What Will It Take to Free Our Political Prisoners? – The Feminist Wire

What Will It Take to Free Our Political Prisoners?

By Liz Derias

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), a revolutionary organization based in the u.s. that fights to uphold the self-determination and the human rights of Black people in the world, has been working to free political prisoners for over three decades. The organization has actively worked on the cases of Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, the San Francisco 8 (SF8), the MOVE 9, the Cuban 5, and more. Additionally, MXGM has worked with the founding Black August Organizing Committee of California to popularize Black August, a month of commemoration and action in support of political prisoners.

Through the heed of political prisoners Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, MXGM has also taken a lead in inspiring and mobilizing the Hip Hop generation to take action in support of political prisoners, particularly through the annual Black August Concert, which has featured artists such as Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, and others. MXGM works with other leading organizations that have championed action to free political prisoners, such as the National Black United Fund, the Prisoners of Consciousness Committee, the Nation of Islam, and numerous support committees around the august

This article will describe the history and current context of political prisoners in the u.s., the conditions for them while incarcerated, and the organizing strategies employed by MXGM over the years to free them.

The Legacy of COINTELPRO

We cannot discuss the case of political prisoners in the u.s. without having an understanding of COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO, or the Counter Intelligence Program, was the federal government’s secret program during the 1950s-1970s used against many forces of the Black Liberation movement, leftists, and political dissidents in the u.s., including the Chicano Nationalist Movement and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. It was secret because it was illegal.

Under COINTELPRO, the FBI and local police forces assassinated, arrested, tortured, and framed hundreds of leftists, particularly Black leftists, who were considered to pose the greatest threat to the racist status quo of u.s. society. The tactics of COINTELPRO can be categorized in four main areas: infiltration of organizations, psychological warfare from the outside, harassment through the legal system, and extralegal force and violence, including extrajudicial killing and outright murder. The FBI’s stated motivation for the program was “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.

COINTELPRO was revealed to the public after a group of activists retrieved documents about the program from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and forced news agencies to publish the documents and related news stories. In 1976, a major investigation was launched by the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, commonly referred to as the “Church Committee”, under committee head Senator Frank Church (Democrat from Idaho). The committee found that the program indeed violated constitutional rights. As a formal program of the FBI, COINTELPRO was dismantled, yet millions of documents gathered under the program have yet to be released. Additionally, the program has re-emerged as a new beast in the u.s.

With funds made available by Homeland Security’s post-9/11 “war against terrorism,” an Anti-Terrorism Task Force housed in the Department of Homeland Security was created. This Task Force is COINTELPRO on steroids. Detectives, many of whom had been agents of COINTELPRO, came out of retirement to serve on this Task Force and have worked with local police forces to conduct sweeps across the country that primarily arrested former Black Panther Party members. These Panthers were faced with grand jury subpoenas, as we saw in the case of the SF8 in 2006. These grand jury subpoenas continue today. As recently as a year ago, many activists were summoned to appear before the grand jury, particularly those working on environmental issues in the northwest states, and those working on issues of Palestine, including Hatem Abudayyah, renowned Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, Illinois.

Isolation in u.s. prisons

To date, there are more than 100 political prisoners languishing in u.s. prisons, more than half from Black Liberation organizations, including the Black Liberation Army. In the last five years, twelve political prisoners have died while inside. The long-term confinement of political prisoners is often characterized by forced isolation. The severity of the conditions they are subjected to, and the extraordinary lengths of time that have been imposed on them, have sparked international support campaigns, such as in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, Russell Maroon Shoatz, and others. Their campaigns have also been championed by leading national u.s. human rights organizations, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers. According to an April 2012 news article, “U.S. political prisoners have endured decades of abuse, many face death in prison.” Author Richard Muhammad references a report of the National Conference of Black Lawyers addressed to the United Nations which stated,

The continued incarceration and mistreatment of these prisoners violates UN treaties and conventions that guarantee human rights, forbid torture and outlaw racial and political targeting by government….

In many cases, political prisoners are isolated in solitary confinement. In an August 2012 article, “Solitary Confinement: Torture Chambers for Black Revolutionaries,” written by the Human Rights Watch, the authors state,

Any discussion on solitary confinement begins and ends with a number: a prisoner is kept in his or her cell 23 or 24 hours per day, allowed three showers every week and served three meals a day. According to a report by United Nations Special Rapporteur [on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Juan] Mendez prisoners should not be held in isolation for more than 15 days at a stretch. But in the US, it is typical for hundreds of thousands of prisoners to pass in and out of solitary confinement for 30 or 60 days at a time each year.

Human Rights Watch estimates that there are “approximately 20,000 prisoners being held in Supermax prisons, which are entire facilities dedicated to solitary confinement or near-solitary. It is estimated that at least 80,000 men, women and even children arebeing held in solitary confinement on any given day in US jails and prisons.” The Prison Discipline study, a mass national survey assessing formal and informal punitive practices in u.s. prisons conducted in 1989, revealed that “Black prisoners and the mentally ill were [also] targeted for especially harsh treatment.” Perhaps the most notorious case of this targeting is the case of the Angola 3, three Black Panthers who have been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana. Robert King was released after 29 years in solitary, but his comrades– Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace-recently began their 40th years in solitary confinement. The three have spent a combined 100 years in solitary confinement.

It is simply inhumane– the physical and psychological tactics used against prisoners, and in particular political prisoners: sensory deprivation, lack of social contact, and restricted access to all intellectual and emotional stimuli. Additionally, to understand political prisoners we must have an analysis of torture in prisons and detention facilities. Although the vast majority of the world does not know that the u.s. even has political prisoners, due to a deliberate tendency by the u.s. to tout itself as a leader of “human rights” and “democracy” in the international arena, these issues came to light in the world when the sadistic pictures of u.s. military persons degrading Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib were released. These incidents have opened an opportunity for political prisoner organizers and advocates to expose the contradictions of torture as a violation of international treaties and domestic law. However, what has become a challenge for political prisoner advocates and organizers is that under the Patriot Act, evidence extracted under torture is now admissible, meaning it can be used in cases of [political] prisoners. This was not the case prior to the Patriot Act. This means that despite the international outcry, and as a result of 9/11, the u.s. has attempted to legitimize torture as a necessary and acceptable practice in a domestic case. We must pay attention to this as movement workers, and actively employ strategies that counter our current context, which makes torture not only permissible, but normal.

Strategies and Objectives to Free Political Prisoners

We must develop sound objectives and strategies to free our political prisoners. In the case of the SF8, MXGM employed several strategies that effectively aided in freeing several of the brothers. These strategies can be replicated in other cases.

In 1973, several former Black Panthers were arrested in New Orleans due to an unidentified shooting of a San Francisco officer. Frank McCoy and Ed Erlatz were the two arresting and questioning officers in New Orleans. With no justifiable charges, the brothers were detained and tortured, including being subjected to electric probes to their genital areas and severe beatings while blindfolded. All charges were dropped in 1975 because of the illegality of evidence gathered under torture and because of lack of evidence. In 2003, these same arresting officers came out of retirement, were promoted to the u.s. Anti-Terrorism Task Force and deputized to interrogate the brothers once again. On January, 23, 2006, several police officers and government authorities desperately in need of upholding COINTELPRO, arrested five brothers: Hank Jones, Harold Taylor, Richard Brown, Ray Bodreaux, and Francisco Torres. Two other brothers, Jalil Muntaquim and Herman Bell, who were already serving time as political prisoners, were also implicated in the case. One man, Richard Bridgeforth was sought but never arrested. They were subpoenaed to appear in front of grand juries, and, after refusing to cooperate, spent many months in jail. Bail was set between $3 million and $5 million for them. MXGM took immediate action in support of these brothers.Self-Defense-Manual-MERGED-1

MXGM’s objectives in supporting the case were to:

  1. defeat the prosecution;
  2. build a culture of non-compliance to their prosecution;
  3. build a case for the parole of Muntaquim and Bell who were incarcerated since the 70s on non-related cases; and
  4. weaken the political and social initiative of the advancing “war on terror”.

In order to meet our objectives, MXGM’s strategies included:

  1. broadly politicizing the case in general and building a multi-racial alliance that would support the brothers;
  2. exerting constant pressure on the court and impacting the jury (both the pool and the sitting jury itself);
  3. questioning the motives of then-Attorney General Jerry Brown of California, and isolating his position; and
  4. raising considerable media coverage.


Over the course of four-and-a-half years, MXGM learned many important lessons, which include (in no order of importance):

  • Establish a Support Committee. The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), which hosted the SF8 organizing committee, was quickly established. Because of the Bay Area’s historical legacy as a founding site of the Black Panther Party and other leftist organizations, it was fairly easy to garner an array of multi- generational supporters.
  • Visit often. Because the brothers were held in San Francisco County Jail, a facility in the center of San Francisco that was easily accessible by transportation, consistent visitation was easy. This may not be as easy for political prisoners who are often moved across the u.s. on short or little notice, or are detained in isolated cities/states, such as the ADX Supermax in Florence, Colorado. It was essential to visit the SF8 often, as it kept their spirits high.
  • Advocate for their care. Conditions in the prisons for the SF8, all of whom were elders, were harsh and inhumane. Several brothers had ailments and conditions that worsened under these conditions. Organizers had to advocate for access to their medications, and in some instances the use of herbal medications.
  • Get them out on bail. It is easier to work from the outside than on the inside. The CDHR included white leftists who had histories of supporting Black Liberation organizations. Frankly, many fronted the monies for bail funds and other related court costs.
  • Politicize the community. Education of the community was key, particularly as it helped to influence the jury pool. Asian organizers politicized the Asian communities– rather large communities of potential jury members. CDHR supporters also drew in college students who oftentimes, provided a physical presence by attending court hearings, organizing actions on their campus or their cities, etc.
  • Use media to educate the community. The Freedom Archives, an organization in San Francisco whose mission is to document movement history, released Legacy of Torture, a 27-minute video that featured footage of the brothers, family members, and supporters speaking on the case. The video was a useful tool in college and community presentations.
  • Fundraise. In the case of the SF8, and in many cases, political prisoners are often the primary income providers in their homes. The sudden arrests of the SF8 left their wives and children struggling to pay bills and maintain their homes. Putting money on the books for them freed up money for family members to pay for medicines, calling cards, bills, etc. MXGM has also raised funds through the Black August concerts and donation drives over the years.
  • Develop an organizing strategy. This organizing strategy must include tactics that actively counter u.s. hegemony, which asserts that prisons are necessary and that political prisoners should be jailed and punished. The counter hegemonic tactics used in the SF8 case included conducting surveys to gather supporters, specifically by gauging community sentiment on police brutality, police repression, and conditions in prison. The intent was to build a culture of non-compliance to police brutality in our community and prison repression towards our people. Moreover, when the brothers were released on bail, MXGM members actively spent time with them in strategizing sessions to determine targets, tactics, and timeline.
  • Pressure lawmakers and decision makers. Four-and-a-half years of mass support for the brothers drew support from the San Francisco Central Labor Council, the Berkeley City Council, and several San Francisco Supervisors.
  • Celebrate victories. Celebrating victories, even minor ones, was important as it replenished the spirit of the organizers and the brothers, and helped to raise community awareness.

In January 2008, the SF8 claimed victories. The charges of conspiracy were dropped against five of the defendants, and Richard O’Neal was removed from the case all together, changing the name of the case to the San Francisco 7. On June 29, 2009, Bell pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Young. The following month, charges were dropped against Boudreaux, Brown, Jones, and Taylor, and Muntaquim pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit voluntary manslaughter.free_the_sf8

What We Have to Do

Well-resourced, strategically timed, intelligent legal strategies coupled with grassroots organizing strategies are a necessity to free political prisoners. It is unlikely that the Obama administration will move on issues of political prisoners. But, this does not mean we should yield our efforts. During this time, we must continue to build with the political prisoners and politicize the community. We must also develop a timeline for ourselves. There may be opportunities to challenge the Obama administration to make changes on issues related to mass incarceration, solitary confinement, torture, and political prisoners. There may be an opportunity in the second to third year of his final term (when presidents are more “flexible” to challenge the status quo policies en route to leave a “legacy’) to highlight these issues and change policies to work in our favor, and to free some political prisoners. Moreover, and on a larger scale, we have to not only challenge the mass incarceration and imprisonment of peoples in this country, but also the post-9/11 “war on terror” that is spreading like a disease. We have to keep alive the legacy of political prisoners to challenge u.s.-led imperialism, white supremacy, and u.s. hegemony. The u.s. attempt to invisibilize the stories of political prisoners is an attempt to erase the legacy of resistance of the Black Liberation Movement and other movements.

Movement workers should stay updated on cases of political prisoners by signing up for updates on support committee websites; connecting with international committees to free political prisoners, such as the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5; creating support committees; attending and hosting local events in support of political prisoners; and raising awareness with friends, family members, and community members through fact sheets, organizing events, letter-writing parties, concerts, and video and media resources such as COINTELPRO 101, produced by the Freedom Archives (available for purchase at

In closing, the words of former political prisoner Assata Shakur never rang more true: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Free ’em all!

For more information on the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, visit



A native of Philadelphia by way of Egypt, Liz Derias has over 13 years of national and international youth and community organizing, popular education training, and advocacy experience, working with organizations such as Sankofa Community Empowerment and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.  A 2001 graduate of the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program (MAAP) of the Center for Third World Organizing, she is committed to racial justice for working-class communities.  While there, she worked on various healthcare justice campaigns of AGENDA in Los Angeles, CA.

A resident of Oakland for eight years, Liz served as the Educational Program Coordinator for the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL), leading national training programs in popular education.  As an organizer for Leadership Excellence, she worked with a team of youth interns, elected officials, an advisory committee, parents, and community members on the West Oakland Teen Center Survey and Development Project, which secured over $ 8 million dollars for a new state-of-the-art youth center in West Oakland.  A former organizer with Youth Together, Liz fought for educational justice and finance reform for California’s public school students through the Kids Count campaign. 

Liz has published several articles, namely, “Black and Arab Solidarity: What Could It Mean?” published on, and “Educating with Soul”, published in, Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Fall 2007.  She is the narrator of the documentary, COINTELPRO 101, produced by the Freedom Archives.  Liz is an organizing member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.