Against Prisons by Catherine Baker
This text is a talk which was given by Catherine Baker at the Abolitionist Congress in Amsterdam in June, 1985. We are reprinting it because we think it raises a lot of important questions about what it would really mean to abolish prisons and justice. Nevertheless, we have quite a few criticisms of it which we put forward in our reply on page 40. Catherine Baker has written several novels and is the author of two books denouncing obligatory schooling: Insoumission à l'école obligatoire (Barrault, 1985), and Les cahiers au feu (Barrault, 1988). She can be contacted by writing to: Catherine Baker, 25 boul. de Belleville, 75011 Paris, France.
We are living in a cynical time, when things have become simplified as far as prisons are concerned. The days when we could imagine that convicts would "become better" are over. No one dares to adopt this discourse, and even the stupidest penologists and the journalists who echo such nonsense recognize that even if the learning forced upon a few very rare prisoners gives them the means to better express their desires, how much more beneficial it would be if it was given to the same exceptional cases outside prison.
Today it can be said aloud that dungeons are dungeons, cages are cages, and that nothing can be done about those who are locked in, since the main thing is not to do them good but that offenders be banished inside the national borders. They are purely and simply suppressed. This is why short prison sentences appear inept and totally meaningless.
Long prison sentences, on the contrary, correspond perfectly to a collective desire to murder. We eliminate bothersome people, like any crook would. If the death penalty has disappeared in some countries, it was because it was too exceptional. It was not that death itself seemed indecent, but all the fuss that was made about it. Even those who call themselves revolutionaries always calmly imagine death for the enemies of their freedom; from the army general to the terrorist, through the perpetrator of a hold-up and the policeman, everyone agrees with the saying "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."
The death of those who prevent us from living has never bothered anyone, provided people don't make a fuss about it. If the citizens of Philadelphia expressed their discontent in May 1985, it was not because the police dropped an incendiary bomb on a house full of people whom the neighbors had denounced for living too squalidly, but because in doing so, they destroyed part of the neighborhood.
So prison is the ideal kind of death, because it eliminates en masse those whom society could only physically kill in very small numbers. It economizes emotion.
However there is an enormous problem, a fundamental problem that makes this eliminatory system inadequate for modern society. Apart from those who commit suicide (who therefore take "the law" into their own hands), the rest, in most countries, eventually get out of jail.
This is not the place to analyze how we have arrived at this aberration, but prison only misses its vocation by a hair's breadth: the death it dispenses only lasts a few years or decades. Prison confinement seldom takes its logic to its conclusion, if only because society must recognize a scale of prison sentences that corresponds to its own scale of values. In emotional terms, crime has a monetary value: cheating on your wife is not punishable by law, whereas cheating your business partner makes you liable to be brought to trial; "self-defence" is "legitimate" when policemen confront thieves, but not the other way around; killing in order to steal is more serious than killing out of anger; after all, you would be sentenced to a longer term for stealing twenty million dollars than for stealing one million. These are all common examples of the commercial value that judges attribute to offences.
So prisoners get out. Imprisonment will, at the very least, have got them "riled up". No sensible person could stand the thought of living with people who have been deliberately driven to anguish and made violent and enraged. So not only does prison not protect "decent people" from criminals, it daily releases delinquents who are labelled and provoked as such into unimprisoned society. It is absolutely mistaken to think that prisons make anyone feel secure. The well-being in a few people's minds that sometimes results from the existence of prisons does not correspond to a desire for security at all, but of one for vengeance. What they want is not prison but punishment, and this is why they are not at all opposed to prison abolition as long as prisons are replaced by "something better".
Public opinion does not exist; it simply hides the pressure groups that the media echo: thus, little by little, the viewpoint of a few administrators is taken up in the media to the effect that prison is useless, and above all that it is out of date: it is not a good investment. During the riots of May 1985 in France, newspapers that were considered the most reactionary asked the question which is itself the subject of this Congress, and which the Parisien Libéré, for example, placed on the front page in big print: "It is true that prison is useless, but what should it be replaced with?"
Thus, prison abolition follows the trend of history. There is no doubt that questioning the merits of prison has been widespread during the last ten years, not just among "specialists" (criminologists, sociologists, educators and psychologists), but l also among their usual outlets (journalists and politicians).
It is important to be aware that this Congress is modern. We are apparently slowly reaching a stage where prison will be eliminated in 80% of all cases, for which alternative measures are being sought. For the remaining 20% considered dangerous, the eliminatory aspect is strengthened, either by inventing "non-traumatic" death penalties (death by injection), or by actually imprisoning delinquents for life, or by classifying them as mentally ill people who either can or cannot be returned to society cured and calmed down. The agreement that is being reached regarding the need to begin the abolition of prisons with that of short prison sentences takes little notice of this affirmation's immediate corollary, which consists of imprisoning the remaining 20% (or 30% or 3%; one can imagine the kind of bargaining the figures will be the subject of) under the heading of "dangerous". As scapegoats and symbols these people would be the playthings of a sinister mise en scène that would be even more hate-filled than today's. One cannot consider freeing minor offenders without implying that offenders that are considered serious must not be freed.
When there is talk of reducing prison terms, once again it is to "soften the punishment", to make the prison sentence "more bearable". But we should question the absurdity of wanting to reduce the suffering that is inflicted precisely by the justice system.
Reformists, whether they are animated by mere profitability or by so-called humanitarian reasons, have in common their modern outlook. It is reformism that allows prisons to endure. Today, making prisons "more liveable" means making them better adapted. Not better adapted to people, however, but better adapted to our times. Modernization of punishment can only be carried out because charitable souls and enlightened minds take the time to think of a modern way of punishing.
Whence the idea that an alternative to imprisonment must be found.
Others, we hope, will critique the system of fines or "freely accepted" forced labor.
We shall limit ourselves to observing that such punishments are as old as the hills, and that their modern aspect is only due to their cynical nature.
Alternative solutions, not to punishment but to judgement, seem more interesting.
It has been said of "negotiations" between the victims and perpetrators of misdemeanor offences that they are to prison what diplomacy is to war.
As abolitionists, we are aware that, if prisons are to be suppressed, there must be a wish to avoid any judicial apparatus or sanctions. We also acknowledge that it is as desirable to look for conciliation from the victim as from the offender.
Nevertheless, we are not sure whether either the offender or the victim will want a friendly arrangement. Indeed, the non-offender, a priori, does not expect to begin "conciliation" to find an arrangement that enables him to accept social rules. Will the offender, who does not accept the whole game, be willing to come to terms and collaborate with or fraternize with the enemy? (We are obviously not talking about the victim here, but the whole social apparatus of support for the victim).
Therefore we are posing the question of this system and the systemization of this conciliation. Who would be the conciliators? Reconciliation professionals? Psychologists? Volunteers? What interests will they defend?
We reject any kind of confinement. The hyper-policed life we are offered, in which people arrogate the right to understand what caused us to act, bears too much resemblance to the confinement of social control as it already exists in certain monstrously over-developed countries. Social workers, psychologists and doctors who think it is their duty to mend the holes in the fabric of the community do so not out of a wish to preserve their own happiness, but for the survival of systems for which they wish to be the maintenance teams.
On the other hand, we can quite accept and hope that every person might count on people who would associate with him to help him resolve a conflict situation, provided this help be punctual, unique and individualized, and this is why we mistrust all conciliation procedures, which would just be a further institutionalization of relationships. For we all especially suffer from not being able to create relationships that are not immediately reduced to social machinery.
Conflicts are not handled by those who experience them but through so-called "objective" legal procedures, which in reality make objects out of all of us.
We do not need to vent our indignation or judgements on society. Clearly, some actions or behavior upset and scandalize us, but we do not consider ourselves "rewarded for our troubles" by the creation of a machine that is no more interested in what is particular about my opinion than what is particular about the perpetrator's opinion of his action. Justice is done in our name, that is, in place of us. But if my place can be taken I no longer exist. The problem of Justice can never be brought up without looking each person's uniqueness in the face: murderer, victim or judge, no one can put himself in another's place.
The question "What is to be done with criminals?" is the very type of question that turns "criminals" into abstract beings separated from their own being; alleged criminals are only a tiny part of themselves: they are not individuals, that is, "people who cannot be divided without being destroyed".
The above question, which seems to fascinate crowds so much, must be completely reconsidered. It is not a matter of knowing what an abstract social entity can do to another abstract social entity, but to see what each person (myself, yourself) should do when faced with someone who attacks him (myself, yourself). The only worthwhile question is knowing how I myself can be neither a criminal nor a victim.
By far the worst danger lying in wait for us is the total loss of our uniqueness. As abolitionists, we want to repeat that we are against imprisonment, against all prison systems, because there is a monstrous fraud involved. In the name of all and of each one of us we are judged innocent or guilty, our actions are swallowed into the social and everything we are is only taken into account after this digestion, where we are no longer ourselves but an undefined element of the only possible whole, the "social body"; each person is sent back to his assigned place as a functional member: murderer, journalist, woman, bandit, child, etc....
"What is to be done with criminals?" is a criminal question, a question that perpetuates the trap we want to avoid falling into, the trap that consists of perpetually negating the individual.
If a terrorist who had just placed a bomb in this room was discovered here right now, we all might ask ourselves, "What will we do, he and I?," but already the sentence "What will we do to each other?" would seem shocking.
So how should we act in an emergency to escape death? The one a bomber intended for me, but also the one I would be condemned to by any vision that would make an interchangeable unit out of me, one that would kill me as an individual?
We are not saying that this society is poorly fashioned and that after the revolution things will be better. Thus, revolutionaries who ask themselves how the problem of delinquency could be approached in a future society continue to suppose as an unquestionable fact that there must be a system to regulate relationships, to allow their social machine to function. This judicial system actually exists today, and putting red, green, or black judges in the place of white ones can be of no interest to abolitionists.
The idea that in an intelligent economy, technical progress could bring about such satisfaction that no one would want to oppose such a golden age is outdated. Moreover, it is clear that anarchists can no longer advocate banishment without being absurdly hypocritical, since no society can imagine including anti-social people without wanting to socialize them in one way or another.
To the question, "What is to be done with those whom society will not be able to recuperate, and whom it therefore considers the lowest kind of garbage?", we think there is only one solution: to stop wanting to socialize people. What should torture be replaced with? What should prisons be replaced with? What should trials be replaced with? With nothing. These three questions remain interchangeable, because all of them assume that what does not bend must be broken. We completely refuse to ask ourselves, "How shall we break people?" The opposite of this, which we make our own, consists of asking ourselves, "How shall people not bend?" In this respect, delinquency concerns us. It interests us in that it expresses something irrecuperable, not in its forms, which nearly always bear the imprint of the most appalling normal social relations (sexism, violence, leader worship, money worship, etc....).
As abolitionists, we have other ambitions than maintaining social systems of any type. We do not want isolation; this goes without saying, otherwise what would we be doing here? We want to think with others about ways of living with others outside pre-existing systems. It is the community that secretes isolation. In any cogent notion of community - we must repeat this - each person appears to be no more than an infinitesimal part of the only complete being: the community. Man, then, always lacks others instead of freely, in his uniqueness, desiring others. We believe that each individual constitutes a whole. His desire to meet other "wholes" just expresses his freedom, not a kind of gregarious determinism. The abolitionist movement is not a militant movement; we have no cause to defend, the prisoners' any more than other ones. We are struggling neither for them nor even with them, but for ourselves. We are neither humanists nor leftists; we don't want to work for more humane prisons. Prison is only our affair - and even then! - is just a part of our affair when we are imprisoned. Some abolitionists are imprisoned today, but each person, wherever he is, struggles against his confinement and against a social organization that can only logically lead to punishment and elimination. From this it follows that we are not "outside contacts" who, for example, would serve the prisoners by circulating information. Today, prisoners or not, we simply want our individual freedom. If I were in the prisoners' place, perhaps I would fight for improved prison conditions, but I am here, outside jail for the time being, and I speak from the outside. (When I say "we", then, I know that only abolitionist prisoners and non-prisoners, that is, a very small number of individuals, recognize themselves in this "we").
We cannot bear being locked up, in prison or elsewhere. We cannot bear being deprived of freedom. For us on the outside, prison is no ordinary threat: it is what harms us, not just because it is the symbol of all of our confinements, but also because it is the real conclusion of an unbearable logic of normalization.
Individuals are judged not in conformity (guilty) or in conformity (innocent), but in any case, judged. We say that if we agree to be assessed, we deprive ourselves of our judgement, our thoughts, our being. The tragic division between the innocent and the guilty, those in conformity with the system or not, destroys all of us. Anything that reinforces this gap is antagonistic to us; this is why we cannot feel concerned by reformist struggles that aim to make prisons less painful. For us, abolitionists inside and abolitionists outside, it is the very idea of prison and trials that suffocates us. We know there are prisoners who are trying to arrange society in such a way that its punishments are acceptable. They are our enemies, as are all those who are determined to restrain us in a life that we cannot make our own. Prison is an ideal angle from which to attack our own individual confinement. We recognize ourselves in prisoners' refusal precisely when they revolt against confinement. Because we are outside we know that we are imprisoned inside walls of constraint. But we cannot take up on our behalf any revolt that intends to reproduce social relations in prison that might still be missing, for, contrary to a widespread idea prison socializes prisoners as much as it can (respect for hierarchies, authorized kinds of leisure activity, blackmail at work, privation and privatization of inter-individual relationships, etc...). Prison is not a disease of our society at all; there is nothing monstrous about it: it is the height of society, the height of all societies, of all community organization of social relations. The media, the police, the justice system, but also education, morality and culture - everything aims to maintain the cohesiveness of the whole by force. Prison punishment is necessary for order and order is necessary for society. We could never imagine a society without order, and order without prison punishment. We have all internalized this so well - reinforcing the bars and guillotines in our minds to the point of going mad with anguish because of it - that the State keeps us under its thumb quite "naturally," because we are, in reality, "irresponsible". But the State is only a machine serving something more terrifying than itself: behind the State there is a will, a human will. Man is there with his laws. Down with Man.
We are men who are in revolt against Man. That animal is a social animal. Are we happy about it?
We want to abolish Justice. Does that mean the abolition of laws, and therefore of any kind of society? Because laws are undoubtedly essential to life in a society. No one doubts this: neither do we. The law guarantees each person's rights. It forbids or permits, but in any case it is imposed from the outside. To speak of an inner law would be meaningless. The members of any society, bourgeois, socialist, communist, anarchist or some other kind, have common interests to defend; they have to envisage a common response to anything that can threaten it; they must devote themselves to considering, in common, the question of external enemies and war, or internal enemies and delinquency. From a societal or community point of view, logic requires an organized defence, a judgement shared by the whole, a punishment. Some think that Justice will not be good Justice as long as it remains separate from the people; they want a Justice that emanates from the community. As far as we are concerned, judgement can only remain individual. Even if the judgement of several individuals on some event were unanimous, it would not be communal and could not be generalized. On the contrary, the characteristic feature of a judgement that asserts itself as being one of the whole community is that it no longer belongs to anyone.
By saying "We have every right", abolitionists abolish laws, for each person becomes his own sole reference. If there are acts we do not commit it is because we do not want to commit them. That's all. Forbidding rape is of interest to no one. On the other hand, each person will no doubt find it of interest to consider means of being neither a rapist nor a rape victim. Recognizing that everyone has a right to rape me or hack me to pieces expresses my awareness that laws can in no way protect me. It is as aberrant to say, "If killing was permitted everyone would kill" as it is to say, "Since killing is forbidden I will not be killed". We feel secure with people we trust and no law in the world will change that. We can only be of interest to each other if judging people is reduced to a minimum; we need to rethink things starting from our personal viewpoint. Life would not be any more barbarous without laws. It is within a society with laws that people kill and rape; it is particularly in a society with laws that "decent people" are ready to lynch or flay those they assume are guilty of a crime that they find disturbing. Moreover, it is from this viewpoint that advocates of prison abolition are considering creating refuges for delinquents who refused conciliation. But protecting and punishing the criminal are two sides of the same thing: it is a matter of assigning the criminal to a place. He and the victim are locked into roles that were defined earlier and independently of them. And again we lapse into this very, very old idea that everyone must stay in his place if we want the system to function. The perpetuation of this system, of this organized set of relations, still remains each person's sole aim. But this sole aim is always outside of oneself.
The definition of law is "A mandatory rule imposed on man from the outside". It is obviously because they are outside us that we reject all laws, including, of course, the law of the strongest: we are opposed to force so long as the force in question seeks to restrain us. So it is useless to rehash that delinquency, as such, embodies none of our aspirations: competition, sexism and rackets are laws that we fight, all the more so because society makes them its own, condemning only what is criminal, as Thierry Lévy has shown very well in his book Le crime en toute humanité because it is not on a par with the crime that society indulges in. It is true that for its survival, society can only integrate all individual impulses that pass through its nets by labelling them delinquency and locking up delinquents; making people believe through the media that what is dangerous for it is dangerous for everyone enables the systems we are familiar with to redirect to their own ends what is very often only disgust, anger or weariness at the outset.
It plugs up the cracks with respect to any behavior that opposes it and could thus appear deviant or revolutionary. In doing so, its victory restores a new dynamism to it and allows it to further enlarge its field of activity. (Our optimism consists in affirming that only what is recuperable is recuperated. The irrecuperable is possible. For individuals cannot totally identify with society; they know that they realize what is best in themselves outside of society - through friendship, love, art, brilliant thoughts, etc. - and that every individual aspires to what makes him a unique being).
So society tries to socialize crime with trials, and then criminals with prison. It monopolizes every person's acts because there is in effect a rivalry between owners: myself and the community, to which it is tragically said that "I belong". As soon as they are carried out our acts escape us: if they are judged "anti-social" they are punished, and independently, of course, of ideas we might have about good or evil; the insane, the rebellious, and alleged criminals are all locked up. Being locked up in a prison, a camp or a hospital is only the culmination of a confinement apart from ourselves that all of us suffer. As abolitionists, we want the individuals in question to reappropriate their acts, whether or not they are called crimes. Crime does not exist as such. If there are indeed painful circumstances and horrible acts that are inflicted on us, we ask nothing more than to try to avoid them by considering, alone or with a few others, means of protecting ourselves from any infringement on our mental or physical integrity. We note that progress is a notion that is absolutely devoid of meaning: we think, therefore, that we must break free of a way of thinking that has only led us to dead ends. It is not the Law but freedom that can allow individuals to live in harmony by forming relationships that start from themselves, not from the social relationships they are forced into today.
We have been stripped of everything and made strangers to our own lives. We cannot bear it. The word "revolution" has been confiscated by politicians, so we will use it sparingly, which is no problem, but we certainly hope that our ideas are taken for what they are: a concrete change. So when we affirm that we do not recognize anyone's power to judge us or our acts, we are really abolishing the infamous social consensus, which is just based on turning oneself over to the community. Men have never broken with the idea that they had to give up their singularity for the benefit of the human species. On the contrary, not only would we like to consider ourselves specific individuals, we would like to consider as such every person who wants to be so. As abolitionists, we behave in such a way that criminals and others can reappropriate their acts, because we want to live among people who think about their lives and do not abandon them to social authority. The idea of society does not go without saying. The abolitionist movement is one sign of this, among others.
Translated by Doug Imrie and Michael William
Making An Omelette Without Breaking Eggs
Catherine Baker says, promisingly, "we [prison abolitionists] are neither leftists nor humanists". Unfortunately, the whole article is shot through with a humanistic moral sentiment based on recognising the intrinsic worth ("uniqueness") of every individual. The most important moral principle that she asserts is that of "we mustn't ever lock anyone up" ("We reject any kind of confinement"). This obviously has a great deal in common with pacifism: "we mustn't ever be violent".
It's easy to see why people adopt these principles in capitalist society. It's true that one of the things which is disgusting about this society is the fact that it consigns millions of people to prisons, mental hospitals, concentration camps and all the rest of it. It's also disgusting that violence pervades all areas of life and that millions of people are murdered every year. Because capitalism is an inherently antagonistic society, particularly in class terms, there is such a thing as the "thin end of the wedge". It can literally be true that if, for example, a state is allowed to execute a child-murderer today it will execute a political activist tomorrow. Hence the temptation to condemn the Death Penalty, any Death Penalty. But it logically follows from adopting absolute principles that if we advocate locking anyone up, or beating them, or killing them, we become the same as the state. This is exactly what Baker says when she amalgamates army generals, policemen, "terrorists", armed robbers and revolutionaries because they all agree that "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs". Similarly, she amalgamates violence with sexism, leader worship and money worship.
What is clearly reactionary about this approach is its classlessness. Baker's position implies that there is no significant difference between the state putting workers in jail for going on strike illegally and workers locking their boss in his office until their demands are met.
To this kind of moralism we can only reply: why should we respect everyone's individual uniqueness? In any case, if rioters were to kill a man for wearing a police uniform it is not they who have turned him into an object - the uniform and the Law have already turned him into an object, a killer robot which needs deactivating.
Baker correctly identifies Justice and exchange. One of the strong points of the article is her discussion of Justice and the precondition for exchange: namely turning human beings into interchangeable units stripped of their individuality. She likes to rail against any mention of "society" or even "community", but it is clear that what she is talking about is an abstract society, a society of equal citizens. In this sense, she is not just criticising Justice (fair exchange) but any system of Law which the principles of Justice might be applied to. What she doesn't see is that her beloved individual freedom is the basis for such an abstract society, just as freedom of trade creates a world of interchangeable objects.
We don't intend to reject individualism in favour of collectivism - after all, "The reality which communism creates is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals" (Marx, German Ideology). But we do reject the extreme individualist fear of collective organisation which is so common amongst activists. "If there are indeed painful circumstances and horrible acts that are inflicted on us, we ask nothing more than to try to avoid them by considering, alone or with a few others, means of protecting ourselves from any infringement on our mental or physical integrity" - why with just a few others? Why not with lots of others? And why not in an organised and systematic way? This seems to be the central problem with Baker's approach - she doesn't try to make any distinction between judging people as interchangeable, abstract beings and collectively defending ourselves against anti-social behaviour.
Baker says we have "internalised" order. We all tend to think we know what people ought to be like, and explain the deviations from this norm by metaphysical concepts like "internalised", "armoured" and "alienated". But we didn't exist, pristine individuals, before internalising compulsion. How does she know what is really us, and what is merely internalised alien coercion? People really are the way they are. It is not true that liberty is the essence of our being. Liberty, and articles like hers, are products of political events like the French Revolution. We don't believe in the sanctity of human life, or the inherent worth of an individual, reject absolutely submitting one person to the will of another. Why should we?
She attacks the idea that we need laws for society to function. Laws do not prevent violent crimes, and they are not intended to. Anarchists generally encourage groups of working class people to defend themselves against drug dealers or whomever is spoiling their neighbourhood. Logically, she criticises this as incompatible with the extreme respect for the individual which is the basis of anarchism.
Our critique of "class justice" comes from the opposite direction: the class struggle. At its worst, the anarchist position supports the IRA policing of Northern Ireland slums as an example of working-class self-activity. But even at its best, there tends to be an assumption that there is a "normal" working class lifestyle, presumably based on honest work and consumption, which is disturbed by an undisciplined underclass. This ignores the fact that it is this "normal" Reproduction of Daily Life which leads to the tensions in society which express themselves in "anti-social crime". This way of looking at things becomes even more problematic when what the lowlife are involved in is simply some illegal form of business. In American inner-city ghettos drug dealing is often a major sector of the local economy - if it was somehow shut down an awful lot of young kids would be without an income. What would they do if they weren't employed selling drugs? They'd probably go out mugging and burgling. Similar considerations apply to prostitution, another activity said to "spoil" neighbourhoods.
Anti-social crimes such as mugging are overwhelmingly a product of the intensified war of all against all found in particularly poor neighbourhoods. Tackling them cannot be separated from attempts to reduce the level of poverty - in other words, the suppression of anti-social crime is inseparable from the development of social crime, proletarian reappropriation in all its forms. To proceed on any other basis would just mean trying to impose an alternative system of law and order, with all the usual problems associated with this. Community defence brigades would not be paid and would be composed mostly of poor people. This means that they could end up being as corrupt as any police force, with their priorities being determined by whatever back-handers ("sources of revolutionary community taxation") are available. It could well be a case of: "I am a drug dealer, but I only sell cocaine to yuppies from outside the area so here's a donation to your cause, comrades".
It's also hard to see how they would stand aloof from faction fights within the "community". The anarchist solution seems to be that sheer ideological commitment alone is enough - everybody would be so anti-racist, anti-sexist etc. (see the article An Unparalleled Evil? in issue 11 of Taking Liberties) that they wouldn't dream of doing anything anti-social in the name of fighting anti-social crime. But ideological commitment doesn't put food on the table. Organised theft from the bourgeoisie certainly does, and might well draw in those otherwise tempted to steal off their own kind. Historically, the only times that "crime-ridden" neighbourhoods have become safe places to walk about in is during uprisings - in the townships of South Africa this is a well-known, and even documented, phenomenon. The only kind of "community" worth defending is a community of struggle against capital, and it is only through the development of such a community that anti-social acts within the working class can begin to be truly suppressed.
Update, 19 Dec. 1998.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently voted to confirm the death sentence on Mumia. There has been a reawakening of the campaign to save his life. There is a nationwide demo on April 24 1999.
The campaign to save Mumia Abu-Jamal showed that we can have an effect. At the time of writing, he is still in jail, still under sentence of death, but the sentence was postponed because of the protests. Though the media blocked out news of such events as the blockade of the Brooklyn Bridge, the mini-riot in San Francisco and the militant demonstrations around the governors' conference in Burlington, Vermont, the federal and state judicial system certainly took notice of the international campaign of demos, vigils, phone calls, letters and direct action. Mumia looks forward to an appeal against what tens of thousands now know was a blatant frame-up. We won't be satisfied til Mumia is back on the streets, exposing the murdering police of Philadelphia. Keep up the pressure! More information about Mumia's case can be obtained from, among other places, Equal Justice USA, PO Box 5206, Hyattsville, MD 20782.
If there is a number one priority, it is the fight against the judicial system. This is a list of other prisoners and organisations who would benefit from our support. Trivial things like postage stamps make a lot of difference to prisoners, whose income is to say the least limited. Stamps should be sent in a whole book, and at the top of the accompanying letter, you should write "Encl: book of stamps" or what else the letter contains. Most importantly, political prisoners can be helped by knowing that people on the outside are thinking about them. It makes it harder for the authorities to isolate them when they see letters from supporters coming in.
Much of the latest information about prisoners in the USA can be obtained from Raze the Walls, PO Box 22774, Seattle, WA 98122-0774, together with a far more comprehensive list of support organisations. The following advice on writing to prisoners was also extracted from Raze the Walls:
1) Please forget any preconceptions or stereotypes you may have of people in prison. They are no different from people outside of prison.
2) In your first letter, explain a little about why you are writing and ask if the person would like to be writing to you. Introduce yourself, describe yourself, your family, your work, where you live, and also the concern which leads you to write.
3) Feel free to ask questions about prison life, about the person's interests, where they are from, whether they have any appeals in progress, etc..
4) Do not ask right away about "the crime", but let them volunteer that information.
5) It is good to ask questions, because it gives the person something to respond to, but do not ask too many at once especially in the first letter. Let trust build between you, and always try to share as much about yourself as you ask the other person to share.
6) If you feel you will only be able to write, for example, monthly, make this clear to the prisoner. It is important to not promise things that you will not be able to follow through.
7) If you want to send things like books, stamps, stationary, or food, ask first whether the person wants them, whether they will be allowed to enter the prison and how they will need to be sent.
8) The person may ask you to send money. If you feel good about that, then send it. Never feel obliged to respond to a request for money, and always respond honestly. If you do send money, be sure to find out in what form it must be sent, and if you need to be on a special list to send it.
9) You may want to visit this person in addition to writing, that would be great! Just ask him/her whether they want you to visit and what the hours and restrictions are.
10) Save letters from the prisoner as they could be helpful in their appeals process or clemency hearings.
Another useful source of information is Prison Legal News, PO Box 1684, Lake Worth, FL 33460.
Books or donations (US money orders) to Books for Prisoners projects are much appreciated. There is always work to be done, so if you live near one, volunteer.
Books to Prisoners, Box A, 92 Pike St, Seattle, WA 98101.
Books through Bars, New Society Publishers, 4527 Springfield Ave, Philadelphia, PA.
Prison Book Program, 92 Green St., Jamaica Pl, MA 02130.
Prison Reading Project, c/o Paz Press, PO Box 3146 Fayetteville, AR 72702.
Books for Prisoners, Bound Together Books, 1369 Haight St., San Francisco, CA 94117.
Books to Prisoners, 315 Cambie St, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B 2N4.
Information about prisoners and prison struggles in Britain can be obtained from: Taking Liberties, c/o 121 Railton Rd, London, SE24 0LP. Donations are of course solicited.
Katherine Power. In 1970, at the height of the revolutionary class movement which ended the Vietnam war, many people were involved in armed robberies to support the poor, bombings of Officer Training Corps, and so on. Katherine Power was one of them. She and her comrades robbed a bank, and in the process a policeman was fatally injured. For 23 years she lived under false identities, raising a son (now 17) and ended up running a restaurant in Corvallis, Oregon. For whatever reason, in 1993 she decided to bargain with the authorities for her surrender. She got eight to twelve years. One of the conditions her lawyer negotiated was that she serve her time near her family in Oregon. This condition was broken. The latest address we have for her is : c/o MCI-Framingham, PO Box 9007, Framingham, MA 01701-9007.
Jerry Dale Lowe. During the 1993 miners' strike, scab contractor Eddie York was shot dead at Arch Mineral's Ruffner mine in West Virginia. Jerry Lowe was charged with federal firearms violations, and seven other miners were charged with lesser offences. Lowe got 10 years 11 months. The United Mine Workers of America's officials at the scene persuaded the reluctant strikers to give statements to the police without lawyers being present. The union divided the miners, getting some of them to testify against Lowe. The UMWA's president condemned picket-line violence and the union never printed a word about the case, trying to isolate Lowe and the others. Unfortunately, most of Lowe's supporters are icepick-heads who won't reply to letters about the case. Honest information can be obtained from Collective Action Notes, POB 22962, Balto. MD 21203. The latest address we have for Lowe is : c/o South Central Regional Jail, 1001 Center Way, Charleston, West Virginia 25309.
Notwithstanding the above comments about Trots, another political prisoner who should be supported is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, Mark Curtis. He was arrested for rape and burglary on March 4, 1988, and sentenced to 25 years. The charges are ridiculous. He was framed up because he was active in the struggle of meatpackers. More details can be obtained from Mark Curtis Defense Committee, Box 1048, Des Moines, IA 50311.
Julio Wicks #79367 Unit 32B, Parchman, MS 38738, is an important prisoner activist. More details about Julio can be found on the Letters Page. (Julio Wicks has now been released).
Pelican Bay is a notorious modern prison in Northern California, with perspex barriers instead of bars, and a reputation for brutality. With a total population of 3500, Pelican Bay has had 3 prisoners shot dead, 2 of whom were not the ones at whom the screws were aiming. Another 21 prisoners have been hit by gun shots. Pepper spray is also frequently used at point-blank range. Currently various lawsuits are being taken out against the authorities by various prisoners, and even judges have found most of their complaints justified. A highly informative newsletter can be obtained from Pelican Bay Information Project, 2489 Mission St. 28, San Francisco, CA 94110.
Ernie Lotches is a Klamath/Modoc Indian who is currently on death row in Oregon, wrongly convicted of aggravated homicide. On 22 August 1992, Ernie was confronted by an Economic Improvement Department security guard. After being approached and provoked by the security guard's excessive use of force, a gunfight erupted. After being fired on repeatedly Ernie Lotches was forced to return fire. In the armed confrontation the EID security guard was killed. In such a shootout, there is no way a jury could be certain that one of the parties was guilty of first-degree murder, but that is what happened, due to numerous irregularities in the trial, details of which can be obtained from the Ernie Lotches Defense Fund, PO Box 3022, Salem, OR 97302. Ernie Lotches is #3649258 at Oregon State Penitentiary, 2605 State St., Salem, OR 97310.
Can't Jail the Spirit is a list of American left-wing political prisoners, though somewhat out of date. A new edition would be useful. The editors argue against support for "right wing" prisoners. This shows the dangers involved in the terms "left" and "right". Politics is no longer as simple as that, if it ever was. We support those imprisoned after the Waco massacre, as much as the MOVE 9 from Philadelphia, imprisoned after a similar massacre (see article in last issue). We support them both because we don't want the state to get away with murdering or imprisoning whoever it wants. For the same reason, we oppose moral panics, whether by Christians against gays, or liberals against "hate groups".
Can't Jail the Spirit, Biographies of US Political Prisoners, Editorial El Coqui, October 1992. 1671 N. Claremont, Chicago IL 60647.
Michael New is a 22 year old Army Medic. He refuses to go to Bosnia ostensibly because he will not serve under UN rather than US command. In other words, his opposition appears to be right wing, patriotic and populist. But some of the Gulf War refusers objected to the war on what they claimed were religious grounds. We don't agree with black Muslims either. We support opponents of the war machine, virtually regardless of ideology. The Michael New Defense Fund is at PO Box 1136, Crestwood, Kentucky 40014.
EXECUTIONERS FOR EQUALITY
Since the restoration of the death penalty in the USA in 1976, nearly 40% of those grilled in the electric chair, shot by firing squad, or injected with poison by the state have been black. In the interests of equality, Rep. Don Edwards (D-CA) wants to ensure that execution is more evenly applied: "As the Congress prepares to undertake a general restoration and expansion of the federal death penalty, we need to ensure that the procedures are in place to prevent and remedy this kind of racial bias". The noble goal of Equality is taken seriously in America. Sexual inequality in the workplace was combated by reducing men's salaries to bring them in line with women's. Now racism in the execution industry is to be addressed by frying more white people.
The blatantly racist nature of the judicial system is one of the major causes of resistance against it. The biggest prison uprising in the USA for years erupted on 19 October 1995 in response to the refusal of Congress to heed the request of the Sentencing Commission to reduce the enormous disparity between sentences for possession of cocaine powder and crack cocaine. The uprisings started at Talladega in Alabama. At Allenwood, Pennsylvania, 150 inmates tore up the dining hall. In Memphis, according to Reuters, prisoners set fire to housing units. In response, the government ordered 90,000 prisoners to remain in their cells in 70 federal prisons across the nation, with only cold meals, and no visits or phone calls. This provoked the one-day uprising at Greenville, Illinois, which was put down by guards and SWAT police, despite which, the uprisings continued to spread. For example, the prisoners at Lewis Run, Pennsylvania, seized four cell blocks on 24 October.
Crack is the only drug that carries a mandatory federal prison sentence for mere possession. Conviction for possession of five grams of crack guarantees five years without parole, even for first time offenders. In contrast, it takes five hundred grams of powder coke to get the mandatory five years. Crack and powder are different, and arguably, crack is more addictive. But the 100-1 disparity has nothing to do with the medical facts. It is obviously a reflection of the fact that most coke users are white, and most crack users, black. Even the conviction rates reflect the fact this. 88% of those convicted for crack are black, 27% for coke.
The "war on drugs" has nothing to do with cutting down on violence and overdoses. That could only be achieved by legalising the whole business. It has everything to do with keeping the poor divided and easily policed. It is widely believed, with good reason, that the authorities deliberately introduced heroin into communities of resistance in the late sixties (mostly black ghettos, but also hide-outs for draft dodgers like the Haight in San Francisco). Certainly, the CIA is widely involved in the international drug trade, as numerous exposures (Iran/Contra, Noriega, etc.) prove. The ruling class isn't interested in stopping the drug trade, but in encouraging it, making a profit out of it, using it to blackmail addicts into becoming police informants, using the violence and theft as a rationale for military intervention at home and abroad, but most importantly, keeping the poor fighting each other instead of the bosses.
The fact that execution is not primarily intended as a deterrent is illustrated by a recent case in South Carolina. Susan Smith was found guilty of murdering her two young sons, and the prosecution called for the death penalty. This is not because they think it will deter other mothers from killing their children ("I was going to shoot my two, but when I considered the electric chair, I changed my mind. Now, if it was only life imprisonment..."), but because it satisfies the deep rooted need for a fair punishment. What could be more just than a fair exchange, a life for a life? Swayed by sentiment rather than logic, the jury settled for life imprisonment.
The New Bad Guys
The political consequences of the bombing in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995 show how the two sides of the American political system, liberal and conservative, work together. Since the Republican takeover of both houses in November '94, the general trend has been to the right: social spending is being cut, prison building has been increased etc.. This article examines the complementary and simultaneous agenda followed by the liberal wing of the state, reinforcing state power by promoting fear of an imaginary extreme right-wing threat.
Both parties’ law and order policies have been boosted. Republicans have dropped their opposition to gun control in return for Clinton's help in restricting appeals to the death sentence. Meanwhile Congress and the President used the angry aftermath of the bomb to pass a draconian set of anti-terrorism measures, giving the FBI additional powers of investigation, and the President the power to decree any group illegal at will. Congressmen have claimed that some of the unofficial militias supported the bombing. This is an outrageous lie, but as we explain below, there has been an attempt to create a climate in which it could be believed. The National Rifle Association grovelled before the gun-grabbers. The media kept up a barrage of innuendo against the accused, which no jury can be immune to.
We haven't a clue who planted the bomb, nor why. Neither have all the people who have been quick to draw political conclusions from it. We should maintain a sceptical attitude to the prosecution case, as we should whenever the police are under enormous pressure to get someone. "The FBI zeroed in on the two men with remarkable speed" (Oregonian, 22 April 95). Though the worst crime in US history, it doesn’t have much of a long-term significance in itself. It is not part of an ongoing wave of right-wing violence. There have been no more bombings. What is significant is what has been made out of it.
The fact that the government are the main beneficiaries does not mean they did it. Another beneficiary has been the liberal establishment, that is: the liberal wing of the state and its hangers-on. This includes journalists, the publishers of most "alternative" papers, anti-racist politicians, most feminists and some Zionists. Its outer fringes include the publishers of anarchist papers. The role of the liberal left is not just to stir up moral panics in order to strengthen the state ideologically. It also materially helps the pigs. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, spies on people it considers to be "hate groups" and gives the information to the police. The Anti-Defamation League considers any group critical of Israel as anti-Semitic and adds them to the files.
On the basis of a few vague rumours that the alleged bombers may have attended a meeting of one of the militias, an attempt has been made to generate a climate in which "anti-government" sentiment is equated with mass murder. Even verbal opposition was explicitly condemned by Clinton as contributing to the bombing by spreading "hate".
The Southern Poverty Law Center has remarkable foresight. Last year, its director demanded that Attorney General Janet Reno, following her Waco victory, turn her attention to "unorganized militias". Covert Action Quarterly, a Washington DC magazine that claims to oppose the government, was also ahead of the game with a major article on the threat of a fascist uprising in America, published before the Oklahoma tragedy in the Spring '95 issue. On the case of Randy Weaver, the white separatist besieged by the FBI in an Idaho cabin in 1992, Covert Action concedes that "The behavior of federal law enforcement agencies merits criticism": they shot dead Weaver’s 14-year-old son, and killed his wife whilst she held their baby in her arms. This mild rebuke is a mere footnote in a fourteen-page feature, "Angry White Guys With Guns", linking gunnies, militiamen, pro-lifers and Nazis, whom it claims are on the brink of kindling an American fascist movement. These strange bedfellows are considered more dangerous than the Federal Bureau of Immolation and the BATF. Paradoxically, part of Covert Action’s definition of paranoid right wing groups is their tendency to "perceive a global conspiracy in which key political and economic events are manipulated by a small group of elite insiders", exactly the position defended in every issue of Covert Action.
The Village Voice (23 May) attacked the right to bear arms as a wacky idea dreamed up by right-wing extremists. The June issue of the Progressive claims that forming a citizen's army to overthrow the government is "criminally treasonous". In their self-induced hysteria, these liberal democrats forget the Second Amendment and the Declaration of Independence which the US state claims to be based on. Not only did the authors of the Constitution see fit to bar any infringement of the right to bear arms, the colonial upstarts explicitly guaranteed the option of violently overthrowing the government in their founding document. Of course, whatever the constitutional rights, no government will tolerate its own destruction. It was not the right to bear arms that drove the police off the streets of LA in May 92, but the act of bearing arms.
Calling for the rigorous enforcement of laws against paramilitary activity, (p27) the Progressive comes as close to supporting the Waco massacre as you can get without actually saying so. The victims of so much FBI provocation and terror in the not too distant past now support the strengthening of the secret police in the name of anti-terrorism. Remembering this, it condemns attacks on civil liberties... when used against the left. It supports freedom of expression for those who agree with it. As for Presumption of Innocence, the Progressive finds Timothy McVeigh guilty, not only of the bombing but, as if this were not enough, of being a heterosexual (how do they know?) white male. Love and Rage desperately tried to demonstrate that the government is really on the side of the militias, complaining that it has given them airtime with the Waco hearings (L&R Nov/Dec 95). It could hardly add that these hearings were a victory for the liberals, who skilfully manipulated the prejudices of the current political climate by washing Reno's bloody hands with emotive allegations of child abuse, since L&R's politics are part of that climate.
The scare-mongering is not confined to the fringes of the liberal establishment. Here is the New York Times, 30 March, describing the investigations of an abortion clinic: "Planned Parenthood began to uncover a co-mingling of anti-abortion extremists, new world-order paranoids, Waco wackos, Reconstructionist Christians, white supremacists and assault-weapon fanatics in a national paramilitary subculture. Abortion turned out to be merely the come-on issue, designed to attract followers to a rabid, anti-government crusade".
The nearest liberals come to an analysis, as opposed to a panic, is to reduce the arguments of the right to a distorted response to economic hardship. There is a material basis to the right-wing libertarian movement. Over-grazing, logging and mining have damaged the environment so much that powerful interest groups have forced sweeping environmental legislation. Not only environmentalists want to rest the West: hunters, fishermen and the tourist industry need to preserve Nature as a resource. Farmers and loggers have a more immediate need to survive. Small farmers have come into conflict with public land managers. The libertarian right, which denies federal authority to drive cows and chain saws off public land, is, roughly speaking, the political expression of this fight. But fear of the FBI, the DEA and the BATF after Waco is a judicious response to a massacre, not a substitute for complaining about economic hardship. Anti-abortion campaigners are simply people who take the not completely irrational view that an unborn child is a human being to its logical conclusion, a position which is no more (or less) crazy than animal liberationism. In other words, economic interest explains people’s behaviour, except when it doesn’t.
It's important to see the target of the current campaign as reasoning people, rather than the goose-stepping fanatics portrayed in the demonology of liberalism. You have to understand something in order to defeat it. The new McCarthyism of the left is not aimed at demolishing the more conservative section of American society, but at diabolising it. A discourse which contains old FBI newspeak words like "hate groups" is calculated to advance its promoters, not solve the problems which led to the formation of the militias.
The law-and-order lobby of the left is our enemy, a far more significant one than the Ku Klux Klan. Overestimating the importance of the extreme right is an attempt to frighten people who would normally oppose the state into supporting it. When asked, members of racial minorities in America usually say they are more threatened by the police and other state agencies, and are almost completely indifferent to "hate groups" (PDXS 7 Nov 94). We should certainly defend the "right" against slander and murder, because misrepresentation does not help us understand them, because we care about the "Waco wackos" and their kids, and because giving the feds the right to wipe out any organisation the President takes a dislike to, is against our interests and the interests of the working class. Whereas another Oklahoma City is unlikely, another Waco, or Philadelphia, or Pine Ridge, is almost certain. This should be obvious, but anti-fascism is so prevalent that it needs spelling out. Even the Fifth Estate added an anarchist "analysis" to the official line:
"McVeigh and his buddies obviously wanted to rip flesh. Whether or not there was direct involvement, it is clear the perpetrators came out of the extensive network of heavily armed militias, neo-nazi and Klan formations, and the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement" (FE 346).
Rather than join the prosecution, we must reject this latest version of the perennial anti-fascist crusade.
Footnote, Jan 1998. This was written before the Oklahoma bombing trials. Here is an update.
FE Summer 1997 contains a letter from us about this magazine's response to the arrest of a suspect in the Unabomber case.
Footnote, August 1997. This is the best analysis we have seen so far following McVeigh's conviction and sentencing, from UNAPACK.
Massacres and the Media (II)
Following the Trafalgar Square riot of 1990, there was a debate about the role of photographers. Much of the evidence used by the police to convict people was obtained from newspaper photographers, and there was a brief discussion about the possibility of excluding all photographers from demos. The Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign was very much against this idea, not because it was impractical, but because some of them were film-makers and so on, and wanted to use films and photos to help the defence by showing police brutality, etc..
In Central America during the eighties, the issue was more serious. For example, Jeremy Bigwood, a lefty photographer who covered the war in El Salvador, provided numerous photos of major figures and political events and so on to New York photo agencies. Bigwood looked through the files of one of the agencies, and "to his horror", discovered that the State Department had been buying all his pics – up to 20 rolls a week. He then got the State Department’s Central America desk to admit that the pictures are sent down to the embassies. The embassies used them for "intelligence" – in other words, gave them to death squads to identify subversives.
Our spy met Bigwood in Chiapas. Bigwood gave them an article from the Village Voice from 1988 explaining the story. He’s still at it, snapping away, obviously thinking that having exposed the photo agencies is enough. No wonder the Zapatistas wear ski masks.