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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary: " Schooling the generations in the politics of prison"

Twentieth century prison conditions are like the conditions of slavery. Plantation owners prevented rebellion by denying the humanity of the Africans they enslaved; prisoners are dehumanized in San Quentin, Parchman Farm, and prisons all over the u.s. The outlawing of African religious rituals during slavery parallels the denial of Islamic and Native American religious observances for years in Attica and other prisons. The use of informants and spies among some slightly-more-privileged sectors of slaves is like the use of snitches in controlling prison populations. Excessively harsh punishments were meted out to leaders of slave resistance, just as political prisoners are singled out for disproportionate sentences and particular forms of isolation in state and federal prisons.

There is a continuity from slavery to the prison system in implementing genocide against oppressed populations in this country. When expanding u.s. capitalism founded its wealth on chattel slavery the die was cast -- and it rolls on today in a prison system that swallows up huge portions of the Black, Latino, and Native American population, and serves to repress, control, and destroy the social fabric of the oppressed communities outside the prison walls.

This theme has been discussed and analyzed by many leaders of the Black liberation struggle, including, notably, Malcolm X. Now there is a book that articulates the theme clearly and profoundly. Last year, Dr. Chinosole, activist and professor at San Francisco State University, collected essays and issued a book called Schooling the Generations in the Politics of Prison. This book is a treasure. It includes essays, speeches or interview by nearly 30 Black activists, Prisoners of War, political prisoners, social prisoners, including Assata Shakur, Evelyn Williams, Jalil Muntaqim Buddha Pettiford, Mark Cook, Erskine Johnson, Atiba Shanna, Karen Johnson, Cecilia Sutton ... and the list goes on.

What is so important about this book:

It is a road map for where this society has come from and where we can go. To land almost at random on one point: if you want to understand the development of the prison system its seemingly irrational rules and procedures - read Sundiata Acoli's history of the New Afrikan prison struggle. I can't think of any other book where you can learn from those who lived it the history of the past 50 years - how the u.s. imperialist state responded to the era of rising national liberation struggles inside its borders. When I first received this book and read Sundiata's essay, I cried as I read the list of Black Liberation Army soldiers fallen in the struggle. Finally, the lived history has been printed, so that those who have forgotten can remember, and those who do not know can learn. Anyone who has never learned what the Black Liberation Army is needs to read this book. Any reader of PLN, any observer of the proliferation of prisons in this country, needs to read this book.

It is a bridge from the past to the future, from one generation of struggle to the next. Have you read the recent revelations of CIA callousness in promoting drug sales in Black cities? Mutulu Shakur's analysis of prisons as a tool of counterinsurgency will put this news in a coherent context. If you didn't live through the early period of frontal COINTELPRO attacks on the Black Panther Party and countless other community projects, essays in this book -- written by those targeted by the FBI and police attacks, and by those who exposed the COINTELPRO program -- will help you to understand. If you didn't know about the MOVE organization and its resistance against police attacks, didn't understand when the city of Philadelphia burned a house full of children and adults in 1985, Ramona Africa will tell you.

It is a weapon in the arsenal of struggle for human rights and liberation. None of us alive and fighting for justice today can afford not to know this history. History will remain a weapon of the rulers until the people seize knowledge and refuse to accept the lies. Those who wring their hands at the horrors of gang violence and community self-destruction will find in these essays an analysis of the roots of these problems that can serve as a guide for addressing the conditions of our communities.

It is an act of liberation, of resistance to the silencing of revolutionary voices. The u.s. government has tried to bury alive the authors of these essays -- in control units, in suffocating webs of lies calling them "terrorists" and "murderers," and, sadly, in piles of paper produced by more acceptable, less challenging figures in the u.s. left, who have sought either to speak for or to dismiss entirely the most radical sectors of the Black movement. As you read this book, and hear the voices of those locked away in remote prisons, like Jalil Muntaqim, or escaped from the flames to bear witness, like Ramona Africa, you are participating in a powerful, life-affirming conspiracy of resistance. No decent movement or society can accede to the attempts of an unjust government to silence the voices of the most potent opposition.

It is an inspiration and a call to action. In 1973, Sundiata Acoli and Assata Shakur, along with fallen BLA warrior Zayd Malik Shakur, were shot, arrested, tortured, and locked down in New Jersey. Other authors included in the book have already served similar sentences. Twenty-four, twenty-six, thirty years ago -- yet their voices, here, are not weary, not defeated. Their wisdom and vision are a gift to us -- but also a responsibility. "Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them," writes Assata Shakur in this book.

Send for this book. Read it. Share it. Fight for it.

Schooling the Generations in the Politics of Prison, Ed. Dr. Chinosole, New Earth Publications, 1996. 196 pages. $12. Order from Dr. Chinosole, Associate Professor, San Francisco State University, Department of Humanities, 1600 Halloway -- HUM 125, San Francisco, CA 94132.

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