You Can’t Jail the Spirit
The Movement to Free Political Prisoners
All too often, when activists raise the issue of our movements’ Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, it is done with a sense of guilt for how they have suffered. That is not what this roundtable is about. Though the lack of support that PPs and POWs receive from contemporary movements is unfortunate, this roundtable is no guilt trip. The image of martyred revolutionaries languishing forgotten in cages is not our focus here. Men and women on the inside and their comrades on the outside are not charity cases but revolutionaries with hard-learned experiences and present-day perspectives that need to be acknowledged by those of us with less experience.
There is a void in our politics where our incarcerated comrades used to be. It’s true that those who work with these political prisoners should use every opportunity to call attention to their cases and hardships, but we must also work to fill the spaces created by their absence. We need to involve them in our movement debates. We need to create opportunities for them to actively contribute to our political development while we share with them our own understandings of the world. We need to recognize that their words and experiences represent a wealth of knowledge that eclipses what commonly gets passed off as contemporary revolutionary theory.
In July of 2007, Tom Keefer interviewed Ashanti Alston, Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes, Susan Tipograph, and Sara Falconer in an attempt to do just that – engage with political prisoners and the movements which support them in order to draw lessons about how anti-capitalists and anti-imperialists can advance our struggles without forgetting those who have come before.
Ashanti Alston’s revolutionary spirit and continued organizing are testament to the principle and commitment that are sorely lacking in the post-anti-globalization era. Now 53 years old, Alston lived through a period of struggle few of us can comprehend and paid a price none of us would envy. Even now, he continues to struggle in a wide range of anti-racist and anti-prison campaigns.
Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes’ adult life began when he was dropped into Vietnam as a soldier with the US Army. He came home from that war with his eyes opened to the injustices around him and joined the Black Panther Party at a time of great social upheaval. Now serving time as a captured soldier of the Black Liberation Army, Seth has spent 34 years as a Prisoner of War in the prisons of New York State. A lifelong activist who still speaks with both fidelity and a love of humanity unsullied by over three decades in American jails, Hayes recounts the conditions in which prisoners live and the role they can play in contemporary movements.
Susan Tipograph, a lawyer who has worked with political prisoners for more than 30 years, speaks with words grounded in decades struggling for goals of huge political and personal significance. The insights she has gained as a movement lawyer should not only influence our perspective on politics but also sharpen our awareness of the consequences of the decisions we make.
Sarah Falconer’s experience is arguably the most instructive for many of us right now. She provides insights that speak to the experiences of today’s radical activists. The Certain Days calendar and 4strugglemag – two projects that she works on – are a tangible expression of her commitment to share the lessons our imprisoned comrades have learned. These projects are a recognition of the importance of these comrades and an honest attempt to bring their lives to bear on contemporary movements struggling for revolutionary change.
Following Falconer’s interview, you will find a glossary of events, figures, and terms assembled by Karl Kersplebedeb. The glossary provides supplementary information and context for references made in the roundtable.
The contributions by comrades in this roundtable do more than help us to see injustice and hear about real lived revolutionary history. They strengthen our resolve to move forward and inform our assessments of how to do so intelligently. This is not only because of the things they did or the people they were. It’s because of the people they are and the things they do. The wisdom they’ve gained can’t be encapsualated by a roundtable, an article, or even a memoir. Their lives are just that – living, breathing lives of real people struggling in all their complexity and with all their contradictions. Contributing to that life – involving yourself in it and learning its lessons – is not merely an obligation but a necessity. Both for us and for them.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Ashanti Alston. I am a revolutionary. I was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey. I am 53 years old, and I reside in Brooklyn. Right now, I’m one of the national co-chairs of the National Jericho Movement, whose mission is to free all political prisoners in the United States. I’m also a member of Estacion Libre, a people-of-colour organization that makes links to Zapatista organizations in Chiapas and that helps to send delegations of people of colour to go over there, not only to support but also to learn and bring back lessons for organizing here. I am also a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), which is an organization of revolutionaries of African descent who fight for self-determination for people of African descent here in the United States. I served a total of 14 years in prison as a result of my political activities in the Black Panther Party (BPP) and as a soldier in the Black Liberation Army (BLA).
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, revolution was in the air. Many people were inspired to come out and fight the system. My community in New Jersey was very racially divided and, in 1967, we had a rebellion in which the Black community liberated itself for a week by arming itself with rifles and driving out the police. That was my introduction to the Black Power movement. In 1969, we began to learn about the BPP and, by 1971, my best friend and I had organized a chapter of the BPP while we were still in high school. We started a free lunch program, a liberation school, and a free clothing program. At some point, the local police and FBI took notice, and my best friend and I were picked as targets to frame up on a cop killing.
We were charged and spent 14 months in jail as we waited to come to trial. Our lawyers were able to show that it was a frame-up, and we were acquitted. From there, we went back to the Black community, and I eventually joined the ranks of the BLA.
The BPP grounded me in the meaning of revolution, and I learned the importance of working with people on a daily basis around programs for their immediate needs. The BPP showed what it meant to be a servant of the people. I was not a great reader, but I began to read with a real intense hunger to learn about struggle. We began to learn about other peoples’ struggles and to learn about the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s movement, the movement for Puerto Rican independence, Native American struggles, and all sorts of other struggles going on overseas. I began to see things not just from a local perspective but also from an international one.
What kind of organizing was happening when you were in prison?
The first time we were locked up, we didn’t have much opportunity to organize because they had us isolated as juveniles in an adult jail – so it was more of an opportunity to let other prisoners know what the Black Panthers were about and what Black Power really meant. Later on, when we went underground and joined the ranks of the BLA, three of us were captured during the course of a bank expropriation and subsequently jailed.
When we were in the federal maximum security prisons, there was an opportunity to organize, and we organized in the same way we did in the BPP. We organized study groups and other activities geared to getting out of prison. In Lewisburg prison, we had a fantastic collective made up mainly of folks from the BPP and the BLA, but it also included people from the Weather Underground and other prisoners who had become politicized. We had regular meetings. We trained and exercised together. We were a community within the prison. We also knew that other comrades locked up in other prisons were doing the same thing. We didn’t let prison stop us from being revolutionaries.
How would you compare that situation to the one faced by people doing solidarity work for political prisoners today?
Today, there’s a lot of political work being done around political prisoners, but it’s isolated and it’s not connected to the kind of movement we were involved with in the 1960s. Even the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) organizations or the Jericho Movement or groups like the MXGM who do political prisoner work don’t have that kind of larger revolutionary atmosphere anymore. We haven’t yet found ways to get it into the public eye. When I say public I don’t mean mainstream. When people say that they want to make political prisoners’ issues “mainstream,” to me that means they want to find ways to make political prisoners acceptable to the middle class. The politics get watered down so much that you’re no longer talking about the visions that motivated these political prisoners. By talking about legalities and injustices and the legal system, they undermine the principles by which these individuals struggled in the first place.
When people deal with Mumia Abu-Jamal, they talk about whether he’s guilty or innocent. They mention corruption within the police department but neglect the fact that Mumia was and always has been a revolutionary in the Black community dedicated to Black people and the liberation of all oppressed people. When the language changes from the political to the legal, something very important gets lost. Only the anarchist groups and a few others still maintain the importance of the original vision. But you have to work in the communities in order to make any of these revolutionary visions come to fruition. The Black Power movement gave us pride and a feeling that there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish. When we went into communities with that kind of spirit, it spread to the people we worked with.
I don’t see that kind of work – the door-to-door work at the community level – going on today. I see more protests, forums, marches, and writings but way less face-to-face interaction with people. If we don’t find ways of interacting with people, then we can never have a movement based in communities. So one of the things that the MXGM and Jericho are stressing is the need to get the issue of political prisoners to be an ongoing community discussion.
Today, we’re so isolated that it’s important to think about where we have such discussions. Is it in a church, a community center, or on a street corner? Is it where people are at? Can we do more than just pass out literature and tell people to come to some other location to hear a program? Can we have a discussion right there where we’re at? That was definitely how the Black Panther
Party worked. We were in pool halls, and we were on the street corners where the hustlers were hanging out. But wherever we were, we were talking about revolution.
How should movements seeking to free political prisoners relate to the prison abolition movement?
As a member of Critical Resistance, prison abolition is key for me. Once people become aware of the prison industrial complex, we begin to see how the institution and the thinking behind it play a key part in our oppression. Once again, we can see how the prison came about as an institution of racism and class oppression, especially in the United States. If people are talking about liberation in the United States, whether it’s Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Asians, or even poor whites or working class people, they’re going to come up against the police and the prison system whenever they dare to challenge the system. Prison abolition becomes key because it helps to show that a society without oppression must be a society free of prisons. And a society without prisons has to be a society without the thinking that leads to prisons in the first place.
But we need to get better at making the connection between prison abolition and political prisoners. Many folks working on political prisoner cases don’t recognize that people are becoming revolutionaries in the prisons. It puts us at a disadvantage when those of us doing general political prisoner work don’t recognize politically conscious prisoners. We need to recognize how vast the issue of prison oppression is – and how big our movement must become to meet the challenge. Jericho needs to broaden its relationship with the ABC groups and those involved in the animal liberation or Earth First! movements.
What kind of advice would you give to new activists or people who are just getting involved in organizing around political prisoner issues?
If you’ve been doing it for a while, you know how hard it is to do. But, in a way, it is some of the most important work that any movement can do. There is no way that movements can honestly fight for a better world and not recognize those who remain confined because they dared to act on their dreams; you have to fight for those who came before you.
I don’t care if people are fighting against the war in Iraq if they don’t understand that there are people in prison today who recognized that past imperialist wars were also wars on their own communities in the United States. They dared to take a stand, and for people to ignore that compromises their own integrity. Once you begin to connect with political prisoners by visiting or raising money, you’re going to learn about them. They’re going to share stories with you, and you’re going to share stories with them. Out of that you’re going to find that they’re the connection you always needed to fight against the system. I encourage people to do this work, but it’s not easy. You’ll find out how petty prison systems can be and how they treat prisoners on a daily basis. And they’ll treat the people who want to connect with political prisoners and the prison movement in general in the same way. They’re going to do everything to discourage you.
Supporting political prisoners resuscitates them in people’s memory and consciousness. It’s the same as if they were Nelson Mandela: they must be free. And you have to understand why it’s important for you to put them at the top of your agenda regardless of the focus of your political activism.
What do you think about the current charges against the San Francisco 8?
This case is interesting because these individuals – with the exception of Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim, who are doing life sentences – tried to return to their communities and families and reconstruct their lives after the struggles of the 1970s. They are grandparents now. The system has chosen to bring back a case from 36 years ago. When they tried to prosecute this before, it failed mainly because of their use of torture to extract confessions. The charges reveal how the state operates to criminalize political movements. It seems like they’re sending out a message to discourage people from organizing like the Panthers or the Black Liberation Army. Do not go there. Do not think about it. Do not support it.
Since these people are our elders, it also continues the attack on the Black community. They come with impunity, take our respected elders, and lock them up. This may backfire because, with the arrest of those known as the San Francisco 8, they won’t be able to separate the Panthers from the case. All of them came out of the Black Panther movement; they were not all necessarily members of the Party, but they’re from the movement that inspired so many people. The case is drawing a lot of attention and touching people in the Black community in ways they have not been touched in a long time. It might help rebuild the kind of revolutionary movement that moved people from a place of hopelessness to a place of hope in the 1960s. Support for the San Francisco 8 will have to grow beyond the Black community, but success will ultimately depend on the redevelopment of organization within the Black community.
Does the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” represent a new kind of state repression, or is it just something they were doing all along that is being codified in new ways?
It’s important to understand that, whether they call it a “war on terrorism” or a “war on drugs,” they’re devastating the Black community. What they’re doing in Iraq is not the same in military terms as what they’re doing to us at home, but they’re definitely producing similar political and economic effects in our communities. Which is why it bugs me that we always have to battle the current anti-war movement – which is so white, especially in the United States – in order to get our issues heard. Not only is there a war overseas, but there is a war on us domestically as well. If people can’t make this connection, it may be an indication of their racism. More than two million people are in US prisons, and there are millions more who are under some kind of supervision. It’s the same as what they’re doing in Iraq.
Some people may not agree with the message and actions of the Black political prisoners who took military stances. When people in the anti-war movement see this, they’re not quick to come to our aid. It’s the same with the resistance in Palestine or Iraq. People pick up weapons or find other militant ways of fighting back, and others are like,“Oh, I can’t agree with that,” rather than trying to understand the circumstances under which people are living and recognizing that people have a right to determine how they’re going to fight against the system.
A new understanding has to develop if we’re ever going to create a movement that can envision a different kind of world that we can live in. A movement that would deal with issues of race, class, gender, and so forth. Until then, groups like the Jericho Movement will be small and will not get support and resources because people will just disagree – in a very privileged way – with our perspective and deadly life circumstances.
Can you give a brief description of the BLA and its political significance?
People of African descent in the US have to remember how we got here: in slave ships. And you have to remember that, from day one, we fought back in every way we could. During the civil war, there were Black people, like Dr. Martin Delany, who tried to negotiate with Abraham Lincoln to develop a Black Liberation Army to guarantee the liberation of Africans and slaves on plantations. Of course, Lincoln said no. Africans in the US continued to try to develop an armed capacity to defend our struggle to be free. You see examples of that in the early 1920s with groups like the African Blood Brotherhood. You see it in the 1950s with the Deacons for Defense who organized to defend civil rights workers and local Black communities.
The most organized expression of armed self-defense came from the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Resources and individuals with expertise were assigned to develop a BLA so that the Panther Party programs and the Black community could be defended. We understood that we were fighting a guerrilla war just like the Vietnamese and the African liberation movements. The result was that we were able to set an example and defend our communities by responding to state terror. We were also able to raise funds for the movement by hitting banks and armoured cars. We operated as an armed expression of the Black community from East to West and North to South. Though it was a brief period, we were able to show that it’s possible to wage guerrilla warfare in defense of our dreams to be free.
During the early 1970s, many folks from the BLA were either captured, killed, or run into exile. Among the exiles are Donald Cox in France and Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun in Cuba. They can never come back. But, even with all of that, the idea of a BLA has become accepted as part of revolutionary thinking in today’s generation of Black revolutionaries. All of them have heard of Assata Shakur and understand the concept of the BLA even if it doesn’t exist as a physical expression today. It’s there in the hearts and minds of the newly radicalizing generation coming out of the radical hip-hop movement.
What people need to understand is that conditions are worse today than they were in the 1960s. Don’t think that we won’t at some point need to develop the armed means to defend our dreams. As the Zapatistas have reminded us, every advance has to be defended. The San Francisco 8 case is key because the state is describing the BLA as a terrorist organization and saying that the accused belonged to it. They don’t know and don’t care whether those individuals actually belonged to the BLA. The details are unimportant to the message they want to send out. We have to defend the idea of the BLA even as we expose the state’s strategy to use the charge of “terrorism” to convict our revolutionary elders.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I want people who read Upping the Anti to understand that we are still trying to make revolution happen and that we can’t be afraid of the word “revolution.” That’s why, when I began the interview, I said that I was a revolutionary. I was thinking about how Fred Hampton would have the crowd say “I am a revolutionary” together. To say “I am for social justice” means something else. It’s not necessarily bad, but to say “I am a revolutionary” means that I understand that there is nothing the system can do to change itself, and either we change the system or we, like the Zapatistas, say we will create another world. And that’s where political prisoners come in. Because if they can still be optimistic today after some of them have been in isolation for decades, why can’t we? It’s important for us to reach out to those who stepped up to the front line 30 or 40 years ago and to keep them in the forefront of everything we do.
Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes
Please introduce yourself and tell us how you became politically active.
My name is Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes and I’m a former member of the Black Panther Party and a captured soldier of the Black Liberation Army. My formal introduction to the struggle began with my induction into the BPP in 1969. In terms of analyzing and having opinions about certain subjects, I’ve been politically conscious most of my life. I can’t say where it came from or who’s responsible because there have been a lot of factors.
In 1969, I joined the BPP. Having just returned from the war, I made the link between what was happening at home and what was happening in Vietnam: the oppression and exploitation, the ideology, and the corporate profits that were being made. I was interested in change that would see all people – not just business people – benefit. Projects like the Black Panther free breakfast program or the free legal clinics were important, as were lecture tours to universities and colleges where we would discuss the plight of Black people in the US.
My transition into the BLA occurred when the US government began to target the BPP and single us out for destruction. They attacked any potential development of Black leadership in the country through their COINTELPRO program. They ruthlessly disrupted the work of people like Martin Luther King, Elijah Mohammed, and Malcolm X. But they also sought to systematically destroy the base of the Black leadership: the rank and file. So, even though the media only reported the prominent names, a lot of COINTELPRO’s attention was directed at the local rank and file. We’re talking about a war waged on Black activist organizations.
Because I was working with the community, it was necessary for me to go underground to save my life and continue building the BPP.
Why did you end up going to jail?
Eventually, the government successfully targeted individuals in our movement for whom they had criminal records or photographs and fingerprints. Because I had no prior criminal history, I was unknown to them. But, in the course of being underground and supporting those being attacked, I came into contact with a couple of people who were at the top of the government’s watch list. Sometimes they would show up, and it was my responsibility to make sure they got safe passage in and out and that the locations where we met were secure. During one of those operations, we had an opportunity to meet with a very beautiful young brother who came to visit us. Because he noticed various things that seemed out of place, he thought he had been followed. So our meeting was cut short, and he was taken out of the area. Because they weren’t sure where he went, the police secured the whole neighborhood and set up watch stations. Eventually, a state informer who had been planted in our group was able to get a message to the police that helped them find us.
Because tensions with the police were so high, and because they were involved in such an oppressive campaign, there was no professionalism involved in our arrests. Instead, their approach was “shoot through the door, kick down the door, shoot everybody until they surrender,” and that’s what happened. When we ran out of ammunition and knew that our position was hopeless, we opted for surrender. The women were the first to leave and then the wounded, myself included. After my capture I was beaten so badly that I barely got away with my life.
Even after my arrest, I remained an unknown factor since nobody could place me. When they took my fingerprints and my photograph, they eventually turned up my military records. I had no criminal history, so they decided to say “because he’s military, we suspect he’s been involved in this, that, and the other.” I was convicted of eight counts of attempted murder, one for each police officer that had fired into the apartment. They found a gun in our apartment that was associated with a police officer’s murder, and they decided to pin that on me. So I got an additional 25 years to life for murder. Along with the attempted murder counts on the other eight officers, I wound up with a sentence of 245 years to life. But, as the courts hadn’t followed proper procedures, I had my sentence restructured to 25 years to life because I was convicted of a capital crime with a first-degree count, which superseded all other crimes and required that the other sentences run concurrently.
I was in prison in upstate New York under a whole host of charges that had me marked for death. I walked the halls of these penitentiaries for a number of years knowing that it would be an easy thing for guards to take me down and beat me until I was either paralyzed or killed. But I carried on with my work and my responsibilities.
I completed 25 years – the minimum portion of my life bid – in 1998. When I became eligible for parole I went to my first parole board hearing and I was denied parole and given an additional two years in prison. In 2000, I applied for parole again, as I did in 2002, 2004, and 2006. Each and every time, I got an additional two years added to my time. Every time, the board has denied me parole on the basis of “the serious nature of the crime.” But Eliot Spitzer has come into office as the new governor of New York State, and he has stated that denying people parole for the “serious nature of the crime” is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated. In 2008, the parole board will have another opportunity to review my request and decide whether they can finally let me go. So far, I’ve spent a total of 34 years incarcerated. During this time, I’ve helped raise and guide a daughter and a son who are now in their 30s. I also have a 15-year-old granddaughter earmarked for college, and I’m helping to assist in her education. I look forward to returning to the community from which I have been removed for so long.
Can you discuss the consequences of the limited medical facilities for aging political prisoners like yourself?
The lack of proper facilities in prison not only affects political prisoners; it affects everybody in the facility. Having said that, it’s a fact that anybody who presents a challenge to the institution is punished by being denied access to the facilities they need. The state increases repression in prisons so they can use fewer and fewer resources to control the population. Political prisoners come in with backing from the community and, because we’re conscious of a lot of things and know how to organize, we pose a threat to the prison system.
When we first came into the prisons, we thought the lucky ones were those killed on the streets by the state. But, as far as the prison guards and police were concerned, we were the lucky ones because we were jailed instead of being killed. It was an unwritten plan that we were supposed to die. And they knew they could create problems by pressing buttons to make us react. What happened for most political prisoners, myself included, was that we were attacked early on in our incarceration. But as things developed, and as other prisoners grew to respect us for standing up for ourselves and for them, we won converts to our side who began to model themselves after us.
The prison authorities decided at that point that something had to be done, so they tried other strategies. We weren’t getting a lot of our legal affairs dealt with, and when we applied to the courts, we were denied on the most ridiculous bases. They also decided to make us vulnerable by limiting our access to health care. Case in point: Albert Nuh Washington was a brother who was in his 50s when he was incarcerated. Nuh was an intellectual brother who was very good with people. He convinced a lot of people to bring out the best in themselves. Nuh developed diabetes in prison, and began to suffer serious back problems. When you’re diabetic, they have to test your blood regularly to see if anything is going on, and by taking blood they were able to ascertain that Nuh had cancer. They said nothing. When he went to the prison hospital to complain about his back, they said “yes, you have back pain. It’s because of the diabetes, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Nuh kept complaining, and for several years they claimed there was nothing wrong with him. At the time, we didn’t know how far the authorities were involved, but we can now trace it back to the Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) that operate in the prison system. They decided that certain medical conditions were not going to be treated. Things like HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C would be taken care of, while colon cancer or prostate cancer were generally not because there’s no money in the budget to cover these costs.
Nuh was left to suffer for three or four years. At some point, he began to lose a lot of weight and strength and was confined to a wheelchair. He was aware that these people were trying to kill him. One day they examined him and said “Oh my God, you have cancer and have six months to live.” I think they knew he had cancer a long time ago. They did not give him cancer, they just didn’t treat it. They waited until his cancer became irreversible and then notified him. Nuh lasted another eight or nine months.
Teddy “Jah” Heath was another intellectually gifted brother and a strong comrade. He complained for two years about stomach cramps and constipation. He also had cancer, but they never did anything about it. I believe they just don’t tell us the truth about our health, and there’s no viable means to discover what’s really going on because we’re laymen in the medical field. As a diabetic, I take insulin twice a day, but I only see a registered nurse once every two or three months. Mostly, I see nurse’s aides: people who have been trained by the nurse only to give me injections. When I come to the medical wing and talk about my side effects or complications nobody ever writes anything down. When I look at my medical records, I discover there’s nothing describing the complications I’ve complained about.
If I died tomorrow, they’d say I died of diabetic complications, and who would dispute it? I got diabetes in prison and have had it for a number of years. They’ll just say that I must not have been taking care of myself and that I wasn’t complaining because there’s nothing in my record. A long time ago, I decided to keep my own records to note when my sugar levels were erratic and getting out of control. Nothing had changed; I was still exercising moderately and responsibly, and I was taking medication, but my sugars were still off. I wasn’t gaining weight, and I wasn’t taking any substitute drugs. I’ve been here 34 years and never had a dirty urine test. I’m not overeating, smoking cigarettes, or doing anything that would justify my erratic sugar levels. For the longest time, I tried to ask them to change my insulin from a twice-a-day version that doesn’t seem to be working to a better insulin that I would take once a day. I also wanted to have a liver biopsy because I wanted to see if my Hepatitis C was coming back. My requests were denied. After a number of requests I was recently given a liver test, and it’s solely because I began to collect all my medical records. I’m also learning how to get support to bring in outside medical professionals to look at my records.
What is the diet like in prison? Does it contribute to your health problems?
All prisoners get a basic, bland diet. You get a lot of white rice, pasta, processed food, and frozen food like hamburger and chicken patties – stuff like that. When it comes to a medical diet – low-cholesterol, low-fat, or low-sulfur – you get the same thing as the general population, minus the sauces and gravies. If we’re having spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, my meal would consist of plain spaghetti without sauce and a piece of white fish without batter. And that would be the “medical diet.” Everybody else is given 2500 calories a day, and on a medical diet you’re given 2000 calories a day by taking the sauces off. We don’t get fresh fruit or vegetables. All fruit comes out of a can and is full of sugar. Once in a blue moon – once every two or three months – you might see an orange or an apple, but that’s it. There’s no produce market in the facility or in the area. We can’t even buy fresh fruit or vegetables in the commissary or from an outside service. So, if you have an illness you receive nothing nutritionally that can help you get over your illness. You’re just going to remain in a weakened state.
How can the movement in support of political prisoners be more effective?
What the movement is lacking is initiative. It’s not generating the numbers it once did. A lot of times political prisoners have issues that need to be talked about, but we can’t seem to get people motivated, and I think this is because we’re getting older. As people get older, they develop little idiosyncrasies, and they take that into the work in a way they didn’t before. The problem, in my view, is that we haven’t developed protégés or educated enough people to replace us as we get older. Everybody’s made mistakes. We’ve learned from our mistakes. The only way to properly learn is to be in it to win it. But we have to be receptive to young people going beyond what we know and we must learn from the experience of others. We have to give authority and responsibility to the younger generation to move forward at the same time that we support, guide, and work with them – both inside and outside the prisons. In working with the younger folks inside and outside, we need to allow them to take the lead.
What is the most meaningful way people can support you and your case?
The major thing that’s helped sustain me over the years is that everything I’ve ever done comes from a place of love. If that’s where you’re coming from too, then your support means a lot to me. I like to talk to and correspond with people. I’m interested in your opinion. I’m always interested in new discoveries and new avenues of approach. I’m listening, and I really want you to talk to political prisoners and get back to us with your opinions. If I disagree with you, I’ll be upfront with you, and I hope you’ll be the same with me. I don’t agree with everything that everybody tells me – and I’m sure that everybody doesn’t agree with everything I tell them – but we have a foundation of love. And love will help us move forward.
Do you have anything else you would like to say?
I’d like to extend my love and appreciation to all the wonderful people I know and to all the heroes – known and unknown, sung and unsung – who’ve given me love and guidance. I thank my family, my comrades and my friends. I thank everybody who’s made a contribution that should be recognized. To all of you reading this, I encourage you to continue to support the struggles of humanity and, as you go on your way, to continue lifting people up so that we will all rise up together.
If you would like to write to S eth, he can be reached at “Robert ‘S eth’ H ayes, #74A2280, P.O. Box 1187, W ende Corr. F acility, Alden, NY, 14004-1187, US A.” You can find out more about S eth and the campaign in support of his release at www.sethhayes.org.
Can you please introduce yourself and explain how you became involved in radical politics?
I’ve been a criminal defense lawyer for 31 years. In the summer of 1974, I was between my second and third year of law school and I got a job at what was then called the Law Students’ Civil Rights Research Council. It was an organization that, in the 1960s, placed law students with lawyers involved in the civil rights movement. It was on its last legs when I got involved, but I got a job through them with the first women’s law office in New York City. The firm that I worked for was called Lefcourt, Kraft & Arber. These three women shared an office space with what remained of the New York Law Commune. The Law Commune was made up of lawyers who represented draft resisters in the 1960s, as well as the Panther 21, Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac Shakur), and the Attica brothers. People in the Lefcourt, Kraft & Arber office had represented Black Panther Party members and people arrested for alleged Black Liberation Army activities, and this is how I got brought into the world that has been my life for the last 31 years.
I didn’t start by doing a lot of work around political prisoners, but the firm was representing Assata Shakur in some little way or another. I met lots of people in the office – people who weren’t lawyers but who either worked there or who were doing support work around Assata and Sundiata Acoli’s cases. It was compelling to see all these lawyers doing things they were passionate about. They were very exciting lawyers who didn’t wear three-piece suits to work. They were political, they were funny, they were young (and some not so young), and I found everything about the situation compelling and exciting.
What was the relationship between political movements and the legal defense strategies for the people who were imprisoned?
This was the summer of 1974, and a lot of BLA trials were winding up. While I worked at Lefcourt, Kraft & Arber, what was then the New York 5 were on trial in Manhattan for the killing of Piagentini and Jones. Although this would never happen today, people were allowed to bring the prisoners lunch. And so, one of the first things I ever did in relation to political prisoners was to make them lunch one day. The Panthers/BLA were the main focus when it came to political prisoners and, at the time, they had what seemed to me a wide level of support. But, in retrospect, the support was only coming from a certain sector of the movement and there was very little coming from elsewhere. It was also a time when there were a lot of left wing party building attempts going on, but the question of political prisoners was never raised by the great bulk of them. So, as isolated as the issue may be now, it was even more so then.
Did you have any difficulty supporting people who were accused of taking part in armed struggle?
I became involved with people whose politics were consistent with supporting political prisoners. In the Weather Underground’s book Prairie Fire, the first couple pages consisted of a list of all the political prisoners in the United States. These were issues I had never really thought about, and for many years I had a romanticized view of these political prisoners. That’s changed over time as I’ve gotten older and wiser and as the politics of doing this work have gotten older and wiser as well.
In 1977 or ’78, I started representing a man who was a prisoner at Greenhaven, NY, charged with killing another inmate. At that time, it was a mandatory death penalty case. He was not a political prisoner, but this was still in the post-Panther 21 and post-Attica period when the politics of the Panthers and the BLA had enormous sway in the New York State prison system. The person I represented was friends with a lot of the political people in Greenhaven. At that time, they put all the BLA/BPP people together in the same facility. So I met all these folks who were potential witnesses – people who knew the person I was representing. I met Dhoruba bin Wahad,
Seth Hayes, Teddy Heath, and Baba Odinga. I met a lot of people who’d been convicted of BLA-related crimes and people who had some relationship to the Panthers, including some who are now deceased. From that point on, besides doing regular criminal defense, which is the bulk of my practice – I was involved in political prisoner work. At that time, the political prisoners that I worked with were people who, by and large, were already convicted and had already gone through their appeals process, so the work I did was not about the issues for which they were imprisoned.
Whatweresomeofthecontradictionsyoufacedasaradical lawyer working in the criminal justice system?
The primary contradiction that’s come up has been in figuring out the line between being somebody’s political colleague or comrade and my responsibility as somebody’s lawyer. That’s occurred in a couple ways. For instance, I’ve done cases involving people who went on to be political prisoners where – if they were regular old legal cases – I would have had much more aggressive conversations with the defendants about whether or not they should plead guilty. I would’ve tried to negotiate some kind of plea bargain. At least in the beginning, I didn’t have those conversations because I thought that would be like pressuring them to renounce their politics. I’m not saying that if I had strongly suggested a plea they would have listened to me, but I think I’ve learned from some of those experiences not to let my political support or radical desires cloud my responsibility and obligations as an attorney.
The other issue is that, when I was young, I tended to romanticize the people I was dealing with. I treated them as revolutionary icons rather than real people. I think this does a disservice to political prisoners because they’re ordinary human beings. It also makes it harder to do political support for them because, if you think someone is without fault, then it’s hard to build support for them among people who may not support the actions for which they were convicted.
Who are some of the political prisoners with whom you’ve worked?
I’ve worked with William Morales, a Puerto Rican prisoner who was one of the first in this country to take the position that he was a prisoner of war. I’ve worked with Seth Hayes, Herman Bell, as well as with white revolutionary anti-imperialists like the Ohio 7, Laura Whitehorn, Judy Clark, Alan Berkman, Silvia Baraldini, and Linda Evans. I represented a lot of people who went to jail in New York, Chicago, and Puerto Rico for resisting grand juries that were investigating the Puerto Rican independence movement. I represented people who were involved in the State and Federal Brinks cases. I have also represented a host of other people who didn’t necessarily become political prisoners but who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement, AIDS Action Now!, and the anti-globalization movement. I represented Sherman Austin, who went to jail for being the webmaster of a site called “Raise the Fist.” I’m sure there are other people I’ve forgotten.
How would you say the level of state repression has changed during the years you’ve been active as a defense lawyer?
In some ways it’s changed, and in some ways it hasn’t. Over the years, I’ve represented tons of activists arrested at demonstrations or civil disobedience actions. Many of them had very sophisticated analyses of the state, the government, and repression. But, when it came to being arrested and charged, they were extremely naïve about what the government was capable of. I would get clients with very sophisticated analyses of global capitalism and the need to stop it, but when arrested they were flabbergasted that they’d be required to come to court.
It’s one thing to have an ideological position on the state, and another to have a naïve and privileged perspective about what the state is capable of doing. Unless you were engaged in armed actions, state repression in the mid-70s was less than it is now. In any case, radicals during that period weren’t getting attacked in the same way they were at the height of COINTELPRO. After Watergate, there was pressure on the FBI to reform. So, while I think there was significantly less repression in the mid-’70s, it doesn’t mean that it completely went away. It just wasn’t happening on the same level or on the same terms as compared to what the government did to the Panthers or the Puerto Rican nationalist movement. And now I think that’s changed after 9/11. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, I can’t imagine that the people charged and convicted of “Green Scare” stuff would have received the sentences they did.
Things have also changed because the word “terrorism” wasn’t used back in the BLA days but “criminal” was. In the 1950s, the term was “communist,” and then they used “criminal” and “cop killer,” and now they’re using the term “terrorist.” Up until recently, the public has been willing to put up with repression and enormous rights violations. The government has been successful at scaring people by saying that, unless we take certain actions, Al-Qaeda is going to come into our neighborhoods. 9/11 has emboldened the government to repress people in a way they couldn’t have in the 1980s or 1990s.
Is there hope for progressive movements if political repression works so well? How can social movements defend themselves against repression while extending their own struggles?
I think we have to understand what the state is capable of doing. After that, understand what our options are, what power we have, and what we’re capable of doing. Obviously it’s impossible to avoid repression because, if we don’t challenge the government and we don’t challenge the powers that be, then change won’t happen. How we challenge them and what tactics and strategies are effective: this is the real question. Too often, we define the success of our actions by whether or not they got sixty seconds on the local news.
As movements, we have to understand that repression is always going to interfere with our work. No matter how “good” we are, people will be targeted and it’s incumbent on us to defend them. That doesn’t always mean we have to agree with them; we shouldn’t make political agreement the bottom line for support. For a long time, many political prisoners in the United States (particularly the BLA and BPP) required that any support work necessarily involve support for the politics they represented, whether that was armed struggle or Black nationalism. I was subpoenaed to a federal grand jury in 1979 and went around with a petition to the legal community. The first line of the petition was something like “Susan Tipograph, who was representing prisoner of war William Morales, has been subpoenaed…” A lot of people didn’t sign the petition because they didn’t agree that Morales was a prisoner of war. I could be very uppity about the purity of my politics, but in the end it didn’t help my case. Nor did it help build support for the Puerto Rican prisoners to make it a requirement that you had to support Morales’ status as a prisoner of war in order to support his release.
We also made that mistake by insisting that, in order to support BLA prisoners, you had to support armed struggle and the killing of cops as legitimate tactics in the liberation of Black people. It’s a narrow and ultimately self-defeating proposition because there are going to be people who don’t support those politics but would support political prisoners by calling for a truth and reconciliation process, by arguing that the person has done enough time, or by saying that they went to jail at a particular point in history and that time has changed, etc. If you look at the people who have come out in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, you’ll see that it has ranged from people who think he’s guilty and got a fair trial but who don’t support the death penalty, to people who think he’s innocent and didn’t get a fair trial, to people who think that – even if he did shoot the cop – he was justified in doing so. We need to build a movement around political prisoners that recognizes as broad a spectrum of people as possible.
You said that it’s important to be aware of what the state is capable of doing. Given the situation in Guantánamo Bay, the recent prosecution of attorney Lynne Stewart and the general erosion of rights in the US, how far do you think that process will go? Are we facing a new stage of repression?
I don’t think there’s just one answer to that. There’s something qualitatively evil about Bush and Cheney, but there’s also something qualitatively different about the American psyche after 9/11. I don’t think that when Bush steps out of office everything is going to change. But there has been a change in thinking about issues of civil liberties and free speech that was inconceivable five years ago.
In the legal community, a large number of very prestigious and mainstream law firms have taken on representing people at Guantánamo. A few months back, somebody who was, I think, a Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, made a statement where he essentially said that the other clients of these firms should be made aware of the fact that their lawyers were also representing “terrorists” at Guantánamo Bay. He was essentially saying that economic pressure should be used to pressure those law firms to stop doing this work. The statement caused a massive outcry within the legal community. And this guy not only withdrew his statements, but he also ended up resigning or getting fired from his position.
While we are now able to have different kinds of discussions about these issues than we were five years ago, we are not going to be able to make a difference if we don’t understand the nature of repression and how it changes along with conditions in the world. We live in a very different world from the one in which I first became political. At that time, the world seemed full of promise and optimism. Cuba was engaged in a successful national liberation movement, people all over the world were throwing off the yoke of colonialism, and the civil rights movement had succeeded in changing the quality of life for Black people in the United States. Today, the world is very different. At the time of the Vietnam War, it was easy to say “US out of Vietnam” and to root for the National Liberation Front. I’m against the war in Iraq, but it’s not like I’m rooting for Al-Qaeda in Iraq to be successful or that I’m hoping insurgents will behead more people. It’s a more complicated world now that violence has come here in a way it hadn’t before. I think we must be mindful of how fear works and how it is manipulated, and be able to address those fears in ways that are comprehensible to people.
Do you have hope that the political prisoners of the 1960s will be released in the coming years?
I’m filled with hope and optimism. In 1981, after the Brinks incident happened, I went to a National Lawyers Guild conference and put up a sign indicating that, if anybody wanted to talk about the case, they could seek me out. Nobody from this radical and progressive organization sought me out. Now, a big law firm in New York City is representing Judith Clark in her attempt to win her freedom. Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes got little support for a period of 10 years, and now people are talking about him. You can’t go to a forum on the left without having a political conversation about repression and political prisoners and what we must do to support them. That’s good news.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your work.
I work with the Anarchist Black Cross Federation (ABCF) in Montréal, on the Certain Days political prisoner calendar, and with Prison Radio on CKUT. I’m a journalist, and I hold a Masters degree in Media Studies from Concordia University. I’ve lived in Montréal for six years, but live in Toronto now.
When I first moved to Montréal, I started writing to some prisoners and doing little things for them. Over the course of getting to know Jaan Laaman, who is a political prisoner in Massachusetts and one of the Ohio 7, we started talking about doing a zine together that would be a place for political prisoners to contribute to ongoing dialogue around all sorts of stuff in the activist community. That’s how we started 4strugglemag. It was originally going to just be an online publication, but we ended up getting so much interest from prisoners that we now have a huge readership in the prisons. We primarily publish in print now, although we still get visitors online. Last year, I started working on the Certain Days calendar, a project with political prisoners David Gilbert, Seth Hayes, and Herman Bell. It focuses on a different theme every year and is a space for political prisoners and their supporters to circulate information about a range of issues. This year, the focus is on the legacy of the Black Panther Party.
Why did you decide to start writing to political prisoners and why did you prioritize this as an area of work?
A really close friend of mine was beaten and arrested at the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2003. We lost contact with him during the protest. For a couple of days after that, we were really worried since Carlo Giuliani had been killed and protesters were being mistreated in jail. The local Anarchist Black Cross ended up working to get my friend and other protesters released. They provided him and his friends with new clothes to replace those they were wearing that were covered in blood, and they helped them get back to Canada. They gave my friend so much support, and it meant so much to me that these strangers had been there to take care of the people in our movement. I decided I really wanted to do that myself. I looked into the Anarchist Black Cross groups in North America and started learning more and more about political prisoners.
At the time, I knew there were people from the civil rights movement and other activists in prison, but I don’t think I realized how many there were or how long they had been imprisoned. The more I learned about it, the more passionate I became. The relationships I’ve developed with prisoners over the years have really affected my political development, and I think that’s another reason why I prioritize this work. It’s important for us to be there for them. But, at the same time, the support they give us really helps in all the work we’re doing.
Are there connections being made between the new generation of activists currently being criminalized and the political prisoners from years ago?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The “Green Scare” and the San Francisco 8 cases have crystallized for me why it’s important to make these connections. Daniel McGowan, who was jailed as part of the “Green Scare,” is a really good friend of mine and we got to know each other through the prison support work I was doing. When he was arrested, one of the things he was most interested in was making connections between the newer generation of mostly environmental prisoners and the older generation of civil rights-era prisoners. He had put on speaking events with Ashanti Alston and had been working to educate younger activists about the older generation of political prisoners. At the same time, he was trying to get groups like Jericho to understand the importance of supporting the younger generation of political prisoners.
In the current political climate, it’s obvious that the state is going to take advantage of the “war on terror” to criminalize activists from the civil rights movement right on through to the environmental movement. And it’s obvious that we need to make those connections. Certainly there’s lots we can do to strengthen both of those movements and make solidarity more concrete. It’s important for everyone doing political prisoner solidarity work to improve communication and better support each other’s projects.
What do you feel you’ve accomplished with 4strugglemag and the work you’ve done through the ABCF?
The main point of 4strugglemag is to give prisoners a voice in our dialogues. This includes discussions about doing anti-imperialist anti-war work all the way through to more theoretical discussions about race, gender, and class. Throughout history, prisoners have had some of the most radical analyses of these issues. People like George Jackson wrote from prison and were key to pushing social justice movements forward. There are definitely current voices that could have just as much of an impact. Activist work and prisoner support work tend to be separated from prisoners themselves, and one thing 4struggle tries to do is make it so that – in our everyday struggles and organizing – prisoners have a voice and can give us their analysis.
In terms of tangible results, the hundreds of letters we get from prisoners are enough to let me know that we’re going in the right direction with the magazine. We’ve got a really good dialogue going around political hip-hop, which was started by a prisoner as a way of trying to bridge the generation gap in political prisoner support work. He wrote to us saying he liked the magazine but that, as a young person, he found it a hard to engage with what we were doing because so many of the prisoners writing for the magazine were older. He suggested that more people would read it if we talked about something like hip-hop. We ran his article and received dozens and dozens of amazing letters from people engaged with in all sorts of issues around hip-hop. Then, the older generation of prisoners wrote back, and we got a great article from Mumia about it. We’ve had several good issues where people who wouldn’t normally get a chance to share these ideas have been able to come together in a space where people on the outside and people on the inside – from all different institutions, generations, and backgrounds – are talking about how to push the movement forward. I find that really exciting.
We can’t get accurate numbers, but I have the sense from the letters I get that each copy of 4struggle gets read by five or ten other prisoners as it’s passed from one person to another. We get letters all the time from people who found us through another person in prison, and they want to get on our mailing list. We’ve actually had prisoners write to us from institutions that we don’t send 4struggle to. They’re getting copies of it passed around in ways that circumvent the censorship to which they are subjected. We have a lot of trouble with censorship in general, as some mailrooms use the flimsiest and most ridiculous excuses to block the magazine by saying it’s gang-related material and stuff like that. We’ve been working to combat that, but it is hard to do. Prison mail rooms are so arbitrary, and they can basically do whatever they want. They don’t have any real incentive to let 4struggle through.
How do you overcome the contradiction of working in Canada but dealing mostly with political prisoners in the United States?
We send 4struggle to some institutions in Canada even though the mail restrictions are a bit different here. You can’t send stuff to individuals in prison, but you can send it to libraries, so it gets to prisoners that way. I have often been asked why I prioritize American political prisoners since I live in Canada. Part of it is that, in Canada, people don’t generally serve the length of sentences they do in the US. You end up having the need for long-term support in a different way there. Obviously, the system in Canada is terribly flawed. But a lot of the work we’ve ended up doing in Canada as the ABC has been around supporting refugees and immigrants in detention and doing work like court solidarity rather than long- term prisoner support. However, the radio show we work on does cover local prisoners quite a bit and we also work with a lot of prisoners from around Ontario and Québec.
You mentioned the need to bring political prisoners to the forefront of the work that activists do in other movements, but a lot of political prisoner work is done away from the spotlight. Much of it is very personal one-to-one work, like visiting or writing to prisoners. How can we concretely incorporate the voices of prisoners into our movements?
So much of it is about improving communication with each other and with prisoners. Not everybody has time to write a prisoner on a regular basis. I can understand that. But I really encourage anybody who has the slightest interest to casually start writing to someone because that’s the easiest way to get involved. Although we are few and far between, there are groups that are working with prisoners. So if you’re going to have an event, contact a group like us and get some statements from prisoners that can be read, or that can be recorded and played at the event. Stuff like that is really inspirational to people and serves as a tangible reminder that, even though they’re in prison, they’re still part of our movement. Every leftist publication can and should incorporate articles from prisoners.
What kind of advice would you give to people who are either interested in or are just getting involved in political prisoner support work?
There’s a really good section on the ABCF website that talks about exactly how to write letters to prisoners and things like that. A lot of the time, when people get started, they get excited and tend to over-promise. That’s definitely the wrong way to do it. It’s much better to start small and offer something tangible. Write letters and tell them about yourself. If you are a student and you have access to a photocopier or the internet, then offer that. Or maybe suggest that you could fundraise for a particular small goal. I keep coming back to the fact that it’s really a matter of developing a line of communication and allowing prisoners to determine their own support needs. You can write to somebody and see what they need, and then you can start working on bigger and bigger stuff. The most important thing is to start writing to someone and to become informed. You won’t know everything right away, but it pays to take some time to read about people’s cases and learn a bit about their history and w