On the Political Offense

Comments on Bennett's

Published in Social Anarchism #22, 1996

The time is past when we can be content with our social fabric merely because it is "ordained by divine right," or by the majesty of the law.

--Emma Goldman (1969: 113)

James Bennett's essay Political Trials and Prisoners in the United States (in this issue of SA) deals with a subject that few Americans consider seriously. According to conventional political wisdom, political trials and prisoners do not exist by definition in the United States, a country which many regard as the paragon of liberal, constitutional democracy. That there are in fact political trials and prisoners in the U.S. and that they are not widely recognized should provoke worry among radicals of various persuasions and lead them to consider better how to defend themselves against the threat legal prosecution and imprisonment. Discerning organizers might also consider the toll legal defense and incarceration could take on their activity and the viability of their organizations and movements.

Bennett states at the beginning of his essay that his "purpose is practical--to establish the fact of political trials as an integral but little acknowledged part of U.S. history and to defend political dissent," as well as to "recount some of the history of political persecution in the United States and suggest some remedies...." Despite these modest analytical goals (if less modest ambit), the essay is fraught by tension, sometimes contradiction, between the defense of "political dissent," even armed revolutionary action intent on overthrowing the state, and the acceptance of the essential legitimacy of the liberal state, ostensibly constituted by "representative democracy," upholding "truth, justice, and equality," and exemplified by the United States of America. Bennett seems unable to decide whether political dissent is right in its own terms, irrespective of the state's institutional stance, or whether it inheres to the origins and legitimate constitution of the state.

Bennett frames the motivation of political dissent, including "political crime" (its illegal form), in Thorelian terms: "the individual conscience versus the power of the state." A person sentenced to imprisonment for a "political crime" becomes a "political prisoner." My purpose is not to dispute Bennett's basic definitions of "political crime" and "political prisoner." However, I find his model of individual ­state interaction problematic. In it the political dissident is an individual responding according to some "higher" moral or political principle to "immoral, arrogant and intransigent leaders," "rules of laws" he or she finds "unjust," or instances in which the state "behaves brutally and immorally." The "government," or state, "ideally ... represents its nation's cumulative best notions of justice" but may on occasion attack the dissenter with caprice or vindictiveness. Bennett's attempt to reconcile this dilemma between an individual's justifiable dissent and the legitimate authority of the state (through its legal and judicial apparatuses) leads him to a conclusion I find unsatisfactory, despite its conformity with the strategies of a number of actual political prisoners. He recommends that persons who commit "political crimes" should be honored with the allowance (an "exception" in legal terms) of a legal and juridical "political defense," albeit at the price of investigation, arrest, trial, and likely conviction and sentencing by an institution they may consider an integral part of a social system they reject. Bennett explains: "[M]y special purpose is to advocate the separation of political crimes from ordinary criminal activity and to urge the creation of political crime as a distinct legal entity."

I will not dispute the proposition that individuals have to justify their actions, political or otherwise, to themselves in order for these actions to have meaning and purpose. Nevertheless, Bennett seems to miss important social dimensions of political dissent, which are not provoked simply by instances of state injustice. Instead, he relies on a vague transcendentalism, which like many quasi-religious concepts forsakes material prosperity; he seems to expect political criminals to accept trial, conviction and punishment as prerogatives of the state. Although Bennett alludes to the political persecution of organized social movements, he does not provide for their legal defense, except at the level of the individual participants declaring their "conscience" in the forum of a state institution (supposedly representing the interests of society). Bennett also mentions the state's illegal and extralegal persecution of individuals and movements, but apparently he considers this issue outside the "practical" scope of his essay.

His article is at least informative to the extent that it incorporates material, however uncritically, from a great variety of historical resources. Anarchist critiques of the judicial and penal systems do not appear to be among these resources.

To my mind, anarchism is distinct from liberalism and reformism, which I think characterize Bennett's presentation and analysis. As I understand it, anarchism is a tradition (of which SA is inheritor in part), evolving mainly from European political culture: a tradition that opposes all types of domination, including all forms of the state. Anarchists long have been critical of penal "justice" and prisons. Germinal anarchist writings on the subject include William Godwin's On Punishment, Peter Kropotkin's Prisons and their Moral Influence on Prisoners and the work by Emma Goldman quoted at the beginning of this article. During the Russian Revolution anarchists formed the "Black Cross" to provide for the families of prisoners and to protect themselves and their imprisoned comrades against the depredations first of the monarchist "white" forces and later the Bolsheviks. During the Spanish Civil War, anarchists were known to have liberated prisoners unconditionally and recognized general amnesty, since they thought all prisoners, regardless of their real or alleged crimes, were victims of a monstrously oppressive political and economic system. For anarchists the creation of nonstatist, nonpunitive means of dealing with "crime," defined broadly as anti-social behavior, remains the ultimate test of their theory and practice. I return to this issue at the end of my commentary.

Having developed this context, I offer here a brief anarchist critique of Bennett's presuppositions and his "practical" remedy to political persecution, drawing on my knowledge of the judicial and political systems of the U.S. and my practical experience as a member of the Baltimore Anarchist Black Cross. I try to demonstrate the conflict concerning dissent and legitimacy which recurs throughout Bennett's essay. I also examine whether his "political defense" is practicable, "remedial" or just, and challenge the notion of the separation of "political crimes" from "ordinary criminal activity." I do this both on strategic grounds and on principle (which, I hope, are inextricable). The opinions here I claim only for myself. They are informed by my work as an activist and member of a collective, but they do not necessarily represent the policies and programs of the Baltimore ABC or the regional federation of which it is a part.

Political Dissent and Political Crimes

Bennett's definition of "political dissent," and by extension "political crime," is individualistic and therefore poses problems for his analysis of the history of radical political activity and organized political movements. It is explicitly individualistic, in that he reduces the cause of dissent and rebellion to individuals' "abhorrence of some action by the government," and "adherence to ... commitment to some higher law to the values of their conscience...." States Bennett, "The foundation of political protest lies in radical respect for individual protest." I emphasize "some," since this particularization, among other references (for example the repeated use of the indefinite plural "violations"), implies that the actions deserving dissent are occasional or incidental, and that as a whole, the activity of the state can not be condemned. His definition of political dissent is also implicitly individualistic in that he analyzes it in the context of the acts of individual persons and the effect of trials and imprisonment on them, rather than upon organizations and broader social movements of which they are often participants. Although Bennett mentions in passing a range of organizations and movements with various aims and tactics--Operation Plowshares, the civil rights movement, the Puerto Rican independentistas, the "Ohio Seven," the Black Panther Party, radical organized labor, even the Posse Comitatus--he concentrates on the personal histories, tribulations, legal prosecution and heroism of a few persons: among others Helen Woodson, Alan Berkman and Rick Boardman in the U.S; Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel and Lech Wale(ogonek)sa abroad. This is a motley assortment, ranging from a conscientious objector to an anti-imperialist "conspirator" to an ex-labor leader turned neo-liberal careerist. Yet each is apparently motivated simply by his or her "individual conscience," however that may be interpreted.

By leaving "conscience" abstract and "higher law" vague ("international law, God's law" etc.) the social construction and historical evolution of moral and political values and practices escape Bennett's analysis. If I understand "values of ... conscience" correctly, he is referring to a set of moral or political precepts and criteria. While no such set of precepts is enough to move a person to conscious reflection, reason and action, it does inform decisions and construct reasonable options. Unless one is a true believer in the revelatory knowledge of some idealism, mysticism or transcendentalism, values derive from concrete circumstances and social practices that the individual thinker does not determine entirely. It also disturbs me, especially as Bennett's essay purports to offer "answers" and "remedies" to the persecution confronting diverse political dissidents and associated movements, that he uses the terms "truth," "justice," "liberty" and "equality" just as vaguely. Like "individual conscience," they remain vacant rhetorical devices so long as they are not put in historical, philosophical or political context. It may be wise to avoid these terms altogether, as often as politicians and other "talking heads" use them for propagandistic emotional effect. I seems more productive to me to attend to who and what define these terms and how they are employed.

While one may believe that Martin Luther King Jr was inspired by God to initiate his civil rights campaign or woke up one day and decided that racial discrimination was wrong and had to be combatted, what he understood about the nature of racism was informed by the experiences of his own community and other Black activists, and by the studies of Black scholars. The religious and moral precepts of the church which he ministered informed his ethical objections to racism. Likewise a certain reading of the Bible and the works of authors like Mohandis Gandhi guided the development of his strategy and tactics against racial discrimination. Had he not had an authoritative position within the church, a vital institution of the Black community in the South, which possessed well established organizing principles, rallying significant numbers of people would have been frustrating. The support of other organizers and organizations, some of whose names have been forgotten or were never known by most, carried the civil rights movement onward. Had he been acting alone, according to some remarkably idiosyncratic set of beliefs, he would have been a "voice crying in the wilderness" of less than Biblical proportion, and there would have been no need for the state to "silence" him.

Martin Luther King Jr has come to represent the civil rights movement because of a pervasive tendency in our society toward to identifying and isolating "leaders" as society's prime movers. Indeed, he was a visionary, charismatic representative with a gift for oratory; but it was the movement that earned him and others persecution and death, not merely the declaration of the "values of their conscience." It was the movement that threatened the material power--not just the stated political and moral authority--of the state and other racist bodies. It was the movement that threatened to bring the system down and therefore had to be stopped, not just an importunate voice that needed to be silenced. The lonely crank may sit on the front porch, imprecate the government and be reprimanded for "disturbing the peace." He or she may even resist arrest, insisting the state does not have the authority to do so. But he or she is not likely to be framed for murdering a police officer or assassinated in the dead of night, as has happened to scores of political dissidents because they were part of strong collective tendency. In short Bennett's model of the individual political dissident guided by peculiar moral insights is a version of the "great man theory" of history, thoroughly and eloquently criticized elsewhere.

Because Bennett describes political dissent as basically protest against certain egregious acts of violence, immorality or injustice by the state and the interests it represents, he overlooks the fact that persons and organizations who are condemned as dissidents and criminals by these institutions are not usually reacting to specific and occasional acts by the state. Rather, they are striving to found new social formations or restructure existing ones radically, in order to obviate future injustice. Their course of action is not contingent upon some extraordinary act of the state, but rather stems from their dissatisfaction with ordinary social affairs, be they subsumed by the official political, economic or cultural sectors. They have reached the conclusion that constant denial of their needs, oppression of their attempts to fulfill them and repression of their desire for lasting change are systematic, and not accidental effects of a society whose institutions tout themselves as essentially munificent and freedom-seeking. They have concluded that "social justice" that permeates every aspect of life can realized in various ways, among them anti-imperialist solidarity groups, national liberation movements, international labor unions and self-sufficient communities. Not the least is the development of strategies to dismantle to penal justice system, which warehouses and kills the poor, exploits racial divisions, and decimates families and neighborhoods.

I think it is important to note in this context that the two cases of U.S. "political prisoners" whose motives Bennett explains, Helen Woodson of Operation Plowshares, a Catholic acting according to a theologically "higher law," and Rick Boardman, a Quaker conscientious objector, are white anti-war protestors and pacifists. Protest politics is predominantly a "white thing"--particularly, a white and middle class form of "political dissent." Pacifism often tragically assumes that the normal state of political affairs is peaceful and just. Although he counts "political prisoners" among anti-imperialist and national liberation movements--who contribute the greatest number to those imprisoned for political acts--he refers to their cases as examples of excessive government persecution and punishment without examining the political motives of these movements. (In so doing he makes the incorrect assertion that Dhoruba bin Wahad of the Black Panther Party received an "excessive sentence," unless by "excessive" he means all twenty-one years of Dhoruba's imprisonment, resulting from a conviction falsely obtained and eventually overturned.) Of Alan Berkman, a white, long-time supporter of national liberation movements, who was convicted of "conspiracy" for giving medical treatment to Marilyn Buck, a fugitive of a bombing of the U.S. Capitol, Bennett simply remarks that the "case illustrates a particularly despicable aspect of political trials and imprisonment--the government's vindictiveness."

There is a difference between the protest politics Bennett describes and other forms of radical political organizing. White college students, for example, may go to a protest, perform their "C.D." and even get a police boot in the face, but they do so at their convenience. Black young people, mainly men, are arrested, beaten up and shot every day for as little as fitting a "profile" or demanding that the police desist in harassing them. It was such constant racist persecution that informed the Black Panther Party's original endeavors. The BPP's early activity consisted of "policing the police." However, it did not regard this "self-defense" merely as watching out for a few "bad cops." The BPP considered the police the occupying army of a colonial government. Nor did their party platform (What We Want--What We Believe, 1966) simply ask the state to control its occasional "excessive" and "vindictive" outbursts. To take several demands: "1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.... 6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.... 8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.... 10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace..." (Foner 1970: 3). These are declarations of sovereignty, steps in quest for autonomy, assertion that they alone have the right to decide how their community should be organized and governed. Neither the sovereignty of the "nation" of the United States nor the jurisdiction of its state institutions, representing its "cumulative best notions of justice," are taken for granted. "Nation" here is meant in the European sense of "nation­state" and not in the sense that many struggling indigenous peoples use it.

More important to understanding the state's repression of the BPP are their projects in Black communities throughout the U.S. The BPP worked at the level of neighborhood communities in inner cities, almost in spite of its democratic centralist rhetoric. It fed children for free, established low-income and collective housing, published newspapers, offered training in legal and physical self-defense, worked with street organizations to establish lasting alliances and creative projects, and opened "liberation schools." It also defied the prevailing, interrelated political, economic and culture systems and the state apparatuses that support them. It seems to me that anarchists should be taking their cues from such examples, rather than arguing that the nation-state's institutions, taken uncritically as representatives of a nebulous community, can be reformed to accommodate dissent and rebellion. This seems to be what Bennett suggests.


Even anarchists who concentrate on armed struggle, if they are at all intelligent, recognize the need to provide for their own community and to cultivate political and social relations outside a statist framework. The anarchists with whom I have worked focus on building or helping to build anti-authoritarian, nonexploitative, and sustainable social institutions. At the same time, they realize the importance of roundly criticizing current society, at least as much resisting the recuperative strategems and expansionist dynamic of capitalism, and fighting the violence of the state. To my mind this attitude distinguishes these anarchists from many "leftists" and "left liberals" who, when they are not waiting for the revolutionary Judgment Day or filling slots in the Party roster, are treating issues in a piecemeal and uncritical fashion, blithely unaware of the forces working against them.

Like the BPP, the American Indian Movement has considered itself at war with the U.S. government. For its members the question is not whether the United States has overstepped its legitimate authority or flagrantly abused those "rights" of its indigenous subjects enshrined in the Constitution. Rather, it is that the United States has no right to subjugate them in the first place, that they are under no reasonable obligation to subject themselves to the scrutiny and decisions of U.S. judicial and political institutions. At Wounded Knee in 1973 the Oglala declared independence from the U.S., "naturalized" whites, Chicanos and Blacks who were helping defend the encampment, and sent envoys to other indigenous nations calling for solidarity and formalization of alliances (Churchill and Vander Wall 1990). It is true that both the BPP and AIM appealed to "higher laws" in the form of international covenants and statutes. They did so not so much to claim that they were being treated unjustly or inhumanely as subjects of a state (as Bennett recommends that political prisoners do) but to claim that they had as much right to sovereignty as colonial nation-states, if not more. The final paragraph of the BPP's platform quotes the U.S. Declaration of Independence, not as a memorial of the great principles upon which that state was founded but as a reminder of the tenuousness of that its claim to legitimacy: "But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future society" (Foner 1970: 4).

Raymond Luc Levasseur of the Sam Melville­Jonathan Jackson Brigade (later the United Freedom Front--UFF) went underground and was involved in the bombings of military recruiting stations and a General Electric plant. He did not do so because he was lodging a complaint against the state and its deathmongering client, but because he wanted to stop them. Oscar Lopez Rivera of the Puerto Rican Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) was involved in guerilla attacks against the U.S. government because he and his comrades considered themselves "colonized people" and did not recognize the authority of the government. Those in prison still consider themselves prisoners of war. They refuse to defend themselves at trial and have turned down parole hearings. Such defiant attitudes and actions, found in U.S. history since at least the "Great Negro Plot" of 1741, make Bennett's contention that "[e]xtralegal opposition has overwhelmingly sought reform rather than insurrection throughout history" look fatuous.

Conversely, the state has set out to destroy political organizations and broader movements. The peak of the U.S. government's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) against the BPP in 1969 and 1970, including the thirty-three assassinations Bennett mentions, coincided with the greatest extent of the BPP's organizing. The express goal of COINTELPRO was not only to destroy actual or presumed "leaders" but to shift the efforts of the whole movement toward costly and prolonged legal defense. Recently, the Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statutes, which gives the federal government broad-ranging powers to determine guilt by association, have been exploited to equal effect, committing the better part of the Puerto Rican independence movement to prison.

As important as describing the social movements that inform the activity of persons who have become political prisoners is making clear how they understand their role in these movements. Regardless of the dominant culture's fixation on individualism, for the most part political prisoners do not consider themselves daring, solitary fist-shakers. They consider themselves part of a collective endeavor, which they continue to try to support even behind bars.

The State

The preceding review of the social aspects of political dissent is not meant as a historical exercise or merely to supplement Bennett's cursory treatment of social movements. I believe it helps define the concept of political power in more concrete terms. This method creates problems for Bennett's interpretation of the state's function in his model of political dissent and state persecution.

For me the most salient character of Bennett's explanation of the attitude of the state toward political dissent is his use of personifying and psychologistic metaphors, derived in part from his study of others' theories of political repression: "... the rule of law is not immune to the infections of power"; "the government ... treats disobedients vindictively" (citing Goodell); the state was "deranged by anticommunism" and the nation suffered from "Sovietphobia" right after World War 2. Quoting, and apparently concurring with, Kittrie and Wedlock, Bennett describes the U.S. thus: "'born of treason and midwived by violent revolution,' U.S. leaders have sought 'to counter the lessons' of their origins by fostering 'the dogma that all evils of the past were the result of the tyrannical monarch, that in a democratic republic obedience to the law was the unquestionable duty of all citizens, and existing political mechanisms were ample for peaceful reform'." These metaphors are impotent and unproductive.

Moreover, equating the American War of Independence with contemporary struggles misses substantive issues. The result of that war was a state founded by the gentry and the merchants, with their particular structures of bourgeois rationality and measures of value, which are reflected in the economy, the forms of political representation, the law and the courts. The political subject was carefully constituted, originally being propertied, white, male and properly cultured. It was this political subject who was to be the object of examination in the courts, before his "peers." As this category came to be applied to more and different people (women, African Americans etc.)--as a result of political struggle, I admit--it also disguised persisting class, race and gender biases. This has always been an aspect of winning recognition "within the system."

Not only are laws still constructed largely to protect and benefit the propertied, but the same "political subjects," whose mold was cast in the eighteenth century, hold most of the political and judicial offices today. It is this complex of political, cultural and class systems--which define and constitute power--that political criminals for the most part are fighting to overcome. This is why they call themselves "revolutionaries,"which they do not usually mean in a crass, coup-d'état sense.

Political Trials

While some of Bennett's premises may seem harmlessly naïve or ill-informed, others bother me, knowing the actual treatment of political defendants and prisoners around the world. One is that "[i]n a political trial, all is frighteningly reversed ... leaving court and prosecution standing alone on arbitrary law before a defendant turned prosecutor standing on ancient principles of justice and liberty." This opinion is romantic but hardly conforms to the facts. Although Bobby Seale (co-founder of the BPP) may have been acquitted because Judge Hoffman miscalculated the effect on the jury of the spectacle of Seale being gagged and chained to his chair, most such efforts to render political dissenters incapable of defending themselves have been successful. Judges have used technicalities to prevent political defendants in the U.S. from using their Sixth Amendment right to self-representation. In the cases of Mumia Abu Jamal, the journalist and MOVE supporter in Pennsylvania, and Marshall Eddie Conway, BPP member in Baltimore, the judges simply told them they were in contempt of court for trying.

Although many political prisoners whom I respect support the notion of the "political exception" that Bennett calls for, I feel it is a poor strategy for a number of reasons. The argument for a "political defense," as Bennett calls it, is susceptible (not least) to criticism for reasons of feasibility. Among political prisoners who support the exception are Mutulu Shakur and Marilyn Buck, members of the Revolutionary Armed Task Force, which allegedly freed Black Liberation Army prisoner Assata Shakur and transported her to Cuba, where she still resides. Shakur, Buck and others cite in particular the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War and U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3103 on the rights of colonial subjects to self-determination. The United States government, through its various juridical institutions, has consistently refused to accept arguments or appeals based on these agreements, even though they are partly codified in U.S. law. International law in itself is weak; the U.S. has flouted it whenever it was inconvenient, for example when the U.S. put mines in Nicaragua's harbors in 1984. Simply pointing out government hypocrisy has limited effect, especially in the U.S., whose populace is generally politically immobilized and has an appallingly short social memory. Appeals to the ostensible standards of other countries are about as useful. Post-war Germany, for example, is signatory of a number of international agreements on human rights and was the focus of the Nuremburg trials, yet great leniency was shown to those Nazi officials who escaped the Allies' show-trials. Some even served the new West German state. In contrast prisoners of the Red Army Faction were raped and murdered in their cells at Stammheim for being rebels and "terrorists." (Ryan 1989).

When defendants are not gagged by judges, and sometimes when they are, they are often explicitly persecuted for their political persuasion and activity. As Bennett himself points out, quite the opposite of permitting defendants to frame their activity in the context of international standards, thereby legitimating their political beliefs and movements they support, courts have often allowed the prosecution to use defendants' real or alleged political convictions to bolster its argument that the they pose an extraordinary threat to society. Bennett blames this on "vindictiveness," without noticing the bias with which it is directed. Defendants who represent fundamental challenges to inadequate political representation, colonization, capitalism, racism and patriarchy (among other forms of oppression) are generally treated as greater threats than those who do not. In North Carolina the Greensboro Klansmen and neo-Nazis were hardly punished for their mass murder at an anti-racist demonstration in 1978. Although Abu Jamal's prosecutors were permitted to refer to his BPP affiliation in his trial, thereby successfully obtaining a death sentence, a similarly obtained sentence involving members of the white, racist Aryan Brotherhood in Delaware was overturned. Furthermore, the sectors of society that are the poorest and most oppressed and have the most to gain from radical social change are the ones that have the greatest numbers in prison and suffer the harshest penalties. The chances of obtaining a political exception (or any leniency at all) are virtually nil in this era of rabid "law-and-order" politics with its obsession with counter-terrorism and the extension of the harsher sentences, including the death penalty, to more and different crimes.

Beside these special measures and incidents of bias, there is the fact that Bennett's "remedy" of a political defense does not take into account the alienating structure of the courts, for both political and nonpolitical defendants. Defendants are separated from their families and support groups, individuals isolated before the scrutiny of the court, which claims to represent the the best judgement society. The law itself, and its archaisms, technical definitions and complex of precedents, baffles most defendants. Insisting that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" becomes a vicious ploy against the poor and uneducated. Defense lawyers, public and private, are notorious for siding with the court and telling their clients to keep quiet, lest the they get themselves into more trouble, while a "plea" or sentence is negotiated. Judges are vassals of the government, reigning over their courts. Given the adversity facing political defendants in the courtroom, even attempting to argue a political defense seems unlikely. It should not be thought of as a reliable solution. If of any use in deterring political persecution, it should be a tactic in a strategic retreat (Morris 1995).

Futhermore, the court is not just a forum for determining the facts of a case, but a place where sentence is passed and punishment meted out. If it were such a forum, Bennett's contention that a political trial would be a frightening reversal of prosecution and defense would have some merit. But if "equality before the law" is the "great leveller," it also the "great palliative," for reasons mentioned above. The court is a normative, or "normatizing," institution. Even if it were operating in a vacuum, it would still, acting on behalf of "society," eliminate those individuals who do not fit the legal mold and do not show the signs of being a proper political subject. It helps shape the citizen in a liberal state: an individual acting politically through institutions of representation--but always an individual before the law. The judicial system has no place for social struggle or movements. As I have tried to show, there is hardly room for individuals.

Therefore, political trials are neither a remedy to political persecution nor do they do justice to organized political dissent. While I feel it would be unwise the throw out centuries of accumulated jurisprudence in protest, it seems to me that anarchists, concerned as they have been with universal and equal participation in all aspects of social life, should give careful consideration to more democratic and less normative forms of conflict resolution. That the titles of court cases often take the form of People of State X v. Jane Doe should at least seem to us a paradox.

Relying on Bennett's recommendation would also threaten to make a travesty of social struggle. A hypothetical superliberal government could accept the "political exception" and still stifle rebellion. If defendants were allowed a political defense and more lenient sentences, the allowance could be at the price of their physical freedom and achievement of their desires, perhaps even of the extensive persecution and disbanding of their movements, under the auspices of such statutes as RICO and counter-terrorism acts. Juries are no insurance in such cases, since they are supposed to make decisions based on the "letter and spirit of the law," which is interpreted by presiding judges. Juries can be rigged and manipulated by prosecutors and judges--and often are. This is especially true in a country as depoliticized as the U.S. Depoliticized it will remain, if people are encouraged to try political dissidents rather than engage or support their movements. Juries are even culled of potential critics of the judicial and penal systems, especially those who see them as fundamentally political institutions. In many states juries in capital cases have to be "death qualified": no member can object on principle to the death sentence. Bennett suggests that political trials would result in a "better informed" nation. I can envision the "political defense" being used to co-opt social struggles by turning them into a courtroom spectacle. The proceedings could be broadcast after Cops or America's Most Wanted.

I am not suggesting that courtroom efforts never should be made. I have considered obtaining my law degree in order be able to defend political cases or defendants who might end up with an overworked public defender. But I think of it as a weapon--a rather third-rate one--in an arsenal for social change. The strongest "weapon" is organizing. In no circumstance would I recommend political courtroom defense as a general solution to the problem of political persecution and imprisonment.


Prisons as a Tool for Political Control

The second assertion of Bennett's that worries me is that Wale(ogonek)sa, Havel and Mandela emerged from prison in "strong mental and physical health," and that the "leaders, and the people, of the U.S. applauded" them after their ordeals. Firstly, whether the majority of the U.S. "people" could identify these persons is questionable. Secondly, many of the "leaders" in the U.S. (and I take this in context as meaning members of Congress and other career politicians) who did applaud Mandela, did so from obedience to political protocol and not from conviction of his righteousness, since they had spent much of their time coddling the white South African government and denouncing Mandela and the African National Congress as "communist." Lastly and most importantly, if Bennett's remark is to be taken as typifying the prison experience of political dissidents, it smacks of the myth of the resurrection: some sort of magical death from which they are reborn stronger and more enlightened, with their glory shining around them. It is easily interpreted this way. Bennett quotes sources asserting that "Havel said prison was the only place that he could get any writing done." If the three political prisoners cited did survive with their minds and bodies intact, it was in spite of prison, not because of it. Such mythic forms, even if interesting, explain nothing about what exactly the state is trying to accomplish by imprisoning political "criminals." Nor can they account for the political prisoners murdered legally or extralegally by the state--Sacco and Venzetti, George Jackson, and the RAF members at Stammheim--just to mention a few whose names, if nothing else, survived.

Bennett describes Alan Berkman's experience in prison as pitiable because he nearly died of complications arising from Hodgkins Disease, but his experience as a prisoner, other than being a victim of medical neglect, is overlooked. I had to chuckle at the irony of Bennett's description of Berkman's suffering, since despite his attempt to contrast it with Havel's allegedly positive experience, Berkman "got writing done." (And not only is his back straight, but he is also over six feet tall and rather powerfully built.) While in prison Berkman penned a response to an article by an activist who had also spent some time in prison. In it he states,

Self-worth. Dignity. Self-respect. These are the feelings prison consciously or unconsciously is designed to destroy. These are the same feelings that racism and economic inequality in society work to destroy in the poor and people of color. This is why we believe Sam [Day] and others err when they reduce prison life to "three hot [meals] and a cot" and other minor indignities. It's like reducing chattel slavery to hard work, bad pay and poor living conditions. It leaves out the truth of the human dimension of oppression. And it leaves out the human reaction to prison conditions: rebellion. Prison "riots" are fundamentally slave rebellions (Berkman and Blunk 1992: 191­2)

Alan Berkman spent most of his sentence for "conspiracy" in the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois--the prototype "control unit" prison. Marion USP was built in 1963 to replace Alcatraz as the federal government's maximum security prison. About the same time Dr Edgar Schein, a psychologist at the MIT School of Industrial Management, and other researchers were beginning to promulgate their theories of "behavior modification" (a.k.a. "brainwashing") among U.S. prison officials, theories based mainly on his study of North Korean "re-education" techniques. Concerning his promotion of behavior modification, Schein said,

Should we condemn our own methods because they resemble brainwashing? I prefer to think that the Communists have drawn from the same reservoir of human wisdom and knowledge as we have, but have applied this wisdom to goals that we cannot condone. These techniques in the service of different goals, however, may be quite acceptable to us (Ryan 1992: 93)

The ethical issue of using people as a means to an end is skipped over, as is normal when the state or capitalism is involved.

Resulting discussion of behavior modification's useful application focused specifically on Black Muslims and Vietnam War protestors. By 1968 Marion USP had a brainwashing pilot program called CARE--Control and Rehabilitation Effort--which consisted of solitary confinement coupled with intense psychological attack sessions and "group therapy." These techniques are consistent with Schein's three-step program of "unfreezing," "changing" and "refreezing" personality, based on dependency, and psychological and emotional debasement. After a work strike at Marion in 1972 sixty men were forced into the CARE program. This happened in the same year that President Nixon ran for election on a domestic policy of "law and order" after a term in office that had experienced some of the most intense political, class and racial conflict in U.S. history. In 1982 after alleged members of a neo-Nazi inmate group stabbed two guards to death the entire prison was "locked down," or in officialese, turned into a "closed unit operation," a state in which it remains to the present day. Prisoners have been confined to their cells for as many as twenty-three or twenty-four hours a day. They are subjected to arbitrary strip searches, confiscation of their possessions, shackling and beatings. They have physical contact with almost no one, save the guards handcuffing them. Alan Berkman said of his experience there,

[T]he whole essence of power is that the oppressed are not human and therefore have no human rights. That's really what the control units are designed to do.... You know they say everybody [at Marion] is the "worst of the worst." You know that's a lie. In the federal system, it's anybody the FBI and the Attorney General says goes to Marion. I was a medium security prisoner; I had been convicted for the first time; I had no convictions for prison violence or prisoner escape attempt. It made no difference. I was a political prisoner, and like many, many, many other political prisoners, I was somebody that they were going to isolate, somebody that they were going to attempt to break. Someone, who, if they could strip me of my sense of dignity and self, they would be stripping me of my political identity. The FBI thought that it would be a victory against the movement I came from.... By breaking a political prisoner or POW, the FBI hopes to not only destroy the individual, but also to strike a blow against the movements that people represent (Berkman, Shakur, Ikuta and Lopez 1996: 11­2).

The continuing lock-down at the federal prison at Marion, Illinois, set the precedent for the proliferation of control unit techniques. The collective punishment that characterized the closed-unit operation at Marion is attractive to the powerful and is the core of the control unit project. It is used both inside and outside of prisons. Just as "anti-gang" laws target poor, urban African and Latino youth en bloc, within prisons "administrative segregation" is a key tool of control units: the further persecution of whole categories of prisoners who are deemed likely to resist the prison authorities. Whereas "disciplinary segregation" has been used to punish or control individual prisoners considered culpable for a certain infraction within prison (presumably carefully limited by Constitutional law), "administrative segregation" is applied preemptively to suspected gang members and militant religious organizations, as well as to prisoners who have been convicted of crimes stemming from their political activities, who have been sentenced on the basis of their political affiliations and beliefs, and who organize fellow prisoners around legal and political issues.

Since the Marion lock-down "supermaximum" or "control unit" prisons have been opened by thirty-six states, based on the results of the Marion experiment and lessons derived from the use of "dead wings" and "terrorist-isolation units" in Germany and the U.K. (Ryan 1989). A few of these have received widespread public attention, such as the Pelican Bay Special Housing Unit in California. But most, like the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore (the conditions of which the U.S. Department of Justice argues "violate the constitutional rights of the inmates" and "result in extensive demand for mental health services") are almost unknown outside the local communities they affect. Last year the Marion control unit was officially replaced by the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) at Florence, Colorado. Among the first prisoners transferred there were several members of the UFF and the FALN, including Ray Luc Levasseur and Oscar Lopez Rivera. Attorney General Janet Reno reiterated at the ADX's inauguration that it was built to contain the "worst of the worst." Still, the two prisoners responsible for the slaying of the guards at Marion in 1982--among other homicides they committed on the inside--are not going to be transferred there. Prisoners at the ADX are locked-down twenty-two and three quarters hours a day. They have no human contact other than the coercion of the guards. Levasseur describes his surroundings:

It seems endless. Each morning I look at the same gray door and hear the same rumbles followed by long silences. It is endless. Subjected to humiliations designed to buckle our knees we are: bent over, arms clamped behind our backs, pawed, prodded, cell-searched, strip-searched, commanded, marched of 50 feet, silenced, and hooked to a chain running through 1,500,000 prisoners [the U.S. prison population]. All this is enforced by a porcine abomination called the Goon Squad whose idea of combat is to jump on handcuffed and caged prisoners while applying boots, truncheons and blasts of chemical agents to faces that are pushed into unforgiving concrete.

I am deeply cornered in their prison. My sight is diminished, but I maintain my vision. I see their hand in the use of four point "restraints" to spread-eagle prisoners, something inherently abusive regardless of the excuse. I see forced feedings, cell extractions, mind medications and chemical weapons used to incapacitate. I see a steady stream of petty hassles, harassments, verbal barrages, mindfuck games, disciplinary reports, medical neglect, and the omnipresent threat of violence. Airborne bags of shit and gobs of spit become the response of the caged.

The minds of some prisoners are collapsing on them. I don't know what internal strife lies within them but it isn't mitigated here. One prisoner subjected to four point restraints (chains, actually) as shock therapy, had been chewing on his own flesh. Why is a prisoner who mutilates himself kept in the ADX? Is he suppose to improve his outlook on life while stripped, chained and tormented by a squad of guards and prison functionaries? (Levasseur 1996: 2)

Levasseur says of the effect the ADX has on his state of mind, "If I told you the kind of thoughts it's produced in me, I could probably be indicted" (Pendergast 1995: 19) Prisoners are offered stepwise program for release from the ADX to less restrictive parts of the Florence prison complex, depending on their compliance with the administration. The ultimate "privilege" is a chance to work at the UNICOR plant, a prison company that has contracts with the Department of Defense. Most political prisoners refuse to abase themselves by joining this program and therefore never qualify to leave the ADX (Pendergast 1995).

Control unit prisons await political prisoners and inmates who rebel against the their captors. Levasseur writes,

In a 1993 commemoration of the Marion lockdown I wrote that the ADX (then under construction and slated to replace Marion) "awaits those who continue to refuse and resist." Sure enough, ADX became the destination for those prisoners held responsible for the recent uprisings throughout the federal system. The best were sent to ADX after running gauntlets of gunshots, beatings, tear gas, and the destruction of their few personal belongings (Levasseur 1996: 4).

Control units are not just a matter of "doing time," or rites of passage that produce heroes. They have the real capacity to crush people. I do not want to dissuade activists from taking action for fear imprisonment, only to emphasize that it is a well honed weapon the state uses to destroy political opposition.

The "Prison Movement" and the Anti-prison Movement

What I'm saying is that they put us in these concentration camps here the same way they put people in tiger cages or "strategic hamlets" in Vietnam. The idea is to liquidate the dynamic sections of the overall movement, the protagonists of the movement. What we've got to do is prove this won't work. We've got to organize our resistance once we're inside, give them no peace, turn the prison into just another front for the struggle, tear it down from the inside. Understand?

--George Jackson (Wald and Churchill 1992: 179)

I suggest two anarchist strategies that I think are more viable and principled than Bennett's "political defense" and do not impart to the state undeserved authority.

The first is that anarchists--if they earnestly believe in the causes of political prisoners--should try to support and strengthen the movements of which these prisoners are members, lending their anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist perspectives. Bennett's suggestion that political crimes should be distinguished from "ordinary criminal activity" is both a poor strategy for movement building and an unprincipled stance for anyone who understands and is concerned with oppression in this country, as elsewhere. I hope that it is obvious that the very conditions that political prisoners have been combatting are those that are conducive to "crime," including self-destructive and violent behavior. Approximately seventy percent of the U.S. prison and jail population is incarcerated for what the Department of Justice calls "economic crimes"--larceny, burglary, shoplifting, drug dealing--more, if one includes armed robbery (Lichtenstein and Kroll 1990; NCCJ 1993). The penal system is overwhelmingly racist: half the U.S. prison population is African American, mainly men, though this ethnic group accounts for only about twelve percent of the country's population (Churchill and Vanderwall 1992). Women, the segment of society that universally is in the most precarious economic position with the least political representation, make up the fastest growing portion of the prison population, increasing at nearly fifteen percent per year, almost twice the rate of increase in the male prison population (NCCJ 1993). Blacks are between three and seven times more likely than whites to received the death sentence for similar crimes (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund 1994). Rather than drawing a line between the political crimes and ordinary, "social" ones, we should seek to link the struggles of political prisoners to the plight of other inmates, promoting the politicization and organization of the prison population. This is what BPP Field Marshal George Jackson, assassinated at San Quentin in 1971, called the "Prison Movement." He put it this way,

We must educate the people in the real causes of economic crime. They must be made to realize that even crimes of passion are the psycho-social effects of an economic order that was decadent a hundred years ago. All crime can be traced to objective social­economic conditions, socially productive or counterproductive activity (Jackson 1990: 107­8).

One principle that needs to be established, if we believe that the struggles against both crime and punishment are inseparable, is that guidance must be sought and taken from prisoners themselves. Prisoners have experienced the injustices of the judicial and penal systems and are doing some of the most important political organizing for prison reform, prison abolition, and the nurturing of creative and transformative social formations. Since many are prisoners for having done as much on the outside, dedicated activists and radicals must continue to support these activities through the bars. It is not a matter of prison reform or prison abolitionist groups working on the outside versus prisoners organizing on the inside; these movements for social change must be united. I would maintain that some of the most exciting and productive anti-authoritarian activity is taking place within prisons right now. Political prisoners and prisoners who have become politically aware on the inside have elaborated trenchant critiques of the state and other authoritarian institutions. This should come as no surprise, given he intense violence they encounter every day and how much their movements have lost to state repression.

A second principle and strategy should be consideration of alternatives to the current judicial­penal system, while working to abolish prisons. Although the incidence of "crime" is exaggerated and used for reactionary ends, it is a real problem in many cases--especially among the poor. Anarchists should try to aid and develop community-based solutions to deprivation and predatory behavior--solutions that empower all parties involved and strengthen social relations. Crime destroys social bonds--and prisons continue this destruction. Prisons are a crime of the state. Concentrating more on rebuilding those social bonds in a way that does not depend on the state and the interests it defends will lead us away from crime and imprisonment. An instance of crime should be considered an opportunity to question norms, values and life's conditions. It should not be taken as a chance for repression and deterrence through fear, or for normative rehabilitation. The dehumanizing results of these authoritarian methods are manifest. A crime, however terrible it may be, is a starting point for reconciliation within communities.

Prison abolitionists, among them many anarchists (at least in name), as well as other prison activists, are also in the best position to link prison issues to other social problems and diverse social and political movements. The explosive growth of imprisonment in this country in the last couple of decades is linked to cuts in public spending on housing and other forms of social welfare, as well as to the exploitation of low-wage, unorganized prison labor. Class resistance is manifest but disorganized. Furthermore, historically, prisons have been one of the most powerful tools of the state against the self-determination of colonized peoples in this country. Emancipation of prisoners has been and is a crucial element of the Black Liberation and New Afrikan Independence Movements, among others. This is why I quoted George Jackson. Although he was not an anarchist, he spoke and wrote passionately about the use of prisons in the oppression of class and race, and his words still resonate with prisoners, many of whom identify with abolitionism and anti authoritarian tendencies within national liberation movements.

Unfortunately, many anarchists--mostly whites--have a blind spot to national liberation movements. Some oppose them on grounds that anarchists are "internationalists" and therefore cannot support such "nationalisms." Not only does tagging these movements with "nationalism" fail to convey the diversity of their strategies and aims (most of them are not seeking devolution into separate European-style nation-states), but it also betrays an ignorance of the colonialist legacy leftists and anarchists have inherited. Traditional leftist talk of "blurring colors," like loose usage of "freedom" and "truth," is also part of the rhetoric of both contemporary liberals and conservatives. Internationalism is sterile concept, if leftists and anarchists use it to deny colonized peoples their history and culture, and to dismiss their claims. This term too has been co-opted into the rhetoric of the neo liberals, who insist that the Internet, "free trade" and transnational outsourcing are going to transform the world into one big, happy "global village" (or as Coca Cola suggests, "Fruitopia®"). A celebration of "colors" and cultural diversity is a wonderful and powerful thing, if it is done with respect. Anarchism evolved in a modern European political culture that whittles human nature down to a single measure of worth, and human endeavor to a single direction and unitary history.

Not only should anarchists recognize on principle the validity of the claims of peoples whom European colonialism has oppressed, but they should seek to comprehend the values of non-Western traditions. Anarchists in search of alternative social institutions could learn greatly from the variety of forms and processes among the societies and communities existing within and between modern nation states. It is increasingly clear that the Western economistic model of "progress," with its restricted measures of "productivity" and expansive industrialization, is neither economically nor ecologically sustainable. A multivalent and explosively creative "internationalism"--perhaps unprecedented in its variegated and potent complexity--could result from dialogue between anarchists and the colonized world. It could renew the meaning of "revolution." As a step toward this dialogue, anarchists' critical and positive engagement of national liberation movements not only helps the struggle for autonomy of some of the most oppressed people in the world but is also a step toward developing rich concepts of community and person, and concomitant radical, new social practices. From the perspective of organizing and growing and moving anarchism forward, it is unfortunate that "Ojore Lutalo" ("New Afrikan anarchist political prisoner") is not as familiar a name to many self declared anarchists as "Michael Bakunin." Unhappily, many professed anarchists choose to wallow in nostalgia for the heyday of anarchism, thought to be generations past.

Prison abolition--the goal of the anti-prison movement--is obviously an immense task. It means radically changing society, not simply modifying or refining techniques of criminal and social control, without regard to the context of class, race and gender conflict that defines and motivates "crime." Possible directions toward prison abolition are too numerous to list here in full, but I conclude by recommending a few. Some of these have been discussed, and in some cases implemented, by various groups. Most of these groups make no claims to being anarchist, but anarchists can learn from them and may be able work with them.

Firstly, groups working toward prison abolition, or groups concerned with eradicating the underlying causes of crime (while dealing with anti-social behavior in new and productive ways) should be ready to welcome released prisoners into their political activity. Prison reform groups too often keep a political distance from prisoners and accept as given that the former prisoner alone is responsible for integrating himself or herself back into society, as if this shunning were not part of his or her punishment. Secondly, genuinely concerned groups should be ready to help ex-inmates find the means they need to survive and prosper on the outside: gainful employment, housing and a supportive community, for example. The development of cooperative or collective businesses that provide for oppressed communities and the building centers that provide such services to the community as meals, or goods and labor exchanges, are examples of the kinds of projects that could help prisoners rehabilitate themselves, while healing and strengthening communities shattered by crime and imprisonment. Finally, as a matter of both democratic principle and pragmatism, prison reform and abolition groups should not undertake such projects as interventions, but look rather to incipient or established projects in the communities in question and see whether or how they might assist them.

The twentieth century has had enough show-trials to make their point.



Some of these are to be found in Bennett's thorough bibliography, which I recommend perusing. I refrained in some instances from citing sources given in Bennett's article, unless I quoted directly.

Berkman, A. And T. Blunk. 1992. Thoughts on class, race and prison. In Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. (W. Churchill and J. Vander Wall eds). Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

Berkman, A., S. Shakur, N. Ikuta and L. Lopez. 1996. Mass Incarceration and Control Units: Crime Control or Social Control. Chicago: Committee to End the Marion Lockdown.

Churchill, W. and J. Vander Wall. 1990. Agents of Repression: the FBI's Secret War against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press.

Churchill, W. and J. Vander Wall (eds). 1992. Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

Foner, P.S. (ed.) 1970. The Black Panthers Speak. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.

Goldman, E. 1969 (1917). Prisons: a social crime and failure. In Anarchism and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Jackson, G. 1990 (1972). Blood in My Eye. Baltimore: Black Classics Press.

Levasseur, R.L. 1996. Trouble Coming Every Day: ADX--the First Year. Submission to the Regional Hearings of the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons, Philadelphia, 27 April 1996. Madison: Friends of Political Prisoners.

Lichtenstein, A.C. and M.A. Kroll. 1990. The Fortress Economy: the Economic Role of the U.S. Prison System. (R. Kamel ed.) Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee.

Morris, R. 1995. Penal Abolition: the Practical Choice. Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, Inc.

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. 1994. Death Row USA. Washington, D.C.

National Commission on Crime and Justice (NCCJ). 1993. A Call to Action: an Analysis of the United States Criminal Justice System, with Recommendations. (L.M. Thurston ed.) Chicago: Third World Press.

Pendergast, A. 1995. End of the line. Westword (12­8 July 1995), pp. 15­27.

Ryan, M. 1989. The Stammheim model: judicial counterinsurgency. New Studies on the Left, 10(1­2): 45­69.

Ryan, M. 1992. Solitude as counterinsurgency: the U.S. isolation model of political incarceration. In Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. (W. Churchill and J. Vander Wall eds). Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

Wald, K. and W. Churchill. 1992 (1971). Remembering the real dragon: an interview with George Jackson. Reprinted in Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. (W. Churchill and J. Vander Wall eds). Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

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