The decades-long struggle by various forces in the Black Liberation Movement, the human rights and prisoner support movements resulted in the release of Herman Wallace from the Angola prison plantation in Louisiana on Oct. 1. Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert King, had become known internationally as the Angola 3.
Wallace’s bogus conviction for the death of a prison guard in 1972 had been challenged by him and his supporters. The three inmates were organizers for the Black Panther Party inside the dreaded prison, which was a slave plantation during the antebellum period.
After his conviction was overturned on Sept. 30, Wallace was released from prison, only to die three days later on Oct. 4. Wallace had been suffering from terminal cancer due in large part to the horrendous conditions he endured in the prison, known as one of the worst such facilities in the U.S.
Wallace, Woodfox and King were placed in solitary confinement after they were deemed a threat to the prison authorities during the early 1970s. King was released in 2001 after spending 29 years in solitary confinement, while Woodfox remains at Angola.
Freedom for all political prisoners
The injustice of the Angola 3 is not an isolated situation. Many political prisoners are being held in prisons inside the U.S.
Although the U.S. government denies there are political prisoners inside this country, many people who were associated with revolutionary and progressive movements within the oppressed nations remain incarcerated under extremely harsh conditions. According to the Jericho Movement, which has demanded a general amnesty for political prisoners for more than 15 years, there are at least 150 of such inmates throughout various so-called correctional facilities across the country.
The U.S. government’s false claim that there are no political prisoners flows from the overall situation involving the nationally oppressed. Africans, people of Latin American descent, Native Americans and others suffer direct repression and exploitation that is deeply entrenched within the exploitative system.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the struggle for national liberation, genuine equality and self-determination took on a mass and militant character. Although some concessions were granted as a result of these popular struggles, the fundamental structures of capitalism and imperialism remain intact.
By the middle years of the 1960s, rebellions began to sweep across the U.S. that shook the foundations of the racist and oppressive system. From California to New York City and to the colonies of Puerto Rico, the Native nations and occupied Mexico in the Southwest, organizations arose that took on a revolutionary approach to the struggles against racism and economic exploitation.
This is the context in which the Black Panther Party, Republic of New Africa, Young Lords, American Indian Movement, Brown Berets, Weather Underground and other revolutionary organizations came into being. These organizations, and the movements surrounding them, were met by the armed might of the capitalist and imperialist state based in Washington, D.C.
The FBI, CIA, Military Intelligence Corps as well as local and state law-enforcement departments were mobilized and provided vast amounts of funding and political support to attack all genuine movements for freedom and justice taking place in the U.S. Dozens of BPP and AIM members were killed between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.
Political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sekou Odinga, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Mutulu Shakur, Ed Poindexter, the MOVE 9 and many too numerous to mention remain locked up for purely political reasons. Efforts by the Jericho Movement and other organizations to appeal for a general amnesty have been rejected by successive administrations from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
Others who were held unjustly as political prisoners, such as Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, were liberated by their comrades and granted asylum in revolutionary Cuba. Shakur was designated as a “most wanted terrorist” by the U.S. government earlier this year, four decades after she was shot, captured and unjustly imprisoned by the New Jersey state authorities.
Wallace’s last words after being released were “I am free, I am free.” The tragedy is that this soldier of the people’s struggle for liberation should have never been imprisoned at all. In light of the evidence that vindicated him from the crimes in which he was accused, he should have been released decades ago.
Over the last four decades there have been periods where various movements have been successful in winning the release of political prisoners. Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt was released in 1997 after spending 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Angela Davis was acquitted of trumped-up charges related to efforts aimed at the liberation of George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers in 1972. Both George and Jonathan Jackson, his younger brother, were freedom fighters killed trying to liberate themselves and their comrades.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former leader of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia and a supporter of MOVE, was released from death row as a result of an international movement in his defense that has been active since the time of his shooting and incarceration in 1981. Mumia remains in prison with a life sentence, while efforts continue to bring about his release from the penal system in Pennsylvania.
Escalate struggle to free all political prisoners
One clear lesson from Herman Wallace’s death at a private home in New Orleans is that the people’s organizations and movements across the U.S. must escalate their efforts to expose both the existence and plight of political prisoners as well as the necessity of bringing about their release. The struggle to free political prisoners is part and parcel of the broader efforts to end national oppression and class exploitation in general.
The campaigns for the release of all political prisoners are inextricably linked with the aims of bringing about a revolutionary movement in the U.S. to overturn the exploitative and oppressive system of capitalism and imperialism. Inside the U.S., which claims that it is the most advanced democracy in the world, there are more prisoners per capita than in any other state around the globe.
Disproportionately the oppressed African, Latin American and Native populations are incarcerated at a far higher rate than whites. Prisons are containment, slave labor and behavioral modification centers designed to maintain the dominance of the racist ruling class and its state apparatus operating on national, state and local levels.
A new wave of prison activism is moving across several states inside the country. The prisoner hunger strikes in California, Ohio and Georgia in recent years should be supported by all civil and human rights organizations throughout the U.S.
The only way in which the large-scale incarceration of the nationally oppressed, workers and poor people can be halted is through the transformation of the U.S. into a socialist state where people-of-color communities have the inherent right to self-determination and full equality. Prisons are an integral part of the mechanism of control and exploitation designed to uphold the right of private property over and above the needs of the majority of people held down under this system of oppression and exploitation.