Terror, prison and the time to rebuild

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Matt Meyer

At 8.30am on the morning of Tuesday 11 September, as my subway train took me just under the World Trade Center (WTC) from my home in Brooklyn to my job in upper Manhattan, I am struck by a headline from The Daily News, New York's “hometown” newspaper. Alongside of a photo of mild- mannered African American educator Patrick Critton screams the news: “Cops Bag Panther - Nabbed 30 Years After Deadly Bank Heist.”

The story told of a hijacking to Cuba, following a 1971 bank robbery, and involvement in a group loosely connected to the Black Power group of the late 1960s. Seven years ago, after spending most of the last three decades living in East Africa, Critton received a US passport using his own name, and returned to the New York area to become a teacher and raise his two children. The lauded “sting” operation involved Canadian and US officials, figuring out through computer files that Critton had once been a wanted man. No one was killed or even injured in the events of 1971, but The Daily News joined local law enforcement in an excited celebration of the capture of this “fugitive ex-radical”. By 8.50am, I arrived at my stop at Columbia University, walked to my office, and found some students huddled around a radio. The city of my birth, and the world in which we all lived, was changing before our eyes.

Terrorism and justice

The words “terrorism” and “justice” have been bandied about loosely in the days since 11 September, with few pundits of the left or right adequately or honestly defining what they mean. The old truism, that the terrorists are always the ones with the less advanced weaponry, while superpower acts of aggression and intervention cause the real terror for most citizens of the world, simply did not suffice at the moment when those passenger planes made their horrific impact. Of course, the building of the US empire has meant tragedy not triumph for most of the people of the globe, with the recent Supreme Court election of George W Bush simply a crowning achievement of US-style democracy-in-practice. Of course, the now widely-admitted facts of CIA training of Osama bin Laden and the July 2001 US funding of the Taliban as an “anti-drug” force is the ultimate example of Malcolm X's pronouncement, upon the assassination of John F Kennedy, of the “chickens coming home to roost”. Somehow, however, this knowledge and these notions provided little comfort as we watched our skyline fill with smoke and ash and human skin.

Non-lethal "terrorists"

A calculated and intentional murder of thousands of people seems a clear enough definition of a terrorist act. Yet throughout US history, the word has more often been applied to those most rebellious of imperial designs, despite tactics, strategies, or effects of the perpetrators. It was therefore not surprising that the link would be made - as civil libertarian Nat Hentoff proclaimed in the allegedly progressive Village Voice - between the “holy fanatics” of Al Queda and the “murderous fringe” of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) and other groupings from the radical movements of the 1960s and `70s.

Never mind that in its eight years of existence, the WUO conducted over twenty bombings against US government military and corporate targets (including the US Capitol and the New York State Prison Headquarters after the massacre at Attica), without inflicting one civilian casualty. Never mind that, as some Black Panthers were turning to acts of violence, the US government had embarked upon a now- admittedly illegal campaign of assassination of Black leaders. Never mind that the “terrorists” of the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation and Macheteros were similarly oriented towards symbolic and non-lethal acts. Never mind that the leaders of the terrorist-branded American Indian Movement were largely caught up in acts of self defence, protecting their federally-recognised but FBI- invaded lands.

The majority of the US political prisoners of the twenty-first century, most in jail for more-than-life sentences having already served twenty-plus years behind bars, are those deemed terrorist by the most powerful and militarised of nation-states. Yet they are denied even the obvious concession of official political prisoner status, even as the term terrorist becomes the newest centre of national obsession.


On the afternoon of 11 September, US political prisoners from throughout the federal system were placed in isolated Security Housing Units, unable to contact or communicate with their lawyers, to make or receive phone calls, to receive or send mail. Amongst those placed in segregation are Carlos Alberto Torres, convicted of the thought crime of “seditious conspiracy”, Marilyn Buck, an outspoken white anti-racist and anti-imperialist, Sundiata Acoli of the Black liberation movement, and Phillip Berrigan, ploughshares peace activist.

Rumours of further repression against Native American activist Leonard Peltier, whose internationally- known case is marked by clear evidence of his innocence, remain unfounded - as of this writing. And while Berrigan is the only pacifist amongst this group, their commonalities - staunch and radical opposition to US injustices - were enough to secure their fate. The logic behind their newly-intensified lock-down status was purely punitive; all had been in jail long before the recent tragedies, and all had long disavowed the tactics of true terrorism that Americans only just had become all-too acquainted with.

Would that we all could take this moment to commit ourselves to understanding, and putting an end to, all forms of terrorism. Anti-Vietnam War activist David Gilbert, recently reflecting upon his own experiences in the WUO from his cell at Attica Correctional Facility, noted that every action they took responsibility for - ranging from protests of US policies in Southeast Asia, to condemnations of US racist violence against international liberation movements, to property destruction in reaction to the 11 September 1973 overthrow and murder of democratically-elected Chilean President Salvador Allende - was accompanied by a clear communiqué articulating the political issues involved. Openly critical of WUO's many errors, including their romanticisation of military means, Gilbert noted that “while there were never guarantees, we placed the highest priority on avoiding civilian casualties, and fortunately succeeded”. It seems clear, even in middle America, that the current drive of the US government is guaranteed to have the opposite effect, and similarly clear that many here are beginning to question the wisdom of these plans.

The sanctity of life

The War Resisters League national staff, writing eloquently from their Lower Manhattan offices just hours after the 9am plane crashes - as the World Trade Centre (WTC) was burning just several miles away - suggested that “for the Bush administration to talk of spending billions on Star Wars is clearly the sham it was from the beginning, when terrorism can so easily strike through more routine means. We urge Congress and George Bush that whatever response or policy the US develops it will be clear that this nation will no longer accept any policy by any nation which targets civilians. This would mean an end to sanctions on Iraq, which have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. It would mean not only a condemnation of terrorism by the Palestinians but also the policy of assassination of the Palestinian leadership by Israel, and the ruthless repression of the Palestinian people and the continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” Would that we could unite in accepting international standards on the sanctity of human life.

A challenge for progressives

On 12 September, various jails throughout the US Bureau of Prisons began rounding up inmates of Middle Eastern descent, placing them in solitary confinement, and - at one prison in Florida - telling them that in a state of war “they would be the first to be exterminated”. No doubt a streak of neo- fascism is alive and well within the US, represented unabashedly within the prison system. New York's Black newspaper The Daily Challenge, under the banner “Terrorism Begins At Home”, headlined an article one week after the WTC bombings on the lack of “comprehensive government operations” against the Klu Klux Klan and other far-right groups. One is forced to wonder if there is any possibility of fairness in the upcoming trial of Muslim cleric Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a man considered by most legal observers to be the victim of a long-standing government conspiracy, who has the distinction - in addition to his theology - of being one of the most influential leaders of the 1960s Black Power movement (when his name was H Rap Brown). On the other hand, it should also be made clear that, as spontaneous hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims is on the rise, so too is a slightly encouraging level of official denouncements against this mob mentality. In an ironic challenge for US progressives, there has rarely been a time of such unchallenged bipartisan political acceptance of the necessity of war and, at the same time, political condemnation of racism and anti- Arab violence.

The prison-industrial complex

This may ultimately serve as cold comfort at a time when everyone's basic freedoms are at risk. Writing about the horrendous record of civil rights abuses during war-time, Congressman John Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, commented in The Washington Post that: “History has taught us that we should not use the threat of violence as an excuse to suppress legitimate constitutional rights and liberties.” Nevertheless, recommendations of the Bush administration call for a broad increase of police discretionary powers - including racial profiling, wire-tapping, and search and seizure rights - ensuring that both the military and the prison industrial complexes will profit in the coming period.

Naming Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Ridge to the new cabinet-level position of Chief of Homeland Security is certainly not a good sign, as Ridge has established himself as a zealous supporter of “aggressive” policing policies, and of the death penalty. One can scarcely be surprised that Ridge’s chief target up till now has been noted death row journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. And one can only wonder why the term “homeland” was used by the Bush administration, perhaps unaware of the South African connotations of the word used to refer to the poverty-stricken Bantustan ghettos.

That my city and country is, as our national anthem claims, the “home of the brave” was substantiated thousands of times in the days and weeks following 11 September. Whether we are to become, given these histories and obstacles, the “land of the free” remains very much still to be seen.

Building a united movement

As talks of unity have become a staple of our daily news broadcasts, anti-war advocates must also ask: how are we now to build a united movement, to secure for the world “infinite justice”? At a time in the US when progressive organisations were beginning to make vital connections between the evils of militarism, racism and the class divide, when the peace, anti-imperialist and workers struggles had only occasional intersections and communication, the war we are faced with may have a unifying effect. It may also, however, serve to derail and divide the transnational coalitions necessary to bring about true and lasting change.

It seems clear that the US government is committing itself to not only enter a new phase of fighting overseas, but to maintain and intensify its own past wars at home. The US political prisoners, leaders of their communities and nations, champions of the struggles of the 1960s and `70s, require support and unconditional release. Our country can hardly unite, or truthfully comprehend the nature of terrorism, unless these freedom fighters are allowed to be free. Perhaps, more significantly, if progressives forget those behind bars, in an effort simply to react to the latest war-mongering, we will surely be forced to repeat history itself, with an ever-growing number of political prisoners in our midst. It is time for us to think and act strategically, to mature as a movement.

Time to rebuild

In the days following 11 September, I realised that my son, Michael Del - who just turned fifteen months - was almost exactly the same age I was when John F Kennedy was shot. It is clear that his world will be fundamentally affected by the events we now all experienced together, as my generation was affected by the “fall from grace” that JFK's assassination foretold. I have been thankful that he is not quite old enough to be troubled by the television images; no nightmares cloud his evenings as they do most of our days.

After working for many years on many different causes, I have come to know and respect the insights and leadership of Sundiata, of David Gilbert and Marilyn Buck, of Leonard and Mumia and Phil and the entire Puerto Rican anti-colonial movement. I cannot imagine Michael Del growing up in a society where these visionaries and lovers of life are not around and about, helping in our quests for an end to terrorism and violence.

I cannot imagine building a successful campaign for justice and peace without understanding their contributions, and the lessons we must learn from the experiences that they continue to live. I look over my shoulder, holding Michael close, and I can barely imagine - all these years since the 1960s - that they are not home already. For that matter, as I take a new train to work, over the Manhattan Bridge (my regular train closed due to the disaster fifty feet above it), I look across to the city approaching, as an eerie quiet fills the subway car. I can barely imagine those two towers gone, though their absence screams out to us in a smouldering void. This is the void faced by a movement which has yet to reconcile itself with it's own past. It hangs heavy on my heart; it is time to rebuild.

Topics: Prison