All prisoners are political prisoners: the #VaughnUprising and how ignoring hostage strategy forgoes our freedom.

By Jess Krug

For the 80,000-100,000 of us in the hole. For the more than two million of us who are incarcerated. For the nearly five million of us on probation or parole. We have voices. We have knowledge. We are not symbols through which others may build their careers, construct their rhetoric. We do not need to be saved, we are not awaiting the right new hire from the right NGO to devise the right programming. We are, we have always been, the revolution.

This essay is for us.

It begins with the premise that all prisoners are political prisoners. Even and especially those whose names you will never know, who write no treatises, who aren’t memes, and for whom you never have marched and never will march. Far too large a segment of the Black community – particularly those focused on acquiring Wokeness Merit Badges and preoccupied with representation over political action – consider the prison-industrial complex in the abstract while excluding incarcerated people entirely from their conceptions of community and political organizing. This exclusion is based on an uncritical embrace of exceptionalism and classism, an elitist and hierarchical understanding of politics, and a narrow view of history and society predicated still on medieval European Christian notions of the worthy and of redemption.

Are we serious about wanting a revolution, about wanting our freedom? And, if so, what (hi)story – whose (hi)story – are we telling to get there?

***

On the morning of February 1, a group of hostages of the state who were incarcerated at the largest prison in Delaware, the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, rose up. Many have written about the crushing brutality of life inside of Vaughn: the extensive warehousing of people into solitary confinement, the beatings, the overcrowding, the use of punitive food, the forced labor. The state’s hostages used the only tools of negotiation for those denied even basic bodily autonomy: the threat against the lives of those whom society values infinitely more than their own.

They demanded education, rehabilitation, and access to information about the ways resources within the prison were allocated through a fellow hostage who called the Wilmington News Journal. Early the next morning, Delaware state troopers mounted a military assault on cell block C, the site of resistance, and re-asserted state control over the lives and bodies of those inside.

As is the case for all others writing about the Vaughn Rebellion, I am relying here on sources that are deeply problematic: the single, at times unintelligible, call by a state hostage to the paper on the afternoon of the 1st, and a later call to the same newspaper by a woman whose son had called her from cell block C. I have not spoken with anyone in Vaughn. In writing this piece, I am relying on my own experiences, my own knowledge, and my background in taking seriously political ideologies that are articulated through action, rather than words. I do not believe accounts by state actors whose power is predicated on the belief that their hostages have no meaningful political or social existence. Nor am I inclined to accept at face value the analysis of those who begin and end with material conditions.

The notion that Black political action can be regulated or controlled through an amelioration of material conditions is an old conversation, perhaps the oldest in the world made by imperialism. In every corner of this hemisphere to which our ancestors were brought in chains, slave masters wrote at length about the possibility of preventing rebellion and uprising by providing adequate rations, clothing, rest, and accommodations. A foundational assumption of white supremacy and capitalism is that Black and Indigenous people have no political personhood, and merely react spontaneously to material deprivations. Generations of novelists, scholars, and filmmakers, well into the present, have dutifully replicated the assumptions of slavemasters.

But what if politics are inscribed through action, not the echoing, hollow discourse that normally occupies all of the space for Politics? What if ideology is not whatever those with the greatest proximity to the structures of power they are supposedly critiquing formulate? What if the intelligibility, the legibility, of rhetoric as Political for those living relatively well within the system is not a measure of its power, but rather of its duplicity?

How can we view the Vaughn Rebellion, the massive prison strikes that swept prisons across the nation last fall virtually unremarked, and the thousands of acts of everyday and extraordinary criminality articulating opposition to a system sustained through our blood? What if we view these acts as the political platform through which any true revolution, any real and meaningful overthrow of this anti-Black political, economic, and social order, will occur?

When, in our history, has there ever truly been a revolution without this? And if it was so successful, how are we here, like this, today?

This essay is for us. We don’t have the space for idle contemplation.

***

I write this on the day that Oscar López Rivera, famous Puerto Rican anti-colonial fighter, returned to Puerto Rico. He has been incarcerated for longer than I’ve been alive – longer than Nelson Mandela was at Robben Island – and he spent twelve years of his time as a hostage in solitary confinement. The day Obama commuted his sentence was one of celebration in my hood – home to countless murals demanding his release – on the island, and across the world. People sang and danced in the streets, as they are doing tonight, where he will live at his daughter’s house until he is formally released from state supervision in May.

Will one man’s freedom, I wonder, yield anything for the millions of us who are not yet free?  Where are our murals?

Here. Right here. This essay is for us.

There are no murals, no marches, no t-shirts, for those who live one breath away from murder by the state. Who is painting murals for sex offenders? Who marches to free those on death row whose DNA results don’t come back right and who are featured on no spoken word album? On what t-shirt will I find the names and faces of my family members, neighbors, and friends who have knocked off liquor stores?

A soft left/center consensus around prison reform for “non-violent offenders” allows everyone to ignore the social and political means through which violence is produced. It allows for the midwives of murder to determine, in the end, the defining boundaries of the human. It makes that humanity, that belonging, conditional upon performing a holographic life free of threat of even the shadow of threat to a system laser-cut to our peril.

If your political imagination and the borders of your sense of community stop before you, personally, have anything at stake, and you still believe that the murderous state is the best party to deal with those whose violence it has itself produced, then what are you calling justice? Why do your calls for justice, time and time again, rely on this same white supremacist state as its mechanism? If you are offended by the notion of fighting for freedom beside a rapist, a murderer, and an armed assailant – by this argument being put to you by someone whose earliest memories are of assault, sexual and otherwise – then what are you calling freedom, and what are its limits?

This essay is for us, the guilty, fighting for a more expansive understanding of our community and our humanity than you can conjure.

***

The words of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or any of our other famous prisoners at home and abroad, sing lullabies of reassurance. If only the disappeared would re-create themselves in our image, we tell ourselves under the flickering light from a streetlamp through the window when we haven’t managed to pay the light bill that month, then we could listen. But a politics without a credentialed leader may as well be no politics at all, we say, pouring ourselves another glass of leaded water.  

An increasing number of people on the outside are now at least passively admitting, through reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th, that slavery never really ended in the United States, a nation that has long prided itself on the entirely false claim of being the first free republic in the Americas. But what does it say of the current political and social climate that 13th and Hamilton can both trend and sell, sell, sell, simultaneously?

What is the relationship between acknowledging that the criminal code of this nation is structured to continue alienating Black people from our communities and the benefits of our own labor, and glorifying a vision of the very architects of that system as portrayed through the idioms and bodies of the descendants of the enslaved?  

Those whose uncalloused hands clutch the microphones are relatively comfortable identifying the prison industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline, and Broken Windows policing as problematic. Even one of the primary engineers of the 1990s escalation in mass incarceration, Hillary Clinton, found it expedient to claim to be on the side of prison reform. Prison reform is as trendy as fair trade chocolate, and has the same audience: those who believe that any problem is a failure of the system and can be addressed through its structures. Reform. Accountability.

What they don’t see – and can’t see – what is invisible and unknowable and unfathomable from the outside, from the studios of MSNBC, from the halls of academia, from the offices of not for profits and blogs, is what is common sense for anyone inside.  

This is not a war that can be won through historical recreation or clever technology. A re-ordering of the fundamental political and social structures means that those best equipped to destroy and re-create are those at the greatest distance from power. A 501(c)(3) status, a regular paycheck, a good credit history: these all signal that you, too, like so many before you, understand yourself too intimately through belonging and success in a genocidal system to ever truly act for its demise. You will call those striving to create a truly free political space reactionary, uneducated, violent, misinformed, and misdirected. You will ignore the transnational political and economic forms that we have created in the non-figurative darkness of the inside and call it a victory when we are swept up in mass and removed.

This is for us, the unredeemed, the unphotogenic, the inarticulate, the guilty. This is not a plea for recognition of our humanity. This is an argument that failing to do so is the prophecy of your own inevitable demise.

***

So I return again to the Vaughn Rebellion, to the little we know about the moment in which hostages rose up to invert the flow of power. This was not a hunger strike. This was not a labor strike. State hostages across the United States, against impossible odds and with no resources, initiated and sustained such actions for most of last summer and fall, for months.

The outside was silent.

The outside marched, and marched, and marched, demanding that Black Lives Matter in protest of yet another one of our own murdered.

The body count mounted, kept mounting, stays mounting.

This was an escalation, as it was in Attica, as it is each time that hostages take hostages. The Freedom Fighters of Vaughn had material demands, including education and resources for rehabilitation, but their most radical claim was that they should be able to exercise power over the lives and bodies of their slavemasters.

This is not a new technique, as a student of any revolution of the enslaved can attest. This was what the tens of thousands rose up to do in St. Domingue, and how they created Haiti, the first free republic. It was not out of a deployment by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the elite to schemes of the French Revolution, as we are taught. It was not out of an instinctive protest against material deprivation.

It was, rather, out of the ideas, rooted deep in the histories of political resistance to expansionist empires in West and West Central Africa, that freedom from tyrannical rule violating the basic ideologies of social being is the fundamental responsibility of those who love justice. Our failure then was in allowing the material exigencies of the moment, the real threats of re-enslavement and starvation, to convince us that we needed strong leadership in the person of someone who had proximity to the older systems of rule.

This is the global tragedy of the supposed post-colony, and an error that we cannot afford to keep committing here. We cannot pay the price in bodies.

On the outside, we mourn our dead, we write articles, perform songs and dance a thousand dances of heartbreak. The dead are enshrined forever, hoodies up, hands up, hashtagged.

But the problematic living, behind bars, in the hole? Silence. Abyss. Shuffling of feet, furtive glances from side-to-side, and angry insistence by those clinging to degrees, jobs, and copper penny-shiny stories of their own hard work and exceptionalism and Not All Blacks Are Criminals. Our posters of Mandela and L’Ouverture and Assata Shakur teach us that When the Revolution Comes, we will recognize it and we will immediately take up, well, if not arms, then bullhorns, and play our part.

The price of continuing to believe that you can and should “reform” and “educate” gang members rather than having them reform and educate you has been and continues to be paid in a never ending river of blood, turning our words thick, red, coagulated before spoken.

These posters of Huey Newton and Che Guevara. These quotes by Mumia. These names, these known entities, the ideas that we think we know on the outside have somehow done nothing to tear down the walls separating us from us. As long as we need to be different on the outside, then we are a vital part of the structures of violence that create an inside.

There is no stronger condemnation of cowardice in our community than our zealousness for being law abiding in a society whose laws have always been directed towards excising us – not just from the body politic, but from humanity.

This is for us, who refuse to conflate morality with compliance with the law or complicity in the targeted campaign of murder, slow and quick, that is the United States.


Jess KrugJess Krug is an unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood. Whether dancing, doing research around the world, or teaching, movement is her first language. Much of her time, energy, and all of her heart are consumed in the struggle for her community in El Barrio and worldwide, whether against the violence of the state as manifest by police, the encroaching colonialism of gentrification, or around issues of community health and environmental justice. She teaches, writes, and is an organizer with Harlem Copwatch and works with Revolutionary Fitness. In the end, she firmly believes that everything works better when remixed to bachata.

At RaceBaitR, we pay all our writers, which is impossible without donors like you!

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  1. Most Brilliant and Unapologetic piece I’ve read on Prison Abolition and Anti-Blackness. Just brilliant.

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