Episode 11: State Repression and Movement Defense

This episode turns to questions of political repression, movement defense, and solidarity with political prisoners – questions which have been accentuated in the wake of the massive legal attacks visited upon protesters who participated in the #J20 demonstration in Washington D.C. on the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.

Ashanti Alston, a former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army who spent 14 years incarcerated due to his activity in the revolutionary movement, discusses the uses and pitfalls of distinguishing between political and social prisoners, and argues that defending political prisoners is essential to the struggle for abolition.

Jude Ortiz of The Tilted Scales Collective speaks on the importance of situating legal defense campaigns within a movement-centered strategy for liberation, and the ongoing campaign to defend the #J20 resistance. Payton, a current #J20 co-defendant, closes with his experience of the #J20 repression and this Fall’s courtroom struggles.

Image credit: ‘Libertad – Presos Politicos’ Mexican students’ protest poster. 1968.

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Episode Transcript:

Andres: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andres. In this episode we turn to questions of political repression, movement defense, and solidarity with political prisoners – questions which have been accentuated in the wake of the massive legal attacks visited upon protesters who participated in the #J20 demonstration in Washington D.C. on the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. With most of the over 230 protesters who were arrested in D.C. facing felony charges, and potentially up to 75 years in prison, the #J20 resistance starkly illustrates the perils of escalating state repression, the urgent need for strategic movement defense, and the importance of standing in solidarity with those who put themselves at risk for the sake of collective struggle.

We speak first with writer, activist, and revolutionary, Ashanti Alston, a former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army who spent 14 years incarcerated due to his activity in the revolutionary movement. He discusses the dynamics of state repression and its relationship to the carceral state, the uses and pitfalls of distinguishing between political and social prisoners, and why defending political prisoners is essential to the struggle for abolition.

We also speak with Jude Ortiz from the Tilted Scales Collective about their recently published book, A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, on the importance of situating legal defense campaigns within a movement-centered strategy for liberation, and the ongoing campaign to defend the #J20 resistance.

Finally, we speak with Payton, a current #J20 defendant, about his experience of the #J20 repression and this Fall’s courtroom struggles.

But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.

NEWS

Kaif Syed: On October 16th, Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the police killing of Eric Garner, made a statement highlighting the retaliation and abuse he has experienced at the hands of corrections officers in Franklin Correctional Facility in New York state. In a letter his lawyer shared with the New York Daily News, Orta wrote that he fears for his life and cannot take anymore of the ongoing abuse. The arrest of Orta was itself an act of retaliation by the NYPD, a brutal institution that was exposed by Orta’s video of the murder of Eric Garner, who was killed by cops for being black while selling cigarettes on the street. Orta was physically abused by five to seven corrections officers while he was being moved to solitary confinement.

On October 26th, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained state documents that shed light on an August 3rd standoff at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys north of Wasau, Wisconsin. It was reported that four juvenile inmates climbed atop the facility and and threw rocks and shingles at the guards. This uprising is part of a pattern at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, including a pair of uprisings that left five prison workers hospitalized on October 22nd. The facility is the subject of multiple lawsuits and a criminal investigation for its abuse of inmates.

On October 18th, it was reported that the Trump Administration has issued a request for information seeking a 200-600 bed facility to confine undocumented immigrants within 180 miles of Detroit. This facility would be one of four potential facilities the feds want to build, including potential jails around Chicago, St Paul, and Salt Lake City. These inquiries are indicative of the Trump administration’s desire to increase capacity for the racist targeting and detention of the undocumented.

ASHANTI ALSTON

a Maria: I’m a Maria here with David Langstaff, and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

David Langstaff: Over the Summer, co-producer Alejo Stark spoke with writer, activist, and revolutionary Ashanti Alston, known by some as “The Anarchist Black Panther”, at the International Conference on Penal Abolition.

a Maria: Ashanti is a long time organizer and former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Today he serves as Treasurer on the Steering Committee of the National Jericho Movement, an organization committed to raising awareness about the struggles of political prisoners, and ensuring that the knowledge and leadership brought by incarcerated organizers is recognized as essential to building powerful movements against racial capitalism and the carceral state.

Ashanti Alston: My name is Ashanti Alston, I’m a former member of the Black Panther Party and I was a soldier in the Black Liberation Army. As a result of my politics, I was a political prisoner for a total of 14 years. At present, I’m on the steering committee of the Jericho Movement. The national Jericho Movement, which fights for the freedom of political prisoners, especially those who’ve been in prison since the 60s and 70s. But we also represent a broad array of different political prisoners. Being invited here today and having the opportunity here at this conference, the ICOPA ‘17 conference, just allows me to make that pitch for people to take on the issue of political prisoners. Put it on the top of your agenda, not just anywhere but at the top, and why. And why that issue is so important, not only as a political prisoner issue, but as an abolitionist issue. So I’m all for making that tie-in, because I don’t think you can do one without the other.

Alejo Stark: So, let’s go back to your time in the Black Panther Party and later the BLA, the Black Liberation Army. To what extent was Abolition something you were all grappling with then?

Ashanti Alston: Abolition, no. Prisons, and the issues that we were grappling with in the prisons, as far as all the issues that concern abolition, but I would even say that back then that we had not even considered the role of prisons in that kind of critique. I think maybe that we envisioned then that we would be free, we would make a revolution, and those bankers and politicians and other people who were in power who oppressed us, might replace us in these prisons.

So it wasn’t until for me personally that I started reading anarchism that I began to at least think about prisons in a different perspective. As not useful, as not needed. And one of the things about critical resistance, we had this saying that once there were no prisons, that time shall come again. And for me it was like wow, to even think that there was a time there were no prisons is kinda heavy. So no, there wasn’t always prisons, then how did we get there? And then, not only how did we get here, how can we get beyond this? What other forms of interactions, relations that people can have where we’re faced with harm or we’re faced with injustices, that we have other ways. Humane ways I guess, of correcting them. So Critical Resistance gave me an organizational way to look into it more, and for us to figure out ways that we could actually practice on some levels, first we called it restorative justice. But then that led us also to consider transformative justice, then I understand that it’s beyond stopping the building of prisons, or just creating a world without prisons. But then we want to consider what’s the role of those institutions that produce the prisons, and the thinking that goes with it. And it made the critique of society even deeper. So it’s like, yeah, we really do gotta change this society at the bottom of its roots.

Alejo Stark: Can you share with us a little bit more about this transformation you went through as you were locked up inside? In particular, how you began thinking more critically about the State and the function of prisons in our society?

Ashanti Alston: This is pretty much in the federal prison system, I’m being exposed to more radical thinkings. More radical readings, and initially it was critical theory. And it made me think that some of the things that we were failing to do as movements were as much internal, as the state’s external measures to stop us. So what could we do to better our practice so that we wasn’t becoming our own worst enemy. So from the critical theory, then I started getting into the feminisms, and from the feminisms into the anarchisms. So all of them was in different ways giving me different perspectives and learnings on our struggle, and even on our history. To be able to see that we gotta keep going deeper, and all this I’m reading in prison.

And so when I finally get released, it’s the things I want to gravitate towards in my political practice when I’m out, things I wasn’t necessarily finding amongst my comrades. I started to look for the anarchist movements, and in some of those I was finding that more radical practice. But the help for me was using that prison time as an educational tool, but it’s not enough for me to just keep it in my head. How is it going to look in practice? So if I’m trying to practice it inside, trying to check my own sexism, my own authoritarianism, to coming out and being with others who are also trying to create these different more radical relationships. So the prison things was like, it may not have been the greatest place to be, but you utilize that time.

Alejo Stark: Certainly, the time for some folks that are locked up can be really politically radicalizing. As you said, you were politicized before you were captured by the state–for instance, you were a soldier in the struggle for Black liberation. In this sense, both historically and even today, some make a distinction between “political prisoners”–like yourself, Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier and so many others– and so called “social prisoners” that can potentially become radicalized inside. Can you tell us about what you make of this distinction today between political prisoners and so called social prisoners?

Ashanti Alston: It’s an issue that’s been with us for decades, the political prisoner vs the social prisoner. And even when one looks at it from one perspective, like we’re all political prisoners in some sense, there’s a truth to it. But then there’s also has to be a recognition of those who consciously take on a revolutionary character, especially outside but also inside, and begin to live that kind of oppositional life and are captured for it. Or framed and put in prison for it. You’re just going to leave them inside? You’re gonna leave your Mandela’s inside, and just let them suffer? Your job is to help get them out. And it’s not like you’re ignoring the average prisoner, but your saying these your priority. They gonna come out and get back into the struggle. And then you have the George Jackson’s, so we know there’s the potential of the social prisoners inside becoming revolutionaries themselves. And you want them also to be able to get out. But the whole thing is how can we keep feeding that movement with people who are dedicating their lives to the struggle?

So for me today, when I speak about, if I go to an abolitionist conference or I’m speaking I gotta make this connection. Cause I don’t want people to treat the Mumia’s and the Leonard Peltier’s and others like they’re just, like they’re a part of the main population. They are technically, but these are people who made a sacrifice for you. It’s a tough, tough struggle, but there are those who just stay at it in the hopes that other people will catch on and begin to help build a movement. We’re not gonna get our folks out unless we build movements from the ground. It cannot just be your in this movement that’s hot at the moment, and you will not give any recognition to those who laid the groundwork for you.

Alejo Stark: Can you tell us a little bit about the Jericho movement and how folks can get involved?

Ashanti Alston: If you go, thejerichomovement.com, you’ll see ways you can support political prisoners. One is just to learn about the issue, and you begin to see the faces of political prisoners and their stories. But there’s buttons you can hit that’s like, PayPal. Or to see if there’s a chapter here or a chapter here, that they do a letter writing campaign, or they got some other kind of issue that they’re trying to struggle around with political prisoners. Especially those that been in there for like 40 years, there’s health issues. So we rely on people’s donations, or join. Set up a chapter. Or invite us to speak if you’re at a university.

And so there’s ways to help us, but the whole thing is to get it into communities. The financial part becomes important because sometimes a political prisoner may be on the west coast, but they’re from the east coast. We gotta get their families to see them, especially at critical times. So it’s important that people look into this, figure out how you can help us. How you can help other organizations, cuz there’s anarchist organizations all over, some that do political prisoner work. And we’re all doing this work, we need support. And the biggest support is from people.

Alejo Stark: Thank you so much Ashanti, for your life-long struggle to make our world anew and for speaking with us today.

Ashanti Alston: Thank you for this opportunity to talk about political prisoners, and I hope that people come forward, and take it on to help build this overall movement to change the world.

TILTED SCALES COLLECTIVE

David Langstaff: We turn next to Jude Ortiz of the Tilted Scales Collective, a small collective of legal support organizers who have spent years supporting and fighting for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and politicized prisoners in the occupied lands of Turtle Island. A Maria and I caught up with him during the book tour for A Titled Guide to Being a Defendant, a new book written by dedicated legal support activists that draws on the experiences of dozens of people who have weathered the challenges of trials and incarceration.

Jude Ortiz: My name is Jude Ortiz, I’m with Tilted Scales Collective, spread out across Turtle Island. The Tilted Scales Collective formed in 2012 at an anarchist Black Cross prisoner’s support conference, and we’ve been seeing all the various ways that the state was using criminal charges to target radicals on the left. And seeing different things happen, like people getting arrested for allegedly taking one off actions, or being entrapped by FBI informants or undercover cops. And we’re seeing exactly how devastating those criminal charges were on those individuals, as well as on our movements.

a Maria: What cultural and strategic shifts are you trying to advance within radical movements?

Jude Ortiz: So our first project as a collective has been to write the guide for defendants. It offers a framework for thinking about criminal charges and ways that can help strengthen our struggles. And it’s a goal setting framework that focuses on three different areas, the personal, political, and legal. The idea with that is that as a movement as a whole, we don’t have a lot of skills, a lot of experience and knowledge about how to handle criminal charges in ways that will strengthen our movements. The fact is, that we don’t often know how to bring our politics into this battleground that the state chooses, and they get to decide how things work in that battleground. So rather than allowing the state to just win all the time and use those charges to isolate and punish individuals, and to destroy communities and families and movements, we wanted to figure out how to shift those conditions and the power structures that exist. So that we can push back and create more space for ourselves, and come out stronger at the end. No matter what we’re facing.

David Langstaff: So it seems like the major pitfalls we often encounter in defense campaigns against legal repression have to do, firstly, with thinking about legal defense in technocratic terms. As if strategy is something that should be left to the experts, but also thinking about the ways the state works to divide and isolate those who resist – I’m thinking in particular of grand juries, for instance. Can you talk about how the approach Tilted Scales is advocating sees legal defense as grounded in and emerging from strategic movement building, and understands legal defense as a collective effort, rather than something comprised simply of individual cases?

Jude Ortiz: So the goal setting framework is meant to be something that can help individuals figure out how to handle their cases, but it only makes sense within a context of how do our decisions with our criminal charges affect other people. So we have two guiding principles that we look at with that goal setting framework. One is that criminal charges are inherently a part of revolutionary struggle, and the state understands that, and they use those charges to disrupt and destroy our struggles. So we need to understand that as a way of including that into our struggles, and ideally finding ways to come out stronger as revolutionaries, and revolutionary communities and movements. The other guiding principle is that however we handle our cases, we should figure out how to do that in ways that don’t help the state lock other people up.

a Maria: Are there other ways that you see this project overlapping with abolitionist organizing?

Jude Ortiz: Most definitely. So our collective is coming from prison abolitionist politics. We’re not a collective that is actively working to figure out ways of destroying the prison industrial complex, instead our focus is on helping people work through those situations. And if our defendant’s guide can help people avoid prison, help from sending people into those cages, that’s amazing and we want to do that. If you can help people figure out ways of challenging and disrupting and destroying that system, and ultimately getting all those cages to be torn down, that’s even better. Also we are anarchist legal workers, so we’re approaching this project and this collective, from the baseline idea that we need to have a world that is not structured around nation-states. And that we don’t need governments in order to structure things and shape things, and control and run things, that communities can do that for themselves.

a Maria: You’re also part of the Defend J20 Resistance solidarity organizing?

Jude Ortiz: Yes, I’m also doing a lot of solidarity organizing with the J20 defendants. That’s very closely related to Tilted Scales and also a separate project, so http://www.defendj20resistance.org is a website where people can go for more information on that case. There are around 200 defendants who were initially arrested on January 20th in D.C., and charged with inciting a riot and other felonies. They were facing 10 years at the beginning, the prosecutors have added additional charges, including conspiracy to riot. So now the defendants are all facing about 75 years in prison.

a Maria: In doing defense campaigns, we can come up against lots of linguistic and cultural hurdles. For instance, trying to understand cases and talk about them within our communities in ways that are legally specific, but not tedious or alienating. How do you break that down?

Jude Ortiz: So in our defendant’s guide and in our presentations, and when we’re working with defendants who are trying to figure out which steps to take in their criminal cases, we do as much as we can to demystify that language. And throughout the defendant’s guide, we have a lot of endnotes that point to resources that help understand legal terms, like basic legal terms. And even with all that work, there’s going to be very few times when you can understand the legal concept thoroughly, and then also realistically expect it to play out that way without putting pressure on the criminal courts to force it to do the things that it’s supposedly designed to do.

David Langstaff: Could give some examples of campaigns that have operationalized some of the principles, tactics, and strategies that you all are advocating for in this book – in contrast, say, to campaigns that have encountered some of the pitfalls we’ve discussed, such as instances in which legal defense that lose their grounding in movement building or collective resistance?

Jude Ortiz: So we’re hoping that right now in the J20 case, that our defendant’s guide will have a lot of useful thoughts, to help people figure out how to conduct a collective defense in a collective approach to their cases. And I’m really hoping that however long this battle takes them, that at the end that our guide as a resource will be very useful, in that struggle. The guide itself was written based on collective wisdom, so when we started it as a collective, we wrote outlines for the defendant’s guide as well as an outline for a lawyer’s guide. Which will be our next project as a collective, and the lawyer’s guide will be a companion to the defendant’s guide. And we sent those outlines to about a hundred people across the country, and it got feedback from 25 or 28. A good number of them were former or current prisoners. And so that collective wisdom, that collective experience, was the heart of our book in a lot of ways.

Different people in our collective also had experience working on defense committees, ranging from people who were entrapped by FBI or police informants, to people who were arrested after allegedly taking a one off action. Whether it’s throwing a Molotov through a window, or some other form of property destruction. And in that work in our interviews and discussions with defendants and prisoners, we noticed some trends and things that have been done well, or not been done well. And so we have a list in the book, that at one point looks at some things that we saw as being less advantageous for defendants, and more advantageous for the state if people were to engage in that. So some of the things that we talk about with that list are being very honest about what the case is and is not about.

We’ve also seen trends where people, because they’re not sure what information is safe to share and what is not, where they’ll ask for support and solidarity but not say what the allegations are against them. Not saying what they plan on pleading guilty to, because they have an unclear understanding of what information is safe to share. And while it’s good to err on the side of caution, it’s also good and necessary to make sure that people who are being asked for solidarity understand what’s going on. Especially when the state already knows that information. So if our communities don’t know that information but the state does, that puts them at the advantage.

a Maria: How can people learn more and start accessing these resources?

Jude Ortiz: Our website is http://www.tiltedscalescollective.org, if people go to that website, they can get our zine. Which is Chapter 2 at our book, and you can read that or print that online for free. And you can also get a copy of our full book for free.

a Maria: Thanks so much for joining us on the show today!

Jude Ortiz: Yes, thank you for having us! It’s been awesome and I’ve really been inspired by a lot of your recordings so far.

#J20

a Maria: We close today’s episode with a conversation with Payton, a Michigan-based #J20 defendant.

Payton: My name is Payton, I’m one of the close to 200 #J20 defendants, 230 people got swept up in a mass kettle and arrested. Many of us now who are left, who haven’t pled out or have been dropped, are facing about 70 years upwards in cumulative charges. Those charges include conspiracy to riot, which is a really really large charge, as well as enticing a riot, participation in a riot, property damage; and we were in a superseding indictment charged with assault on an officer, many of us, but that’s since been dropped. All of these are federal charges.

a Maria: Can you talk about the kettling process and why people were amassed in DC that day?

Payton: We had medics, legal observers, lawyers, people from the press, I myself had two cameras, both of which were taken, as well as an audio recorder and a backpack. All of these things are being used as evidence, people’s phones have been taken and unlocked, and used as evidence against them. So people’s personal profiles for Facebook, email, what have you, are all being used as discovery indiscriminately by the state, no matter what people were doing there that day. And that’s a kettle.

Obviously Donald Trump was a really galvanizing force for a lot of people, a lot of people have recently become politicized by that. Juxtaposed with our actions on inauguration day, the next day was the Million Women’s March, and the march with the famous pussy hats. And so we see a lot of different types of people engaging in a diversity of tactics, all around central points, the biggest one I think that day clearly was Donald Trump. But the underlying essence of what we were doing in that day and that particular demonstration was anti fascist, anti capitalist, anti racist work. I don’t think that a lot of people necessarily articulate themselves as anti racist, anti fascist, or anti capitalist when they’re doing their critiques of Donald Trump. But I think that that is a great stepping stone for people to start to explore those dimensions of solidarity work.

a Maria: Can you talk about some collective legal defense tactics and Fall trial updates?

Payton: No one really expected anything like we experienced that day, and so the infrastructure for a mass defense of this scale was not there. But I think retrospectively, I’ve seen a lot of people from a lot of different places because as you can imagine, people came from all across the country to demonstrate against what was going on that day. We have a number of people from Michigan, people from Pennsylvania, New York, etc. And all of these people have come together for the most part, to put on benefit shows, do call-ins, and create public media press reports to get awareness out and raise funds.

Right now, the major updates are the first trial, primarily composed of people who did speedy motions. They did motions for a speedy trial, so they could insert themselves before the people who were “most suspect”. I do air quotations around that, these are the people who were identified organizers, or perhaps had certain items on their persons at the time that the state deemed more militant than others. We were grouped into originally four groups, group one being the most once again quote unquote “suspect”, group four being the least. So a lot of group four people, these are the medics, and the journalists, and the more able of us to put that social and legal cushion into that first group. If we’re talking about public image before the eyes of a jury, could potentially lead to a little more conflict. And that’s exactly why the least suspect people put themselves in that position, so that they could try to protect the people who are being more scrutinized by the state.

a Maria: As abolitionists and organizers, we grapple with knowing that all imprisoned people under racial capitalism are behind bars for political reasons, yet noting a particular obligation to organize in support of those criminalized for their efforts to make another world. Has becoming a J20 defendant shifted the ways that you experience those tensions? And what kind of solidarity are J20 defendants asking for right now?

Payton: It certainly has forced me into a position where I need to think from a more historical lense. I always knew that there was a racial implicity in the carceral system in this country coming out of slavery, I myself am half black. And so that’s always been something that I’ve roped with, is the intersection between white and black in this country, and how people have been treated historically. But being a defendant at this point has definitely increased my awareness. A number of us have already been affected by the state, a lot of people have records, some people are new.

Right now, we’re still looking for a lot of help for our finances and fundraising. Housing, food, and logistics for people going to D.C. for their trial. As well as taking court notes, and court support, or emotional support after people come out of trial or before. As well as social media awareness campaigns. And if you yourself as a listener would like to offer support, there is a website, defendj20resistance.org. Where you can learn how to donate, read our statement of solidarity, Drop the Charges campaign, or sift through the assorted media resources.

a Maria: Thank you, Payton, for joining us on the show.

Payton: Thank you. It’s been a really uplifting and encouraging situation, equally as much as I think it is a dark one.

EPILOGUE

Andres: As the carceral state escalates repression of social movements, it becomes even more important for abolitionists, and all of us struggling for collective liberation, to think carefully about what it would mean to build our capacity for strategic movement defense, and to recommit ourselves to standing in solidarity with those who put themselves at risk in the struggle for another world. Yet abolitionists also recognize that all prisoners are political, insofar as prisons have become indispensable to contemporary racial capitalism’s containment and repression of insurgent social life which is at once devalued and regarded as existential threat. Moreover, prisons are themselves sites of radical collective action and political repression, as illustrated by luminaries such as George Jackson, whose revolutionary convictions developed through his very experience of incarceration.

To close with Jackson’s words: “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”

Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website, at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, A. Maria, David Langstaff, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.