Sundiata Acoli, a former mathematician, computer analyst, and Black Panther, has been incarcerated for over 47 years. Originally tried and acquitted as one of the Panther 21, he was later captured and incarcerated, along with Assata Shakur, after a shootout with New Jersey state troopers. Today, 84-year-old Sundiata suffers from deteriorating health in his late stage of life and is being treated for multiple illnesses. Despite maintaining a near perfect disciplinary record for over 40 years, Sundiata has been consistently denied parole since he first became eligible about 30 years ago.
Sundiata was not permitted to attend his own parole hearing back in 1992, and was only allowed to participate through telephone. Despite receiving support from his community, Sundiata was not only denied parole at the end of a 20-minute telephone call, he also received a 20-year “hit,” adding many more years before he would become eligible for parole again. The Parole Board’s reasoning for the denial of parole was Sundiata’s “high risk of recidivism” and insufficient “rehabilitation.” By denying Sundiata parole and treating him as a social criminal in need of “rehabilitation,” the court of New Jersey was in effect denying the political nature of his imprisonment. Sundiata has been denied parole two more times since then, one of which was initially granted but later appealed by the State of New Jersey. He will not be eligible again until 2032 — he will be 94 years old.
In our previous article on political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim (who has since been released), we identified the political motivation for keeping Black revolutionaries behind bars, and the same logic applies to Sundiata:
“For the US imperialist bourgeoisie, these aging prisoners serve as negative examples: dare to rise up in political revolt against the state and you will face punishment for life. We must be clear. Jalil was jailed for alleged acts committed as a political opponent of the bourgeois state. Jalil is part of a long line of Black revolutionaries who have resisted the barbaric, racist oppression that has historically been visited upon the Black nation by the dominant classes in this country.”
The medical neglect and dangerous health conditions imposed on Sundiata Acoli and other political prisoners is intentional – the state is using extra-legal means to transform their life sentences into death sentences. They let aging revolutionaries contract multiple illnesses and fail to provide adequate medical care, slowly and painfully ending their lives out of sight of the public. Along with Sundiata Acoli, there are numerous other BPP and BLA veterans still incarcerated and serving lengthy sentences: Mutulu Shakur, Imam Jamil al-Amin, and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz are just some of many.
Sundiata, Jalil, and their comrades in the BPP and BLA had a political understanding of Black liberation, that is, they knew liberation required the masses taking up the question of state power. A truly political understanding of the struggle for Black liberation is opposed to begging for reforms and cabinet positions in the bourgeois state. Most importantly these veterans of struggle understood the necessity of linking the liberation of oppressed nations to the broader internationalist struggle against capitalism. In a letter from 2008 Sundiata wrote, “Obviously people of color still don’t have full equality in this country and i doubt we ever will as long as the u.s. remains a capitalist society. Capitalism was built on private property and racial and class exploitation. They are part of its foundation and can’t be rooted out unless capitalism itself is destroyed.”
This understanding of Black liberation as part of a broader working class politics is conspicuously absent from the liberal perspective which dominates the mainstream movement for racial equality today. As our article from July “This is What ‘Democracy’ Looks Like” detailed, the U.S. liberal bourgeoisie has recently turned in on itself and begun to make use of identitarian demagoguery to sow vicious division among its own ranks. In efforts to advance individual political careers, epithets like “colonizer,” “c—n” and even the n-word are frantically lobbed in every direction. The limits of treating identity as the decisive political criteria is revealed in Biden’s choice of a diverse administration. At the inauguration the flexibility of the ruling class was on full display as they put on a “progressive” face to quell dissent and give illusions of progress.
That the mainstream struggle for Black liberation has become far removed from the revolutionary class perspective of freedom fighters like Sundiata is evidenced by the wide-spread fawning over Amanda Gorman, a so-called “prophet of democracy,” and her vapid inaugural poem. The poet laureate studied Winston Churchill in preparation for the inauguration and praised him as someone “who used ‘rhetoric for good’, not populism.” Churchill — the man who advocated for using poisoned gas against “uncivilized” tribes!
Kamala Harris’s ascension to Vice-Presidency has also been used as a marker of progress; she is praised for being the first Black, South Asian and woman to hold the office. The same Black, South Asian woman has spent her career forcing trans-women into male prisons, denying trans prisoners healthcare, and locking up thousands of Black and Latino workers for minor drug related charges.
As Sundiata has said, “[A] Black (or non-White) President in itself makes no difference…the system itself must be changed and the only way that’s going to happen is [if] we, the oppressed, band together to change this racist imperialistic system ourselves.” The recent assimilation of representative identity politics by the Biden administration has shown how important it is to push back against the depoliticization of the question of Black liberation, that is, the effort to separate the struggle for Black liberation from an anti-capitalist political project in direct confrontation with the bourgeois state. Each parole denial is an attempt at just such a depoliticization — by treating Sundiata as a social criminal, who is not yet sufficiently “reformed,” they are denying the political character of the struggle for Black liberation, they are denying the right of the working class and the masses to our own politics.
The fight to liberate Sundiata Acoli and other veterans of the Black liberation movement is one arena of revolutionary struggle that progressive students must take up, because to support them is to affirm our right to politics. The program of the May Day Student Organization calls for “bringing the politics of the socialist revolution to the student body, in solidarity with people everywhere fighting for democracy and progress,” and Black liberation, including the liberation of the political prisoners, is an integral aspect of socialist revolution.
MDSO, as a member organization of the Northeast Political Prisoner Coalition (NEPPC), is working alongside the Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign (SAFC) to coordinate bringing Sundiata home. For more information, visit the Facebook page of The Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign. Your contribution to his legal defense fund could make the difference in the fight to free Sundiata! Donations for the SAFC can be sent through the following link: https://naabpp.org/donate/.