The terrible condition of elderly Black prisoners in the United States who are veterans of the struggle of Black people for freedom in the 1960s and 70s is an indictment of US democracy and its judiciary. The prisoners below (not an exhaustive list) have been incarcerated during at least three and up to seven alternations between Republican and Democratic administrations, including Carter, Clinton, Obama, and now Biden.
These and other prisoners have faced a unified and decades-long effort by ruling-class personalities of all backgrounds to exclude all recognition and mention of them from public life. The most high-profile among them – Mumia Abu-Jamal – is confined to the sphere of journalistic activity through Pacifica Radio.
We can contrast this with the fate of the pro-independence Puerto Rican political prisoners, whose campaign in the 90s was joined by Puerto Rican members of the House and whose sentences were commuted by Clinton in 1999.
In one very instructive incident during Obama’s second term in early 2014, a Senate with a secure Democratic majority blocked the administration’s nomination of an NAACP official to fill a DOJ position. The sole reason for his rejection: he had committed the offense of serving as appeal counsel for Mumia. The clear message of this event was twofold. First, the most important characteristic for a liberal lawyer’s career advancement in our time is cowardice. Second, Black political prisoners are so far removed from the acceptable political world that simply working for their constitutional rights will disqualify someone from holding public office.
In the decades since the conclusion of the mass movements of the 60s and 70s, former political prisoners have filled parliamentary and executive seats in governments throughout the world. Aside from the often-cited case of Nelson Mandela, one encounters opposition parliamentarians in Ireland and Basque Country; a recent series of once imprisoned ex-guerrillas at the summit of their respective states in Bolivia, Uruguay, and Brazil; etc.
On the one hand, this teaches us a lesson on the flexibility of the party systems of capitalist democracy: their capacity to renew themselves while keeping basic economic relations in place. On the other hand, it exposes just how restricted and hypocritical are the limits of the world’s “model” democracy here in the US. Here, the Democratic Party as a whole in 2021 approaches the question of Black political prisoners in the same way Margaret Thatcher in 1981 approached the election of Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands to the British Parliament: “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political. It is crime. There can be no question of granting political status.” Thus, we have the travesty of elders cruelly mistreated – essentially sentenced to death by medical neglect – and a society fixed in its dense refusal to consider the context and nature of their convictions.
Today, fictional Panthers are on the silver screen, while real Panthers are dying in prison. The dire condition of Black political prisoners in the US is a result of the dire political atmosphere. Students must take up the democratic demand to return all political prisoners to their families. Students must educate others about these cases, pointing to the need for a movement of all nationalities that will uphold complete equality and the right to self-determination for all oppressed nations.
Mumia Abu-Jamal – 66 years old. Convicted 1982. Former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and supporter of MOVE. Congestive heart failure, COVID-19, and organ failure of the skin.
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin – 77 years old. Convicted 2000. Former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (1967–1968; 1969–). Blind and fighting cancer.
Sundiata Acoli – 84 years old. Convicted 1974. Former member of the BPP and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). COVID-19, early stage dementia, and cardiovascular disease.
Kamau Sadiki – 68 years old. Convicted 2003. Former member of the BPP and the BLA. Left leg infected, hepatitis C, cirrhosis of the liver, and sarcoidosis.
Mutulu Shakur – 70 years old. Convicted 1988. Active with the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (PG-RNA). Fighting cancer.
Russell “Maroon” Shoatz – 77 years old. Convicted 1970. Former member of the BPP and the BLA. Fighting cancer.
The MDSO is a member organization of the Northeast Political Prisoner Coalition. Visit their website to learn more about these prisoners and more, and to support their campaigns for release. Free them all!