Re: Political Prisoners (fwd)

Fri, 5 Jan 1996 16:23:48 -0500 (EST)

Sender: (Maggie Jaffe)
Subject: Re: Political Prisoners

[MODERATOR'S NOTE: I am posting Maggie Jaffe's response to Justin
Gustaninis with some reservations. The question of SIXTIES-ERA political
prisoners falls within the parameters of SIXTIES-L. General
philosophical discussions unrelated specifically to the Sixties fall
outside those parameters. Please confine your responses to a discussion
of SIXTIES-ERA political prisoners. Otherwise the moderator on-duty will
decline to forward your post to the list. Thanks. --Kali Tal]

Dear Sixties People:

I'd like to thank Justin Gustaninis for his questions which deserve
answers, Steve Graw for his lonely and often thankless struggle for social
change, Jim B and Tony Edmonds. I'll try to answer the questions as best I
can. Several people responded to me privately about this issue: obviously
there are strong feelings which should be shared.

Justin wrote:
1. Please define explicitly what you mean by a political prisoner (or, if
you want to go by the "Guardian's" definition, please tell us what that is.

Answer: The *Guardian* does not have a working definition of political
prisoner in this article, but I would say that a political prisoner is
against the dominant culture which s/he perceives as oppressive and harmful
to the common good of all. S/he has engaged in some activity to undermine
the state which the state perceives as criminal, whether it's robbing a
bank or spilling blood on a missile. Although I don't advocate change
through violent means, I recognize as legitimate the deep feelings of
disgust for the oppressive system which political prisoners must feel. The
*Guardian* article, written collectively by Linda Backile, Marge Grevatt,
Faith Holsaert, Betty and Herman Liveright, raises some good points about
why activists distance themselves from political prisoners:
"A large number of US political prisoners, despite their courage and
commitment and even their dedication to ultimate goals to which all
progressives subscribe, *objectively* have undermined the struggle for
basic social change by engaging in 'adventurist' or 'ultraleft' tactics
which were bound to fail and bound to alienate prospective recruits to the
movement. Worst of all, they have exposed the entire left to intensified
repression" (June 15, 1988: 10-11)

I would suggest that our repugnance to 'adventurist' tactics is subjective.
For example, in the case of John Brown, many of us deplore his violent
tactics, yet Malcolm X, a man who is certainly revered in progressive
circles, cites Brown as one of the few white men he can trust. History
calls Brown "crazy" for the murders of civilians in Kansas. What that
label masks, though, is any dialogue we might have about the true nature of
slavery. Was slavery itself non-violent or was it a crime against

2. In the U.S., does "political crime" always involve some violation of a
state of federal penal code? In other words, are these 188 political
prisoners in jail for the kind of thing that Chinese political prisoners
are in jail for (speaking out against the government, talking to Western
media, etc.) or are they in jail for committing murder, conspiracy, weapons
violations, or whatever?

Answer: I don't know. Throwing blood on a missile does not seem to justify
a seven-year stretch in the joint. I sympathize with Chinese political
prisoners, but by contrasting them with us, it masks the problems we face
in the US. It's not so much that we're imprisoned here for our words, but
that we're mightily ignored. When was the last time anyone saw Noam
Chomsky on network TV? Imagine if you will, Larry King hunched over his
mike to ask Chomsky what he thinks about the allegation that only China
imprisons more people than the US, and that the state of California has the
third highest prison population in the world. Why Larry King's suspenders
would snap right off in fright at Chomsky's answer.

3. Assuming that "political crime" generally involves what is generally
regarded as a "crime" (see above), are you arguing that those who commit
such crimes should not be imprisoned? Are you saying that, if I kill
someone in order to take his money, I deserve 15 years to life, but if I
kill someone because he represents the oppressive power of the state and by
killing him I empower oppressed people everywhere, that I should not be
imprisoned for this act of murder?

Answer: No, I don't advocate murder! I don't know how many political
prisoners are actually guilty of murder. My original response was to
redress the idea that all "yippies" metamorphosed into "yuppies" with the
shift in zeitgeist. I thought it important to mention that many
progressives remained true to the cause of social justice and were either
imprisoned or killed: think of the murders of the Black Panthers, AIM, and
the Young Lords.

4. Or, are you saying that all of the people you list were framed by the
authorities for political reasons, and that none of these people in fact
committed any violations of a state or federal penal code?

Answer: No, some of these people clearly violated the law. But again, who
makes the law? I don't think throwing blood on a missile is an
indefensible crime, nor do I feel that animal activists who break into labs
to liberate animals in pain are necessarily criminal. Some political
prisoners were clearly framed: Peltier, Pratt, and as Steve mentioned,
Mumia Abu-Jamal as well. Susan Rosenberg, Silvia Baraldini (who is an
Italian citizen), and Alejandrina Torres are all subjected to 24-hour
surveillance, strip searches at any time, and are placed in a sensory
deprivation units which even Amnesty International described as "barbaric."
And what are we to make of the imprisonment of Manuel Noriega as well?
Does the US have the authority to imprison someone who is not a US citizen?
Is he a prisoner of war or a common criminal? After all, he was in the
CIA's employ for many years. As FDR said about Tacho Somoza, "he's a
son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch, so too we can say that about
Noriega. Noriega is a non-person. Has the *NY Times* interviewed him
recently? In an interview Oliver Stone found that Noriega is, among other
things, a devotee of zazen, a kind of Zen mediation. See: "A Talk With
Manuel Noriega: Drugs, *Contras,* Invasion & More." *The Nation* 24
January 1994: 80-90.

5. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Timothy McVeigh was the
principal agent behind the Oklahoma City bombing, would you consider that a
political act? And if so, what should be the consequences for McVeigh?
Should he be set free because his motivations were political? Or are his
motivations irrelevant--if he is, in fact guilty, does he deserve punishment?

Answer: I'm glad you mentioned Timothy McVeigh, since the OK bombing has
weighed heavily upon me. I'd like to throw this out: do people on this
list consider McVeigh and Nichols on par with 60s political prisoners? Of
coure not, but shouldn't we talk about this? Although McVeigh and Nichols
are certainly anti-state, they are also known to have links to Nazi and
other ultra-right wing organizations who, by the way, are also tied to the
recent bombings of abortion clinics. Nazis and abortion clinics. . .
McVeigh is a thug and a counter revolutionary. I perceive him as extreme
though fundamentally part of the dominant culture which I perceive as
racist; therefore, he is not a political prisoner if I stand by my own
definition. But I admit I have mixed feelings about my dismissal of
McVeigh as part of the "lumpen proletariat" who is not political. I also
lay part of the blame for the OK bombings on Intelligence organizations.
Why is it that just before the OK bombing *Covert Action Quarterly* ran an
in-depth expose of violent right wing organizations, just as Morris Dees of
the Southern Poverty Law Center warned against the growing threat from
Nazis, Militia, Klan? I see a double standard here: when the Black
Panthers were infiltrated and murdered, federal agents didn't worry over
much about "constitutional restraint."

A few people wrote to me in private to say that they perceived "economic
prisoners" as political prisoners as well. I agree for the following
---The *LA Times* reported (in a small article) that at present, there are
13.5 million homeless Americans with 12 million others who were almost
equally destitute at one time. Obviously, out of the 25 million destitute
citizens, some have had to commit crimes.
---The system needs prisons because it is a cheap source of labor. While
prisoners earn very little, they are counted as "employed," which covers up
the true statistics on the unemployed and underemployed.
---The culture industry celebrates gangsters and, oddly, serial killers.
They are the heroes which children want to emulate. The gangster movie has
by far eclipsed war movies or Westerns, at least in the 80s and 90s.
--Unlike the 60s, which at least paid lip service to the idea of reform,
the 90s prisons appear to be engaged in cruel and unusual punishment:
sensory deprivation, over crowding, etc.
---Prisons are a fast-growing US industry and that industry needs criminals
and cops to function at a profit. California is the model for the
"corporate" prison, and other states are complying.
---Obviously, the justice system is racist as well as class biased: just
contrast OJ Simpson's treatment with Rodney King's.