(This is the first in a series of articles examining the plight and problem of political prisoners inside the United States.)
Campaigns to free aging revolutionaries and activists have highlighted the reality that political prisoners exist in the United States.
Advocates insist political, law enforcement and corrections officials want to mask decades of parole denials, years of inhumane solitary confinement and episodes of domestic torture inflicted on Blacks and others for challenging racism and oppression.
“The main thing we need to understand is the fact that these soldiers—and they are soldiers—are not in prison because they’re criminals. They’re in prison for daring to stand up to this rotten, no good system that we live under,” said Ramona Africa, minister of information for the MOVE Organization, the Philadelphia-based group founded by John Africa.
Ms. Africa is a former political prisoner, who survived the May 1985 bombing of her family by the Philadelphia police. In 1985, a battle ensued after police tried to arrest MOVE members on charges related to the 1978 death of a police officer. Five children and six adults died in the bombing. Nine members of MOVE were imprisoned. Ramona Africa was jailed for seven years. Debbie Africa died in prison. The remaining members have been in prison for nearly 30 years. MOVE members take the surname “Africa” as part of their beliefs.
Although MOVE members have served the minimum sentence, they are continuously denied parole because they won’t lie and say they’re guilty, Ramona Africa said.
Members of the Black Panther Party are arrested in 1970. Photo: libcom.org
Similar parole denials are occurring across the U.S. The denials are based on politics, not lack of prison time, threats to society or troublemaking inside penal institutions, according to advocates. Officials want to contain and punish these highly politicized inmates, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s, advocates add.
“When (political prisoners) go to parole board hearings, prosecutors aren’t launching legal appeals, but emotional appeals by bringing out police, firemen, family members, all saying he or she should stay in,” said Francisco Torres, a onetime Black Panther. Last year the courts finally dropped accusations that he murdered a police officer in 1971.
But not only have political prisoners done their time, their behavior in prison has been exemplary, say advocates.
Many have quelled prison riots and in some instances, wardens have commended them.
“They’ve gotten certificates and diplomas in prison so when it’s time for them to get out, they’re told they’re being held in there because of their politics basically, their beliefs and their thoughts,” Mr. Torres said.
Veronza Bowers, Jr., who served his entire sentence, was labeled a threat to society and denied release under the George W. Bush-era Patriot Act, which expanded police powers. The former Black Panther Party member was convicted of killing a park ranger on the testimony of two informants and has been incarcerated for 37 years now in Atlanta.
Criminals or prisoners of war?
There’s no debate, said Ramona Africa, about the guilt or innocence of freedom fighters like American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, who was at Pine Ridge, S.D., when government officials attacked, she said. Two federal agents died in a shootout at the reservation, and Mr. Peltier was labeled a terrorist, said Ms. Africa. He has been imprisoned since 1976 and is serving time in a federal prison in Florida
“This is getting more and more outrageous because we the people have not stood up like we should, uncompromisingly, and refused to accept it,” Ms. Africa charged.
“I mean, my family was bombed! A bomb was dropped on our home. Babies were burned alive and I know a lot of people are outraged. They were and still are but it’s not enough to just have those feelings. We have to act on those feelings,” Ms. Africa said.
Some say it’s hard to keep track of 1960s and 1970s freedom fighters with people facing bleak economic times and struggling day-to-day to survive. “MOVE understands that but all we’re saying is that we have to put a priority on our freedom and our lives. If we don’t do that, how are we going to expect our enemy to do that, have any kind of value for our lives, our freedom, if we don’t?” Ms. Africa said.
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- Denver ABC Maintains Political Prisoner Database (musicians4freedom.com)