My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Coincidentally, I finished reading Eddie Conway’s book on March 4th, the day he was finally released from prison after 44 years. I’m still thinking about it. I’m particularly thinking about how bad we are at learning from other people’s experiences and how much even one man’s story has to teach us.
Change takes risk and sacrifice. Eddie Conway lost his freedom for 44 years. He isn’t alone. Others lost their lives to violence or sometimes to just plain giving up. And there are other sacrifices. Sometimes it isn’t clear that they are worth it. For instance, Conway talks about being absent from the lives of his children. It wasn’t just because of prison. He was absent before prison because he was always busy with the movement.
Community support is fundamental. The Black Panthers obtained the support of their community in Baltimore by providing free breakfasts to children and setting up a community health clinic. In prison, the group Conway was involved with remained popular across divisions because they always advocated for the benefit of all the prisoners.
Success is the seed of your destruction. The more successful you are, the more you will become a target of the state. That is especially true if you provide services to the community that the state is not. The state will do anything to destroy you. The state will lie. The state will spy. The state will falsely imprison and kill. Even widespread community support cannot save an organization that the state is determined to destroy.
Information is essential. Even with community support, a media narrative can take off. Even die-hard supporters could start to doubt. One of the most successful prison rebellions involved prisoners who climbed up to windows where they could grab the attention of the community. Once the people most affected are allowed to speak, people see the truth. But the media is designed to create the white noise that drowns those people out.
Movements eat themselves. The image of the Black Panthers that was sold by the media attracted the kind of people who were easy targets for agent provocateurs. Anarchists have that same problem. We need to find ways to be disciplined in our organizations and to deal with the fact that agents will always be among us. We also need to deal with well-meaning but overzealous, unstrategic, and destructive people who help the state to discredit us.
I started this off by saying how bad we are at learning from other’s experiences. What I was specifically thinking about was Green is the New Red. It is a great book in many ways. But what made me furious was that the young, white kids involved seemed utterly shocked at the level of oppression that came down on them for their actions. I don’t know how anyone who had read even a page of history could have been shocked. I don’t think anyone should be taking actions – especially very confrontational actions – without understanding what they are getting into.
So read some history and know what you are facing. Conway’s book is a good place to start.