Captive Nation: Dan Berger on Black Prison Organizing and Mass Incarceration

George Lavender

Dan Berger, author "Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era" published by the University of North Carolina Press. Dan Berger is Assistant Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington at Bothell and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at the University of Washington at Seattle.

Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era is published at a time of growing interest in movements against mass incarceration and police violence. The Prison Complex spoke with the author, Dan Berger, about why he became interested in the history of black prison organizing, and what lessons and perspectives that earlier period of prison activism might offer today’s campaigns.

You began corresponding with political activists in prison when you were younger, could you talk a little bit about what prompted you to start writing to them?

When I was a teenager we moved from upstate New York to Florida, which was a very big move. I had been getting involved in activism around the time that we moved and had several friends who had been arrested in protests, and a couple of them had been beat up by the police. So from an early age I had a certain kind of consciousness about the criminal justice system. And then when we moved I was looking for other organizers and folks that had been involved who could show me the ropes. That was really hard to find in suburban Florida. I wrote to lots of different progressive and radical organizations, and ultimately came across groups that were doing support work for political prisoners in the US. And so out of that I started corresponding with people when I was about 16, and those correspondence became friendships that continue to this day.

Who were you writing with?

The first people I wrote with were Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther who was arrested with Assata Shakur on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973 and who has been imprisoned ever since. A federal appeals court has <recently> said he should be granted parole and that the state of New Jersey had in fact erred by keeping him in prison for so long, (although that decision is now on hold. I wrote with Ray Luc Levasseur who got out of prison <11> years ago. I wrote with David Gilbert, former member of the Weather Underground who is also still in prison and who was arrested in October 1981 one month before I was born, in New York as part of a tragically failed robbery of a Brinks truck in which two police officers and a security guard were killed. He’s been in prison ever since. Later, I wrote with others too, including Veronza Bowers, Marilyn Buck, Oscar Lopez , Herman Bell, and Jalil Muntaqim.

Based on who you chose to write to, it sounds like you were already forming your own political views, but to what extent do you think that correspondence shaped your own politics?

I came to realize, and I say this in the book, that one of the best places for a white suburban teenager to learn about histories of Black Power and other social movement histories as well as the devastating realities of US racism and imperialism was from people in prison. This was the mid to late 1990s, the era of there is no alternative.” Those correspondences were tremendously helpful for my own political development to have extended access to alternate viewpoints, alternate histories that I wasn’t seeing elsewhere. But I think it was ultimately most helpful in being able to discover my own voice and my own politics. I don’t think I got my politics from people in prison, but my politics were definitely shaped in conversation with people in prison as well as people who had been in prison but were released. I think it really opened the door to me on the whole set of conversations and histories and communities that had been so shut out of the dominant discourse — including among many activists and among historians.

Talk about when you first decided to write a book about black prison organizing and why?

I consciously decided to write this book when I was in graduate school. I went to graduate school interested in researching the history of prison organizing. But in many ways, the origins of this book really start with the correspondences I developed in high school and the realization at how many stories of the 1960s and 1970s had yet to be told. I was particularly interested in how people in prison were themselves participants in social movements. I knew from my friends in prison how much they and others were very involved in trying to stop the spread of HIV and AIDs in prison and to confront the abysmal, what-passes-for-healthcare in prison. I knew that that work was happening in the 1980s and 90s but I was also hearing about the 1960s and 70s, about there being a larger movement in prisons and around prisons. So I went to grad school really hoping to look more into that. That ultimately became my dissertation and ultimately became my book project. I think I’ve been consciously working on this book about 7 years but it really feels like an encapsulation of conversations and investigations that I’ve been doing for more like 15 or 16 years. Part of what I found in that research, and this has been true in my own organizing experience, was that the organizing in prison at its best has been more than just about what was happening in prison, and has never been limited to people who are in prison. What so struck me about black prison organizing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was how central the prison was to a larger movement for racial, social, and economic justice.

And you yourself have been involved in campaigns to shrink the prison system, with Decarcerate PA

Exactly, I’m proud to have been a part of starting the campaign and so excited about the ways that it has grown and spread.

You said that you found stories that were not being told”, what impact do you think the absence of those stories has on current movements against mass incarceration?

I think not having access to those stories limits our ability to imagine a world without mass incarceration or a world without the prison industrial complex. It can foster a sense of cynicism or that the system isn’t perfect but what else are you going to do?” And I think having access to those histories is a way of providing not just a sense of that alternative past but animating a sense of possible future. That includes learning from the messiness and the mistakes of prison organizing. I write a lot about this in the book, the tragic misconceptions and deadly mistakes of that earlier generation of prison organizing.

You said before that prison organizing at its best is not just about prison— do you think in the current campaigning and organizing around mass incarceration that it is too focused on the prison system?

I think we’re in a transitional moment, when so many more people are talking about mass incarceration, where the connections between prisons and other forms of violence are able to be illuminated a lot more than they were five years ago. In a way the dramatic expansion of prison and imprisonment in the US has flipped the script. Whereas in the 1960s and 70s the prison was a way to understand the full weight of racial, and economic and social oppression, I think the success of various law and order movements since that time have made it so that until relatively recently even many racial and economic justice organizations were afraid or otherwise unwilling to take on criminal justice. That is starting to change now. There are a whole host of new organizations that are working on these issues as well as existing organizations that have finally turned their attention to the problem of not only mass incarceration but also police violence and the larger structure of state oppression. I think within that there can be a danger of focusing too narrowly, <but> I’m more concerned with the false solutions that can come up in those moments of transition. Those moments of focus and excitement where so many people are starting to talk about something for the first time like mass incarceration or police brutality and all of a sudden people start talking about body cameras on police or movement demands for community reinvestment then become these neoliberal strategies of justice reinvestment” that are about giving more power and resources to district attorneys and the most conservative elements of victims’ rights advocates. So in this moment I’m less concerned about people focusing too narrowly on prisons and more concerned about the ways that false solutions are being leveraged.

In a previous interview for the Prison Complex you commented on the protests against police violence saying these protests certainly build on the uptick in decarceration campaigns as well as the direct action immigrant rights movement that has shut down police stations and blocked deportations in recent years.” What do you think the similarities and differences are between the organizing happening today on those issues and the historical organizing you’ve studied?

Obviously there are many differences. Living in a time period so heavily shaped by what was then called the third world and the socialist project of the mid-20th century gave movements of the 1960s and 70s a healthy internationalism in their assessment of things. One of the things that was so impressive and that stood out so dramatically in my research was how people who had spent years in isolation were talking about events in South Africa, or Angola, or Vietnam. I think part of the devastation not just of those movements but even on prison literacy and prisoner access to education has been the whittling away, or at least the attempt to whittle away at that global imagination. At the same time tactics and strategies have shifted. The third world socialist project was so often rooted in armed struggle which, in the US, was used as a justification to build more prisons and more forms of isolation. In a post 9/11 world where there’s not the same allure of third world socialism (again coming out of that 80s and 90s sense of there not being an alternative to neoliberal capitalism) it has taken a lot of effort and ingenuity to rebuild a social justice vision of alternatives to the status quo. I think part of what has been so exciting about the recent protests against police killings is that it has resuscitated and made visible a certain black internationalism, and it has focused on the prison not just as one distinct site but thinking about the connections between policing and prison and so on. I think the statements from those involved in the rolling hunger strikes in California have been similarly exciting in that regard and I think its a challenge to rebuild a national and international movement in the way that there were at least glimpses of in the late 60s and 70s. 

In writing this book how did your own perspective on the period you were writing about, how did that change?

I got a lot less rosy about the period. In hearing fragmented stories about secret study groups and dramatic escape attempts, it was easy to imagine prisoners in the 1970s being somehow larger than life. <But> spending years digging deep into the archives and talking to people who experienced it in various ways definitely took away any sense of romance that I might have had about that time period. Captive Nation tells the story of how people struggled to the best of their abilities in conditions that they did not choose or create. People made some really exciting advances and contributions, and they made some really devastating mistakes in that time period. Both of which continue to inform contemporary politics of prisons and anti-prison organizing. Writing this book also really reinforced for me something that I’ve been trying to model in both my scholarship and my political work <which is> that there are no heroes. I want to get beyond that sense of heroes and villains as a way to understand allies and opponents and think <with> a lot more nuance and care about people without imbuing them with any sense of superhuman capacity or as if they are above or beyond reproach.

When you share that perspective with the people you correspond with inside prison what response do you get?

The book just came out, so I’m only just now starting to get feedback. Everyone I interviewed that has read it has really enjoyed the book and really appreciated it, which was especially heartwarming. I was really glad to hear people find a lot of value in the book and feel it is an honest accounting of what they were doing or what they thought they were doing or trying to do, since my perspective and approach is not the same as the people who lived and participated in it. I will say also that the people I’ve been most drawn to and impressed by are people who themselves are self-critical and reflexive. It doesn’t mean that we arrive at the same criticisms or conclusions. But there is a shared appreciation of not looking on the past with a perspective already set, and a shared investment in looking at the past with a sense of honesty and accountability.

When you were writing this book, who did you have in mind as your audience and what impact did you hope this book would have particularly in the present moment when there’s this bigger conversation about mass incarceration happening?

I had many audiences in mind. I certainly wanted it to be relevant and interesting and useable to people who are involved in efforts to reduce the prison industrial complex. And that includes both people who lived in that time period and people who are my age and younger. When I started on this book, part of my hope was to counter this sense that the prison industrial complex or mass incarceration were inevitable. There was this pervasive, defeatist attitude when I began this work that ” you can’t do anything about it,” either because of all the bad people out there” or because these structures are too massive to change.” Part of what I was hoping to show in this book was even something as seemingly impenetrable as imprisonment has actually been subject to massive social struggle — and will be again. I wanted to show that regimes of criminalization are not permanent and in fact have been challenged and struggled over historically… Then to have the book come out in the high tide of a new movement and resurgent activism around those very issues is certainly validating and reaffirming. I don’t need to make the point that this will happen again, because, in fact, it is happening again. The histories of struggle, though, are still too obscured, and I think can help us sort through some of the strategic questions of today. For instance, I think the conversation in the last few years about the rise and longevity of mass incarceration has focused a lot on the war on drugs, specifically the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.” The innocence narrative is not that different from the problematic hero narrative I spoke about earlier. So another part of what I was hoping to do in the book is complicate that story, in terms of the rise of the prison industrial complex and the reasons people are in prison. We see the drug the war as being launched in the 1970s by Richard Nixon and by Nelson Rockefeller among others, that is nearly two decades after concentrated dedicated organizing inside prisons in the country. So I wanted to expand the historical origins of what we mean when we talk about mass incarceration. I also wanted to think about the many ways that poor and working-class communities of color have been targeted by regimes of criminalization. We need to see someone like George Jackson and other people around him, the young men and women arrested for petty robberies, petty assaults, and a variety of related charges — some of them may have been accused of committing violence. That doesn’t make them any less deserving of human rights, nor does it make them any less capable of participating in social change movements. These were people who were and always have been the victims of America’s prisons and of America’s police. So rather than see non-violent drug offenders as the best evidence of a system gone out of control and a new thing, I think we can see that category as the byproduct of what happens when a system of punishment grows and expands. I also wanted to write for people interested in twentieth century history, African American Studies, and criminal justice history, to create space to think about people in prison as historical and political subjects. For so long historians and other scholars have not paid attention to people in prison or taken them seriously as political actors so part of the book was to intervene in that conversation so that we can, in and out of the academy, in and out of policy circles, take seriously people in prison as stakeholders in any conversation about or strategy for ending mass incarceration.

Were there things that you came across in your research that you didn’t touch upon that you would like to explore further in future or you would like others to explore?

Absolutely, I think that I count myself as among a growing group of scholars and organizers who are writing about histories of state violence and resistance to prison and policing. It made it easier to focus on the stories I did, knowing that lots of other people are researching and writing these histories as we speak. For instance, there are people working on queer and feminist anti-prison campaigns or looking at the intersections of campaigns against police brutality or broader social justice initiatives. Part of what I wanted to do in Captive Nation was make the case for how central prisons were and are to a larger edifice of oppression — and resistance. I do so by looking at campaigns from the Southern civil rights movement to the Black Panther Party, and by following the arc of black radical protest and political thought from George Jackson through a variety of defense campaigns and prisoner publications in the late 1970s. But there are tons of people who are looking seriously at different prison rebellions and other forms of resistance. These include people looking at specific rebellions, like at Attica or the Pontiac Brothers in Illinois; looking at organizing inside the federal prison system or at state prison systems in different parts of the country; looking at the intersections of anti-prison movements with other social movements against institutionalization and state violence; looking at the role of religion and faith-based communities in protesting imprisonment; looking at the US in global comparative ways. And on and on. I think in the next five to ten years we will have vast new knowledge both from scholars tied to the academy and from independent scholars about the history of prisons and prisoner organizing. It is tremendously exciting that such knowledge is being shaped in the conditions of the new movements against policing and prisons that we’re seeing right now.

This interview has been edited for clarity

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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