The annual National Jericho Conference to support political prisoners in the US was held on May 25-26 in Boston, Massachusetts. The small but intense gathering brought together community organizers and activists from near and far.
Ethiopia Belay of Portland, Oregon told TMO, “I joined Jericho because I can’t imagine living in a world where fighting for freedom and justice results in your freedom being taken away... All these people were fighting for their people, for all people, for me. Their work paved the way for our own work as activists.”
The civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s was crushed by government spying, assassination and imprisonment of the leadership. Activists today face similar threats, but there is no longer a community standing together. Individualism has caused the movement to degenerate into a “workshop seminar culture, remiss of infrastructure,” said Jericho co-chair Jihad Abdulmumit, who largely presided over the conference.
“There is no movement anymore. Unless we build it. Don’t know how to talk? Learn it. Study what we’re about. Learn what you are about. Then talk to people... We are each others’ responsibility,” said Abdulmumit.
“We are living in an age where they can detain you without trial, where they can arrest you for speaking, for associating with the wrong people. If they come for me today they’ll come for you tomorrow. Those who stand silent while others are incarcerated for their political beliefs don’t deserve freedom themselves,” said Ray Luc Levasseur, who spent 20 years in Marion and Florence ADX for his involvement with United Freedom Front.
Dozens of political prisoners from the Civil Rights era lost their lives behind bars. Jalil Muntaqim of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) has spent the past 39 years in solitary confinement inside Attica Prison. David Gilbert from the Weather Underground is maintaining spiritual calm living out his life sentence. Former Black Panther Veronza Bowers served out his 30 year sentence but on the day of his release nearly ten years ago, was slapped with the new “terrorism” designation and remains imprisoned, despite model behavior. Some activists, like Lefty Gilday, have died in prison. Jericho empowers people to make sure these aging warriors don’t die alone, to work for their release, and failing that, to demand that their body be returned to friends and family for burial.
“Prison is social death. As long as we talk about them and remember them, they are not dead,” said Ahmad Rahman, associate professor of African and African-American History at the University of Michigan Dearborn, who spent nearly 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, because of his organizing work with the Black Panthers. He also believes it is necessary for social justice advocates to revise their tactics, because what worked in previous decades is ineffective now.
Rahman spoke to TMO about his concern that Muslim prison chaplains are being hired by the government to recruit informers. “These Arabs have developed a reputation of yearning badly to be recognized as equally white with the prison guards and administrators. This makes them identify more closely with these non-Muslims in opposition to the ‘black criminals’ they were hired to serve... After 911 especially, the federal and state law enforcement agencies have sought to use them in prisons to "protect national security" from the ‘Islamic threat.’”
Several former political prisoners and family members of political prisoners were in attendance at the conference, including Sharmin Sadaquee, the sister of Ehsanul Shifa Sadaquee, who was kidnapped in Bangladesh and is serving a 17 year sentence. The new baby daughter of Black Panther alum Ashanti Alston was applauded as a symbol of hope for the future. Also inspiring hope were students from Youth Against Mass Incarceration, who work to raise the political awareness of communities affected by the prison system.
“These young people are the answer to our prayer!” exclaimed Sheila Hayes, the wife of Robert Seth Hayes, who is serving a life sentence due to his involvement with the Black Panther Party. She said that for a prisoner, knowing that there are people out there who support you makes a huge difference, especially young people who learn about the huge sacrifices of the Civil Rights era and who say, “I appreciate that you fought for my rights before you even knew me.” Hayes loves that her husband walks proudly and without shame, knowing that he fought a government that was wrong.
Sheila Hayes married Robert Seth Hayes five years ago while visiting him in prison. “I’ve been happy ever since!” she told TMO, glowing. She pledged to her husband, “I know you are not going anywhere, but you don’t have to worry because I am not going anywhere!”
Hayes is concerned about the ailing health of the 65 year old prisoner who suffers from diabetes, neuropathy in his legs, and a broken finger, and has not received adequate medical attention. He was recently found passed out in a diabetic coma in his cell. Hayes calls the prison regularly to demand they take care of him.
Paulette Dauteuil, who has been an activist since the Vietnam War, told TMO, “These men are people I met on the street. As a single mother who had never been arrested, it became my responsibility to take care of the prisoners - visiting, providing material support, helping out family members, and it became my responsibility to organize white people and educate them about political struggle... It is my duty to support Muslim political prisoners who have been framed by the government as much as these men who have been inside for a long time, because we cannot allow the government to do this to people.”
Dauteuil moderated a discussion on the deteriorating health conditions of several other long term political prisoners and the need for the public to lobby aggressively for their release. Mutulu Shakur had a stroke last February. Abdul Maumin Khabir is suffering respiratory failure. Thomas Manning has not been able to walk for three years due to inadequate treatment of a knee infection. A damaged shoulder prevents him from wheeling his wheelchair. Anthony Jalil Bottom, the first political prisoner to ever submit a petition to the UN in 1976 has suffered a stroke. Mondo We Langa needs an oxygen tank, and Attorney Lynn Stewart, who represented Shaykh Omar Abdul Rahman, and who was jailed for giving a press conference about the his innocence, has Stage 4 breast cancer, which is spreading to her lungs.
According to a new report by the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, the federal Bureau of Prisons could save taxpayer money and reduce overcrowding if it better manages a program for the “compassionate release” of inmates who are dying or facing other extraordinary circumstances. However, this process requires that the Bureau of Prisons director appeals to the original sentencing judge for permission to release the prisoner! This is impossible without intense public pressure.
Former BLA political prisoner Kazi Toure who did 10 years of time commented, “If we can’t get Lynn Stewart out - a white woman who is not charged with any violent crime - who can we get out?”
Kate Bonner Jackson of the Tarek Mehanna Defense Committee said, “The long haul is harder than mobilizing people to attend a trial,” as it involves teaching community members how to avoid becoming victims of the system themselves. One of the first things we must encourage people to do is to stop using the word terrorist,” advised Jackson. This word “delegitimizes the people’s struggle and is used to repress us.”