Blacks imprisoned in `Bastilles
for the poor'

by Tim Hall


     Below is the editorial from the coming Fall-Winter 1999/2000
issue of Struggle, an anti-establishment literary zine oriented to the
working-class struggle. Information about Struggle can found at
the Struggle section of the Communist Voice home page.

. Regular readers of Struggle will remember that I used to write editorials commenting on letters that came to the magazine. I only stopped because for a while there were no letters that seemed to be of general interest. Now a few have arrived, so here I am with another such editorial.

. But before I get into the letters, a word about politics and literature. Readers are aware that Struggle upholds a revolutionary political outlook and that we select literature for the magazine with, in part, a political criterion. Literature for Struggle has to have some literary charm or power but it also must be critical in some significant way of the capitalist establishment. I hope that I make the kind of selections that are eye-opening as well as lively and entertaining or emotionally powerful. But the letters we get usually focus on the politics of various pieces in the magazine, not on their style. Sometimes we get comments that certain poems are crude and dogmatic; in those cases, the reader is usually right, but I printed those poems because I thought that they expressed some kind of insight and had some kind of emotional strength, in spite of their crudeness.

. The fact that the letters are so political confirms one of the main points that this magazine has been making over the years: that literature is unavoidably political. Literature cannot help but express a viewpoint about the world and society; it cannot help being either critical or supportive of the status quo. And if it is critical, it will inevitably imply or state one degree of criticism or another, right up to calling for a revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class. While that is my point of view, I don't restrict Struggle to literature with that viewpoint, but open it to various forms of opposition to the powers that be, with special emphasis on works which revolve around the struggles of the working masses against oppression. (Someone wrote calling for a variety of anti-establishment viewpoints in Struggle. Hell, it's already there! Few of the writers fully agree with me politically.) Consequently, I think that it is entirely fitting to reprint parts of some of these letters and engage in political discussion in this literary magazine.

A controversy over black prisoners

. It seems that the last issue (Summer 1999) has raised some questions in the minds of some readers. One of these letters is from Billie Louise Jones, a frequent contributor of fiction to the magazine. Billie has been a strong supporter of the magazine and has contributed four short stories, which were notable for their understanding of the problems facing southern working-class people. One, "New Orleans International Airport," was a sensitive and subtle portrait of the relationship between an older, black, southern blues musician and the white rocker whose career was inspired by him. Another described the struggle of a single mother to escape welfare and make it back into the workforce. Billie is a little upset by our Summer issue due to the prominence it gives to the voices of African-American prisoners. Let me quote from her letter:

. "I feel I must tell you that I do not believe that burglars, rapists, muggers, armed robbers, and killers are political prisoners. If these particular prisoners are mostly black, that is another question. It does them no good to play along with their attitude; it does the cause of social justice no good. . . . These political prisoners are preying on the black community first and foremost. . . . The question Struggle should raise is not, why are these black men in jail? It is, why are these black people who are their victims being denied protection of the law?"

. Struggle has never based its sympathy for black (or other) prisoners on the idea that they are all political prisoners in the strict sense of the word. Only a few of them are in jail directly because of their political activities. One prominent black prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia anti-racist journalist and former Black Panther who is on Death Row, was arrested following a deadly altercation with the police; it is the blatant injustice of his trial process which has led him to be considered a political prisoner. But before anyone brags that America is free of repression and political prisoners, let us remember that in the '60's prominent black leaders were assassinated, some of them (like Black Panther Fred Hampton of Chicago) openly murdered by the police. More recently there have been numerous atrocious police beatings, killings and rapes -- yes, rapes -- of black folk. Even indefinite detentions occur here. A number of Arab immigrants have been held for as long as three and a half years on the basis of evidence which they were not allowed to see. (Anthony Lewis column, Detroit Free Press, October 29, 1999.) The U.S. government, therefore, is not above taking political prisoners; repression so extreme is just not necessary to preserve the capitalist system at present, when mass protest and rebellion is at a low level. In those tyrannies like Guatemala, where revolutionary movements existed, the rich capitalists needed their CIA-trained police to round up and "disappear" thousands. Political imprisonment is not alien to the American-dominated world order.

. But apart from the question of political prisoners per se, is it right to warehouse tens of thousands of blacks (mostly men) in prison? Billie seems to think so (and she even hints at arresting more).

Victims to the street

. Let me tell you the story of someone I will rename Raymond but who is a real person, a black man in his 40's, related to a very dear friend of mine. When Raymond was very young he was involved in a terrible traffic accident. His family was en route to Alabama with his older brother driving. The accident threw Raymond and his younger brother from the station wagon. The younger brother was decapitated and Raymond was in a coma with severe lacerations. This accident (and the pain-killers he was given) may have been a pivotal experience in his life.Raymond's brothers and sisters, like his parents, are very hard-working but Raymond continually got into trouble. By his 40's he had a long record but it was of relatively minor offenses, at worst breaking and entering a vehicle. There is no violence in his history. Recently he seemed to be getting his life in order -- working steadily and going to therapy. Some weeks ago police arrested him, claiming he possessed a stolen CD, though there was no evidence that the CD Raymond had was actually the stolen one. The prosecutor called for classifying Raymond as a "habitual offender" and sending him up for 25 years. The court-appointed lawyer urged him to plead guilty, but his family was able to raise enough money to get a competent lawyer. In court it was revealed that Raymond was arrested because he fit the description of "a black man in white tennis shoes." The judge mocked the prosecutor and dismissed the case, but Raymond was still not freed.Raymond was on parole at the time of the arrest, so the arrest became a parole violation. Even though the court case was dismissed, his case must go before the parole board.And in spite of the dismissal of charges the parole officer is calling for a "habitual" classification and a long sentence, perhaps 25 years (an outcome thought unlikely by the lawyer, but I suspect that such travesties of justice have occurred). So I would ask Billie: if it is this easy to get a 25-year sentence, how many of those black prisoners you automatically label "burglars," etc., are over-sentenced to a criminal degree, and how many of them actually did not do what they are serving time for ?

. So is it any surprise that the United States has the highest per capita imprisonment rate in the world, exceeding apartheid South Africa and the former Soviet Union? Blacks form a percentage of the prison population far in excess of the percentage of blacks in the overall population. The black prisoners are overwhelmingly of poor and working-class origin and the same can be said of the prisoners of other minorities and the white prisoners as well. In fact, these prisons are, in the apt words of English revolutionary workers of the last century, "bastilles for the poor." (The Bastille was the prison in which dissidents and the poor were entombed before the French Revolution of 1789; one of the first acts of the Revolution was the storming of the Bastille and the freeing of the prisoners.) Increasingly American prisons today resemble early English workhouses as more and more production for profit takes place within their walls, using the convicts as slave labor. None of the capitalists who looted the national budget to get repaid for their S&L swindle of the 1980's are rotting there, only poor folk. The prison system only partly functions in the way Billie believes -- to protect society from criminals. In major ways it also functions as an organ of class and racial repression and as a slave-labor system to generate profits for the capitalists.

Why are black prisoners warehoused?

. The reason Struggle has emphasized the voices of black prisoners is because they speak out against this great wrong. Their poems have drawn attention to the causes of crime and to the injustice of the "criminal justice" system. Poverty and exploitation create the social climate and the need in many cases for the "lower-class" forms of crime. This is the crime that Billie is concerned about affecting the black (and other) communities. It cannot be excused, but it also cannot be dealt with by over-sentencing and by conviction of innocent people. Crime rates have dropped in the present growing economy, suggesting the dependence of crime on economics, but when economic growth inevitably slows or stops, crime will increase once again. Mass struggles for increased living standards and a healthier cultural life for working people plus rehabilitation for criminals can reduce crime under capitalism, while only the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, with all its ills, can lead to the elimination of crime altogether. But today, while society is dominated and strangled by the rich, once a criminal (or innocent person) is charged, if he or she is working-class the burden of prosecution and imprisonment falls infinitely more heavily upon them. The poorest workers, whatever their color, especially lack the finances to mount an effective defense. As Raymond's case shows, the court-appointed lawyers are a joke;without $7500 for a competent lawyer Raymond would already be rotting for life.Consequently, white-collar and country-club crime goes ignored or unpunished while the blue-collar and street (and trailer park) people fill the prisons. And once the criminal (or non-criminal) arrives in prison, he or she is given little help to rehabilitate. Instead, the prisoner often meets with harsh deprivations of rights such as the denial of personal property, solitary confinement, physical violence, sexual abuse, etc.

. But why does the burden of prison fall more heavily on black and other dark-skinned minorities? For one, the history of racial oppression beginning with slavery and continuing today with racism and police atrocities has intensified poverty, social tensions and crime in the black working-class communities in comparison with communities of white workers. I saw this first-hand: as an inner-city cab driver in Detroit from 1977 to 1988, I watched as the black working-class community was decimated by the closing of half the auto plants, eliminating jobs which blacks had only just gotten in large numbers since the '60's. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats (including those sold-out lackeys of big money, the union bureaucrats) lifted a finger to help the black and worker masses. They helped the auto bosses like Lee Iacocca grab millions while solid black worker families and neighborhoods were torn apart by job loss, violence and drugs. Large numbers of white workers lost out too, but much of black Detroit was turned into a wasteland. And in the years since, both the Republican and the Democratic parties have waged a vicious law-and-order campaign, begun under Reagan but continued under Bush and Clinton, which has targeted the black communities under the slogan "war on drugs." This "war," with its "three strikes and out" programs and extreme militarization of police departments, has led to the imprisonment and over-sentencing of thousands of black men guilty of, at most, low-level participation in the drug trade. Few of the drug kingpins have been jailed. And this "war" has been carried out in a racist manner: no cops have been busting down the doors of big shots in Grosse Pointe or Shaker Heights or Westchester County. Even the sentencing for parallel crimes has been biased: a much larger sentence has been imposed for possession of crack cocaine (the drug of choice in the black ghettos) than for the same amount of powdered cocaine (more commonly used by whites), though the chemical is the same.

. Therefore, I believe that very large numbers of black prisoners are the victims of over-sentencing and even false convictions. Certainly many white prisoners have suffered similar injustices and Struggle will fight for them all, but it is only realistic and fair to stress the blatant racism expressed in massive over-imprisonment of people of color. When some black prisoners become politically conscious and describe themselves as political prisoners, though they were not originally arrested for political issues, I can't become upset, for the racism and class oppression when often led to their imprisonment or increased their sentences was itself political.

The origin of the problem of black prisoner warehousing

. Underlying the imprisonment issue is not only the oppression of all working people, of all colors, by the government of the rich, but also the special national oppression of African-Americans and the related oppression of other colored national minorities. Sure, chattel slavery is in the past (though prison slavery is coming in), and, sure, the civil rights movement and black rebellions won some important gains. But racism -- institutional and personal -- still rages on. And the powerful mass struggles of African-Americans in the '60's marked their communities as a priority to suppress. With all due respect to Billie, who has written sensitively about black characters in her fiction, white working people -- indeed, all fair-minded whites -- have the moral duty to join with blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in the fight against racial and national oppression, including the warehousing of black males in prisons. These conditions are an absolute outrage. Not to take such a position is to abandon one's stand on the side of the oppressed of the earth. For a writer, such a failure endangers the truth and humanity of one's fiction or poetry.

. But the duty to resist racial oppression is not just based on morality; it is also in the self-interest of white working people to do so. This brings us to another letter, from a white prisoner, James Hansen, locked up in Wisconsin. He writes:

. "I just received your Summer 1999 issue of Struggle and I've got to tell you I wasn't too pleased. I'm sorry but I can't stand this 'white-guilt' any more. I don't believe in superiority or separation of race. I do have pride for my people and history. . . . The fact that when I asked for your zine I was hoping it was about our struggle against the capitalists . . . . How can I respect people who automatically place me as a white racist?"

. Mr. Hansen goes on to say that he was formerly involved in racist movements but he has rejected racism and is looking towards class struggle and Marxism, and he asks for revolutionary literature. Well, I do not believe that Struggle has published anything that straight-out calls all whites racists. If this is implied somewhere, I published that piece because its central point focused sharply on some form of racist brutality. Mr. Hansen does not mention any specific writings which bothered him but he does list several from the last issue that he did like. I think it is understandable that he would see condemnations of racism by black writers and read into them a condemnation of all whites. The voices speaking out today for black-and-white working-class unity against the capitalists are weak, and few stress or explain the need for such unity against racism. Instead of working-class unity against racism, the dominant trend in the black community today is the call for unity of all blacks -- workers with businessmen, politicians and professionals -- to build up black businesses. This call originates from the black capitalists and politicians (the bourgeoisie) who suck up to the rich whites to fund enterprises that will enrich themselves and their masters off the labor of black workers. The white CEO's are at the top of the pyramid; they are the principal benefactors of racism and the last thing they want is a united working class cutting their profits or overthrowing them. So the black bourgeoisie will talk a blue streak against racism but will not lead a serious mass fight against their rich white sugar daddies. Thus bourgeois nationalism leaves the black workers isolated, to fight racism alone, all the more so because its rhetoric tends to blame all whites for racism, not to call for the unity of all workers against it. The path of working-class unity, advocated by communists like myself, is the only way to make the anti-racist struggle truly powerful. Mr. Hansen may hear a certain echo of nationalist thinking in some of the poetry in Struggle and if so, he is right. But the problems these poems point to are real, and if I waited for pure Marxist poetry I would have no magazine. The answer is to listen to the voices which identify racist conditions and work for a common struggle of all working people against racism and its mother, capitalism.

. As for the matter of "white pride" which Mr. Hansen raises, a closer look is necessary. The white capitalists dominate U.S. politics, economics and culture and this had led to slightly better conditions for the white working masses compared to blacks, although ultimately all working people are exploited and ground under the heel of big money. But to call for pride in "whiteness" is to praise and support the war-making, racist white bourgeoisie. These dogs will always resort to appeals to "whiteness" to fool white workers into helping them oppress the darker peoples.Pride should be reserved for whites who join with the multicolored masses to fight the ruling powers; and it is not their whiteness but their fighting stand that should be supported.

"Labor in the white skin cannot be emancipated
where in the black
it is branded" -- Karl Marx

. Mr. Hansen is disappointed that Struggle's featuring of these poetic outcries does not seem to meet his definition of class struggle and Marxism. It is admirable that he has left the racist skinheads and renounced racism and is approaching Marxism with the unity of the workers in mind. This man has come a long way on his own and I applaud him. But the very unity that he wants -- and Marxism calls for -- cannot be achieved without white working people embracing the anti-racist struggle. This does not mean supporting everything the black businessmen call for;it primarily means aiding the black working masses. This, in turn, will help the black workers break away from the leadership of the businessmen and build the working-class movement.

. Only a united, vigorous fight against racism and all injustice can construct this multicolored working-class unity. And such unity is indispensable if the working class as a whole is ever to get rid of the rule of the capitalist bloodsuckers and develop a society of political and economic and cultural freedom. The workers cannot focus solely on getting rid of the bosses and ignore political and cultural issues such as racism. For the working class to fully unite and overthrow class domination, it must consistently struggle against all forms of oppression, not only the outright class rule of the rich but against racism, anti-immigrant reaction, sexism and homophobia as well as the domination of poor countries by richer countries. If even one of these citadels of oppression is left standing, it will lead to a split in the working class, the rich will come to power again in one form or another and the revolution will have to be fought all over again. Karl Marx's statement above rings as true today as it was when he wrote it during the American Civil War against Slavery 140 years ago. The fundamental war of the 20th and 21st centuries -- the war of the workers against the bosses, leading to the Marxist revolution -- is not a single skirmish line with all the workers lining up one day on one side and all the bosses on the other. Instead, it is a complex effort to marshal all the oppressed sections of the population into unity against the capitalist oppressors, under the leadership of the class-conscious workers of all colors and nationalities. To reach that goal, which is ours and we hope is Mr. Hansen's, the struggle against racism must be a major ingredient.

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Last modified: October 15, 2001.