Stipends to Class-War Prisoners—Revival of the ILD Tradition
We must not forget the class-war prisoners of today—those in prison for standing up to racist capitalist oppression—whose freedom is in the interest of the whole of the working people. “The victory of the class-war prisoners is possible only when they are inseparably united with the living labor movement and when that movement claims them for its own, takes up their battle cry and carries on their work” (James P. Cannon, “The Cause that Passes Through a Prison,” Labor Defender, September 1926, reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator).
As an expression of our class solidarity, the PDC has revived the tradition of the ILD by sending monthly stipends of $25 to class-war prisoners. This support for class-war prisoners is not an act of charity but the duty of those on the outside toward those inside prison walls.
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The Cause That Passes Through a Prison
18th Annual Holiday Appeal for Class-War Prisoners
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 814, 21 November 2003.
Little captures the greed and hypocrisy of this countrys capitalist rulers as poignantly as the holiday season. Amid the hype about the joy of giving and good will towards men, American troops carry out a brutal occupation of Iraq. Legions of homeless pick through garbage cans for Christmas dinner. Thousands of workers receive pink slips while Wall Street magnates give themselves tens of millions in Christmas bonuses. Ghetto children go to bed hungry in dilapidated slums without heat. Over two million men and women, over half of them black and Hispanic, greet another new year behind prison bars. In John Ashcrofts America the only Santa Claus coming down your chimney will be an FBI agent.
For us, this time of year is an occasion to redouble our commitment to those among the inhabitants of Americas prison nation who were singled out for standing up to racist capitalist oppressiontrade-union militants, fighters for black freedom, fighters against national oppression and opponents of imperialism and capitalist militarism. We provide monthly stipends to 16 class-war prisoners and holiday gifts for them and their families. These gifts and messages of solidarity are a necessary reminder to these brothers and sisters that they are not forgotten.
The Partisan Defense Committee initiated this program in 1986, reviving a tradition of the early International Labor Defense (ILD) under its secretary, James P. Cannon (1925-28). As Cannon described:
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.... No cause is a great one which has not produced fighters in its ranks who have dared to face arrest and trial and imprisonment.
James P. Cannon, The Cause That Passes Through a Prison, Labor Defender (September 1926)
This years Holiday Appeal takes on special significance, not only because a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling pushes death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal a step closer to the death chamber, or that most of the class-war prisoners we honor have spent at least a quarter century behind bars. Using the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center as a pretext the government, with the Democrats in near-unanimous agreement, rammed through the Patriot Act and other edicts which mark a qualitative diminution of democratic rights. The governments secret police have vastly expanded authority to tap your phone, search your home, scour your financial records, interrogate your librarian and place you under arrest without probable cause that a crime has been committed.
Much of what the government seeks to do is seen particularly in the case of Jose Padilla. An American citizen, Padilla was arrested in May 2002 at Chicagos OHare airport and held as a material witness for a month before the Bush administration declared that he had fantasies of setting off a radioactive dirty bomb. So they declared him an enemy combatant and shipped him off to a military brig, where he remains today without access to an attorney, without charges being filed, without any prospect of a hearing or trial to challenge the accusations against himthe very essence of what is supposed to be due process of law.
The PDC and Spartacist League filed a friends of the court (amici curiae) brief in the federal court of appeals on Padillas behalf. As the brief points out, the Bush administration is putting in place the juridical scaffolding of police-state rulesuspension of civil courts on presidential command, unlimited powers of police to arrest and detain indefinitely without cause. The government is doing no less than asserting the right to disappear people, i.e., to institutionalize in the American justice system the arbitrary deprivation of rights that is the hallmark of right-wing dictatorships propped up around the world by U.S. imperialism. To take a stand for todays class-war prisoners is to stand up to Washingtons police-state designs and to strike a blow for tomorrows fighters against the ravages of capitalist oppression.
While initially largely directed at immigrants from predominantly Islamic countries, the new repressive measures are ultimately to be used against the labor movement, blacks and opponents of U.S. imperialism. When New York transit workers voted to go on strike last year, the media screamed they were launching a jihad and the strikebreaking Taylor Law was invoked. On April 7, based on so-called intelligence information, riot-equipped cops at the Oakland docks fired on longshoremen and antiwar protesters, including supporters of the Spartacist League, with wooden bullets and concussion grenades. Had the Patriot Act been in force at the time, class-war prisoner Jerry Dale Lowe, the West Virginia miner sentenced to eleven years for defending his union during a 1993 strike, could have been declared a terrorist and whisked off to a prison indefinitely without even the semblance of a trial.
For Class-Struggle Non-Sectarian Defense!
The PDC is a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization which champions cases and causes in the interest of the whole of the working people. This purpose is in accordance with the political views of the Spartacist League. We stand unconditionally on the side of working people and their allies in struggle against their exploiters and oppressors. We defend, in Cannons 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 ).
Initiated in 1974, the PDC cut its teeth on organizing successful international defense campaigns for Latin American leftists in the grip of bloody military dictatorships. We launched fund-raising campaigns for striking British miners in the mid 1980s as well as for the people of the Afghan city of Jalalabad when it was besieged by CIA-backed Islamic reactionaries following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. We have initiated mass labor/black mobilizations to stop the KKK from marching in cities across the country, including the 10,000-strong mobilization in New York City four years ago. In Oakland, in February 2002 the PDC and Labor Black League for Social Defense initiated a united-front demonstration of 300, centered on the powerful longshore union, in defense of immigrants and in opposition to the Patriot and Maritime Security acts.
These actions draw on the internationalist defense traditions bequeathed from the early years of the Communist International. These were embodied in a defense organization formed in the Soviet Union in 1922 called the International Organization for Aid to Fighters of the Revolution (MOPR) more popularly known as the International Red Aidand its American affiliate, the ILD. The MOPR was formed primarily to organize worldwide worker relief efforts for victims of counterrevolutionary White terror unleashed after the Red Armys withdrawal from Poland. Its first campaign assisted the Bulgarian victims of White terror after the failed 1923 insurrection. The ILD together with MOPR rallied millions from Shanghai to San Franciscofor anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti framed up on murder charges and ultimately executed in 1927; for revolutionaries subjected to counterrevolutionary terror in East Europe; for besieged Nicaragua when the U.S. Marines went in in the late 1920s.
The ILD was born out of discussions that took place in Moscow in 1925 between Cannon and the great labor leader Big Bill Haywood. It was founded especially to take up the plight of class-war prisoners in the United States. 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 great internationalism of the Bolshevik Revolution, a revolution made not merely for the workers of Russia but for the workers and oppressed of the world. As a resolution from the ILDs first conference in 1925 declared:
The labor movement must be awakened from its slumber and must be roused to the menacing significance of the attempt of the capitalists to break the morale of the working-class by imprisoning its best fighters. The workers must not be allowed to forget those who lie in prison for them, but must be stirred into action in their defense.
The U.S. emergence as an imperialist power at the close of the 19th century was accompanied by brutal racist terrorthe 1890s saw an average of two lynchings a week. It was also a period of intense labor struggle, with militant strikes more numerous than any time since. The IWW led union organizing drives and anti-lynching campaigns; their fight against the arrests of thousands of members for soapboxing and distributing IWW leaflets, known as the free speech campaign, laid the basis for what rights under the First Amendment are in existence today.
The rise of labor struggle was met with brutal state repression. There is the case of the Haymarket martyrs, mostly immigrant working-class leaders, largely anarchists, who without a shred of evidence were framed up for a bombing during a workers rally in Chicago on 4 May 1886. A 1902 anti-anarchist law in New York became the model for state and federal criminal syndicalism laws which targeted organizations and individuals seeking a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change. In 1903 Congress passed the first legislation barring immigrants who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force and violence of the U.S. government, the first such law criminalizing political beliefs since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
With the beginning of World War I and preparation for U.S. involvement, the government stepped up its attacks on labor and the left. Well-known California labor leaders Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, opponents of U.S. entry into World War I, were framed up for a bombing at a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco in 1916, and spent 22 years in prison. Under the 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act thousands of labor agitators, opponents of U.S. entry into the war, anarchists and reds were imprisoned. Among them was Ricardo Flores Magón, a leading Mexican anarchist who was imprisoned in 1918 and who died of diabetes in Leavenworth prison in 1922. Another was Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, for a speech containing the incendiary message to workers: You need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. Haywood himself fled to Moscow while his appeal was pending from his conviction under those same laws for calling for a strike during wartime.
The ILD was launched in the midst of a decade of rampant reaction. In the wake of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution, the U.S. government and many states adopted a new wave of criminal syndicalism laws. The Palmer raids of early 1920 led to the arrests and deportations of thousands of leftists. Unions shrank almost to nonexistence and labor suffered nothing but defeats. In 1925, 25,000 KKK members felt free to parade fully robed down the streets of Washington, D.C. The 1920s saw widespread lynchings and racist pogroms. It was in this period that the American capitalist state constructed the deadly apparatus of political repressionwith its vast army of spies and informers, local police red squads, wiretaps and mail interceptionsthat was later deployed by J. Edgar Hoovers FBI in the 1960s.
Upon its founding the ILD adopted 106 prisoners, instituting the policy of financially assisting these prisoners and their families. Representative of them were Mooney and Billings; Sacco and Vanzetti; Paul Crouch and Walter Trumbull, imprisoned for carrying on anti-militarist struggle while in the army; and IWW lumberjack John Burns, sentenced to four years for being caught with a sack of IWW literature. 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 to the struggles of their class brothers, and carried letters from the prisoners describing their cases and the importance of ILD support.
The PDC revived the tradition of monthly stipends during the Reagan years, a period of rampant reaction marked by vicious racist repression, brutal union-busting, anti-immigrant hysteria, dismantling of fetters on the racist death penalty and malicious cutbacks in social services for the predominantly black and Hispanic poor. This was the era of the Cold War II anti-Soviet war drive, and behind this all-sided reaction was the capitalist rulers efforts to regiment the population for war against the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state.
These policies fueled the rise of KKK, Nazi and skinhead terror. The PDC raised funds for the SL-initiated Labor/Black Mobilization of 5,000, many of whom were black trade unionists, which ran the Klan off the streets of D.C. on 27 November 1982. When the Washington Times slandered the SL as provoking violence against the cops, the PDC raised funds for the SL libel lawsuit which won a retraction.
Central to Reagan reaction was the criminalization of political opposition to the governments policies. FBI guidelines adopted in 1983 equated leftist political activities with terrorism, RICO racketeering laws purportedly adopted to prosecute organized crime were used to break strikes and place unions under the control of government trustees. The PDC supported the SL suit against the FBI guidelines. As a result the FBI withdrew its witchhunting definition of the SL, thereby conceding that Marxist political principles cannot be equated with violence or terrorism. This was a victory for the entire left.
The opening salvo of the Reagan years was the firing of the entire PATCO air traffic controllers union during the 1981 strike, using plans drafted by Democrat Jimmy Carter. The Reagan years defining event was the 13 May 1985 bombing of the Philadelphia MOVE commune, killing eleven black people, five of them children, and turning an entire city block to rubble and ash. This was a message to anyoneparticularly black peopleof what was in store for those who dared get out of line in capitalist America. While virtually all the rest of the left distanced themselves from the MOVE martyrs, so as not to embarrass black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode who ordered the assault, the SL immediately held a rally in New York City in support of MOVE. Among the first of our stipend recipients was Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the MOVE bombing, and 12 other imprisoned MOVE members, eight of whom remain behind bars.
Class-struggle defense is a broad category. We are a small organization and must pick and choose those cases which exemplify key aspects of our Marxist programe.g., trade-union militants, the fight against black oppression, defense of the former Soviet Union and other deformed workers states. Since initiating the stipends program, we have provided support to 33 prisoners on three continents. In the U.S., where black oppression forms the bedrock of American capitalism, a large proportion of the class-war prisoners have been black activists, including those thrown in prison hells for decades under the FBIs deadly COINTELPRO vendetta of the 1960s and 70s. Foremost among them was Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), former leader of the Black Panther Party in L.A., who until his release in 1997 was imprisoned 27 years for a murder the cops and FBI knew he didnt commit. FBI wiretaps, disappeared by the Feds, revealed that Geronimo was in San Francisco, 400 miles from the killing for which he was framed.
In 1987 the MOVE prisoners alerted us to the case of death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and we threw ourselves into his defense at a time when he was virtually unknown. The PDC, and our fraternal defense organizations abroad, sought to win support for Jamals fight against the racist death penalty from those of all political walks of life. We have emphasized that this is a political death penalty case which illustrates the racism endemic in this country in its cruelest, most vicious form and lays bare the essence of the capitalist state. Beginning in 1989 we held rallies in cities across the countryand internationallyand did succeed in getting broader forces to take up his case.
Overseas, we sent stipends to Eddie McClelland and Mordechai Vanunu. McClelland, a supporter of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, was framed on charges related to the killing of three members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, despite the fact he was nowhere near the scene and was never charged with the shootings. For exposing that Israel had an arsenal of some 200 nuclear weaponssixth largest in the worldin 1986 Vanunu was kidnapped in Italy by Mossad agents and railroaded to prison for 18 years, most of them in solitary. As we uniquely noted, the Israeli nuclear arsenal, more than enough to destroy every Arab capital several times over, targeted the Soviet Union as well.
Our initiation of the stipends program came on the heels of the bitter 1984-85 British miners strike. The courageous miners held out for nearly a year against the vicious right-wing Thatcher government, which seized the miners unions funds, and the betrayals of the TUC trade-union tops. While the AFL-CIO tops gave not one penny to help the British miners, the PDC launched an international fund-raising campaign, raising over $23,000 for the Miners Solidarity Fund. Following the strike, the five miners who remained imprisonedTerry French, Dean Hancock, Russell Shankland, Chris Tazey and Clive Thompsonwere among the first of our stipend recipients.
In the U.S. we provided support to labor militants Amador Betancourt, framed up on felony charges for defending a strike by Teamsters Local 912 frozen food workers in Watsonville, California, and Bob Buck, member of Steelworkers Local 5668 in Ravenswood, West Virginia, who was slapped with a nearly three-year sentence for defending his union from scabs and thugs during a 1990-91 strike.
We hailed the Soviet troops who intervened on the side of the Afghan government against the CIA-backed Islamic reactionaries. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Afghan army and heroic people of Jalalabad fought to preserve the most elementary social gainsthe right to be educated, freedom from the veil for Afghan women, freedom from the yoke of a theocratic state. Our 1989 Jalalabad campaign raised over $44,000. But our side lost. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan ceded the country to woman-hating Islamic reactionaries funded, armed and trained by Washington. As we said at the time, better to fight counterrevolution in Afghanistan than in Moscow. And in short order, capitalist counterrevolution triumphed in the land of the October Revolution in 1991-92. For more than a decade the triumphalist imperialists, first and foremost the U.S., have acted as if they can do anything they want to the worlds exploited and oppressed and get away with it. The Islamic reactionaries hailed by Reagan as freedom fighters provided the biggest Christmas gift of all to this countrys bloody rulers when they flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center, providing the rationale long sought by Bush and his predecessors, Democrat Clinton included, to clamp down on dissent.
As Cannon taught, the labor defense work of the ILD was a school for the class struggle. The lessons of that school were that the struggles of all the oppressed were inextricably linked and that the capitalist statecops, courts and prisonsis an instrument of repression that cannot be pressured to serve the interests of the working class. Whats called for is a socialist revolution to sweep away the capitalist system and replace it with a society where those who labor rule.