by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action L.A.
Last month I had a chance to see Lynne Stewart, people’s defense attorney and ex-political prisoner, along with Pam Africa and Ramona Africa, at two great community events, one in S.F. and the other in Oakland. They talked about the MOVE 9 and Mumia Abu-Jamal, political prisoners still being held in PA and about the successful struggle to free Lynne. Lynne Stewart’s freedom underscores that a number of victories have been won recently nationally and locally in the struggle to free political prisoners. Mumia, of course, was able to win, some time ago, a reversal of the death penalty unjustifiably imposed on him; but he is still facing life in prison without parole, and so the struggle for his exoneration and release continues.
Lynne Stewart is a noted defense lawyer who ran afoul of Homeland Security and the USA PATRIOT Act for her advocacy on behalf of a politically-unpopular client, the so-called “Blind Sheik.” She was singled out for prosecution to intimidate all defense attorneys in the post-9/11 atmosphere. She was initially given a short sentence. But the government appealed and a judge was ordered to give her a sentence that amounted to life in prison, given its length and her age. When her health deteriorated as she fought cancer with inadequate medical care in prison, a campaign led by her husband Ralph Poynter led to her “compassionate” release. She is now fighting cancer with all the energy and commitment she brought and continues to bring to fighting for human rights and her clients’ freedom.
Herman Wallace, a Black Panther political prisoner in Louisiana, was one of the so-called Angola 3, imprisoned Panthers who were framed for the murder of a guard. His conviction was recently overturned after years of efforts and appeals, and he was released. Like Lynne, his health had deteriorated drastically. But Herman passed to the ancestors in freedom, surrounded by his family, vindicated in his innocence, and unbroken in his commitment to the people’s struggle even after decades in solitary confinement. Robert King, another of the Three, had been released years before, leaving only Albert Woodfox still locked up.
Marshall Eddie Conway, a leader of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, also locked up for 4 decades, recently won a resounding legal victory, overturning his unjustified conviction and winning his release. Yet another former Panther, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, recently won release from the torturous conditions of solitary confinement under which he’d been held in Pennsylvania for decades. This was stimulated by the release of a book of his prison writings, “Maroon the Implacable.” Maroon and Mumia were able to meet and greet each other in general population in prison in PA, and Maroon had his first contact visits with family members. Sekou Kambui (William Turk), another imprisoned Panther, recently won parole after decades in prison. Abu-Jamal, Conway, Shoatz and Wallace, like many other imprisoned Panthers, continued to struggle behind bars, educating and uplifting younger prisoners, and often “writing through the walls” with sage lessons for people’s movements.
Two of the Cuban Five, held in federal custody for investigating and exposing terror plots by US backed “gusanos,” Miami counter-revolutionaries, have been released. They had been subjected to long sentences and isolation from their families for many years. The government, after years of struggle, recently dropped all charges against Prof. Sami Arian in FL, and gave up its attempt to deport him.
Locally, there have been key victories in campaigns to prevent Black freedom fighters from becoming political prisoners. Mecca and Etana Shakur, two leaders of the Black Riders Liberation Party, were charged with trespassing, interfering with and obstructing an officer, and assault on a police officer. Mecca Shakur has been a long-time leader of the BRLP, a member of the Local Station Board at KPFK, and a one-time staffer at Peace Action. Etana Shakur was a founder of the George Jackson Freedom School, which provided a relevant education to Black youth. The two Black women had successfully defended themselves against a racist unprovoked physical assault by an Inglewood cop while they were campaigning with their newspaper outside a Food 4 Less store on Century and Crenshaw in Inglewood. The two also successfully defended against the charges in court, with extensive community support, often filling the courtroom during the lengthy proceedings. The judge dismissed the trespassing charge, the jury acquitted on assault and battery, and there was a hung jury on the obstructing and interfering charges. The prosecutor abandoned an effort to retry them on the last remaining charge after the mistrial. This case was similar to the much more highly publicized case of an Occupy activist in NY, who was convicted of a felony after defending herself against a cop who grabbed her by her breasts.
In another case against a leader of the Black Riders, charges were also dropped against General T.A.C.O. (Taking All Capitalists Out) AKA Wolverine Shakur of the BRLP in Torrance on June 5 at an arraignment, after a B.S. arrest by Gardena police (who consulted with LAPD chief Charlie Beck after taking him into custody). Cops have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to send Shakur back to prison for years. They tried to violate his parole during the LA trial of Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who killed Oscar Grant, raiding his home the night before the slap-on-the-wrist verdict on the killer cop came down. Subsequently, during the days of Occupy L.A., another attempt was made to violate his parole and send him to state prison, but strong support from the Black community as well as Occupy the Hood and Occupy L.A. resulted in a ruling in his favor in parole court. The victory occurred despite an intervention by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck labeling T.A.C.O. and the Riders as “terrorists” in a memo to the head of the state parole system. The Black Riders are new generation Black Panthers, honored as such last year by the Black Panther Party alumni of Southern California, for upholding the struggle with such programs as Break the Lock (prisoner visitation and education), and Hood Health (AIDS education and prevention, community gardening, and traditional remedies), and by initiating the Inter-communal Solidarity Committee.
However, for every political prisoner that the system is forced to release, they crack down even harder on those still in their custody, or seek to lock down or frame-up other resisters. Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement, Oscar Lopez Rivera of the Puerto Rican independence movement, and many former Black Panthers such as Mutulu Shakur have been locked up for decades! In January, anarchist Jerry Koch was released from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in NY. His release came after eight months in jail for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the so-called bicycle bomber case. Such grand juries offer limited immunity to coerce testimony by eliminating 5th amendment protection. But the Supreme Court just refused to hear the appeal of Pulitzer Prize reporter James Risen of the NY Times, who’s been fighting a subpoena to testify at the upcoming trial of a former CIA agent. The court ruled reporters have no “privilege” to refuse to testify in a criminal matter to protect their sources or techniques. Authorities subjected Private Chelsea Manning to torture during a long pre-trial detention in Leavenworth, where Manning, a whistle-blower inside the US military, was forced to stand at attention while near naked for hours in an unheated cell. Julian Assange, who released Manning’s disclosures, is facing a kind of “house arrest” asylum situation inside a consulate in London. Obama and his Attorney General signed off on a designation of Assata Shakur, a former woman leader of the Black Panther Party and BLA, as a most-wanted terrorist with a two-million-dollar-bounty on her head. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has eluded capture. But Jeremy Hammond was entrapped by the FBI and a hacker from Anonymous/Lulz-Sec named Sabu, whom the Feds had turned and used to try to identify other “security risks.” The FBI and their confidential informant Sabu had ensnared Hammond in a plot to break into allied government’s computer systems.
There have been a lot of entrapment cases against Occupiers and Muslim youth around the country, where FBI agents and informants enticed them into criminal conspiracies. In some cases the Feds provided the initial idea, access to weapons and funds. NYPD and FBI efforts to target Muslim centers and mosques for such “stings” and entrapment continue. Disclosures of police and federal agents infiltrating and sending provocateurs into Occupy have recently made headlines. Exposes of federally-authorized “Fusion Centers” make clear such operations and filing of “suspicious activity reports” continue unabated. They are sure to result in more repression, arrests, and new political prisoners, as resistance to the corporate state grows.
These cases make clear that lives, and the potential of our movements to advance the cause of freedom, peace and justice, are at risk. We must step up to FREE political prisoners, and to prevent a new generation of activists from getting locked up. We need to recognize that defense against political repression must be an aspect of any organizing we do to oppose war, defend the environment or demand economic and social justice. Political and politicized prisoners provide important leadership to all our movements on how to struggle for human rights under conditions of severe repression. Look at the example of the CA hunger strikers who put their bodies on the line to oppose isolation-torture, and immigration detainees in the northwest and elsewhere who have struck for their human rights.
For more information, check https://www.antiracist.org
Note: Since this article was published in July 2014, the first issue by the new crew that picked up Change-Links after the passing of John Johnson, a number of other long-time political prisoners have been released, including Sekou Odinga in New York and Sekou Kambui in Alabama, both former members of the Black Panther Party and the BLA, and “Green Scare” prisoner Eric McDavid. However, the state of PA is clearly trying to kill Mumia Abu-Jamal through medical mistreatment and neglect. See http://www.prisonradio.org for information on how you can help to save, and free, Mumia Abu-Jamal.