FROM 1976 through 1984, the Sam Melville-Johnson Jackson Unit and the United Freedom Front called for the release of political prisoners and POW's from U.S. prisons. This call, accentuated through the use of explosives, was integrated with other issues such as independence for Puerto Rico, an end to apartheid, and support for liberation movements in Central America.
IN 1985, the first of many trials began for seven long time activists and revolutionaries. Collectively known as the Ohio 7, the first group trial stemmed from resistance actions attributed to the UFF, including the bombings of U.S. military facilities. This trial resulted in numerous convictions. Subsequently, 8 people were indicted on Sedition and RICO (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization) charges coming out of SMJJ/UFF actions. This case resulted in the longest sedition trial in U.S. history and acquittals for those who remained in the case. I was a defendant in both cases as was Richard Williams and Thomas Manning.
BETWEEN the earlier UFF trial and the Sedition case, there was a New Jersey state trial in which Tom and Richard were tried for the 1981 shooting death of a state trooper. In very compelling and unequivocal testimony, Tom described how he had shot the trooper in self-defense after the trooper tried to kill him with his .357 Magnum. During the court proceedings it was determined that the trooper had fired a minimum of 6 shots; carried an unregistered, unlicensed "drop gun" concealed on his person, and was previously involved in shooting incidents.
TOM testified that Richard Williams was not present at the shooting.
AT trial's conclusion, Tom Manning was convicted of felony murder. The jury failed to reach a verdict on Richard, with the majority for acquittal. This led to a second trial, a retrial, which began 5 years later on September 30th, 1991, and ended with Richard's conviction in December. A year earlier, December 7-10, 1990, a Special Tribunal on the violation of the human rights of political prisoners/POW's in U.S. prisons and jails was held in New York City. This event was convened by 88 sponsoring and endorsing organizations, including Freedom Now!, a coalition of organizations and individuals pledged to support political prisoners. Hundreds of activists attended the event. The Tribunal provided an opportunity and forum to examine the political claims and conditions of over one hundred political prisoners. Examination was also given to government claims that these prisoners are simply terrorists and criminals.
THE Tribunal drew numerous conclusions based on the evidence. Among these findings: U.S. prisons hold substantial numbers of political prisoner/POW's, including "white north american opponents of U.S. government policies." The Tribunal then issued the following call to actions--"It is of critical importance that the international human rights community as well as all freedom loving people to bring worldwide attention to the plight of U.S. political prisoners."
HOW is it that one year after the Tribunal's findings, the New Jersey trial of Richard Williams elicited no moral or political support from those who organized, sponsored, endorsed and attended this event? Or from the organizations and individuals affiliated with Freedom Now!? How did circumstances and attitudes evolve to the point of adding insult to injury by abandoning Richard Williams to a relentless attack by the State?
IT has been my position, shared by some of my comrades, that we do not distance ourselves politically from actions claimed by the SMJJ/UFF. For example, we do not deny bombing the offices of the South African government in 1982, or the destruction of military facilities. We think they were necessary and righteous actions designed to draw the attention of the American people to crimes being committed by their own government.
THIS has had repercussions in our ability to build support among the organized Left and others. Many activists consider the SMJJ/UFF actions "dirty" because they involved the use or threat of violence, including confrontations with the police. These activists won't even consider "tending support to those who do not establish their "innocence" or repudiate armed resistance. Trying to gain their favor resembles an appearance before a parole board.
AT his recent trial, Richard Williams maintained his innocence throughout the circumstantial case against him, yet political and moral support did not materialize. With the exception of a few individuals who braved the elements and police intimidation, the Left virtually boycotted the trial. The alternative press, with the exception of the Canadian Left, did not devote so much as a single column inch to the trial. Events were not organized or shared which would draw attention to our comrade's plight. One of the few bright spots in the midst of this wayward stampede was defense attorney Lynne Stewart, who put forward a valiant effort.
WHY the white out? Despite the rhetoric of our detractors, the issue is not one of "guilt" or "innocence". If it were, the courtroom would have been filled with supporters from that nearby hotbed of radicalism, New York City. As it was, the courtroom was filled with state cops making their own political statement. The real deal with those that renounce us and retreat from trials and prison battlegrounds is that we are seen as anti-imperialists with guns. Guns were used to defend ourselves; guns to confront the enemy, guns that speak for our own liberation and provide support to others. With no apologies.
SELF DEFENSE was clearly established in the New Jersey case. However, our critics' convoluted logic turns the issue around to a condemnation: What were we doing with guns to begin with! The soft part of the Left filed a superseding indictment behind that of the State, implicating us as terrorists and criminals. The guns, our lack of adherence to a particular party line, our radical ideas (e.g. the liberation of oppressed nations within the borders of the U.S. Empire) are used by others to label the Ohio 7 as renegade workers unworthy of support.
THERE are those who've just begun to grasp the necessary understanding and courage to denounce the inherent injustice of 20 year old cases involving our Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army comrades, and others. Yet they don't lift a finger to help someone on trial now. Anyone who has been chewed up in this so-called "criminal justice" system will tell you support is most effective in the trial stage. Convictions are extremely difficult to get reversed, and early support lays the foundation for protracted support if necessary. A New York judge put it succinctly when he stated the government has an interest in the finality of judgments. Final--as in bury them alive-or, in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, execute as soon as convenient.
MUCH of the North American Left suffers from myopia on this issue of political prisoners. It affects their value judgments. They place our value at nil. T see no relationship or kindred spirit between those who function clandestinely or outside the bounds of the Empire's law, and the combatants, bombmakers, expropriators, armorers, courtiers, and propagandists of other anti-imperialist struggles. Struggles represented by the FMLN, the FSLN, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the PLA of the Philippines, etc. They merit admiration and respect. We get ostracized and disrespect.
WHEN toured the U.S. after his release from prison, I watched with pride as millions turned out to welcome him. Nelson Mandela symbolizes antiapartheid resistance and the defiant spirit of political prisoners. Most Left organizations expressed enthusiastic support for Mandela--and appreciation for his sacrifice on behalf of others.. It was a very special moment when Mandela spoke in Harlem. Adding to its significance was Mandela sharing the stage and place of honor with Black Panther Party leader Dhoruba Bin Wahad, and former Puerto Rican Nationalist Prisoners of War. Liberal and conservative politicians opposed their presence on stage. It is then with some irony that so many Left organizations, year after year, refused to acknowledge the political persecution of these comrades. Curious, that many didn't recognize the connection between the fight against white supremacy in America. Disturbing, that at no time prior, during, or after did anyone acknowledge the reality of U.S. political prisoners in prison for years, and still in prison today, for anti-apartheid actions.
THE CONSISTENCY with which the Left ignores political prisoners can be seen through the experiences of soldiers that refused to serve in the Gulf War. These working class women and men took the risks, bad discharges, and imprisonment. For their commitment and sacrifice, they received scant support from the various antiwar groups and coalitions, with the major exceptions of Citizen Soldier, the War Resisters' League, and the anti-imperialist segment of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War.
EXCEPTIONAL also is the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and the singular example of Leonard Peltier (also, the particular effort formed around IRA prisoner Joe Doherty). They have made progress with integrating the lives of the prisoners with other community and political issues.
HOWEVER, few prisoners, including anti-imperialist prisoners, receive organizational support. The demise of Freedom Now! from competing agendas, personal squabbling, and myriad other self-induced problems undermined the good intentions and hard work of a few. It dashed the hopes of scores of political prisoners, long ago forgotten. This is a continuation of a decades old legacy which relegates political prisoners to the status of irritant and minor humanitarian consideration.
THE PRISONERS want and need outside support. We need it to remain visible and as a vehicle for activism; as a measure of physical protection and to secure our freedom. Our lifeline is perilously weak.
THE STATE put a lot of muscle and resources into prosecuting Richard Williams. Every day, state police ringed the courthouse, patrolled the building and occupied the courtroom. This was more than a symbolic demonstration--it was a strategy designed to use the power of the State to take a man's life. The dichotomy was striking: a frenzied police power bent on exacting their pound of flesh, and the wilted response of the Left. There was the depth, character, and attitude of each in the context of a political trial.
NEITHER my comrades nor I have asked for awards, promotions, or pensions. If that's what I wanted, I would have re-enlisted with the U.S. Army rather than join with the unconventional forces. Some will say I have an ax to grind.
"My purpose is to stir the conscience and inflame the passions. . . ."
No doubt. I began to sharpen my ax under the war skies of Viet Nam. 25 years ago. I've continued to hone its edge as my own life was rubbed raw with oppression. With me, the political IS personal.
THIS is not a criticism of the entire Left. Most of the Left doesn't even know we exist. For those who have made a difference in our lives--you know who you are. Neither is it meant to be a comprehensive analysis. My purpose is to stir the conscience and inflame the passions; to draw attention to the inherent weakness of political organizations and movements that cut and run at the first sign of a courtroom confrontation. ALL progressive and revolutionary movements have their activists and seditious conspirators. Some of us are imprisoned for our commitment. Do you see us as part of your community, or as casualties of a war you'd just as soon forget? Do you see us at all? For after all is said and done, the women and men locked down for their political beliefs, intent, and actions are the United States' political prisoners.
Ray Luc Levasseur, 10376-016, PO Box 150160, USP Atlanta, Atlanta, GA 30315