Racism is still the driving force behind U.S. political imprisonment
By James Patrick Jordan, Eduardo Garcia, Natalia Burdyńska Schuurman (Program Coordinators)
Political imprisonment in the United States exists primarily as a tool of racist repression. It’s aimed disproportionately at people of color as well as others engaged in anti-racist struggle. Whether in the fight against racism at home or against racist foreign policies, wars, occupation and colonialism, the overarching purpose of political imprisonment is to intimidate and try to crush militant forms of anti-racist struggle.
By treating U.S. political prisoners as “common criminals,” our criminal justice system individualizes and de-contextualizes these cases, ignoring root causes and impeding the development of political solutions to the underlying causes political prisoners have fought for.
Readers can discern for themselves what is revealed in the findings presented here and in the political prisoners list this article analyzes. The large number of people of color and others involved in the anti-racist struggle arrested and incarcerated for their activities is sadly predictable. Our entire history and political and economic establishment is founded and advanced squarely on the foundations of racism.
Indeed, it’s the entire system that must change. Only when that happens will political prisoners find justice and true liberation in the U.S. We fight for the liberation of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. But as wonderful as winning freedom for individuals may be, without a political solution, little is accomplished regarding the causes for which these prisoners have sacrificed their freedom.
Not all U.S. political prisoners are in jail for explicitly anti-racist struggles. There are those in prison for opposing the whole fabric of militarism and war, women who have defended their bodies from abuse, striking blows against patriarchy, and eco-defenders, among others. Recognizing the racism that permeates U.S. political imprisonment does not diminish the validity of the struggles for which these prisoners are incarcerated.
Nonetheless, without exception, racism and anti-racism plays a role in all U.S. popular movements. All anti-war and anti-imperialist struggle has a fundamentally anti-racist aspect. The one existing imperial power in the world today is the U.S./NATO Empire, an Empire centered among mostly white nations, in service to global capitalism and western geopolitical hegemony. That Empire is the primary global purveyor of the exploitation and dispossession of Black, Brown, Indigenous and all colonized peoples in the nations of the Global South.
We further recognize that we can and must look to anti-racist struggles, especially Black and Indigenous liberation, for guidance, lessons and leadership, regardless the area of activity. A political prisoners analysis AFGJ published in August of 2020 explains:
“We are convinced that African people, including the African diaspora, play a leading role in all revolutionary and transformational struggles. African and Indigenous peoples have been specially targeted for repression and exploitation from the very beginning days of the global spread of capitalism. Today in the United States, the movement for the rights and self-determination of Black people has, above all else, shown that it’s not a temporary struggle – it has staying power.
There’s a thread that connects the struggles of the very first enslaved people through the historic Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter uprisings today. The struggle for Black liberation in the U.S. is huge, mature yet young: multi-generational, experienced, politically savvy and enduring. The successes of Black liberation struggles have always, in every instance, opened the way for other struggles. The struggles against slavery and for Black voting rights led directly to the women’s suffrage movement. The Civil Rights Movement was foundational for the advancement of many present-day struggles, including anti-war, anti-capitalist, women’s liberation, Latin American and Asian liberation, disability rights, LGBTQ rights and more. (Indigenous defense of the land and its people is, of course, the oldest movement in resistance to Empire in the Americas.) Thus, we can say that the prominence of political prisoners of African American heritage in the U.S. is a situation that concerns all of us.”
AFGJ has maintained a list of U.S. political prisoners since 2013, when Stan Smith of the Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban Five put that list together for the first time, counting 38 political prisoners in the U.S. Ours is not the only political prisoner list, and we’ve always consulted the work of others while augmenting those with our research. We’ve relied especially on the advice and feedback of Claude Marks from the Freedom Archives and have regularly referenced the Jericho Movement, the Nuclear Resister, Earth First! and the Anarchist Black Cross.
How we define a “political prisoner” is a classification always open to debate. We note that some organizations, such as the Jericho Movement, do not list people as political prisoners unless they have asked or agreed to be listed. As noted in our August 2020 analysis:
“There is a concern that prisoners may experience further targeting and harassment as a result of attention brought by well-meaning supporters. We very much respect that. For our purpose, we are trying to build a comprehensive list that reflects the overall extent and reality of politically motivated incarcerations in the United States. We are (for the most part) not involved in direct advocacy.”
We’re not attempting to maintain an exhaustive list of all U.S. political prisoners. Instead, we document political prisoners who are also prisoners of Empire. There are, for instance, animal rights activists whom we don’t include. A person arrested for direct action against the inhumane conditions suffered under the conditions of factory farming, or for the liberation of animals from pens where there is no freedom of movement, is not included unless there is some element of their case directly related to the struggle against the underpinnings of Empire. Even under socialism, under nations in resistance to Empire, sometimes even under locally autonomous communities, there are animals kept and exploited under conditions that can only be described as cruel. But one cannot simply blame Empire for this, even when and if it exacerbates the problem.
How, then, do we define political prisoners who are also prisoners of Empire? Our August 2020 analysis states:
“Our documentation of political prisoners refers to people who are incarcerated for alleged crimes related to resistance and liberation from oppression and repression. We believe that these cases should not be treated as isolated, ‘common’ crimes, but as cases that require a political solution. In many cases, those in jail are there because of false allegations or because they were framed and railroaded through the courts. Our list contains political prisoners who we also consider ‘prisoners of Empire.’ By that, we mean people who are jailed because of activities that constitute a direct challenge to the national and international dominance of U.S., NATO and transnational imperialist capitalism.”
Our political prisoners list notes:
“We define prisoners of Empire as people incarcerated for acts of resistance to domestic and international oppression and repression and whose cases require a political resolution. Political prisoners are imprisoned because of activities that in some way respond to systemic repression and violations of human rights. Whether the circumstances of the alleged crimes are true or false, we strenuously reject the individualized and out-of-context treatment of these cases as simply “common crimes.” Our listing of these prisoners does not constitute an endorsement of the tactics or immediate goals of every individual. We also recognize that people have a right to resist oppression, and the denial of that right can be, in itself, a crime against the people. In many cases, those incarcerated have been set up, falsely accused, railroaded, and/or denied adequate defense and basic human rights. More often than not, they have received harsher sentences than usual because of the political nature of their activities.”
Although the origins of our political prisoners list date back to 2013, this is only the second comprehensive analysis we’ve published. We admit that what we have could be significantly augmented. We need another major and exhaustive review of the definitions, criteria, and categories we employ. Towards that end we’ve established a committee that will spend the next year revising all aspects of our list. This is an ongoing process, and if you have suggestions for improvements, we want to hear what you have to say. Feel free to send your suggestions to [email protected].
One must also look at the back stories behind the numbers and trends. Our last major update in 2018, before the eruption of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, listed 62 political prisoners. As of December (2022) that total has risen starkly to 120 political prisoners. That’s a 94% increase over just four years, despite numerous deaths and releases since then of long-time political prisoners jailed during government crackdowns on the Black Liberation Movement. Defendants of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings comprise 68% of that total (82 people) – representing a massive new wave of anti-racist political prisoners which alone exceeds the total number of prisoners we documented in 2018.
That’s also likely an underestimate and falls short of conveying the true magnitude of the latest wave of racist and political repression, as it doesn’t include numerous other political prisoners who have since the summer of 2020 already served prison time; nor the thousands who have been arrested, charged and detained as a result of their participation in protests; and likely overlooks dozens of protesters who have been formally sentenced but whose cases have not been made public. In our December 2022 update of our political prisoners list, we note:
“An Associated Press review of court documents for over 300 federal cases involving protesters following the murder of George Floyd from August of last year (2021) shows that at least 120 people have pleaded guilty or been convicted of federal crimes for their activities, at least 70 have been sentenced an average of 27 months in prison and at least 10 have been sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison. The sheer number of cases, lack of readily available information about them and limited staff capacity prevents us from being able to list every one that meets our criteria for documentation. We have to the best of our ability documented all cases we’ve found publicized by local and national news outlets and will continue to monitor the situation for new information.”
Today Black political prisoners comprise 52% (62) of the total count, while the overall number of people of color who are political prisoners is 80 (67%). Of the other political prisoners who are people of color, nine percent (11) are Latine (one is identified as both Black and Latino); three percent (three) are North “American” Indigenous; one percent (one) are Asian American (non-Arab, Middle Eastern, North African, African Muslim or Central Asian); and 9% (11) are Arab, Middle Eastern, North African, African Muslim or Central Asian (one is identified as both Latino and Arab and six are identified as both Black and African Muslim).
As for the last category, we’ve grouped these together because we’ve found it difficult to find statistics related to these specific racial groups. Instead, we find the closest readily available statistics have to do with Muslims in prison – and Muslim is not a race and can include people from all over the world, including those who are not necessarily people of color.
Although Muslim or perceived-as-Muslim peoples don’t necessarily share the same race, they are often discriminated against as if they were, as well as targeted as a class because of their actual or perceived religious identification. Similarly, prison population statistics regularly confuse the count of Latine prisoners by counting most of them simply as “white.”
To understand the racism revealed in these percentages, we must compare them to the demographic percentages of the U.S. population as a whole. Respectively, we find that the U.S. general population is 14% Black, 19% Latine, one percent Indigenous and one percent “Muslim.”
The racist application of “criminal justice” in the United States is a feature of the entire political system, not just of political incarceration, which in itself reflects the larger reality of mass incarceration in the country. For instance, we find that Black people are incarcerated at a rate 3.5 times higher than whites.
We need to place the differences and the total number of political prisoners within context. Among those we list as political prisoners in the United States, it’s significant that just about 68% of the total are those incarcerated for their participation in the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. There are at least two political prisoners that remain in jail for activities related to the Ferguson uprising in 2014 that followed the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown. If we add those together, we find that about 70% of political prisoners in the U.S. have been jailed in relation to charges stemming from the birth and continued growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
How do we determine who and how many are political prisoners of the anti-racist struggle? We count 101 of 120 political prisoners, or 84%, arrested for domestic anti-racist actions. As an international solidarity organization, AFGJ is keenly aware that U.S. foreign policies and international relations are extensions of the same policies, attitudes and actions that drive domestic racism. U.S. wars, sanctions, blockades, and prison imperialism are overwhelmingly wielded against nations with a large majority of people of color, countries of the Global South.
We count five political prisoners in jail for actions of international solidarity with specific nations targeted by Empire and 11 political prisoners involved in activities of self-determination, liberation and defense of their territories from occupation, war, sanctions and blockades. Among them are Simón Trinidad and Ivan Vargas from Colombia, Alex Saab from Venezuela, the Virgin Island Three, Mun Chol Myong of North Korea and Leonard Peltier (in defense of the Lakota nation in occupied South Dakota). Altogether these represent about 11% (13) of those engaged in struggle directly against the United States’ international application of racist and political repression. When we combine those arrested for domestically and internationally, we find that 114 of 120 political prisoners, a striking 95%, are incarcerated for acts of anti-racist resistance.
We also count three political prisoners jailed for eco-defense (3% of the total). Two percent (two) are incarcerated for activities generally or directly opposed to U.S. militarism and wars. Two percent (two) are in prison for generalized resistance to the U.S. political system and global capitalism. We count two women (two percent) for whom we believe political repression and targeting played a role in their incarceration for defending themselves against their abusers or rapists.
As for the last category, the reality is that there are many more we might include in that category. We need to pose several questions and investigations to determine who and how many of these there are and who, if not all, are also considered prisoners of Empire. We ask the reader to be patient with us as we delve deeper into this complex and challenging area of research. For now we include Maddesyn George and Fran Thompson as emblematic cases for which we know there’s probably a much higher total.
We also note that there is overlap in some of these categories. For instance, Fran Thompson is included as a woman incarceration for self-defense and as an eco-defender, exacerbating her prosecution and sentencing. We classify Maddesyn George, as an Indigenous woman whose very existence and survival constitutes an act of resistance, as an anti-racist political prisoner in addition to our classification of her as a woman criminalized for self-defense against patriarchal oppression. There are other cases in which people are counted in more than one category.
At the 2013 Tear Down the Walls conference in Tucson, Arizona, Margaret Prescod of Global Women’s Strike argued that all those interned under the inherently racist and classist U.S. model of mass incarceration are political prisoners. That may not be our criteria for documentation, but she certainly has a point.
In our list of classes of political imprisonment, we include those held in immigrant detention centers and those still held in occupied Cuba at the Guantánamo prison. But they are not counted among the 120 political prisoners we analyze here.
We do know this: even if we counted the 35 inmates in Guantánamo, the thousands held in immigrant detention centers and the many other women jailed for defending themselves against the patriarchal underpinnings of the Empire, these inclusions would only underscore what we already know: political imprisonment in the United States is a tool of racist as well as other easily identified forms of repression employed both at home and abroad, and all of these cases require political solutions, not individualized and decontextualized punishment. Ultimately, systemic change is needed, which is another way of saying revolution.
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