Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Mass Incarceration: An Interview on Contemporary Social Movements with David Gilbert

This interview originally appeared in Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture, 5:2, 259-270.  For a PDF of the interview, go here. Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Mass Incarceration: An Interview on Contemporary Social Movements with David Gilbert

David Gilbert interviewed by Dan Berger, 2012

In the 1960s and 1970s, many activists looked to the prisons for political leadership, while viewing prisons themselves as institutions of repression and social control integral to larger systems of oppression. Around the world, the prisoner emerged as an icon of state repression and a beacon of liberation. If the prison served as the bricks and mortar of oppression, the prisoner became the flesh and blood of movement iconography. Black American prisoners held special sway within this global visibility of confinement, in part because so many prisoners became prolific authors connected to wider social movements of the time. In prison, black activists from Martin Luther King, Jr to George Jackson and Assata Shakur penned tracts that offered trenchant insights into race, class, and American power. Black activists proved the most incisive, the most creative, inheritors of a deep and multiracial tradition of political critique behind bars. These imprisoned author-activists articulate a profound paradox: one of the best places to understand the “land of the free” is the place where freedom was most elusive. It was both a sobering and inspiring message for a generation on the move.

More than 40 years later the world is once again experiencing the tremors of large-scale, global change. And the prison accompanies this new burst of struggle. For a generation that has never known an America without mass incarceration, never known a world without Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, without indefinite detention and pre-emptive war, the prison may seem an even more fitting metaphor for the contradictions of American power – internationally and within the United States – than it was during the 1971 Attica rebellion, the most dramatic of the dozens of riots rocking American prisons during that time. When prisoners at Attica proclaimed their humanity against the brutality of the prison, the United States incarcerated some 300,000 people. Today it imprisons more than 2.3 million, often serving Draconian sentences, with another 5 million under some form of correctional control. The scale of America’s carceral state is even more gruesome when one considers the demographics of those incarcerated: almost exclusively poor, majority black or Latino, and with women and gender-nonconforming people being hard hit both by incarceration and its collateral consequences.

Prisoners themselves are crucial participants – if often unacknowledged by the outside world – in the renewed activism most commonly associated with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. The conditions of confinement have given a life-or-death character to much of this activism. Massive labor strikes shook Georgia prisons in December 2010, coordinated through smuggled cell phones. The next month, five prisoners in Ohio launched a hunger strike to protest their conditions; a year-and-a-half later, other prisoners in Ohio’s “supermax” facilities also staged a hunger strike over inhumane conditions. Between July and October 2011, thousands of prisoners throughout the sprawling California prison system staged an unprecedented hunger strike in protest of the long-term solitary confinement that is now a significant part of everyday life in American prisons. The hunger strike seems to be emerging as a tactic of this burgeoning collective discontent with confinement; in May 2012, prisoners in Virginia’s supermax prison at Red Onion launched their own hunger strike, issuing 10 demands for better conditions, modeled after the five demands raised by California prisoners a year previously.

Then as now, the prison is a global icon of oppression. The detention facilities at Guantanamo and Bagram Air Base continue to draw international condemnation. More than 2000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons staged a hunger strike for between four and nine weeks in the spring of 2012 to protest the conditions of their detention. Self-described political prisoners in Cuba have likewise engaged in hunger strikes to protest the denial of human rights and basic freedoms. And in much of Latin America, notoriously overcrowded and violent prisons are drawing new, critical attention.

The new prison protest in the United States confronts the particularities of mass incarceration, while calling upon a deeper history of prison resistance. Although it may seem as if each political generation discovers its mission in an historical void, reality is more dialectical. With varying degrees of awareness, movements emerge in contexts established partially by prior movements, enabling conversations with various legacies of struggle.

The following interview with David Gilbert is one attempt at such an intergenerational conversation across prison walls. David Gilbert was a founder of Columbia University’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter. His campus organizing for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam in the first half of the 1960s helped lay the foundation for the historic student strike at Columbia University in the spring of 1968. Part of the so-called “praxis axis” of SDS, Gilbert developed a reputation as a theorist and writer. He co-authored the first pamphlet within the 1960s student movement to explain the Vietnam War and American foreign policy more broadly in terms of imperialism. In 1970 he joined the Weather Underground, a militant and clandestine offshoot of SDS. The group pledged its solidarity with the black freedom struggle and national liberal movements of its day. It claimed responsibility for two dozen or so bombings of empty government and corporate buildings between 1970 and 1976, done to protest American political-economic violence throughout the world – including inside US prisons. Gilbert was one of several people who returned underground after the group disbanded in 1977. He was arrested in Nyack, New York, in October of 1981 following a botched robbery of a Brinks truck by the Black Liberation Army, itself an offshoot of the Black Panther Party. Two police officers and a security guard were killed in the robbery. An unarmed getaway driver there as a white ally, Gilbert was charged under New York’s felony murder law that holds any participant in a robbery fully culpable for all deaths that occur in the course of that robbery. The judge sentenced him to serve between 75 years and life in prison. Under current New York state law, there is no time off for good behavior, no parole possibilities in a sentence such as his.

During his more than 30 years in New York state’s toughest prisons, Gilbert has published several pamphlets on race and racism, social movement history, and the AIDS crisis. He helped start, in the 1980s, the first comprehensive peer education program in New York prisons dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention. He appeared in the 2003 academy award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground and corresponds with dozens of activists throughout North America. He has also published two books: a 2004 collection of essays and book reviews entitled No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner, and the 2012 memoir Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond. The memoir offers David’s examination of his life as an organizer and the choices that ultimately led him to prison – an assessment of the paths taken and not taken, of the triumphs and mistakes made in a life on the left. Writing for today’s generation of activists, Love and Struggle is his attempt to summarize the lessons he learned as an organizer in SDS, in the Weather Underground, and, well, beyond.

This interview is principally concerned with the “beyond.” A voracious reader, Gilbert has been paying close attention to the recent uprisings that have dotted the globe. In the discussion below, Gilbert offers his perspective as an activist for more than 50 years, on the challenges for contemporary social movements.

This interview was conducted through the mail between February and July of 2012. I have, where appropriate, added explanatory footnotes or parenthetical notes.

Berger: Since the fall of 2011, the Occupy movement has emerged in the United States, joining many similar movements against austerity worldwide and now creating its own ripples. Its participants are disproportionately white and include many college students or graduates struggling with student debt. You’ve offered supportive statements to the Occupy movement while also trying to call its attention to other issues and dynamics. What do you see as its existing strengths, its potential, and its limitations of perspective?

Gilbert: The Occupy movement is a breath of fresh air. After 30 years of mainstream politics totally dominated by racially coded scapegoating – you know, directing people’s frustrations against welfare mothers, immigrants, and criminals – finally a loud public voice is pointing to the real source of our problems. And I think they were wise, despite the conventional wisdom of many organizers, not to come out immediately with a set list of demands. That would have narrowed the scope of support, and holding back on specifics implies that the issue is the system, capitalism, itself. There are now plenty of opportunities – through demonstrations, teach-ins, occupations, whatever – to show the range of ways this system is oppressive and destructive.

At the same time, such a spontaneous and predominantly white movement will inevitably have giant problems of internalized racism and sexism. I couldn’t help but notice that the first public statement that came out of the general assembly of OWS talked eloquently, and quite rightly, about the injustice of animals being kept in cages… but said nothing about the 2.3 million human beings in cages in the US today, with mass incarceration the front line of the 1%’s war against black and Latino/a people. And then there is the terminology of “occupy,” which does invoke a certain militant tradition, but people need to be aware of the colossal injustice that we are living on occupied Native American land. So far there has been little about the 1%’s rule over a global economy, wreaking terrible destruction on the vast majority of humankind. And that’s the basis for why the USA is now engaged in pretty much continual warfare, which not only is tremendously damaging to the people who get bombed but also reinforces all the reactionary trends here at home. So it’s vitally important that we oppose those wars.

Also I’ve heard that at many of the assemblies the speakers are almost all males. So the problems of white and male supremacy are endemic and usually prove debilitating. But flowing streams of protest provide a lot healthier basis for growth than the previously stagnant waters; people in motion against the system are a lot more open to learning. And in particular I want to salute the people of color (POC) groupings who, despite how galling some of the backwardness must be, have hung in there and struggled – groups like the POC Working Group at Occupy Wall Street and Decolonize Portland and the very strong POC presence and role in Occupy Oakland. So the 20 February 2012 day of protests in support of prisoners and the 19 April 2012 teach-ins about mass incarceration are important steps forward. There is still a long, long way to go, but overall I feel very heartened, even excited, by this new wave of protests.

Berger: In writings and interviews since your incarceration, you have described the radical potential of the 1960s era as being rooted in a combination of the success of anticolonial revolutions in the Third World and the centrality of the black freedom struggle within the United States. We are now in an era of renewed global struggle, yet the terms have changed. How would you characterize the tenor and impact of this global upsurge? How do you see it in relation to, or even as a commentary upon, the successes and limitations of earlier national liberation movements?

Gilbert: We still live in a world of totally intolerable destruction and demeaning of human life and of the environment. The most oppressed and vast majority of humankind live in the global South, and they tend to be the most conscious and most active against the system. The national liberation struggles that lit the world on fire in the 1960s and 1970s were not able to fully transform the conditions and lives of their peoples. Learning from the setbacks, people are trying to fight in ways that are less top–down, with stronger democratic participation. So it makes sense that new forms of struggle have emerged, like rural communities resisting dams in India, which combine the needs of poor farmers, the leadership of women, and critical environmental issues; or like the taking over of factories in Argentina.

In the past year-and-a-half, the “Arab Spring” has electrified the world. These mass uprisings for democracy in countries hit hard by neoliberalism in Northern Africa and the Middle East have been tremendously exciting and were a big inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA. But it’s important to recognize both the pluses and minuses of this kind of spontaneity. The strength is that even in situations where all organized opposition was crushed, people found a powerful way to rise up. The weakness lay in an inadequate analysis and program on the nature of the State, especially the role of the military, for example in Egypt, and its very close ties to the Pentagon. Such mass outpourings, as we also saw with “people’s power” in the Philippines in 1986, are not in themselves adequate to liberate people from the stranglehold of imperialism.

And imperialism is never a passive spectator but rather employs its massive resources and wealth of techniques to distort and reshape such movements: from funding pro-western elements with major infusions of cash to the ways the global corporate media defines the issues, from direct trainings of favored groups to covert CIA operations to outright military involvement. Libya is a recent example. Qaddafi was a tyrant, even while more progressive in terms of health, education, and the status of women than the US-imposed and backed dictators of the region. NATO’s “humanitarian” intervention killed far more of the civilians they were mandated to “protect” than did the old regime. It seems clear that the massive, destructive NATO military intervention was not wanted nor requested by the overwhelming majority of Libyans, regardless of their stance on the Qaddafi regime. The brutal bombing campaign and the empowering of factions favorable to NATO may well lead to the USA getting its long-coveted military base in Africa.

In Iran and Syria, the repressive regimes are in big part a result of earlier imperialist interventions, while the current international campaigns against them are very much about strengthening the USA and Europe’s geopolitical position. Genuine people’s opposition forces are undermined and caught in the cross-fire, while imperialist proxy forces proliferate.

In this complicated world, our loyalty is always with the people. We can’t glorify tyrants just because they come into conflict with the West but neither can we forget that imperialism is by far the greatest destroyer of human life and potential. We have to be ready to cut through the rationalizations about “weapons of mass destruction” or “terrorism” or “humanitarian emergency” and oppose what is now a pretty much constant state of warfare against countries in the South – which is brutal for the peoples attacked and also serves to reinforce all the reactionary trends here at home. Many current situations are very painful, with no major organized force of “good guys” to root for – from Assad’s killing of civilians to the Taliban’s misogyny. But to respond in an effectively humanitarian way, we have to study history. It is the West, first with colonialism and then innumerable CIA interventions, that has decimated Left secular forces who could build unity and instead has both fostered religious sectarianism to divide the oppressed and empowered tyrants to contain mass anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist fervor. Then imperialism uses the backward situation it did so much to create to justify even more intervention, which only will serve to deepen those problems. The best way to help progressive forces in the region have some space to re-emerge is for us to do our part to back off US and NATO intervention. And it can be done in the context of popular struggles in the South; it did happen by the end of the Vietnam War. We need to build a strong antiwar movement in the USA.

So no to tyrants, no to wars, no to imperialism; yes to popular demands for political and economic emancipation. Right now there is no clear, visible strategy on how popular movements can win qualitative change. That will only develop as struggles push forward and learn from advances and setbacks. But the uprisings of “Arab Spring” and the people around the world fighting for independence, democracy and economic justice have shown awesome courage and spirit and provide tremendous inspiration. For us in the North, solidarity is an essential cutting edge, both to ally with the most oppressed and to learn from the most advanced. The devastating damage being done to the planet intensifies the great urgency of anti-imperialist struggle.

Berger: In the 1960s, you coauthored the first SDS pamphlet naming the system as imperialism, and you continue to identify as an anti-imperialist. Many people think of imperialism as a system of domination among nation-states, yet political antagonisms today are at once more local and more diffuse than the nation-state. For instance, talk of the “99%” points to the undue influence of corporate power upon American political processes while the Arab Spring mostly targeted the corrupt leaders and dictators of their nation-state, and alter-globalization campaigns have challenged the global reach of transnational corporations. Do you still think imperialism is an adequate way to “name the system?” If so, why? Can an anti-imperialist emphasis help us, for instance, confront global climate change, promote queer liberation, or engage other issues that have historically been outside the purview of “imperialism?”

Gilbert: I noticed that you used the word adequate, because I emphatically believe that “imperialism” is the best summary term, but it isn’t adequate. The value of “imperialism” is that it emphasizes that it’s a global system whose main axis is an incredible polarization of wealth and power between a few controlling “centers” (in Europe, the USA, and Japan) and the impoverished “periphery” of the global South. And of course within each of those arenas there is the class polarizations with ruling elites in the South who collaborate with imperialism and many who are oppressed in the North. But it is a global economy; the great wealth and power comes by means of the super-exploitation of the peoples of the South, and that’s where we can expect the fiercest battles and strongest leadership for change. And the very rapaciousness of such a system is the basis for a reckless and now extremely dangerous destruction of the environment. At the same time, that center/periphery divide helps frame why the struggles of people of color within the USA, a country built on the genocide of the Native Americans and mass imposition of chattel slavery, are so central.

So, “imperialism” is the best summary term, the clearest way to name the dark dungeon currently confining and brutalizing humankind. But that prison was built on the pre-existing foundation of patriarchy and class rule. And there are all the bars on the cells that confine and divide us. So we have to be very explicit about naming and fighting all the major forms of oppression: white supremacy, xenophobia, class rule, male supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, cruelty to animals, environmental destruction.

Berger: You speak about the world using a center/periphery divide. But is such a dichotomy appropriate to today’s conditions? Can all countries be categorized as only imperialist (and collaborators with imperialism) versus anti-imperialist? Isn’t China an economic super-power? How do you assess the economic growth in India and Brazil or the economic positioning of countries in the former Eastern bloc?

Gilbert: Yes, China’s rapid emergence as a world power is very impressive and creates some new dynamics. China has moved effectively to gain access to oil and other strategic resources, especially in Africa, and the USA has been making a lot of geopolitical moves to be in a position to contain China. That’s a big part, to take one example, of why the USA has been so intent on getting a major military base in Africa, which they may soon realize behind NATO’s massive bombings of Libya. Of course this isn’t the first time that imperialism has had to contend with a “state capitalist” rival. From 1945 to 1991 the Soviet Union was formidable military power, and it provided critical aid to many national liberation struggles.

China couldn’t have achieved its tremendous economic growth under the neoliberal model that imperialism imposes on most of the South. The very comprehensive role of the State has been essential. At the same time, the development has accompanied an obscene new polarization of wealth, under a very repressive regime. And China’s industrialization hasn’t removed its working class from super-exploitation by imperialism. When you buy an iPhone, only 4% of the price goes to the wages of the workers who made it in China – meanwhile Apple has a 64% gross profit over manufacturing costs. Also I doubt that China’s economy will continue to grow at the current rate. You know, mainstream pundits often make predictions by taking current trends and projecting them forward, like they’ll proceed on a straight line. But reality is much more complicated and contradictory than that. It’s very possible that China could well be approaching some major limits on its current model of growth; it faces some severe challenges, including the potential for powerful class struggles, and the ways the global economic recession could impinge on its export-driven economy.

India and Brazil’s economies are growing rapidly, but still within many of the strictures set by the world capitalist market. That framework, along with the strength of their own reactionary classes, is likely to block a full breakthrough to strong, self-determining economies that can put their peoples’ needs first. Remember, imperialism has always had a few intermediary, semi-dependent nations – Lenin even talked about this, I think in terms of Argentina, 100 years ago; several Eastern European countries also seem to be destined for that niche today.

Imperialism has changed dramatically from the terms of the first three-fourths of the twentieth century. The stark divide is no longer around industrialization as a lot of manufacturing has been moved to the South to take advantage of starvation wages. In today’s global economy, as Samir Amin has explained, the domination of the center is exercised through five other crucial monopolies: the control of (1) technologies, (2) financial markets, (3) the planet’s natural resources, (4) information and communications, and (5) weapons of mass destruction.

So yes, it is a complicated world with various intermediate forms of dependency and development. Also, the emergence of China entails the potential of a rival, especially if it can ally with Russia, with its high level of military technology. Containing China is a major factor in US geo-military maneuvering. But at this point China is nowhere near capable of directly challenging the global dominance of the imperial triad of the USA, Europe, and Japan. The more relevant issue is the USA’s economic decline and how that might limit its military might, its ability to intervene and enforce imperial interests in countries throughout the world. The most exploitative aspects of the global economy and all of the USA’s plethora of wars over the past 60 years have been around that main axis of imperial domination of the South. That’s at the heart of the colossal polarization of wealth, the awesome power of the ruling 1%, the intolerable oppression of the majority of humankind, and the resulting leading forces of resistance.

Berger: Are you optimistic about a new wave of revolutionary advances in the South and a growing radical movement in the North?

Gilbert: I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Right now the world is fraught with peril. It’s scary, for humankind. (Although this is not the first time: I grew up in the 1950s, with the threat of cataclysmic nuclear war hanging over our heads.) Global climate change and the collapse of some key ecosystems could destroy the basis for sustaining a human population even a fraction of our current numbers. And even more immediately, we may have entered a period of severe and sustained global recession. We, and the earth, need less production. But under imperialism it won’t involve cutting back on the colossal – multi-trillions of dollars worth – of wasteful and destructive goods and services. Instead the worst, deadliest costs will be imposed on the wretched of the earth. Not only would that entail massive deprivation and suffering but also such stresses can be fertile ground for vicious reactionary movements in the North and bitter internecine battles – tribal or ethnic or religious conflicts – in the South. So what Engels said in the nineteenth century can be raised several orders of magnitude in the twenty-first: the choice is between socialism and barbarism.

What we have to hope for – and even more than that, work for with all possible passion and intelligence – is for people to understand that choice, to see that these horrendous problems are generated by a rapacious system and that the only viable alternative is for people to get together and replace a system driven by corporate greed with one in harmony with nature and centered on human needs.

Berger: Within the United States, one of the biggest and most visible signs of mass movement in recent years has been a largely Latino immigrant rights/migrant justice movement: from the mass marches of 2006 to recent struggles against what some are calling a system of Juan Crow in places such as Arizona and Alabama. Clearly these struggles are reflective of the ways the United States is more multiracial and multiethnic than it was when you came to political consciousness. And of course, the United States now has a black president – something that only recently became thinkable. Do these changes alter the significance you’ve always given to race as a structuring feature of the United States? Do you still think that black social movements will be the strongest catalyst for political action in the United States?

Gilbert: You’re right about the importance of immigration and the Latino/a population. And I want to add that, in addition to the so-called “borders” being illegitimate, the whole disruption of families and mass migrations are being driven by the very destruction of the economies of the South by imperialism.

While the modalities of race have changed in significant ways, the fundamentals of a system based on white supremacy haven’t. Now, as opposed to the 1960s, there are a lot more Blacks in the middle class, although still not in proportion to their percent in the population, and many more multiracial individuals. We now have a Black president; while it was nice to see that aspect of Jim Crow shattered, it doesn’t mean much in practice since politics in the USA, including Obama, are so completely controlled by big money. But the erosion of Jim Crow has been more of a neocolonial strategy than a qualitative change for the majority. Many educated Blacks who would have been vociferous spokespeople for the struggle now live in greater comfort.

Meanwhile conditions in the ghettoes and barrios have in many ways gotten worse, with cascading epidemics: the loss of manufacturing jobs; mass incarceration; broken families; the internal violence that comes with making drugs illegal; then the violent “war on drugs;” the health epidemics of HIV, hepatitis, asthma, and so much more.

So I’m sure that race will remain central, although probably radical struggles will not be as predominantly defined by revolutionary nationalism, as other forms have also become important: immigration, women of color, LGBT and queer movements, and other alliances among various peoples of color. The black community, with its cohesion and stunning culture of resistance, has been under relentless and full-scale attack for decades, with virtually nothing in terms of an anti-racist white movement to provide solidarity. The relentless attacks have taken a toll. But given the centrality of the black struggle to opening up almost every period of protest and advance in US history and given their legacy of humanity and resistance, I believe that black social movements will continue to be the strongest catalyst for radical political action in the USA.

Berger: As the movements of the 1960s receded, something called “identity politics” emerged in their place. At its most caricatured, the debate over identity politics has positioned parochial identity groups (e.g. women, people of color, LGBT communities) against the universalism of emancipating all people, or at least of the entire working class. How do you see this debate?

Gilbert: I don’t understand why there is a debate, since both are essential and they’re so complementary. Movements or unions that are dominated by straight white males are far from universal. I haven’t kept up on all the literature; evidently, there are examples of identity politics that are all about narrow sectors competing to be “the most oppressed.” Nonprofit organizations, with their funding power, have fostered and rewarded such a narrow and competitive approach. But the thrust of the Combahee River statement and the women of color movement since the 1970s, 1 as well as more contemporary queer movements, have been about those who are oppressed being the ones who can best articulate their needs and aspirations and also the important ways those oppressions intersect. That enriches rather than detracts from our movements.

What’s divisive is racism, elitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. We face mammoth barriers to progress in the myriad ways that people oppressed in one way will still have contempt for those who are oppressed in other ways and even partake in keeping them down. The challenge for us as organizers is to achieve unity among all who have an interest in overturning the current, horribly destructive and demeaning order. That can only be done by breaking through the various forms of oppression, from the bottom–up, led by those who understand the issues best, to overturn the entire set of mutually reinforcing structures of domination. In short, the long march to universal human liberation must smash through each of the various specific barriers of oppression.

Berger: Your recent memoir, Love and Struggle, seeks to explain and uphold what you see as the best aspects of 1960s-era activism, while also chronicling the mistakes of the New Left and other movements of the era. You are quite self-critical as well, writing of the need to “struggle against our own weaknesses” in the fight for social justice. What has that struggle been like for you? Is it something that can only be done in retrospect, or how might you encourage young activists today to engage in this kind of struggle now?

Gilbert: While retrospect can afford added perspective, the struggle is always very much current and ongoing. For me personally, well, I look at some of my mistakes and my efforts to learn from them in Love and Struggle. When such issues were [first] raised with me, I’d get defensive; it would feel difficult, almost impossible, to change. But in the long run I’ve found the process to be very enriching and hopeful. I would absolutely encourage activists not to approach the struggles against our own weaknesses, which are inevitable growing up in this society, as grim or self-flagellating, as a question of guilt. Instead, the more we identify with and learn from other people, the more fully human we become and the better our chances for achieving real change.

Berger: You were imprisoned just as the war on drugs and mass incarceration became structuring tenets of life inside the United States. And since the “war on terror” began in 2001, prisons have become central to American foreign policy as well, epitomized by the prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force Base. Yet there has also been a renewed attention to American prisons domestically and abroad – due to the organizing of prisoners, as well as interest from journalists and scholars. What hope do you see for an end to mass incarceration? Have prisoners, in your experience, drawn connections between the domestic penal system and “war on terror” prisons? How have prisoners responded to the emerging movements in the Arab world and across the United States?

Gilbert: There are some very advanced prisoner struggles in places like California, Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia. 2 But where I’m at right now there has been a major decline in political consciousness since I came in. Prison is very much affected by what’s happening in the outside world. I think the combination of the destruction of leading organizations like the [Black] Panthers, AIM [American Indian Movement], and the Young Lords [a Puerto Rican militant organization in the late 1960s and early 1970s]; the loss of manufacturing jobs combined with the massive influx of drugs; and the relentless barraging of people with ads that encourage consumption have all set back consciousness outside and in. Also certain right-wing groups are working to undermine people’s ability to understand the system. The prisons have been flooded with conspiracy theories that divert from the analysis of how the imperialists rule. One destructive example is AIDS conspiracy theories that appeal to well-founded distrust of the public health system to then discourage black youth from HIV prevention and treatment. When we traced these back, the source was from the fascistic LaRouchite movement. 3

Despite all those setbacks, the legacy of the Panthers has a strong cachet, and prisoners are more aware than the general population about the dangers of the “war on terror” and how it has promoted torture, preventive detention, and warrantless surveillance. I mean, that’s always existed under imperialism, but institutionalizing these human rights abuses makes them more “accepted” and more widespread.

I think that part of the reason prisoners haven’t been more active comes from a sense of isolation and vulnerability, so a developing movement on the outside will have an impact in here. For both inside and outside it’s important to recognize that mass incarceration isn’t simply counterproductive in how it reproduces harm and violence and how it drains resources from positive and more effective programs. The “war on crime,” since President Nixon first proclaimed it at the end of the 1960s has been the spearhead for attacking and turning back the black liberation struggle and the related movements for social justice it had inspired. 4 So opposing mass incarceration and the war on crime is central, completely strategic, to rebuilding momentum for fundamental change.

Berger: You’ve been incarcerated for more than 30 years, much of it spent between New York’s most restrictive prisons: Attica, Auburn, Clinton, and Comstock. During that time, you’ve authored two books, written dozens of articles, started the first peer-education program for prisoners around HIV/AIDS, and mentored many young activists outside of prison. How have you been able to stay politically connected from inside prison? And what keeps you going after all these years?

Gilbert: Well “mentored” isn’t exactly the right word. I learn a lot from the young activists who write and/or visit. So I hope that our exchanges are very much a dialogue. And those dialogues, as well as the connections with so many wonderful old friends and comrades, are a major way I’ve stayed politically connected. Also, thanks to the struggles of a preceding generation of prisoners, I’m allowed to get a lot of, although not all, political literature. So all of that has helped keep me going. And I’m blessed with a tremendous amount of love in my life: my son, my family, old friends, younger-generation activists. So I’m very, very fortunate. Most broadly what keeps me going is a feeling of connection with, love for, and hope in humankind.

Notes on contributors

David Gilbert is a former member of SDS and the Weather Underground, currently serving a life sentence at Auburn Correctional Facility in New York state. He is the author, among other titles, of Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond, published in 2012 by PM Press.

Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington at Bothell and a founding member of Decarcerate PA. He is the author, among other titles, of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.


The authors would like to thank Naomi Jaffe and Jeremy Varon for their many insightful comments and suggestions on this interview.


1. The Combahee River Collective was a Boston-based black feminist organization that existed between 1974 and 1980. Its political statement remains an influential legacy to the rise of women of color feminism and paved the way for later theories of “intersectionality” that view race, gender, sexuality, and class as mutually constitutive elements of identity and social status. For more on Combahee as part of a black feminist movement, see Springer, Living for the Revolution.

2. Since 2010, prisoners in Georgia, Ohio, California, and Virginia have protested their conditions through coordinated strikes. The biggest of these has been the hunger strike inside California prisons, which began in the “supermax” prison at Pelican Bay. For more on that strike, including a list of the five basic demands prisoners developed, see the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition website, The San Francisco Bay View has printed several statements by prisoners involved in the strike, including messages to Occupy Wall Street activists; see The Black Agenda Report has reported on all of these prison struggles; see On 20 February 2012, coalitions of OWS and anti-prison activists held a national day of actions under the banner “Occupy for Prisoners.” Statements from prisoners and a listing of actions can be found at

3. Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr is a former Trotskyist who founded the National Caucus of Labor Committees in the 1960s. Since the early 1970s, however, LaRouche has been a far-right propagator of conspiracy theories rooted in anti-Semitism on a range of issues. LaRouche and his followers have used emotional and physical manipulation to ensure the compliance of members, and they have a history of physical attacks, spying, and dirty tricks against leftist groups while presenting themselves as being on the left. Several LaRouchites and LaRouche himself have run for office on the Democratic Party ticket, and they often try to recruit among leftwing events. For more on LaRouche, see King, Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism; Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism and America, 273–6; and the articles about LaRouche on the Political Research Associates website, (Thanks to Matthew Lyons for alerting me to these sources.) Gilbert wrote an essay in the mid-1990s debunking the conspiratorial thinking around AIDS. See Gilbert, “AIDS Conspiracy Theories.”

4. Several emerging studies on the rise of the carceral state confirm Gilbert’s view. See, for instance, Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters;” Gilmore, Golden Gulag; Rodríguez, Forced Passages; Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Parenti, Lockdown America. Historian Michael Flamm points out, however, that the war on crime first began under Lyndon Johnson, not Richard Nixon. Flamm’s argument feeds a broader concern with the ways in which liberals and the Democratic Party share similar if not equal blame as Republicans for the rise of mass incarceration. See Flamm, Law and Order.


1. Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York : The New Press.

2. Berlet, Chip and Lyons, Matthew N. 2000. Right-Wing Populism and America: Too Close for Comfort, New York : Guilford Press.

3. Flamm, Michael. 2005. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s, New York : Columbia University Press.

4. Gilbert, David. “AIDS Conspiracy Theories: Tracking the Real Genocide”. In No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner, 129–50. Montreal: Abraham Guillen Press and Arm the Spirit, 2004.

5. ———. No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner. Montreal: Abraham Guillen Press/Kersplebedeb, 2004.

6. ———. Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond. PM Press, 2012.

7. Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

8. King, Dennis. 1989. Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism, New York : Doubleday.

9. Parenti, Christian. 1999. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in an Age of Crisis, New York : Verso.

10. Rodríguez, Dylan. Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

11. Springer, Kimberly. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980, 1977. Reproduced under its original title, “A Black Feminist Statement”. In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 210–18. New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983.

12. Thompson, Heather Ann. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History”. Journal of American History 97 (2010): 703–34.


K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

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