By Jim Campbell

In Prison News Service #47 (September/October 1994)

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In August, members of various Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) groups came together in New York to try to bring new life to the organization which dates back to the Russian revolution. Bulldozer, although not an official ABC group, participated as did other anti-authoritarian activists who are active in the anti-prison movement (APM). While it couldn’t be considered an unqualified success, it was a step forward in trying to give more shape and direction to those of us committed to the anti-prison struggle from the outside.

As with many such events, the biggest gains were probably more on an informal level. Personal contact does make it easier to work together on common efforts even though we may be separated by hundreds and even thousands of miles. And even if, for some, the limitations of the ABC became more apparent, most of the participants did leave both with more knowledge about prison issues and feeling more inspired to work on them. Two specific projects addressed were a revitalization of the Emergency Response Network (ERN), and the creation of a Control Unit Monitoring Project (CUMP).

The ABC had a functioning ERN when it last had a presence in North America in 1989/’90. Situations calling for some sort of emergency response by non-prisoners range from hungerstrikes, lockdowns, punitive transfers where regular contact with a prisoner is lost up to and including major incidents like hostage-taking or take-overs. To be brief, the (tentative) proposal is for a number of groups, functioning as coordinators, to be at the top of phone trees in their region. The ERN would be set-up on a local base, which in turn would be connected to a regional branch of the phone-tree and working up from there to one of the coordinating groups, which would be responsible for either initiating a call for the ERN, or passing along information that originated in another region.

Ideally, these coordinators would be connected by E-mail, which both reduces costs and increases the speed with which they can communicate and transmit information to each other. The addresses of these coordinating groups are listed in the address box on page 19. If you want to participate, please contact the group closest to you. Obviously, large chunks of the U.S. are not covered yet, but as response comes in, that can be worked out.

The problem with the ERN is a familiar one, and that is that those of us already active, don’t really have the time to take on another project, as important as it may be. The first call for the ERN, to respond to the hungerstrike by John Perotti in Ohio and the related arrest by Little Rock Reed, came before any but the most preliminary work had been completed. So as with so many situations, we are already trying to play catch-up. This is said not to discourage either outsiders or prisoners, but merely to suggest that the ERN will not be a miracle breakthrough. It needs serious involvement, people who will take up the responsibility for making and maintaining contacts in their own cities and regions, but done in conjunction with their already existing work. As the ERN develops we’ll outline more fully how it will work. At this point in time, calls for the ERN should come through already existing prisoner-support groups, who, to implement the call, would go through their regional contact. And anyone on the outside who is interested in working around prison related issues are encouraged to get involved. Contact your regional rep, and they can put you in contact with others in your area.

There was also discussion about the Control Unit Monitoring Project. CUMP is a long-term proposal to mount a serious campaign to expose existing Control Units and to work against the opening of any new ones. This initiative is coming out of California, Chicago/Indiana and New Jersey. Though differences exist as to how to define Control Units, there is a real need to gather information about these units, and initially this is where much of the work will be focused. However, the work to gather information, and the need to coordinate this work with prisoners in Control Units, should not stop any local initiative to work against already existing local C.U.s, or proposals to build them. (See the tentative proposal for CUMP this page.)

The ERN and CUMP both depend on establishing working relations between outside activists and prisoners in their local area. From Bulldozer’s perspective, one of the main focuses for the anti-prison movement (APM), whether ABC groups or not, should be on establishing links with prisoners in their own region and connecting with other groups in the area who also have an interest in prison/social justice issues. Towards this end, beginning with this issue, PNS will list prisoner support groups who want contact with prisoners in their area (see box page 19).

Bulldozer takes a skeptical approach to any “organization”, and this includes the ABC. This is not due to cynicism, and certainly not due to sectarianism, but primarily because we are pragmatists. We are convinced by what people do, not by what they say. Historically, many ABC groups in North America have not lasted as long as the average term in a Control Unit. This is not the way to go. Prison work is not one that should be taken up lightly. It involves real people in real serious situations. As such it requires a longterm commitment. Unfortunately, the ABC has been one of the easiest organizations of all to join. All it has taken is a post office box, a couple of letters to the appropriate newspapers and to other ABC groups. And six months later mail comes back with a note that the box is closed.

It is true that eventually tighter forms of political organization will probably be necessary, but the absence of that structure does not seem like the biggest problem right now. Bulldozer thinks that developing local coalitions, like the Prison Justice Day committee in Toronto, or the one that put on the August 10th demo in San Francisco, is more likely to allow anarchists to break out of their political ghetto. On a larger level, the ERN and especially CUMP will allow us to try to work together to coordinate campaigns and strategies.

It is not that anyone at the ABC conference was suggesting that the ABCs should be a more tightly controlled organization. The ABCs historically have always been very autonomist. But the conference did bog down when we were trying to come up with ways to avoid some of the classic arguments within the broader anarchist movement. Those attending generally work with non-anarchist POWs and PPs, support Native and New Afrikan struggles for self-determination and don’t separate the struggle of social prisoners from the campaigns on behalf of, and support for, individual POWs/PPs. We’re too well aware that for many the anarchist movement consists of little else but endless debates as to who is most faithful to the cult of the individual. We’re not in the least interested in that debate.

The problem with the anarchist movement, as with the anti-prison movement and the left in general, is not that we haven’t sufficiently refined our political lines, but that we generally haven’t developed a political praxis. Practical projects such as CUMP should allow us the opportunity to develop local initiatives while trying to coordinate those efforts. We can draw upon the experience of the various projects, listen to the concerns and needs of the affected prisoners, work with prisoners from a variety of political, national, racial and religious perspectives and try to develop a politic that is relevant even to those who don’t necessarily agree with some of our most basic ideas, but who will recognize and respect solid work. It is up to us to make anarchism credible, rather than expecting “anarchism” to make us credible. We have much work to do before we will accomplish that.

The ABC can make a contribution to the emerging APM. (Leaving aside for the moment on whether or not this is indeed happening.) But it should see itself as a network within a broader anti-authoritarian tendency, which in turn should see itself as part of a very broad-based and diverse movement. If building an ABC group seems like it would help do local work, then do it, if not, don’t. As a network, the ABC may very well be in a position to do work that others aren’t. This could include ensuring that activists in prisons that don’t have local support have someone somewhere looking out for them. Or coordinating campaigns with the ABCs in Europe and elsewhere. And they should pay particular attention to anarchist prisoners.

I left the ABC conference with some confidence that most of those attending were serious about doing some long term prisoner-support work. And that is the critical question. Time is running out if we are to keep north amerika from solidifying into very repressive states with a popular base. That very urgency demands that we take our time to do things right. There are not short cuts to political organizing. Many groups, including anarchist ones, take a “Field of Dreams” approach to organizing – “build it and they will come.” Well it hasn’t worked that way yet. So let’s settle down for a few years of hard work and see what develops.

The conference didn’t make much progress on the ABC as a structure, but it did help to educate and motivate those attending. Though that is not sufficient, it is certainly a contribution. Our thanks to Nightcrawlers ABC , N.J./ABC, and everyone else who helped to make the conference happen. And special thanks to Ramona Africa and Alan Berkman for their very inspiring talks.