A Radical Reference Manual
Let Freedom Ring:
A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners
Edited by Matt Meyer
PM Press, 2008, 912 pages, $37.95
In October, activist and (disbarred) attorney Lynne Stewart, who writes the afterword in Let Freedom Ring, spoke at the National Lawyers Guild's annual convention in Detroit.
"For those of you who are not aware of my case, the government tried to make an example of me to scare others," she began. Stewart was convicted in 2005 of "conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists," among other charges, in a case that many felt was brought only to intimidate lawyers who defend political activists on the left. In Let Freedom Ring, historian Dan Berger echoes her sentiments when he writes, "The state uses the imprisonment of political leaders and rank-and-file activists as a bludgeon against movement victories. Their incarceration is a reminder of the strength, potential and, just as crucially, the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of radical mass movements... Political prisoners serve collective prison time for all those who participated in the movements from which they emerged."
The importance of political prisoners in the United States within the context of radical and progressive movements is the central theme in Meyer's book. He has attempted to gather a broad selection of documents -- speeches, poetry, interviews, essays, and news articles -- and create a "resource manual" for future generations of activists. Meyer, a longtime activist who serves on the board of the War Resisters League, hopes that the text he has collected and assembled in this 900-plus-page volume will "inform our collective thinking about the movements we must build today."
If there is a central argument within the pages, it is that U.S. political prisoners, as well as the discussion of U.S. political prisoners, has been marginalized by both the majority of the media and the progressive movement itself. The authors urge past and present-day radicals -- especially white activists -- to recognize political prisoners as central to the discussion of fighting for the rights of the oppressed in this country.
The book is divided into a number of sections, each with a different theme, but all connected to antiracist, anti-imperialist thought. Each section contains a variety of writing, the bulk of it authored by political prisoners themselves. "Pulling out the Stops to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal" focuses on the broad international campaign to free the best-known political prisoner in the United States. "Critical Resistance and the Prisoner Rights Movement" discusses the links between the political prisoner movement and prisoner rights activists. "Resisting Repression: Out and Proud" focuses on writing and speeches that link queer struggles with political prisoners.
While many names in the table of contents are recognizable, some are not. Some of the most compelling articles focus not just on political prisoners but are in fact honest critiques of progressive movements that need to be built in order to free those prisoners. In "Not Something We Can Postpone," freed prisoner Dhoruba Bin-Wahad addresses the group Queers United in Support of Political Prisoners and confronts the dynamics of privilege as a straight male living as a Black Muslim in a white supremacist society. He speaks of his own struggles with sexism while challenging the mostly white, gay rights groups of the time, who may be doing solid work around homophobia, to confront racism within their ranks and in how they organize with others. The speech reads as deeply serious and honest but also positive and uplifting.
In the section focusing on the government's targeting of the Black Liberation Movement and Black activists generally, Meyer and Meg Starr interview escaped prisoner and now-exiled activist Assata Shakur. One of the first things Shakur discusses is trying to create "a style of writing and a style of work that is contra-arrogant." She continues, "I think arrogance is one of the things that has really stifled the world revolutionary movement and really hindered communications between people."
Shaur is also asked about the "role of guns" in the movement. Acknowledging the importance of (violent) self-defense and Malcolm X's call to defend communities "by any means necessary," she goes on to speak about keeping a politics that say "We don't like violence." She concludes her answer talking about how "all kinds of elements of society are experiencing oppression," whether it's unions, students, farmers or others, and so the struggle must be on all fronts, not just "armed struggle."
Although the conversation with Shakur deals with various aspects of communication and organizing, it is grounded in the need to gain amnesty for political prisoners and learning ways of coming together despite ideological differences in order to make this happen. Much of the book seems organized in this fashion -- it is less of a "who's who" of political prisoners and what they stood for than a compilation of strategies, lessons, and critiques of where the were and are coming from, and how it can inform building a movement to free those oppressed and locked down by this government.
The volume of voices speaking throughout these pages makes this book an incredible compilation. However, the organization of the chapters and sections within the book occasionally seems random and jumbled. Meyer admits in his introduction that "this book was quickly thrown together." Certain articles contain explanations that contextualize them or give them a date, while others so not. A number of excerpted pieces are very brief -- just one or two pages -- where there could be more, while other articles seem to cover historical events already detailed in an earlier section. Poetry and flyers for past events seem inserted at random moments. But the book is meant as a reference more than something to read from front to back, and so these are minor complaints. A thorough index and resource guide in the back of the book complement the table of contents in making this book a true reference.
Meyer's book is an important collection linking past and present struggles, from Black Liberation Army prisoners framed and tortured in prison in the 1970s to people like Sami Al Arian in 2008. If we are to build strategies for the future, the words and voices containeed within these pages will be an essential tool.