I am thinking of Karen Silkwood for some odd reason. Murdered November 13, 1974 as a twenty-eight-year-old labor union activist and chemical technician working for a nuclear power plant, Kerr-McGee Cimarron River nuclear facility in Crescent, Oklahoma. The industry was supplying nuclear fission rods for reactors. She found violations of health and safety regulations, and well, the story of this ordinary woman with an ordinary life has turned into a cause celebre with Meryl Streep playing her in a 1984 movie.
Karen was pursued by some dark figures on a cold night, and the manila envelope she was carrying with the evidence of safety violations bound for the New York Times inside her crashed Honda car mysteriously disappeared. She lay there dying.
Run off the road of protest and combating injustices and war. So go the lives of political prisoners, but in a much more tortuous and protracted way as Linda G. Ford develops in her spot-on book, Women Politicals in America: Jailed Dissenters from Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart.
One such hero is Marilyn Buck, who was serving an 80-year sentence for aiding and abetting Assata Shakur’s escape, for a Brinks robbery and the bombing of the Capitol in protest of US role in Grenada and Lebanon. She was on the FBI’s “shoot to kill” list.
Women engaged in serious struggle with ties to Puerto Rican and Black liberation movements were given harsh sentences, and imprisoned where gulag-like, tortuous and isolating conditions were ramped up because of these political prisoners’ gender identity.
Exclusion and isolation are the tools of a fascist society, as these female politicals’ lives as activists, both peaceful and militantly violent, demonstrate over the course of four hundred years of this country’s white history.
“The women politicals jailed in the 80s would face a situation designed to destroy them as political activists, and as women,” Ford writes in the section of the book she tags as, “The Threat of Armed Struggle Against American Imperialism Posed by Defiant Revolutionaries Laura Whitehorn, Susan Rosenberg and Their Comrades Has The Facing Authoritarian Measures Designed to Destroy, 1960-1990.”
Jailers who willingly neglect the health of prisoners. Prison medical experts denying basic life saving treatment. Massive censorship of prisoners’ reading and writing. Male nurses ramming fingers up a political’s anus and vagina. Locked in High Security Units in what Silvia Baraldini called “a living tomb . . . a white sepulcher.” She was part of the May 19th Communist group and Black Liberation Army. She was charged with BLA robberies – however, she was in Zimbabwe when one of them took place.
I was arrested in 1982 on RICO (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations, laws mean for the Mafia) charges accused of having aided members of the Black Liberation Army in a conspiracy against the United States. In reality I participated in the escape of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur who now lives in Cuba.
Rosenberg was sentenced to 43 years in prison, three for refusing to testify before the grand jury or give the names of members of the May 19th Communist Organization group.
These are bombings against imperialist targets: a federal building on Staten Island (January 1983), the National War College at Fort McNair (April 1983), the US Senate in November 1982, the Israeli Aircraft Industries Building in April 1984, the South African Consulate in September 1984, and the NYC Policemen’s Benevolent Association in February 1985.
Laura Whitehorn stated the last action (no person was targeted or hurt) was done because the NYC association supported cops “who had killed innocent civilians.” Whitehorn stated she readily participated in the bombings as an underground warrior as protest of US imperialism in Lebanon, El Salvador and Grenada.
“If you live in a country doing illegal acts, you have to take steps, or you’re complicit.” The author Ford follows up Whitehorn’s strongly put if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem rejoinder with …
And if you break a law doing that, you become a political prisoner.
Susan Rosenberg is another hero of resistance Linda forges as a real icon of the revolution: she was charged with involvement in the Senate, War College and NY Police bombings, but those were eventually dropped. She would later be tried in a FISA court – foreign intelligence surveillance act.
Judge Frederick B. Lacey didn’t consider she and her co-defendant, Tim Blunk, were part of an organized illegal resistance movement acting out of conscience against US actions in Central America, racism in South Africa and the oppressive COINTELPRO, according to Ford.
Rosenberg and Blunk were hit with possession of guns and dynamite charges, although there was no link they used them. She got 58 years in the federal penitentiary, twice as long as for the average first degree murderer. Bail was $5 million and no parole recommendation was provided. Ford:
To US authorities, she represented the absolute worst of the 60s rebels: she was a BLA, Independista and Weather Underground sympathizer/activist, and she was a female and a lesbian.
No food for two days, no time to wash up, and she was beaten and left in a cold cell, in solitary confinement. The entire process of the fascist police state in this country is a psychological hell, designed to strip people of who they are, to erase their identity.
There was absolutely nowhere to go; it felt like death. All that lay in front of me were the ruins of my life. I was losing even my favorite color, favorite food, favorite season.
There is something so compelling in Ford’s unleashing of the floodgates of truth in this book, and the tides have shifted even more dramatically against revolt, against resistance, against simple discontents. Imagine, this faux pacifism of the bourgeoisie, peering through their looking glass designed by Hollywood and a fine Merlot, even barely entertaining the idea that armed revolt and violent overthrow are necessary components in righting all the wrongs in this country. Those middle and upper middle classers look for total destruction in countries their tax dollars and sometimes their direct employment support, but when it comes to the assault of everyday structural violence meted out on their fellow citizens, these middlings — who take their marching orders from the elites who pull out the Clinton America Must Have 100,000 More Police card every single time Hillary Clinton declares we are in super predator country – do not question the complexities of cause and effect when a society is over-policed, under organized, and flooded with privatizing all things American.
The tough times for prisoners like Rosenberg always get worse in America. The High Security Unit at Lexington is a doozy – a maximum security hell-hole – a chamber of horrors — and set up by the best and the brightest of American corporal technocrats who show their love of the macabre Russian prisoner gulag or Nazi concentration camp techniques.
Historian Laura Flanders called the HSU an example of punishment “designed to experiment with the effects of physical deprivation on female inmates.” The myth (lie) that the US doesn’t use torture to coerce people to give up their politics is busted every time in Ford’s recounting of the fascism deployed by the American political/policing corporate Mafioso. Spending your entire sentence in solitary confinement “unless one renounces her beliefs” is against the laws of international conventions on torture and against the US Constitution’s first amendment.
The day before Slick Willy Clinton left office, in January 2001 Rosenberg was granted clemency after 16 years and three months inside. She worked for a human rights organization — American Jewish World Service — and fought to reform prison. She taught literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York until the college caved and did not rehire her. In her 2011 memoir, American Radical, she is defiant, proving she was not destroyed by American fascism, but conversely overcame the illegal and unethical torture and censoring with her political beliefs intact.
I tried not to weep. If I did I was afraid I would drown in the waters of my soul . . . The government’s goal was to destroy us through isolation, through exile, life sentences, medical negligence, and horrible physical conditions. In that they failed.
In May 1994, Marilyn Buck, the remaining female member of the May 19th Communist Organization, talked about why she was a political prisoner, then locked up at the Shawnee HSU at Marianna prison.
I am a white woman from the middle class who has refused to accept the great American social contract: democracy for the white few, unmitigated oppression for the colonized and exploited many. I am despised because I have rejected and betrayed the bonds of white privilege, have defended Black people’s rights, and have engaged in the struggle to defeat U.S. imperialism, to support national liberation struggles and the right of all peoples to self-determination. I am censored, locked behind walls, and watched.
After starting her second prison stint, Buck talked of the repression orchestrated in Capitalist America, after earning a degree in psychology, working for fellow political Abu-Jamal and thrown into solitary after September 11 as a potential terrorist. She served 33 years of her 80-year sentence. “The exclusion from society is their weapon”, she writes. “Isolation silences voices of resistance and reverberates into society to stave off action. Destroying one’s political identify renders them as un-beings, but more destructive is that police fascism of America stifles the context from which to organize social opposition and organized resistance within the society.”
Think of the isolation and torture of a Nelson Mandela and African National Congress in South Africa. This need in the US to repress/destroy revolutionary movements goes way back against those dissidents and others who refuse this imperialist state, as Mary K. O’Melveney opined: punishing “those who resist racism, genocide, colonialism and imperialism.”
It is a legacy of an existential nightmare, and endless justice denied to politicals because the US expunges the very fact (history of) it has pursued relentlessly political dissidents they have then caught, prosecuted, persecuted, tortured, and many times disappeared. The lives of these women individually and collectively have been resuscitated by Linda G. Ford, and her book serves as testimony and a testament of the great harm done by our government in the name of capitalism/imperialism utilizing the most crude and sophisticated methods of anti-democratic repression.
Buck wrote in 2000 that more women political prisoners will emerge, and with Code Pink rabble-rousers, the Native American water protectors around facing federal charges and decades of incarceration, and the many women who have drawn and quartered the racist and misogynistic history of modern America in the Black Lives Movement, she was right. She implored that we all have a duty to resist and buck “the rapacious, anti-human system.” One will not see this call to action in today’s political leaders and intellectuals; in fact, this country is about protecting the trans-financial, military and global corporatist forces that make up the police state that denies equality and justice.
Over the course of the past 19 years, America has turned on itself, thrown the gates of freedom into the scrap pile of gauntlets and barricades built to prevent or forestall unfettered access by both the government/police state and corporations/trans-finance to not only pry into our lives, but to exact more than a pound of flesh from us as citizens, a term now code-switched to “consumers,” and on a larger gradient of more applicable descriptors for we, by, for, because of the people tethered to this non-democratic morass of penury and punishment: suspects, persons of interest, pre-accused, targets, marks, inmates, disenfranchised, dispossessed, the other, the accused, evicted, foreclosed upon, fined, levied, sterilized, patients, the sick, mentally infirm, audiences, focus groups, and the taxed and damned!
In this book, Ford exposes the Post 9/11 systemic sickness of oppression and disappearing all administrations on both aisles of the political heap have green-lighted. Here, a chilling account from Moazzam Begg, 2012, about another political, female, we go hand-in-hand with in Ford’s book:
Of all the abuses [prisoner Abu Yahya al-Libi] describes in his account, the presence of a woman and her humiliation and degradation were the most inflammatory to all the prisoners [at Bagram] – would never forget it. He describes how she was regularly stripped naked and manhandled by guards, and how she used to scream incessantly in isolation for two years. He said prisoners protested her treatment, going on hunger strikes, feeling ashamed they could do nothing to help. He described her in detail: a Pakistani mother – torn away from her children – in her mid-thirties, who had begun to lose her mind. Her number, he said, was 650.
So, little known Aafia Siddiqui is highlighted in this book as a victim of “American white supremacy and imperialism; enduring the consequences of an extreme anti-terrorist/anti-Muslim era which began with the September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center.”
She was educated at MIT as a neuroscientist and worked in the US for years. Her Muslim activism got the fascist Attorney General John Ashcroft interested, and he put her on his watch-list. All the accusations of terrorism proved baseless, yet the FBI, CIA and American military tribunals held on like a rabid dog. She was kidnapped by Pakistani bounty hunters on the payroll of the Americans, with her three children snatched up too.
The youngest was immediately killed, and the other two imprisoned separately for years. Dr. Siddiqui was beaten, raped, tortured and kept in solitary in black site prisons of the American empire.
Oh, the irony! January 15, 2019 and the Pedophile President Trump has nominated William Barr for attorney general. Barr served (sic) as George H.W. Bush’s AG from 1991 to 1993. That was a short time but enough to pardon six Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal and then oversee Guantánamo Bay military prison opening up. Mass incarceration at home and designing a secret National Security Agency mass phone surveillance blueprint were two of his fingerprints that have followed us all into 2019. What would those women politicals say today about the Islamophobia?
What would they say about the limp, weak, conniving questioning by both sides of the political dung heap during this fascist Barr’s confirmation hearings? Barr sounds like the quintessential white supremacist, privileged, Ivy-League educated (sic) elite that an Obama or Clinton or Trump or Bush presses the flesh with on a daily basis.
Ford puts a lot into context in her chapter titled: “The Empire Strikes Back: American Imperial Authorities Disappear, Torture and Destroy Aafia Siddiqui; and Routinely Jail Female Anti-Imperialist Dissenters, Muslim Women and Whistleblowers, 1990-Present.”
The three presidents in charge from 1990s until 2018, have had somewhat different doctrines of global empire: Clinton prepared the way, Bush implemented the 9/11 unleashing of new military adventures, and Obama (continued somewhat clumsily by Trump) streamlined, codified and expanded Bush’s new global warmongering.
A world of smart bombs, Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Taliban, collateral damage. Invasions of Iraq. A world of 300 nuclear bombs in Israel, Saudi Arabia aligned with the Zionists, Israel First pledges by US elected politicians. A world of Exxon more powerful than most nation states. This new spasm of fascism was codified with the Bush Doctrine. Chalmers Johnson stated this concept of World Domination by the USA was laid out in 2002 at a West Point Academy gathering: Bush stated that “. . . our policy would be to dominate the world through absolute military superiority and to wage preventive war against any possible competitor.”
Things from the ‘60s through the ‘90s are dramatically different in terms of how the police state operates and how far-reaching now the American project to dominate, steal, harass, kill and contain has grown. Let’s look at Chalmers Johnson in an article for the Nation September 27, 2001 and then from his 2004 book, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, which Ford includes in her book:
The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not “attack America,” as our political leaders and the news media like to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy. Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders who then became enemies only because they had already become victims. Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The United States deploys such overwhelming military force globally that for its militarized opponents only an “asymmetric strategy,” in the jargon of the Pentagon, has any chance of success. When it does succeed, as it did spectacularly on September 11, it renders our massive military machine worthless: The terrorists offer it no targets. On the day of the disaster, President George W. Bush told the American people that we were attacked because we are “a beacon for freedom” and because the attackers were “evil.” In his address to Congress on September 20, he said, “This is civilization’s fight.” This attempt to define difficult-to-grasp events as only a conflict over abstract values–as a “clash of civilizations,” in current post-cold war American jargon–is not only disingenuous but also a way of evading responsibility for the “blowback” that America’s imperial projects have generated.
— The Nation, Johnson
Americans like to say that the world changed as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It would be more accurate to say that the attacks produced a dangerous change in the thinking of some of our leaders, who began to see our republic as a genuine empire, a new Rome, the greatest colossus in history, no longer bound by international law, the concerns of allies, or any constraints on its use of military force. The American people were still largely in the dark about why they had been attacked or why their State Department began warning them against tourism in an every-growing list of foreign countries . . . . But a growing number finally began to grasp what most non-Americans already knew and had experienced over the last half century – namely, that the United States was something other than what it professed to be,, that it was, in fact, a military juggernaut intent on world domination.
— Blowback, Johnson
We are all terrorists, that is, those of us who use words, placards, hacking, bodies, grouped protests, and two-by-fours in an attempt to stop the juggernaut of corporate power and collusion with their government. Little Eichmann’s and henchmen and henchwomen in the Military-Pharma-Ag-Energy-Legal-Edu-IT-AI-Chem-Finance-Insurance-Med Industrial Complex. The new red scare is green, as in eco-terrorists. The anti-Boycott-Divest-Sanction movement is the new terror against the American Israel way of life. Anyone questioning Zionism or the Israeli policy of apartheid and genocide is the new-old-future enemy of the State of Fascist America.
You get arrested and prosecuted for setting up camps in public places, for throwing stage blood on the gates of Air Force installations that are harbingers of death missiles. You get thrown in jail/prison for torching a few internal combustion SUV’s. Jail-and-hard-time for protecting your Native American holy places. Jail time for putting water and food in the Arizona desert for migrating undocumented immigrants.
Jail-jail-jail, felonies-felonies-felonies, misdemeanors-misdemeanors-misdemeanors, eviction-eviction-eviction, bad credit reports-terminations from jobs, failure to pay taxes.
Americans are the enemy of the state, and when that American is a woman political activist – that can be a woman against death squads trained-supplied-abetted by USA, or someone wanting to expose the death camps of concentrated animal feeding operations, even a woman in a tree protesting the cutting of old growth forests, especially a woman on the streets proclaiming the end of violence against Black men, women, children. The enemy of this state is anyone, slipping into board rooms at college campuses fighting the rape culture, or getting into city hall meetings and decrying gentrification, or women building homeless camps or distributing clean needles.
You can be Sisters Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert, 78 and 68 years old respectively (in 2015), who committed themselves to nonviolent protests. Eric Schlosser interviewed them, and the two told of being “shackled and chained, strip-searched in front of male guards, locked in filthy cells with clogged toilets and vermin.”
That global war on terror hit these sisters broadside, including Sister Jackie Hudson, for coming onto the grounds of a Minuteman II silo in Colorado.
They wore white jump suits embossed with Citizen Weapon Inspection Team; hammered railroad tracks, drew a cross in their blood, banged on the silo, and prayed. After their arrest, they were left on the ground for three hours. (Ford)
The strongest bond of human sympathy outside the family relation should be one uniting working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds.
— Abraham Lincoln, “Reply to a Committee from the Workingmen’s Association of New York,” March 21, 1864
I am now thinking about Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan, three Maryknoll sisters and a lay missionary murdered in El Salvador. Thirty-eight years ago this past December 2, 1980, beaten, raped and murdered. They were working on international humanitarian aid projects, which were counter to the USA’s project of terror in Central America, under Jimmy Carter, who suspended aid to the Salvadoran Army, for a brief moment, and then reinstated it. The women were murdered by and with the collusion with US trained thugs who attended Fort Benning’s notorious School of the Americas.
Under Reagan and Bush Senior, the civilian murders in Salvador and Guatemala, to name two, continued with US backing, both material aid/advisers, and political and diplomatic (sic). In El Salvador’s Decade of Terror: Human Rights Since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, Human Rights Watch reports:
During the Reagan years in particular, not only did the United States fail to press for improvements … but, in an effort to maintain backing for U.S. policy, it misrepresented the record of the Salvadoran government, and smeared critics who challenged that record. In so doing, the Administration needlessly polarized the debate in the United States, and did a grave injustice to the thousands of civilian victims of government terror in El Salvador.  Despite the El Mozote Massacre that year, Reagan continued certifying (per the 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act) that the Salvadoran government was progressing in respecting and guaranteeing the human rights of its people, and in reducing National Guard abuses against them.
I was in Central America then, and throughout the ’80s. The blasphemy of America then, and the outright denigration of those nuns by many in America, to include the media and politicos, was telling to me in my formative years as a newspaper reporter along the US-Mexico border. One can’t go back or turn one’s back on the act of bearing witness to crimes against humanity. For me going on 45 years of journalism and activism, America has lived up to its Murder Incorporated moniker.
The work of people like Linda G. Ford give some sustenance for me to continue fighting the oppressive and repressive mindset of the American individual and the system protecting those individuals.
I’m now thinking about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. I ended up in Spokane, May 2001, and quickly found out that Spokane, Washington, was where free speech was officially banned by the city fathers and thug cops. She was there, as a 19-year-old in December 1909, and arrested and jailed. She went to lumber camps in Montana and Washington, speaking at IWW meetings. She stated she fell in love with her country, calling it,
… a rich, fertile, beautiful land, capable of satisfying all the needs of its people – It could be paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class.
She wrote about the experience in Spokane in the Industrial Worker and The Socialist, two journal articles that inspired other protests to the authorities. She wrote about being safer with others locked up, rather than being alone. In Spokane, a jailer approached her at night, and while all the other mostly prostitute women had complied, Flynn told him to take his hands off her and he left her alone. Her article “resulted in matrons for women prisoners in Spokane.” She was acquitted after two trials of “conspiracy to incite men to disobey the law.”
By the age of 15, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a committed socialist and was arrested, with her father, for public speaking without a permit. They were finally released on bail at 2 am. At their trial, the judge advised Elizabeth to go back to school for a while longer before she became a teacher. (Ford)
Defiant, she read the theories of socialists Upton Sinclair and Edward Bellamy and of anarchist Peter Kropotkin, as well as delving deeply into Marx and Engels.
Here’s what Flynn said at age 73 in 1963:
I was a convict, a prisoner without rights, writing a censored letter. But my head was unbowed. Come what may, I was a political prisoner and proud of it, at one with some of the noblest of humanity, who had suffered for conscience’s sake. I felt no shame, no humiliation, no consciousness of guilt. To me my number 11710 was a badge of honor.
Being a member of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA), for Flynn and others was about following through with American roots and American ideals. Defending constitutional rights made them good Americans. It was Flynn who supported her constitutional right to political belief and free speech, yet these arguments were for naught, as she said: “in the United States – boasted citadel of democracy – we were prisoners for opinion under a fascist-like thought control act.” Ethel Rosenberg was not defended by the CP, until after her death row orders were imminent. The CP defendants were “arguing their Americanness, when the Rosenbergs were in jail after being convicted of being totally un-American and dedicated to the downfall of the USA.”
Ford goes into great detail about the Ethel Rosenberg case, but the final argument against her American assassination vis-à-vis a death sentence comes from many scholars, including the 2010 book, Final Verdict, written by Miriam Schneir and Walter Schneir:
The evidence against Ethel “was so weak that it seems incredible today that she was even indicted, much less convicted and executed.”
It is clear there are fractures in the American “left,” whatever that is, and to this day, many leftists distance themselves from Ethel Rosenberg, which Ford finds counter to what her book on Political Prisoners is attempting to do:
To me, it is essential to include her as a woman political prisoner, and the only woman executed by the federal government since Mary Surratt was hanged for allegedly being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. Rosenberg was a victim of a terrible, extreme, and wholly antifeminist time, which saw women in stereotypical ways, ways which often contradicted each other, making it difficult for women to achieve any acceptable balance. Ethel Rosenberg had been a young activist, a worker and union leader, an aspiring singer/actress, and like a good 5os woman, gave it all up to be a (nervous and anxious) wife and mother. As it turned out, she never came up with the right combination of certified female traits to convince her jailers that she was worthy of any sort of fair treatment.
Reading about Lynne Stewart and Assata Shakur in Ford’s book is both insightful and complimentary, even though their lives are divergent, and the time periods of their incarceration and prosecution are separated by more than four decades.
Ford does both women justice in their own lives plagued with injustice. Shakur still is alive in Cuba; Lynn Stewart died of breast cancer.
Here, in her own words, Shakur:
My name is Assata Shakur, and I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government’s policy towards people of color. I am an ex-political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984.
— “I am a 20th Century Escaped Slave”, Counterpunch, December 30, 2014
I first introduced myself to Linda Ford when I read her work at Dissident Voice on Red Fawn Fallis. I wanted to interview her about the stories of women Native Americans prosecuted and imprisoned for their valiant and righteous stand against the energy thugs and US government goons protecting the illegal interests of the big energy purveyors.
Here’s what Ford wrote in her intro paragraph about Red Fawn Fallis:
What happened to Standing Rock water protector Red Fawn Fallis is what has happened to many women political dissenters who go up against Big Government/Corporate power. After she was viciously tackled by several police officers (caught on video), she was brought up on serious charges of harming those who harmed her. Fallis, after months of intense corporate/military surveillance and handy informant reports, was targeted as a coordinator and a leader, a symbol and an inspiration. For daring to make a stand for her people against the encroaching poison and destruction brought by the Dakota Access gas pipeline, she became a political prisoner.
— “Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops“, Dissident Voice, July 17, 2018
She was kind enough to submit to some lengthy questions by yours truly after the first part of this discussion/book review went live at Dissident Voice last week (January 13): “In The Eye of the Beholder: USA History of Imprisoning Women Politicals.”
Here is that Q and A:
Paul Haeder: Great book, great histories revealed. What one or two women you discovered in your research have inspired you to continue your own dissident writing? Why?
Linda Ford: There are many, many but I guess I would choose Assata Shakur and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as the biggest inspirations. Assata Shakur is my cover photo because that image represents a perfectly lovely woman, shackled by her countrymen, and dragged to a murder trial for a murder she never committed, which the authorities knew, all because she dared to be part of a real resistance movement in the 60s. She had tremendous courage and the courage of having and living consistent principles. She never gave in. She fought back against white supremacist oppression—and also against sexism in the Black Panther Party. Plus she got away! She was one of the very few to get out and away from very possible execution in jail, helped by her comrades, including sister politicals. Go Assata! Exiled in Cuba, she’s still considered an enemy of the US. She’s an inspiration to me to reveal the oppression and racism that is American society. I framed a quote from her: “I just have to be myself, stay as strong as I can and do my best.”
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a political prisoner and proud of it and the reason I wrote the book, curious to see how many other women were political prisoners throughout America’s history. Turned out there were a lot and it took me about 10 years to find out how many and how that evolved. What I identified with as far as Flynn was concerned was that she was always, throughout her very long career, for the workers and always fighting against the horrible inequities of capitalism. Coming from a rural working class background, and having come up against elitism disdain because of it, especially in my academic career, I share her politics. I also like the way she insisted that socialism, especially Debs-style socialism, was American–and had a proud history in the worker and farmer rebellions starting in the late 19th century, against capitalist American authority, repression and violence. At her trial in the 50s, she used the arguments of Lincoln to show how steeped Communists were in American political philosophy. Good luck there, of course. And I admire her for staying with her socialist convictions, her work for unions and fairness, in spite of unreliable (male) relationships. She reminds me of what real socialism is and what real feminism is and how what purports to pass for them now—is not it. She reminds me of how important it is to continue to challenge the pseudo socialists and feminists of today.
PH: Women political prisoners is a fact most Americans have a tough time squaring with their own delusional educations, magical thinking and exceptionalist crap. How do you talk to the average person about what you have found to be a massive, concerted and systematic system of our police state, going on 400 years?
LF: Talking to “average person”? Well, they think I’m crazy. That’s why I read CJ Hopkins, John Steppling, Glenn Ford—and Paul Haeder! I read people who let me know that I’m not crazy—that being what Lynne Stewart called a “left-wing wingnut” is okay. Especially since the Russia hysteria, and my stubborn refuting of it, people shake their heads and some recommend I read certain articles or attend certain lectures to put me on the right path. Others avoid me. It really is like the 50s! Some people I talk to about women as political prisoners and what they fought identify with parts of it. In rural New York you do have strong anti-capitalist/banker sentiment. And some are willing to believe my huge amount of research probably did uncover some truth. But the book presents way too much bad news for most people—whether rural small town neighbors or academics or liberal Democrats who don’t want to deal. In order to accept the entirety of what I’m arguing—that an authoritarian American government with its police, military, and corporate-led structure has systematically worked to destroy political dissent—people have to deny an entire corporate media/education/government authority as they know it. You would have to understand that NBC’s Lester Holt is lying. So it’s a tough sell.
PH: There is a deep chill in this country that has solidified in the past 25 years, and especially after US Patriot Act and the Obama Administration’s move to curtail our freedoms, that stems from a country that is so fixed on giving corporations ALL the power to strip our Constitutional Rights as workers. How do we inspire young people to be dissidents and to risk a lifetime of penury and imprisonment (both in the carcel state as well as in their lives as workers, renters, precarious citizens)?
LF: Inspire youth to dissent—there’s another REALLY tough sell. My last teaching job was at Colgate, so not a lot of worker activism for sure; they weren’t buying all the Native American or female tribulations I told them about for the most part. They weren’t necessarily buying my relentless socialist feminist history. But there were some pretty strong feminist students. Some youth can identify with dissident heroism. Some can see the reality of the job world, and the evils of war and racism. I see groups of students who have lived through mass murders at their schools, doing rallies, going to legislatures and Congress. And I see them turned away for their efforts. That is a hard but very true lesson of what it might take to change the violence- as- fabric of this culture. They need to decide to be in it for the long haul. But it starts with a dose of reality eye-opening.
PH: Many Americans, unfortunately, relish the American police state and the war state, largely because of brainwashing and shifting baseline syndrome. Where do you see some of these heroic women of the past fitting in today in this Homeland Security loving populous?
LF: There’s a good question. How about all those TV shows with cops, FBI, CIA, homeland goons?! Wow, talk about brainwashing. I think Mother Jones, Ma Bloor, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—would be so appalled today. These are socialist union people in a world where capitalism has gone completely insane. All their work, all their suffering, jailing, all for naught. Workers have less than zero power—so many have had to give up. And the populace, as noted, brainwashed thoroughly that that’s their fault, that socialism or dissent is evil and un-American. (Ohhhh—Venezuela!!) People have been conditioned—and they can also see the evidence—that it’s hopeless to resist. If you do resist our basic inequality, like Occupy, or like some teacher unions, there is a huge oppressive countervailing apparatus to put you down. Some female protests continue though. Anti-imperialist dissenters just keep it going. As I wrote in Dissident Voice on January 8th, women like former nun Elizabeth McAlister continue to bear witness against nuclear insanity. She fights even though she doesn’t expect success, with the “absurd conviction” that her protest can make a small difference.
PH: What key points have you learned in your research, interviews, studies and writing?
LF: Well, what I’ve learned has added to my radicalization big time. I believe that socialism is the only way, that patriarchy and racism remain really really bad today; they’ve taken different forms over time but they are there. Many American women remain heroes and still fight against what’s wrong in America anyway. From my interviews I’ve concluded that these women radicals stayed radical. It hasn’t mattered to them which administration is in power. It’s depressingly obvious to me how incredibly strong our capitalist culture is now, and the close connection it has with government authoritarianism—fascism. And how present-day fascism enhances patriarchy, racism and anti-Earth policy. By the end of the book, I had some rants going against it all—it became a jeremiad for me, a` la Anne Hutchinson.
PH: Naomi Wolf wrote about fascism under W Bush. In her book, The End of America.
The 10 essential steps the state must implement to take total control are:
- Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy.
- Create secret prisons where torture takes place.
- Develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens.
- Set up an internal surveillance system.
- Harass citizens’ groups
- Engage in arbitrary detention and release.
- Target key individuals.
- Control the press.
- Treat all political dissidents as traitors.
- Suspend the rule of law.
Seems like she was 300 years too late. However, this is United States of Amnesia, Groundhog Day, and plagued with consumerist and spectacle loving people. Discuss.
LF: Interesting choice. Well, one thing I have to confess is that books like this—out in 2007—is about Bush fascism. I get itchy about books that seem to indicate that such American fascism started with Bush, or grew appreciably more. And she does seem to say that given time, Democrats can change the laws. I liked Jules Boykoff’s book, 2006, Suppression of Dissent which talks about how American protest has been dismantled by a media-state partnership, by talking about Black Panthers (60s) and Judi Bari (90s); and also Bill Quigley, writing in 2011 about how police have become SWAT teams which have become military operations against protesters. And in my book, I obviously argue that American fascism is from the way-back. It’s like people who argue, “Well, hey Trump,” like he’s the be-all and end-all of bad American government, when mostly Obama did the same but he’s apparently now a god. Anyway. Wolf’s 10 steps—My women have seen all of that, and before 2007. You’ve got internal/external enemies as in communism and terrorism, or wartime enemies leading to imprisonment. Secret prisons we have as in black site prisons for Siddiqui, or the conditions for the women prisoners of the Lexington High Security Unit being kept quiet—conditions of extreme torture. Plus most people don’t know we have many many political prisoners in jail, mostly in solitary—like Red Fawn Fallis and Aafia Siddiqui and Marius Mason at Carswell, TX. The paramilitary was at Standing Rock, but also used against Mother Jones.
And surveillance—oh yeah—Standing Rock, Occupy, and also against the National Woman’s Party in 1917, done by the brand new FBI. Government has harassed citizen groups from the pro-Palestinian to those equated with Communism in the 50s. We’ve seen arbitrary detention of suffragists, Occupy protesters and, of course, lawyer Lynne Stewart. Stewart was also a targeted key individual, as was Ma Bloor in the 40s, Wounded Knee resisters in the 70s and Standing Rock protectors a couple of years ago. Occupy tried not to say who their leaders were to avoid that. The press is totally controlled now, except Dissident Voice and a few stalwarts, but a controlled media was used against Shakur and the Panthers, Siddiqui, Judi Bari and (“Red”) Emma Goldman.
Political dissidents have been considered traitors—especially in wartime, WWI being an egregious example, as also the communists, the Ohio 7 and Weatherwomen, even 83-year-old Plowshares nuns. The lack of the rule of law is definitely horrible today—that’s why Lynne Stewart was jailed, because she tried to fight for that principle—no defender rights, especially against “terrorists”, but it was no picnic for Communists or Japanese-American women jailed for their race. Wolf’s is a useful list—and again, government control gets worse and worse and people don’t seem to notice, or want to notice, much less fight it
PH: Now universities, businesses, Homeland Security, police, FBI, banks, state, city, county governments, police forces, private corporations seemingly work together to quell dissent, quell debate, stave off any criticism of the vanguard and elites. Are we in very different times now, and how and why, than when the Weather Underground, BPP, et al were protesting and dissenting in the 1960s-’90s?
LF: Well, things are different now and mostly not better for dissent, but as I’ve argued, it’s never been good. For instance, in the 1960s to the 90s, the media was not completely controlled, so you could have some truthful coverage, some anti-authority coverage, some sympathy for dissenters which is hard to find now. It was not Standing Operating Procedure to use an all-out military attack on just about any or all serious protest. After the Kent State student killings in 1970, as a student, I joined a very big rally which shut down the Northway in Albany because of what the National Guard did. So a different time in that way—constant protest is needed now over police/military brutality in this country. And look what happens—Sandra Bland was killed in her cell and Rev. Joy Powell was railroaded on a murder charge after they took on police brutality against Black Americans. There is no habeas corpus or fair legal treatment; there is ultra surveillance—and there is a very tight and efficient bond between Big Business and global elitist government. There is brainwashing with an emphasis on sexist, racist and vacant thinking; workers have no power, and no jobs. So—here’s what’s the same as the 60s—we need a revolution!