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Friday, October 15, 2010

Fire and Smoke: Bo Brown and Prison Abolition (2007)

By James Clark
May 16, 2007

On June 1, 1975, a bomb ripped through the office of the deputy director of Corrections at the Washington State Department of Corrections in Olympia. The communiqu(c) for the bombing publicly announced the existence of the George Jackson Brigade. It also demanded reforms in Washington prisons, demands that had sparked an uprising at Walla Walla prison six months earlier.(1) Through Brigade member Rita “Bo” Brown, women’s prison abolition and revolutionary struggle emerges in a larger trend of American abolitionism that began with the anti-slavery movement and continues today.

Bo Brown grew up in a small town in southern Oregon with her white working class parents and brother.(2) For Brown, high school was her introduction to the “ugliness of class.” She was placed in the accelerated classes that contained mostly the what she called the “rich kids who had the benefit of better encyclopedias.”(3) Schooling is often the agent for building children’s awareness because it is their first contact with people from other communities. In her autobiography, Lakota Woman, indigenous rights activist and member of the American Indian Movement, Mary Crow Dog recounts a similar awakening during her time at boarding school. The historical colonial relationship between those who attended the school and those who ran it exposed her to the hierarchy of class and race.(4) While the stratification and repression of the school environment was an early influence on Brown, the same factors were intensified in prison.

After graduating from college in Salem, Oregon, Brown moved to Seattle in 1968 and discovered the gay bar scene(5) in a time when police harassment and brutality against the queer community was prevalent.(6) While working at the United States Postal Service in 1971, Brown was arrested for stealing from her employer and given a one year sentence at Terminal Island Federal Prison in California. During this first stint in prison, Brown’s political consciousness began to develop. Prison provided her with a real world education about racism and police abuse, as well as more homophobia and queer bashing.(7) One event that was of particular significance was the murder of George Jackson in the summer of 1971. Jackson was a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison, an experience which, like Brown’s, tuned him in to the injustices of American society. He had become a figurehead for both the Black Liberation and prison abolition movements, and his book of letters, Soledad Brother, was a best seller. In August of that year, while Bo Brown was reading Soledad Brother at Terminal Island, guards at San Quentin shot Jackson dead during an alleged was an escape attempt. Only weeks later, in response to Jackson’s killing and the conditions of incarceration, Attica prison in upstate New York erupted in a four-day prisoner uprising. The Attica uprising brought widespread media attention to the anti-prison movement, which Jackson attributed to the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.(8) For Brown, it crystallized the injustice of the prison system and steeled her will for a lifetime of struggling to dismantle that system.

Though George Jackson placed the origins of the prison abolition movement with the Black Panther Party, former Panther, prison activist and professor at the UC, Santa Cruz Angela Davis places prison abolition in the movement toward “abolition democracy” which follows the movements against slavery, lynching, and segregation.(9) The links between slavery and prison go back to the period immediately after the Civil War, when the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited slavery “except as a punishment for crime.”(10) After Reconstruction, southern states enacted Black Codes which criminalized the emancipated black population. Prisoners were then rented out cheaply to white businessmen in what became known as the “Convict Lease System.”(11) In Louisiana, a former slave plantation was donated to the state which built a maximum security prison on the land, where the 80% black population still harvests sugar cane.(12) Director of the National Campaign to Restore Voting Rights, Robin Templeton continues the comparison saying both slavery and modern incarceration “decimate life by stealing people from their communities, forcing families apart, and converting human beings into disposable [labor].”(13) Today, African-Americans comprise almost one-half of the over two million people incarcerated in America, despite being only twelve percent of the population, demonstrating the enduring racialization of the prison system.(14) Brown University Professor Joy James argues that “the state through legal [documents], the academic through her scholarship, and the prisoner from his cell, all assert the presence of slavery in the United States as a post-emancipation reality.”(15) Though differences exist between the two institutions, both have bred fierce opposition movements intent on dismantling the systemic injustice.

To place Bo Brown directly in this lineage of abolition, she could be seen as a modern hybrid of Harriet Tubman and John Brown. Harriet Tubman, as an escaped slave and abolitionist, took bold and often militant action to help lead her fellow slaves to freedom. More incidentally, like Bo Brown, Tubman often dressed up as a man to carry out her clandestine actions. John Brown, as a white abolitionist, used his relative privilege to tirelessly and sometimes violently fight the oppression being brought to bear on communities society had deemed inferior. Both in and out of the Brigade, Brown exhibits these characteristics in her struggle against the prison-industrial complex.

After serving seven months of her one-year sentence, Bo Brown was paroled back to Seattle where she immediately got involved in anti-prison work as well as the lesbian and feminist movements. She helped start a group called Women Out Now that helped “bridge those gaps between the women inside [prison] and the community” by bringing the women’s children to visit them in prison, sending them literature, and bringing people from the community to talk about what was happening on the outside. She also advocated for the rebels in Attica as they faced new charges stemming from the uprising, and worked on the SunFighter newsletter for Washington prisoners.(16)

In addition to the prison movement, the early 1970s were a time when, as Brown describes, the world was going through “pre-revolutionary convulsions.”(17) The United States military had just been defeated by communist guerrilla forces in Vietnam. Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, anti-colonial national liberation struggles were capturing the minds of millions. In the United States, ethnic liberation movements were being subverted and destroyed by state infiltration and violence. Some members of the Black Panther Party responded to the repression by going underground and targeting the police and corporate apparatus for attack.(18) The vanguard of the white student anti-war movement, Students for a Democratic Society, was split over the issue of revolutionary violence and the Weatherman faction also went underground to facilitate their attacks against the state and corporate structures.(19) There was a common theme espoused in radical and revolutionary minded organizations of the time that revolutionary “theory ain’t worth a shit if you ain’t got [the] practice” to back it up.(20) It was in this context that the George Jackson Brigade formed in Seattle.

The Brigade was comprised primarily of working class ex-prisoners and included a spectrum of genders, sexualities, and races.(21) This composition of people was key to both the Brigades formation as well as its functioning. The social and economic status of being unemployed or under-employed ex-convicts created a sense that mainstream society had little left to offer. Most Brigade members faced a reality that they could not return to a life of comfort and opportunity—that they could either “[eat] shit in a factory” or fight for something entirely new and liberatory.(22) This attitude is the natural result of an institution that seeks not only temporary incarceration, but permanent alienation through disenfranchisement, ineligibility in much of the job market, and reduction of a person’s basic humanity to that of “criminal.”(23) Mary Crow Dog describes how the same alienation of indigenous people led to the development of militancy in the American Indian Movement. The violence and harassment from both law enforcement and civilians gave many in AIM the idea that if they were going to be attacked anyway, they “should at least give them a good reason for it.”(24) Crow Dog believes Native Americans live in “that corner” where they can either be crushed by the weight of American society and the violence implicit in it, or fight back.(25) Prisoners and ex-prisoners also live in that same corner, and it is that corner that the George Jackson Brigade came roaring out of.

While the presence of ex-prisoners led to the formation of the Brigade, it was the presence of strong women that guided the Brigade’s functioning. Brown states that having “strong women in the mix” helped to not only keep machismo in check but also provided a force for critical self examination within the Brigade.(26) In September 1975, the George Jackson Brigade bombed a Safeway store in Seattle in to protest worker exploitation and price fixing, the capture of four members of the Sybianese Liberation Army, and in remembrance of a comrade who had blown himself up trying to bomb the same Safeway only days prior.(27) The store failed to evacuate people after receiving the bomb threat, and several people received minor injuries in the explosion. According to Brown, it was the women in the Brigade that demanded the Brigade publicly apologize for the botched action, one that was never intended to hurt anyone.(28) This spirit of self-criticism and accountability extended to all the Brigade’s endeavors, and was influenced in part by women who were not willing to subordinate the internal dynamics of the Brigade to its public actions. Women not only made up at least half the Brigade, but also provided at least half the leadership and participation. This is a testament to the Brigade’s emphasis on building a healthy and liberatory organization, capable of fighting the state.(29)

The Brigade was united primarily around the “determination to fight capitalism—with force of arms—here and now.”(30) But they also had eight other uniting principles concerning the fight against capitalism and for the liberation of all people. Amongst these was the recognition that sexism is one of the “fundamental bulwarks of all class society.”(31) This sentiment follows a long tradition of revolutionary feminism. In her 1935 essay “Women and Communism”, Rebecca Pitts writes that the “subjection of women was necessary to early capitalism” and that the relative freedom later granted to women was done only for profit, just as the emancipation of slaves was allowed only when it was to be profitable.(32) And, just as emancipation did not fully free blacks, opening the job market, or a portion of it, did not free women. There was still much interest, profit driven or otherwise, in maintaining a racial and sexual hierarchy. Brown rounds out the analysis about the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism saying: “If you change the way you treat women and children, then you have to have basic change in society.”(33) Male dominance is so fundamentally woven into the fabric of society that removing it necessitates a revolutionary restructuring of society.

Over the next three years, the Brigade executed numerous political bombings and banks robberies to fund their operations. In August, 1975, the Brigade bombed the Washington offices of the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs in response to the attacks against the American Indian Movement on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota. On New Years Eve, 1976, the Brigade bombed and completely destroyed the power substation that provided electricity to a wealthy neighborhood in Seattle to support striking City Light utility workers. The striking workers refused to repair the station, and threatened to picket the site to make sure scabs could not repair it.(34) Bo Brown sees this act as an example of mass understanding, if not support, for what the Brigade was doing. She notes that informal networks sprung up to distribute Brigade communiqu(c)s all over the city, mentioning that they could even sometimes be found at the same Safeway stores that were bombed.(35) Brown regards a bombing in support of striking prisoners at Walla Walla as a prime example of the effectiveness of what the Brigade was doing. After over forty days of striking, all the coverage by the mass media never included the voice of any of the prisoners at Walla Walla. So, the Brigade bombed Rainer National Bank, which had close financial ties to the Seattle Times, demanding fair coverage of the prisoners’ strike. The next day, the Times interviewed a prisoner at Walla Walla and the prison’s conditions were “revealed to be so brutal and medieval” that the prison’s veteran warden as well as director of the Department of Corrections were both fired.(36)

Brown’s specialty was bank robberies, or “expropriations”, which were the Brigades prime source of funds. Her butch style, along with some costumes, threw off law enforcement, which spent several years looking for a man.(37) Nevertheless, in 1977, Brown was captured by authorities and sentenced to federal prison for several armed robberies. She spent her first year in a Maximum Security Unit (MSU) in Alderson, West Virginia. The MSU was “a prison with in a prison,”(38) separated from the rest of the facility with razor wire and fences. It was where the “most dangerous women in the country” were sent, including Brown and fellow revolutionary and Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur.(39)

Bo Brown did not waste anytime restarting her activism in prison. She became a jailhouse lawyer, offering informal legal advice to other inmates. At Alderson, she pressed the prison to stop allowing male guards supervise female inmates while showering.(40) This seemingly obvious measure is still absent in prisons across the nation. Today, Amnesty International’s first recommendation to stem the mistreatment and abuse of women in prison is to allow only female officers to guard female prisoners.(41) This rejection of self-evident logic is what characterizes the modern prison industry. Psychologists and sociologists routinely stress the importance of parental involvement in a child’s successful development.(42) Yet, 80% of adult women in prison have children, and most of them are single moms.(43) Though women in prison become the captive victims of sexual abuse and lose the right to raise their children, prisons remain the preferred solution to social ills.

In 1986, Bo Brown was paroled to San Francisco where she continues her struggle against the prison industrial complex. Within a year after her release, Brown co-founded the Out of Control Lesbian Committee to Support Women Political Prisoners.(44) She sees the outside support people gave her as essential for helping her make it through her prison term, and questions why every city in America does not have a prisoner support committee.(45) She does not regret her actions as part of the Brigade and, in reference to mistakes that were made, notes that there are no schools that teach revolutionary struggle, so it is all principled guesswork. She also still firmly believes that no great social reordering can occur without a revolt or rebellion, because “the rich people, greedy people, and mass-murdering motherfuckers who run the world . . . .ain’t gonna give it up.”(46) Only the people at the bottom can force radical social change.

The trajectory of American abolitionism has been long and often violent. It took the slave revolts and the Civil War to end the slave society, and it will take real struggle to end the prison society. The intensified oppression of women under the weight of a racist, classist, and sexist prison system ensures that women like Bo Brown will always be at the forefront of that struggle.

(1) The Power of the People is the Force of Life: Political Statement of the George Jackson Brigade. (Montreal: Abraham Guillen Press, 2002) 33-44.
(2) Rita Brown, “A Short Autobiography,” George Jackson Information Project http://www.gjbip.org/documents/bo_short_bio.htm [cited April 27 2007].
(3) Rita “Bo” Brown, Telephone interview. April 8, 2007.
(4) Mary Crow Dog, Lakota Woman. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1990) ch 3.
(5) Brown, “Autobiography”.
(6) “Stonewalled: Police abuse and misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the U.S.” Amnesty International http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR511222005 [cited April 26 2007].
(7) Brown, “Autobiography”.
(8) George Jackson, “An Interview with George Jackson” in James, Joy, ed. The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005) 229.
(9) Eduardo Mendieta, “Introduction” in Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005) 16.
(10) U.S. Constitution, Thirteenth Amendment, Section 1.
(11) Mendieta, 9.
(12) Jimmy O’Halligan, Three Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation, 2005
(13) Robin Templeton, “She Who Believes in Freedom: Young Women Defy the Prison Industrial Complex” in The Fire This Time ed. Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin. (New York: Anchor Books, 2004) 256.
(14) David Cole, No Equal Justice. (New York: The New Press, 1999), 4.
(15) Joy James, “Introduction” in James, Joy, ed. The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005) xxiv.
(16) Brown, interview.
(17) Brown, interview.
(18) Jalil Muntaqim “On the Black Liberation Army.” (Montreal: Solidarity, 1997) 3.
(19) Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 49-50.
(20) Brown, interview. Also fred Hampton.
(21) The Power of the People, 4.
(22) Brown, interview.
(23) Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. (New
York: Seven Stories Press, 2005) 38. additional citation and maybe expansion of sentence desirable.
(24) Crow Dog, 65.
(25) Crow Dog, 51. add something about slavery again.
(26) Brown, interview.
(27) “Creating a movement with teeth: the complete communiqu(c)s of the George Jackson Brigade” George Jackson Information Project http://www.gjbip.org/comm_teeth.htm [cited April 27 2007].
(28) Brown, interview.
(29) The Power of the People , 4.
(30) The Power of the People , 5.
(31) The Power of the People , 6.
(32) Rebecca Pitts, “Women and Communism.” in Writing Red eds. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz. (New York: The Femminist Press, 1987), 318-319.
(33) Brown, interview.
(34) The Power of the People , 34.
(35) Brown, interview.
(36) Daniel Burton-Rose, “Guerrillas in Our Midst.” Lip Magazine 15 February 1999, http://www.lipmagazine.org/articles/featrose_9.htm [cited April 26 2007].
(37) Scott Winn, “Talkin’ About a Revolution” Real Change http://www.realchangenews.org/pastarticles/interviews/fea.bo.html [cited April 26 2007].
(38) Brown, interview. Shakur used the exact same phrase; see below for that citation.
(39) Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987), 253-254.
(40) Burton-Rose.
(41) “Abuse of Women in Custody: Sexual Misconduct and Shackling of Pregnant Women: Recomendations” Amnesty International http://www.amnestyusa.org/Abuse_of_Women_in_Custody/Recommendations/page.do?id=1108306&n1=3&n2=39&n3=720 [cited May 6 2007].
(42) Zoann K. Snyder-Joy and Teresa A. Carlo, “Parenting Through Prison Walls” in Crime Control and Women ed. Susan L. Miller, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publication, 1998), 130.
(43) Templeton, 266.
(44) Burton-rose.
(45) Brown, interview.
(46) Brown, interview.

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