By Mansa Musa / The Real News Network

From Assata Shakur to Leonard Peltier, social movements have lifted up political prisoners as revolutionary examples and fought protracted, often decades-long campaigns to secure their release. Now, a new collection from AK Press, Rattling the Cages: Oral Histories of North American Political Prisoners, gathers the experience and wisdom of some 30 political prisoners in one place for the first time. Eric King and Josh Davidson, the editors of the project, join Rattling the Bars to discuss their new book and the urgency of the fight to free political prisoners.

Josh Davidson is an abolitionist who is involved in numerous projects, including the Certain Days Collective, which publishes the annual Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar, and the Children’s Art Project with political prisoner Oso Blanco. Josh also works in communications with the Zinn Education Project.

Eric King is a father, poet, author, and activist. He is a political prisoner serving a 10-year federal sentence for an act of protest over the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. He is scheduled to be released in 2024. He has been held in solitary confinement for years on end and has been assaulted by both guards and white supremacists. King has published three zines: Battle TestedAntifa in Prison, and Pacing in My Cell.

Studio / Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


TRANSCRIPT

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling The Bars, a show that amplifies the voices of people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and subjugated, while offering solutions. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. The powers that be say we don’t have political prisoners in America; They say this isn’t a country where people are imprisoned for their political beliefs, but I can tell you from firsthand experience, that the reality is very different. Recently, I spoke with Josh Davidson and Eric King about a book they have co-edited entitled Rattling the Cages: Oral Histories of North American Political Prisoners. This book brings together the experiences and wisdom of over 30 political prisoners in North America.

Josh Davidson is an abolitionist who is involved in numerous projects including the Certain Days Collective, which publishes the annual Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar, and the Children’s Art Project with political prisoner Oso Blanco. Josh also works in communication with the Zinn Education Project. Eric King is a father, poet, author, and activist. He’s a former political prisoner who was incarcerated for an act of protest over the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. He was held in solitary confinement for years on end and was assaulted by both guards and white supremacists. King has published three zines: Battle Tested (2015)Antifa in Prison (2019), and Pacing in My Cell (2019).

All right. Thank y’all for joining me on this edition of Rattling The Bars, Josh Davidson and Eric King. Let’s start by talking about the book. The name of the book is Rattling the Cages: Oral History of Political Prison. That’s right. Why? Why this book? And you might have an audience saying, well, there are hundreds of books, hundreds of memoirs, hundreds of narratives dealing with people that are locked up – Why this particular book at this particular time? Let’s start with you, Josh.

Josh Davidson:  That’s a great question and thank you, Mansa. This is a story that needs to be told. It’s a collection of almost 40 interviews with people who are in prison or have spent time in prison for political reasons. As with all people in prison, they don’t tend to have a voice, and it’s hard to get your voice out when you’re in prison. The interviews that we included not only show love and compassion and a depth of humanity but also non-stop resistance to the system, which is always inspirational and always needed. It was an idea that Eric came up with from the very belly of the beasts, from the inside of some of the worst prisons in the country. He saw that humanity was still there and he wanted to capture it. Eric, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Mansa Musa:  Right. Both of us have been in this space. Eric, I did 48 years before getting out, and we interviewed you and we recognized that because of your commitment to freedom and justice and struggle, you were ultimately locked up for being involved in the resistance movement. Then after getting locked up, once they got you in the system, they really tried to kill you; Their goal was to kill you. The fact that you’re here on this camera is a miracle. From your experience when you were in the system, why did you see the need and the necessity to try to get this information out to society?

Eric King:  My brother. Thank you, thanks so much for having me on as well. When I was inside, I was reading a lot of books about political prisoners and about prisoners in general and those books lifted me up. They gave me strength, knowing that other people have been through certain things and that I’m not alone in this struggle, and I also wanted to learn more. I thought it could be beneficial for the next generation to know that their elders went through similar things but that also the prison system didn’t crush us inside.

That we were able to grow as people, that we were able to grow as organizers, that we were able to have friendships and learn things; Not because the prison system gave it to us but because we took it from them. We insisted upon it. That we’re not going to become these puddles of mud to be stepped on; We’re going to become these tall oaks. Thomas Manning died and I remember thinking to myself, he had so much knowledge and wisdom and it’s gone now. I wanted to make sure that we could get that knowledge and wisdom from as many of our elders and peers as possible to share with the next generation.

Mansa Musa:  Tell our audience who Thomas Manning was so we don’t take for granted that our audience nationally knows who he is.

Eric King:  Thomas Manning was a political prisoner, he did approximately 30 years or so. He was a member of the UFF and he was at ADX and the Supermax for a couple of years, and he got brutalized by the police for fighting against the apartheid system in South Africa. He fought against that inside America with Ray Luke and a few others. His body was destroyed by the police and he ultimately died of a heart attack at USP-Hazelton in 2018 or 2019, I believe.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. We want to send our regards out to his family even now. I see y’all had Angela Davis write an intro to the book. When they locked her up back in the 70s, they wrote a book called If They Come In the Morning, by Angela Davis and other political prisoners. To resonate with the point you made, Eric, in the book she made the observation of the comradery that grows out of the prison system when it comes to – Prisoners in general but – Political prisoners being in that environment. Josh, when you were interviewing, did you get that sense? I see the way you set the book up, you identified a political prison, and then you set up prison life, politics, the prison dynamics, and looking forward. In your interview, did you get that sense of how people related to each other in terms of the comradery that grew out of that wretched decadent environment that we found ourselves in?

Josh Davidson:  Yes, absolutely. Great question. Great, great question. Angela Davis published that book, that collection of political prisoners, 50 years ago. Now we’re publishing this one with a foreword by her, and the struggle is still the same. And I think that we see that in all the interviews. Everyone talks about not only the comradery that comes with doing time with fellow political prisoners and politicized prisoners but also once they get out, working together through the bars, across the bars to make changes happen and to make a better world. That comes across clearly throughout most of the interviews.

Mansa Musa:  Right. Eric, you’ve been to ADX, you’ve been everywhere they could put you other than in the ground. I’m not saying that lightly because anybody who knows your story knows that and knows that this was because of civil disobedience. It wasn’t because you went down there, stormed the Capitol, and killed everybody. You weren’t with that crowd. You weren’t with the crowd with the person who assaulted five police in the Capitol and was given five years for that attempt to take over the country. But you sought to… As a matter of fact, I’m going to let you tell your story about why you wound up in prison.

Eric King:  So when I first got locked up, I was locked up after the uprising in Ferguson when the pigs killed Michael Brown. In my city, I was an anarchist – I’m still an anarchist – And I participated in that sort of activism. Activism that I thought would build a unified community. I saw a lack of concern or care when this happened; No one took to the streets and no one confronted the police. So I went to Ferguson for a couple of days and I saw what was happening down there. I saw the military presence, I saw the white power militias backing the police like they were one family, and I saw the genuine hurt and rage in that community. And that affected me.

I went back to Kansas City and I thought, I need to bring awareness of what’s happening to people in other communities because it’s happening in our community too, it’s just not getting to the news. Police kill poor and Black people everywhere. So I thought the best way to get attention for that was to cause a stir. I took two Molotov cocktails and threw them into the congressional building of our local congressman. I let it be known this is a solidarity act with those that are fighting down the road in Ferguson and I ended up getting 10 years in federal prison for throwing those bottles.

Mansa Musa:  Right. Recently, I read where Dr. King said that we’re obligated to respect just laws but we also have a right to protest against unjust laws by any means that we deem necessary. So we recognized at that point, that it was an all-out war, as it is now, it’s an all-out war on poor, Indigenous, Black, and oppressed people. And your act merited 10 years as far as they thought, but if you went down to the nation’s capital with Molotov cocktails – Because remember, they found Molotov cocktails down in the nation’s capital – You’d have gotten five years or you’d have got a congressional medal of honor for being a part of that attempt to overthrow this country.

Let’s unpack some of the political prisoners and some of the stories. I recall that I was in constant correspondence with Jalil Muntaqim and Sundiata Acoli back in the 70s. We used to organize and take the problem with the prisons to the United Nations. They were organizing all the prisons throughout the US. Our collective, the collective that we had in the Maryland penitentiary, took on the mantle to organize a protest with everybody around the country and the world, simultaneously. We had a designated date. I was responsible for corresponding with Jalil and Sundiata. After that was over, back in the 80s, they were bringing a law withhold; They were transporting it from one point of the country to another point. And Jalil had written me and told me that a comrade was coming to Baltimore, that she might need some help because they sent her to the woman’s detention center.

So I did what I was supposed to do: I had somebody reach out to her and let her know if she needed something. To fast-forward the story, when me and Eddie were locked up in the institution he said, I’m going on a visit and I’m going to see… I said, who are you going to see? He said I’m going to see Laura Whitehorn. I said, I know her. He said, well, how do you know her? Now I’m telling him about the story I just told y’all. And so we went down there and he told us, oh yeah, I know that comrade. Fast-forward, all of us were out and had the ability to be out. Eddie had a thing called Eddie’s Front Porch where we used to come together with Laura, and different comrades. When you interviewed Laura – Now she’s out doing some remarkable work up in New York – What was your takeaway, Josh?

Eric King:  Josh, real quick. What you just said, that story is the exact reason why I wanted to make this book. That history, that’s priceless and it’s so empowering. Josh, go ahead. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. My bad.

Mansa Musa:  No, you’re good. You’re good.

Josh Davidson:  Yeah, no, no, you’re good. Laura Whitehorn is an amazing person. She did, I don’t know, 20 years related to the resistance conspiracy case starting in the 1980s. And she helped co-found RAPP, Release Aging People in Prison. I had met Laura a few times before, especially working to get a lot of the elder political prisoners in New York out, like Jalil Muntaqim – Who you mentioned – David Gilbert, Herman Bell, Seth Hayes, so many of them that RAPP helped to get out. And also running into Laura and Susie at Red Emma’s with Paul Coates and then Eddie Conway over the years.

Laura’s a great one to bring up as an example because she’s so vibrant, so full of stories of radical history, and she’s such a tiny, small person, but she’s so full of love and anger at a system that is endlessly horrible to people across the world. She also does a great job of bringing humanity into the prison system. She talks about protesting on the Baltimore jail roof and communicating with people out on the street. She talks about doing AIDS work with other political prisoners around the country in the 80s. And she hasn’t stopped doing that work. She was involved while they were underground –

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, that’s the good thing. Eric, you are working in the law office right now. And that’s the thing about this book, the impact that political prisons have. Huey Newton – And we were talking about this off camera – Wrote an essay called To Die for the People. In his essay, he talks about how when people are in prison, you have two types of prisoners. He identified two types of prisoners: Prisoners that become politicized or are already political when they go in. But they all become politicized while they’re in. Then he talked about prison, he identified it as illegitimate capitalists that hold on to the idea of getting money or having some prominence under the capitalist ideal.

At any rate, he’s saying that the goal of prison is to change a person’s thinking. It’s not effective in any of that. Eric, talk about your experience and how some of the people that you ran across in the system were politicizing other prisons and how the presence of you and other prisoners had an impact on that environment. Talk about that.

Eric King:  So real talk, most of the time I did, I didn’t have the privilege of running across other consciously-minded people. It was difficult because we want to make a difference and we want to fight against this system inside. You do have to put in a lot of patient work. You have to have a lot of hard discussions to get people to understand that sometimes what they’re doing inside is furthering the system. It’s empowering the system, it’s not empowering ourselves. We’re giving them bullets to shoot us with when we do some of this shit as opposed to trying to tear down these walls.

So I did have the chance to help radicalize a few people. I saw solidarity inside a lot of times where we were able to build relationships and then ride with each other against the system; Whether it be hunger strikes, barricades, or taking the team over something. I also got to meet a lot of people from different backgrounds that in the free world I probably wouldn’t have met: A lot of people from Baltimore, DC, and then a lot of Jihadi folks.

Getting to know other people’s stories, getting to know their lives, their passions, and hopes and dreams, helps me be a better activist. Now we can ride together as people, as opposed to I’m a political prisoner and you’re a drug dealer. Now we can ride together on a common cause. We’re just two men inside fighting for our freedom. So I didn’t get a chance to meet as many… I don’t think there are as many inside anymore as there were in the 70s and 80s. But I got to meet a lot of great people, have a lot of great discussions, and hopefully uplift their consciousness and help people move forward.

Mansa Musa:  And that’s what I was talking about is –

Eric King:  Oh, here we go.

Mansa Musa:  – Your impact on… Because that’s the narrative of the book. The narrative of the book is you lock people up. Fred Hampton said you can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill a revolution. You can’t kill the spirit of the revolution but you can kill a revolutionary. But that’s what you had talked about: Your impact on people. When you come in contact with people, that it’s your consciousness, your ideology, and your perspective of what the system is.

And educating people on understanding that you have the prison-industrial complex and you’ve got slave labor. Why are we not getting living wages? Living in prison doesn’t mean that we’re not entitled to living wages. Then that got people to start looking in prison to start identifying and looking at the conditions through a different lens. But they started looking at it from a different lens because of us and the people that were in [prison]. Back to you, Josh. What do you want the people to take away from these stories and this work?

Josh Davidson:  That’s a great question, Mansa Musa. If nothing else, I hope that this book arms the spirit. I hope that activists, organizers, and people in prison read this book.

Eric King:  Arms the spirit.

Josh Davidson:  Yes. And that’s another throwback to the 70s and the 80s –

Eric King:  The book.

Josh Davidson:  – Movement thing. But yeah, I hope that people read this book and learn that there aren’t monsters behind the walls. There are people fighting back against an unjust system that, not only do they not deserve to be there, but we can learn from them, with them, and we can grow together and we can make our movements stronger together. You brought up the structure of the book and how it talks about prison life and politics and prison dynamics and then looking forward, and I did that in a way to make it easier to maneuver and to read through the book. But I also based it on prison visits, visiting all of these elders throughout the years, learning from them, learning the history that they have, and how involved they can be in current movements too.

Mansa Musa:  Right. That’s a good way to articulate that. Making the observation that when you talk about revolutionaries and political prisoners, we have humanity like everybody else and oftentimes it’s not expressed, it’s not being written about. We are in an artist-type situation, we’re in a struggle. Eric, you found yourself in ADX and isolated in the cell when they brought these three racists in there and they tried to do some unconscionable thing to your body. And you don’t have a choice of being able to say, what am I going to do? Fight and die? Like Claude McKay said, back pressed against the wall, dying, but fighting back. But your book shows the humanity of political prisoners and revolutionaries and that’s something that we need to emphasize more. Eric, what do you want our audience to know about you and the people that you left behind?

Eric King:  So when you say the people that I left behind, I’m going to talk about the men at ADX.

Mansa Musa:  Okay, come on.

Eric King:  I feel as if the abolition community has forgotten about the Supermax folks. There are people locked down right now who have been locked down for 10, 15, and 20 years at ADX, and a lot of them will never touch their family members again; A lot of them will never touch their wives or hold their kids. Some of them aren’t allowed phone calls, they’re not allowed visits, they’re not allowed mail. That restriction is so brutal that it can rip your heart out. But what I saw meeting these men is that resistance, that fire, is still there. There’s a bro I left, his name is Shaheed, and he’s from DC. He was one of Silk’s homies out there, Wayne Perry. And Wayne Perry also, honestly. But this dude’s been at ADX for 16 years – He’s only 39, so that’s almost half his life. He’s in 24-hour lockdown. And the reason he is locked down is because he refused to bend a knee to these pigs.

So the resistance, the revolutionary spirit doesn’t go away. He still reads Free Minds every day: That organization from DC that sends in magazines. These people still care, still have hearts, still have passions, still have hobbies, and still have joys. We need to see that the prison system tries to take that away; Prison tries to crush these people. And it’s on us, it’s on the abolition movement, to say we’re not going to give the government that power. We’re not going to let you bury our brothers and sisters for decades. And we need to rise up and try to stand with these people, stand with everybody that’s resisting the system.

Mansa Musa:  Thank you. Yeah, there you have it. The Real News and Rattling the Bars. Eric King and Josh Davidson, thank you for joining me. We encourage our viewers and our listeners to reach out to the political prisoners throughout the country and try to get a better understanding of what’s going on with people who are in prison only because of their ideas. We found ourselves in this country in a time where what you thought would get you locked up. This is taking place today. We thank y’all for coming. Continue to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars because guess what? We really are the news. Thank you.


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Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.

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