Imprisonment in this country means “systematic torture, endemic corruption, pervasive racial and class bias, the failure of the war on drugs, and the massive economic and social devastation it wreaks upon entire communities,” in the words of Black Agenda Report managing editor Bruce A. Dixon, writing on July 20.
Imprisonment can be a collection of abstractions to someone who hasn’t spent time incarcerated, but a new memoir describes the day-to-day, and sometimes minute-by-minute, existence of the incarcerated: Marshall “Eddie” Conway and Dominique Stevenson, Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther (Oakland: AK Press, 2011).
Conway asks, “[W]hat is life for the individual confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell?” That question applies to the 2.3 million Americans locked away in prisons. As Rania Khalek pointed out on AlterNet, African Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population but 40 percent of U.S. prisoners.
According to Bureau of Justice statistics, “[B]lack males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males, and black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females,” noted Khalek.
Like Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is well known, Conway is a political prisoner, a Black Panther framed for a murder he didn’t commit because of his political ideas and activities. Conway received a sentence of life plus 30 years. (Abu-Jamal received the death penalty.)
Born in Baltimore in 1946, Conway grew up in an impoverished African-American community. As a child he gradually became aware of racism in the schools and in the street.
Conway joined the army before he was 21. There he found himself and another black private doing the dirtiest details and spoke out about it. He was perplexed and outraged when he saw a newspaper photograph of an African-America soldier pointing his gun at a group of unarmed, protesting African-American women. “I didn’t yet know,” he says, “that this show of force was actually typical of the government’s response to nonconformity on the part of people of color.”
"In my opinion, it’s the job of everyone who expresses concern for their people to teach as many of their community members as possible."
When he returned to Baltimore, Conway joined the local, nascent branch of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). “The organization’s philosophy declared racism, capitalism and the U.S. government enemies of the African American community,” Conway said. That stance the FBI saw as a threat to the status quo.
As part of COINTELPRO (its Counterintelligence Program), the FBI attempted to crush the BPP. It stopped at nothing. It planted informers, defamed BPP members, spread false rumors about internal conflicts in the party, and committed arson and murder (for instance, the murder of Chicago BPP leader Fred Hampton while he slept). As with Conway, other BPP leaders around the country were arrested for trumped-up murder charges.
The agency even attacked the BPP’s breakfast program for poor children by planting a coloring book attributed to the Panthers that advocated killing police officers.
However, “Resistance,” Conway said, “is a natural response to oppression, and the story of people of African descent in the western hemisphere is one of rebellion and broken shackles.”
In his 30 years of prison life Conway lived in several prisons and spent some time in solitary confinement. A commitment to the liberation of people of color, especially prisoners, became his life’s work.
The prison administrations were hostile to the prisoners’ needs, yet the prisoners persisted and organized to improve their lives. Conway and other inmates, for example, organized educational activities, including a series of seminars that brought speakers to the prison from outside the prison walls.
The first major seminar was a success. “The planning and coordinating was done by a small group of politically conscious prisoners working closely with a very progressive librarian, and with outside community supporters who also came from a progressive background,” Conway wrote. Over 150 people attended the seminar. Besides lectures the four-day-long program consisted of workshops on matters of serious interest to the prisoners – the development of newspaper and radio and TV stations by the prisoners and programs for their betterment.
“One of the most important things that came out of that seminar,” Conway writes, “was a lasting network of media and communications experts who continue to support us in our efforts to develop progressive media and outreach programs.”
"Imprisonment does not end life; it simply makes it more difficult."
It was tough going. “The more we organized, the more the officials tried to disrupt our efforts.” At that time, prison organizing “was out of fashion and no longer the thing to do in law-and-order America. The left was losing the ability to organize support for radical issues, and the community at large was starting to feel the impact of the massive FBI misinformation program about prisoners and radical groups. Being very supportive of prisoners’ groups was a risky business at that time in America. … The positive things we were doing were receiving no exposure at all” in the outside world.
Conway and his fellow prisoners found illiteracy to be a serious problem in the prison population and started working to eliminate it. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “it’s the job of everyone who expresses concern for their people to teach as many of their community members as possible.”
“To me,” he also wrote, “it seems that repressive political systems control the flow and development of most organizations by controlling who can do what, where, and how in these organizations. Therefore, the task of the activist is to aid in the development of a cadre among the oppressed people, who will work in their interest and for their goals.”
“Imprisonment does not end life; it simply makes it more difficult,” Conway observed. For him it meant his absence when his son was growing up and the collapse of his marriage.
Conway told a compelling story about the challenges of survival and of living as a revolutionary behind bars. Despite his time-consuming prison organizing, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while in prison. Yet he never lost sight of his goal, working for progressive change with his fellows.
Linda Greene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.