a project to educate young incarcerated people to learn their history and resolve issues without violence—to turn energy instead toward improving life by fighting for the lives of oppressed communities. Now, Eddie and his comrades can begin building that effort outside the walls.
The evening laid the basis for what prison abolition could look like. It was an expression of hope not just for ravaged communities but also for humanity as a whole, where collective, community-based approaches to education, health and the damage of crime can replace the current repressive structures of US law enforcement and business interests. It was the spirit of the Black freedom struggle; the most concrete expression of the often-repeated Che Guevara quote, “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
What I witnessed in Baltimore that evening was a small triumph over the genocide of mass incarceration. It is what I think will make prison abolition possible. May the victories be many, many more.
*Susie Day assisted me enormously in the writing of this essay.
1. Soon-to-be published fact sheet, Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York (http://www.correctionalassociation.org)
3. Patterson, Robeston and Du Bois, “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People” (New York, International Publishers, c1951)
4. “We Charge Genocide Again!” A Curriculum for Operation Ghetto Storm: Report on the 2012 Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards and Vigilantes. Tongo Eisen-Martin, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement
5. “Black Nation Charges Genocide: U.N. Rally Demands Human Rights and Self-Determination” (Update: Committee for the Suit Against Government Misconduct, page 1; New York, 1979;
http://freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC510_scans/COINTELPRO/510.COINTELPRO.Update.OctNov.1979.pdf). I attended the rally at the United Nations on November 2, 1979, where the petition was presented.
6. Worrill, Conrad W., “We Charge Genocide,” New York Amsterdam News, 19 April 1997; accessed via ProQuest.
8. In Marxist terms, the capitalist State arises from class antagonisms, asserting power to prevent the triumph of the proletariat. In the age of imperialism, the proletariat is colonized peoples, including those within the borders of the US. The State represents the suppression of the proletariat—oppressed nations and peoples—by the ruling class.
9. Angela Davis, remarks in a speech honoring Henry Winston at the New York chapter of the Communist Party, February 19, 2014.
10. See for example, in addition to Du Bois, Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877: New York: Harper & Row. 1988
11. Johanna Fernandez, interviewed on Law & Disorder radio (WBAI-FM), Jan. 28, 2013.
12. Genocide against Native Americans has been accomplished, I would argue, not through the use of prisons, but through forced migration, war, and every other means the government and the settlers had at their disposal.
13. James Kilgore, “Confronting Prison Slave Labor Camps and Other Myths,” Social Justice Journal, August 2013.
14. See Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2007).
15. I use “imperialism” to refer not only to US policy abroad but also to the entire system of US capitalism. The system is one whole, not two segments, and the oppression of whole nations characterizes US domination not only of foreign markets but also of internal oppressed peoples—Black people chief among them.
16. See Steve Martinot, “Probing the Epidemic of Police Murders,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1 (March 2013).
17. There is another recently incarcerated group of political prisoners: the targets of programs of racist social control such as the “war on terror”—cover for a war on Muslims. Tarek Mehanna, Fahad Hashmi, Ghassan Elashi and others are in fact innocent of the charges against them, because the hysterical attack on Muslims—especially people who are critical of US imperialism or who refuse to act as spies for the FBI—translates in their cases into indictments based on acts that constitute nothing more than unpopular speech or donating to an organization the US government classifies as terrorist. (See http://no-separate-justice.org/) This group of political prisoners represents a wave of government repression reminiscent of the Red Scare and COINTELPRO. Their cases are designed to build popular support for the government’s programs of surveillance, repression and war.
19. Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes much the same point in her foreword to Dan Berger, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014): “… remember that individuals like Nelson Mandela and Harriet Tubman, whose motives and justifications people today do not recoil from, were not framed; they did it. Freedom Now.”
20. An example from the movement to end the death penalty: stopping the execution of an innocent person is a blow to capital punishment. But stopping executions of people who did commit murder would be a much more fundamental blow against the barbarism of the death penalty. Similarly, if prison reforms are limited to the “low-level, non-violent” cases, the cycle of permanent punishment will stay in place and the system will chug along with little change.