Eddie Conway: In 1980, as a political prisoner in the Maryland Penitentiary, I and a number of other prisoners, along with the librarian, organized a program called To Say Their Own Words. At this program, we had a number of speakers, Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad, Bruce Franklin, and Charlie Cobb as some of our most prominent speakers. When educational programs were more standard in prisons, these thinkers and scholars came in and spoke about topics like impending US fascism, the prison-industrial complex, capitalism, increasing surveillance and many issues that have escalated today. We were able to find some of these people that spoke to us. We are talking to them now about what’s happening in America today, and about a number of their predictions that have came to pass.
Speaker [Video Clip]: The 13th Amendment, the one that says that slavery don’t exist in America, except in prisons. And of course, we know that we are not slaves. We don’t have any desire to be slaves.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Racism is the foundation of the entire system. Racism is the foundation of capitalism. Racism is the foundation of imperialism.
Speaker [Video Clip]: I think whether we look at it historically, or whether we look at it in terms of the kind of politics that’s going on in the world today, I think we’d still come out with the same answer.
Speaker [Video Clip]: What I’m talking about is, from a slave to a convict, from a convict to a prisoner, from a prisoner to a inmate, from a inmate to a resident.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Patient education and persuasion, by those of us who think that we advanced, that is the responsibility of consciousness. Consciousness carries with it responsibility.
Speaker [Video Clip]: We greet you as Muslims ordinarily greet one another, and, in a sense, in a way that people have greeted one another for centuries with a greeting of peace, which is as-salamu alaykum.
Speaker [Video Clip]: This is our program. And this is the proof that is our program because we do the work.
Eddie Conway: Thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars, Bruce.
Bruce Franklin: Well, Eddie, it’s great to see you. It was 40 years ago when we last saw each other.
Eddie Conway: Yes. Okay. So, that leads me to the first question. 40 years later, how have things changed, in your opinion?
Bruce Franklin: Last time we were meeting in the penitentiary. That was 1980, was June. Reagan hadn’t been elected yet. Mass incarceration had started.
Video Clip: America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.
Bruce Franklin: But we had no idea where it was going. So in the next 15 years, the number of Americans imprisoned tripled. By the same time, they were talking about 1995, by that time for the first time, at least since post-Reconstruction, there were more Black prisoners in prison than white prisoners. But people don’t realize how much that had shifted. And, I looked at that footage when we talked 40 years ago, we’re talking about surveillance cameras and things like that, but that was nothing compared to the society we’re living in now. So I want to put a term into our conversation, which is fascism. So we talked back then about Malcolm’s statement that for Black people, America has always been a prison. So you could be out of prison, but you’re still in prison.
Video Clip: If you go to jail, so what? If you Black, you were born in jail. [Inaudible] If you Black, you were born in jail.
Bruce Franklin: And that’s true. And when we think about the concept of fascism, we don’t apply that to colonialism, to slavery. And the reason we don’t, Aimé Césaire, the great theoretician of imperialism, explained that when we do it to people of color, we don’t call it fascism. So, what the European colonial powers did in Africa to Africans, we don’t consider that fascism, but when white people are the victims of it, that’s when we call it fascism. So as the conditions of oppression, as super exploitation, when that becomes the norm for the whole society, that’s fascism. Now, when you look in that 40 years since we talked, a lot of the hallmarks of fascism have become true in the United States. The surveillance, the unleashing of the police, mass incarceration, and so forth.
But we right now are right on the verge of having a true fascist society. And we don’t have that now. But our president has made it very clear that that’s what he’s offering. And something like 40, what, 44, 43%, something like that, of the American people want that. So the election that’s coming up is an election to decide whether we have what remains of democracy or whether we have a true fascist state. And if Trump wins the election and is able to replace Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg with two people like Kavanaugh or worse, he can do anything, because the Supreme Court tells us what our laws mean. They interpret the laws and they can interpret laws any way. Think about the 13th Amendment of the Constitution that Congress and the president passed in order to abolish slavery, that’s what they thought they were doing.
But that was used as soon as the federal troops were taken out of the South, the 13th Amendment was used to criminalize all Black people in the South. Loitering, staying in the same place, vagrancy, misconduct, all kinds of things. And so the Black people of the South were largely put back into slavery on the basis of that one clause in the 13th Amendment, which was just put in there just because that was the norm, that people were convicted of a crime, and they were forced to do unpaid labor. This is the way to criminalize a whole population.
So this is what we’re facing, if the Supreme Court is in the hands of a fascist ruler. Because whatever he wants to do, we will have the suppression of vote, any laws, any presidential proclamation the president issues will be law. And there will be no way to challenge that, there will be no way, really, to fight back against that. People think that under fascist rule, a revolution is possible. Where’s the example of that? I’ve done underground work. You cannot do underground work with modern surveillance that’s in place right now. So that’s what I see as an issue in less than 60 days.
Eddie Conway: Okay. You raised some interesting points. One—and I know you clarified the whole fact that when this totalitarian activity or extrajudicial activity is applied to people of color or people that’s been marginalized, it’s not considered as fascism. But the deal is that there’s a tremendous amount of people in America that has always lived under fascism, continue to live under fascism. And now they’re in open rebellion. It’s protests across America. And I’m not going to question the numbers that you presented in terms of 43% of people want fascism. And that might be true, but I guess that also means that 60, what could be 70% don’t want fascism. But is there a possibility considering the rebellion that’s going on, the pandemic that’s going on, the economy in crisis, or prison-industrial complex in crisis, is there a possibility of a civil war?
Because in a lot of cases where fascism has pushed forward, the pushback has led to civil war. Is that a possibility? And if that’s not a possibility because, quite frankly, when you talk about the election in 60 days or something like that, if it’s that far away, it looks like the outcome of the election won’t make a difference at all to Trump in terms of whether he respects it or not. The Supreme Court gave Bush the election after the Florida fiasco. Even if they don’t give Trump this election, the possibility of him not recognizing it is real, also. So where do we go? Is there a civil war on the horizon? Is there another way in which we can do this? Give me some feedback on that.
Bruce Franklin: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question. Well, first of all, I mean, these are dark times with the pandemic, with this president we have. But on the other hand, I’m 86 years old. I’ve been at this for over six decades. But I’ve never seen a movement as wide and deep as the present movement. This is hopeful. It’s very exciting to see all the young people out there. So this is a wonderful movement, and it’s very hopeful. But when we’re talking about a civil war, we have to state the fact that the guns right now are almost all on the other side. So we have the Department of Homeland Security, which Trump has used. We have the right-wing militias, which he’s encouraged to use. He’s actually praised the murder committed by a member of the armed militia.
We don’t know where this military would come down. That’s a question. But when we think of real fascism, I see America today as very similar to Germany in 1933, when Hitler was just about to sort of win an election with about 40% of the population, and then was able to consolidate his power. But once he released the stormtroopers and instituted the reign of terror, it took the combined military might of the Soviet Union and the United States to overthrow the power that he had amassed. And the president of the United States controls military forces greater than anything that the planet has ever seen before. So I think that the idea of a civil war once fascism has been established is a pipe dream. And that’s my opinion. I don’t want to see us there. I just want us to understand that we can defeat it because as, Eddie, as you were saying, it’s still a majority of the American people who don’t want fascism, and it’s a majority of the American people who recognize Trump for what he is.
There’s no way that he can win a fair election. And there are organizations working hard now to make sure that we have something approaching a fair election. We have that, he’s out. I’m not under any illusions that if Biden wins all of a sudden, hey, way, this wonderful democracy. We know we’re going to be back to where we were. Biden is something like Obama light. And then the other point that you brought up, a very important point about the Supreme Court giving the election to Bush in 2000.
We have to remember that one of the corollaries of mass incarceration is the difference, is the taking away the vote of millions of people, of predominantly people of color. So in Florida, where the final tally was 527 votes. There were 400,000 people who have been disenfranchised, felony disenfranchisement, and most of those people were Black. So, and there have been two books written, that without felony disenfranchisement, the Democrats would consistently have a significant majority of the Senate. So felony disenfranchisement as corollary of mass incarceration is a fact of American prison life, American political life, that we have to reckon with.
And we have to do something to reverse it. It’s interesting that in Florida, when we had that referendum, I think it was close to three quarters of the people in Florida voted against felony disenfranchisement. But the Republican legislature then said, well, okay, they can vote as soon as they paid back the cost of their imprisonment, which was a way of reinstituting a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. But, we say unconstitutional, we’re going back to the 15th Amendment, which you consider everyone [inaudible 00:17:52] at that time had a right to vote. But the Supreme Court in the late 19th century kept interpreting the 15th Amendment to make it the opposite. And the president, the Supreme Court, actually overturned the Voting Rights Act, which was the implementation of the 15th Amendment. So, that’s what we’re really dealing with. They could take away the vote through the Supreme Court just by saying, well, here’s what the words really mean.
Eddie Conway: You know, I had been watching … And of course, I’ve been watching this thing in Florida with the voting rights for ex-prisoners. But I have noticed around the country, especially in Republican-held States, they have been enacting all sorts of laws and legislation to remove people from the voting list. They had tampered with and made a mockery, for want of a better word, of the voting rights of people in minorities, people in communities of color. In some cases, they have hundreds of voting polls and stations in white communities and two in Black communities, but the population might be 60:40. And so they’ve done all sorts of things already before this election occurs. And of course now with the post office in Trump’s hands, and everybody says that it’s going to be a problem with the mail-in voting and because of the pandemic, and so on.
But the fact of the matter is whether it is a problem or not, if there is an appearance—or the Big Lie. Hitler told that Big Lie. He told it so many times that people believed it. So I’m concerned, yes, people should get out there and they should vote. That’s no question. Whether it’s going to count, whether it’s already been corrupted, that’s a whole other question. But the question that we have to face is what happens on the morning after? One way or another, you’re right. We don’t, we’re not, per se—America’s military is strongest, next top 10 militaries in a row, I understand that.
But capitalism is at a crisis point also in the world in terms of stealing resources, disrupting civilizations and economies. All that seems to have some kind of overall impact. And I know for a fact that that’s part of what brings fascism into being, but it’s also part of what makes a society collapse. Talk a little bit about the day after, what are we looking at no matter what?
Bruce Franklin: Well, you bring up so many important points, Eddie. The fact is fascism is a system that is imposed when capitalism is in real serious trouble. And it is, I mean, capitalism is in trouble. We saw that in 2008, we haven’t got the escape from that. The capital is more of ownership and production, is making the existence of our species on the planet questionable. I’m sitting here talking, I have to stay in the house because the … Talking from California, we saw a sky that looked like Mars. I can’t go outside. The air’s too deadly outside. It’s not too great inside. And so we have, again, it’s not just Trump, it’s the Republicans, but they are financed in part by the fossil fuel industry, which is destroying the planet. It’s not clear that our species, Homo sapiens, is going to be a successful species.
We’ve only been around a short time, and we are already in the short time that we’ve been around created two threats to the existence of our own species. Nuclear weapons, obviously, nuclear war, that’s the end of our civilization, probably of our species. And now climate change. And we’re witnessing that here on the West Coast, where we have 85 fires burning in Washington, Oregon, and California, huge fires. We can’t contain them now. On the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, we’re being battered by tropical storms, the oceans rising, and so forth. So that’s why the capitalists have decided—and it’s not just in this country, it’s a common phenomenon—that they have to get power and not have this democratic form of government where what they want to do can be challenged by the people. Which gets back to the question you’re raising about the day after.
Well, it’s not going to be the day after, because the day after we’re not going to know who won, because it’s going to take a while to get to count all those ballots. So, yes, I mean, at that point, I think people do have to be ready to go into the streets, to do everything we can, to insist that the ballots be counted fairly, and so forth. But there are things that’s a little hypothetical, talking about the day after. We’re 50-somewhat days before. And I’ve mentioned before there are several very good organizations working to make sure or to counteract the wiping people off the voter rolls, to make sure that there are sufficient machines available in the neighborhoods where there are high Democratic registering votes, to make sure—There’s one called ‘Reclaiming Our Vote,’ which is just instructing people in this place about how to register, how to make sure they’re registered properly and to make sure their vote is counted.
So there are a lot of things that people can do right now to make the election more or less a fair election. I say more or less because these forces on the other side are determined to make it not a fair election to make sure that they win. After that we need to be prepared to do whatever we can to challenge if they’re actually doing what they’re trying to do, which is steal the election. And I think to understand that, part of it is capitalism is in trouble. But it’s also, you know, any zero sum game, it’s very helpful to understand your opponent’s thinking. So why do we have so many Americans, whatever the percentage is, who love Trump and want to buy when he’s selling?
Well, if you think back to the day of 2008, economies, whole financial systems near collapse. And then someone with a name of Barack Hussein Obama, a Black man, wins overwhelmingly for president of the United States. So if you’re a person who is a white supremacist, doesn’t want that kind of America, that was very scary, very threatening. Then they look around, look at the demographics of America and look at the dreamers—and Obama as president, of course, passed the DACA, giving them a chance to not get thrown out of the country and a path to citizenship. So they’re looking at the election from the other side. They also understand that this is it. Because if they lose this election, their hope of this white supremacist America may be gone because of the demographics of the country. So for them, also, it’s an all-win or all-lose election.
And that’s why they’re going to do whatever they can do to keep us from having a fair election and to keep Trump in power. And Trump, he has had almost four years to broaden his base. He doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t really want to be just president. He wants to be somebody who is able to rule the way fascist rulers rule. Not the way democratically elected presidents rule. That’s where we are. I didn’t think we would get here at the second decade of the 21st century, but that’s where we are.
Eddie Conway: Considering the threat to the species of global warming, we’re in a period of maybe the sixth mass extinction, hundreds of species are being wiped out every day, the automation that cybernation is creeping in with the automatic factories, the workforce has been globalized down to $2 a day. People are desperate all over the whole entire planet. They’re recognizing some of this threat. That’s why they are dashing into Europe, dashing into America, dashing into development areas. Even with a fascist takeover of American politics, the world seems to be on the edge of a mass rebellion. How do you see the world responding to this?
Bruce Franklin: Well, that’s why I see so much hope in this movement of young people out in the streets. And they’re doing other things, because being out in the streets—Because I think many, many young people in this country and other places around the world realize that what we’re facing is a collapsing system. The whole capitalist system is collapsing and it’s taking down the planet, and us with it. So people are recognizing that we need to have an alternative to that. We need to think of a future where the great productive capacities that we have, that capitalism has built, are used for the betterment of people. So we have education, healthcare, decent living, seeing the opportunities for creative leisure time and so forth. We could have all this, and it’s great that the term socialism has now been introduced to our political vocabulary. And we have to thank Bernie Sanders for making that, at least the term socialism–what he means by socialism does not, in my opinion, go far enough—but at least that’s part of the political conversation. And assuming that Biden does get elected, at that point, we have to be very clear that we can’t just go on the way we’re going, that we have to rethink the whole structure of our economic relationships. That’s something we can’t describe in two minutes, but that’s what we have to do.
Eddie Conway: I’m going to end this conversation. I think that we probably need to have another conversation sometime later on, maybe right after the election?
Bruce Franklin: Good. That’d be great.
Eddie Conway: Yeah. I think it would probably be good. So thank you for joining me.
Bruce Franklin: Well, thank you Eddie, and thank you for everything that you’re doing. You’re a hero.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.
In 1980, TRNN’s Eddie Conway helped organize a prisoners’ educational outreach program called “To Say Their Own Word,” where thinkers and scholars came to Maryland Penitentiary and spoke about topics like impending US fascism, the prison-industrial complex, capitalism, increasing surveillance, and many other issues that have become even more pressing today. These speakers included Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad, Bruce Franklin, Nijole Benokraitis, and Charlie Cobb. As part of a series, TRNN will be speaking with these individuals about their predictions in 1980 and how they resonate today. This interview is with Dr. H. Bruce Franklin, an American culture historian and scholar.
Dr. Franklin was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, and his radical politics led to his firing by Stanford in 1971, a move that was seen as a blow to academic freedom on US college campuses. He has published writing on topics as diverse as the Vietnam War, prison literature, environmentalism, and science fiction. He is currently a professor emeritus at Rutgers University, where he retired from in 2016 at the age of 82, after teaching there since 1975. Eddie Conway spoke with him again leading up to the 2020 election for TRNN’s Rattling the Bars, and he reflected back on his speech in 1980, and also discussed the current political situation.
In 1980, when Franklin spoke at Maryland Penitentiary, it was just prior to the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ and he warned of the rise of fascism in American politics. He related this rise back to the works of Malcolm X and George Jackson, both writers who spoke about fascism from the perspective of Black prisoners in the United States. He drew on the works of those writers to give the prescient warning that “Fascism in its most terroristic phase may not look like fascism to those who benefit from it.”
Speaking to TRNN now, Franklin reflected on how the fascism that he spoke about in 1980 has expanded and been normalized throughout American society:“Now, when you look in the 40 years since we talked, a lot of the hallmarks of fascism have become true in the United States. The surveillance, the unleashing of the police, mass incarceration, and so forth,” he said.
Franklin’s speech to the Maryland prisoners also highlighted Malcolm X’s view that for Black people, America has always been a prison. He spoke about how racism was the foundation for capitalism and imperialism, and how capitalism and imperialism are the starting point for fascism. He believes that the point is even more salient today where voter suppression and disenfranchisement of Black people, the mass incarceration of Black people, and the ties between the Republican Party and right-wing militias have all taken hold.
Fascism is being pushed along by the growing inequities in our society between the rich and the poor, Franklin explained.
“The fact is fascism is a system that is imposed when capitalism is in real serious trouble. And it is, capitalism is in trouble. We saw that in 2008, and we haven’t escaped from that. [It isn’t about just] ownership and production, [capitalism] is making the existence of our species on the planet questionable,” he said. “We’ve only been around a short time, and we have already … created two threats to the existence of our own species. Nuclear weapons … and now climate change.”
However, Franklin is hopeful that young people in America are prepared to fight back: “I’m 86 years old. I’ve been [doing activism] for over six decades, but I’ve never seen a movement as wide and deep as the present movement. This is hopeful. It’s very exciting to see all the young people out there,” he said.
Similar to the views he expressed in 1980, Franklin sees hope in solidarity and internationalism by young people as a way to dismantle fascism and, ultimately, capitalism.
“Many, many young people in this country and other places around the world realize that what we’re facing is a collapsing system. The cold capitalist system is collapsing, and it’s taking down the planet and us with it,” Franklin said. “So people are recognizing that we need to have an alternative to that. We need to think of a future where the great productive capacities that we have, that capitalism has built, are used for the betterment of people.”
Additional reporting by Molly Shah
Studio: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Production: Ericka Blount