by Danny Haiphong
“The struggle to free political prisoners must be raised in the era of Trump with as much vigor as it should have been given in the era of Obama.”
Just before Trump assumed office on January 20th, Barack Obama gave the left a fleeting moment of excitement. Obama commuted the sentences of Puerto Rican revolutionary Oscar Lopez Rivera and whistle blower Chelsea Manning, both of whom are due to be released in May of this year. However, countless political prisoners remain behind bars on trumped up federal charges. The list includes Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur, and the exiled Assata Shakur. The early groundswell of opposition to Trump should not cloud the fact that the Obama Administration failed to pardon a single one of the nation’s political prisoners during his tenure.
The existence of political prisoners is an international crime and indicative of the very lengths that US imperialism will go to suppress resistance. Many political prisoners trapped inside of US prisons are freedom fighters from the Black liberation and anti-imperialist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Leonard Peltier, a former American Indian Movement (AIM) leader, was denied clemency by the Obama Administration just days after the January 17th announcement of Manning and Rivera’s commuted sentences. His term of imprisonment began in 1977 for the alleged murder of two FBI agents. The allegation has yet to be proven despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Peltier possesses a number of potentially fatal medical conditions that have been repeatedly denied proper treatment during his imprisonment, much of which has been spent in solitary confinement.
“The FBI collaborated with police unions and other intelligence agencies to frame Black Panthers, under the auspices of the Counterintelligence Program.”
Peltier and the American Indian Movement was in part inspired by the Black Panther Party. Although the Black Panther Party disbanded decades ago, the organization leads the way in the number of political prisoners in the US prison system. According to recently released political prisoner Sekou Odinga, 15 Black Panthers are serving time in prison. Many of these prisoners were victims of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s war on the Black Panther Party. Hoover called the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” in 1969. That year marked the FBI assassinations of Black Panthers such as Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago and John Huggins and Bunchy Carter in Los Angeles. The FBI collaborated with police unions and other intelligence agencies to frame Black Panthers, under the auspices of the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). By framing Black Panthers such as Mumia Abu-Jamal in a number of cases involving the murder of police officers, the FBI developed the perception among the public that revolutionary freedom fighters were nothing but cop-killing terrorists.
Political prisoners are part and parcel of US imperialism’s all out war on the revolutionary and communist-inspired movements of the 20th century. After the dust cleared and the movements dissolved from the combined forces of reform and repression, political prisoners have consistently served as a contemporary reminder of what can happen to those who dare to challenge empire. Political prisoners became all the more necessary after US capitalism entered a permanent state of decline in the mid to late 1970s. The lack of revolutionary leadership rendered the left unprepared to organize under new, and arguably more difficult, conditions. The simultaneous rise of the mass incarceration state and the non-profit industrial complex, permanent austerity and joblessness, the growth of a new class of Black misleaders to soil the political waters, and the transition to a program of endless war on a volunteer basis further weakened the political power of the organized left.
“Political prisoners mark the line drawn by the ruling class as to which political activities are acceptable and which are not.”
The disorganization of the left has spawned a state of collective amnesia in the US. Few organizations and activists know that political prisoners even exist let alone that they are a staple of the US prison state. Those who remain committed to their release often have a difficult time organizing support from existing movement leaders and structures. The very existence of political prisoners sends an ideological message to the people. Political prisoners mark the line drawn by the ruling class as to which political activities are acceptable and which are not. The surveillance and policing tactics used to imprison movement leaders of a generation ago now encompass the entire population.
There is only one purpose of state surveillance and that is to keep revolutionary ideas locked away from the masses. Collective amnesia around the existence of political prisoners has resurfaced in the midst of growing opposition to President Donald Trump. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration. The protests did not call for the release of political prisoners, let alone for a working class program that many of political prisoners sacrificed their lives struggling to materialize. There were no visible demands to scale back the largest incarceration regime in the world or for the US to withdraw from the endless warfare it wages around the world. The only demand that existed was for the revocation of Donald Trump’s Presidency for fear of what his regime will do to women, immigrants, and other oppressed groups.
“Scores of Democratic Party affiliated non-profits partnered to organize the Women’s March on Washington, which explains why no demands on power were made.”
While there are legitimate reasons to oppose Trump and the GOP’s proposed policies, it is also true that the amnesia around the existence of political prisoners is indicative of something greater than the current administration. Many of the forces leading the demonstrations against Trump are complicit in the destruction of genuine, organized resistance against US imperialism. Scores of Democratic Party affiliated non-profits partnered to organize the Women’s March on Washington, which explains why no demands on power were made. The non-profit industrial complex’s sole purpose is to turn movements into career opportunities through stealth connections with wealthy philanthropists from the capitalist class. Enter Gloria Steinham, co-chair of the Women’s March, who worked diligently for the CIA a little over five decades ago. It is so-called movement “leaders” like these that have helped erase political prisoners and the revolutionary movements they helped birth from historical memory.
What poses as movement leadership in this period has consistently given a pass to the ruling class in every arena of struggle for decades. When Obama failed to pardon one political prisoner during his tenure, all of our attention was placed on the specter of Trump. The commuting of Chelsea Manning and Oscar Lopez Rivera’s sentences, while positive in the aggregate, should not overshadow the fact that they will keep federal convictions based on lies on their record. Not only is it a long way until Manning and Rivera’s May 2017 release, but also Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier and countless others remain imprisoned with a real possibility of passing away before freed. So the struggle to free political prisoners must be raised in the era of Trump with as much vigor as it should have been given in the era of Obama.
“The Women’s March on Washington looked and sounded like a Democratic Party public relations stunt.”
The post-Obama world has led to a dramatic increase in protest across the United States. The protests are in part a legitimate response to the certainty that Trump and the GOP will pursue staples of the Republican Party agenda, from attacks on reproductive rights to further cuts to social programs. For example, Trump has already announced the reinstatement of the Dakota Access pipeline. Policies such as these should be opposed in a principled manner. However, such opposition must avoid the Democratic Party trap that is being placed by the ruling class. Unfortunately, the character of the protests thus far leaves no indication that the trap isn’t already working.
From loud cheers for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to the lack of any demands that addressed the pressing problems afflicting working class and oppressed people, the Women’s March on Washington looked and sounded like a Democratic Party public relations stunt. A recent article of Vogue confirmed that the goal of the march was to help restart the Democratic Party engine. A significant number of people who attended the march have legitimate reasons to be concerned about the future. Yet none of these concerns can be addressed inside of the Democratic Party’s graveyard for social movements. The continued struggle to free our political prisoners reminds us of that.
US political prisoners represent the genuine interests of the working class and oppressed. The majority of them risked everything fighting for the self-determination of Black America, Indigenous America, and other sectors of society living under the boot of white supremacy. They demanded adequate housing, education, and healthcare for all. And most importantly, the political prisoners who worked as leaders or members of revolutionary organizations fought for the complete overthrow of the dictatorship of capital and the institution of a dictatorship of the workers and oppressed in its place. As opposition develops against the Trump Administration, let’s remember to learn as much as we can from US political prisoners as we work to free them in rapidly changing times.