Our Winter 2021 issue of The Abolitionist is heading to the printers this December. This issue features articles focused on “Pathways toward Freedom,” or strategies for getting people out of cages.
To get a sense of what’s in store for this issue, check out an epic interview that Critical Resistance’s Ian Baran from The Abolitionist Editorial Collective did with former political prisoner, now-released, Jalil Muntaqim of Jericho Movement, Jose Saldana from Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), and Sahar Francis from Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association on the struggle to defend and free political prisoners in the US and Palestine.
To read the whole issue, subscribe to The Abolitionist newspaper today, and sponsor free subscriptions for people locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers. Know someone who’s imprisoned who wants a free subscription? Sign up a prisoner (for free) here.
What’s the Call? FREE THEM ALL: Organizing to Liberate Political Prisoners
By Ian Baran with Jalil Muntaqim, Jose Saldana, and Sahar Francis
While the use of imprisonment as a form of punishment and social control is inherently political, the imprisonment of revolutionaries, movement makers, and political dissidents is a long-standing struggle that has greatly informed the foundations of both Critical Resistance as an abolitionist organization and the larger prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition movement as a whole. When envisioning Issue 36’s feature focus “pathways toward freedom,” The Abolitionist Editorial Collective wanted to spend some time digging more deeply into the work to free political prisoners and to consider efforts to free political prisoners and “prisoners of war” in the US and globally as a central strategy for PIC abolition. We see this as a clear pathway toward freedom not only for freedom fighters but for our collective liberation. To this end, The Abolitionist’s Ian Baran interviewed three long-time organizers with Release Aging People in Prisons (RAPP), Jericho Movement, andAddameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. Lifting up the importance of political prisoner support movements, especially as they work within broader movement work, this interview considers the modes of political prisoner support, how the movement has gotten people free, the ebbs and flows of political prisoner support, how political prisoner advocates view their work within a larger abolitionist framing, and what the future of political prisoner support looks like or should look like.
Can you tell us a little bit about you and your organization?
Jalil Muntaqim: Jericho came into existence in 1998. Before, there was an organization called the Republic of New Afrika, Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (PG-RNA) that used to do marches around the White House, what they call Jericho marches. When they stopped doing them in ‘96, I thought, well, why? And I thought that they need to continue as we’re trying to build a great support for political prisoners across the country. By virtue of that I put out a proposal and in 1996 my comrades Safiya Bukhari and Baba Herman Ferguson came to visit me when I was in Eastern Correctional Facility and they said, “Yes, we will do this, but we will take a couple of years to organize it”. In 1998, we organized a march in Washington, D.C. 6,000 activists from across the country joined in, and, because of that march we decided we will continue this momentum and we built Jericho, a national movement, an amnesty movement.
Jose Saldana: RAPP was founded by a collective of formerly incarcerated people. One was a B lack man by the name of Mujahid Farid, and two [were] white women from the leftist movement of the ’60s and early ’70s, Laura Whitehorn and Kathy Boudin. They had the vision of ending mass incarceration beginning with a practical approach to release aging people and those serving long prison sentences, initial first steps to end mass incarceration. Because at the time, and still prevalent today, you have elder people, in their sixties and seventies and even eighties who have languished in prison for decades. This was the quest, the monumental task they took on that Mujahid Farid dedicated seven years of his life to before he passed away two years ago.
At the time when RAPP was developing, I was fighting the New York parole board. RAPP used actual parole hearing minutes and court decisions to expose [the racism in the New York State parole decision making process] and presented the evidence to Governor Cuomo’s Office. One of the few things he did that impacted our communities and people of color that languish in prison is not reappoint punitive-minded commissioners who were cited in this report. Instead, he appointed six new commissioners from a diversified background. We were always saying that parole commissioners from a law enforcement background cannot ever give us a fair hearing because they won’t ignore their ideology and training after dedicating their entire lives to creating and contributing to this racist system. When I appeared before the parole boardin November 2017, the lead commissioner with a social service background asked me one question about the crime that I committed in 1979, which is normal, and I’m thinking “Here we go again… ”, but then, she paused for a second or so and said, “Let’s talk about what you’ve been doing with your life the last 38 years”. So RAPP was directly responsible for my freedom. I was released and, you know, I left men behind who were worthy of freedom just as I was and had really no other choice but to knock on RAPP’s door and report for duty.
Sahar Francis: Addameer was founded at the end of 1991 during the first Intifada as a response to the need for mass legal aid for Palestinian political prisoners. Our association and Defence for Children International Palestine, which was also established in the same period, were the first such organizations offering free legal support to Palestinian political prisoners and detainees, including child prisoners and their families. We were founded by a group of lawyers, former detainees, and human rights activists who saw the need for a strategic response to the mass campaign of arrests by Israel at the time. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, we began to also provide legal support to political prisoners arrested by the PA. Today, we offer free legal aid to hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and PA prisons every year, while monitoring and documenting detention conditions and human rights violations as well as advocating for their rights both locally and internationally.
I became involved with Addameer in 1996 as a volunteer, where I mostly followed cases of interrogation and conducted prison visits. In 1997, I was employed part-time and began to represent prisoners and detainees in the Israeli military courts. In 1998, I was hired fully, and worked with the organization’s Legal Unit until November 2005 when I was appointed to replace Khalida Jarrar, who had decided to run for Parliament, as director.
Why focus on political prisoners? Why focus on elderly folks in prison?
Jalil: They belong to part of a movement, a dynamic movement of social and economic change for peoples’ liberation and independence. Their position in terms of their relationship to the State is more critical, especially as an oppositional force. We also know that they often find themselves in dire conditions and are repressed more because they speak out against the system. They are often put in solitary confinement, beaten up, lose their visits, or other cruelties that make their lives in prison that much more difficult because they believe in the need for fighting against the system. So why would we not support political prisoners? Especially since the United States denies that it has political prisoners or the existence of political prisoners. If we allow the U.S. to do that, then not only are we making an error in regards to our relationship toward one another, but, why would we engage in struggle with the ultimate potential of our being killed or sent to prison and not being supported? The political prisoner movement is part of the revolutionary movement, and it has to be part of a revolutionary movement. The freedom of political prisoners is an extension of the revolutionary movement and any building of a dynamic of liberation and independence.
Sahar: The prisoners’ cause has always been of central importance to the Palestinian people, but the level of activism on behalf of prisoners has ebbed and flowed as part of a wider reality. Though many were dedicated to the political cause, they were preoccupied with everything happening around them – from the targeted killings and home demolitions, to the building of the apartheid wall and the Israeli siege on Arafat in his Ramallah compound. At the same time, the War on Terror was feeding into Israel’s racialized campaign of painting Palestinian political prisoners as terrorists, which also affected international solidarity. The success of prisoners’ campaigns is very closely tied to the movements that can show up for them outside of prison.
Jose: The two founders [of RAPP] were directly connected with political prisoners, who were also elderly and likely to die in prison. I was released at 66; statistically my recidivism rate is less than 1%. We’re talking about a group of people who they cannot say will, upon release, resort to criminal activities. This was a safe bet; if anybody can get out with this, it is those who have the evidence that they not only will not resort to harming others, but they will enhance community safety. These people are a benefit to their home communities and society at large.
One of the fundamental principles RAPP was founded upon is that no one should be excluded from parole justice because parole justice is equal to racial justice. And that principle is based on the history of movements that were fighting against social racial injustice; none of these movements excluded anybody. One thing for these other orgs out there: we must have that vision – to dismantle the system entirely by uprooting it and leaving nothing behind. We can’t stop. We have to keep going and pass on that baton until this system no longer exists. That is how it has to be.
What are any initiatives that your organization is involved in in the current moment?
Jalil: Let’s start with the Spirit of Mandela. In 2018, I put a proposal to bring back the International Jurors and put it under the title of “In the Spirit of Nelson Mandela” because he was resolute—his resilience, and how he survived some of the worst prisons. So in the spirit of Mandela, that kind of resistance and resilience is important. Why 2021? Because 70 years ago, on December 15, 1951, the great Paul Robeson and William Patterson brought the first “we charge genocide,” to the United Nations. After the Tribunal, we’re taking the charges and decision and going to file a civil rights complaint in Federal Court to force the court to respond. We are not necessarily sure if they will do so, but at least we’re presenting how the government must respond. That will continue to build support for educating the public and support civil rights complaints; we’re building social and political consciousness and building our capacity to challenge the system on other levels.
Jose: We do teachings, forums, panel discussions in district meetings with [representatives]. We stay connected to these leaders by inviting them to our events, press conferences, and by introducing them to incarcerated people who have returnedso they can see them for who they are today, not who they were judged as for the years and decades while incarcerated. There came a point where some of our electives would say we’re different, but we’re not different. We can all be out here serving our communities as credible messengers and social activists capable of bettering our community and enhancing safety.
We take advantage of every opportunity we get. The ones who support us now are with us, it took a while for some of them to sign on to become co-sponsors, butwe have champions who at every opportunity advocate for real transformative changes.
Sahar: Addameer recently launched a campaign against the Israeli military court, which focuses on how the Israeli military judicial system plays a key role in maintaining Israel’s apartheid apparatus. As a system inherently bound up with the ill treatment and torture of Palestinians, seeking fair trial standards in Israeli military courts is redundant. We will continue to represent prisoners in front of military courts and exhaust all possible methods to defend their rights, but the importance of this campaign is that while we do the work necessary to support prisoners, we also push for change that targets the roots of the system.
Can you talk about the movement ebbs and flows from your organizing?
Jalil: The movement is generational. One thing I tell young people today in the struggle, it’s not a race, it is not a sprint, it is a marathon. We have to be prepared to pass on the baton from one generation to the next. That’s because of the issues of how we engage [in] the struggle with the system itself and how the system represses the struggle. And when we understand that, each contribution we make today is a contribution for those who come behind us tomorrow – this is why we need to be willing and able to put in the sacrifice and work to ensure that we are engaging and contributing on one level or another. At one point, I thought that the real revolution can only be done by fighting in the underground movement. I’m not negating that or saying that is not necessary, it is necessary, but we also have to build mass power. We gotta build a people’s movement, a mass movement, what I call a popular mass movement, and when we build it then it can be self-sustaining to ensure that the next generation has the history and the tools to continue the momentum of the struggle. I want to say that it is about being revolutionary, but take the r- off and we have evolutionary. This means that we go from one state of social condition to another. Therefore, as an evolutionary, you have to be a revolutionary, evolve the social order to power to the people.
Jose: I think we can sustain the movement and even grow. When I first came home, one thing that was really awesome and unexpected, was that when I spoke at major universities in the city, I spoke to students, and they all claim to be abolitionists. That was unheard of before I went to prison. This is a bright spot; people are seeing that this system has to be dismantled entirely. We are not just talking about reforming racism; we can’t reform racism, and we understand that you can’t reform slavery – you cannot reform a system that is the pillar of these evils. That’s a great thing that people are realizing but, as you know, we can’t do it overnight. It takes time to have these discussions with community members, especially those impacted not only by racism and mass incarceration but also by interpersonal harm. We have to have open and honest conversations and give them a glimpse of a vision that they could hold on to.
Sahar: As the prisoners’ justice movement grows internationally, prisoners’ movements here in Palestine are also empowered and strengthened. Although the language of abolition is not commonly used here, the case of Palestine is by its nature an abolitionist one because we know that a series of reforms will not lead to justice for the Palestinians. Instead, the unjust systems of military occupation and apartheid must be challenged and transformed. The struggle of Palestinian political prisoners is fundamentallyrooted in a struggle for self-determination against Israel’s capitalist-colonial expansion and ethnic cleansing. It is essential that we see our movements become transnationally connected and tied to one another. An internationalist perspective on prisoners’ support and justice work can only make our local work stronger because it forces us to recognize that it is the same logic that allows mass imprisonment from the United States to Colombia. Freedom should be understood as an international venture.
What do you see as the kind of prisoner support to develop tactics and grow a larger movement? How do you educate the masses and build out institutions? It’s also easy to see how these struggles feel so disconnected sometimes and it’s about how to bring them all together, right, to connect them.
Jalil: There’s not one specific tactical initiative that speaks directly to the issues of political prisoners; there’s multiple issues that must be raised and built upon. Political prisoners are a part of a struggle that we need to build. We need to build out the base from which that movement evolves. If you do so, you build out the basic support of political prisoners as part of that. Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture] once said that the one thing that activists need to do is organize, organize, organize. So therefore, if political prisoners need funds for their legal initiatives and defenses, then we need to raise funds. We need to ensure that they are safe, we need to be able to put forth demonstrations and mobilizations to call out prison administrators and force the state to acknowledge the conditions of those political prisoners. If a political prisoner needs health care, we need to have doctors and nurses who can go inside the prisons to do an assessment of our political prisoners and make sure that they are healthy and getting the kind of medical attention that they deserve. They need to be visited; let them know that they are still loved and not isolated. All of those things cumulatively are part of a movement. Ultimately, what we need to do is abolish prisons. We also need to broaden that perspective because we know that the prison system is based upon the ideas of white supremacy. For us, we need to build an ideology or political mantra that says abolitionists need to abolish everything that is anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-Indigenous people. We need to build a national liberation front and a national united front, because both are necessary for coalition building and cadre development across the country.
Jose: Well, we’re grassroots, we actually believe in the power of those impacted. Just about everybody is now impacted in one form or another, so we try to galvanize our communities to use that power. As it stands now, we are marginalized. We’re trying to get our communities to believe that they can determine their own destiny and define what justice should look like in New York State. Incarceration, no matter how long a period, does not equate to public safety. So, if it doesn’t, then why are we relying on it? Public safety has to be defined another way – we have to look at the school system and who controls what in our communities to start defining safety by the structure of our community. We’re trying to fix this system, legislatively, and pass bills that will give people a better opportunity to return to their families. One thing that we’ve done very well recently is that we have galvanized families with incarcerated loved ones and shown them how to use their voice, because they are the most powerful voice that we have. We have community organizers in key areas of the state, as well as community leaders, who are [family members of] incarcerated loved ones, so when a family member sees one of our community leaders in a visiting room they connect with them and start having little teach-ins in their apartments. This is how it grows. They come to us and see the support, attend legislative hearings, and speak to legislators for the very first time in their lives. They see the power of their voice and it spreads.
We’ve also developed a coalition of 60 grassroots organizations to pass two parole bills. We support immigration rights, and anybody that is struggling for liberation from this capitalist system of punishment and marginalization, and have come together as a coalition to pass these two bills. We believe that this is going to be the year, this people’s power that we’ve developed and all the base building that we’ve been doing, that our work is going to come to fruition.
Sahar: Addameer has not shifted in focus over the past three decades, but we have expanded our services and developed our work to be more effective and far-reaching. Today we have grown to offer four key programs: The Legal Aid Unit, the Documentation and Research Unit, the Advocacy and Lobbying Unit, [and] Addameer’s Training and Awareness Unit.
Addameer is deeply involved and embedded in Palestinian civil society and plays a significant role in shaping our responses to human rights violations. The strength of this network is especially important in the face of the constant harassment, defamation, and threats faced by Palestinian civil society organizations, in particular those working for human rights. The arbitrary criminalization of human rights defenders and the attacks on human rights organizations range from the arrests of their staff to travel bans, residency revocations, and military raids.
Jose Hamza Saldana is Director of Release Aging People in Prison Campaign (RAPP). RAPP is a grassroots community organizing and advocacy campaign co-founded by a collective of formerly incarcerated people. RAPP works to end mass incarceration and promote racial justice through the release of older people in prison and those serving long-term prison sentences. This is done as a means of uprooting greater forces of injustice that uphold legacies of racism, revenge, perpetual punishment, and the control of Black and other communities of color. https://rappcampaign.com/
Since 2006, Sahar Francis has been the General Director of Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Palestinian NGO providing legal and advocacy support to Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. An attorney by training, she joined the association in 1998, first as a human rights lawyer, then as head of the Legal Unit. With over twenty years of human rights experience, including human rights counseling and representation, Ms. Francis also was on the Board of Defence for Children International – Palestine Section for 4 years, and on the Board of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. Sahar did her practice on Human Rights in the Society of Saint Yves in Jerusalem, on issues of land confiscations, house demolitions, labor rights and freedom of movement. In 1997 she worked in the Badil Refugee Rights Center on its legal unit. www.addameer.org or DCI/Palestine website www.dci-palestine.org
Jalil Muntaqim was one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world, having been incarcerated since 1971. A former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, he has been a critical influence in the development of revolutionary consciousness in the United States. After being released in 2020, Jalil has continued organizing, and in 2021 held the Spirit of Mandela International Tribunal. For more information on ways to get involved after the tribunal go to https://thejerichomovement.com/ and https://spiritofmandela.org/.