Taking Lessons From Black Political Prisoners During Black August
From local police outfitted with military-grade equipment, to nonviolent protesters jailed on terrorism charges, the spectacle of state repression has become an increasingly visible part of the Black liberation struggle in U.S. cities. Police and prisons have long served as a conduit for stamping out Black-led protest movements, especially when those movements openly challenge capitalism and state power. Between the 1960s and 1980s, for example, local, state and federal law enforcement coordinated massive campaigns to dismantle radical groups like the Black Panthers, Republic of New Afrika and Black Liberation Army, using long prison sentences to take their members off the map. In the wake of COINTELPRO and similar programs, a generation of Black organizers and activists faced incarceration, often continuing their organizing efforts inside prison as they fought for release.
It’s within this context that inmates at California’s San Quentin State Prison celebrated the first “Black August” in 1979. Throughout the month, “participants refused food and water before sundown, did not use the prison canteen, eschewed drugs and boastful behavior, boycotted radio and television, and engaged in rigorous physical exercise and political study.” Black August became a way to memorialize those in the Black liberation struggle who’d been jailed or killed at the state’s hands — like the communist writer and activist George Jackson, who was killed by San Quentin guards in August 1971. More broadly, it became an opportunity to reflect on the long arc of Black resistance in America, and its many watershed moments that have taken place in the month of August.
Since the 1970s, a number of organizations have kept up the Black August tradition, like the Movement for Black Lives, or M4BL, an abolitionist, anti-capitalist network of Black-led political groups formed to “co-create a shared movement-wide strategy” for Black liberation. Part of this network is the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, or MXGM, a 33-year-old national organization dedicated to “New Afrikan” self-determination, community defense and opposition to white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy.
Throughout this year, MXGM’s nine chapters have supported Rukia Lumumba’s campaign for Mississippi state legislature, the #StopCopCity movement in Atlanta, and political education programs on Black radicalism — but the bulk of its current work focuses on campaigns to free political prisoners. MXGM played a central role in efforts to secure the release of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, a radical health justice organizer who’s most well-known as the stepfather of rapper Tupac. After an extensive career with groups like the Black Liberation Army and Republic of New Afrika, Shakur spent more than 35 years in federal prison before getting paroled last year. He passed away in July from cancer at the age of 72, seven months into his release.
As Black August commemorations continue across the country, I spoke with MXGM organizer Jomo Muhammad about the broader context of Black August, the underrecognized work of Black political prisoners, and how social movements can address anti-Black state repression in the current moment.
Since the first Black August in 1979, many Black organizers have used the tradition to “[amplify] our history of resistance” and to “honor the legacies of freedom fighters who languish in cages or have been killed by the state.” Why did the MXGM start commemorating Black August, and how does it complement your ongoing work?
COINTELPRO poster (Twitter/@MXGMNational)
A founding member of the Oakland chapter, Mama Ayanna [Mashama], was one of the founding members of the Black August Organizing Committee back in 1979 — so we have been a part of Black August since its beginning, and part of the set of organizations that were on the outside. We weren’t the MXGM in 1979, but many of the elders that helped found the MXGM were connected to the formation of Black August. Our founders were part of liberation struggles that were targeted by COINTELPRO, forcing many of them to go underground, to figure out ways to defend themselves.
That includes the recently-transitioned, former political prisoner Dr. Mutulu Shakur, [who’s] seen as a founding member of the MXGM; and Chokwe Lumumba, who becomes a lawyer to defend political prisoners, and goes on to defend Mutulu, Geronimo Ji-Jaga [Pratt], Assata Shakur, a lot of the political prisoners who were targeted by COINTELPRO. Founding member Watani Tyehimba (who’s featured in the Tupac and Afeni Shakur documentary series “Dear Mama”) was also a political prisoner: he was detained for a year and a half for his refusal to give any information on the whereabouts of Mutulu Shakur.
So for us as an organization, we’re rooted in that movement, and in some ways, the organization is the child of those political prisoners.
It’s notable that the Black August tradition started with incarcerated people who had been organizing within their own prisons. How has this history of radical organizing within prisons shaped Black liberation movements on the outside?
In so many ways. I think the first and most immediate is just in the example: once these people struggling for liberation were incarcerated, that did not stop their organizing. They continued to organize wherever they were — even though many of them were kept separated from the general population, kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, under heavy surveillance — and really started a movement within the United States penal system that was organizing for immediate improvements in the conditions of all prisoners, as well as preparing them to, once released, enter into struggle and join organizations. That model of organizing, that level of unbreakable spirit in the face of state repression, is awe-inspiring for me as an organizer not facing that level of state repression. I think also, their work as organizer-scholars. [Political prisoners] have written a lot of work while incarcerated, continuing to struggle for ideas even while their bodies were incarcerated.
What we’re learning, too, is this beautiful comradeship that existed between all of them and this real sense of what it means to have revolutionary love. One of our favorite quotes in the #FreeMutuluNOW campaign was, “people struggle for liberation because they love people” — that was Mutulu Shakur. Chokwe [Lumumba] has a quote where he says, “The heart of any movement to free political prisoners … is a revolutionary heart.” There’s such an example around what it means to love, to love revolutionarily. As George Jackson says, “to discover your humanity and your love in revolution” is one of the powerful, sometimes understated, lessons and messages of Black August.
I think a lot of the time, the role of these folks once they are incarcerated sort of becomes downplayed. Organizers get caged, but that doesn’t mean that the work stops all of a sudden. It’s still there, you’re just not seeing it.
And that’s by design, that’s why they got pulled up off the street: so that their work would be hidden and unseen, because it was a powerful work.
One of the things I remember hearing from Dr. Mutulu Shakur was how other prisoners would lament that their people were not writing them, their people weren’t coming to visit them, and they needed love and support too. What we know about political prisoners and their relationship to mass incarceration in this country is that oftentimes psychological control and isolation are tried out on them first before it’s passed on to the general population. So it’s not surprising that the alienation, the separation, the disconnection that political prisoners can have from movements is intentional. That was COINTELPRO — “disrupt, discredit” — it’s right there.
That’s, then, what makes Black August such an offer and an opening to heal that disconnection: to take a month to focus our energy and our attention to those behind bars — to write them, to do the things that they practiced in order to try to transform themselves [and] prepare themselves for movement, as we are actively in movement.
M4BL is explicitly abolitionist and within abolitionist thought and practice there’s a wide spectrum of approaches to state power. Where some groups work toward so-called “non-reformist reforms,” others believe that appealing to the state to transform itself can legitimize the harm that it commits. As part of a broad coalition like M4BL, how often have you seen this debate play out in your own work?
It’s a constant struggle, and to be somewhat anticipated. It’s even in the current work around Cop City and the referendum. Sometimes folks have a sense like there’s going to be a perfect strategy. With each particular strategy or tactic comes a particular risk or care or cost that we always try to tend to — but often, we don’t necessarily fully control the game. Our oppressors have a vote in the process, and the exchange, and the conversation.
For us as the MXGM, Malcolm said, “by any means necessary,” and we take that to be “by any means necessary.” One of our grand elders says, “a revolution has to be a master of all forms of struggle,” including legal and electoral struggle. But I think there’s always then the question of, “For the sake of what?” And sometimes that can get lost in these efforts. Or we have the other approach, where we go into these things expecting to lose, and that can also be harmful.
The variables are always changing. You might come in thinking, “Alright, I know exactly what needs to be done,” and all of a sudden, the conditions shift on you.
I think we’ve experienced that in the MXGM. Many of our folks moved to the South hoping to organize for a Black nation. And 25 years later, you have Chokwe running for city council and then mayor [in Jackson, Mississippi]. And part of that was keeping the same objective, but understanding that time, place and condition begin to suggest what tactic or pathway might get us where we need to go.
Sometimes where we don’t have clarity with our movements is having that conversation of where does this end, what is the end of abolition for you. Oftentimes we’re responding to these social crises so much that we’re just in response mode. So there’s often very little time to actually have that level of conversation when you gotta get 100,000 signatures or press the city council to do something in three weeks. Sometimes it’s in the wake, then, that we find that we might have agreed on what we’re against — but what we’re for, we still need to struggle to connect and be with one another for those things.
As recently as 2019, the FBI used the term “Black Identity Extremist” in counter-terrorism reports, and many protesters and “forest defenders” in Atlanta’s #StopCopCity campaign are being tried under Georgia’s anti-terrorism laws. How do you address concerns about the personal impact of state repression while trying to build a strong, sustainable movement?
That’s difficult, and probably something we really can’t control for at the end of the day. I think that’s why, for many of the organizations in the M4BL, consent is a real leadership principle. We have to be clear around the risks we face when we confront the state, and I think that’s one of the lessons of Black August and political prisoners. When you take a step back and assess what they were up to and what brought on state repression, it’s not very different than the organizing that we’re doing today.
Understanding the history of policing tied to slavery … to stand up and defy the ruling class whites in your particular community brought with it its risks, and often just being Black [brought risks]. It’s like that Fanon quote where he talks about, “you’re rich because you’re white, you’re white because you’re rich” — we’re Black because we’re brutalized by the police, and we’re brutalized by the police because we’re Black.
For many folks, organizing becomes this offer of resilience, of community defense, if you will: where folks are building community with one another, centered in the principles of consent and collective accountability. One of our oft-said phrases in the M4BL is, “Who keeps us safe? We keep each other safe.” We understand that police have never kept us safe, that it’s always been community that has kept us safe, it’s always been our organizing that’s kept us safe.
COINTELPRO has never stopped: I think we should be clear that it hasn’t stopped, it’s only changed form. This label of “Black Identity Extremist” is part of that new age COINTELPRO. The M4BL did a report that looked at the federal persecution cases of Black organizers, and noted that Black organizers were sentenced and charged with harsher crimes compared to whites who were arrested for their political activity — pointing out a very clear racist application of that practice.
How can social movements better support Black political prisoners as they fight to re-enter their communities, before and after they come home?
One, I freedom dream of a day when every Black organization — from our churches to our Greek organizations to youth organizations — has a Black political prisoner that they are in correspondence with. I think the first act is making a connection. Organizations can make time to do letter writing — it’s a great activity to do when you’re on the bus ride to your next protest, something to do in the lone moments of your organizing. I’d love to see that as a practice: Black organizers writing a political prisoner once a month.
The second thing is for organizations to actually demand the freedom of political prisoners. From food justice to energy to housing, the freedom of political prisoners should be a demand, and organizations should create time to take action on behalf of political prisoners. We’re not asking folks to drop everything, but I do think an intentional, deliberate contribution by many will really bring a lot of solidarity and support, and help generate the energy and momentum and pressure needed to call on local governments to do justice by many of these political prisoners.
Jomo Muhammad, Tupac Shakur's stepfather, is an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).
Justin Davis is a writer and labor organizer. His poems are published or forthcoming in places like Washington Square Review, Anomaly, wildness, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He’s published non-fiction with Scalawag, Science for the People and Labor Notes.
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