“If each generation does not produce another George Jackson, let us produce at least someone among us who will remind the world of him.”
-Kumasi, a San Quentin comrade of George Jackson and founder of Black August.
Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson certainly reminds me of George Jackson. He was lumpenized in America’s urban neo-colonies during his adolescence and was taken hostage by American imperialism in his prime. He forged his revolutionary intellect within the confines of America’s concentration camps, always beating back attempts to undermine his militancy, dignity, and discipline. The only comparison I’d stop short of making between Comrades George and Rashid is to declare the latter the most important revolutionary intellectual in North America today. That I actually believe this doesn’t matter. The people, and history, will make that decision.
Rashid is the Minister of Defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party–Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC), a prison-based revolutionary communist organization that he co-founded with Shaka Sankofa Zulu in 2005. Not unlike the original Panthers, NABPP-PC’s ideology is “illuminated by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.” Its members view other colonized (and even white) proletarians as their allies in the class struggle in America, but maintain that the struggle of the black/New Afrikan proletariat has a unique anti-colonial role – a role that white and petty bourgeois communists have historically been unable to fully appreciate.
Defying the Tomb is an anthology that reveals the conditions, exchanges, and debates that gave rise to NABPP-PC and one of its leading members. It consists of two short autobiographies, a long series of prison letters exchanged between Rashid and fellow prisoner and comrade Outlaw, and a few theoretical chapters by Rashid and other writers (including Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoats, Sundiata Acoli, and Tom Big Warrior). The book also contains a small sample of Rashid’s extensive portfolio of revolutionary artwork. Recently, one of Rashid’s graphics became a symbol for the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike.
Like Malcolm X and George Jackson, Rashid is what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual.” The instincts that carried Rashid towards revolutionary politics were forged in the streets. In Defying the Tomb, Rashid recounts his days as a hardened lumpen-proletarian – a gangster – and describes in stark terms his experience as a “one-man army” in the ghetto. It was there that he refined his method of applying calculated and selective violence to maximize his power. The skills he honed in the streets became indispensable – for resistance and for survival – when Rashid entered America’s prison system in the early 1990s.
Once imprisoned, Rashid’s lumpen consciousness and anti-cop instincts developed into an irrepressible will to resist the oppression he observed around him. We come the learn that his resistance, which he so vividly details, was the only alternative to being broken and subordinated. Rashid’s calculated application of violence against sadistic prison guards and their proxy prisoners earned him the respect of his fellow inmates. Many came to emulate his example. Indeed, Rashid introduces the reader to an anti-oppression politics with which those of us on this side of the gates of hell may not be familiar – an anti-oppression politics that involves taking the initiative to escalate the terror tit-for-tat as the only way to undermine the oppressor’s impulses towards you and your comrades.
Despite the value of his militant instincts, Rashid explains that his resistance throughout the early 1990s lacked the insights that revolutionary theory would later provide him. Between 1994 and 2001, Rashid immersed himself in legal studies with the intention of using the law to mitigate the terror of the prison. But, after seven years of futile legal struggle that failed to effect any broader changes, he learned that prison guards “fear what the courts can do, as opposed to what the courts actually will do.”
“I also mistakenly believed that if one only learned how to navigate the courts correctly, litigation could produce continuous results in changing abusive conditions inside the prisons, as opposed to the mere temporary changes in pig conduct that my previous actions produced.” (45)
The courts would ultimately shut him out to shut him up. The violent repression Rashid experienced would be replaced by a far more effective measure: isolation. It’s at this point that Rashid discovers revolutionary theory via George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, and Rashid’s autobiographical sketch ends and his development as a revolutionary begins. Outlaw – Rashid’s interlocutor for nearly 80 letters in the Defying the Tomb – also comes to revolutionary communism via Jackson before coming into contact with Rashid not long thereafter in the early 2000s.
The correspondence between Rashid and Outlaw compiled in the book is rich and varied. The topics of debate range from Dead Prez and hip-hop to Sun Tzu and the laws of guerrilla warfare. Some letters include vivid analyses of repression in the prisons and cautionary notes about suspected snitches and collaborators; others contain broad discussions about Marxism, dialectical materialism, Maoism, and original insights on all variants of black nationalism – including the original BPP, the Five Percenters (Nation of Gods and Earths), the Uhuru movement, the Nation of Islam, the “New BPP,” and the New Afrikan independence movement. By the time you’re a dozen or so letters deep into Defying the Tomb, you find yourself a third interlocutor in the discussions and debates: agreeing or disagreeing, posing your own questions, giving your own answers, and becoming emotionally invested in the comrades just beyond the pages.
In the months following the period of correspondence documented in the book, Rashid and Shaka Sankofa Zulu (now the Party Chairperson) founded the New Afrikan Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter, the objective of which was to rebuild a multinational United Panther Movement. The NABPP-PC argues that, in America today, the strategic orientation of revolutionary organizing must be Pantherism; simply put, this entails a combination of revolutionary New Afrikan nationalism, proletarian internationalism, and Huey P. Newton’s concept of revolutionary inter-communalism.
Rashid is particularly invested in a critique of democratic centralism and its application within the original Black Panther Party (BPP). He outlines this critique in one of the book’s final essays. He carefully scrutinizes the BPP’s experiences with democratic centralism while laying out some organizational principles for the NABPP. Rashid argues that the BPP did not actually apply democratic centralism, but, rather, applied a form of authoritarian centralism that arose due to the incorrect fusion of the vanguard form of organization with a mass form of organization. This faulty model incorrectly combines within one organization the legal, mass-oriented tasks – like propaganda and serve-the-people programs – with tasks associated with higher levels of ideological unity and more serious commitments – such as armed struggle and clandestine organizing. This lack of organizational differentiation was most evident (and compounded) by the fact that BPP leaders were regularly getting into gun battles with the cops.
Throughout the book, Rashid and the other NABPP comrades measure the successes and failures of the original BPP and take up a task that’s been put off for too long: rebuilding the black proletariat-led revolutionary united front against US imperialism. They’re trying to do this from within the suffocating confines of America’s prisons. The recent hunger strike in California’s prisons in July 2011, its resumption in late September 2011, and the prison strikes in Georgia last December 2010 all suggest that the NABPP’s argument for prison-based cadre building is very timely.
That said, Rashid is aware that the NABPP faces limitations and restrictions in rebuilding a United Panther Movement. Neither Rashid nor other NABPP members suggest that they can lead a revolution from the confines of prison, or that the NABPP-PC is The Party.
“Because of our material limitations, we exist in reality as only a pre-party formation: The embryo of a genuine revolutionary vanguard. The scope of our work is limited and defined as it should be. As set out in one of our founding position papers, “Our Line,” we aspire through our practice and example to develop the actual NABPP on the outside within our oppressed communities, and ultimately into a Vanguard Party of Afrikan people worldwide. Our Party will take root as our cadre re-enter society…” (370)
While their political and organizational capabilities are seriously proscribed by their incarceration, the United Panther Movement’s many publications reveal that repressive conditions have not inhibited the production of some of the most incisive theorizations of the revolutionary movement in North America today. There are many examples, but I’ll touch on only two of the NABPP-PC’s significant contributions to contemporary communist thought.
A major document making the rounds in the prison system is Rashid’s historical theorization of gangs and the lumpen-proletariat in America, “Kill Yourself or Liberate Yourself: The Real US Imperialist Policy on Gang Violence vs. The Revolutionary Alternative.” Currently, this piece is circulating among Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and other gang formations, whose written responses will help form the basis of a program for a ‘Red Fist Alliance’ to provide revolutionary leadership to the lumpen-proletariat.
Second, one of the more important theorizations offered up by Rashid pertains to the party’s line on the ‘national question’ of New Afrikans in America. Rashid argues that Harry Haywood’s ‘black belt’ thesis from the 1930s has been dated by the dispossession of blacks and their subsequent urbanization in the middle part of the 20th century. Insisting that the historical and continuous exploitation, oppression, dispossession, and violence committed against New Afrikans be viewed in national terms, the NABPP insists that their struggle for liberation must be anti-colonial in character. However, the NABPP argues that the revolutionary role of the New Afrikan proletariat is neither confined to a single territory in the US, nor is it based on any back-to-Afrika schemes. If revolution is to occur in America, and if an egalitarian society on a world scale is to be sustainable, the New Afrikan proletariat will have to play its part, sooner or later, at the heart of American imperialism as part of an alliance with other oppressed nations and the international proletariat. This New Afrikan nation is not based on the racist analyses of the ‘New BPP’ and other cultural nationalist currents, but on the socio-historical reality of contemporary America that must be apprehended, worked to the advantage of revolution, and transcended in time.
“In the context of national liberation, we must remember that nationality is itself a temporary form of social organization and identity. It is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The nation is a product of social-historical development and will wither away in time. Our orientation as genuine revolutionaries is to the whole of humanity and the future classless and nation-stateless society. Getting from here to there involves national liberation struggles and security issues. As Mao Tse-tung observed, “Proletarian nationalism is applied proletarian internationalism.” It involves uniting all who can be united at each stage of the struggle. From our point of view, the key question is building alliances between the oppressed nations within the US and a broad and the multinational proletariat.”
The rise of the NABPP-PC from within the very ranks of America’s millions-strong concentration camp population is a welcome development. In today’s context – and without getting into the ideological differences within the revolutionary communist Left –what importantly sets the NABPP aside from the predominantly white petty-bourgeois Maoist organizations is that it has the social base to become a serious force within America’s multinational proletariat. Rashid and his NABPP comrades intend to organize America’s multinational proletariat and colonized peoples into revolutionary struggles in ways that the white and petty-bourgeois Left organizations have never been able to do from their own class position, and in ways that the short-lived Black Panther Party was only just beginning to figure out.
These comrades deserve our help on the outside. If you live in an urban proletarian hood, grab a stack of Defying the Tomb and get them moving amongst your people. I can personally attest to the fact that they’ll move, fast! If your recognize the worth of Rashid’s work but your immediate social circles are less interested, then link up with one of the solidarity groups, like 4Struggle Mag, and try to expose the terror and torture that Rashid and many others are confronting at Red Onion State Prison. In the weeks leading up to the publication of this book review, Rashid wrote to the world about the notorious ‘finger-bending technique’ torture practice that has become routine at his prison, leaving dozens of prisoners with broken fingers and dislocated joints. It’s in our hands to ensure that the only comparison that can’t be made between Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson and George Jackson is that this comrade, unlike George, won’t be hurled into the next existence before he’s had his chance to make his full contribution to the struggle.