“I am not a crook.” —Richard M. Nixon
Between the realm of criminality and that of the political there is a wide chasm. Politicians make the law, criminals break it. In this context, the idea of the political prisoner emerges as a contradiction in terms. In fact, the contradiction is so fundamental that it forms the basis for many appeals for the liberation of political prisoners. The argument is made that political prisoners are a special class of prisoner who are not criminals at all, but people who engaged in legal political action.
This is one understanding of a political class of prisoners–they have not infringed upon the law, but rather the law has been wielded against them in order to prevent their political activity. The reason political prisoners exist is because revolutionaries are a threat to the law as it exists, and the law imprisons them out of its own self-interest. This understanding is most applicable prisoners who are clearly innocent–Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal; in the United States, the list is not long.
But while the image of innocence is appealing to those who love the law, and although the air of innocence is routinely deployed in campaigns to defend comrades who have committed crime, this notion of innocence makes no stab at the law which decides innocence and guilt. The law not only acts in its own defense, it also ensures that revolutionaries commit crime. So revolutionaries outline a theory of illegal morality–in order to change the law, one must break the law. Criminality, then, is not an inherent desire of the revolutionary, but a condition placed upon her by the state. Political prisoners are not only composed of the innocent, but also of people who broke the law for the “right” reasons. They are prisoners of war. Defined in this way, the list of prisoners of war remains small–one hundred prisoners in the United States, give or take. One half of one hundredth of one percent of the incarcerated population.
The categorization of political prisoners as revolutionaries who have committed moral crimes does not appeal to those who love the law, but it resonates with individuals who take sides in a war to change the law. The demand for the release of a prisoner of war cannot be based on innocence, and so it is based on amnesty. Amnesty is the process of releasing of prisoners who have been taken hostage during a war between states, after the war has ended. It is remarkable how easily the practice of amnesty can be translated to prisoners of a war within a state, particularly when the prisoners considered themselves a different nation or sought through revolution to establish a new government. Although the revolutionary war is a civil war, it is fought between two states– one established, and the other in attempted uprising.
Political conflict is always fought between states that are either existent or revolutionary. A conflict in which the insurgents are not a government-in-rising themselves–if we can imagine such a conflict–would not be called political conflict, but social war. Social war is the expanded form of class war; class no longer marks the limits of social struggle, if it ever did.
Amnesty is an inherently defeatist position to take, one that is contingent upon surrender. In order for prisoners of war to be released, the war must be over, the prisoners no longer combatants, and they must be released into a climate of social peace, a peace their comrades will maintain.
The approaches of innocence and amnesty shouldn’t draw a kneejerk criticism, but rather should be placed in the context of the politics from which they are derived–a politics that appeals to those who love the law, and a politics of war between different forms of government. Without passing judgment on the former approaches, let us say that they fit their positions, and then consider our own position. Specifically, we should look again at the distinction between political conflict and social war.
There exists a third definition of political prisoners. As the movement for prison abolition has grown on the Left, there has been a tendency to radically expand the bounds of who are designated as political prisoners. And a radical new phrasing has been inscribed in the pages of the Leftist Bible: “All prisoners are political.” It is a kind gesture, but only because it is made by people for whom the label ‘political’ is a compliment. Perhaps we should have first asked the prisoners if they wanted to be political. What, and stop saying ‘bitch’? What word could be more degrading than ‘political’ to apply to people without their consent?
This tendency seems to overlook that the original reason for describing some prisoners as political was to illuminate our bonds of affinity–to identify prisoners of a war that we are fighting on the same side of. There are Nazis behind those walls. Let them free, certainly–the better to crack their skulls–but surely we can express our desires without expressing solidarity with our enemies.
“Any movement that does not support their political internees … is a sham movement” — Ojore N. Lutalo, anarchist and former prisoner
And now we come to the crux of it. The recognition that prison is bad for our friends, the disgust and anger we feel at the incarceration of people we care about, is the grounding for any desire to do away with prisons entirely. Underlying the various classifications of “political” prisoners is an urge that is human and natural–the urge to support our imprisoned comrades, as well as the recognition that they are often treated more harshly by the state because of their position in war. We have no shit to sling at solidarity, only at the hordes who have wrung that word dry of every drop of meaning it once had, and at the idea that this practice is inherently radical.
In fact, solidarity has nothing to do with what side one is on, and everything to do with the understanding that one is on a side- -that is, at war. For anyone who comes to life as in a state of war, there is nothing more natural than to support their comrades in prison. While some anarchists are regrettably devoid of a practice of solidarity with their imprisoned comrades, that serves as a reasonable indication of their position toward war as well as friendship. Either they witness no war, or they do not seem themselves in it, or they do not see prisoners as their comrades. So it goes.
There are many prisoners of war, and their nations have their backs as a matter of course. From the POW/MIA flags one sees flying at veterans’ posts across this nation, to the revolutionary solidarity with prisoners of the Irish Republican Army, to the Cuban Five freedom campaign, to the prison support networks of the Nazis and the mafia, everyone supports their family, their nation, their army
Some of us, however, are fighting a different kind of war. One in which we are not fighting for a nation, an ideology, or political power, but in a struggle to destroy all of those. A war that is qualitatively distinct. The only war that could not only free our own prisoners of war, but destroy the prisons.
In the war against all that, we do not perceive criminality as the infringement of just law, nor as a necessary and just means to revolution. Crime is anti-political desire, our engagement in rediscovering our bodies and living energy. Insurrection will never be the political activity of revolutionaries, for it is the criminal activity of becoming human.
This essay is an excerpt from the zine “Take Your Mark, Get Ready, Ablate: Three Positions on Prison Abolition” by August O’Claire. It can be read in its entirety at sproutdistro.com/catalog/zines/3-positions-prison. It is reprinted here with permission from “Fire to the Prisons,” #10.