The following review by Ryan Conrad has appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of the Gay and Lesbian Review. Remember, Lumpen is available from leftwingbooks.net, AK Press, and Amazon, amongst other places.
Tear Down the Prison-Industrial Complex!
Ed Mead’s autobiography is a welcome addition to a growing corpus of recent nonfiction that examines the relationship between GLBT people and the prison industrial complex (PIC). Released from prison in 1993, Mead spent eighteen years serving time for his role in a Seattle-based revolutionary Communist group responsible for the bombing of banks, government buildings, and corporations accused of racism during the turbulent 1970s. Now in the late stages of lung cancer and well into his seventies, Mead has shared with us his epic tale of life on the front lines of class war for over half a century.
Lumpen joins Dean Spade’s Normal Life, Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock’s collectively authored Queer (In)Justice, and the anthologies Captive Genders (edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith) and Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You, edited by this writer. This is not to suggest that queer investment in fighting against the PIC is a new phenomenon: many of us know well the stories of groups like Out of Control Lesbian Committee to Support Women Political Prisoners, Vanguard, the Lavender Panthers, and the George Jackson Brigade, which Ed Mead cofounded. But this renewed energy devoted to examining the queer stakes in prison abolition has been gathering steam, and it has produced this challenging and invigorating corpus of literature.
Mead’s unique contribution to this body of writing lies in the highly personal nature of autobiography as a form (while most of the aforementioned literature comes out of scholarly and activist communities). He presents his life story in three parts, each written at different periods of his life. His childhood in the 1940s and ’50s, which included both urban and rural poverty – from the notorious streets of Compton, California, to homesteading in rural Alaska on the so-called frontier – is described in vivid detail in Part One. We learn of his resilient mother and sisters cobbling a life together in the wilderness, his childhood desire for a male peer (which he was only able to articulate in retrospect), and his pathway to petty theft and crimes of survival that landed him in prison before his political education. It was while in prison this first time that he studied criminal law, anarchism, Marxism, and different iterations of communist ideology, thanks to prison libraries and prisoner-friendly bookstores.
In part two, Mead puts his political education to work on the outside. After his release from prison in Alaska, he moves to Seattle to do activist work supporting other prisoners in the early 1970s. The Vietnam War as well as the activity of the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the American Indian Movement, among others, sets the context of this post-release period in his life. Mead’s description of his eventual embrace of armed struggle as the most viable political strategy is both quotidian and logical. It is actually the everydayness, the explicitly non-sexy side of activist organizing, that’s so fascinating in this section. It is hard to imagine today, in our largely defanged anti-globalization movement, that many people would come to the same conclusions: the necessity for armed struggle against American imperialism from within the belly of the beast.
Although Mead does not provide a detailed history of the George Jackson Brigade – he notes that this is already documented in Daniel Burton-Rose’s 2010 book, Guerrilla USA – he does reveal some of the more personal details of how this sexually and racially mixed group of class warriors came together from 1975 to ’77. This retelling is a welcome corrective to the macho posturing in many stories, both in print and on celluloid, that recount this era of radical activism, particularly those focused on the Weather Underground.
In the book’s third part, Mead focuses again on his prison organizing from within the PIC after his arrest during a botched bank expropriation with the George Jackson Brigade in 1975. Again, the everyday description of prison life and prison organizing, from the mundane to the most brutal, punctuates Mead’s story. In the pages of this last section, we learn the fascinating story of Men Against Sexism, the pro-gay, pro-trans, prisoner-run organization that defended the rights of queer and trans prisoners against a deeply homophobic and transphobic prison administration (including church chaplains, of course) and that worked to end prison rape and sexual slavery. This work, though it was short-lived due to his escape attempt, reminds us of the important objectives that can be accomplished when GLBT prisoners are empowered to change their own conditions.
Needless to add, the kind of work that Mead and his comrades embarked upon many decades ago still needs doing. According to a recent 2015 national prisoner survey conducted by Black and Pink – an organization that supports GLBT prisoners through advocacy, education, direct service, and organizing – nearly one-third of prisoners surveyed reported being raped in prison by other inmates, while more than half reported unwanted touching and physical harassment at the hands of other prisoners. These statistics do not include the nearly forty percent that reported unwanted touching by prison staff and the twelve percent that reported being raped by prison staff. Perhaps now that the story of Men Against Sexism has been told more comprehensively in Mead’s autobiography, it can serve as both an inspiration and a rough blueprint for future anti-rape organizing within the walls of the prison industrial complex today.
In a final postscript, Mead reflects on his ongoing work at supporting present-day prisoners, particularly those who were engaged in one of the largest recorded hunger strikes in the California prison system in 2011. But, like every good activist, Mead isn’t satisfied simply telling his own story but encourages all of us to learn our histories and join the struggle. The final pages provide a comprehensive list of activist organizations fighting for prisoners’ rights. For those who want to help, there’s no excuse not to get involved!