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On the Political Offense

The time is past when we can be content with our social fabric merely because it is "ordained by divine right," or by the majesty of the law.

—Emma Goldman (1969: 113)

James Bennett's essay Political Trials and Prisoners in the United States (in this issue of SA) deals with a subject that few Americans consider seriously. According to conventional political wisdom, political trials and prisoners do not exist by definition in the United States, a country which many regard as the paragon of liberal, constitutional democracy. That there are in fact political trials and prisoners in the U.S. and that they are not widely recognized should provoke worry among radicals of various persuasions and lead them to consider better how to defend themselves against the threat legal prosecution and imprisonment. Discerning organizers might also consider the toll legal defense and incarceration could take on their activity and the viability of their organizations and movements.

Bennett states at the beginning of his essay that his "purpose is practical—to establish the fact of political trials as an integral but little acknowledged part of U.S. history and to defend political dissent," as well as to "recount some of the history of political persecution in the United States and suggest some remedies…." Despite these modest analytical goals (if less modest ambit), the essay is fraught by tension, sometimes contradiction, between the defense of "political dissent," even armed revolutionary action intent on overthrowing the state, and the acceptance of the essential legitimacy of the liberal state, ostensibly constituted by "representative democracy," upholding "truth, justice, and equality," and exemplified by the United States of America. Bennett seems unable to decide whether political dissent is right in its own terms, irrespective of the state's institutional stance, or whether it inheres to the origins and legitimate constitution of the state.

Bennett frames the motivation of political dissent, including "political crime" (its illegal form), in Thorelian terms: "the individual conscience versus the power of the state." A person sentenced to imprisonment for a "political crime" becomes a "political prisoner." My purpose is not to dispute Bennett's basic definitions of "political crime" and "political prisoner." However, I find his model of individual ­state interaction problematic. In it the political dissident is an individual responding according to some "higher" moral or political principle to "immoral, arrogant and intransigent leaders," "rules of laws" he or she finds "unjust," or instances in which the state "behaves brutally and immorally." The "government," or state, "ideally … represents its nation's cumulative best notions of justice" but may on occasion attack the dissenter with caprice or vindictiveness. Bennett's attempt to reconcile this dilemma between an individual's justifiable dissent and the legitimate authority of the state (through its legal and judicial apparatuses) leads him to a conclusion I find unsatisfactory, despite its conformity with the strategies of a number of actual political prisoners. He recommends that persons who commit "political crimes" should be honored with the allowance (an "exception" in legal terms) of a legal and juridical "political defense," albeit at the price of investigation, arrest, trial, and likely conviction and sentencing by an institution they may consider an integral part of a social system they reject. Bennett explains: "[M]y special purpose is to advocate the separation of political crimes from ordinary criminal activity and to urge the creation of political crime as a distinct legal entity."

I will not dispute the proposition that individuals have to justify their actions, political or otherwise, to themselves in order for these actions to have meaning and purpose. Nevertheless, Bennett seems to miss important social dimensions of political dissent, which are not provoked simply by instances of state injustice. Instead, he relies on a vague transcendentalism, which like many quasi-religious concepts forsakes material prosperity; he seems to expect political criminals to accept trial, conviction and punishment as prerogatives of the state. Although Bennett alludes to the political persecution of organized social movements, he does not provide for their legal defense, except at the level of the individual participants declaring their "conscience" in the forum of a state institution (supposedly representing the interests of society). Bennett also mentions the state's illegal and extralegal persecution of individuals and movements, but apparently he considers this issue outside the "practical" scope of his essay.

His article is at least informative to the extent that it incorporates material, however uncritically, from a great variety of historical resources. Anarchist critiques of the judicial and penal systems do not appear to be among these resources.

To my mind, anarchism is distinct from liberalism and reformism, which I think characterize Bennett's presentation and analysis. As I understand it, anarchism is a tradition (of which SA is inheritor in part), evolving mainly from European political culture: a tradition that opposes all types of domination, including all forms of the state. Anarchists long have been critical of penal "justice" and prisons. Germinal anarchist writings on the subject include William Godwin's On Punishment, Peter Kropotkin's Prisons and their Moral Influence on Prisoners and the work by Emma Goldman quoted at the beginning of this article. During the Russian Revolution anarchists formed the "Black Cross" to provide for the families of prisoners and to protect themselves and their imprisoned comrades against the depredations first of the monarchist "white" forces and later the Bolsheviks. During the Spanish Civil War, anarchists were known to have liberated prisoners unconditionally and recognized general amnesty, since they thought all prisoners, regardless of their real or alleged crimes, were victims of a monstrously oppressive political and economic system. For anarchists the creation of nonstatist, nonpunitive means of dealing with "crime," defined broadly as anti-social behavior, remains the ultimate test of their theory and practice. I return to this issue at the end of my commentary.

Having developed this context, I offer here a brief anarchist critique of Bennett's presuppositions and his "practical" remedy to political persecution, drawing on my knowledge of the judicial and political systems of the U.S. and my practical experience as a member of the Baltimore Anarchist Black Cross. I try to demonstrate the conflict concerning dissent and legitimacy which recurs throughout Bennett's essay. I also examine whether his "political defense" is practicable, "remedial" or just, and challenge the notion of the separation of "political crimes" from "ordinary criminal activity." I do this both on strategic grounds and on principle (which, I hope, are inextricable). The opinions here I claim only for myself. They are informed by my work as an activist and member of a collective, but they do not necessarily represent the policies and programs of the Baltimore ABC or the regional federation of which it is a part.

Political Dissent and Political Crimes

Bennett's definition of "political dissent," and by extension "political crime," is individualistic and therefore poses problems for his analysis of the history of radical political activity and organized political movements. It is explicitly individualistic, in that he reduces the cause of dissent and rebellion to individuals' "abhorrence of some action by the government," and "adherence to … commitment to some higher law to the values of their conscience…." States Bennett, "The foundation of political protest lies in radical respect for individual protest." I emphasize "some," since this particularization, among other references (for example the repeated use of the indefinite plural "violations"), implies that the actions deserving dissent are occasional or incidental, and that as a whole, the activity of the state can not be condemned. His definition of political dissent is also implicitly individualistic in that he analyzes it in the context of the acts of individual persons and the effect of trials and imprisonment on them, rather than upon organizations and broader social movements of which they are often participants. Although Bennett mentions in passing a range of organizations and movements with various aims and tactics—Operation Plowshares, the civil rights movement, the Puerto Rican independentistas, the "Ohio Seven," the Black Panther Party, radical organized labor, even the Posse Comitatus—he concentrates on the personal histories, tribulations, legal prosecution and heroism of a few persons: among others Helen Woodson, Alan Berkman and Rick Boardman in the U.S; Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel and Lech Wale(ogonek)sa abroad. This is a motley assortment, ranging from a conscientious objector to an anti-imperialist "conspirator" to an ex-labor leader turned neo-liberal careerist. Yet each is apparently motivated simply by his or her "individual conscience," however that may be interpreted.

By leaving "conscience" abstract and "higher law" vague ("international law, God's law" etc.) the social construction and historical evolution of moral and political values and practices escape Bennett's analysis. If I understand "values of … conscience" correctly, he is referring to a set of moral or political precepts and criteria. While no such set of precepts is enough to move a person to conscious reflection, reason and action, it does inform decisions and construct reasonable options. Unless one is a true believer in the revelatory knowledge of some idealism, mysticism or transcendentalism, values derive from concrete circumstances and social practices that the individual thinker does not determine entirely. It also disturbs me, especially as Bennett's essay purports to offer "answers" and "remedies" to the persecution confronting diverse political dissidents and associated movements, that he uses the terms "truth," "justice," "liberty" and "equality" just as vaguely. Like "individual conscience," they remain vacant rhetorical devices so long as they are not put in historical, philosophical or political context. It may be wise to avoid these terms altogether, as often as politicians and other "talking heads" use them for propagandistic emotional effect. I seems more productive to me to attend to who and what define these terms and how they are employed.

While one may believe that Martin Luther King Jr was inspired by God to initiate his civil rights campaign or woke up one day and decided that racial discrimination was wrong and had to be combatted, what he understood about the nature of racism was informed by the experiences of his own community and other Black activists, and by the studies of Black scholars. The religious and moral precepts of the church which he ministered informed his ethical objections to racism. Likewise a certain reading of the Bible and the works of authors like Mohandis Gandhi guided the development of his strategy and tactics against racial discrimination. Had he not had an authoritative position within the church, a vital institution of the Black community in the South, which possessed well established organizing principles, rallying significant numbers of people would have been frustrating. The support of other organizers and organizations, some of whose names have been forgotten or were never known by most, carried the civil rights movement onward. Had he been acting alone, according to some remarkably idiosyncratic set of beliefs, he would have been a "voice crying in the wilderness" of less than Biblical proportion, and there would have been no need for the state to "silence" him.

Martin Luther King Jr has come to represent the civil rights movement because of a pervasive tendency in our society toward to identifying and isolating "leaders" as society's prime movers. Indeed, he was a visionary, charismatic representative with a gift for oratory; but it was the movement that earned him and others persecution and death, not merely the declaration of the "values of their conscience." It was the movement that threatened the material power—not just the stated political and moral authority—of the state and other racist bodies. It was the movement that threatened to bring the system down and therefore had to be stopped, not just an importunate voice that needed to be silenced. The lonely crank may sit on the front porch, imprecate the government and be reprimanded for "disturbing the peace." He or she may even resist arrest, insisting the state does not have the authority to do so. But he or she is not likely to be framed for murdering a police officer or assassinated in the dead of night, as has happened to scores of political dissidents because they were part of strong collective tendency. In short Bennett's model of the individual political dissident guided by peculiar moral insights is a version of the "great man theory" of history, thoroughly and eloquently criticized elsewhere.

Because Bennett describes political dissent as basically protest against certain egregious acts of violence, immorality or injustice by the state and the interests it represents, he overlooks the fact that persons and organizations who are condemned as dissidents and criminals by these institutions are not usually reacting to specific and occasional acts by the state. Rather, they are striving to found new social formations or restructure existing ones radically, in order to obviate future injustice. Their course of action is not contingent upon some extraordinary act of the state, but rather stems from their dissatisfaction with ordinary social affairs, be they subsumed by the official political, economic or cultural sectors. They have reached the conclusion that constant denial of their needs, oppression of their attempts to fulfill them and repression of their desire for lasting change are systematic, and not accidental effects of a society whose institutions tout themselves as essentially munificent and freedom-seeking. They have concluded that "social justice" that permeates every aspect of life can realized in various ways, among them anti-imperialist solidarity groups, national liberation movements, international labor unions and self-sufficient communities. Not the least is the development of strategies to dismantle to penal justice system, which warehouses and kills the poor, exploits racial divisions, and decimates families and neighborhoods.

I think it is important to note in this context that the two cases of U.S. "political prisoners" whose motives Bennett explains, Helen Woodson of Operation Plowshares, a Catholic acting according to a theologically "higher law," and Rick Boardman, a Quaker conscientious objector, are white anti-war protestors and pacifists. Protest politics is predominantly a "white thing"—particularly, a white and middle class form of "political dissent." Pacifism often tragically assumes that the normal state of political affairs is peaceful and just. Although he counts "political prisoners" among anti-imperialist and national liberation movements—who contribute the greatest number to those imprisoned for political acts—he refers to their cases as examples of excessive government persecution and punishment without examining the political motives of these movements. (In so doing he makes the incorrect assertion that Dhoruba bin Wahad of the Black Panther Party received an "excessive sentence," unless by "excessive" he means all twenty-one years of Dhoruba's imprisonment, resulting from a conviction falsely obtained and eventually overturned.) Of Alan Berkman, a white, long-time supporter of national liberation movements, who was convicted of "conspiracy" for giving medical treatment to Marilyn Buck, a fugitive of a bombing of the U.S. Capitol, Bennett simply remarks that the "case illustrates a particularly despicable aspect of political trials and imprisonment—the government's vindictiveness."

There is a difference between the protest politics Bennett describes and other forms of radical political organizing. White college students, for example, may go to a protest, perform their "C.D." and even get a police boot in the face, but they do so at their convenience. Black young people, mainly men, are arrested, beaten up and shot every day for as little as fitting a "profile" or demanding that the police desist in harassing them. It was such constant racist persecution that informed the Black Panther Party's original endeavors. The BPP's early activity consisted of "policing the police." However, it did not regard this "self-defense" merely as watching out for a few "bad cops." The BPP considered the police the occupying army of a colonial government. Nor did their party platform (What We Want—What We Believe, 1966) simply ask the state to control its occasional "excessive" and "vindictive" outbursts. To take several demands: "1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community…. 6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service…. 8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails…. 10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace…" (Foner 1970: 3). These are declarations of sovereignty, steps in quest for autonomy, assertion that they alone have the right to decide how their community should be organized and governed. Neither the sovereignty of the "nation" of the United States nor the jurisdiction of its state institutions, representing its "cumulative best notions of justice," are taken for granted. "Nation" here is meant in the European sense of "nation­state" and not in the sense that many struggling indigenous peoples use it.

More important to understanding the state's repression of the BPP are their projects in Black communities throughout the U.S. The BPP worked at the level of neighborhood communities in inner cities, almost in spite of its democratic centralist rhetoric. It fed children for free, established low-income and collective housing, published newspapers, offered training in legal and physical self-defense, worked with street organizations to establish lasting alliances and creative projects, and opened "liberation schools." It also defied the prevailing, interrelated political, economic and culture systems and the state apparatuses that support them. It seems to me that anarchists should be taking their cues from such examples, rather than arguing that the nation-state's institutions, taken uncritically as representatives of a nebulous community, can be reformed to accommodate dissent and rebellion. This seems to be what Bennett suggests.

 
 
 

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