Academic journal article Social Justice

Recovering, Amplifying, and Networking the Voices of the Disappeared-Political Prisoners on Internet Media

Academic journal article Social Justice

Recovering, Amplifying, and Networking the Voices of the Disappeared-Political Prisoners on Internet Media

Article excerpt

POLITICAL PRISONERS HELD BY THE U.S. HAVE MUCH TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE ENTIRE range of our progressive movements. This includes their personal examples of resistance to state violence and oppression, the militant history of political movements from the 1960s to today, analyses of those movements' strengths and weaknesses, and eloquent visions of a more humanitarian world. Although they have much to say, their messages are not heard by many. The state's considerable power is used to deny them their voices and to wall them in, to the point of nearly disappearing them. Marilyn Buck's poem, "Incommunicado," included in this issue, details the extreme isolation imposed on a number of them following the September 11 attacks. (1) Routine and daily restrictions are placed on visiting and phone calls, legal mail is interfered with, and interviews are denied. Support movements tend to idealize a few political prisoners (preferably charismatic and obviously framed, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier), objectify them, and ignore the others. If Mumia's supporters were to take his words seriously, they would also be supporting Ruchell Magee, Sundiata Acoli, and Sekou Odinga (among others). (2) It is necessary to take them seriously as leaders and participants in political struggle. (3)

This essay describes attempts to use alternative media to make the voices of political prisoners more accessible and immediate. The heart of these efforts is to let the prisoners speak for themselves. This is an essential step in opposing their demonization (as "common criminals" and, more recently, as "terrorists") by the state and supporting efforts to obtain their release. More widely, our movements are strengthened by their participation, by building communication and community in support of human rights across the razor wire. The Freedom Archives (4) and the websites of the Prison Activist Resource Center (5) and the Jericho Movement (6) are examples of projects that serve this purpose.

Audiovisual Media and Alternative Distribution

Though writing remains the primary medium available to political prisoners, audiovisual media can add significant dimensions. The Freedom Archives, for example, has access in many cases to the personal histories and the social contexts out of which the political prisoners arose, struggled, and were captured. On their Prisons on Fire CD, for example, contemporary interviews are combined with historical sound to reflect upon and deepen the listener's understanding of the events and their ongoing relevance. The widespread availability of digital technology and the rise of an "indy media" network allowed the two radio programs comprising the CD to be distributed at low cost by satellite, cassette, and Internet to stations in several states, as well as in Africa and Europe.

At times, the voices of political prisoners have been recorded on videotape, a powerful tool for humanizing the stories and communicating the politics of these locked-down activists. For example, The Freedom Archives produced a video of Albert "Nuh" Washington shortly before his death in the New York prison system. (7) As Mumia Abu-Jamal has written, "Nuh (the Arabic form of Noah) was a committed member of the Black Panther Party and later, after the notorious FBI-engineered East Coast-West Coast split, worked with the Black Liberation Army (BLA), in defending the lives and dignity of black folk.... For over 28 years Nuh [was] held in California and New York gulags, and repeatedly punished for his political ideas" (Abu-Jamal, 2000). As a veteran of this crucial era of Black history, Nuh's insights are invaluable:

   To the oppressed I am the angel of deliverance
   To the oppressor I am the angel of destruction
   So who I am
   Depends on who you are ...

   The state has conceded that I have committed no act but that I
   taught political education classes. For that I have been sentenced
   to life imprisonment and subjected to the tightest security, not
   only in the states of California and New York, but in the country
   as well. … 
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