By Maya Schenwar
August 21st, 2014
Through recounting the incarceration of activists fighting for black liberation, Native American sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence, economic justice, the abolition of nuclear weapons and more, author Dan Berger illustrates how imprisonment serves as a political tool deployed by the state to maintain the status quo.
Defining “political prisoner” is a risky endeavor, historian Dan Berger notes in the introduction to his recently released book on the topic, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States. Too often, it’s assumed that political prisoners are people who “haven’t done anything” – who are imprisoned simply because of their beliefs. However, as Berger articulates throughout this engrossing, fact-packed primer, most political prisoners did do something: They participated actively in movements to resist state power, often acting outside the bounds of the law. And so, rather than limiting conversations about political prisoners to determinations of “innocence” and “guilt,” it’s much more useful to discuss how and why the state attempted to suppress those movements. Through recounting the incarceration of activists fighting for black liberation, Native American sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence, economic justice, the abolition of nuclear weapons and more, Berger illustrates how imprisonment serves as a political tool deployed to maintain the status quo.
The activists Berger introduces us to aren’t usually protesting legislation or railing against particular politicians housed within current power structures. They’re working to disrupt the deep groundings of those structures – including the legitimacy of the law itself. In other words, they’re shaking the foundation of the very laws that are later used to confine them.
In the foreword to The Struggle Within, activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore points to the recent enthusiasm for prison “reform,” noting that reform-oriented advocacy often ignores the existence of political prisoners, because their struggles contradict the notion that prisons can be fixed. These prisoners – working to wholly upend existing systems of oppression – belie what Gilmore calls “the sentimental maxim that whatever’s wrong with the United States will be fixed by what’s right with it.”
This book is about people who are locked up for revealing what’s wrong with the United States, and Berger’s meticulous documentation of activist struggles shows how incarceration serves as an attempt to erase their dissent. Like the “reformers,” the government can’t acknowledge political prisoners; if it did, it would have to acknowledge the existence of the problems they’re fighting. “The prison can be seen as an extension of the repression that drove many of these people to undertake militant action in the first place,” Berger notes. “It is part of the government’s arsenal to destroy revolutionaries.”
The image of the arsenal is at home in this book about systemic struggle. Occasionally, The Struggle Within paints the landscape of the push toward revolution as a battlefield; incarcerations, like casualties, may come with the territory. Of the Black Liberation Army’s arrests for “expropriations” (the bank robberies the group’s members used to sustain their survival), Berger writes, “As members of a clandestine army fighting to free a colonized people, most captured BLA combatants have defined themselves as ‘prisoners of war.'” Many Puerto Rican independence activists in the ’70s also assumed this position; Berger talks about how some began to “refuse to participate in their own trials, asserting the position of prisoner of war, thus not subject to the colonial courts of the United States.”
The activists that Berger profiles break laws to break down chains, walls, systems, norms and entrenched assumptions. While the law is deployed to repress them, they resist by continually revealing its flimsiness and mutability; they demonstrate that it can not only be “broken,” but that it can, potentially, be broken down.
Though armed struggle plays a large role in The Struggle Within, breaking down systems isn’t simply about literally fighting back. One of the book’s most interesting and nuanced sections delves into movements of revolutionary nonviolence. Berger notes that radical pacifists, though they usually aren’t given long sentences, are known for the way in which they continually go back to prison: “For more than forty years, [nonviolent resistance] has been the political tendency most oriented toward civil disobedience.”
To read more go to Truthout HERE.