“My brotha, I don’t intend to give up. I will continue to to promote the New Afrikan Independence Movement and i by the Republic of New Afrika via New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalist (NARN). I will continue to coordinate the GJU as well as the BAMCC. I will not allow these racist pigs to criminalize our movement or our political activities, especially Black August!” – Abdul Olugbala Shakur, in a letter to a friend (GJU is the George Jackson University; BAMCC stands for Black August Memorial Commemoration Committee.)
There is a trick that the California prison administration (hereafter “Admin”) pulls on African Americans in prison. It is to charge them with gang activity if they refer to “George Jackson” or any of his writings or ideas or to the “Republic of New Afrika” or the politics of New Afrikans.
The idea of learning about their own history and culture made George Jackson University so popular when it was first organized several years ago that 25,000 Black prisoners immediately signed up. But prison authorities moved immediately, too, not to support but to erase the concept and, at about the same time, the GJU records were destroyed by fire. Now GJU is being reorganized mainly as a source of literature. To learn more and get involved, write to Abdul Olugbala Shakur, s/n J. Harvey, C-48884, CSP Cor SHU 4B-1L-19, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran CA 93212. – Art: Damu Katika Chimurenga, s/n Hayward L. Mayhan, P-60322, 4A-2L-6L, P.O. Box 8800, Corcoran CA 93212
Any such reference will be interpreted to mean one is a member of a group called the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) and thus guilty of promoting gang activity. Thousands of people, mostly Black and Brown, have been held in solitary confinement (Security Housing Unit, or SHU) for years and even decades, because “gang activity” constitutes a “security threat to the prison,” according to the Admin.
Yet even prisoners held in solitary can be brought up on charges of “gang activity,” which is hard to imagine. Four times in the course of a single year, Abdul Olugbala Shakur, a long-timer in Pelican Bay, has been so charged for letters to friends on the outside. Each time, he was convicted of gang activity and his solitary confinement extended. I recently obtained access to the write-ups of those various hearings, called “Rules Violation Reports.” In them, one sees a species of witchhunt in modern form.
Each of these reports follows the same procedure. An officer who had read Shakur’s personal mail charges him for making reference to New Afrikan ideas and activity. Because Shakur is a so-called “validated” gang member (an administrative procedure from which there is no appeal), his political references are considered links to the BGF.
These reports then list various bureaucratic procedures preliminary to a hearing, stating how the defendant pleads and stating whether he wants a witness or not. Shakur pleads “not guilty” in each case and, in each case, his request for a witness is denied.
Each report ends with an account of the hearing. It consists of a “finding” – of guilty in each case – and a summary of the evidence provided by an investigating officer. That evidence repeats the original report about Shakur’s mail and provides a “synopsis” of the letter intercepted.
These “synopses” refer in part to Shakur’s statements and in part to what the officer thinks Shakur means. Thus, the real evidence against Shakur is what the officer thinks. The conclusion that Shakur is involved in gang activity is foregone.
It is all quite routine. However, the testimony against Shakur is interesting and bears some analysis.
Even prisoners held in solitary can be brought up on charges of “gang activity,” which is hard to imagine. Four times in the course of a single year, Abdul Olugbala Shakur, a long-timer in Pelican Bay, has been so charged for letters to friends on the outside. Each time, he was convicted of gang activity and his solitary confinement
First, a little background. There is a special committee called the Institutional Gang Investigators (IGI) whose job is to read the prisoners’ mail. In 2010, Shakur had filed a suit against the Admin and the IGI – a case heard by Judge Seeborg in San Francisco – for having intercepted his mail in violation of federal law as well as of his civil and constitutional rights.
He “won” this suit insofar as the Admin was directed to no longer block delivery of mail nor prevent Shakur from receiving personal mail from outside. This has not stopped the Admin from doing so, however, nor from charging Shakur for what he says in these personal letters.
Two glaring absences “appear” in these reports. The first is the source for proclaiming Shakur a gang member. The second is any proof that the BGF exists as an organization. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t, but its existence has to be more than an administrative proclamation, if the torture of solitary confinement can be the outcome for the defendant.
The Admin cites no documentary evidence for either claim. Though Shakur contradicts the officer’s bland assertions, it is in vain. Shakur’s references to ideas remain associated with a “security threat,” while all aspects of organizational existence, such as rules, purposes, and membership functions exist only in the officer’s claims, without foundation. In other words, the Admin pretends that whatever it says is fact. And that introduces the logic of what is happening here.
The intercepted letter in the first report, addressed to an unnamed individual, quotes the warden’s response to the decision in Shakur’s suit, in which the warden describes the BGF. The charge against Shakur is that, by quoting the warden, he is guilty of promoting gang activity. The warden’s statement says:
“The BGF was cofounded in 1966 by George Jackson. Originally the BGF was called the Black Family or Black Vanguard and were associated with the ‘Black Mafia.’ … The BGF is the most ‘politically’ oriented of the major prison gangs. It was formed as a Marxist-Maoist-Leninist revolutionary organization with specific goals to eradicate racism, struggle to maintain dignity in prison and overthrow the U.S. government. [It is hard to keep a straight face, reading this.]
“All members must be Black. Though small in number, the BGF has a very strict death oath which requires a life pledge of loyalty to the gang. Prospective members must be nominated by an existing member. BGF commonly use (sic) different versions of a dragon surrounding a prison tower and holding a correctional officer in its clutches. They will also use a crossed rifle and machete or the letters BGF.”
In his defense, Shakur points out the absurdity of holding against him words the warden had used concerning the Black Mafia, Black Vanguard, etc. “We didn’t create those terms,” he says. If the words are legitimate in the warden’s mouth and criminal in his own, it implies that it is his person, his Blackness or New Afrikanness, that is criminalized, regardless of what he says.
His point, in quoting the warden, is to show that he and the other New Afrikans “unjustly held in solitary confinement” are all political prisoners. “These New Afrikan Revolutionary Brothas have been denied parole or release from the SHU based on their political beliefs and activities.”
One searches in vain in this quoted letter for any sense of real threat to the security of the prison. The report states that the letter “was found to contain gang-related writing indicating he [Shakur] is currently active in some level of activity for the BGF. Specifically, in the handwritten portion of the letter, [there are] references to ‘New Afrikan Babies,’ ‘New Afrikan Sistas’ and ‘New Afrikan Sistahood.’ The terms ‘New Afrikan Revolutionary,’ ‘New Man,’ ‘New Woman’ and ‘NARN’ (New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalism), are all BGF related terms.”
If the words are legitimate in the warden’s mouth and criminal in his own, it implies that it is his person, his Blackness or New Afrikanness, that is criminalized,
In other words, Shakur is charged with linkages that the Admin makes on its own. It transforms this into “gang activity” insofar as this private letter to a friend attempts to “educat[e] people on the beliefs and ideologies of the BGF” –by quoting the warden.
In a subsequent write-up, the officer claims that Shakur admits to promoting NARN and Black August and that he is “aware” that this type of activity “assists and promotes the BGF.” Shakur’s position is that NARN and Black August are protected activities, because they are political thoughts and ideas, covered by the First Amendment.
In speaking of Shakur’s “awareness” as other than what Shakur says, the officer is speaking for Shakur and thus depriving him of his personhood altogether. There is no defense against someone who speaks for you. If there is no defense, then this “legal” procedure is itself illegal.
Of real substance, however, is the warden’s reference to BGF’s goals of “eradicating racism and maintaining dignity in prison.” These are fundamental demands for human rights. Apparently, such demands constitute a “threat” to prison security.
To add the notion of “overthrowing” the U.S. government from inside prison is laughable, of course, designed to link this “radical” position (“eradicating racism”) to the Cold War. It actually succeeds in linking earlier anti-Communist crusades to their own withholding of human rights.
Ultimately, this “gang” is identified by tattoos and logos and references to “New Afrikan” identity. In outlawing a group for what it thinks and for its “colors” (logos and tattoos), we recognize the paradigm of gang injunctions on the outside. In other words, having honed this weapon inside the prison, the government exports it for use in civil society.
Throughout these four hearings, the same boilerplate description of BGF is used, as if repetition was all that was needed to give something status as law. We see this same arbitrary attribution of judiciality and legitimacy in the U.S. government’s “no-fly” list. That list was compiled without due process, and deployed without possibility of appeal or review. Administrative decision is simply given the weight of law. Again, what had been developed on the inside becomes an assumed legitimate procedure on the outside.
Similar boilerplate treatment is given by the Admin to ideas such as NARN, Black August and the GJU (George Jackson University), of which Shakur is the self-proclaimed co-founder. In his defense, Shakur refers to the court settlement of his suit wherein the judge had affirmed that NARN and Black August were not BGF activities.
But the Admin ignores this. It simply makes sure its procedure is correct. This priority of procedure over substance occurs routinely on the “outside.” It led to the death of Troy Davis despite exonerating evidence. And it has been the court’s refusal to admit exonerating evidence in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case, stating that “proper” procedure was followed in his original trial.
The letter that speaks of the George Jackson University, an educational effort led by prisoners from the depths of their confinement, is primarily about how to unite Black people in the broader Black community, for which an end to intra-community violence – especially among street gangs – is essential. The testifying officer admits that this is what Shakur is trying to do.
Shakur is proposing the GJU as a means of bringing peace and unity to street gangs. Because the office has already identified the GJU with the BGF, it reduces this unity project to an instance of BGF control over street gangs and thus a “promotion” of gang violence rather than a project to end it. It is this twist of Admin logic that transforms Shakur’s use of the word “gang” into a “security threat.”
If the police criminalize efforts to stop street gang violence, it means they want that violence between gangs to continue. The police are aiding and abetting that violence, fostering further criminalization of both street gangs and prisoners who speak about stopping it. Thus, communities and prisons are linked in being beset by anti-social administrations in similar ways.
The Admin’s real purpose in these write-ups leaks out through these pages. The concept of Black August is described by the Admin as a commemoration by African Americans of “all of their fallen comrades.” It is the officer who says this in his testimony.
What is the Admin admitting in recognizing the fact that there are “fallen comrades”? Fallen in what war? The names of some are listed: Jeffrey Gaulden, Alvin Miller, Cleveland Edwards, W.L. Nolan. All had been killed in prison, shot or beaten to death by guards or the Aryan Brotherhood.
Insofar as such a war would have to be one-sided, with only the Admin – and prisoners in alliance with it – having the possibility of aggression against African American prisoners, is not the Admin admitting that Black people need some kind of defensive organization, both inside and outside the prisons?
The report then states that Black August is an idea “created” by the BGF, thus equating BGF with Black people in general. In other words, Black people are a gang, a security threat. There is the secret behind the spate of police killings that go on in the streets of every U.S. city. The police are simply an extension of the prison Admin, engaging in lethal aggression and occupation over what has been proclaimed a “gang” by the prison system.
This “war” on Black people was so obvious to the judge in Shakur’s suit that he was forced to notice that the Admin had “taken a race-based short cut and assumed that anything having to do with African-American culture could be banned under the guise of controlling the BGF.”
This “war” on Black people was so obvious to the judge in Shakur’s suit that he was forced to notice that the Admin had “taken a race-based short cut and assumed that anything having to do with African-American culture could be banned under the
This is more than mere censorship. The Admin actually theorizes Shakur’s writing as a certain kind of act. The IGI guard says:
“The New Africans are those who have come to understand, even though they may have been born in the United States, they are descendants from one of many tribes of Africa. … Coupling the mindset of New Africans with the Revolutionary Nationalism or NARN forms the basis and beliefs of the BGF prison gang. In doing this, the teachings of NARN become more than just words; they become a belief in the concept and ideologies of NARN and the BGF.”
The “theoretical” move here is the assertion that the “teachings” of NARN become “more than just words.” [Blink] This expert prison gang investigator is saying that the teachings of NARN become beliefs in the concepts of NARN. That is, the thoughts of NARN become the thoughts of NARN.
And this tautology is then used as a means of understanding words as “more than just words.” By raising tautology to the status of “activity,” these words become actions against prison security. In short, power defines “threat” for itself by saying “these people are a security threat because they are a security threat.”
We see this on the streets. When a cop shoots an unarmed person (usually of color), it is sufficient for him to say, “I felt threatened,” to legitimize his act –despite videos demonstrating the opposite: Gary King was shot in the back walking away; Alan Blueford was shot while lying down, with his hands up; Michael Brown was shot a hundred feet from the cop. It is the Admin’s words that become “more than just words.”
In its own words, what the Admin claims is a threat are the ideas of autonomous Black identity (NARN and New Afrikan identity), an identity developed by Black people for themselves, rather than one concocted for them by white society, under cover of “law.” Rooting out this identity is the field on which the Admin’s witchhunt operates, much as medieval inquisitors sought to discover witches among the women of Europe.
Witchcraft Inquisitor: You women think that you can heal people using herbs. Only the devil thinks this, because it is outside the teachings of the church. Since you think this, you can only have gotten this thought from the devil. You are therefore in league with the devil and will be burned to death.
Prison Admin: You African Americans think you can reconstruct your identity through identification with Africa. Only subversives and security threats think this because it is outside the identity U.S. society intends for you. Since you think this, you can only have gotten this idea from a subversive organization, such as the BGF. You are therefore members of the BGF and will be destroyed in prison.
If the prosecution of gangs requires a witchhunt, then the threat they pose cannot be real. For a witchhunt, the concept of a threat becomes a cover for the logic of the witchhunt itself, which is to outlaw ideas and destroy the people who hold those ideas. Its central purpose is to destroy Black and Brown identity on both a social and a cultural level, both inside and outside prison. The Admin’s response to the identity it sees as a threat is to impose the “social death” that Orlando Patterson speaks of, in which being Black in the U.S. means being deprived of any identity other than that imposed by white power.
Today, this “social death” has become the real death of unceasing police murders of people of color on the streets. It has a wholly different character from street gang conflict.
Though these police shootings are designed to bring all Black and Brown people into submission, they have now had the opposite effect. They have brought about massive resistance, as we have seen since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, demanding justice and the dismantling of police militarization, while fostering a now international recognition and insistence that “black lives matter,” which has shown up in demonstrations in Europe and South America.
Steve Martinot, a human rights activist, organizer and writer and retired machinist, truck driver and professor, most recently at San Francisco State University. He has organized labor unions in New York and Akron and helped build community associations in Akron. He was a political prisoner in New York State charged with contempt of grand jury. He has published eight books, the latest being “The Need to Abolish the Prison System,” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.