23 August 2019

Honoring a Class-War Prisoner

Tom Manning

19462019

After more than three decades of torment in America’s dungeons, class-war prisoner Tom Manning died on July 30 at the federal penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but it was the sadistic prison authorities who were responsible for the death of Manning, one of the last two incarcerated Ohio 7 leftists. In retaliation for his unwavering opposition to racial oppression and U.S. imperialism and his continued political activism, the jailers treated his medical needs with deliberate indifference and delayed necessary medication. His comrade and former prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur bitterly remarked, “Supporters scrambled to get a lawyer in to see him, but death arrived first.” Although we Marxists do not share the political strategy of the Ohio 7, we have always forthrightly defended them against capitalist state repression. 

Born in Boston to a large Irish family, Manning knew firsthand the life of working-class misery. In a short autobiographical sketch appearing in For Love and Liberty (2014), a collection of his artwork, he described how his father, a longshoreman and a postal clerk, worked himself to death “trying to get one end to meet the other...he always got the worst end.” A young Tom shined shoes and sold newspapers, while roaming the docks and freight yards looking for anything that could be converted into cash or bartered. Later, he worked as a stock boy and then as a construction laborer. After joining the military in 1963, he was stationed in Guantánamo Bay and then Vietnam. 

After returning to the U.S., Manning ended up in state prison for five years. “Given the area where I grew up, and being a ’Nam vet,” he wrote, “prison was par for the course.” There he became politicized, engaging in food and work strikes and reading Che Guevara. As Levasseur observed in 2014, “When Tom Manning and I first met 40 years ago, we were 27 years old and veterans of mule jobs, the Viet Nam war, and fighting our way through American prisons. We also harbored an intense hatred of oppression and a burning desire to organize resistance.”

Moved by these experiences, Manning joined with a group of young leftist radicals in the 1970s and ’80s. Early on, they participated in neighborhood defense efforts in Boston against rampaging anti-busing racists and helped run a community bail fund and prison visitation program in Portland, Maine. They also ran a radical bookstore, which the cops targeted for surveillance, harassment, raids and assault. 

The activists, associated with the Sam Melville/Jonathan Jackson Unit in the 1970s and the United Freedom Front in the ’80s, took responsibility for a series of bombings that targeted symbols of South African apartheid and U.S. imperialism, which they described as “armed propaganda.” Some of these actions were directed against Mobil Oil and U.S. military installations in solidarity with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence by the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation). For these deeds, the Feds branded them “terrorists” and “extremely dangerous”—that is, issuing a license to kill.

As targets of a massive manhunt, the young anti-imperialist fighters went underground for nearly ten years and were placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Manning was captured in 1985 and sentenced to 58 years in federal prison. He was also sentenced to 80 years in New Jersey for the self-defense killing of a state trooper in 1981.

The Ohio 7 became the poster children for the Reagan administration’s campaign to criminalize leftist political activity, declaring it domestic terrorism. In 1989, three of them—Ray and Patricia Levasseur and Richard Williams—were tried on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government under the RICO “anti-racketeering” law and a 1948 sedition act. With Ray Levasseur and Williams (who died in prison in 2005) already sentenced to enough years to be locked up for the rest of their lives, the prosecution served no purpose other than to revive moribund sedition laws, which have been used historically to imprison and deport reds and anarchists. Despite the fact that the government spent nearly $10 million on the trial, the jury refused to convict.

Manning spent half a lifetime in prison hell, marked by his torturers as a cop killer and brutalized for his left-wing political views. Stun-gunned, tear-gassed and dragged around by leg irons, he was kept in solitary for extended periods. Shortly after his arrest, he was body-slammed onto a concrete floor while cuffed to a waist chain and in leg irons, resulting in a hip fracture that was not repaired until years later. On a separate occasion, his right knee was permanently injured when five guards stomped on it. Yet another beating with his hands behind his back severely injured his shoulders. All in all, he had a total of 66 inches of scar tissue. But Manning remained unbroken. Among other things, he spoke out on behalf of other class-war prisoners, and he was also an accomplished artist behind bars.

The actions of the Ohio 7 were not crimes from the standpoint of the working class. However, their New Left strategy of “clandestine armed resistance” by a handful of courageous leftists despaired of organizing the proletariat in mass struggle against the bourgeoisie. The multiracial working class, under the leadership of a revolutionary party fighting for a socialist future, is the central force capable of sweeping away the capitalist system and its repressive state machinery, not least the barbaric prisons.

The Ohio 7 differed from the bulk of 1960s New Left radicals by their working-class origins and dedication to their principles; they never made peace with the capitalist order. Unlike most of the left, which refused to defend the Ohio 7 against government persecution, the SL and the Partisan Defense Committee have always stood by them, including through the PDC’s class-war prisoner stipend program.

In an August 2 letter to the PDC, Manning’s lifelong comrade-in-arms Jaan Laaman (the last remaining Ohio 7 prisoner) eulogized:

“Now Tom is gone. Our comrade, my comrade, who suffered years of medical neglect and medical abuse in the federal prison system, your struggle and suffering is now over brother. But your example, your words, deeds, even your art, lives on. You truly were a ‘Boston Irish Rebel,’ a life long Man of and for the People, a warrior, a person of compassion motivated by hope for the future and love for the common people, A Revolutionary Freedom Fighter.”

All honor to Tom Manning! Free Jaan Laaman!

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1159, 23 August 2019)

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