I just flew in yesterday from Cuba, a small island less than 100 miles (or 180 kilometers) from the shores of Florida, that is under constant siege by US imperialism. Foreign policy by the US and its Western colonial subservient states have tried in every way for the better half of the last century to destroy the island’s economy, to force starvation onto a people who live with revolution each day, to restrict the ability of Cubans to travel the world and to limit the ability of the world to travel to Cuba.
Over 600 known assassination attempts were made against Comandante Fidel Castro, all reveling in their ineffectiveness. Terrorist attacks on the island were funded and carried out by the CIA (ironic coming from the country which is so vehemently against “””terrorism”””), billions have been spent on propaganda aimed at stoking civil disruption, and their people have been held captive as political prisoners in the US.
And still, as I walk the streets of Matanzas, of Habana or Santiago, and local Cubans see the tattoo of Assata Shakur on my arm, many stop me to express excitement and appreciation.
In the courtyard of the Martin Luther King Center in Habana, a place where revolutionary groups from around the world hold conferences and ground with one another, flags, banners, and murals hang on each wall; the Venezuelan flag hangs next to a Bolivian indigenous WIPHALA flag, across from a large image memorializing slain Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres. These walls are always shifting and changing, with more flags and murals and images being added. This time one specific wall stood out to me: behind an iron statue of Martin Luther King was an image of Black revolutionary and political prisoner Assata Shakur, painted in vibrant colors, and beside her a Palestinian flag. On the other side of the Palestinian flag was a name now recognized internationally: Ahed Tamimi, Palestinian political prisoner turned icon of the struggle.
Despite the constant barrage of violence, economic devastation, anti-communist propaganda and cultural disruption, imperialism has attempted to force onto Cuba, they still continually find the political energy to practice solidarity with political prisoners of imperialism globally. Moreover, they specifically uplift political prisoners facing the blunt force of a global capitalist, imperialist prison apparatus.
This is most intriguing to me, because there are icons of the struggles against racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism who are not political prisoners that they could equally uplift, and they often do, but why do so many globally gravitate to the political prisoner? What is in the composition of “political prisoner” as we know it that warrants such strong emotion? And as abolitionists, people struggling for a world free of the capitalist, white supremacist conception of prisons which toxicly exists today, what does the strong symbolism of political prisoners mean for our movements?
Across social media in 2018, the name Ahed Tamimi rang EXTREMELY loudly across social media and news headlines, and in many ways she became an international face for the movement to free Palestinian political prisoners and to free Palestine from the throngs of Israeli domination altogether. Tamimi, the young activist who spent her 17th birthday in an Israeli prison, was incarcerated in December of 2017, inspiring a series of protests and demonstrations both in Palestine and around the world.
During her incarceration, video footage leaked showing Israeli interrogators attempting to use wildly inappropriate conduct to coerce a confession from Tamimi, with Ahed’s lawyer filing a complaint of “inappropriate conduct” including sexual harassment. She was continually interrogated, sometimes as long as 12 hours a day, denied access to meals, and underwent horrid conditions until she was essentially forced into a plea bargain. She was eventually released in July 2018.
This story, while heartbreaking and illuminating, also reminds me of another name: Kalief Browder. Kalief was a Black man from the Bronx, NY, arrested and held in Riker’s Island prison without trial for over 2 years because he was unable to make bail. For two years Kalief was held in solitary confinement for most of his time incarcerated, a practice which virtually all studies designate as torture, and each day interrogators tried to force him to confess to a crime he did not commit and enter into a plea deal. Finally, in 2013, after two years of solitary confinement, physical and mental abuse, and denied access to human rights, Kalief was released. Two years later at the age of 22, he took his own life.
The task of those who care, and especially those who claim the name “prison abolitionist”, is to see both of these individuals as political prisoners, and to understand both instances of carceral violence as the ultimate price of our current imperialist-dominated world. The same mechanisms of racialization, colonial violence, and US-funded violence which sought to imprison Kalief were the same mechanisms ultimately responsible for the incarceration of Ahed Tamimi, and the countless others whose names we may never know.
To understand this as prison abolitionists is to understand prison abolition as an internationalist and decolonial struggle. We first have to understand the colonial connection to prisons. In many places, especially across the African continent and in the precolonial communities of Native America and South America, the prison structure as we know it today did not exist. Other modes of punishment, accountability, and reformation widely existed before the era marred by Western colonial domination, and the notion that we have of “prisons” today was ill conceived at best.
The expansion of the global colonial apparatus and of the Transatlantic Slave Trade meant the necessary expansion of the concept of a prison. In Guyana, for example, where there is currently an imperialist-driven internal crisis taking place, over a dozen jails were built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the British colonizers. The two oldest prisons in the country, New Amsterdam and Georgetown prisons, were built by the Dutch during their occupation of Guyana, and these prisons were later expanded as there was a growing need for spaces to punish enslaved Africans and other colonial subjects.
Brutal measures of violence were used in these prisons, functioning as a space not just of punishment but of the utmost dehumanization. This is not just the story of prisons in Guyana, but of prisons in Haiti, in Senegal and Nigeria, in Jamaica, and in most places where colonialism and chattel slavery showed their ugly faces.
In January of this year I traveled to Mississippi, a state in the Southern US where many miles of buildings, homes, businesses, malls, restaurants, farmlands still sit vacant and devastated from Hurricane Katrina 15 years later. Hours away from any cities, in a small town called Parchman sits a large prison known as the Parchman Farm. So far, since the beginning of 2020, as of today, over 27 people incarcerated at this facility have died.
In investigating this prison I had the task of learning its history: Initially a slave plantation named Parchman Plantation, white supremacist governor James Vardaman advocated turning the plantation and convict lease model into a prison model. He believed that the state lost money, because private entities such as plantations primarily profited from the convict lease system, and that a prison was an effective method of both punishment and profit.
Vardaman’s campaign to open Parchman prison was successful, and upon opening the prison unspeakable horrors took place. One fact that sticks in my mind is that he’d release one prisoner every few months or weeks on the prison grounds and let them try to escape, to hunt them with bloodhounds for fun. For Vardaman, as it was for colonizers in many other places, as is the case for Palestine and the current condition of Black America, the prison system was vital for instilling control, domination, and deepening a settler-colonial class system.
Israel, like the US, is necessarily a prison state for the maintenance of its existence. Without the structure of the prisons and jails, the checkpoints, the constant surveillance, and the dominant ideology of punishment looming in the air, the strength of the settler-colonial project would continually and tirelessly be forced into submission by the spirit of Palestinian resistance. The prison apparatus exists to crush the political imagination, to place bars around thoughts of potentiality, to constantly create series of containment and limitations of movement onto revolutionary potential.
Again, for us as prison abolitionists, those who envision an end to an imperialist world of carceral, punitive, and punishment measures, we can only properly do the work which we must do when we see these struggles as congruent and inter-connected. When we understand the same struggle against the settler prison, which must be waged in Guyana, must also be waged in Palestine and at Riker’s island, then our analysis will allow for global solidarity in new and profound ways.
Of course, with this vast global imperialist prison apparatus comes the creation of an aberration, a haunt, a ghoul lurking in the sights of the capitalists: the political prisoner. What remains clear is that political prisoners, who exist simultaneously as victims of oppression and heroes against it, resonate internationally and are yet another key linkage between the movement for Palestinians and others. It is no coincidence that many of the biggest non-Palestinian voices of solidarity with Palestine are themselves former political prisoners, as well as prison abolitionists.
Former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, arguably one of the most well-known political prisoners in the world, has repeatedly stressed the importance of the Palestinian struggle. In 2013, as part of Mumia’s Prison Radio recordings, he referred to the state of occupied Palestine as “open-air prison ghettoes,” a statement which has been iterated by multiple intellectuals, activists, and writers who have referred to Palestine as the world’s “largest open-air prison.”
Mumia often refers to Palestinian life under an occupied “stateless state,” as a kind of living carcerality, or the condition of incarceration becoming socially and spatially normalized where the “incarcerated” are no longer necessarily behind bars, but daily incarcerated by conditions. “Welcome to the Israeli occupation,” Mumia once said, “blessed by the U.S. government as its Imperial outpost. Where the lives of Palestinians are broken into thousands of pieces daily, where everything, from olive trees to water sources, everything but the Sun itself, is locked up, barred, caged from the people of Palestine.”
Former political prisoners and South African anti-Apartheid activists Winnie Mandela-Madikizela and Nelson Mandela, while alive, both gave unwavering support and solidarity to the Palestinian people. Winnie recently passed at age 81. She spent 491 days incarcerated in solitary confinement in 1969 and was known to be a “staunch supporter” of the BDS movement. Winnie often met with and supported local Palestinian solidarity groups in South Africa, and in 2004 stated, “Apartheid Israel can be defeated, just as apartheid in South Africa was defeated.”
The creation of the “political prisoner” has always been a double-edged sword to the oppressor who relies on the “imprisonment of militants and subversion of political leader,” as Mumia Abu-Jamal put it, to dampen movements, but in the process inevitably and unexpectedly create other movements in the process. The oppressor, in this case Israel, creates an unjust incarceration which can be transformed into a rallying cry for justice, and allows for the symbolism, struggles, and voice of the incarcerated to be amplified. And this amplification of the voices of the unjustly incarcerated may be one of the deepest resonating voices worldwide.
In a 1971 letter written from Marin County Jail, Angela Davis illuminates the notion that in a system of white supremacist capitalism and colonialism, all colonized people who are incarcerated may be seen as political prisoners, having been convicted and/or detained in a system which is foundationally, politically immoral. For Palestinians, the legitimacy of the Israeli court system, including its apparatus of policing and surveillance, rests on their own demise. Similarly, the legitimacy of the court system in the U.S. rests on the demise and exploitation of Black and Indigenous peoples. In other words, an illegally and violently founded settler court system will always be in opposition to the colonized body, and thus political prisoners will always be in existence so long as the colonial court and prison system exists.
If Palestine is the world’s largest open-air prison, as Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others have described it, and as Davis illustrates, all incarcerated Palestinians in Israeli prisons may be seen as political prisoners, then Palestinian life under occupation may be understood as a constant state of carcerality. In the U.S., where we face a mass incarceration system and occupying, militarized police force which engages in mass injustice against Black people, Blackness may also be seen as a constant being of carcerality, at least at every point where it intersects with the state. Thus, the connection is forged between the Palestinian and Black political prisoners, who become the embodiment of not only this unjust and illegitimate incarceration, but of its destruction as well.
The political prisoner becomes the ultimate international rallying cry for justice. We hold closely to these figures, and to the incarcerated, not because they are necessarily lionized but because they represent an integral key in breeding international, intercommunal solidarity.
[This speech was edited into article format]
Dev Springer is an Atlanta-based cultural worker, host of the Groundings podcast, and a volunteer for the Walter Rodney Foundation Dev’s work typically focuses on race, class, organizing, prisons, and art. Dev’s main forms are essays, photography, poetry, and audio in the form of podcasts. You can see their public writing at devynspringer.journoportfolio.com, or check out Dev’s artwork at halfatlanta.com.