(editors note: from 1989 to 1997, Ray’s essays &
letters were a regular feature on WORT-FM Community Radio in Madison, WI.
After an absence of many years, I had an opportunity to do a piece on WORT,
and asked Ray if he had any thoughts for his audience in Madison. He sent
me the following…..)
AS SOME OF YOU KNOW I’ve been in prison for political offenses since 1984. I was tried and acquitted of sedition. As the government stated in its indictment – our "revolutionary anti-imperialist organization" sought to challenge its authority to kill with impunity in Central America. I was convicted of bombing military facilities in an effort to expose U.S. war crimes against the people of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I was convicted of actions taken against American corporations whose power and products strengthened the racist apartheid system in South Africa.
FOR THIS I’m supposed to suffer and die in prison. The trial judge recommended that I never be paroled – that I remain in prison until "expiration" of my 45 year sentence, if I don’t expire of something else doing that kind of time.
TO PUNCTUATE THEIR HATRED of what they perceive to be my political beliefs and associations, the government sent me to their worst prison – the infamous Marion – in 1986. When the government built an ever higher tech, mind numbing penitentiary called Administrative Maximum (ADX), at Florence Colorado, I was sent there in 1995. As some of you know, I’ve written extensively about human rights violations, and the counterproductive, spirit-crushing nature of such prisons.
ON AUGUST 20, 1999, after many long years of isolation and close confinement, where walls were never more than a few steps away, I was transferred from ADX to the maximum security penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia. Built in 1905, Atlanta has held other political prisoners including Eugene Debs (a socialist), Alexander Berkman (an anarchist), and Pedro Albizu Campos (Puerto Rican Nationalist). Federal prisons have always served as way stations for revolutionaries and dissidents – from "Wobblies" (Industrial Workers of the World) to draft resisters.
IMMEDIATELY UPON MY ARRIVAL here I was placed in segregation – the hole. I was told by a representative of the administration that because of my extensive history of radical activism, and the many years I spent in their worst prisons, I would remain in the hole for months before serious consideration would be given to releasing me into the prison general population.
SEGREGATION CONDITIONS at Atlanta are among the worst I’ve experienced. Every U.S. Supreme Court judge should be required to sleep on a cell floor as I did, smell shit backed up in the toilet, leave the cell to walk in an outside kennel cage three hours a week (if the guards are up to giving you that much). Maybe then we’d see some humanity from the robed ones.
I HAD TO CHALLENGE what was becoming an increasingly volatile situation. There is nothing prison administrators fear more than solidarity among prisoners and a penetrating look at their operations from people outside the walls. Aware of this, friends and supporters initiated a campaign to get me out of the hole. This campaign was successful and I was released from segregation in December 1999, albeit under restrictive conditions. I can see the Moon now, something I’ve gone years without being able to do. I’d still be in the hole were it not for the efforts of so many caring and committed people whose collective voice was feet from the U.S. penitentiary at Atlanta to the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C.. It was a voice to behold. Lest we succumb to that ubiquitous skepticism or the slippery slope of cynicism that too often mines the field of political activism – the notion that writing a letter of protest or support, or performing some other seemingly mundane task is wasted effort – we just proved otherwise. Struggle brings results, and all struggles begin with a first step and advance through commitment, work and sacrifice. And it’s in this spirit that we can save our brother Mumia Abu Jamal from the state’s executioner and ultimately free all political prisoners.
A SINGLE CORAL is infinitesimally small, but a coral reef is able to alter the ocean’s current. Our little campaign to get me out of the hole built a big enough reef to alter the prison administration’s designs on me. I am grateful to all who made this possible and thank those of you in Madison who pitched in – including you who at various times over the years sent me cards and letters, books and periodicals, kind words and encouragement. Some of you have remained active on various fronts and I take heart when I see you do not stand idly by when the system attempts to crush life with police power and dollar signs. I also want to thank the folks at WORT radio – past and present – who’ve allowed issues like that of political prisoners to be aired, issues which would not have otherwise seen the light of day.
SOMEONE WROTE TO ME recently asking me whether I thought the militancy of the anarchists/youth at the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle was counterproductive. My response to that is a resounding NO. And it’s not even a matter of whether I personally agree or disagree with the tactic of smashing windows that reflect corporate profits over human needs. Destroying corporate property to make a political point has a long history among the oppressed. And it most certainly is not the major contradiction. The major contradiction is corporate power raping the earth, bankrolled by the sweat of underpaid and abused workers. It’s not militancy that threatens to pull the plug on the American Left, but rather the lack of militancy and sustained activism. As the saying goes – think globally and act locally. Too often we fail to act on issues confronting us in our own communities – whether it be police brutality, jail and prison conditions, homelessness and affordable housing, labor activism and jobs, taking back the night, environmentalism, etc. Amidst the current weakness of the Left, the rule of thumb should not so much be ideology and party line as time, place and conditions. The duty of the activist is to be active. I’d rather see someone cross a police line than wallow in apathy.
THE LAST TIME I was in the city of Atlanta was in 1969. It was April – the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. I was here with a contingent of the Southern Student Organizing Committee. We gathered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and marched to the state capital buildings, which were ringed by Georgia State Police. We were in Atlanta to honor Dr. King and press on for civil rights and opposition to the Viet Nam war. Between the church and state capital we stopped outside the county jail for a solidarity demonstration with prisoners inside. Thirty years ago there was a different consciousness about the role of prisoners in the pursuit of basic civil and human rights. They were seen as a potential part of the solution – not as part of the problem that deserved to be ostracized and forgotten. Now there are 2 million prisoners in America – 25% of the world’s entire prison population. The wages they receive for their forced labor is on par with and often less than what NIKE pays its Asian shoe and clothing workers. How do we continue to ignore exploitation on such a scale?
THIRTY YEARS AGO our battles were about human rights, and they’re about human rights today. It’s about daring to struggle for these rights if we want to win. It’s about acting on principle and sound strategies, rather than generating antagonistic divisions through over-inflated rhetoric. It’s about Attica being all of us and Mumia being our brother. It’s about a future for children that embraces peace, justice and freedom.
Raymond Luc Levasseur
Ray Luc Levasseur, 10376-016, PO Box 150160, USP Atlanta, Atlanta, GA 30315
A large collection of Rays essays and letters can be found at: