I attended the 24th Annual Dinner Tribute to the Families of Political Prisoners in New York City on Saturday, August 23. Sponsored by the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee and the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party, the program featured education, cultural presentations, and support and appreciation for the families of US political prisoners. The funds raised went to a commissary fund for political prisoners.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, Chelsea Manning, and Leonard Peltier are perhaps the best known political prisoners in the US. But hundreds of political prisoners are incarcerated in US prisons from the freedom movements of African Americans, American Indians, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinx groups, from the peace and environmental movements, and from government whistleblowers.

Among the most recent political prisoners are five American Indian water protectors who were resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline for fracked-oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. The encampments and nonviolent blockade of the pipeline route were held on Standing Rock Indian Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota.

A report by the Alliance for Global Justice provides an overview of the extent and cruelty of political repression and imprisonment in the US. I particularly appreciated the presentation by Dr. Joseph Harris, who dropped out of high school to join the Black Panther Party as a teenager like one of his age cohorts and a patient of his today, Mumia Abu-Jamal. After years deeply involved in the revolutionary movement, he got is GED and then went to public colleges in New York City to get his medical degree. He considers his greatest medical accomplishment to be diagnosing Mumia Abu-Jamal with Hepatitis C. This diagnosis was used in Abu-Jamal’s winning case that ruled that the failure to treat incarcerated individuals affected by Hepatitis C was a violation of the Eighth Amendment provision against cruel and unusual punishment.

Dr. Harris was being honored at the dinner and used his opportunity to speak to say that for many of these political prisoners who have been incarcerated for decades, it is time to release them on the grounds of simple human decency. He said he believes Mumia was framed because he reported as a journalist on Philadelphia police misconduct that destroyed the MOVE community in Philadelphia. But Harris said, at this point, it is not even a political question anymore. Whatever happened on that corner in 1981, Mumia– and many of these political prisoners who have served for decades – should be released now on humanitarian grounds.

The US already imposed longer sentences than most other countries for similar crimes. A strong case can be made for capping prison sentences at 20 years without risk to public safety. Norway caps prison sentences at 21 years. Research shows that there is no deterrent effect from extra long sentences. When it comes to political prisoners, sentences tend to be maximized and parole denied strictly for political reasons.

People like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal who have been imprisoned for decades should be pardoned now. So should Chelsea Manning, who is currently imprisoned again and being fined $1,000 a day for refusing to testify to a grand jury about leaking government documents for which she already served seven years of a 35-year sentence until it was commuted by President Obama.

Veterans of the Corona, Queens Black Panther Party discuss their history.

The dinner was held in the auditorium of the Langston Hughes Community Library & Cultural Center, a center that was won by the Black Panther Party in 1969. Located in Corona, Queens, a black community then known as Little Harlem, veterans of that Black Panther Party described for us how they demanded stoplights along Northern Boulevard, which they described as a raceway where several children and
elderly people has been struck and killed by speeding motorists. That recalled for me how the first Panther chapter in North Oakland, California started directing traffic in 1967 after the city refused to install a stoplight at the corner of an elementary schools where schoolchildren had been killed by speeding traffic. The Panthers got their stoplights from the city despite harassment by the Oakland police who the Panthers had showed up. That led to the Panther demand for community control of the police. In Corona, the Panther fight over the stoplights was followed up with more demands on the city that led to the creation of the Langston Hughes center.

Ngoma Hill, an amazing performance poet, multi-instrumentalist, and singer/songwriter, presented a memorable mix of poetry, song, and fiddling and flute playing. He wrapped up with a version of his poem, The Real Black Panthers Ain’t in Wakanda.

Howie Hawkins 2020

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