By Jared Ball
From President Obama on down, powerful forces maintain that the Black Freedom Movement is not only over, but ended in complete success. Yet decades later, scores of veterans of that movement still languish in prison. If we won, how come our bravest are still behind bars? “Despite all the hope to the contrary, there has been no successful completion of a freedom movement in this country.”
Love and Struggle: The On-Going Scandal of Political Imprisonment
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Jared Ball
“No civil or human rights movement can claim victory while its most ardent supporters remain imprisoned.”
“Hi All. My parole was denied today after a 2 to 3 hour hearing and my case was referred to a 3-member panel to determine the size of my next 'hit' which may be outside the normal 3 year guideline. In other words they will probably set my future parole-hearing date at more than 3 years away. I thank all of you for the fine effort you made in trying to get me released and know that you did all that was humanly possible under the circumstances. Love, and Struggle, Sundiata.”
And so were the words last week of Sundiata Acoli, one-time computer programmer for NASA turned Black Panther Party freedom fighter, whose actions in support of a liberation struggle remain, after 36 years, defined as criminal. His statement of parole denial comes on the heals of the recent and similarly decided hearings of Jalil Muntaqim, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and Hugo Pinell and, like those, is the kind of myth-breaking state-sponsored response that deserves far more attention precisely because of what it means not only for the individuals who suffer the horrors of imprisonment but what it says about the state of broader civil and human rights struggles. The denial of parole to these and others and their particular status as political prisoners, that is, people who are incarcerated because of “their political views and/or actions,” is a stark reminder that, despite all the hope to the contrary, there has been no successful completion of a freedom movement in this country.
“The prison-industrial-complex is the latest in an historically uninterrupted series of legal and political machinations designed to enforce white supremacy.”
For all the on-going discussions of Obama’s place in history, illusions of progress, or arguments over whether or not there is or should be a black agenda, the incontrovertible fact imposed on us by the continued incarceration of political prisoners is that no civil or human rights movement can claim victory while its most ardent supporters remain imprisoned specifically for their involvement in those movements. Regardless of the particular accusation none would remain imprisoned if these movements had succeeded. Their actions would not then be seen as crimes. At worse, as once described by fellow political prisoner David Gilbert, any mistakes made by these women and men would be judged by the communities for whom they work not by those against whom they struggle. It is truly this standard that should be applied to all discussions of progress. Whenever we are confronted with the latest set of myths of improvement, even before we get to the data which demonstrates the lie of forward motion and improved material conditions, we should simply ask, “which of our dozens of political prisoners has been set free?”
And while at it, we might as well throw our support behind those working to expose and end a broader system of mass incarceration which, according to yet another recent study from the Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity program at St. Catherine University in Minnesota, describes a prison-industrial-complex that, “is the latest in an historically uninterrupted series of legal and political machinations designed to enforce white supremacy with its economic and social benefits both in and with the law.” And more to our immediate concern over the political imprisonment of those seeking to make progressive change, this study addresses this system as a response to “movements for Abolition and Civil Rights” which “worked to end the institutions of slavery, lynching and legalized segregation,” but were met with “new and more indirect mechanisms” resulting in a “color-blind… de facto racism… where people of color, especially African Americans, are subject to unequal protection of the laws, excessive surveillance, extreme segregation and neo-slave labor via incarceration…”
If Obama were the real change represented by the culmination of a successful movement he would apply at least the same standard to political prisoners as he has seen fit for Bush and Cheney. If those two are not to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity because, as the president has said, he prefers “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” then why not avert his eyes from the past long enough to immediately release these political prisoners with reparations and apologies?