Not Oz, Not Orange, Not Shawshank Either: The Real History of Black Radicalism and the Prison Abolitionist Movement

Author Dan Berger discusses his latest book, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, IMIXWHATILIKE: What’s up world, and welcome back to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball. IMixWhatILike.org and @IMixWhatILike for all your relevant social media.

Dr. King once noted how the United States was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Well, this country is now also the greatest purveyor of incarceration as well. With more prisoners here than anywhere else in the world, a quarter of the world’s prison population, and with most of those coming from exclusively the black, brown, and poor population, the United States is indeed a captive nation.

In furtherance of this level of mass incarceration are the limitations put on open, honest, and historically accurate discussion of the issue. To help us with that we turn now to Dan Berger, who is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell, and author of the new book Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.

So first let’s start off, before we get to any details about your book, let’s start with a quick overview of where we are in this country with mass incarceration. Just how serious is this problem?

DAN BERGER, UNIV. OF WASHINGTON BOTHELL: It’s a very serious problem. As you noted in your introduction, the United States has a quarter of the world’s prison population, but just five percent of the world’s population. So we incarcerate more people and at a much greater rate than anywhere else on the planet.

But it’s not just the massness of incarceration that’s the problem. It’s also the fact of incarceration. We have 80,000 people in solitary confinement who spend endless years in isolation, for 23 or 24 hours a day. We’re the only industrialized country that has the death penalty, that makes such widespread use of life without parole sentences, and that sentences even juveniles to serve their entire life in prison.

So I think the scale and the scope of confinement, of imprisonment in this country is staggering and unprecedented. But also the crisis of living in such a carceral society is not only the millions of people who are in captivity, but their friends and family and loved ones, as well as all the people who have criminal records. So even if you’re no longer incarcerated, there are more than 5 million people who are unable to vote or participate in any election process because of having a conviction. Some universities and lots of employers ask about criminal history on applications, and use that as a basis to deny people access to education or housing or employment.

So the extent of this problem is really quite, quite severe, quite staggering, and fundamentally racist.

BALL: There are at least two pieces I wanted to raise with you that I greatly appreciate about your book. The first is the way you situate this country as a settler colony, and the way you bring that in to your analysis of this problem. So I want to start there if we could, and have you talk about what role you think this issue of the United States being, having its origins in settler colonialism, plays in this process of continuing mass incarceration.

BERGER: Yeah, absolutely. So most of the book focuses on the decades after World War II, going through the ’80s and a little bit beyond. But it was really important for me to situate that within the long arc of this country’s origins and structures, because it’s not–the problem of mass incarceration, of the prison-industrial complex, greatly predates the war on drugs or even the war on crime.

And so in thinking about the origins of the United States in settler colonialism, I wanted to kind of make clear that issues of captivity and confinement are part of this country’s foundations. And that the very logic, the very basis of the United States as rooted in genocide has always made use of mass captivity and confinement. First of the indigenous populations, and then of the imported Africans who work as chattel, slave labor, for centuries. And both of those kind of foundational genocides to this country were rooted in confining people. In limiting their mobility, and limiting their, trying to limit their kind of social life, and trying to control who they were and what they could do.

And so the origins of today’s mass incarceration I think really flow from that structure of settler colonialism and chattel slavery.

BALL: I mean, that was definitely one of the, what drew me to the book in the first place, was your–it’s almost, not that you make this direct case in the book. But you end up challenging a lot of the popular contemporary discussion of this issue that does focus on it as the result primarily of the war on drugs, the more recent history. And disconnects it from this tradition that you’re talking about, of the country’s origins.

But the other thing was also–and even more than that honestly, personally, was the way you’ve centered the black radical tradition, black political prisoner tradition, and specifically the work of George Jackson. Who is a figure I think is, can never have enough said about him, though he has almost nothing said about him both in popular cultural spaces or even in academia.

So could you talk a little bit about that wing of your trajectory here, having already established a settler colonial piece, now you center, again, what has–I mean, often omitted in these discussions, this tradition of the black radical political struggle, political prisoners, and specifically George Jackson’s role in this anti-mass incarceration movement, or the abolitionist movement. Could you talk a little bit about how you’ve come to put all of that together in your work?

BERGER: Yeah. Thanks for that question. You know, I was really motivated to this story to tell what happened in prison. Right, I mean, I’ve had lots of friends and mentors who were or still are political prisoners in this country. And I think for me it’s sort of noticing–the prison seems like it’s going to be out of place, out of mind, and that once people are there they’re gone, and that we don’t have to think about them unless we have some personal connection to them.

But in fact I found, you know, in–and I sort of had an inkling going into this project–that the prison houses robust conversations. It houses robust politics. And certainly knowing as a historian that the ’60s and ’70s were a time period obviously of great upheaval and organizing in the streets, but knowing of someone like George Jackson and wanting to understand how people in prison contributed to the black power movement and the other social movements of that time period.

RECORDING: I went to school. Program. But now on the side I’m studying things that I felt would help the community.

BERGER: I didn’t exactly–I set out to try and understand the role of people in prison in the movement of that time period. I didn’t necessarily set out to write so much about George Jackson, but he really just dominated the archives. He dominated the time period, is such an influential figure. And so I spent a lot of time with him. And as you note, he becomes the kind of centerpiece of the book.

I’m sure many, many people know. But for those who don’t, George Jackson was arrested in 1960 and sentenced to serve between one year and life in prison for a sort of petty gas station robbery.

BALL: Could we just hold there for a quick second, because I want people to actually let that marinate for a moment. That he was–for a small gas station robbery, of I think it was–as you said, no more than about $70, he was sentenced to a year to life.

That might sound crazy to folks who hear that. That what kind of sentence, for such a small crime, could be, could carry anything from one year to life? And of course as we’ll talk about in a moment, it did unfortunately become a life sentence.

BERGER: That’s exactly right. And the reason for that kind of vast and vague sentence is because he had a few other arrests as a juvenile. He was still a juvenile, he was 18 at the time. But because he had a prior record of, of you know, similarly low-level offenses, the judge sentenced him to serve between one year and life at the discretion of the parole board to determine whether he had been, quote-unquote, reformed enough to be released.

And this kind of sentence was very common at the time. But you know, honestly–and this is part of why I think we need to expand the conversation beyond a war on drugs focus, as important as that is, to really understand and critique and challenge the criminalization that is at the root of American confinement, right.

Because we see the same thing today in cases of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, or other people who have been killed by police. But they’re, they’re always already suspects. They’re always already suspicious. And so after Michael Brown’s murder, some journalists and commentators commenting on, you know, did he steal some cigars from this convenience store? As if–you know, did he jaywalk? All of these things as if they become justifications for a death sentence. And I think part of why George Jackson is so significant is that he becomes a kind of litmus test, or he becomes a kind of archetype for the exact kind of criminalization and murder of black youth that we are dealing with in such spectacular form today.

Today the focus is on the murder at the hands of police, but I think George Jackson gives us that exact template of someone who is kind of always treated as a criminal, as inherently dangerous or suspicious, and so who then deserves in the popular imagination extreme punishment up to the point of death. And so to me–.

BALL: So I do want–I’m sorry, go ahead. Go ahead, go ahead.

BERGER: To me, George Jackson becomes the kind of, you know, a kind of voice from the future, right. Or he becomes this example in 1971 with his death of the kind of world that we have lived in ever since, right. The extremeness of, or the severity of the assault on black and brown working class communities is, I think, rooted in the kind of treatment that George Jackson so, so exemplifies.

BALL: So I just want to say that for those who are not at already convinced, that I cannot say that George Jackson is maybe the most important in history to study for these issues and many others, but he is certainly as important as any the world has ever produced in considering not only issues of mass incarceration but race, class, armed struggle, political struggle, movement building. Soledad Brother and of course Blood In My Eye are essential tools. People must go and read these books if they haven’t already. Go read them again, if you have.

Prof. Berger, though, I wanted to ask you, how–talk a little bit more about how George Jackson, or the role he plays not only in your book, but in what your book talks about, the abolitionist movement, the modern prison movement, anti-mass incarceration movement. How does he and those like him in this tradition that you talk about, this black radical tradition, factor into this historical struggle, and how do you deal with it in your work?

BERGER: Yeah. So you know, so just a brief kind of snapshot. He’s arrested in 1960 as an 18-year-old. He hadn’t participated in social movements, but you know, he had a kind of incipient consciousness about the world from his experience just of white supremacy up to that point. That really develops throughout his time in prison.

And I think what’s really key, what I want, what I hope the book demonstrates, what I think it’s really important for people to understand, is that now George Jackson was this influential, historical figure. In his day, he was part of a larger collective of prison–imprisoned organizers and intellectuals. Part of why he’s so well known is that he published two books, as you just mentioned. But I think a lot of his arguments and his commitments were developed in a collective context. And so part of what the book tries to do, through interviews and a lot of archival research, is to situate George within his larger historical context, and including how important the kind of black radical collectives and social networks that formed inside California prisons in particular in the ’60s and early ’70s were.

But you know, George becomes a kind of standout figure because he was able to–because he was such a talented writer, and able to publish these two books. But what was really interesting to me is how–you know, he was such a leader of people in prison in Soledad and San Quentin in particular, where he spent most of his time in prison. But his influence in many ways expanded after his killing in August of 1971. And people, because he had been such a sharp critic of imprisonment while still being imprisoned and still being in solitary confinement, in fact, that inspired so many other people in prison to contest their confinement. It inspired them to try and write, it inspired them to improve their knowledge and their literacy, and it inspired them to protest.

So the Attica rebellion in New York State in September of 1971 was catalyzed in part by prisoners protesting George Jackson’s killing. And I think this is, this is a tremendously significant episode. I mean, Attica’s the largest prison rebellion of the time period. One of the largest in the world, in history, where prisoners took over the prison for our days and issued a series of very trenchant, passionate demands about their condition that made various connections between the world of prison and black life more generally. And that prison was all the way across the country from where George Jackson was. These were people who had never met him in person, right. But he–his ideas, his eloquence, his figure was so inspiring that when he was killed by prison guards, people all the way across the country organized a silent fast and protest that ultimately became the biggest, or one of the most significant prison rebellions in history.

BALL: And if I have it correctly he was also one of Huey Newton’s only acknowledged heroes, playing a role of what was it, the Minister of–what was that title–.

BERGER: He was a field marshal for the Black Panther party. Yeah. And so Huey Newton, when he was imprisoned, talked about meeting George Jackson even though they were never imprisoned together. They were never in the same facility. But George Jackson had such a reputation at that point that when the head of one of the most significant black power organizations of the time is incarcerated, everyone’s saying, do you know this guy, do you know this guy? Right, you have to know this guy.

And that becomes actually a part of how Soledad Brother ends up getting published, is that Huey Newton helps George Jackson with legal representation, which then, one of his lawyers, [inaud.] helps George get his work published and out in the world.

BALL: So Prof. Berger, we only have a few minutes left. I just want to get your quick thoughts on what happens next. Where do you suggest we all go from here in this struggle in dealing with mass incarceration, prison abolition, et cetera?

BERGER: Yeah. I mean, I–you know, I have to say, working on this book for so long I was really hoping that it will become a useful resource for, for people who are interested in the history but also in struggle. And now here we are witnessing I think one of the most significant movements against criminalization in 40 years. And so I’m quite excited by the passion and the outrage that has motivated tens of thousands of people to continue to be in the streets against police violence.

I think part of the connections that need to happen is sort of understanding the larger scope of state violence, right, and making the connections between what police do and what happens every day in America’s captive nation. And I think the hunger strikes and labor strikes people in prison have staged over the last three or four years point to one way in which those connections can be made. But I think, you know, we have–we have a lot of work to do, right. The scope of the prison-industrial complex is so extreme. But at the same time I think witnessing so many people being so fired up around that struggle, against state violence, is an exciting development.

I think one thing to keep in mind from that history is to beware the kind of false solutions that get proposed in movement moments, right. So at that time the struggle against indeterminate sentences like those that George Jackson had then became the move towards mandatory minimums that just raised the sentencing bar for everybody.

Today that’s–I think we have false solutions in the form of body cameras on police, or any number of things that try and sort of either shift more power to police and prosecutors or for the most conservative elements of victims’ rights advocates. Instead I think we need to insist on a kind of grassroots democracy and a community reinvestment that guarantees safety for everybody.

BALL: Well, the book, everybody, is Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. Thank you, Prof. Dan Berger, for joining us on this edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network.

BERGER: Thank you so much.

BALL: And thank you all for watching us again here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball. This is another edition of I Mix What I Like. And as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace, if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody.

And stay tuned for George Jackson: [Releasing] the Dragon, coming this black August.

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