Ask anyone who isn't from the United States to name the top five strategic and political miscalculations of the US left, and they're bound to include abandonment of political prisoners on the list. A popular Mexican protest chant explains why this
is such a grave error: “We're not all here! Our political prisoners are missing!” In order to build an effective movement in the United States, everyone who believes in justice and democracy has to struggle together, and this includes political prisoners. As long as activists allow political prisoners to languish in prison cells, those on the outside can't be truly free. Our tactics and strategies are constricted by the very real fear that when we're thrown in jail we're going to be forgotten by the movement, left alone to carry out our sentences in full. Or, as the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca's exiled Dr. Bertha Muñoz puts it, we'll be “buried alive.”
Vibrant struggles for political prisoners' freedom exist all over the world. Since the 2006 police riot in San Salvador Atenco that resulted in 207 arrests, Mexico has seen a revitalization of its political prisoner support movement.
The latest of a series of actions, cultural events, and meetings in support of Mexican political prisoners, the Forum for Freedom of the Country's Political Prisoners of Conscience, took place in Oaxaca City, Mexico, from March 14-16, 2008. It brought together former and current political prisoners, exiled activists, and supporters from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Mexico City, and San Salvador Atenco. They came together to articulate and coordinate the movement to demand the release of all political prisoners in the country.
The forum consisted of one and a half days of a plantón (protest camp) and a more intimate hours-long meeting to create a plan of action for a nation-wide struggle to free political prisoners. The weekend ended with a march demanding unconditional release of all political prisoners through Oaxaca City to the military base/prison where Oaxacan political prisoners are held.
Mexico has a rich history of struggle for the release of prisoners of conscience and the presentation of disappeared persons alive. During the Dirty War in 1969-1988, for example, Mexico had 788 documented cases of disappeared persons. This large number of compañeros who were missing or imprisoned instead of organizing in the streets had a negative impact on the movement. In response, collectives and organizations organized to demand the unconditional freedom of all of their political prisoners, forcing the federal government to pass an amnesty law in 1978. Many amnesty laws also exist at the state level.
These amnesty laws are always completely insufficient because most political prisoners are not imprisoned for sedition or rebellion, but rather invented charges of drug possession, kidnapping, or murder. This meant the grand majority of political prisoners are not released under the terms of amnesty. Even more politically problematic, “amnesty” has its roots in the Greek word for “forgetting,” and amnesty laws all over the world have honored the true meaning of the word: in order to receive amnesty, political prisoners must forget about the injustices they have suffered and never seek reparations or punishment for those responsible for their imprisonment. In other words, amnesty does not equal justice. However, Mexican activists forced a painfully corrupt, brutal one-party dictatorship to pass an amnesty law, tacitly admitting that it did in fact have so many political prisoners that it merited a special law to free them rather than handling their cases one-by-one. This is an incredible testament to the power and possibilities of a sustained prisoner solidarity movement.
They're all political prisoners
In order to create a viable movement in the United States for political prisoners' freedom, its important to define the term “political prisoner.” Whether or not it's explicitly stated, there is a prevailing opinion among the US left that some political prisoners are more worthy of solidarity and struggle than others. For example, Mumia Abu-Jamal maintains his innocence in a Philadelphia police officer's death, so he is imprisoned on purely political grounds and merits marches and civil disobedience for his freedom. Environmental activist Daniel McGowan, on the other hand, admitted that he committed a crime: arson. His support committee consists mainly of his friends and family, and there aren't “Millions for McGowan” marches demanding his freedom.
In addition to activists who were railroaded through the courts as result of their lawful political activity, those who commit crimes as part of the struggle are also political prisoners. As Atenco political prisoner Pedro Rivero puts it, “The ruling class' laws don't respect us, so why should we respect their laws?” So-called “eco-terrorists” break the law because they're doing what they think will best help protect us and future generations. Whether or not their actions make a difference, and whether or not we believe what they did was the most effective tactic, they did it for us and our children. For that reason, Rivero says of Mexican prisoners who have indeed broken the law, “We demand their freedom. Give us a list of your political prisoners [in the United States] and we'll demand their freedom, too.”
Changing the rules of the game
Like many struggles in the United States, activists allow the government to restrict, weaken, and distract political prisoner freedom movements with laws that define the terms of struggle. As long as the movement continues to play by the government's rules when it comes to political prisoners, relying on the state's courts and judges to carry out its version of justice, activists will always lose. Arrested activists can't avoid the court system, but we can't allow it to dictate our struggle for our prisoners' freedom, either. Political prisoners and allies go through the court system to expose its contradictions and injustices, but not to win their freedom. The key to beating the system, Pedro Rivero argues, is to make political prisoners “uncomfortable” for the government—too uncomfortable for it to continue to deny our compañeros their freedom.
Anarchists in Ireland have had amazing success in this endeavor. Since 2000, activists from all over Ireland have come together in Rossport for a protest camp to oppose a Shell gas project that residents say would harm their environment and way of life. Five activists were arrested for their involvement in this stunningly successful camp. Anarchists from the Workers Solidarity Movement mobilized in their defense, planning protests and marches, covering buildings with “Free the Rossport 5” graffiti, and blockading Shell Oil buildings and work sites. Activists in other countries protested at Irish embassies and consulates. Importantly, their protests always demanded the Rossport 5's freedom and termination of the Shell gas project, and protests to free the Rossport 5 more often than not targeted Shell holdings even though the Irish government imprisoned the five activists. Activists used the Rossport 5 in their protests against Shell to raise awareness and righteous anger against the gas project. It became unbearably embarrassing to continue to hold the Rossport 5 as prisoners, so after 94 days in jail they were released at Shell's request. Irish anarchists discovered at future protests against immigrant deportations that the police were under orders to not arrest any activists participating in the blockades, presumably to avoid further embarrassment over Ireland's lack of democracy and political liberties. Despite street skirmishes between anarchists and police at deportation sites, there were no arrests during the blockades.
In addition to taking the state off the offensive and putting it on the defensive, making political prisoners unbearably uncomfortable gives the movement a viable option for working outside of the government's legal system. It offers hope for jailed activists like Leonard Peltier who have exhausted all legal options. These prisoners are effectively abandoned by the movement under the false assumption that there is nothing more that can be done to win their freedom. But Pedro Rivero argues that, “To say to a political prisoner, 'Well, I was there with you during your trial and we did everything we could, but we lost and now it's over,' is to abandon those who selflessly fought for us.” The fact is that the government's laws were never meant to provide a “fair trial” for political prisoners. They were written to imprison them and repress movements for genuine justice, something that Peltier and indigenous peoples all over the world understand all too well.
A national plan of action to free all political prisoners
Because the US lacks a culture of formalized, organized, consistent support for political prisoners and a struggle to free them, we have to start from where we are, and that means starting small. Rivero argues that the first step is to create a list of all the country's political prisoners and make them part of our organizations' work. After all, prisoners don't cease to be an active part of the struggle once they are jailed. On the contrary—as Irish anarchists have demonstrated—they become symbols of the injustices we fight against. In our struggle to free our political prisoners, we must also raise the flag of the causes they fought for before their arrests.
It's necessary to cultivate a movement within movements to free our political prisoners as we continue to demand justice for the causes they fought for. In other words, the anti-war movement needs to organize to end the war, but at the same time it needs to demand the freedom of its many political prisoners. Just like the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) leaves honorary seats in their assemblies for their political prisoners and the Zapatistas invite disappeared persons to participate in their encuentros, our political prisoners are still a part of our struggle.
To say that political prisoners are always a part of the struggle means that we can't stop struggling until they are free. If the government knows that activists will stage an annual protest or only protest outside court hearings, then it knows it can wait us out, and our prisoners will never be free. Mariana de las Selvas Gomez, a political prisoner of the Atenco uprising, emphasizes that it was through the endless efforts of activists on the outside that she was finally freed after two years of imprisonment. “Despite the disappearances, the assassinations, the arrests...the struggle continued. The daily plantón and the protests to free the remaining sixteen Atenco political prisoners will continue as long as they're imprisoned.” And the Mexican government knows this.
Organizing within social justice movements for political prisoners' freedom goes beyond liberating prisoners and making movements whole again. It also presents an opportunity to radicalize and mobilize more legally compliant parts of the movement who still believe that justice is possible within the law. As Dan Berger points out in “Building a Political Prisoner Support Movement” in the June 2006 Left Turn, “Working to free political prisoners goes hand in hand with exposing the façade that the US is a country where injustice is minimal and solved through electoral politics: one point necessitates the other.” For this reason, we must work to free all political prisoners in the US: not just anarchist prisoners, not just people imprisoned against their will, but also people who having knowingly handed themselves over to the police or military in acts of civil disobedience and fully comply with the US legal system, such as SOA Watch or Catholic Worker activists. It presents an opportunity to demonstrate that the law won't liberate us; it will just repress us and our movements, so we must find another way to achieve our political goals and freedom for our political prisoners.
To fight the law and win without being constricted by the law, we must assure that no one, not activists, not the public, and certainly not the government, forgets that political prisoners exist and languish in our country's prisons. We have an unlimited supply of tactics at our disposal: dances, concerts, marches, movie screenings, protests, encampments, rallies, denouncements, declarations, forums, conferences, book discussions, graffiti, art and photography exhibitions, visits to political prisoners, street blockades... the possibilities are endless. Political prisoners of the Atenco uprising, for example, recently made prominent headlines in Mexico's nationally distributed newspaper La Jornada through the largest music festival ever held in San Salvador Atenco. Thousands of young people turned out for a ska concert with nationally-known bands like Antidoping to demand the release of Atenco's political prisoners.
Luckily, US activists don't have to start from scratch in the struggle to free our political prisoners. Pedro Rivera notes, “We've seen that there are already actions for political prisoners in your country, both for your political prisoners and for ours. These actions just need to be more formalized” and part of a long-term struggle to realistically demand the impossible: immediate and unconditional freedom for all of our political prisoners.