Revolutionary Ex-Political Prisoners at Liberty Hall |
I went to Liberty Hall Saturday to hear Chris Plummer and Rita "Bo" Brown speak from their experiences as US political prisoners. The event was billed as "a forum on political prisoners, state repression and the necessity of revolutionary resistance to patriarchy, capitalism and the state." I got a lot out of this talk and feel really grateful to Liberty Hall, the organizers, and both speakers. Somewhere around forty or fifty people attended.
Chris Plummer spoke first. He is a longtime anarchist and anti-racist activist, founder of the United Anarchist Front, who got out of prison six months ago after serving for over eight years. His "offense" was stealing and destroying hate literature belonging to the racist/fascist group the American Front. While in prison he continued his activism, starting a group called Cell One at Huntsville Prison. Among other projects, Cell One started a lending library for prisoners that provided free radical and progressive literature by and about Blacks, Chicanos, native Americans, Asians, and working class whites.
Not surprisingly, Chris has a very intense presence. He spoke passionately, directly, and sometimes accusingly to the audience, which pissed some people off. But I felt moved and inspired by his passion, and by his commitment to the movement - his willingness to put his life on the line for his beliefs. Even though I don't agree with all the tactics he presented, I appreciated hearing from someone who's been incarcerated - an experience I have never had and can't really imagine.
"Prisons are what the government uses to control populations," Chris said. "They are utilized by the state to control working class people in America." Giving some statistics on US prisons, he said that 38 million people (one eighth of the population) have been in the prison system, and that there are currently at least 150 political prisoners. Speaking from his experience, he said that prisons "destroy everything human" and that they are "every 'ism' you hate times 1,000 - you'll never see a more racist, sexist, homophobic place in your life."
Right from the beginning he accused the audience, and the entire anarchist movement, of not supporting political prisoners (this was one of those moments when some people got pissed off): "Anarchists worldwide have failed political prisoners. We are not there for them." He asked, "What kind of credibility do we have as a movement if we're not there for them? Any movement that doesn't support its prisoners is a sham movement. We have to be held responsible for those people in there. If we can't hold ourselves responsible then we need to quit and get the fuck out of the way."
Besides having a responsibility to political prisoners as "our comrades, our friends" who "have given their lives so this movement can progress," we activists on the outside can also learn a lot from them. "It's vital that we start engaging these prisoners" if we want "to understand where the struggle is going and where it's been."
Chris left prison committed to supporting those still inside. He works with the group Anarchist Black Cross, which both provides support to prisoners and works to abolish the prison system altogether. He made a convincing argument for why prisons should be a primary focus of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement: "If we really want to attack capitalism and the state, prisons are the best target. The state can do nothing without that fear of imprisonment."
Chris also spoke about the prison population as a resource that the movement needs to tap. "One of the things that made the movement in the 70s and early 80s powerful was that it had ex-cons in it. People were empowering prisoners, sending them books, radicalizing them. When they came out, they were ready to join the struggle." In response, an audience member said: "I was radicalized by prisoners. Radical politics are coming out of prisons. We need to be in solidarity with everyone, not teaching others how to be." Chris then amended his assertion: "I see our role as supporting people in prisons who are radicalizing prisoners."
This support is critical, because, as Chris described the situation, anarchists in prison are very susceptible to attacks and persecution by guards and prison gangs: "In Texas if you call yourself an anarchist, people will try to kill you." Moreover, "anyone trying to do anything progressive within prisons is marked."
Another reason why we need to pay attention to prisoners is because anyone doing activist work is vulnerable to incarceration. "It can happen to any of us - you shouldn't expect anything less," Chris said. "If you don't expect to go to prison then you're not doing much, or you don't have a realistic view of what you're doing." He also mentioned the PATRIOT Act as "reason enough" for all of us to be aware of our vulnerability as activists.
Rita "Bo" Brown spent a lot of time talking about her personal history, starting with growing up in a "typical drinking misogynist household" in Klamath Falls, Oregon. As a "working-class butch dyke" she felt alienated from her environment from an early age and got out as soon as she could, finding community in the gay bars of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At age 23 she was convicted for shoplifting, and her experience in prison led to her radicalization: "People in prison know who the enemy is." She said, "The day George Jackson got killed I was reading his book. That was the beginning of my politicization."
After becoming disillusioned with above-ground progressive movements, Bo joined the George Jackson Brigade, a group of urban guerrillas attempting to overthrow the US government. It was definitely interesting to hear her stories about direct actions in the 70s - as she said, "It was a whole different time period, a whole different world." She was eventually arrested in 1977 for bank robbery, and served 8 years in prison. During that time she was put through "bus therapy" - being moved from prison to prison around the country.
Bo was, she says, "the only woman political prisoner at that time." Now, percentage-wise, the highest increase of people in prison is women. About the differences between men's and women's prisons, Bo said that women tend to support each other more. Women in prison are more likely to be raped by guards than other prisoners. Another difference is in the support that women receive from the outside community. She said that, compared to men's prisons, the visiting rooms in women's prisons are empty.
When Bo got out of prison, she moved to Oakland and formed the Out of Control Lesbian Prisoner's Support Group, which provides aid and legal assistance to lesbians behind bars. She also works with the Prison Activist Resource Center. She said that there is a good base of support for women prisoners in the lesbian community in San Francisco.
Bo talked specifically about the prison system in California, a state that "incarcerates more people than any other prison system in the world." Fifty percent of people in prison in California are non-violent prisoners, most of them people of color. The biggest lobby in the state is the prison guards. "It's a huge industry," she said. "It's about racism, it's about economics." The so-called "justice" system "criminalizes whole communities," importing drugs from Colombia, dumping them into the ghettos, and then incarcerating people for using them. Once people get out of prison, they are no longer eligible for food stamps or housing vouchers.
One of the things I really appreciated about this event was that both speakers suggested concrete actions the audience could take to address the issues they talked about. According to Bo, "Grassroots is the answer. You start there, talk to your neighbors and communities that are affected." She said you could find out information about prisons in your area through the Mother Jones website, and then call the prisons, asking questions like "What's the average time people stay in prison before going to trial? Do prisoners get to take a shower every day? What kind of medical attention are prisoners getting?"
Both speakers also emphasized the importance of sending reading materials into prisons, especially now because prisons are not spending any money on education. An audience member, who said he's been working on prison issues for thirty years, said that it's "extremely difficult" to send literature in now, unless it's Christian-related (!). He said that the ability to get books in "solely depends on the willingness to fight the department of corrections," and predicted that "this time next year it'll be impossible to get any political literature in." Bo said that when something gets sent back, we should question them.
Another area that needs attention is supporting families of prisoners. Bo said, "Support and get to know families of prisoners. Find out what those families need." Often families don't have enough money to visit prisoners, especially when they're incarcerated far from their communities.
Writing to prisoners is another concrete and probably the easiest action each of us can take. I've had addresses for Free and Critter sitting on my desk for months, but haven't gotten around to writing. Now, after I finish this article, that's the first thing I'm going to do. Chris said that "visitation is also something we have to emphasize," mentioning that "Critter is right down the road and it's been months since he had a visitor." Here are their addresses:
Jeffrey Luers #13797671, OSP, 2605 State St., Salem, OR 97310
Craig Marshall #13797662, SRCI, 777 Stanton Blvd., Ontario, OR 97914
To get contact information for other prisoners, the Mother Jones website has a good resource page.
In addition to supporting people in prison, we should also be working to keep activists out of prison. "When you hear about a situation, act on it," Chris said. "Show up at court hearings."
Chris also stressed the importance of making changes in our daily lives and interactions: "We have to change how we treat each other." While anarchists have good intentions about wanting to make the movement more diverse and inclusive, "until we stop fighting and pissing on each other, we're not getting anywhere. We have to start changing this scene from the ground up so it can be a movement." Bo echoed that thought: "I think we need to be building a movement - not a party, not a scene, but a movement."
FYI - Coming up this Friday night at Liberty Hall (311 N. Ivy St.) is A Midsummer Night's Ceilion - an evening of traditional Irish dancing with Bob Soper and Jon Kiparsky. Starts at 8:00pm. Call 503-249-8888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.