Prison Abolition, Political Prisoners, and the Building of Critical Resistance
By Matt Meyer
Linda Thurston is a founding member of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, coordinated the New England and National Criminal Justice Programs of the American Friends Service Committee, and has worked with Boston and New York Jericho and with Critical Resistance. Linda is the office coordinator at the War Resisters League national office.
Matt Meyer: You have a long history of working not just for political prisoners, but for the rights and freedom of prisoners in general, as well as for prison abolition. You’ve worked with a number of the key regional and national organizations in this field. Would you share some of those experiences?
Linda Thurston: When I became the director of the New England Criminal Justice Program of the Quaker-based American Friends Service, one of the big issues was a tendency to lock any prisoners who spoke out on any issues in solitary confinement—sometimes for years. These were clear cases of political repression, locking people up not because they posed any threats but because they were willing to fight for their rights, even as prisoners. Many folks whom I worked with then may not have landed in prison because of political activities, but they certainly got politicized once in prison.
Partly because I was in Boston, where there was a very strong anti-apartheid movement and a very strong Central American solidarity movement, I learned about many people doing time because of refusal to cooperate with federal grand jury investigations. At the Red Book Store in Cambridge, I remember meeting some people—like Tommy Manning and Jaan Laaman of the Ohio 7 case— who are still political prisoners to this day. Kazi Toure, now out of prison and the national co-chair of the Jericho Amnesty Movement, was around in those days, along with his brother, Arnie King, who is also still doing time despite an incredible record of community support and work. I think there are some regional cultural differences that have shaped people’s political development differently. In New York City, for example, most of the political prisoners came directly out of the local Black Panther Party. But in Boston and later, in Philadelphia, with the case of MOVE and the MOVE 9, I had a different framework. While I was working for AFSC, I began to learn more about political prisoners through my own writing and radio projects.
As an AFSC staff person, I was involved in the 200 Years of Penitentiary project, recognizing Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail as the first prison in the USA. The campaign was a way of doing prison abolition work in the 1980s, and I got to dress up in my Sunday best and speak to all the Quaker groups and Methodists and Presbyterians and United Church folks. From there, I got to work with the National Inter-Religious Task Force on Criminal Justice. Those networks, with people like Episcopal Minister S. Michael Yasutake (founding chair of the Prisoner of Conscience Project) building bridges between social and political prisoners, helped create lasting relationships and commitments. Fast forward some years, to the early 1990s, and I ended up working with Amnesty International USA on death penalty issues.
I actually had, from the beginning, some very real issues with Amnesty International. In part, this was because Amnesty refused to name Nelson Mandela, or any number of other people, as political prisoners. I didn’t understand at that moment the human rights movement’s nuanced differences in definition regarding political prisoners, prisoners of war, and prisoners of conscience. Nor did I understand how amazingly egg-headedly legalistic and academistic the whole human rights framework could be. But at that particular moment, between 1994 and 1995, executions in the USA had almost doubled in one year. It seemed important to do that work with those resources, but it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Amnesty is an organization that grows out of the Cold War mentality. They began as a group that issued bulletins on behalf of prisoners of conscience, one prisoner from the West and one from the Soviet Union, trying to embarrass those governments by bombarding them with letters. While I was there, we did begin trying to get Amnesty to pay attention to the case of Black Panther death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. But I could not stay at Amnesty for long.
The job I had at the Center for Constitutional Rights was coordinator of the Ella Baker Student Program, which I used to refer to as my job of training little “baby radical lawyers.” These were young people that we would recruit from various law schools who thought that they wanted to be “movement” lawyers. Whatever issues they were eventually going to work on, it was crucial that they get an education in the history and the current way of looking at the role of prisons in society and the reality of political prisoners. I remember bringing in Attica prison rebellion survivor and representative Big Black in, to come and talk to these law students after we’d shown them the film Attica. It was a strong way of educating and radicalizing people who could have a direct effect on the lives of prisoners.
MM: What were and are some of the issues involved in building bridges between the people who do work around political prisoners and those who work around the prison-industrial complex or prison abolition?
LT: I think there are people who come out of a political context, who make many assumptions about categories such as “social prisoners.” Some people who work on political prisoner cases have, in a general theoretical sense, the idea that prisons themselves are bad, but also that prisons are where bad folks are. If you stole something, you’re a thief. If you killed somebody, you’re a murderer. And that is what you are, that is who you are, and that is all you are. I really have a problem with that idea, maybe coming from my spirituality or maybe just my common-sense political analysis. Nobody is only one thing, and no one is only as bad as the worst thing they ever did. If that were true, we’d all be in big trouble because we’re all human. Some people who won’t do work around social prisoners or politicized social prisoners have this perspective, and many people who do work with the general prison population do it purely from a social service perspective and aren’t interested in working on political prisoner issues. The key is to see the connections between these struggles, and not to pit them against one another. We’ve got lots of work ahead of us.
It also has now gotten way more complicated because more and more political prisoners are spending vast, unbelievable amounts of time in prison, and not getting out. Political prisoners are dying in prison, so the issue becomes more urgent. At the same time, as I’ve said, vastly increased numbers of people are being sent to prison—also for long periods of time. In countries where the concept of “political prisoner” is recognized as a legal category, there may still be human rights problems and justice issues, but the complications and divisions between tend to be easier to deal with. It is agreed that there are political prisoners, and it is agreed that there are major problems in the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Here in the U.S., an urgent task of the current political moment is for folks doing political prisoner support work to recognize the broader context of the PIC.
One place where we’ve seen this take place is around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia’s case has brought so many people from different political movements and perspectives together. In general, though, with all the cases, we need to make more opportunities for all kinds of interaction and discussion. Not to be naïve, but these dialogues between those of us doing basically similar work are an urgent necessity. We’ve got to find greater ways to work together.
MM: You’ve been active, since the beginning, in the development of Critical Resistance (CR), which in some ways tries to present a new framework about how to do some of this work. And you continue to help bridge the gap between work around prison abolition and around political prisoners. Could you describe the current national scene, around the time of the tenth anniversary of CR, and discuss how things have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same?
LT: It may be a new framework and a new concept in this current iteration, but the notion of prison abolition is much older than the 1998 founding conference of CR. I actually didn’t get involved in CR until after that initial national conference in Oakland, but I did attend the conference. There were many folks at the first Critical Resistance gathering who were overjoyed that people were talking about prison abolition again. We didn’t know that over a thousand people would show up, with energy to build local and regional chapters. We clearly hit upon a moment when people were ready to work on issues involving the role of prisons in U.S. life.
One issue that we’ve been dealing with, and need to continue to deal with, is the role of people who have been most impacted by the prison industrial complex. Our organizations can’t just be made up of people who want to work on an issue. It has to include people who did time, people whose family members have done time. These folks must be in the leadership of the movement and the leadership of the struggle, because in many ways they can best understand and convey the complexities of the system on a local and national level. As we all need to step up and become active when that’s needed, we also need to learn to step back and take leadership from the folk who haven’t been in leadership. Some of us older folks need to learn that in regard to the youth, too.
Another thing that’s fairly unique about CR, in my experience, is the way in which the regional organizations reflect the national program as well as the specific political context in a given region of the country. We’ve been weaving a sort of web between the local networks and the national group.
There’s also a great deal of attention in CR given to political education. Far too often in our movements we don’t find out where people are coming from. If somebody shows up for a meeting, we’re so glad that they’re there, we’ll just give them some things to do and tell them when and where to go for the next meeting. But CR really works to build community. I feel very connected to the local folks in the organization, even though I work more with the national. We are in a situation where someone can put a call out and say, “Yo, the sister who was at the meeting last night—her kid just got arrested. Can any of you get to court?” And people do it. It reminds me of working with the groups in Boston when I was younger: that sense of community, of family, of connectedness. That feeling also comes up when I get emails from different political prisoner support groups saying, “So and so on the inside is sick, we’ve got to jump in here and deal with this.”
I guess I’ve come full circle after all these years, realizing that we need the political analysis, we need the political education, we need the strategizing, we need more bodies, and we need resources. But we also damn sure better remember that we’re human beings and we need to support one another on all levels or we’re not going to make it. Sometimes our failure is as simple as calling a meeting at dinnertime and not having so much as a pitcher of water at the table. If we’re going to survive, if we’re going to succeed, if we’re going to win, if we’re going to free folks, we’ve got to get better at doing the human piece of building movement by building community.
From Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, Matt Meyer, ed.
Matt Meyer, despite being a public draft resister, did not go to jail but did contemplate those possible consequences. Former National Chair of the War Resisters League, Meyer is editor of the recently published Let Freedom Ring: Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008).
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