Out From the Underground

Reflections on Activism and Abolition

James Kilgore is a researcher and an activist based in Urbana, Illinois. In the 1970s, he became involved with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a left-wing revolutionary group infamous for the use of armed violence to further its political goals, including the kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst (although James joined after these events). Following the killing and capture of most sla members, James lived underground for 27 years, mainly in Zimbabwe and South Africa until he was extradited to the us in 2002 to serve six and a half years in prison for explosives and passport fraud charges. Following his release in 2009, he began to work at the University of Illinois and is currently the director of the Challenging E-Carceration project which focuses on developing alternatives to electronic forms of incarceration. Élise Thorburn sat down with James to speak about his life as an activist, both while underground and currently as an organizer in the prison abolition movement.

First of all, what led to you to become an activist? And, what are some of the historical and contextual differences between today and when you first began organizing?

I came a little bit late in the movement. I was politicized around 1969 while attending University of California Santa Barbara, which became famous for students and anti-war protesters burning down a Bank of America in response to the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. A real catalyst for me to begin looking at the world through an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist lens, was being eligible for the draft. As a constant threat, over young men in particular, the draft forced us to at least examine the consequences of war and being part of the military. Following this confrontation, the national guard descended upon the student community of Alta Vista in armoured personnel carriers and established martial law, meaning we weren’t allowed on the streets after sun down. This was a small bank, but nonetheless, to me it represented a microcosm of the power of the state lurking behind any kind of serious threat to the power of capitalist America. Even after the draft was abolished, I was still committed to an anti-imperialist perspective.

As to the second part of your question, there are three major differences between the movements back then and today’s. To start, I felt there was a lot more of what people today might call intersectionality. “The movement” made up a lot of smaller movements that dealt with their own issues. During my work at that time, I would not have been able to name a single person working around prisons who had not also been in an anti-war demonstration, who didn’t have vibrant discussions about racism and the role of women in movements and budding gender issues, and who was not aware of the struggles of Native Americans or of the Black Panther Party and did not attend actions related to those issues. In contrast, in the movement against mass incarceration today, there are very few people who go to an anti-war demonstration, an action around the issues of climate change, or other issues related to policing and racial justice beyond the narrowly defined context of law enforcement and the criminal legal system.

Secondly, although there were divisions around roles of violence and non-violence, even people who were non-violent did not seem to have a problem with, for instance, the trashing of a building on university campus. People who did isolated guerilla actions were on a whole other dimension, but if you go back and look at the statistics of the time, you’ll see there were hundreds of anti-war and, what we could call today, social justice bombings and military activities that seem utterly impossible today. Part of why these actions are less common today is because the state has become so much more repressive, their surveillance networks are so much more powerful, and the penalties are much more serious. But another part is that there is a different philosophy of how we deal with the system. I’m not trying to romanticize those guerilla actions because you can be critical of the actions I was involved in. But you also have to see in the context of the time. The use of violence and guerrilla activity was part of the debate and discussion. There was tension, but there was also a recognition that people’s different viewpoints were valid. I don’t think movements are as involved and nuanced today.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, back then most people in the movement also had an internationalist consciousness, meaning there was a perception that there were growing alternatives to us capitalism around the globe. For some people it was the Soviet Union, but for many of us it was the national liberation struggles in Vietnam, Southern Africa, Cuba, China and so forth. We saw Vietnamese peasants as heroic and incredibly resourceful people fighting against the most powerful military in human history, and winning. We saw people in other parts of the world emulating some of that in Southern Africa and Latin American guerilla movements. To my knowledge there’s not a single figure, country, or movement today I look to internationally and think, “Wow they’re really doing it, they’re on a different path.” In hindsight, of course, we can criticize Vietnam, China, and the national liberation models, but the fact is those ongoing struggles created a consciousness for people and a recognition that people in those countries were actually far more committed and better organized than we were in the us.

Today, there is a lack of awareness in the us that people in the Global South have much better developed organizing and understanding of global capitalism, even though the movements are not what they used to be. People in movements here are much more captured by us exceptionalism, by a kind of imperialistic mindset. Even when they look at movements in other countries they use a top-down, rather than bottom-up approach. I’m not saying this is 100 percent the case, but when I go to conferences on mass incarceration, internationalism is just not part of their consciousness. They are not thinking about people in Afghanistan, about why Yemenis have the biggest cholera outbreak in history. These are not issues that resonate with them or which they feel compelled to act on. Meanwhile, governments have international perspectives, they make alliances, and operate internationally. This lack of international awareness today is ironic considering the ease of access of information. Back then, I only had access to international news by reading The Guardian newspaper, the Black Panther paper, or the Communist Party paper. In California, if I wanted to read the New York Times, I had to go to the public library and read the one from last week. I could find all this now in five minutes yet people seem to be less informed. It’s a really staggering contradiction.

So what you’re saying is that with all the talk of intersectionality we are often less intersectional in our organizing today. How do you think as organizers and as radicals we can combat that? How can we rebuild an international perspective and create actual existing intersectionality in our movements?

I think we have to raise the issues. People have opportunities to travel, to bring people from other countries to talk about their struggles, all these things are valuable. In the South African liberation struggle, national tourists would go around speaking on campuses and in communities about what people were doing on the ground. Those voices were very powerful, unique, and life changing experiences for people, especially for people in Black communities. Technology provides us with greater opportunities to communicate and access information, but it does not replace the incredible human connection you feel when you meet someone in person and hear them speak.

Having said that, I do not mean to stand on a high horse and pretend I haven’t been captured by the same things. I feel more siloed than ever. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and I get distracted easily by emails and text messages. The conversations around abolition, for example, also have to be different. There appears to be what I call “fluff abolition,” which involves painting these rosy pictures of a world without prisons, but does not talk about the concrete steps we need to take to get there, specifically the elimination of the us military and corporate establishment, and the need for internationalist solidarity. It’s not just about changing how people feel, but also about dealing with the depth of those structures, because that’s how ingrained the whole carceral state is in us capitalism. If we think we are just going to create patches of abolition bliss, it’s not going to happen.

Let’s go back to South Africa. How did you end up there, with the sla, and eventually underground?

I don’t know how much you know about the sla but to make a long story short, there was the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the massive incineration of people in la in 1974. Myself and my partner at the time knew at least one of those people, Angela Atwood, who was burned alive in the house. That was the first time an event like that was on national tv and I remember sitting there feeling really overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions. A few days later, people who were not in the house, like Emily Harris, came to us, and we knew we had to help these people, even though it was very risky. I don’t regret that decision but I regret a lot of what came after that. We got caught up in a lot of paranoia, which is part of the problem of an internally focused political perspective. You get isolated from community, from communication with other people, and you develop this incredibly destructive dynamic with a very gendered militaristic model.

When a whole set of arrests came down in California, I basically ran and ended up in Minnesota around 1976, which was the time when the liberation struggles in southern parts of Africa were heating up. During my time there, we formed a group called Twin Cities Committee for the Liberation of South Africa, and shortly thereafter we connected with some Zimbabwean students at the University of Minnesota who were also part of liberation movements fighting against settler colonialism. After Zimbabwe got its independence in the early 1980s, Zimbabweans in Minnesota packed up to go back and invited me to come along with them. So I went and I taught high school until 1991. I also spent a period of two years in Australia and got some university degrees in my other name which gave me more legitimacy. During my time in Zimbabwe, I helped develop school materials, such as one of the biggest high school textbooks, from an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist perspective to eradicate those with colonialist content. I also wrote chapters on the Chinese revolution, the Russian revolution, and a whole range of topics and got to write alongside a person who became my life partner, Teresa Barns. It was a fantastic historical moment because aside from a very thin sector of the population, Black people had previously no access to decent education and now, all of a sudden, parent committees were building schools all over the country including in remote, rural areas in an incredibly participatory way. You also had students who were motivated and wanted you to come and teach them during weekends and holidays. I’ve never experienced this elsewhere. At the same time there were lots of issues. The government that grew out of the liberation movement kept its military structure and authoritarian quality, so notions of participatory democracy did not form a part of its politics. Even in the schools, the headmaster had absolute authority to make decisions, and the teaching staff and students had no power over what happened. All these contradictions were also complicated by corruption scandals.

In 1991, I went to South Africa. At this point, Mandela had been released, but the declaration that would have legitimized the liberation movement had not taken place yet and many people were still in exile or in prison. It was an incredibly dynamic period where three forces were competing to determine the future of South Africa: the political prisoners led by Mandela, who were very powerful and respected; people in exile who had much more of the Soviet-style politics but were not radicals and held democratic national liberation type views; and the internal democratic movements such as trade unions and civic associations, which were called residence associations, student organizations, church organizations, rural organizations, and others organized during the struggle against apartheid. These latter movements had their own internal culture of democracy and were very pro-socialist; this is where I found my political home.

I spent the next 11 years doing popular education with trade unions and community organizations. I was also a director of a school where we ran a bridging program for Black activists who wanted to attend the historically white universities, and where we worked towards developing an alternative educational institution model where students and the faculty had all the power and made all the decisions. It still exists, but it doesn’t do that kind of work anymore with various social movements. For me, there was a complete transformation of my political framework because I was able to see the power and possibility of actually organizing working-class people on the ground who didn’t have any college or even high school education, something I never experienced in the us. We did all kinds of participatory workshops employing various educational tricks so that people didn’t just sit there to be lectured. We also combined these workshops with things people enjoyed, like football. It is possible for working-class people to think both about sports and politics instead of just sports.

Are there any successes or lessons from your time with the sla, living underground, and being more involved in direct forms of militancy that you carry into your organizing today? Or do you feel that was a youthful endeavor and that you learned more from later forms of organizing?

In the case of anti-war resistance, if you consider the level at which mass organization took place and its failure to stop the us war machine, armed actions such as by the Weather Underground might have had an impact in terms of highlighting the seriousness of imperialist wars. In that sense, the decision to break up those movements probably had a negative outcome. For instance, the splintering of the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society (sds) removed the potential for developing a bigger mass movement that might have laid the groundwork for future organizing. However, some of these militant movements were flawed because they emerged in a context of desperation and division. In the mid-1970s, movements didn’t really succeed that much and were declining as leaders went in different directions to pursue moderate political careers, PhDs, social work, etc. Organizations were also splintering along the question of measuring people’s commitment to the movement on the basis of whether they were willing to put their “life on the line.”

The lesson I take out of that is we should not exclude people on the basis of whether or not they pick up a gun. On the one hand, I think it is a really horrible, masculinist guiding line because it implies that the only way you put your life on the line is by picking up a gun. However, people put their life on the line every day just to survive, stand up for their kids, and fight for all kinds of things at the risk of getting arrested or risking their health. On the other hand, I just don’t see the possibility of displacing us capitalism via military coups. To build the military force capable of taking on that task is to build a military force that is going to have all the psychological flaws of a military organization. So I think it’s more important to develop a strategy for organizing on a mass level.

Let’s shift gears to talk about your activism against mass incarceration, specifically about your project called Challenging E-Carceration which launched in 2017 with the help of the Soros Justice Fellowship. What is this project about and how did it begin?

Well in 2009, while looking down at my ankle and seeing this black plastic band around it for a year as a condition of my parole, I wanted to find out what it was, who made it, and answer some basic questions about this device. What I found is that nobody had really done any significant research about electronic monitoring. No one had really asked, what is the policy about electronic monitoring in terms of determining your movements? Who makes that kind of policy? Who is making money off of this device? How many of them are there? After much research in 2015, I wrote a report called Electronic Monitoring is Not the Answer: Critical Reflections on a False Illusion. It got quite a response from different people around the country who were impacted by electronic monitoring in different ways. From there we formed a little group with people who were interested and did some monthly teleconferences on how electronic monitoring affected sectors such as immigration, youth justice, free trial, and parole. Although we are opposed to electronic monitoring, we knew that we were going to have to deal with it. So together we came up with the idea of developing some guidelines, or best practices to address some of the issues that people face when they’re monitored, particularly issues around mobility out of their house to be able carry on with their daily lives.

What is decarceration and why is electronic monitoring not a good way to decarcerate?

Decarceration, on a simple level, means reducing the number of people that are in prisons and jails. This is good and important, but we have to think about what happens to people when they’re the products of decarceration. Where do they go? What are the conditions of their life once they’re released from prison or jail? We need to have systems of support in the community so they’re able to actually access opportunities for employment, education, and healthcare and for them to reconnect with family and community. We can let 50,000 people out of jails and prisons and lock them down in their houses with electronic monitoring and people can boast about how they reduced the jail and prison population, and how they’re spending less money on incarceration, but they haven’t really addressed the problem. Subjecting people to electronic monitoring, where they have no clear rules, wherein many cases they’re actually paying a daily user fee which can range up to $35 a day, is not really an alternative. People are still being deprived of their liberty and opportunities, which is the fundamental definition of incarceration: “deprivation of liberty.” Most people I have talked to who have been on an electronic monitor stated they would rather have done that time in prison. I could say maybe 95 percent have said that: (a) being locked in your house is a form of incarceration; and, (b) they never really thought electronic monitoring was going to be as restrictive or as oppressive as it actually is. Particularly with the added gps monitoring, which is in about 70 percent of electronic monitoring devices in the us, people are far more restricted when compared to radio frequency, which just informs the authorities if you’re home or not. With a gps monitor, they can track your every move in real time so you have to plan your moves and many cases inform your supervisor, your parole officer, and your probation officer ahead of time where you’re going and for how long. When I was on the monitor I gave my parole officer a list of movements for two weeks at a time. I had to be able to say that, “Next Thursday from 2pm to 4pm, I’m going to go to the library.” And I had to be in the library at that time and by 4pm I had to be back at the house. If it was a nice day and I wanted to go for a walk, or if I went to the library and the book I wanted was in another branch on the other side of town, or if I went shopping and it took longer because the lines were long, gps monitoring made it very difficult to deviate. And, since the majority of people on electronic monitoring are poor, they particularly don’t have a lot of resources to support them.

Another issue with this model of decarceration has to do with who is calling the shots. In the us, three companies hold the largest shares of the market. bi Incorporated, a subsidiary of the geo Group the world’s biggest private prison operator, has about 30 percent of the market. They have contracts in about 10 states and a lot of counties. They’re also in Canada and my guess is that they are going to start expanding internationally since the geo Group also has prisons in the uk, Australia, and South Africa. Securex, one of the major providers of phone services to prisons and jails is also heavily involved with a provider called stop, which stands for Satellite Tracking of People. They are a fairly notorious company because they have made huge amounts of money charging people a dollar a minute for phone calls and over-service charges such as for depositing money in your phone’s account, and for paying over a billion dollars in kickbacks to the Department of Corrections. They’re in Canada too. Probably the third biggest would be Sentinel Offender Services. With the exception of bi these companies are bought and sold quite frequently by speculative investors for huge profits. geo Group, bi, and Securex are also becoming, in a certain way a shadow Department of Corrections as they become involved in providing all the technology that comes into prison systems including phones, electronic monitoring, video visitation, and data management systems.

geo Group in particular are trying to spread out into the various services that Departments of Corrections offer, both behind the walls and in the community. They developed a division called geoCare, which practices what I like to call “carceral humanism.” They do things that look like they’re helping people such as opening centres where they offer behavioural health programs, anger management, job training, courses to transition people to the outside community, hospitals, and re-entry programs. Electronic monitoring is a big piece of those programs and form part of what they call a “continuum of care.”

Indeed the involvement of private companies in electronic monitoring is problematic, but should we not focus on prison abolitionism instead?

I agree that the sole focus on privatization is misguided. In the big picture of prison operations, private prisons are really almost insignificant. Overall, only about six percent of prison beds are held by private prison companies. In Illinois, there are no private prisons at all. But, by looking at electronic monitoring, I am trying to examine the ways in which the process of mass incarceration can be changed with this technology of e-carceration. We have to watch out for the kind of decarceration which uses technology to re-incarcerate people. Private corporations are driving this change, although they can’t really function without the total and utter support of the Department of Corrections. The Department of Corrections has to agree to the contract’s privatized services and most of these private service providers still have some loose accountability, particularly financial accountability, to the Departments of Corrections. People are not paying attention to electronic monitoring and to its potential to replace brick and mortar prisons with other kinds of social control. When we start looking at the kind of surveillance devices that we see, such as Fitbit and all of these other things that people are wearing to monitor themselves, what do we think this is all going to look like in five or 10 years? We need some kind of analysis of where it’s going and some kind of counter.

Electronic monitoring seems to be emerging everywhere: in childcare, in elder care, domestic violence and violence against women, and people with dementia. In some cases it is being framed as a form of care. So understanding the underlying logics and history of these forms of technology is really important. In Canada, for instance, these form part of longer processes of settler colonialism and colonization such as the reserve system and the pass system in Indigenous communities by the colonial authorities. Have you historicized these devices and the processes of surveying populations?

Yeah, in our project we’re reframing electronic monitoring in a few ways. One is to say that monitoring people and tracking bodies is not something new, it began with settler colonialism in the United States and intensified during the period of chattel slavery. In particular, owners tracked Black people meticulously by physically branding a person with the icon of their owner, or in some cases requiring them to carry a lantern at night so they could be seen. We also trace these historical processes to the tracking of immigrants, which is now intensified under Trump. What is new is the technology and its capacity for increased reach and precision.

In your article you wrote about not calling them ankle bracelets. Can you talk about why the terminology matters?

When we call these devices terms that neutralize what they do, it softens the reality that they actually embody. To call it a “bracelet” makes it sound like an innocent adornment on your leg, something almost attractive that you might wear as an accessory. That’s just not what it is. They should instead be called ankle shackles or ankle monitors, although we are going to see a range of devices that go beyond ankles. Terms such as “detention centres,” instead of prisons, or “immigrant detention centres,” “gender responsive facilities,” “family-friendly facilities,” or “family-friendly immigration detention centres” portrays an image of people having fun or going outside and having a picnic. As I mentioned before, using these terms is part of the trend of “carceral humanism” which attempts to make enforcement look like caring institutions while at the same time undermining the critique of mass-incarceration and mass-criminalization. For example, in our community we thought we won a complete victory because we stopped them from building a jail after fighting for years. But then three months later, the sheriff came back with a proposal; he wasn’t talking about public safety anymore, but rather how much he was concerned about the “welfare of inmates.” He said he wanted to make conditions more comfortable for them, such as meeting their medical mental health needs in a state of the art mental health facility. It was a complete repackaging of exactly what he had been asking for the year before but we were completely caught off guard. We were made to look like the uncaring ones because we didn’t want to make conditions more comfortable for people who were incarcerated. Even some people on our own ranks were taken in by his rhetoric.

How have you maintained a commitment to the struggle and prison abolition until now? And, what is your advice during these particularly troublesome times?

As you chip away at this stuff, it’s hard not to feel like you’re banging your head against the wall and not getting anywhere. But from teaching and working with workers, I was able to see the concrete results of the work they do. Even if helping a student graduate from high school and go to college seems small and miniscule, it’s still fine for me. If I can’t do systemic stuff, at least what I’m doing is having an impact on people’s daily lives, and that sustains me on a daily basis. Today, working with formerly incarcerated people gives me the sense that I’m having an impact. I’ve met some wonderful people along the way including my partner and my wonderful extended family who was very supportive of me throughout my time of incarceration and who has helped sustain me along the way.

We are sitting at this really fucked up moment. We’ve got a fascist president in the United States who everyday says something that is just extraordinary. This is not George Bush. He is a totally dangerous person with a dangerous regime which has opened the flood gates to white supremacists and corporate powers to carry out their agenda, all while distracting people with his Twitter side-show. You know what’s happening in Afghanistan? What’s happening in Europe? What’s happening in Yemen? How many drone attacks are we carrying out? That doesn’t even hit the news anymore. When Obama used to do them it used to be on the news, now it doesn’t even make the news. It’s depressing. There is always going to be a limit to what you can do, but if right now you’re going from meeting to meeting, and action to action, and at the end of it you’re not too sure if it’s having an impact, I think it might be time to do something else. I’m not saying that this work isn’t necessary or can’t make you feel good, but you also have to find a space where you can have some impact on a daily level.