Enemies of the State

An Interview with Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoners: David Gilbert, Laura Whitehorn, and Marilyn Buck

by Meg Starr, Resistance in Brooklyn

RnB: Some movement activists have expressed the idea that violence cannot be justified for any reason, and even a few political prisoners have said that they were wrong to engage in violent acts. What are your feelings on this? How have they changed over the years?

LW: Whenever we talk about "violence," I think it's important first to distinguish between the violence of the state including the army, the police, etc. and the use of armed resistance and armed struggle by oppressed people struggling for justice. Remember, too, that imperialist violence isn't just what they do with arms it also includes the genocidal results of a system that tries to destroy the history, identity, and culture of the nations it colonizes. It's malnutrition, poverty, and homelessness in the streets of the richest country on earth. Is the death of a homeless person, frozen in the winter streets of Chicago or New York, not a death by violence? If U.S. imperialism were to disarm to stop their stealing from people, cease committing genocide, stop starving people, etc. then I'd be willing to consider changing my support of revolutionary violence. Malcolm X talked about this a lot, with great passion and insight. "What are your options," he asked, "when a man's got his foot on your neck?"

An Introduction
by Meg Starr, Resistance in Brooklyn [RnB]

The government and mainstream media have used their formidable powers to prevent real information about political prisoners Marilyn Buck, David Gilbert, Laura Whitehorn, and others from getting out. Small wonder. Like John Brown and those who stood with him, they are white people who took arms against the U.S. government, in solidarity with the oppressed. Invisible in the SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC or liberal histories of the 1960s is the logic of their progression from public to clandestine activism. These three interviewed here help us to understand an important part of radical history so often distorted. They stood accused of such "unthinkable crimes" as infiltrating the Klan, robbing money from banks and giving it to Black self-defense patrols, helping to liberate framed BLACK LIBERATION ARMY (BLA) leader ASSATA SHAKUR from prison, bombing the Capitol Building in response to the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and bombing the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association after the brutal murder of a Black grandmother by NYC Police. We hope that this pamphlet will help reintroduce these dedicated people to the movement and help us all with the ongoing task of figuring out the role of white radicals.

Many activists joining the progressive movement over the past ten years have participated in some form of work around prison issues: protesting the growth of the prison industry, exposing control unit torture, supporting social prisoners, or working with political prisoners. All of this is important. Agitating around prisons can expose the true nature of U.S. "democracy" to people, as well as alleviating prisoners' daily suffering. The ways prison is used to control communities of color, all poor and working-class people, and women is a vital part of how the state keeps itself in power. Behind thought control in bourgeois democracy is the thinly gloved hand of repressive power.

The movements of the late '60s and '70s shook the U.S. government's control over its domestic population. They were powerful because of their widespread support in oppressed communities and among white youth, their internationalism, their revolutionary vision, and the radical strategies many organizations used to confront the system, from civil disobedience to ARMED PROPAGANDA. Responding to this challenge, U.S. counterinsurgency used many repressive tactics, including incarceration, to destroy these movements. Many of the over one hundred POLITICAL PRISONERS and PRISONERS OF WAR (POWs) in U.S. jails were key leaders of the organizations they belonged to, leading national and local struggles for Black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, Native American sovereignty, and white antiwar and anti-imperialist action. Many of these prisoners became enemies of the state because they injected into the movements for social justice a most crucial element: revolutionary action.

These comrades challenged the armed power of the government directly, ripping to shreds the cloak of "peaceful democracy" with which the bourgeoisie tries to cover its real crimes. In the '60s, the shift from peaceful petitioning to street demonstrations demanding the U.S. to stop its attacks on Vietnam transformed the movement into a force the government had to reckon with. The Black Panther Party didn't stop with discussions of how to empower the Black community, they seized that power through a combination of direct action and armed self-defense. Similarly, many of the political prisoners and prisoners of war engaged in actions that moved beyond discussion and protest into challenging the basis of imperialism and colonialism. For the government, this raises the specter of real civil unrest, which must be stopped at it's inception. That is why these comrades were systematically removed from their movements and communities.

Each time we defend these activists and bring their presence into our work, we challenge counterinsurgency. We build off the radical strategies of our immediate movement past and gain continuity. Continuity does not mean that the strategies of the past are necessarily those of the future. It just means that dialogue with those who have dedicated their lives to revolution will enrich our vision. As Mumia Abu-Jamal's commentaries go out on the air waves, we are all strengthened.

Supporting political prisoners also challenges the system's grip over our hearts and minds because their incarceration is held over all of our heads as a deterrent. It is one aspect of the repression and control of our movements, a direct carryover from the FBI COUNTERINTELLIGENCE PROGRAM (COINTELPRO) of the 1950s and '60s. Which is more frightening: being shot by the police or being buried alive? Where do we each take our fears as we build the movements of the twenty-first century, and deal with state repression today? Successful radical movement-building will always face repression; every sincerely radical organization must therefore have some aspect of their program that responds to political prisoners. Connecting with them teaches us about the state, but it can also give us hope. This is a time when our movements are rebuilding and reevaluating. There is a lull in domestic armed struggle and militant street actions. Work around the prisoners can and should be done from a general human rights perspective. It can also be done, however, by those who are radical and envision movements of the future that will again challenge the U.S. government to its core. The political prisoners own continued dedication and activism must be one sign to us in this very repressive time that the people are stronger than the system.

Whether or not a group's specific daily work is around political prisoners or prison conditions, Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB) believes that everyone working toward revolutionary goals must give greater organizational priority to the work around freedom for our imprisoned comrades. In our imaginations, we can smash the barriers of fear and prison, as we organize to tear down the very real walls.

The three interviews printed here in their complete and unedited (though separated) versions, grew out of discussions that we began with David Gilbert in 1995, and continued with Marilyn and Laura through 1996 and early '97. Looking at the lack of sympathetic yet critical review of the clandestine movements of the 1970s and '80s, coupled with various statements by individuals who essentially retracted their previous revolutionary positions, we agreed on the importance of a public dialogue to encourage debate about the processes and potential for change. Some among the white ANTI-IMPERIALIST prisoners still held true to their earlier convictions, despite changes, modification, or a growth of their viewpoints. After recognizing that due primarily to the logistical considerations of communication between prisoners and from one side of the wall to the other we could not publish commentary from all of those we would have liked to include, we narrowed the list of those to take part in this first booklet to three North Americans from varying but similar political backgrounds.

An important intention of this booklet is, in fact, to open a dialogue that we believe is essential to the growth of a more mature left. RnB strongly urges all those reading this who are moved to comment on a small or large part of the texts to write us their comments, for publication in a second, followup booklet. While
we are especially anxious to hear from those behind the walls who participated in or led some of the movements described herein, we want the dialogue to be open to everyone concerned with a fair analysis of the periods in question and, most importantly, to everyone involved with building the revolutionary movements of tomorrow.

We can be reached c/o Meyer, WRL, 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012 or by email [mmmsrnb@igc.org].

We view this dialogue as the beginning of what we hope to be a broader discussion on strategies and tactics, past, present, and future. The struggle, indeed, continues.

Laura Whitehorn
During the Vietnam War, Laura Whitehorn organized 400 women in a take-over of the Harvard University administration buildings. In the 1970s, she worked with antiracist whites to defend Black communities from attack and helped found the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, a radical art group. She was accused of being a member of the Red Guerrilla Resistance, an anti-imperialist urban guerrilla group and served a twenty-three-year sentence for conspiracy to protest and alter government policies through the use of violence against government property. She was released in August of 1999.

RnB: Over the past years that you've been in prison since 1985 many changes have taken place in the world and in our movements. When you made your decision to take militant action, there was a sense of worldwide revolution on the rise. Now, although there are many trends of protest and fight-back, reaction appears to have consolidated. In this context, do you regret the sacrifice you made to fight against U.S. imperialism?

LW: A resounding NO! First of all, I believe that change can never take place without resistance. No matter how overwhelming the odds, struggle is the only path to justice. Without resistance, there is no hope of a better future, and resistance often demands sacrifice. To me, the decision not to fight not to resist would mean sacrificing my own humanity. That would be much worse than the sacrifices that I've had to make.

I believe that all kinds of resistance are necessary to oppose the consolidation of reactionary forces. I don't feel that any of the forms of resistance I've been involved in over the past twenty-five years from mass struggle to armed actions are irrelevant to the future of progressive movements.

The armed activities I was involved in had, as their focus, anti-imperialist solidarity with national liberation struggles. And while it is true that some of the strategic underpinnings of those activities were proven incorrect like the conviction that wars of liberation within U.S. colonies would have achieved victory by now the fundamental goals of those movements remain the same. The peoples of Puerto Rico, NEW AFRIKA, and all oppressed nations in the U.S. empire still fight for freedom. The central goals of white anti-imperialists are also still relevant and alive. Whatever the methods, we still must fight against white supremacy and colonialism. None of the world changes over the past ten years have changed the need for citizens of an oppressive country to do what they can to stop the crimes of their government. If anything, these goals are more central today then in years past, because they are under greater attack.

Two examples of the continuing need for militant action come quickly to mind. In 1994, when Cuba was coming under, increasingly directly U.S. attack, it seemed to me that the white left in this country should have risen to the fore in defense of Cuba. I waited to hear that all those who'd gone on the VENCEREMOS BRIGADES over the years, and all those who'd learned the very meaning of solidarity from the example of Cuba (in Africa and Vietnam, for instance), were now taking action in cities all over the U.S. to show militant support of Cuba. Though we all might be confused by the major shifts in world politics, the defense of Cuba should have mobilized thousands. Yet it didn't happen that way, despite valiant attempts by organizers of a rally in Washington and some small demos elsewhere.

Another example of the clear need for militant antiracist defense by white progressives followed the SIMI VALLEY TRIAL and subsequent Los Angeles rebellion. Here again, a few rallies, statements, and demos by some white progressives did take place, but no major long-term or clearly defined resistance in solidarity with Black people was developed. At a time when Black/New Afrikans' basic human rights their existence itself was arrogantly challenged by the smug racism of white Amerika, most of the white left did not take action.

I point to these examples to suggest that our fundamental concepts and principles of solidarity our commitments to anti-imperialism and to taking direct action remain true and relevant to this day. Right now I'm not even especially talking about armed actions. While strategic concepts (such as the relationship between armed struggle and mass action) may change as history itself develops, I believe that it's a serious mistake to abandon our basic goals and politics. Our resistance and analysis led us to a commitment of fight-back on all levels including armed struggle.

RnB: Looking back over your own personal and political history, how did you first become politically aware and active? How and why did it lead you in an anti-imperialist direction?

LW. I became politically aware over a period of time beginning with my childhood, when McCarthyism and segregation forced me to look at the serious injustices in the world. As a Jewish kid born in 1945, I was raised to hate prejudice. My parents also hoped that I would learn to fear the repression that would surely follow any resistance.

The civil rights movement forced me to abandon that fear, because I witnessed the courage of Black women, men, and children in the U.S. South. My first political actions as a high school and college student were against segregation and for voting rights. As the war in Vietnam exploded, I began to join petition drives, marches, and rallies against the U.S. invasion.

I felt passionately about those issues. Some of this was motivated by my own deep sense of unfairness, regarding how I was treated as a woman in sexist U.S. society. This helped me to identify with others affected by injustice. Though I didn't yet identify myself as a lesbian, I certainly did rebel against many of the roles I was supposed to be happy in, even as a child.

The world events of 1968 and 1969 enabled me to make the leap from a belief that democracy simply wasn't working as it was supposed to work, to a more critical anti-imperialist viewpoint. I was deeply affected by the emergence of the BLACK PANTHER PARTY (BPP), the rise of the national liberation struggles, CHE GUEVERA'S speech outlining the strategy of "Two, Three, Many Vietnams," and my own participation in a series of confrontations with the Chicago police department. This first confrontation at the 1968 Democratic Convention made it graphically clear that liberals shniberals, and the whole Democratic Party was part of the ruling class, hiding behind the violence of the Chicago cops as they beat and gassed unarmed demonstrators.

As I supported the BPP and YOUNG LORDS PARTY in Chicago, I experienced the untrammeled violence of the pigs against Black and Puerto Rican people. Even more importantly, I experienced the courage and massive desire of those communities to fight back and take control over their lives to refuse to collapse under the terror of the cops. I was present at occasions when thousands of Black people turned out in churches and on streets to hear and talk to Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois BPP. The same thing was happening with the Young Lords in the Puerto Rican community, and there was great unity in action between the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. In those churches, on those streets, in rally after march after rally, the depth and strength of the demand for freedom and political power was unmistakable.

When the Chicago cops and FBI assassinated Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, it made it clear to me what I had already accepted: that the fight of Black people would have to involve armed struggle. Like the people of Puerto Rico, the Native American nations, and the MEXICANO NATION within the U.S. like the struggle of the Vietnamese the movements fighting against the U.S. government would have to utilize armed struggle, because the U.S. state saw these struggles as tearing apart the very fabric of their empire and their illegitimate power. The BPP's ten-point program like the programs of revolutionary nationalists such as the Republic of New Afrika was based on the same goals as the national liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: land, justice, economic and political
independence the right of self-determination.

I had always hated racism and couldn't understand why it was so deeply ingrained in every single aspect of U.S. society. After 1969, I felt that I understood it better as well as how to fight to change it. In order for the U.S. ruling class to maintain power, it was necessary for them to maintain control over the New Afrikan nation, the other internal colonies, and Puerto Rico. This dominance would only begin to change when those nations had their independence and freedom. It became clear to me that revolutionary anti-imperialism was the best strategy for fighting racism and injustice and that armed struggle as well as mass struggle would be needed.

As I learned more about Vietnam from my work supporting their struggle, I understood how the context of national liberation struggle could transform a nation, and the women in particular, from powerlessness to creativity and strength. Resisting domination on a variety of levels was a major part of creating new women, new men, new nations.

It also appeared that armed struggle could be a way to speed up the victory of a people and thus to lessen a nation's suffering. It seemed to me that those of us in the belly of the beast citizens of the imperialist power could shorten the war by attacking the U.S. military and political machinery inside the U.S. We could play a significant role in shortening the war by increasing the material and political costs. This was an important strategic point for anti-imperialists within the antiwar movement, and it applied to solidarity with other national liberation struggles as well. That's why I took part in mass confrontations, in attacks on military think tanks and in building takeovers at big universities. It's also why I later took part in armed actions against targets like the NYC Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the Israeli aircraft industries, and the U.S. War College and Capitol Building.

Taking powerful action against the oppressor had a liberating quality that affected my view of how all of us can free ourselves. As a woman and a lesbian, the desire to fight against sexism and homophobia fueled my desire to wage armed struggle against all aspects of this oppressive society. As a revolutionary, I seek to change the entire system, not just one or two parts of it.

RnB: We hear all the time about people who were revolutionaries in the 1960s and who now have bought into white corporate America. What have been your experiences with this?

LW: I don't have much experience with this, but it seems to me that it underlines the fact that white people in particular can almost always "sell out" by falling back on our white skin privilege. The system just loves to welcome back its strays.

I also think that individualism and greed are so strong in U.S. capitalism that they continue to erode the character and values of people including those who try to make social change, be revolutionaries, or participate in struggles for justice. I guess when things get hard, it's tempting for some to jump ship and find a comfortable niche in what looks like the winning side. How boring! And how soul destroying.

RnB: Some movement activists have expressed the idea that violence cannot be justified for any reason, and even a few political prisoners have said that they were wrong to engage in violent acts. What are your feelings on this? How have they changed over the years?

LW: Whenever we talk about "violence," I think it's important first to distinguish between the violence of the state including the army, the police, etc. and the use of armed resistance and armed struggle by oppressed people struggling for justice. Remember, too, that imperialist violence isn't just what they do with arms it also includes the genocidal results of a system that tries to destroy the history, identity, and culture of the nations it colonizes. It's malnutrition, poverty, and homelessness in the streets of the richest country on earth. Is the death of a homeless person, frozen in the winter streets of Chicago or New York, not a death by violence? If U.S. imperialism were to disarm to stop their stealing from people, cease committing genocide, stop starving people, etc. then I'd be willing to consider changing my support of revolutionary violence. Malcolm X talked about this a lot, with great passion and insight. "What are your options," he asked, "when a man's got his foot on your neck?"

I do believe that revolutionary forces need to be extremely careful when using any kind of violence. Armed struggle does confer power on those engaging in it, and I think revolutionaries have a responsibility to act with principle and care. We must show respect for the value of human life in a way that the imperialists can only pretend to do. During the late 1960s, when the level of struggle in this country was so high, I think I tended to use the concept of "being at war" too loosely, in a way that I no longer would. I think I believed, for example, that the level of confrontation between oppressed nations and the imperialist state meant we all existed in an active state of war and that any unnecessary casualties would be justified by the wartime conditions. I don't believe, however, that this type of thinking dominated the practice of the revolutionary armed groups. Any time there was a casualty, of course, the government made sure it was broadcast far and wide.

I still believe there's a war by the ruling class against oppressed people, especially against Black people. But I also think that revolutionary forces have the ability and the responsibility to make armed actions speak for themselves, so the actions don't need a lot of justifying. Whenever we have to explain or defend our actions, we are immediately at a disadvantage, because the government and police control so much of the media.

I believe that fighting for justice necessitates fighting for power. I don't think, for instance, that it will be effective to fight racism in the U.S. without also challenging white supremacy and the system of imperialism that it's a part of. And I believe that fighting for power means a lot more than protesting bad things that the government does. Revolutionary violence is an important means of self-defense for oppressed communities under attack from the violence of the state. It is an integral part of fighting for power.

RnB: What were the specific historical conditions that were the context for your decision to take up armed struggle?

LW: The late 1960s an era of rising wars of national liberation for land and independence convinced me that in order to be part of making revolution, I had to support and take up armed struggle. Vietnam was an especially strong example of this, but I was also influenced by the anti-colonial struggles in Latin America and Africa. Because the U.S. had used arms and genocidal violence to enslave and possess oppressed nations inside the U.S. and Puerto Rico, it seemed clear that revolutionary violence would be needed to overthrow colonial control. And how could I support liberation for any of those nations, yet be unwilling to fight for it myself?

I witnessed the process of nation-building that went on when Vietnam mobilized its people to fight a war of national independence and self-defense. Colonialist domination especially where white supremacy is involved tries to destroy the humanity, dignity, and character of a nation. The process of organizing to seize power the process of learning to use armed struggle for that goal is part of a process of reclaiming human worth from the oppression of colonial domination. Supporting
the process of people's war, including lending material support at the level of armed resistance, made perfect sense to me.

I think that the emergence of the Black Panther Party and armed organizations within the Black Nation played a particular role for me, too, because I'd hated racism so passionately but had felt powerless to make any real change. The prospect of armed self-defense and armed struggle for Black liberation directly motivated me to take up armed struggle myself, because it seemed clear to me (and still does) that racism won't be eradicated without political power Black Power. And power won't be won without armed struggle.

When I began doing solidarity work with Puerto Rico in the mid1970s, my understanding of the need for armed struggle was extended, because Puerto Rico was so clearly a nation directly colonized by the U.S. It was also a nation that had been engaged in a struggle for independence with many periods that included armed warfare and armed struggle. When the PUERTO RICAN ARMED FORCES OF NATIONAL LIBERATION (FALN) began doing actions in the 1970s at the same time that I was involved in Puerto Rico solidarity work, especially the struggle to free the Nationalist prisoners it gave me hope for the future. Those actions gave an idea of what would be necessary.

RnB: Do you see armed struggle as a relevant strategy in the U.S. today?

LW. Yes, I don't think armed struggle is ever an irrelevant form of struggle although it may take more or less prominence at different points in history. I'm reminded of something I was told by members of the Vietnam Women's Union during a trip there in 1975, right after the victory. They told of how hopeless the situation looked under the French especially following the burning of the rice crop in the 1930s. Peasants felt there was no chance of ever winning anything. It wasn't a good time to try to organize people into the Viet Minh resistance, because of the fear. In one village, cadres of the party worked to organize the peasants to beat drums at night something that the French occupiers outlawed. An elaborate plan was made for people to beat drums in various homes and in the rice fields, forcing the French soldiers to spend an entire night searching for one offender after another. At the end of the night, the soldiers withdrew, exhausted, to the rattattat of yet another drum!

The point was that the village had gained courage and hope from the activity, leading eventually to an example of how armed actions could be carried out if there was a lot of cooperation and strategic planning. When the drumbeats were replaced by arms, the French were decisively driven out of one village after another.

Of course, in that example the goal of the people was clear and united. I don't mean to make a simplistic analogy, but I do think that armed actions and the building for them can play a role a different kind of role in different periods. For example, I would have cheered (and I think lots of people would have) if there'd been some small actions against the Los Angeles Police Department after the Simi Valley verdict in the case of the beating of Rodney King. At the same time as I felt that mass action was most critical in that period, I believe that small armed actions would have made a positive difference.

In terms of armed self-defense, I definitely believe it has a role to play today. I don't understand why a period marked by the strength of reactionary forces needs to be a period of only legal activities by leftists. That thinking allows fear to be perpetuated! I think that it's important to have good plans and to minimize the risk of arrest in this period more busts for long sentences wouldn't help much! But I don't think that means that all kinds of creative, illegal resistance should stop.

Sometimes it seems to me particularly important to be thinking about illegal forms of struggle now, just because the right wing is in such control. It would be a shame for us to be caught unprepared as the state moves more toward all kinds of attacks on human rights, and as legal forms of struggle become fewer and riskier.

I do think that the nature of armed action needs to be responsive to the level of struggle at any given time and to the level of mobilization and anger focused around any particular issue in question. From my own history, I think that bombing the U.S. Capitol and other political and military buildings after the invasion of Grenada (and while the U.S. was waging a counterrevolutionary offensive in Central America) was fine and correct. But I think it was wrong to raise, in our message claiming the Capitol action, the threat of killing congressmen and senators because it doesn't seem to me that assassination was anywhere within the realm of what the anti intervention and pro-Grenada movements in this country were thinking about or would be prepared to defend. It should be noted that many people in the COMMITTEE IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE PEOPLE OF EL SALVADOR (CISPES) and other groups did defend the bombings themselves both at that time and later, even when they came under FBI scrutiny and after we were busted.

RnB: Given some of your histories, what are some of the achievements or errors of the anti-imperialist movement and its armed clandestine organizations that you participated in?

[Answered jointly by Laura and Marilyn:]
LW & MB: It's a huge question, so we broke it down somewhat mechanically, and our answers will be shorthand. We felt strongly that the two areas the anti-imperialist movement and armed clandestine groups have to be looked at together, because they developed together. For the sake of this question's order, though, we began by responding to the two areas separately.

We feel that anti-imperialist politics and organizations made a number of important ideological contributions. We derived our strategy of revolutionary anti-imperialism from Che Guevara's speech to Cuba's Tricontinental Congress and from the struggles his speech represented. To paraphrase his message: "Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams" ultimately defeating the system of U.S. led imperialism by freeing the colonies (or oppressed nations) whose land, labor, and resources provide the lifeblood of that system.

We analyzed imperialism as a global system the highest stage of capitalism rather than as simply being the foreign policy of capitalism. We understood imperialism as the same system functioning inside the U.S. as well as throughout the world a very important point because it led us to focus on building solidarity with the national liberation struggles inside the U.S. Support for self-determination of the "internal colonies" the New Afrikan or Black nation, Native American nations, the Mexican nation, and Puerto Rico became a central issue in all of our work. The national liberation struggles themselves had consistently argued for this position within the broader progressive movement.

We were internationalists, meaning that we supported all anti-imperialist struggles around the world. We also accepted the particular responsibility to support those nations directly colonized and oppressed by our own government. We were (still are!) working for socialist revolution.

North American (or predominantly white) anti-imperialist groups embraced the view that alongside the oppressed nations inside the U.S. there exists an oppressor nation, made up of white people of all classes and organized by the power of white supremacy to function as part of any ruling-class strategy. White people, we believe, need to make a conscious decision and to take explicit action to ally with the oppressed instead of the oppressor. As members of that oppressor nation, we tried to analyze the affects of white skin privilege on us and on our organizations, as well as to remain aware of the effects on the oppressed nations.

One of our main achievements was to recognize that white supremacy is an institutionalized system, in contrast to the more accepted view that racism is just a matter of bad ideas and attitudes. This gave us a different viewpoint from which to fight white supremacy on its many levels. These included education, agitation, demonstrations, campaigns, confrontations, and clandestine activities. In a variety of cities and over quite a number of years, many revolutionary anti-imperialists established a strong practice of work, including: fighting the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing organizations, defending Black and Mexican communities under attack, supporting Black and Puerto Rican prisoners, exposing right-wing groups, building campaigns against racist killer cops and Klan in the police forces, etc. We also established material aid campaigns and clandestine support work for national liberation movements inside and outside the U.S. borders.

Our understanding of the importance of fighting white supremacy and supporting the Puerto Rican and Black liberation struggles also led us to support prison struggles. We initiated projects in solidarity with political prisoners and prisoners of war. We worked to expose the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which was responsible for destroying organizations, killing Black leaders like Fred Hampton, and putting others in prison. In our work to support political prisoners and POWs, we tried to educate people not only about the injustice and criminality of the system that imprisoned them, but also about who these revolutionaries are and why the government was so afraid of them.

The national liberation struggles and clandestine anti-imperialist allies acted to free political prisoners like Assata Shakur and WILLIAM MORALES. Nothing can ever cast a shadow on the importance of their freedom. These were achievements the public anti-imperialist movement played a role in as well, working to create an atmosphere of support within the community and resisting police and FBI attempts to find the liberated prisoners. From 1967 to the mid1980s, both the aboveground anti-imperialist organizations and the armed clandestine groups marched, demonstrated, and fought. We did armed and mass militant actions. We built material aid campaigns for most of the leading struggles for freedom around the world from Vietnam, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, the Congo/Zaire, and Zimbabwe; to the struggles at Wounded Knee, Big Mountain, and in Puerto Rico; to the Black Panther Party and all the struggles for independence, land, and political power led by revolutionary Black Nationalists in the national territory of the Republic of New Afrika.

In building this work, we tried to do what the national liberation movements themselves defined as strategically important. At both the public and clandestine levels, revolutionary anti-imperialists united with progressive movements around the world who defined imperialism as the enemy. From the late 1960s to the present, we've supported struggles that were not popularly supported by many white leftists such as in Palestine, Iran, and Eritrea.

Some of our errors included being unclear about what we meant when we said our strategy was carried out "under third world leadership." At times, we interpreted what the leadership of any given struggle was arguing for to suit our own politics. At other times, we became involved in debates inside other movements that were inappropriate for us to be active in. It's fine to have opinions and positions about the liberation struggles of other peoples whom you support, but it was and is wrong to intervene in the middle of debates within a national liberation struggle.

It was an achievement to try to deal with the "time table" or agenda of struggle defined by the oppressed nations, rather than as it was determined by white leftists. This was especially true in the arena of armed struggle and other forms of militancy: the national struggles, as a result of national oppression and colonization, have a different objective relationship to the state than white leftists do. There has always been some level of warfare being waged by the ruling class against the oppressed nations; genocide mandates a timetable for struggle different from the relationship between any white people and the state. In the groups we've been part of, our level of militancy and armed struggle has been determined by the level of confrontation between the national struggles and the state.

A big problem of our work was our inability to organize larger numbers of white people to work with us. While many people over the years attended activities and actions that we held, our standards of commitment were so stringent that people wouldn't join our groups. Internally, our misuses of "criticism/selfcriticism" and our strict methods of leadership served to weaken rather than to strengthen members. These methods also militated against wider recruitment. A revolutionary organization should build its members, becoming stronger in the process. Our sectarian approach to relations with other North American leftists also damaged our work on many levels.

On an ideological level, we weren't able to resolve the relationship between the two poles of our politics: the contradictions between imperialism and the oppressed nations and the contradictions within the oppressor nation as a whole. For one thing, we never developed a thoroughgoing class analysis, nor a practice in workplace or community organizing. We didn't think that there could be legitimate or progressive struggles that go on in oppressor nation communities for example, struggles for reproductive rights or against domestic violence so we never created programs or practice to relate to such struggles. This gave much of our work an impermanent, transitory quality, as well as a limited (petitbourgeois) class character.

Many of these clashes of achievement and error played out in our politics and practice on women's liberation. Most of our group's members were women, and lots of us were lesbians. In the armed groups, women were fighters and leaders. We were organized and inspired by the examples of Vietnam and other national liberation movements, where women played leading roles and women's liberation was fought for by women combatants in the stage of winning national independence. But we were confused as to what these lessons meant when transferred from the context of an oppressed nation to our own situation.

Our analysis was that as women, we wouldn't win our liberation separate from defeating imperialism and transforming the structures of society toward a more collective, socialist model. We rejected as reformist the struggles for "equal rights" in a capitalist context and defined women's liberation as requiring a revolutionary confrontation with institutionalized male supremacy a socialist revolution. Women in developing socialist countries had confronted the harsh reality that the institutions and social attitudes of male supremacy did not automatically disappear with the victory of national liberation. Women have had to continue to struggle for their rights and to redefine their roles long after liberation has been won.

Despite these theoretical understandings, we were unable to develop concrete strategies to organize women of the oppressor nation beyond solidarity work. We did not join in struggles specific to women which, while reformist, are important steps in the process to destroying male supremacy and its institutions. This was even more true of lesbian and gay liberation. So many of us and our comrades were dykes, yet support for lesbian and gay liberation was barely a part of our program. We listed it as something we struggled for, but never had any programmatic work to give it life. We failed to even struggle against homophobia when it presented itself, often keeping closeted about our own lesbianism. This was true even with some of our closest comrades in various third world liberation movements. We had been part of a strong anti-imperialist sector of the early antiwar and women's liberation movements and building actions in support of Vietnam and other national liberation struggles specifically as lesbians and women. But as time went on, we lost some of the content of our politics that had embraced human liberation on a broad revolutionary scale.

In all of our work, we explicitly supported armed struggle, and that was important. Too many white left groups have supported anti-colonial struggles but have condemned their armed strategies. Many other white leftists, who did support armed struggle in national movements in other parts of the world, refused to accept the legitimacy of armed struggle inside the Puerto Rican, Black or New Afrikan, Native American, and Mexicano nations. One of our main achievements is that we not only supported armed struggle but also engaged in it, in solidarity with the national liberation movements. Some of our early actions were specifically meant to take the heat off of armed organizations in the national liberation struggles, and some of those actions succeeded in doing that. At other times, clandestine work was done in concert with a particular national liberation organization. In addition, our actions raised issues or chose targets based on solidarity. All of these were part of a revolutionary practice to fight imperialism alongside the national liberation struggles.

The anti-imperialist armed clandestine groups argued that it was necessary for members of the oppressor nation to fight against the crimes of our own government. By putting this principle into practice, we tried to break through some of the legalism and passivity that has kept white radicals from active resistance. As the political tenor of the country gets more conservative and reactionary, we think that this was a very important contribution.

Another contribution, growing from the recognition that we need to take the state seriously as our enemy, was our practice of building some radical work on a clandestine basis. Over the last several decades, various attempts have been made to build anti-imperialist, armed clandestine organizations. None of these attempts succeeded completely; they either self-destructed because of internal political problems or were captured by the state. But the attempts the direction and the commitment not just to protest but to actually fight injustice has been an achievement.

A major ideological error made by many of us in the revolutionary anti-imperialist tendency was to view armed struggle at a strategy in and of itself. We adopted this concept out of context from the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, where the position was used at a certain moment for a certain purpose. In part, we tried to argue for a model of people's war at a time when there was debate over the use of armed struggle. We argued that all efforts and resources should focus on building the armed clandestine level of struggle. This argument ended up weakening and ultimately dismantling the critical areas of mass work and public organization that had been developed. Within the clandestine groups themselves, it meant that we emphasized taking action over building infrastructure and organizing.

While we said we rejected focoism or small group strategies, for generating revolutionary activity we in fact developed a small group structure. We became more and more internalized and isolated. Along with significant errors in our analysis of the political conditions of the 1980s regarding the state and the forces of repression this contributed to the eventual arrest and destruction of our group.

These reflections are all very abbreviated and partial. Questions of political strategy are important to look at historically, for the future of our struggle for liberation and justice inside the U.S. At some point, this history needs to be more fully examined. We feel it's important to begin the discussion, so that neither the advances nor the errors are left to be defined by the government or by bourgeois political historians. The role of resistance and armed struggle must not be lost in these fragmented, reactionary, and sometimes dispirited times.

RnB: How have your years in prison and the changes in the world over these past years affected how you view and understand the systems of imperialism and oppression?

LW: Being in prison has only reaffirmed my understanding of how imperialism operates: the painful cost it extracts from its oppressed subjects and the inextricable relationship between the system as a whole and white supremacy in particular (not to mention sexism). Being in prison has also awakened me to (lie isolation and elitism of a lot of the left at least the white left. Prisoners understand so much of what the system is and how it works, while the left often talks and acts like they're the only ones who understand anything. In addition, the language and organizing strategies of the left have so often been overly intellectual and removed from the actual practice of people's lives.

In terms of world changes, I like most other leftists was floored by the Sandinista electoral defeat and by the crumbling of the bureaucratic "socialist" states. I often think about how much joy I took from the part of Lenin's Imperialism where he says that opportunism won't hold sway in the working class of any imperialist power for as long as it has in the English working class. Or about how we embraced Lenin's view of the crumbling of imperialism. Or how much I believed that through people's war the liberation of Puerto Rico and New Afrika would be taking place right about now, with a strong armed and political anti
imperialist solidarity movement led by white oppressor nation communists.

So I guess I'd have to cop to having to adjust my views to a different scenario and time table! What hasn't changed, though, is my view that there will eventually be successful struggles that develop a new form of socialism, that the fundamental contradictions of imperialism still exist and still cause suffering and necessitate resistance. What hasn't changed is my view that human beings will not settle for a culture of death.

I also do not see any of the cataclysmic changes (like the breakup of the Soviet Union) as signifying the end of revolution. I believe that history develops unevenly, with defeats and setbacks as well as victories and advances. Sometimes when I hear leftists on the outside saying how impossible it is to do something or how difficult it is to stay political because of all the changes in the world, I get a creepy feeling. It reminds me of the trap that I think some of the "old left" the people of my parents' generation who were in or around the Communist Party U.S.A. and labor movement fell into. They put all their hope in the Soviet revolution, and when Stalin's atrocities were unmasked, they lost all faith in socialist struggle. They became bitter, depressed, and some became mouthpieces for virulent anti-communism.

In addition to these vast changes in the world scene, I've also, during these past eleven years, seen some more encouraging developments. All over the Southeast of the U.S., to name one, there are new organizations led by African American women that are dealing with AIDS, health, and survival issues and doing it from either a revolutionary or a progressive perspective. As some of the women themselves say, these groups will form the backbone for a resistance movement in the future. That's one example among many I can think of, just from my own very limited experience, of how people are not giving up the struggle.

It may be all on a smaller and narrower plane, but the struggle keeps on keeping on.

RnB: Once you're in prison, does your political work end, or does "being a political prisoner" become your political work?

LW: No not at all. I'd have to say my political work consists basically of three areas: being a political prisoner, organizing and being part of the struggles for justice inside the prisons, and being part of the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The first one- being a political prisoner has many parts, including trying to break through the isolation of prison via correspondence and whatever phone calls or visits are possible. I try to contribute to the struggles in support of other political prisoners and POWs, like working on the art show and campaign to free Black political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal. I try to conduct myself in prison according to principles of revolutionary morality, and I try to draw, write, and whatever I can do to help people on the outside know who political prisoners and POWs are. Part of this, of course, involves explaining to other prisoners why I'm a political prisoner.

The second area has taken many forms for me, the simplest being individual aid like legal help to women trying to deal with their and their children's situation. A more complex aspect of this is being part of resistance inside whether as a member of an ongoing group representing prisoners' interests (which was possible for the year I was in Baltimore City jail) or through more clandestine organizing (like at the federal prison in Lexington, KY), where those who would plot and plan knew how to find one another. Organizing resistance in prison is like doing it any place else, only harder because of the extreme repression. The process that people go through to reach a point of willingness to resist is much the same. One of the happiest moments I've had in prison was when I was part of a resistance (a.k.a. riot) against racist cop brutality at Lexington. That act of rebellion joined by well over 100 women was like a momentary taste of freedom. Fighting injustices within the prison system involves : in particular, fighting racism from the staff and the institution but also among prisoners themselves. Working on and supporting Black History Month is an important part of this every year; it's always under attack.

Finally, AIDS work is something I've done ever since the years I spent in the DC jail, watching women die of AIDS-related infections while no one would even consider that women could get HIV I've been active in AIDS counseling and education groups at Lexington, Marianna and here at Pleasanton. This is not static work it involves all kinds of activism, confrontation, as well as education and support. Through this work, I've felt very connected to AIDS activists on the street, both to the individuals who have sent videos and literature and arranged for speakers and to the militants who have demonstrated against the government and given
people with AIDS (PWAS) in prison a sense of power, of not being alone. This work is one of the few places in prison where I can politicize being a lesbian, in a collective situation. Dealing with the issue of women and AIDS involves fighting genocide as well as racism and sexism. AIDS especially decimates third world communities, where women are infected at high rates. One of the most discouraging things I've seen about the progressive communities on the outside is the utter inattention by the white feminist movement or what still exists of such a movement to the issue of women and AIDS. It seems to me there should be a visible, ongoing battle against AIDS by the feminist movement but nothing like that is apparent in any of the feminist publications I see.

RnB: What do you think are the most urgent situations facing political prisoners in the U.S. today?

LW: The death penalty, control units, and the need for release: to free all political prisoners and prisoners of war.

The death penalty is an issue every progressive person needs to address and fight. Among political prisoners, Mumia's life is still in danger, and antipolice brutality organizer Ajamu Nasser was executed by the state of Indiana in December 1995. His codefendant, Ziyon Yisrayah, faces the death penalty as well [editors note: Yisrayah was executed in 1996]. I think the massive support for Mumia last summer shows that the potential exists to organize a campaign to stop the death penalty. It's such a fundamental human rights issue.

Control units are torture, and we have to be able to fight them. The goal of such units is to destroy the human personality and spirit. The maximum security unit in Florence, Colorado, sounds like a true nightmare, as is the one in Pelican Bay, California, and the growing number of state units, too. I see this as a life and death issue.

The extraordinary length of political prisoners' and POWs' sentences and the refusal of the government to release anyone has got to be fought. I'm one of the lucky few I'll be released in 1999, after serving fifteen years in prison on a twentythreeyear sentence. When I get out, I plan to work on a campaign for the release for political prisoners and prisoners of war, with an international and a domestic component. The sentences that political prisoners and prisoners of war have received amount to death sentences, because of our age and because of the stresses that prison puts on our health. Nearly every other country recognizes that it holds political prisoners, and many have been released. Look at all the RED ARMY FRACTION (RAF) prisoners who have been released in Germany. It's only the U.S. that doles out such huge sentences and then denies that we're political. I don't care how unreal anyone says this goal is we need to fight for and win the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of war. Many of the political prisoners and POWs in the U.S. have served at the very least twenty-five years. Most have served much more. We cannot accept being buried alive.

Finally, I think it needs saying that there are far too many prisoners of war and political prisoners who get no financial, personal, or political support, even from progressive people. It's extremely rough to be locked up without the funds to buy even basic hygiene things from commissary. Yet that is what a lot of POWs face. Comrades outside can contribute through a number of channels whether through the various organizations that represent Puerto Rican and New Afrikan prisoners or through the Anarchist Black Cross Federation's War Chest program.

RnB: What are your thoughts on the current political climate and on possible strategies for movement building?

LW: I've pretty much answered as much as I can of this in my responses to other questions. My view of the world outside is pieced together, though it's probably not much more inaccurate than the view some folks on the outside get, depending on their particular conditions. But I don't feel really confident about my ability to say much about a direction for "movement-building" work.

I do think that it's a little off to talk about building a movement. I think a movement gets built by massive response to concrete conditions, not by the urging of organizers. What I think organizers can do is to lay the basis for what may become a movement, by the steady raising of issues or by smaller projects of practice. The Mumia campaign is an example albeit an unusual one. A small number of dedicated people produced videos, articles, etc. about Mumia and made it possible for Mumia himself to have access to print and broadcast media for his writings. When the death order was signed, people in the U.S. and across the planet responded and the information was available. Then a variety of groups got built up to carry out the work and hopefully to continue it after the mass outcry died down following the stay.

It seems like projects dealing with racism, anti-immigration xenophobia, and the like are important at this time. When larger numbers of people respond to something, there needs to be an infrastructure to back the response up with. I think that this is especially true in a reactionary time like the present, when everyone is scrambling to survive and we know the tidal wave hasn't even hit yet.

As for armed struggle or even just creative militancy, I still think it has a role to play. It's especially necessary when there's a response to some particular outrage by the cops or any other arm of the state like the beating of Rodney King, for just one well-known example. But here, too, there needs to be some preparation, something available to be called on. That's why I think revolutionaries shouldn't be strictly reacting to current events all the time, or giving up various forms of struggle or even analyses and words because of the mood of the moment. An example here would be to stop talking about or organizing against imperialism because it's not "popularly recognized" at the moment. I don't think the lesson of our past is that we used too many forms of struggle, but rather that we misordered them, making armed struggle the primary one in the early 1980s, when it should have played a more minor role.

We used too few forms of struggle, as in not having seen the importance of the struggles in Central America. We failed to work in support of the mass demonstrations and other forms that the antiwar and anti-intervention movements took. I think it would be a serious mistake now to reach the opposite conclusion and renounce armed struggle and other more militant forms of struggle simply because this is a reactionary period.


Love for the people
means nonstop struggle against

David Gilbert, 10/97

David Gilbert
David Gilbert was a founding member of Columbia University Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and returned to Columbia three years later to be active in the 1968 student strike there. He is serving a seventy-five-year-to-life sentence on charges of participating, as an anti-racist ally of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), in a 1981 failed expropriation. David can be reached directly at # 83A6158, Attica Correctional Facility, Box 149, Attica, New York, 14011-0149

RnB: Over the past years that you've been in prison since 1981 many changes have taken place in the world and in our movements. When you made your decision to take militant action, there was a sense of worldwide revolution on the rise. Now, although there are many trends of protest and fight back, reaction appears to have consolidated. In this context, do you regret the sacrifice you made to fight against U.S. imperialism?

DG: I definitely hate being in prison and, especially, the burden that's placed on my loved ones. But I knew there were risks in going up against the power structure. The seventeen years in prison have only deepened my awareness of the totally antihuman nature of this social system. For example, with AIDS, prison administrators have generally displayed an inexcusable resistance to the peer education programs on prevention that could save many, many lives, and prisons have often acted with a heartless lack of care and support for prisoners with AIDS. And now I've experienced more directly how thoroughly racism and brutality are built into "criminal justice" in this country. There are about 1.5 million persons behind bars in the today. Without romanticizing the portion of crimes that prey upon the oppressed, the terrible rate and toll of incarceration is overwhelmingly the result of unjust racial and economic structures.

In terms of our case, there were certainly specific errors that I regret tactical errors and political errors, too. Maybe we can characterize them later in the interview. These mistakes led to heavy human costs on both sides, and they also constituted a setback in the struggle against injustice.

But in terms of the basic principles and the broad commitment to the struggle, I have no regrets. You see, I've always had this core feeling that people matter; that people of color, women, the poor, children, lesbian and gays are all my brothers and sisters; that my sense of myself is totally bound up in what happens to all of us. Once I saw how imperialism is such a relentless destroyer of human life and potential ... there really wasn't any other choice for me, no other way but to fight imperialism. On this level my only regret is not doing so more effectively.

RnB: You refer to "the system" and "imperialism." In current radical discourse, it is more common to talk of various systems of oppression. How do you define imperialism?

DG: Imperialism is built on and incorporates the structures of patriarchy and capitalism. And it is important whatever name we use to recognize the fullness of all modes of oppression: class exploitation, male supremacy and the related homophobia, white supremacy, and the host of other ways human beings are demeaned and limited.

But I think it all comes together in a more or less coherent social structure, with a range of sophisticated and brutal methods for a ruling class to maintain power. The value of the term "imperialism" is that it emphasizes the importance of a global system: the crucial polarization of wealth and power between a few rich and controlling "centers" (in Western Europe, the U.S., and Japan) and the impoverished "periphery" of the third world. The wealth of one pole is totally connected with the abject poverty of the other; the human and natural resources of the third world have been ruthlessly exploited to build up the developed economies. Thus, "imperialism" speaks most directly to the oppression of three-quarters of humankind.

That vantage point helps us see why third world struggles have been so central in the modern world. And there is the added resonance with the foundation of the U.S. on the internal colonization of Native Americans, New Afrikans (Blacks), Mexicano/as, and Puertoriceno/as. Those structures help to explain the depths of racism within this country and why that has so often corroded potentially radical movements among white people. "Imperialism" is a summary word meant both to include all those elements author bell hooks underscores with the phrase "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" and to emphasize the importance of solidarity with third world struggles.

RnB: Looking back over your own personal and political history, how did you first become politically aware and active? How and why did it lead you in an anti-imperialist direction?

DG: Growing up in a white middle-class suburb where health care, good education and economic security were pretty much guaranteed, I was a fervent believer in democracy and the myth that there was equal opportunity for all. That myth was exploded for me at the age of fifteen, with the 1960 Greensboro, NC, sit-in. Not only did the growing civil rights movement expose the disgusting racism and inequality, but it also served as an inspiring example because of its humane sense of purpose, its strong sense of community, and the hopefulness that it generated.

At this same time, I began to look critically at U.S. foreign policy and saw that quite contrary to "supporting democracy" the U.S. was systematically imposing ruthless dictators throughout the third world as guarantors of U.S. business interests. Guatemala and Iran were two salient examples from 1956. The CIA overthrew democratic governments to replace them with repressive regimes more favorable to extraction of the wealth by United Fruit and Gulf Oil, respectively.

When I went to college at Columbia University, the most important experience for me was the opportunity to work in Harlem. In addition to the starkness of oppression there, I was deeply moved by the vitality of the culture and the spirit of resistance. People in Harlem certainly had a much more profound analysis of the social system than the political science professors at Columbia! That's what transformed me from a left-liberal who wanted to "uplift" the oppressed (to be more like me), to a radical who saw that oppressed people could run their own community far better than any outsider. The oppressed had to become the arbiters of their own destiny; self-determination was the key for moving all social change forward.

This new appreciation of self-determination, along with my earlier study of foreign policy, enabled me to be an early opponent of blood-soaked U.S. intervention in Vietnam. In March 1965, I founded and was the first chairperson of the Columbia Independent Committee Against the War In Vietnam. That work led me to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), because I was looking for some group that combined antiwar work with antiracism, a belief in democracy, and at least a vague idea of socialism.

Organizing a successful demonstration or a teach-in was never my main goal. From the beginning, my concern was to find ways to keep building to the point where we could actually make a difference in overturning the injustices, toward changes that would actually affect people's lives. That impetus led me to search for a deeper analysis of the power structure we faced. In 1967, I wrote the first SDS pamphlet that defined the system as "U.S. imperialism," and that analysis was my threshold into the ensuing revolutionary period.

RnB: We hear all the time about people who were revolutionaries in the 1960s and who now have bought into white corporate America. What have been your experiences with this?

DG: There are, of course, those examples that the media have spotlighted. But most of the people that I know from the movements of the 1960s still try to find ways to implement the ideals of that period. Most are in human service areas like te