No. 1

Why We Work to Free Political Prisoners of the Black Power Era

If we don’t bring home our elders, they will die in prison and our movements will suffer.

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Yvan Alagbé

Mutulu Shakur came home on Dec. 16, 2022, after serving more than 36 years in prison. It was a bittersweet moment. He had been denied parole 10 times, even with an exemplary record in prison. Now, at 72, he battles terminal cancer. Those years behind bars robbed him of his freedom and his health, and denied working-class Black communities his revolutionary leadership.

Perhaps best known today as Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu was a part of the founding of the Republic of New Afrika in 1968, whose members argued that Black people were a colonized people and entitled their own nation in the Deep South. Later, as the heroin epidemic ravaged Black and Puerto Rican communities, Shakur recognized that ordinary people have to build their own capacity to deliver healing services to one another. In the Bronx, where he lived, he fused radical anti-capitalist politics with community health care. Shakur pioneered the creation of a community detox program at Lincoln Hospital, along with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, where people received acupuncture treatment to aid in drug withdrawal, along with political education classes.

Shakur had long been targeted because of his radical politics. By the 1980s, he was suspected of participating in the Black underground. He was charged with aiding Assata Shakur’s legendary escape from prison and planning the 1981 robbery of a Brinks truck, during which a guard and two police officers were killed. The F.B.I. listed him as one of its Ten Most Wanted, and he was arrested in 1986. He served his time and during his efforts for parole, he expressed remorse for the lives lost. Now he’s spending his last days with his family in Southern California.

His release is the latest in a string of organizing victories that have freed political prisoners active during the Black Power era. Most people are in prison because of political conditions; but a political prisoner is someone whom the state specifically targets because of their radical politics. At least 18 elders have come home since 2013, most of them on parole. Around that time, we at the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), and other organizations doing this work, started to see the results from an earlier shift in our strategy to liberate them. We’re still working to bring home six more elders.

MXGM is a volunteer organization founded by the New Afrikan People's Organization, which emerged out of the Republic of New Afrika. Its members have always been motivated by the sense that it is possible to free people the state has said will never come home, even amid ferocious opposition from police unions, law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, and reporters. Assata’s escape was successful, and around then several others also broke out of prison and went back underground. All that work was hard. But it was just as difficult to use the law and movement to free people from life sentences.

We are children of the Black Power era. Our parents were active in the Black Panther Party and The East, a Pan-Africanist educational and cultural organization in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The two of us were fortunate that our parents were not incarcerated because of their political activities. Some of our comrades were not as lucky. We were born in the 1970s and came of age alongside children separated from their activist parents. We saw their pain up close.

In the mid-1990s, we joined MXGM’s New York chapter, which, along with working to free political prisoners, organizes against police violence. MXGM created a Cop Watch program, modeled after a similar Black Panther program from the 1970s, but using cameras instead of guns. We also led a local organizing coalition that won Floyd v. City of New York, a federal lawsuit declaring stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional in 2013.

Many political prisoners, like Mutulu Shakur and Sekou Odinga, were part of disciplined groups organized to defend poor and working-class Black neighborhoods. They fought back against capitalism, state violence, and racist violence from mobs and vigilantes. The Panthers were famous for creating free health clinics and free breakfast programs. Most political prisoners of the Black Power era were grounded in a strategy that included armed struggle. They understood that freedom by any means necessary was not limited to civil disobedience. They took steps beyond protests and boycotts to protect us. If you look at freedom movements across the world, you’ll see this was not out of the ordinary. During the 1960s and ’70s, the world was going through huge revolutionary transformations. Black freedom fighters traded tactical recommendations with their counterparts in South Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. And law enforcement explicitly targeted them for their revolutionary activities. J. Edgar Hoover made it plain that COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) would persecute “militant black nationalist groups,” which devastated a generation of organizations and enormously demobilized the Black liberation movement.

Much of the work that MXGM’s New York chapter initially did to support political prisoners focused on uplifting their stories. Implicit in our strategy was the hope that awareness would lead to mass response. Of course, there were dozens of other amazing campaigns and initiatives going on at the same time, including international human rights tribunals and publications. We took every opportunity to share the stories of political prisoners at poetry readings, community meetings, and the festivals where we had a table. We used hip-hop to make sure our communities knew the names and stories of our contemporary freedom fighters. We held the first hip-hop fundraiser in New York in 1994, for Mutulu Shakur. Biggie Smalls headlined that show at the South Oxford Tennis Club in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, before he even had a record deal. In 1998 MXGM, Students for Jericho, and STRESS, a hip-hop magazine, collaborated to present the first annual Black August Hip Hop Benefit Concert at Tramps nightclub in Lower Manhattan. At those concerts, we had top artists — Dead Prez, Common, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Gil Scott-Heron.

We call the summer of 1995 “Mumia Summer.” That’s when Tom Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania, signed Mumia Abu Jamal’s death warrant. In Philadelphia, Lumumba and others disrupted the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual conference for its refusal to meaningfully help prevent Mumia’s execution, even though he was a former president of that association’s Philadelphia chapter. In Brooklyn, we hung “Free Mumia” banners over the Long Island Rail Road on Atlantic and Nostrand Avenues. We spent that summer plastering all five boroughs of New York City with posters of Mumia calling for his release. Our outreach materials also warned of COINTELPRO-like programs designed to prevent effective grassroots organizing. On Aug. 8, 1995, Mumia received a stay of execution. In 2011, he was finally removed from death row. But our work continued.

A number of amazing writers like Kierna Mayo, asha bandele, Raquel Cepeda, and dream hampton were part of MXGM. We used local newspapers like The City Sun, Amsterdam News, and The Village Voice to raise awareness about the presence of political prisoners in the United States, along with national Black magazines and hip-hop magazines like The Source and Vibe.

But by the early 2000s, many political prisoners faced significant health challenges, and some died in prison. It was a huge blow when Albert “Nuh” Washington and Teddy “Jah” Heath died surrounded by guards instead of loved ones. While having ambassadors like Common, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), and Dead Prez at MXGM’s Black August hip hop fundraiser made for successful, far-reaching political education, our elders were still inside.

These deaths underscored the urgency to pivot to strategies we hoped would be more effective. More than anything, we wanted them to come home. So we co-founded a task force with a handful of skilled litigators, policy experts, and organizers, working closely with allied elected officials. Time continued to betray us, though. We soon lost Bashir Hameed. We changed our approach from an awareness campaign to freedom campaigns, focusing on clemency and litigation to challenge convictions. We recognized that parole was an avenue for those who met the criteria. We shifted to prioritize their freedom over raising awareness about their politics, but doing so in a way that’s principled — one freedom campaign’s legal strategy could never jeopardize another.

We saw the need to create multilayered, individual strategies for each political prisoner. That meant we had to be flexible as conditions changed, as environments changed, as situations changed. But we were not just sitting around hoping and waiting for our people to demand a release. The Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, a former MXGM member and leader in the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance, once asked Sundiata when the state was going to let him out. He replied to the effect of, “That’s up to you. The people will determine when I’m released, not the state.” We recognized each case had to be approached differently, and a strategy developed based on the unique dynamics of each case.

And it worked. People whom we were told would never see the light of day began coming home. In 2014 Sekou Odinga came home. So did Marshall “Eddie” Conway. Since then, we have celebrated the releases of many more. Well, partial celebrations: Parole is another form of torture. And in 2016, Abdul Majid died behind bars. There are still six more political prisoners MXGM is working to liberate. If we don’t succeed, they will die in prison, as too many of our comrades already have, and much of our history and our movements will suffer. We owe them. And that is why we work to free them.

The state’s response to our freedom movements has not changed much; it has always and will always criminalize freedom movements. Why? Because that is how the state tries to delegitimize radical, anti-capitalist movements. But the combination of a commitment to elders and ancestors, the knowledge that we can win, and new tools and strategies for organizing made possible a new wave of victories. Our efforts to free them are a continuation of the larger trajectory of our Black liberation struggle. We are just playing our role in what our ancestors have done for generations.

Those Who Remain Behind Bars

Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kamau Sadiki
Jamil Al-Amin
Veronza Bowers Jr.
Ed Poindexter
Ruchell “Cinque” Magee

Those Who Have Been Released Since 2013

Mutulu Shakur
Sundiata Acoli
David Gilbert
Russell Maroon Shoatz
Jalil Muntaqim
Delbert Africa
Chuck Sims Africa
Janet Africa
Eddie Africa
Janine Africa
Herman Bell
Robert Seth Hayes
Mike Africa
Debbie Africa
Sekou Odinga
Marshall “Eddie” Conway
Herman Wallace
Albert Woodfox

Monifa Akinwole-Bandele is a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Movement for Black Lives.

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele is a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.

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