Newly elected Chilean president Gabriel Boric’s victory speech was interrupted by a chant that went through the crowd: “We’re not all here.” This has become a slogan for many of the last vestiges of the 2019 Chilean uprising, a reference to the protesters who currently sit in cells, either awaiting trial or serving sentences for protesting the government. These political prisoners must be freed. What is left of the movement understands that, and they are demanding that Boric take action to free them — something he appears very hesitant to do.
This slogan is powerful because it reminds everyone who hears it that there are still political prisoners who have not been freed — and cops and government officials who have not been held accountable for their brutality. The slogan highlights the absence of their comrades still in jail for protesting injustice. Until they are freed, the movement isn’t as full as it should be. The movement isn’t all here, and those who are here have committed to fighting for those who aren’t.
In 2022, activists in the United States should join our Chilean comrades and take up the struggle to free political prisoners as a central struggle of any social movement. This year will mark the second anniversary of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, meaning the second anniversary of activists sitting in prison cells on trumped-up charges. Not only is it a profound injustice that the state-backed killers of Black children walk free while those who dared to protest those killers sit in jail, but it also cripples the movement and puts the state in a better position to repress it going forward. We must fight to free not just the political prisoners of BLM but all other political prisoners who have been imprisoned for years.
The Stick, The Carrot, The Stick Again
At Left Voice, we often refer to the Democratic Party as the graveyard of social movements. For the purposes of this article, it might be helpful to go into how that process takes place in order to highlight the devastating impact that imprisoning activists can have on the movement.
When a social movement erupts, it is typically in direct response to some example of political injustice. A cop murdered someone, an unjust law was passed, elected leaders betrayed their promises, etc. When these movements erupt, however, they can often take on a life of their own and grow beyond the initial incident. To put this in more concrete terms, the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020 may have been awakened by George Floyd’s murder but, relatively quickly, it became about much more than just one act of racist police violence. Indeed, toward the end of the uprising, elements of the movement were calling to abolish the police altogether, and (in certain sectors of the vanguard) some activists were even calling for the end of capitalism. The movement began to spread across the world as thousands rose up in protest of police brutality and racism in their home countries. This is the moment the bourgeoisie fears: when the movement takes on a more combative character against the system itself. It is this change of character that capital and its government representatives want most to stop.
When it comes to getting movements out of the streets, the most valuable asset for the capitalists is the Democratic Party. The Democrats bring with them the leaderships of NGOs, unions, and many social movements, as well as much of the corporate media intelligentsia. By holding a hegemonic role amongst these bureaucracies, the Democrats are able to act both from within and from outside of the movement to demobilize it.
The Republican Party, by contrast, typically exists outside the movement and so has fewer resources at their disposal to demobilize it. This leads to the Republicans taking an explicitly combative approach to most social movements, often characterized by escalated repressive tactics (e.g. Trump attempting to deploy the military on BLM) and more resistance to offering up concessions. On the one hand, this is a reflection of the Republican Party’s base: typically the more conservative sectors who are looking for a “tougher” approach to social unrest. On the other hand, this more repressive approach serves a strategic purpose for the bourgeoisie; it allows the Democrats to act as “middlemen” between the movement and the boogeymen of the Republican Party — even as Democratic Party leaders are actively joining the Republicans in their repression.
BLM is an example of this strategy in action. When the movement first rose up, Democrats in city and state leadership were brutal and unrelenting in the violence they unleashed onto the streets. The hope here was clear: to make the streets dangerous enough that people would be scared off of them. At this point in the movement, Democratic politicians were defending police repression by talking about “outside agitators” and other tall tales. The goal here was to drive a wedge between the vanguard leading the movement and their more moderate supporters — who, as is typical for movements, made up the majority of the movement in numbers. However, when this tactic was not immediately successful, many representatives of the Democratic Party began to intervene rhetorically, painting themselves as allies of the movement while Trump played the part of its violent opponent.
From Nancy Pelosi and others dressing in Kente cloth and kneeling to Joe Biden saying “Black Lives Matter” at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), the Democrats tried to cast themselves as allies of BLM. Despite the fact that Democrats were the ones giving the orders to beat, gas, blind, and jail people, they used Trump as a boogeyman in order to paint themselves as our allies. Former President Barack Obama, in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2020, said it as explicitly as anyone:
To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better — in so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it’s a given — a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions. You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed. That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election.
In this speech, we can see how the Democrats and Republicans — as the two biggest parties of capital — essentially work in harmony to offer the movement the false choice between the carrot and the stick, all in an attempt to contain the movement so that it doesn’t build the force to win more sweeping concessions.
In 2020, as is often the case, once the Democrats were able to use the specter of the Republicans to drive the movement to the ballot box, the elements of the movement that remained on the streets were met with an even harder stick. The vanguard who remained active were beaten and imprisoned, doxxed and harassed, and charged with all varieties of trumped-up charges — a harsh “law and order” response that served to invigorate Trump’s base heading into the election. This all sent a very clear message to the movement: if you don’t fall in line, you get the stick and there will be no one left to defend you. The state wants you to know that this is what awaits you if you continue to protest.
The purpose of jailing political prisoners is not just to punish the vanguard but to send a message to social movements to come: pack it up when we tell you to or face the consequences.
Political Prisoners: As American as Apple Pie
Of course, political prisoners are not unique to the 2020 BLM movement. Many Black Panthers are still in prison — and dying there. In an interview with Julia Wallace of Left Voice, Black Panther elder Arthur League said:
People standing against police extrajudicial murder have in this country have been targets of police, the courts, and the right-wing nuts. If people don’t call for the release of political prisoners from the past, who will be there for you when they come for you guys? What you are standing up to is what our political prisoners stood up to. Do you really think they will forgive and forget your taking a stand?
League’s words should haunt all of us who consider ourselves committed to winning a better world. If we do not stand up for the current political prisoners, who will be there when they come for us?
Of course, it isn’t just Black Panthers who rot in this country’s capitalist prisons. Native activists, anti-war protesters, and government whistleblowers also are serving years-long sentences — all for the crime of daring to resist the state. The list of political prisoners in the United States is long and tragic.
Other famous political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black Panther who has been held mostly in solitary confinement for decades, and Leonard Peltier, a Native activist and the United States’ longest serving political prisoner, often receive calls for their freedom from activists and celebrities alike. To build the movement, however, it is important that we do not take only an individualized approach. We must call for the freedom of all political prisoners.
To summarize the American strategy, the state seizes a portion of the vanguard of every combative social movement to become political prisoners. Black Panthers, Native activists, anti-war protesters, water protectors, immigrant rights activists, and the opponents of police violence all sit in prison for the crime of daring to fight for liberation.
BLM activists still face harsh charges for protesting in 2020. The city council of Detroit voted to use tax-payer money to fund a bizarre conspiracy charge against local activist group Detroit Will Breathe. New York City activists and lawyers Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman face ten years in prison after taking a plea deal and ANTIFA activist Dan Baker was sentenced to three years in prison for internet posts and a flyer. Many more activists are still awaiting trial for their role in BLM.
Meanwhile, the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor in her own home walk free, as does white supremacist murderer Kyle Rittenhouse. To put it bluntly: there is no justice for the victims or protesters of state violence in a racist and unjust system. We cannot trust the system to protect us. We will not win the freedom of political prisoners by asking nicely. We will only do so by building a mass movement to demand their freedom. Only a force strong enough to force the state’s hand will free our imprisoned comrades.
Imprisoning political dissidents is a key tool of the state to maintain its hegemony. This strategy is intended to intimidate us, to isolate us from our elders, to break our movements. For this reason, the fight for the release of political prisoners is central to the future of radical movements — from Chile to the United States.
We’re Not All Here
We’re not all here. And our movement is weaker because of it. Our power to confront the state is compromised because members of our movement sit in prison. If we do not fight to free political prisoners, we are telling our comrades that we won’t fight for them if they are repressed, that if they are arrested then they are on their own. These are activists and protesters who took the streets as part of a movement. They need a movement to defend them.
The fight to free political prisoners is a fight against state repression. It is a fight for justice for our comrades. And it is a fight for the future of our movement.
As workers, we must use our unique power to agitate for the pardon and freedom of all political prisoners. This means fighting in our workplaces, organizing work stoppages and strikes, and demanding that our union leaderships take up this fight and not bend to the Democrats. We must also begin organizing a combative movement on the streets with mass protests, marches, and occupations.
It also means putting specific pressure on the Democrats. Biden has unilateral power to pardon all political prisoners. We must demand that he use it. We must also demand that Congress pass protections for protesters — national laws to specifically counteract the criminalization of protests we are seeing at the local level.
As we head into the 2022 midterms, we can expect that, once again, the Democrats will use the boogeyman of the Republicans to counter any of our demands: “Well, do you really think the Republicans would be more friendly to the movement than the Democrats?” This line is a ploy to contain the movement and we must reject it. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are our allies. We should have no illusions in the Democrats, as they have shown us who they are and what they value for decades. They won’t free political prisoners out of the goodness of their hearts; they will only do so out of fear of a movement on their doorstep. That is how we win reforms: not by playing by the rules of a rigged game and refusing to disrupt capital, but by taking to the streets.
Our comrades are facing decades in jail. Now is the time to be disruptive to capitalism.
We’re not all here. Let the capitalists and their politicians know no peace until we are.