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Free All the Political Prisoners

By Zolo Agono Azania

I was introduced to Zolo Azania some twenty years ago through his artwork – striking portraits of Harriet Tubman, Malcom X and Emmet Till, artwork that reflected Zolo’s deep commitment to the Black freedom struggle – exhibited at the Autonomous Zone, a storefront operated by a small group of socially conscious anarchists in Chicago. I met Zolo shortly thereafter when a friend of mine, Elizabeth (Betty) Benson, a longtime activist then in her 80’s, asked me if I’d like to accompany her on a visit to death row at the Indiana state prison in Michigan City. Betty had already been visiting Zolo for several years, taking the South Shore Line from Chicago to Michigan City and then completing the mile or so journey to the prison on foot. On that first visit, I was struck by Zolo’s extraordinary resilience. Sitting across from me was a man with a quick smile and undying optimism, unbroken after fifteen years on death row. How did he manage that?

Zolo Azania standing in a doorway smiling
Zolo Azania

Zolo was consistently proactive throughout his prison time. Charged with the 1981 murder of a police officer in Gary, Indiana, (a charge he denied), he spent 36 years in prison, 27 of those years on death row. During this time, he engaged in a seemingly endless struggle to save his life and gain his freedom. Twice the Indiana Supreme Court reversed his death sentence due to racially discriminating practices that occurred during the trial process. While Zolo would eventually receive exceptional legal representation from the Peoples Law Office in Chicago and other outside support, including our No Death Penalty for Zolo Committee, it was Zolo, himself, who initiated and led the struggle, spending long hours practicing jailhouse law, filing court motions and working tirelessly to inform the public of his case. 

When Zolo speaks here, of the plight of US political prisoners, he speaks firsthand. Growing up in Gary, he knew only too well the ills of poverty and racism. Like many other young black men and women of his generation, he was drawn to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Black Panthers and to the New Afrikans. He was also among those individuals who chose to engage in his peoples’ struggle at a level of great personal risk.

Zolo understands what it means for those other courageous individuals who remain in prison today, some for more than 40 years. While the US is quick to point to the presence of political prisoners in select countries around the world, we, as Zolo says, have “selectively unremembered” those in our midst. Zolo’s challenge to us is to acknowledge this and to work to free them, at last. ~ Tony Hintze, No Death Penalty for Zolo Committee

"All Things Considered" painting by Zolo Azania, three black men with dreadlocks accompanied by images of police attacks, Africa, a black panther, the Liberty Bell, and a cityscape
All Things Considered by Zolo Azania

The existence of political prisoners of war and how they became political prisoners in this country is selectively unremembered by some people. Put plainly, certain people, in spite of their gallant selfless contributions are intentionally excluded from the official memory of the civil and human rights history in this country. And in the process a national mythology of this country was further conjectured that the civil rights movement ended and everybody is now free and equal. Ask basketball superstar LeBron James and i think he will tell you a different narrative that, “no matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being Black in America is tough.” He knows the truth as do many others. The national mythology is simply a pack of lies. In the sad process of making up the false rendering of history, the political prisoners were whitewashed out the picture as if they never existed!

It is now common knowledge that unspeakable human rights violations were carried out by the FBI in cahoots with local police agencies under the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), that targeted people like El-Hajj Malik Shabazz (better known as Malcolm X), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, and other human rights workers that resulted in their incarceration and subsequent assassinations. Put plainly, it has been verified that the FBI organization orchestrated systematic harassment of political dissenters and social activists. It is an ugly history of U.S.-sponsored terror and repression of the people who spoke truth to power. To this very day it is still hard for uninformed and misled people to believe that the enforcement division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, oversaw a long term invidious program to infiltrate, discredit, disrupt, and even intentionally murder socialist, anti-war, and civil rights activists. But they have to face reality because it did in fact happen and continues to happen. The continued incarcerations of domestic political prisoners are material proof of this actual condition or circumstance. After thorough investigation of these high profile COINTELPRO cases, it was finally admitted as being illegal official conduct carried out in blatant violation of the U.S. constitution, which is a human rights charter. These undisputed facts have been proven and published in the U.S. Congressional Record for public viewing. The issue of political prisoners and torture in the U.S. was also investigated and recorded by creditable representative members of the human family from around the world, convened in a political body named the United Nations. The national initiative to make noise and draw focused attention to the stark existence of domestic political prisoners of war is the continuation of the decades-long campaign to free all of them. So, therefore, the remaining domestic political prisoners and prisoners of war held by the U.S. and its several individual states must properly be recognized and released. This is not a matter of one or two people’s personal opinion; it is a crucial matter of public opinion and human rights policy.

We are living in the epoch of continued institutional bigotry, global warming and plutocratic governing. The hard-won gains of the civil and human rights movement in the last 50 years have been constantly rolled back and the issue of political prisoners and prisoners of domestic war in this country are still left unresolved. This concrete reality is evidenced by the movements for Black Lives Matter and for the sociopolitical independence of Puerto Rico, for example. We will neither go away nor stop the fight for human rights in all human sights! Do not be fooled; this struggle is not easy. The police murders of youth in the streets and gang warfare represents a national malicious program of invidious repression that negatively impacts the lives of concerned people who are striving to make a better life for themselves and a future for their children.

Painting "She Points the Way" by Zolo Azania, Harriet Tubman pointing and overlooking the landscape
She Points the Way by Zolo Azania

Take your pick: poverty, senseless violence carried out with guns, gang violence, police brutality, and the upgrading of run-down urban (inner city) neighborhoods by affluent people who buy and renovate the properties, thereby displacing the resident poor and oppressed. These socioeconomic problems are not accidents! In the background stands COINTELPRO by any other name manipulating all other scenarios. The political prisoners and prisoners of war were members of various organizations and social economic movements and they were targeted by bigoted officials of government institutions that led up to their frame-ups and illegal imprisonment. The gross excesses and profane criminality of the U.S. and its individual states, as a whole, still have to face penalties before the United Nations international court of human rights. If left alone, the U.S. would never mete out a semblance of justice in any fair or impartial manner. Nelson Madiba Mandela was a South Afrikan political prisoner of war. The U.S. government secret intelligence community played a central role in Madiba’s capture and life imprisonment. Madiba was convicted of trying to overthrow the apartheid government and spent twenty-seven years in prison. He was subsequently released from prison, through public pressure, and he immediately ascended to the position as the top leader of Black South Afrika’s independence freedom movement and, as history would have it, became the democratically elected president of a post-apartheid South Afrika! This narrative is an example how important Our political prisoners are to the independence freedom movement of the ordinary poor and oppressed people held in these United States.

The political prisoner of war is a group of conscious (awake and aware) people from a cross section of U.S. society who have long believed in taking calculated risk to work tirelessly, and basically without pay, for the poor and underprivileged to overcome oppression by any and all intelligent means necessary, including armed struggle. What has been taken for granted as a civil rights movement was and still is a movement for human rights and dignity. As a result, these unselfish people who made the conscious decision to place their personal lives on the line as an expression of the strengths of the human spirit to oppose injustice directly were captured by police enforcers of the oppressor laws and subjected to the panes of imprisonment and more injustice. Their collective proactive stance was totally good for the revolutionary movement, directed against the inflated (puffy) foundation of U.S. imperialism. The admitted and well established wicked methodical COINTELPRO set-ups and murdering of the social conscience voices of sociopolitical descent made these cases highly political because these prisoners were targets of governmental acts of low intensity counter-insurgency war. The material facts are clear. It has long been proven with the criminal governmental heads and hired agents’ own written documents, how they described why they maliciously conspired to violate the human rights (constitutional law) of these numerous prisoners and further manipulated procedural due process court rules to cover up the official political crimes. The police and local city mayors planted deliberate lies in the media for public consumption to avoid owing up to their responsibility and from being duly held accountable by the people over whom they govern.

But still, in spite of proven truth, the important questions of political prisoners held in these United States are shamelessly ignored by some civil rights advocates claiming to be unapologetic standard-bearers after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968. This is a blatant betrayal of Dr. King’s legacy. i am not talking about any poor, ignorant common criminal or group of criminals who were found guilty in court and received prison sentences. i am talking about the political prisoners and prisoners of war specifically. They are constantly subjected to draconian laws of the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution and are now the political prisoners and prisoners of war, who during the turbulent epoch of the human rights movement, made many progressive societal transformations possible, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965Child Nutrition Act (CNA) of 1966, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which would not otherwise have been possible but for their numerous personal unselfish sacrifices which culminated in their deaths and long prison sentences. These beautiful people are neglected and ignored—out of sight, out of mind. They are imprisoned inside those sensory deprivation hell-holes, suffering for you outside with the so-called free world’s people. You should be out here making every sacrificial effort possible to help bring all of them home.

Painting by Zolo Azania, painted image of a Black Panther, the continent of Africa, a black person in a graduation gown.
Untitled by Zolo Azania

Organized pressures have to be garnered to demand release of the political prisoners from both outside and inside of the U.S. The arrogant, unjust government could not have gotten away with incarcerating these political community social workers in isolation for years-on-end if they had the proper support from the whole community. We are unorganized and co-existing in fragmented communities. That is a dangerous weakness for anybody involved with progressive struggle for both fundamental civil and human rights. Some of the prisoners have since passed away; some were released upon parole; others were granted a presidential pardon or exonerated in court. Those who are currently in prison are there because of their ethnic nationality, religion, political associations, or care for others and for refusing to denounce the political parties that COINTELPRO had tried to destroy. Some people who seem to care a little more than others because they have access to various useful resources are even in a blind dream-like state of being, but actually sleeping while on point for the cause pretending they are accepted as equal North Amerikkkans. They must first reeducate themselves and do true justice to themselves. People will recognize you as human beings when you do real justice to yourself out of love. No political movement is authentic when it neglects the people who made the greatest sacrifice like giving up their life to death and imprisonment. Giving up your life for the cause is the ultimate sacrifice. There is no sacrifice greater than this!

Civil rights marched its way into the White House with the popular political presidential election of Barack H. Obama. He was carried into that symbol of capitalist ruling class power on the backs of the grassroots people. Some of these grassroots people are the longest held political prisoners in the world today! The 50th Anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in 2013 was a farce. i say this with resolute authority beyond the usual contradictions in things and social phenomena because the North American civil rights movement was not a break with the U.S. socioeconomic political structure but a middle-class-led movement to be openly included. This true story or account of events does not explain the valuable importance–nor explain away–the ultimate sacrifices of Our beloved political prisoners and prisoners of war, who paved the road with their precious blood, sweat, and tears upon which Obama traveled leading to him becoming U.S. president, decades before the election took place!

Painting by Zolo Azania, two people looking at each other through prison bars
Untitled by Zolo Azania

Increasingly over the years people have come to see the particular role that mass incarceration plays in this imperial capitalist society generally, and the particular role they play in the enemy’s attempt to contain and disrupt the struggles of poor and oppressed people inside U.S. borders and outside, with its neo-colonial protectorates like Puerto Rico and Haiti. The intentional and wanton infliction of torture, frame-ups and death to further disrupt and subvert the human rights of political dissidents is repugnant to the conscience of human kind. Still, some people are sitting on the fence and are reluctant to get involved because they erroneously think that it does not concern them. Therefore, any failure on your part to help free Our political prisoners is to tacitly agree that it is okay to abandon those who have made the highest sacrifice of the liberation struggle. Power concedes nothing without a political demand; it never did and it never will. The poor and oppressed people are led by the poor and oppressed but the ignorant are not leading the ignorant or wise. Education is the key, to know what the socioeconomic problem is and exactly how to effectively solve it through concrete proactions. We fight with liberation knowledge. The artist must take a strong stand. Everyone fights forward for sure success. When you fail to help free the political captives, who would be left to help when the enemy comes for you?

We must continue to do everything that which is humanly possible, whatever it may take—to help free the political prisoners at all cost. Spare no expense!

Special thanks to Howie Emmer for helping to facilitate the publication of this essay and to Russell Brinkman for sharing images of Zolo’s artwork. Images courtesy of the No Death Penalty for Zolo Committee.

1 Comment

  1. jantobochnik

    Another example of political prisoner is the labeling of environmental and animal activists as terrorists. See the book “Green is the new Red” by Will Potter currently at University of Michigan.