There is a long tradition of activist leaders who have seen the violence of the U.S. state, and have made life-decisions to organize against it. They have also paid the severe price that the state exacts for such organizing, especially if their actions are effective. Their analyses and critique – in writing and art – are some of the most important resources for educators and any U.S. resident (see Hauling Up the Morning, below, a still-valuable 1990 collection).
Such leaders have long challenged the repressive “dragnet” wielded by a violent State power and that destroys social and economic empowerment for socially vulnerable groups. The dragnet often replaces any vestige of a safety net.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of these leaders who has challenged the state. He is one among U.S. political prisoners who dissent from and organize against the state that dispossesses the poor and represses resisting communities.
Mumia, emerging from his North Philadelphia community in the 1970s, wrote as Minister of Information for the Black Panthers and later as a revolutionary journalist covering police brutality, especially against the MOVE Organization. A 600-page FBI file was compiled on Mumia from his earliest days as activist, not because he’d committed any crime, but because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought he might be a fearful specter from Black communities – what he called “a new Black Messiah.”
Professor James in her book, Imprisoned Intellectuals, reserves the term “political prisoners” mainly for those among the incarcerated who are distinct from other politically-oriented prisoners. The distinction is that they were different “before their incarceration, marked by their critical thinking and confrontations with authoritarian structures, policies and violence.”
It should also be stressed that political prisoners – in James words again – “are treated differently by the state, often receiving the harshest of sentences, relegated to solitary confinement or “lockdown” in control units so that they cannot “infect” – really infuse – other prisoners with their radical politics and aspirations for freedom.”
Who are the U.S. political prisoners? U.S. officials routinely deny the very existence of political prisoners in this country. Nevertheless, even according to organizations as widely-accepted as the Prisoners of Conscience Project of the National Council of Churches, there are more than 100 political prisoners currently behind bars in the U.S.
The American Friends Service Committee, in its study, The Prison Inside the Prison(Philadelphia 2003, pages 4 and 5), identifies several kinds of political prisoners: those fighting against U.S. colonization (such as the Puerto Rican Independentistas), those in resistance to internally caused colonization, others who consider themselves “prisoners of war” for risking criminal actions in the U.S., and still other activists from dissident white communities opposing U.S. environmental policies and international wars (see the School of the Americas Watch and their “Prisoners of Conscience“). At left, cover of collected works of Russell Maroon Shoatz, whose recent book shows the power of political prisoners’ writing and thinking.
The Jericho Movement web site offers perhaps the most extensive list of U.S. political prisoners, providing much information and ways you can support and contact these brothers and sisters, who live out years because of their resistance, suffering but enduring, often with remarkable dignity, “the prison within the prison.”