15 November 2013

Free the Class-War Prisoners!

28th Annual PDC Holiday Appeal

This year marks the 28th anniversary of the Partisan Defense Committee’s program of sending stipends to class-war prisoners, those behind bars for the “crime” of standing up to the varied expressions of racist capitalist oppression. The PDC’s Holiday Appeal raises funds to send monthly stipends to 21 class-war prisoners and also provides holiday gifts for the prisoners and their families. We do this not just because it’s the right thing to do. The monthly stipends, just increased from $25 to $50, and holiday gifts are not charity. They are vital acts of class solidarity to remind the prisoners that they are not forgotten.

The Holiday Appeals are a stark contrast to the hypocritical appeals of bourgeois charities. Whether it comes from the megachurches of Southern televangelists or the urbane editors of the New York Times, the invocation of “peace on earth and goodwill toward men” at this time of year is nothing more than a public relations scam to obscure the grinding exploitation of workers and the beggar-the-poor policies that are the hallmark of both major parties of American capitalism. The lump of coal in the Christmas stocking for millions of impoverished families this year is a drastic cut in their already starvation food stamp rations. Christmas turkey for many is likely to be sculpted from cans of Spam.

The prisoners generally use the funds for basic necessities, from supplementing the inadequate prison diet to buying stamps and writing materials, or to pursue literary, artistic and musical endeavors that help ameliorate the living hell of prison life. As Tom Manning of the Ohio 7 wrote to the PDC four years ago: “Just so you know, it [the stipend] goes for bags of mackerel and jars of peanut butter, to supplement my protein needs.” In a separate letter, his comrade Jaan Laaman observed: “This solidarity and support is important and necessary for us political prisoners, especially as the years and decades of our captivity grind on.... Being in captivity is certainly harsh, and this includes the sufferings of our children and families and friends. But prison walls and sentences do not and can not stop struggle.”

We look to the work of the International Labor Defense (ILD) under its first secretary, James P. Cannon (1925-28), who went on to become the founder of American Trotskyism. As the ILD did, we stand unconditionally on the side of the working people and their allies in struggle against their exploiters and oppressors. We defend, in Cannon’s words, “any member of the workers movement, regardless of his views, who suffered persecution by the capitalist courts because of his activities or his opinion” (First Ten Years of American Communism, 1962).

Initiated in 1986, the PDC stipend program revived an early tradition of the ILD. The mid 1980s were a time of waning class and social struggle but also a time when the convulsive struggles for black rights more than a decade earlier still haunted America’s capitalist rulers, who thirsted for vengeance. Among the early recipients of PDC stipends were members and supporters of the Black Panther Party (BPP), the best of a generation of black radicals who sought a revolutionary solution to black oppression—a bedrock of American capitalism.

Foremost among these was Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), former leader of the BPP in Los Angeles. Geronimo won his release in 1997 after spending 27 years behind bars for a murder the cops and FBI knew he did not commit. FBI wiretap logs, disappeared by the Feds, showed that Geronimo was 400 miles away in San Francisco at the time of the Santa Monica killing. Other victims of the government’s deadly Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) remain entombed decades later. Absent an upsurge of class and social struggle that transforms the political landscape, they will likely breathe their last breaths behind bars.

Among the dozens of past stipend recipients are Eddie McClelland, a supporter of the Irish Republican Socialist Party who was framed on charges related to the killing of three members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, and Mordechai Vanunu, who helped expose the Israeli nuclear arsenal. At its outset, our program included five British miners imprisoned during the bitter 1984-85 coal strike. State repression of labor struggle in the U.S. added to our program, for a time, other militants railroaded to prison for defending their union against scabs in the course of strike battles: Jerry Dale Lowe of the United Mine Workers in West Virginia, Amador Betancourt of Teamsters Local 912 in California and Bob Buck of Steelworkers Local 5668 in West Virginia. (For more background on the PDC and the stipend program, see “18th Annual Holiday Appeal for Class-War Prisoners,” WV No. 814, 21 November 2003.)

The most recent additions to the stipend program include Lynne Stewart and the Tinley Park 5. Stewart is an attorney who spent four decades fighting to keep black and radical activists out of the clutches of the state, only to find herself joining them behind bars on ludicrous “support to terrorism” charges. The youthful anti-fascist fighters known as the Tinley Park 5 were thrown in prison for heroically dispersing a meeting of fascists in May 2012.

At the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we warned that the enhanced police powers being amassed to go after immigrants from Muslim countries would also be used against the oppressed black population and the working class as a whole. That the “war on terror” takes aim at leftist opponents of this or that government policy is affirmed by the massive “anti-terror” police mobilizations and arrests that have accompanied protest outside every Democratic and Republican national convention, among other gatherings, in recent years. Other recent examples include the FBI-coordinated nationwide crackdown on “Occupy” movement encampments and the state of siege in Chicago during the 2012 NATO summit.

The witchhunt against the Tinley Park 5 coincided with and fed into the hysteria whipped up against the anti-NATO protesters, particularly anarchists and participants in Black Bloc actions. Sitting in jail awaiting trial for 18 months are three protesters set up by a police provocateur. They were arrested and charged under Illinois anti-terrorism statutes, the first time these laws were ever used. Free the anti-NATO protesters! Drop the charges!

Continuing the Legacy of Class-Struggle Defense

The PDC is a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization that champions cases and causes in the interest of the whole of the working people. This purpose is in accordance with the Marxist political views of the Spartacist League, which initiated the PDC in 1974. The PDC’s first major defense effort was the case of Mario Muñoz, the Chilean miners’ leader threatened with death in 1976 by the Argentine military junta. An international campaign of protests by unions and civil libertarians, cosponsored by the Committee to Defend Worker and Sailor Prisoners in Chile, won asylum in France for Muñoz and his family. The PDC has also initiated labor/black mobilizations against provocations by the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis from San Francisco to Atlanta to New York to Springfield, Illinois, and mobilized sections of the integrated labor movement to join these efforts.

Cannon’s ILD, which was affiliated to the early Communist Party, was our model for class-struggle defense. It fused the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) tradition of militant class-struggle, non-sectarian defense and their slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” with the internationalism of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a revolution made not merely for the workers of Russia but for the workers and oppressed of the world. These principles were embodied in the International Organization for Aid to Fighters of the Revolution (MOPR), a defense organization formed in the Soviet Union in 1922 that was more popularly known as the International Red Aid.

The ILD was born out of discussions in 1925 between Cannon and Big Bill Haywood, who had been a leader of the Western Federation of Miners and then the IWW. The venue was Moscow, where Haywood had fled in 1921 after jumping bond while awaiting appeal of his conviction for having called a strike during wartime, an activity deemed a violation of the federal Espionage and Sedition Act. Haywood died in Moscow in 1928. Half his ashes were buried in the Kremlin, the other half in Chicago near the monument to the Haymarket martyrs, leaders of the fight for the eight-hour day who were executed in 1887.

The ILD was founded especially to take up the plight of class-war prisoners in the United States. Initially, the ILD adopted 106 prisoners for its stipend program, including California labor leaders Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, framed up for a bombing at the Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco in 1916, and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, immigrant anarchist workers executed in 1927 for a robbery/murder they did not commit. The number grew rapidly: Zeigler miners in Illinois whose fights over wages and working conditions pitted them head-on against the KKK; striking textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey. The ILD monthly, Labor Defender, educated tens of thousands of workers about the struggles of their class brothers and carried letters from prisoners describing their cases and the importance of ILD support.

Many of the imprisoned militants were IWW members. After a brief membership in the Socialist Party (SP), Cannon himself had been an IWW organizer and a writer for its press. Witnessing the anarcho-syndicalist IWW crushed by the bourgeois state while a disciplined Marxist party led a successful proletarian revolution in Russia, Cannon rejoined the SP in order to hook up with its developing pro-Bolshevik left wing. In 1919, that left wing exited the SP, with Cannon becoming a founding leader of the American Communist movement. He brought a wealth of experience in labor defense. As Cannon later recalled, “I came from the background of the old movement when the one thing that was absolutely sacred was unity on behalf of the victims of capitalist justice.”

In the year preceding the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the ILD and sections of the International Red Aid led mass actions in their defense, including protests and strikes of tens of thousands on the eve of the executions. The SP and pro-capitalist union tops undermined the growing workers mobilization by looking to the political agencies of the class enemy, a policy accompanied by a vicious anti-Communist campaign of slander and exclusion. Cannon addressed the two conflicting policies:

“One policy is the policy of the class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts. While favoring all possible legal proceedings, it calls for agitation, publicity, demonstrations—organized protest on a national and international scale.... The other policy is the policy of ‘respectability,’ of the ‘soft pedal’ and of ridiculous illusions about ‘justice’ from the courts of the enemy. It relies mainly on legal proceedings. It seeks to blur the issue of the class struggle.”

—“Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti?” (Labor Defender, January 1927)

The principle of non-sectarian, class-struggle defense has guided our work, in particular our more than two-decade struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. As a small organization, we don’t pretend that we are able to mobilize the type of hard class struggle that not only built the unions in this country but also harnessed the social power of the working class to the defense of labor’s imprisoned soldiers in the class war. Such struggles are today a very faint memory. Nor do we want to distribute rose-colored glasses through which even the most minimal stirrings against particular atrocities by the racist capitalist rulers appear as sea changes in the political climate—a practice that is common fare for sundry proclaimed socialists.

Instead, we are dedicated to educating a new generation of fighters in the best traditions of the early Communist defense work before it was poisoned by Stalinist degeneration. As Cannon wrote for the ILD’s second annual conference: “The procession that goes in and out of the prison doors is not a new one. It is the result of an old struggle under new forms and under new conditions. All through history those who have fought against oppression have constantly been faced with the dungeons of a ruling class.” He added, “The class-conscious worker accords to the class-war prisoners a place of singular honor and esteem.” Keeping the memory of their struggles alive helps politically arm a new generation of fighters against the prison that is capitalist society. We urge WV readers to honor the prisoners by supporting the Holiday Appeal.

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1034, 15 November 2013)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.