While growing up in Newark, New Jersey, I always heard of the stories about the riots, the grassroot movements, and life in the aftermath of the 1960s and 70s. However, I was a young kid who only cared about getting high, gang banging, and wanting to be recognized as being big and bad. Well I got recognized alright, but for the wrong reasons. In 1999, at the age of 20 years old, I was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In the first few years in prison I was still acting a fool, still trying to be recognized as big and bad. But it wasn't til 2005 when that revolutionary spark first ignited in my mind. It all started when I went to solitary confinement for a fight I was involved with. While in solitary confinement I didn't have nothing to read or anything to keep my mind occupied. So I spent hours at a time just standing at the door yelling and cursing out the pigs as they went by for their counts. Anyway, I guess my next door neighbor got tired of listening to me yelling, so he knocked on my wall and ask if I needed a book to read. So I said, "yeah, sure why not." He passed me a book called Assata by Assata Shakur. Before this I never knew who she was or even read the book, but being that I had nothing better to do while in solitary I read it.
While reading the book, flipping through page after page, Assata's story spoke to me. I felt and recognized her struggle. Within two days I finished the book and now it was me knocking on my neighbor's wall, wanting more to read. My neighbor was an older brother, and throughout the year I spend in solitary he kept feeding me books such as Blood in My Eye, Soul on Ice, and other great books. My neighbor was a firm believer in the ideology of the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panthers. Being a Latino myself, he also taught me about people and groups such as Che Guevara and the Young Lords Party. Now, instead of yelling on the gate for hours on end, my neighbor and I would spend hours talking to each other, building and helping me become more conscious of myself. He helped me realize that me wanting to be known as big and bad was just that egotistical force for recognition, which will one day lead me into a brick wall.
After my sanction in solitary confinement was complete, I continued my studies while on mainline. I read up on people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Tse-tung, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Marx and many others. Gang banging wasn't even on my radar. That one spark became a single flame, changing the way I think, the way I talk, and the way I conducted myself. Throughout the years since then, that flame is now a hungry fire inside of me, like the heat of earth on fire. My sole mission is to help educate those oppressed about their political and social conditions that we live under! Because as my neighbor taught me so long ago, "Each one teaches one!" Power to the people!
Recently I was transferred here to SCI Chester and was shocked at the difference in the prisoners here compared to my comrades at SCI Greene, SCI Pittsburgh, and SCI Somerset. This facility is very different. A program was incorporated here called welfare to work which allowed many welfare recipients from the surrounding area to be hired at this prison. Now I'm all for giving the underprivileged opportunities but this prison is so "Ratchet" now it's ridiculous. Staff does not do their jobs here. Grievances are ignored, campaigns challenged, and anyone who speaks out is locked down for "inciting a riot" and promptly transferred. With mostly short-term prisoners at this "program prison" prisoners are afraid to fight for their rights out of fear for negative marks on their record for parole.
I've been putting in non-stop paperwork since arriving and all I've accomplished is gaining the ire of my unit manager and other staff. I have even been threatened. I have succeeded in starting an anti-imperialist study group but am persecuted for it. My unit manager lies and makes up reasons to put me on "cell restrictions" so I can't hold group. But I keep pushing and have gotten some other prisoners to start standing up for themselves. But none of our paperwork is being addressed. 90% of the time we receive no response whatsoever.
I have no idea how they get away with it. You would think these staff members who were underprivileged and grew up in the streets like we did would be more sympathetic to our plights but instead they go on power trips and neglect most of their duties. These types of people are why we can't make classless society work. It seems all our efforts here are in vain. We are sending out a call for help; any assistance or advice will be greatly appreciated. Spirits seem broken here at SCI Chester and comrades are dropping out of the struggle and though it is dissuading I will not quit. I will remain constantly a soldier on the front lines of this war. But I'm calling for backup.
MIM(Prisons) responds: While this writer sees the Welfare to Work program at SCI Chester as the cause of repression, many prisons without this program have similar conditions. We can't speak to the effects of this program specifically, but more generally we know that many prisons are built in communities where job opportunities are limited. And that people generally don't take jobs as prison guards out of a desire to help people; just as with most capitalist jobs, people are working for the money.
More generally this writer's letter raises the question of why so many people working in prison perpetuate oppression rather than being kind and helpful to prisoners. There is evidence that oppressing people is not an inherent characteristic of humyns. Instead, this is a result of the economics of capitalism and our capitalist culture. First there is the economic side of things: the vast majority of people in this imperialist country are getting paid more than the value of their labor. They are basically being bought as supporters of imperialism. So when they get paid well to work in an institution that is based in social control and torture of other humyns, they're ok doing it because that's part of supporting capitalism.
Second we have capitalist culture which trains people to be ok with harming others and exerting power over others. There have been studies that show that even random people put in a situation where someone in charge tells them to hurt another persyn, most will do it because they're told to. Most famously in the United $tates there was the Stanford Prison Experiment back in 1971.
But there also has been huge social experiments such as the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and 70s which showed that even people who formerly were oppressors with great power can be re-educated and become peaceful productive members of society. It's not easy, and we won't win on the re-education front on a mass scale until we have the power to implement a cultural revolution to eradicate a system that values and glorifies power and oppression.
Rather than despair and say that these guards are why we can't make classless society work, we say these guards are exactly why we need socialism and a dictatorship of the proletariat. Clearly we have a lot of work to do to re-train and re-educate people so that they respect all humyns and act kindly towards others. We need a system that is set up to serve the oppressed and forcibly stop those who want power for themselves for persynal gain. The system of socialism will require a long period of cultural revolution, where we transform our culture into one that values humyn life and teaches people to treat others equally rather than valuing power and wealth at any cost to others. It will be a long struggle to reach a society where there is no class, nation or gender oppression. But it is the only path to survival for humynity.
The September 9th Day of Peace and Solidarity is an opportunity for prisoners to commemorate the anniversary of the Attica uprising and draw attention to abuse of prisoners across the country. This event was initiated in 2012 by a prisoner organization and has been taken up as an annual United Front for Peace in Prisons (UFPP) event, with people participating in prisons across the country.
We can not effectively fight the oppressors if we don't have unity among the oppressed. And that unity behind bars needs to start with peace and solidarity. This is why activists spend the 24 hours on September 9 promoting peace and education. We call for a full halt on all hostilities and engagements, whether between lumpen organizations or individuals. All participants should use the day to educate and build peace. In some places prisoners will observe a 24-hour fast. In others there will be group classes to study and discuss political history and current events. Figure out what you will do and get started organizing people today.
We use September 9 to build on the UFPP principle of Peace: "WE organize to end the needless conflicts and violence within the U.$. prison environment. The oppressors use divide and conquer strategies so that we fight each other instead of them. We will stand together and defend ourselves from oppression." This is a critical step in building a united front among prisoner organizations and individuals committed to the anti-imperialist movement. We do not need to agree on every political question, but we must come together united around core principles to build and succeed together. For those who are engaging others to participate, the unity building starts well before September 9. It is a long process of education and organizing to build the anti-imperialist movement.
This 24 hour action will require a little sacrifice, but should incur no harm, and should lead to a reduction in violence as all prisoner-on-prisoner hostilities cease for the day. We can build greater awareness of the oppression against which we fight, and build the unity that is necessary for that battle, by organizing groups and individuals to participate. Comrades organizing around the solidarity demo are encouraged to send their plans or reports to Under Lock & Key. To be included in ULK 64, your reports must be in our mailbox by Monday September 17.
In this article we print letters from our imprisoned comrades across the country, which explain their recruiting methods. Our comrades do a great job of learning from their mistakes and turning what could be a negative challenge to our struggle (such as splitting up the study group) into something that makes us even stronger (spreading the fire). We have to expect repression from the pigs, and it will only get worse as we get stronger. We need to roll with it and turn it into an advantage for us.
We trust through your reading of the submissions below that you can pull out lessons for your own organizing. We were warned against sharing this info in ULK because our newsletter passes through the hands of the pigs. But most of the lessons below are about mindset and conversational approach, which the pigs can't touch.
Some comrades give examples of things that haven't worked, and we are sharing these as examples because surely other people are trying the same tactics and facing the same challenges. If it's not working, try something else.
We encourage readers to go through this issue of ULK for ideas, switch up what you're doing, and write in to MIM(Prisons) to tell us how it went.
A Nebraska prisoner: It is surely a challenge to get study groups started when they move us around in seg, but we have found it also helps to spread the spark of that fire that is a need for something better.
Over the years it's been easier to open dialogue with new people and show people the benefit and truth of communism/socialism, even anarchism. Different individuals seem to have different feelings about parties from their various background, and knowing the three are closely related helps find a common foothold when bringing individuals into the fold so to speak, and shine the light about the failure of capitalism.
Knowledge is power in any debate when you're trying to convince someone to reconsider the truths of their ideals, especially when they have failed to really dissect their own ideals and just have been going with the flow. It is interesting indeed.
A Michigan prisoner: An important lesson I've learned from politicking with brothers held captive here with me is that if you speak truth to them, you find that they come over to your side. Because, 9 times out of 10, their direct experiences usually match up with what it is that you're saying. So what I'm saying, what I'm speaking here, is the absolute truth. If organizers are looking for explanations for why their organizing techniques aren't working, they should look in the mirror. In our line of work it's what we do, or don't do, that is decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, we can't simply apply organizing techniques dogmatically to any situation without doing an analysis based in dialectical materialism to try and understand the dynamics of the situation and, therefore, try to employ our techniques in a way which is going to have the most likelihood of success. Second, organizers cannot expect lumpen who are not familiar with political work to automatically engage in struggle if we do not put forth the necessary effort to teach them how to struggle. Our job as organizers is to organize and educate the lumpen in the lessons of political struggle, as well as inspire them to take matters in their own hands and become agents of their own liberation.
I come from, or should I say, I am a lumpen organization (LO) leader myself. That said, I have firsthand knowledge of LO politics and history and I use this knowledge to my advantage when politicking with other LO leaders. For example, most LOs are based on certain fundamental principles that are uplifting. Though not revolutionary by a long shot, some LOs began as a righteous cause. However, the leadership of LOs eventually corrupted and completely distorted the fundamental principles and began wielding their power and influence for destructive ends — thereby compounding the oppression that oppressed nations suffer under imperialist domination in the ghettos of Amerikkka. Usually, when I've pointed this out to other LO leaders and explained to them that, as leaders, they have a duty and responsibility to look out for not only the interests of those they command, but the community and "our people" as a whole, they tighten up somewhat.
As a result of politicking like this, they (LO members) can become more receptive to revolutionary teachings. In fact, some of the brothers I've instructed in Maoist principles are actually taking heed and developing a genuine interest in revolutionary theory. I am pushing them very hard, and they have become more radical. And, together, we are pushing hard to (1) organize our struggle, and (2) take the political position of the United Front for Peace in Prisons.
In Conclusion, dialectical materialism, when grasped firmly, is relatively simple. We study situations, set our tasks, aim for success, inevitably fall short, try to learn from our mistakes, and come back better prepared, more organized, and more determined than ever to win the next time around.
In addition, Maoism in particular teaches us that there are two ways of learning — direct knowledge and indirect knowledge. Direct knowledge involves firsthand experiences through the senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, whereas indirect knowledge involves looking at, listening to, or reading about someone else's experiences. In other words, we can learn from the experiences of others just as well as we can from our own experiences. So when we gain experience at a certain thing and develop techniques in the midst of struggle, we should share our experiences and techniques in the hope that they will explain, inform, or aid other comrades in their political work.
Above all, organizers should bear in mind that our main task when organizing is to unite all those that can be united. In all the world, whether inside or outside prison, oppressed people know that unity in action is a necessary precondition for waging successful struggle. If you aren't for the unity of action, you aren't for the struggle. However, for those of us who are really for the struggle, we must prove it in action (practice) — in a concrete way.
An Oregon prisoner: I thought I'd share a few thoughts on my own strategies & tactics. Firstly it must be noted that I was literally raised in the feds, and in that system, violence is a social construct propagated by all. As such, men were much more receptive to community-organizing/unity. I personally went from ignorance and tribal identity to New Afrikan. And what I've used as a tool to build consciousness are "group/tribe - specific" literature & exercise regiments.
The first is taking say, a book by & about "Kiwes and Damus" and using it to spark dialogue. What I've found is "most" tribe-aligned men are more receptive to older men they respect & who take interest in learning about them and their tribe! Forging common ground if you will.
The second is using a physical exercise program as a means to build men! Starting with instilling discipline and accompanying self esteem, that follow one's acquiring a fit body. Now, obviously within a prison environment, the "group exercise(s)" (i.e. machine) can be seen by the AmeriKlan guards as "gang related." So I caution men to do so in a proper & compartmentalized manner to negate the erroneous misconception(s)!
I am a fluent Ki Swahili speaker. I have been for over 20 years. Now! What I've also discovered is that even in this ideologically backwards state, many New Afrikans and Chicanos take to learning the language. Which, for the New Afrikan, opens up a dormant sense of long-lost cultural identity. For the Chicanos, it rebuilds bridge(s) to the past. The days of Caesar Chavez, the Party, Unity in Struggle. A time of Klass unity, and our shared socio-political agenda = Power to the People! Enough said!
Clenched fist salutations to all who stand firm on progressive ideals & work diligently to build amidst the reactionaries whom aid our oppressors!
A Nevada prisoner: Between this issue of ULK 60 and the pamphlet Fundamental Political Line of MIM(Prisons) I came up with what I believe to be the biggest problems we face. Many people shy away from revolutionary struggle like trying to convert a Christian to Islam. It's despised like conspiracy theories. So with that said, Problem #1 is appealing to and reaching those best positioned to make changes.
The situation of what prompted me to say this: I study mostly on the tier. Curious people come over to see the unique Fundamental Political Line pamphlet on the table. First thing they ask me is if I'm doing bible study. I smile, then turn to the first page explaining what it is. I truly believe it scares them off because it is intimidating, it's bold, but it's truth. This happened several times.
Noticing this, I tried to come up with a way to better explain what our struggle is about. I found what I will use in ULK 60 p. 7 by USW23. I will say "This is about how to better understand our situation and how to change our conditions."
A Michigan prisoner: As for organizing different conversations. Yes, they do seem to get nowhere unless we're talking about gangs or some other subject that interests them. Very few people want to hear about doing something productive, as in educating their minds or developing some new skill or improving their community when they are released. A lot of these inmates want to continue selling drugs or becoming a rapper, or "what's the new clothing line or style," new phones, things like that — instead of empowering the youth.
Yes, I do struggle with people telling them or asking to write grievances because they don't want to snitch but when it's against these pigs they don't see that unless more complaints or grievances are seen or written, changes will not be made. They would rather deal with it than change it. I understand that if grievances are written on these pigs then in most cases they will be targeted, but as I mentioned, if nothing is said nothing will change! I am not sure what else I can say or do. You can help those whom do want to be helped. I show people the issues and I mention to them that they can be part of the change and movement to write to MIM and start there.
USW27 writes: As a member of the council of USW, September 9 Day of Peace and Solidarity is a blessing to us behind enemy lines who are committed to struggle against injustice. This gives us a chance to reflect and learn from history of our struggle from the lumpen viewpoint. And a chance to connect the dots of imperialism and capitalism and the characteristic of every stage of capitalism.
One of my strategies I've been using is talking to one Askari at a time to revolutionize the mind. Trying to change the reactionary into revolutionary. Reactionaries look at situations as war for influence, an ideological struggle to manipulate the situation for their gang. As we push for peace and solidarity there are some reactionary forces that see you as a threat because those same forces are benefiting just the way it is. They see you as a force of change. The question is, do you see yourself as a force of change? As a member of USW, you are an example on the front line. Your characteristic, the way you talk and the way you handle situations, and your attributes and commitment to the struggle. These young dada are looking for role models.
A Texas prisoner: I place one-page legal decisions on the wall to help anyone that may happen to need this information. Besides this information are two other items: a football schedule and the food menu.
My bunk-living area is in the dorm day-room. So, I look and can see directly these three papers. How prisoners act or react by looking at each, is what I call "falling in love with incarceration," or "falling in love with TDCJ."
Why do I say this? Just as a person knows when a person looks at them, from across a room, it is easy to see a person look at — or read — some item. I see them review breakfast, lunch, and dinner; even the next day's breakfast. They go into a long talk: "I ain't gonna to to breakfas' tomorah - it is jess pancakes." Another looks at the menu, then at the football schedule. "Yep! I know Minnesota will be in their own stadium — they can't lose the Super Bowl!" Others, their eyes glance at "Four Tips on Your Habeas Corpus Application." Their eyes, in a moment, move to the menu. "Hey, they got beek sketty tonite. You gonna go? I is."
Rarely have I witnessed, day or night, anyone taking time to look at and review how to get out of prison. I have several precedental case-laws from 1992 until 2016. Yet, all say, "he doesn't know what he's doin."
MIM(Prisons) adds: Finally, the comrade below shows us what recruiting looks like from the other side. The details are different for everyone, but just in case we forgot the small moments that led us into organizing, we are including it as an example here. Even if our one conversation or posting of a document on the wall falls flat in the moment, we are facilitating the repeated exposure of people to political organizing. These "retriggers" are what lead to eventual independent interest.
A West Virginia prisoner: I always knew I was anti-government because the oppression of the government towards my people was clear. Majority of the time my people committed crimes against willing participants in the streets, so I didn't understand why the government was kidnapping my brothers and abusing my sisters. It shocked me to see the police come in the projects and cold killers take off and run. Something I'm not really into no more.
Once I was in prison I was introduced to the Black Guerilla Family by a dude straight outta the District of Columbia. He told me that I'm a revolutionary. I laughed at the word and told him to say it again because it resonated with me, but I didn't know what it meant, so he told me look it up.
It just so happened he led me astray and the next thing I knew we were in a war with the folks. I was sent to a maximum security facility in West Virginia, quality of life program, better known as administrative segregation, locked down 23 hours a day. I decided to get the book Blood in my Eye by George L. Jackson and learned the history of the movement. It opened my eyes!
My celly and myself formed a small coalition between my brothers and his brothers, red, blue, white, even hispanics to speak out against the administration (the real enemy) about their abuse of power and their negligence. We strategically created conversation and before you know it the whole housing unit was in an uproar. We had planted the seed. Now, without organization, we tend to turn our anger and frustrations into violence and destruction, which is a losing battle. So, we pushed that pen, which turned out to be mightier and more effective than the sword. We wrote Administrative Remedy Procedures (ARP), the Inmate Grievance Office (IGO), the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), commissioners, the Deputy Secretary of Operations, and even the Governor, Larry Hogan, himself.
The issues we raise weren't addressed, so we're still waiting for responses. But regardless if we're denied any relief and we are aware of those possibilities, we created a solid peaceful foundation for unity and realized who the real oppressors are. So as long as we support each other's positive causes we are making forward progress, in the opposite direction of negativity. One step at a time!
Some brothers feel we won't get any relief because the administration do what they want. So I ask them, "if they ain't giving us this and taking that already, how is filing complaints and grievances and them not giving us any relief hurting?" "They doing what they want without so much as an inklet of rebuttal, so how do you lose writing them up?" Then I wait... No response.
MIM(Prisons) responds: Elsewhere in this issue of ULK the point is raised that leading includes showing victories, and not just talking about them.
Committed revolutionaries know that building a movement strong enough to end oppression worldwide is a huge task that takes years and years, and we're going to have lots of small failures along the way. But when building with new recruits, we need to be careful to not lead them down a dead end, in a way that discourages them and undermines unity building. Building initial interest should be energizing. It should inspire people.
At the same time, we can use our organizing defeats as opportunities for education. As this writer is doing, creating a foundation for unity and clarifying who are the real oppressors is a victory in and of itself. But we should be clear with people that there's a good chance we won't win grievances. This doesn't mean the time was wasted, because we've put the administration on notice that we won't take their bullshit lying down. Where we anticipate few victories we need to think creatively about how to inspire people to action and help them understand how this work fits into the larger struggle so that movement building is a victory in and of itself.
Being a recent student participant of an on-site college program, I heard about Grit via my psychology professor, who really sold the book as "the best work of its kind" in his lifetime. He was an abnormally straight shooter, and over the spring semester he gained a high level of respect from me and several Gods attending his classes. That being said when I read the title I became ecstatically interested in reading it. To make things 1000% better ULK sent a request that asked me to direct a selected few ideas from the book's chapters, repurpose the information in a way that makes it useful for prisoners and prisoner movements.
Taking Grit to the cipher those last days of Ramadan provided the forum that I used to gain opinions from the Gods here. First it was introduced and the purpose was established as to what I was planning to do within our cipher with regards to the book. It was agreed that we would give light to its reading, our interpretation of the book knowledge as it regards the prisoner movements (meaning unified actions of prisoners between different lumpen orgs, religious orgs, racial groups and at times including sexually non-conformist groups).
Once that was the base of our collective understanding, we read the very first part out loud in its entirety, without stop. This was done in order to gain a clear mental picture of what the author, Dr. Angela Duckworth, wanted us to know: How she defined "grit." Her purpose for writing this book. How this information could be used (individually, as a group, systematically, as a tool of help or to exploit). Lastly we brainstormed on whether the subject was new, unique or reminiscent of other books any of us read.
This was all done on day one. It included reading the preface along with chapters 1-5, checking the dictionary and thesaurus for words we either didn't understand or had different definitions for. This was to ensure we all stayed on the same page until a full grasp of the work was gained (or as we say, the who, what, when, where, how and why). Once that's gained then each God can go back to the cell and reflect on what is being said versus what the author's voice is trying to persuade the reader of. Because of lockdowns we didn't come back together again for some time. In that time I made 6 copies of the book and hand delivered the copies to each member of the cipher. I read ahead because of these time restraints for my response for ULK to be ready for this 63rd issue.
The subjects that I found applicable to the prisoners and prisoners' movement's need to develop grittier comrades on the front lines are from the Part II chapters: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.
Using "the grit test" [a questionnaire measuring someone's passion and perseverence - ULK Editor], we can discriminate in positive ways to create better recruiting methods when it comes to bringing individuals into the inner communal cipher or cadre. This will change the qualities that community leadership uses to identify like-minded soldiers. Though most will have to use interview methods instead of written questionnaires, and questions will have to be asked again and again in different ways before confirmation can be made.
The study habits and increasing interest in each member's confidence in sharing these interpretations of studied materials must become the job of all in leadership, with little to no critique at first and high praises to study habits and being able to communicate ideas in their own voice.
Standing up to injustice must be celebrated. Especially in times they are made to suffer by the authorities for doing the righteous and self-respecting thing — which is the institution's systematic way of pushing said prisoner to believe they are powerless. This is the creation of the passive prisoner who just puts up with all levels of abuse from authority. To fight this mental bullying the leadership must celebrate the comrade's actions openly with high energy. Leadership must show and prove they are willing to suffer some loss if and when making a stand causes such losses — a united front plus true knowledge of where the cadre stands on issues by actions, not just theory or talk-based instruction.
Grit is made of both passion and perseverance, creating and maintaining, stick-wit-it-ness, evolving interest and deep commitment. As opposed to natural skill, know-how or raw talent which may or may not assist in being a success. Comrades, being grittier means overcoming obstacles, learning from defeats and setbacks, and never allowing them to define who you are nor the movement. Remembering effort is worth twice as much as talent.
Example: Recently myself and eleven other political prisoners attempted to establish a self-introspection help program. At the beginning the administration acted positively about allowing the program to have a pilot try, yet once we got a free body volunteer to facilitate our group the administration changed its decision. This forced me to educate myself on group creation, rules of submittal and how to get sponsored state-wide, which I’m currently in the process of doing. The lesson is: don't stop at the first (or second or third...) signs of resistance.
This chapter was organizational gold when clearly understood. Leaders please pay close attention to each comrade's passions within your cadre or cipher, with even more emphasis on possible new members in relation to the struggles the cadre is immersed in. Understand what each person is passionate about, issues they will be more able to persevere through any pushback or reprisal.
Besides that, knowing each person's passions and convictions helps to know what position everyone is good at and areas they need assistance developing, which can be introduced in creative, fun ways, then incentivized through recognition and praise for gradual growth in areas of difficulty.
Example: Say a comrade is uncomfortable communicating their ideas publicly. This problem is amplified when the COs are involved to the point this comrade doesn't assert his legal rights nor is he respected as a man in the righteous way. Leadership must cultivate these skills in members who have difficulties related to these identifiable areas. The "you spoke really well" type or "the way you used those descriptors in the last essay was golden, so please continue to develop those skills" type of recognition and praise. I call it fanning the flames of passion, then directing the flames of progress and confidence among comrades.
Practice is something all gritty people have in common. You've heard the saying "practice builds perfection." Well after reading this chapter I must take it even further. Without practice as a united front executing plans in concert, you don't know how to work as one body. This will create the "big me and little yous," or followers resentment. Learn to practice making decisions together by hearing everyone involved out, allow each person the opportunity to lead in every activity. Practice writing write-ups, working out as a group, being inclusive as much as possible. This will make the cadre able to operate even when separated.
The author's research shows that this kind of practice must be done in association with a positive state of mind related to the balance of quantity and quality of time spent in skill development. We must also seek out new creative ways of practice in direct relation to the top-level goal. Formal repetition and fun activities loosely associated to goals are also useful tools.
Examples: Getting our comrades to rap in the cipher, incorporating subjects, words, ideas related to the group's mission may help them develop a public speaking style, confidence in speaking these opinions, and help them be more connected to positive public communication as a way to handle issues. Another more formal method is reading and discussing essays with the group, both on the yard and in closed room settings.
ULK readers this may be the most important thing to learn about in this whole book with regards to prisoner movements and issues that create the necessity for a more inclusive united front. This author makes the definition of "purpose" more than the passion of the moment. Purpose is also the intention to contribute to the well-being of others. The balance of both is what is needed in these occasions and is found in all the grittiest revolutionaries.
The comrades that feel they were born to live and die for the people are of such destiny-driven molds where this quality is found, manifested and acted out. These people are rare and even when they reach the stage of public awareness they are usually murdered by one of the system's arms of imperial aggression. Purposeful Revolutionaries must be supported by the people and understood by their peers as the magnetic all-inspiring super-motivation-drivers that they are. When unity is necessary these forces of nature will bring organization.
Example: Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the BPP was placed inside prison for a shootout with the police, and he was railroaded the first trial. The whole country polarized over this miscarriage of injustice creating one of the most supported appeals California had ever seen. "Free Huey" was the call, Black Power was the purpose, and the results are revolutionary history and the thing of legends.
MIM(Prisons) responds: Thanks to this comrade for reviewing Grit from the perspective of a revolutionary anti-imperialist prisoner organizer. We also studied the book and found lessons we can draw from it for our own work. We can't summarize them all here, but will respond to some points in the review above and emphasize what we see as the most important points from the book. (Grit is available from MIM(Prisons) for $10 or equivalent work-trade.)
We are hesitant to take any of the studies in Grit as representing humyn nature itself. As with all bourgeois psychology, the studies were conducted under conditions of imperialism. So we don't know if they're absolute representations of how humyns' minds work. But since we're also organizing under imperialist conditions, the studies do apply to our present conditions.
Throughout Grit, the author uses scientific studies and also case studies of "paragons of grit" — people who have reached pinnacles of performance in their jobs. This is one place where Duckworth's bourgeois perspective shines brightly. The book opens with a study of the most elite forces in the U.$. military, and jumps from athletes to musicians to chemists. The only mention of a socialist hero is when Duckworth puts Joseph Stalin's name right next to Adolf Hitler's. Ey admits Stalin had grit, but also that ey was "misguided" and "prove[s] that the idea of purpose can be perverted." In our communist version of Grit we would include case studies of not only Stalin, but also Mao Zedong, George Jackson, Stanley Tookie Williams, Assata Shakur, and the tens of thousands of people who participated in the over-5,000-mile Long March in China in the 1930s.
Regarding the grit test, we caution against using it as a measure of who should be allowed into our movement. It can be a tool for assessing where people need development, and how much we could count on them to follow through in this moment. But Duckworth emphasizes strongly that grit can grow. In fact, Chapter 5 is titled "Grit Grows," Part II is titled "Growing Grit from the Inside Out" and Part III is titled "Growing Grit from the Outside In." There are many interventions we can use to increase the grit of our cadre. And building our own and our comrades' committment and perserverence should be our focus. The grit test may be useful for measuring if we're improving our abilities to build grit in others, but should not be limiting who can participate.
USW7 outlines above the importance of group practice, and we also want to add the importance of individual development for improvement. Elsewhere in this issue of ULK we lay out the guidelines for deliberate practice. The group mentality is important, but we can't rely on it for our development. Kevin Durant summarizes the ratio by saying ey spends 70% of eir time practicing alone. Both are necessary.
Besides our ability to grow grit, one of the most important points Duckworth makes in Grit is that effort counts twice. Duckworth warns us against being distracted by talent, or assuming that one's skills are dictated by talent. Talent plays a part, but without effort, one's talent won't develop into skill. And without effort, one's skill won't develop into achievement. People who have less talent certainly surpass those with more talent in their achievements. They do this with effort. The ability to put in effort even in spite of repression, setbacks, failures... that is grit.
I'm writing because I have received my first issue of ULK, and I am going to tell you about how I became who I am, and what I am. It started in 2010 at South Central Correctional Center with a brother by the name of Supreme. At that time I was 21 years old and didn't want to hear a thing from no one cause I thought, "you can say what you want but it don't mean a thing if you can’t show it." I never used to listen to nothing until he started talking to me and on top of that he was showing it to me. So I can see that it was true.
Once I started to see what he was showing it all came to me and I said to myself "this is a brother I can believe and count on when I'm in need, and need help against the pigs." Because at that time I was having problems with the pigs and they were giving me hell back to back and I didn't know what to do about it. He saw it and started helping me and showing me how to go at it with them. I saw what he was showing me was working, so now I'm a believer. He's an older brother and I respect him a lot for what he did.
I have had a lot of guys tell me things and couldn't show it. They say "look at the message and not the messenger," but sometimes the message don't mean a thing if you can't show it. I had a guy tell me one day, "yeah man we all should write some letters to people outside. I don't think it's gonna work but we can do it anyway." See! That right there told me a lot, that he didn't even believe what the fxxk he was saying, so why should I believe that would work?
Now I listen to the ones that show and tell and I make sure I do the same. I never feed anyone bull because I don't let anyone feed me bull. And I have a lot of brothers that show and tell. One, a political prisoner, does a lot to help all of the brothers that he can. So I give a lot of love to brothers like him and Supreme.
I liked the whole issue of ULK 62 for May/June and I am letting a lot of other brothers read it too. I have read some of your ULKs in the past but I never had a chance to write to you guys and it seemed like noone ever heard of your paper. I realized that there are a lot of guys in prison that are not doing their job, the job of educating other brothers. So now that is why we have a lot of b.s. where everyone is against each other. We see this again and again in all of Missouri prisons. I don't know everything, and I'm still learning, but as I go on I try my best to help all of the other real brothers gain knowledge.
I know just as well as you know that we have a lot of guys that are faking and trying to bring the movement down working with the pigs. I can tell you a lot of dudes don't like me because I tell it like it is and I don't hold nothing back for no one. A lot of these guys are just all talk, they act like they are something they are not, but see they don't like that I'm about all of that and some, I practice what I preach. I want to help all of the brothers that I can and I mean it and I show it too. So guys don't like me because I show and tell for real! I want to thank you at MIM(Prisons) for your time and allowing me the chance to talk with you all and the reading material you all send me to help me more. I'm still growing.
Keep on fighting the fight, never give up. To all the brothers and sisters of the struggle: a warrior never gives up. Freedom is what we make it.
MIM(Prisons) responds: This article is especially interesting to us because it's easy for such a long-term project as ours to sound like what this comrade is criticizing above. "[W]e all should write some letters to people outside. I don't think it's gonna work but we can do it anyway."
We write letters to prison administrators to defend our right to send prisoners our literature, and a lot of the time it doesn't go anywhere. We run the grievance campaign, and often times we're just sent in circles between the Inspector General, Ombudsman, and the warden. But we're not discouraged. We already have strategic confidence in our work, because we've studied enough history to know that what we're doing today will pay off in the long term. Engaging in the endless bureaucracy is tolerable because we already understand how it relates to the big picture.
However, this comrade's skepticism underlines the importance of how we recruit new people. Our strategy ultimately is to build unity and confidence among the oppressed masses. Busy work (sending letters just to send them) does not have this effect. Even if we don't expect an immediate positive response from admin, if people just see us as wasting their time and resources, it's going to discourage them even more and cause them to distrust us.
Part of encouraging people is in picking battles that are winnable. Part of it is in framing these battles as a piece of our larger struggle. Part of it is in showing historical successes and broadening people's vision. And part of that is relating our goals to the perspective and values of the people we're attempting to recruit.
Within prisons we find ourselves confronted with multiple obstacles to organizing efforts. Obstacles spanning from legal and material to psychological and physical. Before we can even engage in political activities we must confront these various road blocks, what I call "walls" (barriers against activism and organizing).
Psychological walls manifest in two primary ways: 1) lack of receptivity in conversations; and 2) perspectives of hopelessness. For prisoner activists these are Goliathan problems. In the first instance you find yourself talking to a brick wall. In the second your points may be acknowledged as valid but still dismissed as useless opposition. A most frustrating situation, because one – your words can not make an impression; and two – your arguments prove valid but produce no effect. In both cases real victories (read demonstrations) proving the validity of arguments and feasibility of proposed actions is the surest method of overcoming such obstacles. In the former, a prisoner sees the validity. In the latter, a prisoner gains motivation. Even a small victory – a granted grievance – is capable of advancing organizational efforts to be heard and considered.
Material walls are next formidable in line. Including almost every privilege extended to a prisoner and their financial security. Following capitalist society, prisons use these privileges and financial control to maintain leverage over prisoners' behavior/thought. Furthermore, as most prisoners are stuck in parasitic thinking in pursuit of a capitalistic existence, such advantage creates a strong disinclination towards jeopardizing them, even if it is in their best interests. As with capitalism in general, there is no convenient nor easy answer that can be applied with certainty. All prisoners' privileges and financial interests intensify identification with classism (antagonistic) and capitalist priorities. Considering this, no general rules of approach can be established as each's interests influence differs. Fortunately, every answer that can be applied can be approached on first, an individual, then, group or demographic level, expanding in concentric circles.
Legal and physical walls are less conspicuous; most prisoners view political activity as futile. Still once activism gains momentum and organizing becomes realistic, these last walls spring up. Within prisons these signify various administrative "conveniences" (e.g., Ad-Seg, SHU, MCU, punitive segregation, out-of-state transfer, and varied movement/privilege/property/financial/communication restrictions or other arbitrary sanctions). Outside of prisons, many courts conspire to create so many legal formalities, exorbitant fees, byzantine procedures and lopsided laws that most trained lawyers are bemused and at a loss. For the prisoner who does survive such a crucible, pride is only the beginning of the prize.
All in all these many walls constitute the primary, secondary and such obstacles to organization behind bars. These difficulties should not be taken as reasons to dissuade political action but rather, as motivation to pursue these endeavors. Why else would there be so many protective measures if activism and organizing were indeed useless? Once the prisoner understands their interests in the matter these insurmountable walls become merely constant annoyances necessary for progress and material dialectical processes. Nothing worthy of having ever comes easy. With greater obstacles comes a greater and more valuable prize. Rise to such challenges, allowing your hunger for real equality to increase along and as much as difficulties faced; if not more so.
This issue of Under Lock & Key is devoted to exploring tactics in organizing behind bars. We often hear how hard it is to get people interested in politics, how so many are just doing their time, or worse, getting high, collaborating with the COs, or promoting division among prisoners. But we also hear from comrades about organizing successes. We can all learn from our own failures and successes and also from other people's failures and successes.
This scientific process of learning from practice, and using those lessons to improve our practice, is key to moving our organizing work forward. Marxism is based in this science that we call dialectics. Often people talk about it in the context of deep political line. But political line is only useful if it can direct a successful political practice. And so, as we spread revolutionary ideas and organize against the criminal injustice system, we need to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, both for us and for others. And then apply these lessons to improving our own work. Without dialectics the revolutionary movement will stagnate; with dialectics we will continue to learn and grow.
In a few articles in this issue we highlight the work of a psychologist, Angela Duckworth, who has conducted and compiled studies of how to engage and inspire people in work and how to build expertise. Although ey writes about this subject from the perspective of mastering bourgeois work or hobbies, we find some of the techniques and information presented to be directly applicable to revolutionary organizing. We learn from scientific studies like those presented by Duckworth, along with our own practice, to grow and improve our work.
Duckworth is an interesting psychologist because eir work focuses on measuring what ey calls "personal qualities" or traits, but eir work also demonstrates that these traits of a persyn can and do change over time. And individuals and society can have an impact on developing desired qualities. We agree with Duckworth on this assessment of the ability of people to change and grow through both their own work and external forces. In eir more recent works, Duckworth clearly agrees with us that these "traits" are more a product of education and training than inherent in one's persynality. Duckworth's writing is instructive as we look for ways to improve our own dedication and effectiveness, and ways to better inspire others.
MIM(Prisons), like MIM before it, has long maintained that the field of psychology under imperialism is generally used to help people adjust to their oppression and adapt to the horrible culture of imperialist patriarchy. It is a counter-revolutionary weapon when used in this way. Further, bourgeois psychology often attributes behaviors to inherent traits instead of material circumstances and conditions, suggesting that humyns can't change. We don't have the ability to run truly scientific experiments on humyn nature, but we have a lot of evidence from revolutionary societies like the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and Communist China under Mao to suggest that humyns have a tremendous capacity to learn and grow and overcome selfish individualism.
Instead of seeing the selfishness and individualism in capitalist culture as reasons that humynity will "always" have oppression and suffering, we see it as evidence of the importance of a Cultural Revolution under socialism. This concept was executed on a mass scale in China under Mao. The Cultural Revolution recognizes the need for the people to vigilently fight against reactionary culture and capitalist ideas, even after the proletariat controls the government, because capitalist culture and individualism will not disappear overnight.
Of course in the end individualism and self-interest won out in those countries when capitalism was restored. But this doesn't negate the very real changes that so many people made in revolutionary societies. We look to these examples as hopeful evidence, while studying them for improvements needed for better success in the future.
There are people in the fields of psychiatry (medical doctors) and psychology (not medical doctors) who have taken their study of humyns in a revolutionary direction, contributing to the anti-imperialist movement. Frantz Fanon is an excellent example of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Among eir revolutionary work, Fanon's scientific studies contributed greatly to our understanding of the effects of colonial subjugation on the oppressed, and a broader study of the lumpen. Duckworth is not revolutionary, or anti-capitalist, or anti-Amerikan, and ey is still mired in some of the pitfalls of the field of capitalist psychology. But eir research presents some useful concepts and techniques for revolutionary organizing work. In this spirit of scientific learning we touch on Duckworth's work in this issue of ULK.
We take action regardless of whether we will ultimately win or lose. We take action simply because it is in our nature to resist injustice and oppression. It is who we are. And we recognize that not everyone has that same nature. We should not criticize or look down on those who don't have enough strength for this fight against the odds. After all, oppression of the weak and unfortunate is the very thing we are struggling against. So we hold no animosity towards the naysayers as long as they do not directly interfere with our cause, and we are happy when our actions benefit them even though they refused to participate. People cannot help being the way they are. For those of us with the revolutionary spirit the struggle comes as naturally as apathy and passivity comes to those who refuse to participate.
But the truth is that we most definitely can make a difference. The government and the TDCJ administration would like us to believe they are all-powerful and can do whatever they want without concern for any consequences, but that is just propaganda intended to make us give up before we even start. We know this from experience because we have won victories already. We have seen even just a handful of prisoners come together many times and force the administration to improve conditions or follow its own rules.
We know that just because our actions are ignored at first or because we got a rubber stamp response on a grievance doesn't mean it didn't have an effect. Everything has an effect and it all adds up. We recognize that change in any area of life generally requires sustained action over a long period of time. The pigs' first line of defense is to keep us ignorant and keep us discouraged, but we must know better than to fall into those traps.
What we often see is prisoners coming together in a spontaneous uprising when abuses reach a crisis point. The administration will quickly back down and meet their demands. But then when this temporary mobilization of the mass of prisoners falls apart, the administration incrementally begins the same abuses all over again. If they overstep and the prisoners mobilize themselves once more, then the administration just repeats the process of backing down and incrementally reimposing the same abuses. In this way they gradually accustom the prisoners to accept the abuse of their rights and human dignity.
So another reason why we take action is simply to stay mobilized and able to resist the incremental erosion of our rights. We don't fool ourselves about the possibility of keeping the whole mass of prisoners fully mobilized. The majority will always care more about watching TV and playing fantasy football. But there are also at least a few prisoners who see revolutionary work as a way to pass the time that is just as enjoyable and interesting, with the added benefit that it actually gives them some real power over their circumstances. If we can keep this core of dedicated revolutionaries organized and active at all times, then we can put up constant resistance to the erosion of our rights. And we will have an organizational framework and leadership already in place that allows us to quickly mobilize the masses for some larger project whenever it becomes necessary.
We know all this is an uphill battle, but we can take heart when we study the past. In the broad sweep of history the course of events has overwhelmingly been in our favor. The oppressors of the world have been fighting a desperate retreat for the last thousand years, losing battle after battle in the struggle for human rights. It is clear which way the wind is blowing. And the struggle for prisoners' rights fits squarely within that larger struggle.
There will be a day in the not-so-distant future when people look back with horror and shame at our current culture of mass incarceration and the conditions in these prisons. And those who struggled for prisoners' rights and reform of the criminal justice system will be grouped among the heroes who fought to overcome absolutist monarchies, colonialism, slavery, worker exploitation, racism, sexism, and every other form of oppression. We can take action with absolute confidence that we are on the right side of history. In the long run, we are assured of victory.
MIM(Prisons) responds: So much of what this author writes here speaks directly to the value of perseverance in our work. The project of building revolution (or making any great impact on the world) is made up of many, many, many days of mundane tasks. Some days of excitement. And many more days of mundane commitment.
In a debate on whether people are born as, or developed into, revolutionaries, it seems like this author would argue the former. But surely everyone who's turned on to politics can also remember a time in their life when they were apathetic and passive. Whether from an incorrect understanding of how the world works, or a lack of faith in our own ability to change and make change. At some time, probably over a long time, we decided to stand up.
Well, how do people turn from only participating when there's an acute problem, to making that long-term commitment to building a revolution? (Hint: it's not a persynality trait we're born with.)
Author and bourgeois psychologist Angela Duckworth says developing interest and passion for your work (the type of passion that sticks it out through the hard times) is made of "a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening."(1) In the quote below Duckworth talks about "having fun" as part of developing interest. While prisons certainly aren't fun, we can apply this concept to prisoners facing repression, where the "trigger" for interest is repeated exposure to examples and experiences of resistance.
"Before hard work comes play. Before those who've yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest. Of course, developing an interest requires time and energy, and yes, some discipline and sacrifice. But at this earliest stage, novices aren't obsessed with getting better. They're not thinking years and years into the future. They don't know what their top-level, life-orienting goal will be. More than anything else, they're having fun."
"... [I]nterests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient. This is because you can't really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won't. You can't simply will yourself to like things, either. ..."
"... [W]hat follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention — again and again and again."
Just because someone is initially uninterested in the politics behind the mass action, through repeated exposure and "retriggering interest," we can encourage them to go deeper. And after the initial interest is sparked, Duckworth says deliberate practice, a sense of purpose, and a hopeful attitude, are what enable us to commit and excel. These approaches are what cause us to overcome the adversity that the author describes in the article above, of administrative failures, discouragement from staff, and even our own mistakes.
And Duckworh argues, based on eir decades of study, that these qualities can be nurtured and developed — by individuals themselves, and by people outside of those individuals. As organizers, we need to work to develop interest, practice, purpose, and hope in others. In eir book Grit, Duckworth lays out many methods to do this, some of which we've touched on in other articles throughout this issue of ULK. With this response, we primarily want to highlight that a revolutionary fighting spirit is something that we can cultivate; just because someone doesn't have it now doesn't mean they won't ever have it. And it's the organizer's job to make that process as successful as possible.