Voices of Freedom

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar

Reviewed in this article

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movement to Free US Political Prisoners
Matt Meyer (ed.), PM Press, 2008.

In my office, stuffed in a green hanging file folder on four sheets of yellow legal paper is the original manuscript for “We Will Rise Again,” Alvaro Luna Hernandez’s manifesto on the Chicano Mexicano experience, his case, and the fight against colonialism. When I received “We Will Rise Again” from Alvaro about ten years ago, it was written in longhand, back and front, with calligraphic flourishes that are distinctly his. I typeset the original piece and laid it out as a pamphlet during the Barrio Defense Committee’s intense struggle to win Alvaro’s freedom. That manifesto is now a part of Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movement to Free US Political Prisoners.

Tragically, Alvaro’s campaign waned as the brutally slow criminal justice system did what it does best: drain time, resources, energy, and hope from its victims and those around them. So many initiatives meet this same fate: they get ground into dust, and years vanish in the blink of an eye. But those years were witness to thousands of committed individuals that sought, in large ways and small, to gain freedom for political prisoners. Some stayed, others moved on, yet the passion for liberty remains strong. If nothing else, the continuous revitalization of movements against capitalism and for national liberation around the planet is testament to that.

No other compilation on the struggles of political prisoners is as extensive as Let Freedom Ring, which sets it aside as outstanding. Scores of previously released documents are printed alongside newer writings. From tracts handed out at meetings to pamphlets distributed through communities, pieces that were seemingly lost to time and forgotten in personal collections are diligently repackaged for posterity. In that sense, Let Freedom Ring is as much a tribute to those unknown individuals who worked anonymously behind the scenes as it is a presentation of the writers and captives that make up the public face of the fight to free political prisoners.

If you’ve been involved in political prisoner and prison abolition activism – and even if you haven’t – Let Freedom Ring is both touching and remarkable. Editor Matt Meyer manages to compile dozens of documents into a book that gives coherence to an important but often invisible movement. Rather than enlisting writers to document the movement, debate particular facets, or reflect on various periods, Meyer chooses instead to publish writings collected from the last generation of strugglers. The authors in Let Freedom Ring will look familiar: Dhoruba bin Wahad, Laura Whitehorn, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and others are featured, albeit in pieces that in numerous instances have been published in other forms. Rather than being a drawback, having the writings of so many political prisoners who are able to reflect on vital moments like the founding of the now-defunct political prisoner liberation formation Freedom Now! and its successor, the Jericho Movement, provides a rich context for considering the very idea of what it means to be a political prisoner. Never has such a treatment happened so holistically; never has it been afforded the 800 plus pages that Let Freedom Ring has given it.

Dan Berger kicks off the book with one of the best reviews of the history of political militancy I’ve read. Known for documenting the radical political struggles of groups like the Weather Underground Organization, Berger introduces the reader to the movements from which political prisoner populations have historically been derived and explains the central political tenets of these movements. Commenting on the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, Fuerza Armadas de Liberación Nacional and Republic of New Afrika, Berger covers some expected terrain. But he also considers movements and groups that often get overlooked such as Los Siete de la Raza, the George Jackson Brigade, and insurgencies led by theories of revolutionary nonviolence. Turning his attention to those behind bars, Berger also relates the stories of some of the best-known political prisoners. For those seeking a discerning introduction to these matters, Berger’s essay is a good place to start.

Although Let Freedom Ring has an ambitious scope, Meyer manages to pull it off. It is more than a series of lamentations about prison conditions, cases, and legalese. Instead, it highlights what many organizers consider central to understanding what it means to be a political prisoner. For white anti-imperialists and Black nationalists alike, every individual considered in the volume was and is motivated by a commitment to social justice, self-determination, and revolution from the inside and out. Because of the dour iconography of cages and fists that dot the landscape of political prisoner movements, the passion and devotion of political prisoners to these collective ideals is often lost. Not here. Meyer balances writings of pain in prison with words about the struggles of today.

If the book has a weakness, it arises in its account of the connection of political prisoner activism to broader social justice movements. How are organizers on the outside integrating the political prisoner movement into a broader agenda concerned with criminalization and oppression? And where, if anywhere, is such work happening successfully? While most of the pieces in the book are historical hip-checks, fierce reminders of white supremacy, occupation and resistance, not nearly enough ink is given to how the overall commitment of the prisoners themselves is (or could be) effectively connected to contemporary political organizing. In my experience as an organizer, political prisoner questions have often been treated parochially and isolated (sometimes for confusing reasons) from the broader question of criminal justice. And while a focus on political prisoners may have threatened to overshadow a particular campaign, it would at least have brought important names and history into a new light.

To its credit, Let Freedom Ring does its best to talk about liberation movements even when their connections to the struggle to free political prisoners may not be so clear. The book travels along a winding and wonderful radical road. David Gilbert, an important yet consistently overlooked political thinker, has many writings here. His essay, “Some Lessons from the 1960s,” should be required reading for every movement activist. Marilyn Buck’s memorable politics, poetry, and prose grace many pages. Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans’ investigation of the prison-industrial complex is as relevant now as when it was written over a decade ago. The United States government’s crimes against the black liberation movement and its targeting of US civil rights organizers are discussed alongside the Puerto Rican independence tendency, radical direct-action environmentalism, and the San Francisco Eight.

At many turns, Let Freedom Ring goes far beyond its stated focus on political prisoners and delves into matters like health care, institutional racism, and military resistance. When stepping out, some notable omissions become evident. Among these are the role that groups like the Crossroad Support Network played in popularizing political prisoner issues within the New Afrikan Independence Movement and elsewhere, and the work of the late Jim Campbell and the Bulldozer Collective. The latter published Prison News Service, the Canadian prisoners’ newspaper which regularly featured contributions by many of the writers included in Let Freedom Ring alongside debates on key ideological issues.

Given the prominence of anarchists and anarchist organizing in Let Freedom Ring, it’s surprising that Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin – a former Black Panther who actively organized around criminal justice and political prisoner affairs and who had a profound impact on the anti-authoritarian milieu in the early 1990s – gets virtually no mention at all. Whether or not you agreed with Kom’boa, and whether or not you recall his rows with groups like the Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, his contributions to political prisoner and prison abolition debates cannot be overlooked as it is in this compilation.

Activists need to consider how criminal justice reform, political prisoner efforts, and prison abolition find common ground, where they succeed, and where they can learn from one another. Although political prisoner activists come from diverse movements, too few analyze what worked in those movements and apply it to political prisoner engagements. When I was involved in the Anarchist Black Cross, there were many conflicts about the status of these connections. This seemed to be a weakness of many other groupings as well. Developing a coherent vision that recognizes that our relationships to multiple struggles are a benefit rather than a betrayal seems necessary; exploring how to do that is terrain we still need to cross.

Similarly, it’s important for us to consider the status of those captives who are not explicitly affiliated with broader political movements. Are we valuing “politicized” prisoners in a way that benefits the larger movement? Nowhere in Let Freedom Ring do we find a critical examination, for example, of the struggle for the soul of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation or the contributions of Sanyika Shakur, the controversial former Eight Tray Gangster Crips leader whose incarceration led to his politicization and the authorship of Monster: Autobiography of an LA Gang Member. This is significant, since the book brought New Afrikan ideals to mainstream audiences in the 1990s. Although Berger name-drops Shakur in his contribution, the overall political significance of these movements remain unexplored. In an era when youth culture’s conception of political prisoners has been shaped by Tony Yayo and the late Pimp C, how can we justify our failure to put names like Sundiata Acoli back on the radar of popular consciousness?

The decision to publish the pieces from the eras in which they occurred gives Let Freedom Ring a sense of urgency. However, the book misses an important mark by restricting itself to its rearview mirror look at the movement. Rank-and-file prison abolition and political prisoner movement organizers need to grapple with why we seem to be in the same place now as we were when many of today’s political prisoners were first incarcerated. These courageous souls have aged behind bars. Some have died. And only a precious few have been released. Although there have been victories, the movement remains largely unknown to most left-wing political activists. To the broader public, these prisoners are nearly invisible.

These questions are incredibly complex and it’s only through careful consideration that we can avoid falling back on recriminating attitudes. In fairness, Let Freedom Ring tackles a few of these questions, but what’s missing is a satisfying interpretation. As a documentary collection, perhaps this isn’t the place for that work. Nevertheless, many newcomers to the struggle won’t notice the gaps, which only increases Meyer’s obligation to explore them.

Meyer describes Let Freedom Ring as a resource guide. But it’s more than that: it is the chronicle the political prisoner movement has needed for a long time. By republishing works that have for too long languished in hanging file folders, Meyer encourages us to recommit to the struggle for those who have languished far too long behind bars.