[sixties-l] Only as Free as the Padlocked Prison Door - Ron Jacobs

From: Ron Jacobs (rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu)
Date: Fri Aug 04 2000 - 19:14:53 CUT

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    Only as Free as the Padlocked Prison Door - Ron Jacobs

    Only as Free as the Padlocked Prison Door
    by Ron Jacobs
    August 4, 2000

    The folks arrested in the past few days in the streets of Philadelphia are political prisoners. They are in the Roundhouse and Holmesburg jails because they were expressing their political beliefs. There is a very real likelihood that some of them will face serious felony charges and there is the further likelihood that a few will face some kind of federal charges concerning intent to riot when it is all over (Update August 4: The New York Times reports that John Sellers of Ruckus Society is being held on $1 million bail, with one charge being conspiracy--a charge that means more of these arrests will come. Also, Police Chief Timoney of Philadelphia Police Department has called for a federal investigation of those "behind the protests."). If one recalls what happened in 1968, although it was the Democratic convention that was disrupted by the infamous Chicago police riots, the Nixon Justice department conducted the prosecution of the Chicago 8 conspiracy. Although I still believe that a federal prosecution on these types of charges are more likely under a Bush regime, they could also occur should Gore win the election in November.

         Prisoners who either have been released or been able to reach the independent media from jail tell of beatings in the jails, denial of food, water, and medicine, and the denial of legal counsel to those arrested. This is but a prelude to what lies ahead. The police are but the most obvious participants in the system of oppression in this country. Beatings of prisoners happen all the time in our nation's jails. Indeed, in the communities of color in our nation, men and women are beaten by police even before they are in jail and often without even going there. And, as we all know, more than a few are killed without any type of due process even considered. None of these comments are meant to diminish the brutality of the police in Philadelphia this week nor should they be construed to diminish the experiences of those sisters and brothers currently being held under less than humane conditions in the jail of that city.

         If we are to learn from the experiences of the past--recent and historically--we must ensure that the movement does not become a movement that spends all its energy getting people out of prison. Nor must it become one that forgets those who are in prison. The work around Mumia Abu Jamal and other political prisoners has been instructive in this matter in that Mumia, Black Panther Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, and others are insistent in relating their situation to the greater struggle for social justice. If (or perhaps when) the trials of those arrested in Philadelphia begin and especially if serious charges are brought against those the government deems the movement's leaders (as they did in 1969 after Chicago), it is up to us to link any struggle for their freedom to the greater struggle in the world against global capitalism, racism and militarism. In short, we must turn the tables on the prosecution and put the system they represent on trial.

         After the protests against the WTO in Seattle there were those in the movement who attempted to separate themselves from that action's more militant protestors--the so-called anarchists. This was, plain and simply, doing the work of the state. We should not allow this dynamic to occur, even if we have sincere problems with the tactics of certain groups within our amorphous coalition. When this dynamic exists, the state and its law enforcement apparatus has no qualms about exacerbating those differences, which often leads to our more militant sisters and brothers going it alone if they are arrested. One very recent example is that of Rob Thaxton (or Rico) who is spending seven years in the Oregon prison system for his involvement in J18 activities in Eugene in 1999. His trial drew little support outside of northwestern U.S. anarchist circles and, perhaps because of that (and the obvious prejudice of the judge), he received close to the maximum sentence.

         If more of our comrades end up in prisons this can be a beneficial organizing opportunity. As historical events like Attica and the struggles for justice in California prisons in the Sixties and seventies showed, prisoners of capitalism are open to political education and organization. However, it is important to remember that organization of those on the outside is equally important and that the emotional and political perspectives of the two groups (outside and inside prisons) are not always the same. While life is undeniably brutish in many working class communities in the world, prison is even more so. Consequently, the sense of desperation is often magnified when one is inside. This means that one is often prepared to take very desperate measures that, while making perfect tactical sense to a prisoner, do not make a similar sense when considered objectively from the outside. In addition, the controlled environment of the prison allows for even more police interference and manipulation of people and projects than occurs in the "free" world.

         All this said, let us take inspiration and instruction from those in jail in Philadelphia and those political prisoners throughout the United States. The struggle to free these prisoners and the struggle to free us all from the economic prison of global capitalism and its evils are one and the same.

    -Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground

    - Ron Jacobs
    Burlington, VT.

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