Racism, liberation, and U.S. political prisoners

By James Patrick Jordan, Eduardo Garcia, Victoria Cervantes

The Alliance for Global Justice has just updated its list of U.S. political prisoners.* Let’s review a few basic facts and statistics, and consider some of the implications.

The number of political prisoners we count in the United States since the beginning of the national uprising against racism and police brutality currently totals to 58. Of that total, 37.9% of political prisoners in the U.S. are Black and 70.8% are people of color.

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.

Following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, resistance against police brutality and state violence has spread across the country. Thousands of persons have been arrested, with most released pending trial following brief detentions. We know of at least seven persons who remain in jail and are facing long prison terms if convicted.   

One of the most outstanding findings of our research is that most political prisoners in the U.S. are jailed due to their involvement in struggles against racism, both at home and abroad, and for the liberation of oppressed peoples. 

Fifteen political prisoners are in jail because of their membership in groups that have included strategies of armed resistance for the liberation of Black people. One U.S. political prisoner was part of the Weather Underground, a White armed resistance that had been founded specifically to support Black liberation movements. These political prisoners might also be termed prisoners of war. 

We count another 11 persons not part of armed resistance groups who were arrested during struggles for equal rights and against racism. Of the eleven, seven were arrested during the current uprising. Two of the incarcerated people are Chicano rights activists, and three are Indigenous rights activists.

There are sixteen people in jail for acts of international solidarity, including anti-war and anti-militarism protesters, people raising funds and supplies for the relief of Palestinian people, Iraqi people, and Somali people. One was a Puerto Rican woman jailed for her defense of Cuba from U.S. intervention. In every single case, the international solidarity being advocated was in defense of non-White majority, “Global South” nations being assaulted, invaded, sanctioned, blockaded, and/or occupied by the U.S./NATO Empire and its allies. Two from this category are Colombians who were members of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army) who, had they been returned home, would have been released as part of the country’s peace process. In fact, one of those prisoners was the FARC-EP’s primary peace negotiator. Both were extradited to the U.S. on trumped up charges in violation of basic tenets of national sovereignty.

The percentage of U.S. political prisoners who are people of color is yet one more indicator of how the U.S. so-called “justice” system is racist to the core. Just as people of color are disproportionately the victims of police violence and of mass incarceration in general, they are the overwhelming majority of this nation’s political prisoners.

Not included in the list of individual political prisoners are prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, nor those, even children, held in immigration detention centers all over the U.S. AfGJ also considers these to be political prisoners in the sense that they are detained for political reasons, not reasons of any “common crime”, and the resolution of their cases requires a political solution. As both victims and targets and  of U.S. militarism and imperialist aggression south of its borders we also consider these to be “prisoners of Empire.” Were we to add the 40 Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the thousands kept in immigrant detention centers, it would further reinforce the idea that U.S. political imprisonment is mainly directed toward people of color. 

The demographics of U.S. political prisoners and the struggles they are part of reveal something else. Just as political repression is defined by racism, the most defining aspect of political resistance is anti-racism. Among anti-racist struggles, the most prominent struggle for which political prisoners are arrested is for the liberation of Black peoples. This has a special relevance for all of us. In AfGJ 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 U.S., 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 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. 

There are political prisoners who are in jail because of other important struggles. Of course, in the U.S., no struggle is isolated from the anti-racist struggle. Among the other areas of focus for U.S. political prisoners have been eco-defense (six prisoners fall under this category), defense of basic democratic rights, prison abolition, and direct actions against the surveillance system and its violations of the right to privacy.

In every way, all these political prisoners are deprived of their liberty precisely because they fight for liberty — for liberation from the abuses of a racist political system at home and around the world. Even while denied freedom, they are building freedom and cultivating liberation. As Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton once said, “you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.”

*A word of appreciation to Freedom Archives, Jericho Movement, Nuclear Resister, Earth First!, and  Anarchist Black Cross, as well as organizations in support of specific political prisoners. We consulted all their lists in producing ours, mainly through their websites rather than direct contact. That is an important point, because in no case does this list constitute something they have approved or helped develop directly. We note that we do not all share the exact same definitions or focuses regarding political prisoners. Prisoner advocacy organizations generally only list those who have agreed to be listed. 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. In our documentation of political prisoners we link to specific solidarity campaigns. If there are no advocacy organizations linked, they may not exist or be wanted. If there are no advocacy organizations linked, they may not exist or be wanted. Otherwise, we recommend contacting the organizations above for more information.