Enemies of the State:
Interviews with Marilyn Buck, David Gilbert & Laura Whitehorn
(Resistance in Brooklyn, 1999)
Enemies: An Introduction
by Meg Starr, Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB)
The government and mainstream media have used their formidable powers to prevent real information about political prisoners Marilyn Buck, David Gilbert, Laura Whitehorn, and others from getting out. Small wonder. Like John Brown and those who stood with him, they are white people who took arms against the U.S. government, in solidarity with the oppressed. Invisible in the social democratic or liberal histories of the 1960s is the logic of their progression from public to clandestine activism. These three interviewed here help us to understand an important part of radical history so often distorted. They stood accused of such “unthinkable crimes” as infiltrating the Klan, robbing money from banks and giving it to Black self-defense patrols, helping to liberate framed Black Liberation Army (BLA) leader Assata Shakur from prison, bombing the Capitol Building in response to the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and bombing the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association after the brutal murder of a Black grandmother by NYC Police. We hope that this pamphlet will help reintroduce these dedicated people to the movement and help us all with the ongoing task of figuring out the role of white radicals.
Many activists joining the progressive movement over the past ten years have participated in some form of work around prison issues: protesting the growth of the prison industry, exposing control unit torture, supporting social prisoners, or working with political prisoners. All of this is important. Agitating around prisons can expose the true nature of U.S. “democracy” to people, as well as alleviating prisoners’ daily suffering. The ways prison is used to control communities of color, all poor and working-class people, and women is a vital part of how the state keeps itself in power. Behind thought control in bourgeois democracy is the thinly gloved hand of repressive power.
The movements of the late ’60s and ’70s shook the U.S. government’s control over its domestic population. They were powerful because of their widespread support in oppressed communities and among white youth,their internationalism, their revolutionary vision, and the radical strategies many organizations used to confront the system, from civil disobedience to armed propaganda. Responding to this challenge, U.S. counter-insurgency used many repressive tactics, including incarceration, to destroy these movements. Many of the over one hundred political prisoners and prisoners of war (POWs) in U.S. jails were key leaders of the organizations they
belonged to, leading national and local struggles for Black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, Native American sovereignty, and white anti-war and anti-imperialist action. Many of these prisoners became enemies of the state because they injected into the movements for social justice a most crucial element: revolutionary action.
These comrades challenged the armed power of the government directly, ripping to shreds the cloak of “peaceful democracy” with which the bourgeoisie tries to cover its real crimes. In the ’60s, the shift from peaceful petitioning to street demonstrations demanding the U.S. to stop
its attacks on Viet Nam transformed the movement into a force the government had to reckon with. The Black Panther Party didn’t stop with discussions of how to empower the Black community, they seized that power through a combination of direct action and armed self-defense. Similarly, many of the political prisoners and prisoners of war engaged in actions that moved beyond discussion and protest into challenging the basis of imperialism and colonialism. For the government, this raises the specter of real civil unrest, which must be stopped at it’s inception. That is why these comrades were systematically removed from their movements and communities.
Each time we defend these activists and bring their presence into our work, we challenge counterinsurgency. We build off the radical strategies of our immediate movement past and gain continuity. Continuity does not mean that the strategies of the past are necessarily those of the future. It just means that dialogue with those who have dedicated their lives to revolution will enrich our vision. As Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commentaries go out on the air waves, we are all strengthened.
Supporting political prisoners also challenges the system’s grip over our hearts and minds because their incarceration is held over all of our heads as a deterrent. It is one aspect of the repression and control of our movements, a direct carryover from the FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the 1950s and ’60s. Which is more frightening: being shot by the police or being buried alive? Where do we each take our fears as we build the movements of the twenty-first century, and deal with state repression today? Successful radical movement-building will always face repression; every sincerely radical organization must therefore have some aspect of their program that responds to political prisoners. Connecting with them teaches us about the state, but it can also give us hope. This is a time when our movements are rebuilding and reevaluating. There is a lull in domestic armed struggle and militant street actions. Work around the prisoners can and should be done from a general human rights perspective. It can also be done, however, by those who are radical and envision movements of the future that will again challenge the U.S. government to its core. The political prisoners own continued dedication and activism must be one sign to us in this very repressive time that the people are stronger than the system.
Whether or not a group’s specific daily work is around political prisoners or prison conditions, Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB) believes that everyone working toward revolutionary goals must give greater organizational priority to the work around freedom for our imprisoned comrades. In our imaginations, we can smash the barriers of fear and prison, as we organize to tear down the very real walls.
1a) Over the past years that you’ve been in prison-since 1981-many changes have taken place in the world and in our movements. When you made your decision to take militant action, there was a sense of worldwide revolution on the rise. Now, although there are many trends of protest and fight back, reaction appears to have consolidated. In this context, do you regret the sacrifice you made to fight against U.S. imperialism?
I definitely hate being in prison and, especially, the burden that’s placed on my loved ones. But I knew there were risks in going up against the power structure. The seventeen years in prison have only deepened my awareness of the totally antihuman nature of this social system. For example, with AIDS, prison administrators have generally displayed an inexcusable resistance to the peer education programs on prevention that could save many, many lives, and prisons have often acted with a heartless lack of care and support for prisoners with AIDS. And now I’ve experienced more directly how thoroughly racism and brutality are built into “criminal justice” in this country. There are about 1.5 million persons behind bars in the U.S. today. Without romanticizing the portion of crimes that prey upon the oppressed, the terrible rate and toll of incarceration is overwhelmingly the result of unjust racial and economic structures.
In terms of our case, there were certainly specific errors that I regret-tactical errors and political errors, too. Maybe we can characterize them later in the interview. These mistakes led to heavy human costs on both sides, and they also constituted a setback in the struggle against injustice.
But in terms of the basic principles and the broad commitment to the struggle, I have no regrets. You see, I’ve always had this core feeling that people matter; that people of color, women, the poor, children, lesbian and gays are all my brothers and sisters; that my sense of myself is totally bound up in what happens to all of us. Once I saw how imperialism is such a relentless destroyer of human life and potential . . . there really wasn’t any other choice for me, no other way but to fight imperialism. On this level my only regret is not doing so more effectively.
1b) You refer to “the system” and “imperialism.” In current radical discourse, it is more common to talk of various systems of oppression. How do you define imperialism?
Imperialism is built on and incorporates the structures of patriarchy and capitalism. And it is important-whatever name we use-to recognize the fullness of all modes of oppression: class exploitation, male supremacy and the related homophobia, white supremacy, and the host of other ways human beings are demeaned and limited.
But I think it all comes together in a more or less coherent social structure, with a range of sophisticated and brutal methods for a ruling class to maintain power. The value of the term “imperialism” is that it emphasizes the importance of a global system: the crucial polarization of wealth and power between a few rich and controlling “centers” (in Western Europe, the U.S., and Japan) and the impoverished “periphery” of the third world. The wealth of one pole is totally connected with the abject poverty of the other; the human and natural resources of the third world have been ruthlessly exploited to build up the developed economies. Thus, “imperialism” speaks most directly to the oppression of three-quarters of humankind.
That vantage point helps us see why third world struggles have been so central in the modern world. And there is the added resonance with the foundation of the U.S. on the internal colonization of Native Americans, New Afrikans (Blacks), Mexicano/as, and Puertoriceño/as. Those structures help to explain the depths of racism within this country and why that has so often corroded potentially radical movements among white people.
“Imperialism” is a summary word meant both to include all those elements author bell hooks underscores with the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and to emphasize the importance of solidarity with third world struggles.
2) Looking back over your own personal and political history, how did you first become politically aware and active? How and why did it lead you in an anti-imperialist direction?
Growing up in a white middle-class suburb where health care, good education and economic security were pretty much guaranteed, I was a fervent believer in democracy and the myth that there was equal opportunity for all. That myth was exploded for me at the age of fifteen, with the 1960 Greensboro, NC, sit-in. Not only did the growing civil rights movement expose the disgusting racism and inequality, but it also served as an inspiring example because of its humane sense of purpose, its strong sense of community, and the hopefulness that it generated.
At this same time, I began to look critically at U.S. foreign policy and saw that-quite contrary to “supporting democracy” – the U.S. was systematically imposing ruthless dictators throughout the third world as guarantors of U.S. business interests. Guatemala and Iran were two salient examples from 1956. The CIA overthrew democratic governments to replace them with repressive regimes more favorable to extraction of the wealth by United Fruit and Gulf Oil, respectively.
When I went to college at Columbia University, the most important experience for me was the opportunity to work in Harlem. In addition to the starkness of oppression there, I was deeply moved by the vitality of the culture and the spirit of resistance. People in Harlem certainly had a much more profound analysis of the social system than the political science professors at Columbia! That’s what transformed me from a left-liberal who wanted to “uplift” the oppressed (to be more like me), to a radical who saw that oppressed people could run their own community far better than any outsider. The oppressed had to become the arbiters of their own destiny; self-determination was the key for moving all social change forward.
This new appreciation of self-determination, along with my earlier study of foreign policy, enabled me to be an early opponent of U.S.’ blood-soaked intervention in Viet Nam. In March 1965, I founded and was the first chairperson of the Columbia Independent Committee Against the War In Viet Nam. That work led me to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), because I was looking for some group that combined antiwar work with antiracism, a belief in democracy, and at least a vague idea of socialism.
Organizing a successful demonstration or a teach-in was never my main goal. From the beginning, my concern was to find ways to keep building to the point where we could actually make a difference in overturning the injustices, toward changes that would actually affect people’s lives. That impetus led me to search for a deeper analysis of the power structure we faced. In 1967, I wrote the first SDS pamphlet that defined the system as “U.S. imperialism,” and that analysis was my threshold into the ensuing revolutionary period.
3) We hear all the time about people who were revolutionaries in the 1960s and who now have bought into white corporate America. What have been your experiences with (and what is your view on) this?
There are, of course, those examples that the media have spotlighted. But most of the people that I know from the movements of the 1960s still try to find ways to implement the ideals of that period. Most are in human service areas like teaching or medicine or law. Beyond being “nicer” to their “clients” than most professionals, they are open to and looking for initiatives for empowerment from within the oppressed communities. Granted, only a precious few people of these individuals have been able to continue as full-time activists or have sustained a practice of confronting the power structure, but that shortcoming is more a problem of where we are all at collectively in the current period, in terms of building the type of movement we need.
4a) Some movement activists have expressed the idea that violence cannot be justified for any reason, and even a few political prisoners have said that they were wrong to engage in violent acts. What are your feelings on this? How have they changed over the years?
Those who hold power envelop us in a media virtual reality that makes political violence exclusively an issue of the actions of opponents of the system. It’s obscene to accept those parameters, because they demand a heartless silence about the untold and incalculable violence of the system-massive and brutal, yet unnoticed because it is structured into the foundation of the status quo.
So let’s start with just a glimpse of what the daily functioning of imperialism means in people’s lives. Each year, twelve million children under the age of five die from malnutrition and easily preventable diseases-that’s 32,000 per day; 1.2 billion people live with virtually no access to health care; and 1.6 billion people don’t even have direct access to drinkable water. One hundred million children lack the most basic schooling.
This colossal suffering is not an act of nature. We easily produce enough to meet all basic human needs. Abject poverty continues so that, for example, the 358 richest individuals in the world can amass a combined net worth of 760 billion dollars, more than the combined net worth of the poorest two and half billion people put together.
Enforcing such a vicious social order requires the repressive regimes around the world that have jailed, tortured, “disappeared,” or murdered hundreds of thousands-actually millions-of persons.
I was initially a pacifist, but never one who condemned the resistance of the oppressed. The only principled form of nonviolence-as beautifully exemplified by people like Dave Dellinger or Fay Honey Knopp-is to constantly and creatively struggle against the infinitely greater violence of the social system.
After seven years of activism and analysis, I reluctantly concluded that there wasn’t a chance against the forces of repression without developing a capacity for armed struggle. But there certainly have to be clear moral standards regarding how that struggle is implemented. With armed struggle-as with any aspiration to play a “leading” role-it is very easy to fall into the corruption of ego. So it is essential to have firm guidelines to keep such actions completely directed toward dismantling the power structure and to take the utmost precautions to avoid hurting civilians. We have to be sure that our action is always to further the interests of the oppressed and to build their participation rather than to aggrandize the armed group’s own power and status. There have to be forms for criticism from and accountability to the oppressed. Of course, there are also critical issues about what constitutes an effective strategy, questions that I’m not addressing here but that are far from settled in today’s world.
4b) How did you respond to the charges of violence in your own case?
During our trial, we were besieged by attacks on armed struggle-of course from the mainstream but also, in various forms, from within the left. We felt embattled, and we in turn were very dogmatic in treating armed struggle as the principle rather than as one of the necessary means to fight to stop oppression. On a personal level, I regret that we weren’t capable of expressing publicly a feeling of loss and pain for the families of the two officers and the guard who were killed. Even in a battle for a just cause, we can’t lose our feeling for the human element. It’s not like these three men were picked as targets for being especially heinous or conscious enforcers of the system. Rather, they just happened to be the representatives of the state’s and banks’ armed forces who responded on that day. So it must have felt like a completely senseless and bitter loss to their families. On our side, Mtayari Shabaka Sundiata was gunned down by police two days later, an irreparable loss of a committed and courageous BLA warrior.
The pain of the human losses, on both sides, is even more regrettable because of the serious political errors we made in how this action came down. I feel sorry for the losses and pain of the families of those who were killed. I feel also the pain to my own family, who never got to make choices about the risks I would take. And I feel self-critical for political mistakes and setbacks in the struggle against this criminal social system.
The cost of errors that are made in the course of armed struggle are very visible. It is a lot of responsibility. At the same time, it is a shame that the very grave errors of inaction, of not fighting hard enough, are rarely even noticed. What were the costs, in terms of violence, of the terrible passivity of most of the white left during the FBI and police campaigns of the 1960s and ’70s, whose acts of annihilation against Black liberation resulted in the murder of dozens of Black activists and the decimation of the movement that had been the spearhead for social change in the U.S.? What was the toll from radicals’ inaction while the FBI orchestrated the murders of sixty-nine American Indian Movement (AIM) members and supporters around the Pine Ridge Reservation in the three years after the high tide of resistance there?
Please keep in mind, when discussing violence, how effectively the corporate media manipulates the most humane of emotions. Whenever enforcers of the system, or its allies, are hurt, we are presented, most vividly, with the human reality of their lives and the grieving of their families. But there is a terrible media silence about the far, far greater number of innocent victims of imperialist violence. They are not considered human beings; they are relegated to limbo, considered nonentities, by a media that simply presses the erase button on the video equipment.
Take Guatemala. I mentioned earlier that the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government there in 1956. Since then, according to international human rights organizations, tens of thousands of Guatemalan civilians-peasants, Indians, laborers, women, students-have been “disappeared.” “Disappeared” is a euphemism for when gangs of police or soldiers illegally kidnap suspected opponents of the regime. They are never seen again because they usually are tortured and interrogated and then murdered and buried in unmarked graves. This form of terrorism is common among the U.S.-client regimes in Central America; in fact, the worst abuses come from military and police units whose leadership was trained in the U.S.
Or, to take just one more example, how many people in the U.S. know that the worst genocide relative to population since the Holocaust is occurring in East Timor? Since Indonesia invaded that island in 1975, an estimated 200,000 of the 690,000 East Timorese have been killed. In addition, the social conditions imposed by occupation have left the East Timorese with the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Indonesia isn’t just a close ally, supported and armed by the U.S.; the brutal military regime there was installed by a CIA-supported coup that involved massacring a half million Indonesians. Of course, it was all for a good cause. Today, Indonesian women work at Nike’s factories for $2.10 per day. When you buy those Nike running shoes for $80.00, about $2.60 of that goes to pay the wages of the workers who made them.
There are literally millions of other examples where the human realities are totally whited-out, off screen, out of print. I’m not saying that the antidote to the media’s crass manipulation of our emotions is to cynically close ourselves to the human displays they do present. What I’m asking for instead is that we open our hearts and consciousnesses much more widely to know about and feel the many more people who are ripped apart by the naked political repression and barbarous social conditions inflicted by imperialism. These are all human beings, whose lives matter.
When we look at the issue of violence in an honest and fully human way, the primary question becomes how can we most effectively change this unjust social system?
11) What are your thoughts on the current political climate and on possible strategies for movement building?
I think we are in the midst of a fascist consolidation. The iron fist has not yet manifest itself fully, but it will. It appears to me that the white Left in general does not share such a view. Of course, in Germany in the late ’20s and early ’30s most German citizens did not experience rising
Nazism as dangerous to their social existence-not until military bombings, food shortages, etc. Most people were little concerned about the death and concentration camps. Dead and imprisoned communists, mass genocide of Jewish and Gypsy peoples and Soviet citizens, were not of concern to the vast majority. But these camps and prisons were hell for the imprisoned and money-makers for the capitalist class-seizure of property, slave labor, etc.
There is a crying need for stronger antiracist organizations. I do not believe that any white person who says he or she believes in and supports the goals of justice, human rights, liberation, cannot engage in organized antiracist activity and still call her- or himself progressive, radical, or left. How can any woman who identifies herself as a feminist not struggle against racism, white supremacy-after all, those peoples who are oppressed are at least 50 percent women! W. E. B. Du Bois posed that the problem of the color line is the problem of the 20th century. It still is and will be in the 21st century. Issues of class and gender-sex oppression cannot be separated from the issue of racial domination and white supremacy. And if we white people who are progressive will not stand up to resist racial genocide and barbaric U.S. policies, what other white people will.
In the U.S. the conditions of scapegoating setting up a group (or groups) of people are well entrenched. People of African descent have been treated historically as the enemy, the scapegoats, the “other,” and most of all as inferior because of one of the pillars and justifications of American history-white supremacy. Not only African people are under increasing attack. All other people identifiable as not “American” by their skin color or name or physical characteristic are also targets. There needs to be a refocusing on issues of liberation and justice. More anti-imperialism. It is not enough to hate the state because it is a state; we need to be able to support peoples around the world who are in opposition to imperialism to support ongoing national liberation movements from the Zapatistas to Puerto Rican independentistas and Black liberationists. We are in an objectively difficult period of history, where the forces for liberation and justice have lost the momentum. We, as a broad front, do not yet seem to have found a strategic vision to rebuild our forces, much less how to slow down the trampling of capitalism.
A strategy to rebuild and provide a basis for advancing forward with a radical vision of ending this brutal system is not easy. We already have learned about U.S. imperialism’s ability to regroup after its own losses and setbacks (the loss of the war in Viet Nam, the inability to reclaim Cuba for example). We know how the State disables national liberation and class struggle internally-using white supremacy, bribery and co-optation, force, COINTELPRO, assassination, and low-intensity warfare. We have definitely learned a lot in this century. These lessons should be used to empower us, not to make us more scared of fighting back, not to make us backtrack into reformism or accommodationism. When one is white in this society, there is always something to lose. Rejecting one’s white privilege for the sake of a realizable potential that is not yet experienced is hard, but definitely worth struggling for. We need to fight the growing intellectual/psychological construct that reasserts and reinforces the inferiority of non-European peoples and justifies barbarism and genocide. Let’s not forget how the architects of fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany created an enemy.
To even embark on a strategy of rebuilding and realization-to renew a liberating vision of justice and human rights-we must be clear about the strengths of state power and be prepared to defend ourselves against that power. The repressive apparatus is powerful, with its fingers stretched into every crevice or crack in the state’s hegemony it can find. In Europe the resistance was initiated against fascist states. In both France but particularly in Italy, those groups led in large part by radical and revolutionary forces had the potential to claim state power in favor of the masses of people. In Yugoslavia, Tito and the resistance did succeed and created a society much more beneficial to all its members than are the fragments of that society today. If no such consciousness of these forms of struggle exist or develop soon, then I think the potential to advance will be severely compromised.
People fought back against European fascism. People worked in clandestine movements. Would the imperialist big-bang war have ended German and Italian fascism and aggression without the internal resistance movements that were led in large part by anticapitalist forces? Think about that! Or think how many more people would have been massacred. . . We need the capacity for, understanding of, and willingness to resist and use whatever means necessary to stand for justice, human dignity, and liberation and against national oppression, white supremacy, class exploitation, and the oppression of women and of gay people. Without this, there will be no forward-moving change in the conditions of existence for the vast majority of the peoples, at least not here in the U.S.
I do not believe that there will be forward-moving change in this country without both changing the system and dismantling this nation’s state as an oppressor nation. I also believe this struggle can only succeed if led by oppressed peoples and nations. How we-as progressive, radical, or revolutionary white people-relate to the objective, material conditions of struggle will in large part define our historical ability to play a role in making the changes necessary to open the way to liberation and justice for all.
That is our responsibility and our challenge.