Letter to a Young Activist: Left to Learn from the ‘60s

Letter to a Young Activist: Left to Learn from the ‘60s

by Laura Whitehorn

If you saw the film The Weather Underground, you saw about three minutes of me. The film, through interviews, narration and clips, describes the genesis and decline of the radical activist group by that name from 1969 to the mid-’70s. I gave some reflections from my participation in it.

Learning about the sixties — a high tide of radical uprising, when masses of people in this country joined with people around the world who were fighting wars for national liberation and against colonialism and racism — can be useful to anyone engaged in political and social change. After all, learning the lessons of the past can help with figuring out what to do in the present.

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The Weather Underground, unfortunately, focuses on white radicals, and, in the process, leaves out two important truths about our history. The film ignores the rise of mass incarceration in the 70s and its effects on political activism, and it skips over the valuable work of the Black Panther Party, many of whom ended up in prison. The connecting thread, and what I want you to care about in your activism today, has to do with those who were left behind — the political prisoners who are still incarcerated.

A very significant outcome of mass incarceration is how it contributed to preventing an effective revolutionary mass movement from emerging.

I say these things from my own history. In 1985, I became a political prisoner myself. It wasn’t that I was framed or hadn’t broken the law — I fully admit I broke it for radical (revolutionary) political reasons, as part of a movement with political goals. Those goals conformed to the international covenants against genocide and racism, and were committed to securing human rights for oppressed people here in the United States. I was part of the “Resistance Conspiracy Case.”

I explain in the introduction to the book, The War Before, how six of us, including Marilyn Buck, Linda Evans and me, were charged with conspiracy to bomb several government buildings that were symbols of domestic racism. One was the office of the New York City Police Benevolent Association (known for supporting cops who had killed innocent civilians). We targeted the PBA following the murder of Black grandmother Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984. We were also charged with bombing military and government buildings that were symbols of U.S. foreign policy, including the Capitol Building after the U.S. invasion of Grenada and shelling of Lebanon in 1983.

We stuck to specific targets and planned with care, and no one was hurt in any of the bombings. Our indictment charged us with using “violent and illegal means,” but the government policies we were opposing were themselves violent and illegal. We believed that supporting the struggles of people for freedom meant that you took some risks yourself.

I was sentenced to 23 years in federal prison, and a little over 14 years later, I maxed out and was released in 1999.

Marilyn Buck, my dear comrade, was kept behind bars for 25 years. She was released in July 15, 2011 and died of cancer 20 days later on August 3, 2011.

Marilyn always insisted on the need for revolutionary vision: what are we struggling for? You should know about an interview she gave from prison in 2001. She said, “We all need to seize our human liberation as much as possible as women, as lesbians, as heterosexuals. To support the right of human beings to have their own nations, their own liberation, and their own justice.” And then she talked again about that word – vision. “I think about the vision I had when I was a nineteen-year-old of justice and human rights and women’s equality. It was a wonderful vision…without a vision, you can’t go forward.”

Political Prisoners and Your Vision

So I want to tell you about a vision that I have for activists today, and how supporting political prisoners brings us in touch with that vision. By fighting for their release, we fight not merely to correct or adjust the prison system, but begin to create a truly egalitarian society, one capable of freeing humanity and giving wing to human creativity.

However I was treated in prison, many in the Black Panther movement were treated worse. Fourteen years is not very long — not when compared to an indeterminate life sentence.

The effects of heightened imprisonment for extended periods were recently exposed in a brilliant new book on the U.S. prison system, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. As she points out, ballooning numbers of people have been incarcerated since the 1970s, especially young people of color. She notes that more Black men are imprisoned in the U.S. today than were enslaved in the U.S. before The Civil War. The parallel effects on the fight for liberation are clear.

My first awareness that this country — despite its veneer of democracy — holds political prisoners came in the late ’60s, when Fred Hampton, then a 20-year-old leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was framed for a $77 ice cream truck robbery. I had gotten to know Fred Hampton, and he was a generous, charismatic man and a wonderful speaker. But it didn’t take long before the government, and especially the FBI and local police, opened up a war against the Panthers. And the Black Panthers’ program of defending Black communities from police attack and brutality did nothing to win them favor in the eyes of law enforcement agencies. At age 21, Fred Hampton was assassinated in his bed in the early morning hours by Chicago cops and the FBI, events that were clearly documented later. The government found the Panthers and their vision of people’s power to be a threat too large to tolerate.

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Other Panthers were jailed, many on fraudulent charges (like the Panther 21 in New York). The Black Panthers were attacked by police because of their political work and were subjected to intense police surveillance under COINTELPRO, the covert FBI program that was later exposed for its domestic spying, assassinations and other efforts to disrupt progressive activists in the U.S.

You may well be unaware of some people who were put in prison during those years — people who remain locked up today, some 40 years later. You likely haven’t heard of Herman Bell or Ed Poindexter, Chip Fitzgerald or Sundiata Acoli.

I want you to know about these prisoners, and to support them. But I want you to find your own path to do that. You don’t have to agree with the revolutionary politics they and I practiced back in the day. You don’t have to agree with what we called armed struggle, or the idea that when oppressed populations fight for their right to self-determination, it makes sense for people who believe in a better world to join in. You don’t have to agree that “fight the power” includes fighting with weapons. Even those of us who believe those things are well aware that the world is a very different place now than it was in the decades following the Second World War, when colonies like Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Viet Nam was able to kick out the French, then the Americans. Strategies for activism will only work if they reflect political conditions, and those conditions have changed vastly since the 1960s and 1970s. And you don’t have to believe that some of the political prisoners are innocent, though it is true that many are, and that many had trials skewed by crooked prosecutions — including the use of testimony extracted through torture.

I believe that knowing about these political prisoners will benefit your activist work. Knowing Jalil Muntaqim, for instance, and the fact that he has been behind bars since 1971 is seeing for yourself the role prisons play in the government’s repressive apparatus against both radical Left movements and any future serious activist resistance. Muntaqim was one of the people named specifically in COINTELPRO documents who needed to be “neutralized” because of his political activities. He was charged with murder of two New York City police officers, and, along with Herman Bell and Albert Nuh Washington, was found guilty under dubious and faked evidence after the first trial ended in a mistrial. He continues to maintain his innocence.

Not only have prisons been enormously successful in separating communities from their leaders, but modern prison conditions — more than in the past — have also succeeded in undermining the potential to develop new leaders in Black and Latino communities.

What would have happened, do you suppose, if Malcolm Little, instead of serving six years for petty crimes, had been imprisoned for a much longer time, locked in the conditions of long-term isolation common in what’s euphemistically called “special housing” (as, for instance, the prisoners at Pelican Bay in California are)? He would not have been allowed to receive political books, would not have been able to converse with anyone. The mind that developed through reading and talking in prison during the 1950s would probably have been crushed, and there might have been no Malcolm X.

Looking Forward and Reaching Back

Unbearably harsh conditions form the reality for many U.S. prisoners today. Those political prisoners who are allowed to apply for parole face breathtaking obstacles and regular denial.

Still, the political prisoners have continued to organize in prison, creating ways to grow personally as well as bettering their community — the community of those targeted by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Political prisoner Eddie Conway, for just one example, has developed terrific programs in several Maryland state prisons that are successfully training young gang members in different models for social relations. During her years in prison, Marilyn Buck must have taught hundreds of her fellow prisoners to read and do math — in addition to serving as a role model for how to promote a humane morality in resistance to the soul-killing, distorted ethos of prison. The political prisoners have learned how to enact creative and effective strategies for countering repression — how, in conditions of powerlessness, with little in the way of resources, to subvert repressive and capitalist values.

These political prisoners have many lessons to share with activists. I know them; I visit them; they are people you would want to know. They’re funny, intelligent, caring, with great interest in world events, community progress, problems we all face as we try to mend society. They have insights and history to teach.

Like Marilyn Buck, I don’t think we can be effective activists without a vision. To know these prisoners — even more, to fight to free them — would make your activism more powerful, and it would help you shape a vision of action.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous,” a certain Latin American activist once said, “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” This was a huge part of the vision that inspired us to fight back in the ’60s. It’s a large part of what draws people to learn about the history of that era. And it’s part of why all progressive activists should know and support — and demand the release of — political prisoners. Because you can’t build a movement that’s going to last if your powerful thinkers and voices are stifled, oppressed and imprisoned — nor if you leave your comrades behind.

Laura Whitehorn has been a leftist activist since the early 1960s. She spent 14 years in federal prison as a political prisoner and was released in 1999. She edited the writings of Safiya Bukhari, a former Black Panther and political prisoner, published in 2009 as The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind from The Feminist Press. She works as an editor at POZ magazine.

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