Reporter's Notebook from Jericho '98:
A New Generation Connects with Political Prisoners
Revolutionary Worker #952, April 12, 1998
This "Reporter's Notebook" was written by an RW correspondent who went to the March 27 Jericho '98 demonstration in Washington, D.C.:
I got on the bus in Cleveland, ready to join thousands of others to demand freedom and amnesty for the more than 100 political prisoners in the U.S. And my eyes and mind stayed open most of that night, thinking about how important this event was going to be. I thought about Merle Africa, who had just died the week before in one of Pennsylvania's dungeons. A member of MOVE, Merle had served almost 20 years in prison for the "crime" of loving the people and fighting the system. I felt sad about her death. And throughout the ride and during the day of the demonstration, I thought of how happy Merle would have been to hear about 5,000 to 7,000 people marching in D.C. to demand freedom for all political prisoners.
We stopped in Kent, Ohio to pick up scores of students, most of them part of AntiRacist Action and the May 4th organization. We clapped with enthusiasm as they boarded the bus, bags in hand, big smiles and ready to go. After the bus got going again a video was shown of Abdul Haaq. Abdul is a member of the December 12th Movement Cleveland on April 13. Abdul had made the video to speak to and applaud people going to Jericho, since he couldn't go himself--he is out on bail but the courts won't allow him out of Cuyahoga County.
When we got to D.C. people started derisively calling out the names of the many hated agencies in the big white buildings, like the FBI, the Justice Department and others. Then we rode by lots of rundown housing and dirty streets with trash cans overflowing.
The sun was bright, the cherry blossoms in full bloom and we were in high spirits when we got to Malcolm X Park. There were about 500 to 600 people already assembled and lots of drumming and African music. Right away I noticed the numbers of youth in the crowd, of all different nationalities. Many of them hadn't even been born yet in the early '70s, when a lot of the political prisoners on the Jericho '98 list were arrested. Here was a new generation--connecting up with the fight around political prisoners and infusing the struggle with fresh spirit and determination.
I flashed back on the statement by RCP Spokesperson Carl Dix, where he said, "Jericho '98 can help capture the imagination of many of the youth who are increasingly being warehoused in prisons.... These staunch, veteran fighters can serve as a bridge to revolutionary activity for the new generation that's being driven to rise up today against the hell this system is bringing down." Then I grabbed my tape recorder and set out to learn from and about the people--especially the new generation of youth--who had come to Jericho '98.
When I asked an activist from Toledo why he had came to Jericho '98, he said, "I came here to demonstrate my frustration with the political establishment in the U.S. As long as we have any political prisoners in the U.S. we are all political prisoners.... So I am here to rattle the bars of the prisons. I am concerned with Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, the Puerto Rican political prisoners, Assata Shakur. All of them."
I talked with a middle-aged Puerto Rican man from New York who said, "I am here to help free the Puerto Rican political prisoners, the ones who are incarcerated from Chicago mainly, the members of the FALN. I worked with them in New York. I came down here to support them. This government wants to continue the colonial status of Puerto Rico, so they want to make examples of these people. Since 1998, they have been keeping up these oppressions and this is just a continuation of that even though the support these people have had is immense. They have been in prison 17, 18 years already for sedition, which is an overthrow the system charge--the system invented these charges. They face very severe conditions. This demonstration is a way of putting pressure on the powers-that-be. This is educating the masses but the powers still keep this information out of the media."
Larry, a keyboard player in his 40s, stopped to talk and said, "All the people who are locked up, called political prisoners, are people who stood up to fight for reparations, for freedom--most of all fighting against the oppression of poor people and against the exploitation of oppressed people. These people are pretty much freedom fighters... My main contribution is to create awareness through my music. The type of music I play is basically conscious music. And as far as this country is concerned, this is not democracy, it is like the word `democrazy.' I have no idea what it is like to live in a true democracy, I live in a `democrazy.' " Both of us laughed.
Then I ran into two members of ARA (AntiRacist Action) from New York. One of them told me, "We need to free any political prisoners, any race...the whole judicial system and prison system is outright wrong and there's also extreme cases that are worse than others." His friend jumped in, "I'm here to support the political prisoners and support their struggles 'cause you never know, being an activist in the states, you never known when or where they will charge you with something that you didn't do. Then you could end up in that situation. So I think it is most solid that all activists support Jericho..."
The march began and we filed out of Malcolm X and hit a main street, going towards the White House. Lots of African drums pounded out rhythms that pulsated through us all, moving the march along with high spirits and fast paces. When the march stopped for a red light, people danced in the streets, arms in the air, moving to the beat of the drums. I looked around and saw people along the street clapping, throwing fists into the air, some chanting, "No Justice, No Peace" and "The cops say step back, we say fight back" and more. There were people hanging out of windows waving, fists in the air, and youth jumping up on trash cans to look out over the march.
The march was moving quickly, but everyone wanted to talk about the meaning of Jericho, why they came, what good they thought it would do and what the political prisoners mean to them.
A Latino woman in her 30s told me, "Everyone should have the right to live their life, and it is especially not right that they be in prison just because they talk against the government. This march will definitely influence passers-by, they can join us, and eventually we can get enough people to make a difference."
Then a long-time activist I know from Hew Haven came up to me and said, "This is really great because of all the people who are young. I work with many people who are older. They are very active on a number of issues and keep active but it's a new upsurge of what's going on among youth now and I am very heartened to see a lot of 20s and teenagers. For so long the issue of political prisoners has been outright denied in this country. I think the cases, particularly of Mumia, have gotten more visibility. People have dug a little deeper into the history of what the U.S. government is about and discovered that Mumia's case is not isolated. Even though he is the only political prisoner on death row, people are learning that there are many people who are languishing in prison solely for their political beliefs and their resistance to our brutal system of government."
A young white student from the University of Colorado in Boulder said he got involved after getting a flyer on campus put out by the Rocky Mountain Peace Center. He said, "I am interested in everything altogether. We need to tear down everything. It's too late to pay attention to just one thing. Got to deal with everything together. I feel great about this because there are all these people with all different interests but we have managed to come together to get this thing started. If we can hold on to this, we can get everybody involved in everything and that's how change is going to come about. Everyone has to unite around one course."
As I marched on, I came upon a big blue and white banner from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina--41 students had come from this school. One woman told me it was important to come "because it could be any of us. This is a call for awareness to the injustices that are going on. In our community we are involved in helping in the struggle of migrant farmworkers. With the issue of political prisoners, I think that if they [the powers] have no regard to the Constitution in one case, then are they ever?"
As we got closer to Lafayette Park, with the White House in sight, I talked with a woman from African Frontline Network. She told me, "I think it's important that we put people on notice that we are no longer going to allow them to keep our people locked up in these dungeons for 20 and 30 years. We are going to make a stand today and this is just the first step of what we are going to do until our people are free. I think this march will bring attention to an issue that has been quiet for so long. Maybe not as much as we would like because of the mainstream media. But the alternative media will get the word out about why this important."
When we got to the park I talked with Hector, a young Puerto Rican brother who is a member of Welfare Poets and Pro Libertad Amnesty Campaign for Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and he told me, "Now that we are here in mass, everyone knows, including those in Washington, DC, including people around the world, that there is a movement growing for the release of our soldiers who are on the frontlines. Any army, any war can't leave their soldiers locked up to die and rot in jail, we got to feed them. Everyone knows that the prison industrial complex is growing and growing and one of the biggest manifestations of that is how they treat the political prisoners who get the worst and the harshest treatment."
A 19-year-old in the youth network of Refuse & Resist! had lots to say: "Some people are radical, some are passive, everyone does work and you sum it all up and it makes a difference. It contributes to creating awareness and letting people know that this country is not the home of the free and the land of the brave. The more people we can get to realize that, the more people we can get to our side. The more of a unified, diverse front we can hopefully have. I think it's going to take lots of different people, from ARA to the Bruderhof, all these different people coming together. This is what it's going to take if we can bring something positive to these communities and let people know there are systematic reasons why they are oppressed, why a person can't find a job. It's quantum. And in terms of political prisoners, a lot of these cases deal with a lot of aspects. Like Mumia's case deals with legislative corruption, judicial corruption, state and election official corruption, police brutality, railroading and frame-ups. A lot of these political prisoners take on so many different issues of corruption and foul play and fucked-upness. All these links makes people think, `damn.' I have only been active for a year. I learned all these things about Mumia and Geronimo and Sundiata Acoli. It all adds up, it is like Refuse & Resist! says, `It's all one attack.' These things are not coincidental. These things have been going on for decades and the more light we shed, the more people we bring on our side."
A Black Latino student was excited by all the youth who had come to Jericho '98. He said, "All these young people. I mean you know, people from CUNY, the Almighty Kings and Queens, ARA, Food Not Bombs, RCYB, people from Beacon High School in New York City. This is a humongous youth turnout, tons of generation Xs just causing a ruckus and it's beautiful. Having all these youth is definitely something that will contribute to a revolution. I think Mumia would love it. I did the children's brigade during the summer--we marched at SCI Greene where Mumia and many others are on death row. The brigade was done and led by Bruderhof youth. We have youth fuckin' it up and I love it."
And a Black woman from Emory University also commented on how many youth were in the crowd: "Lots of young people, people of different colors, lots of spirit, it's beautiful. I think this issue relates to a lot of other issues, like oppression of people by the U.S. government. It relates to the prison system in general, the prison industrial complex. It relates to racism and imperialism and sexism because that's what these political prisoners are fighting against and why they are in prison. That's why so many people have come together, because it is so unifying."
I met Barbara Curzi who told me, "I was a political prisoner for seven years. I was charged with the actions of the United Freedom Front. We were against the military actions of the U.S. in the '80s and against Motorola and GE and Honeywell in their support of apartheid. We wanted to let the people who worked there and in the community know what these corporations were about. The important thing about this day is that the movement is growing with the young people and their consciousness is being raised and this could be a catalyst for a revolutionary movement in this country."
After talking to Barbara, I went up to a group of young Black high school students. They were from Maryland and were in a group that is active around political prisoners. Daryl told me how his family experienced this issue directly--his grandfather was in jail with Nelson Mandela. Then a Latino student from UC Berkeley came along. He works at Berkeley High School and had been part of forming "Students for Jericho," which organized a teach-in and guerrilla theater on campus. He told me, "If you look around here, the majority are young and that says something about where the movement is going--that there are young people making connections to the prisoners. I think this demonstration will help young people organizing in your communities to see that you are not alone. It will kinda give more juice to the movement, give an understanding that it's a large movement of multi-racial folks..."
I ran into a Puerto Rican sister who belongs to a high school group called ASPIRA that's part of the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality in New York. She said, "I think that the issue of political prisoners is so important because these prisoners have so much to say, but they can't say it behind bars... I think they have locked up so many Puerto Rican prisoners because they see a gold mine in Puerto Rico and some people just want to be free, don't want Puerto Rico unified with the U.S."
Lee told me how his group, "Asians for Mumia," had worked with Yuri Kochiyama to form "Asians for Jericho." Some of the students they organized to come are in a Youth Leadership Program formed by the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and money was raised so students could get on the bus for only $5 or for free. Before we finished talking Lee introduced me to his mother and grandmother, who had also come to stand with political prisoners.
Next I sat on the grass and talked to five anarchist white youth with tattoos and nose rings, wearing all black. They had come from a small rural town in Indiana. One of them said, "I have a big farm behind my house. I am confronted with a lot of racism, a lot of police repression, the police are terrible. We have been harassed. We have developed a sense of what is going on, a broader world view, have become aware of political prisoners and the workers' movement. Even though we are not in a big city, it is just as important to get the word out to the people there. If anything is going to go down, these people have to have their eyes opened too. We have a group called UNITE and we have different groups come and speak, and are organizing a paper where we have put out things about Mumia. So we organized people to come down here. We are in college. I think the political prisoner issue is the issue of human rights and the government crushing what these people believe in, their political beliefs, by putting them in jail."
After I heard some youth from MOVE do a great rap on stage about how the system locks up our brothers and sisters, I went looking to talk to them. One them, Jack Africa, told me, "We are here because we wanted to put out about our sister Merle Africa and what they did to her and to MOVE. Since the early days until now, they still trying to get rid of MOVE. On August 8 (1978) they framed up nine members for killing one cop. We are out here to inform people on what this system is doing. On May 13 (1985) they killed 11 of my sisters and brothers, five children and six adults. We are giving truth to the people, so that's why we out here today, getting more information out to the people. That's why we do the rap, to get more information out to the youth." Brian Africa then added, "We put out information, you know we do it in rap music. Because a lot of kids are into rap music. But the kind of rap they into call women all kind of names. We kind of take it to another level, we turn it into talk about political prisoners. It's good that young people will relate to other young people..."
I went over to Ramona Africa and expressed our sadness at the death of Merle and she said to me, "We're just using the pain and anger that we feel and turning it into energy and come at the system even harder to bring our family home. We want them out of prison, and you know people should feel the same about all freedom fighters. They put their lives and their freedom on the line for the people, not for themselves but for all of us. And we need to do the work to bring them home. This was just the beginning. This is just a demonstration but what is really important is the consistent ongoing work."
By now the speeches had ended, but there was still some music and drumming coming from different areas of the park. As I walked over to our bus, I looked back at the banners, Puerto Rican flags and pictures of political prisoners. And I thought about the power of the youth--speaking out for our brothers and sisters locked up, organizing to spread the word, and pushing forward the movement to free all political prisoners.
As we climbed on the bus to go home, everyone was quite tired from the hot sun and the long day, but we all felt the energy of the day, of all that had gone on--of all the diversity of people and languages and cultures and ages, with a common cause and a deep determination.
A Kent State student told me, "The atmosphere of the place was phenomenal, it was the most diverse, the most positive oriented group of individuals in the same area that I ever encountered. People were talking and communicating in a positive way. There was a lot of youth there and this will have a strong impact on them, because they see a lot of leaders who are gone and done all these things. The youth see these people and say `this is what we need to do, this is where we need to go.' So we need to keep this going or they will just tread on us again. This sent up a signal to the powers-that-be, because they are going to say `hey wait, there were a lot of kids there and the youth aren't going to sit by either..."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)