Interview with a Former Prisoner, Part 3
Don't Risk Your Life Over Stupid Shit—Be Down for Revolution
September 15, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
EDITORS' NOTE: This is Part 3 of an interview with a former prisoner, who, through contact with Revolution newspaper, the writings of Bob Avakian, and literature of the Revolutionary Communist Party, decided that being an emancipator of humanity was what his life is going to be about. It has been edited for publication. We are posting the interview in three segments. Part 1 (Breaking with the Gang Life Getting with the REAL Revolution) was published on September 1, 2014 and Part 2 (Science, Revolutionary Theory, and Getting into Bob Avakian) on September 8.
Revolution: In addition to deeply wrestling with revolutionary theory, you wrangled with how you could contribute from inside. Can you talk about that?
X: I was trying to figure out how to build the movement for revolution from within prison. I would try to wrestle with every kind of prisoner, try to struggle with every kind of prisoner. There were some who I was glad to run into, who were more revolutionary-minded, or they thought more about those things. And there were some who were very backward. But I would try to struggle with them. I would look into how to actually go about it. But that was the thing about not having any collectivity that I was always so frustrated about because I didn't know how to do it. I'm reading and learning all this stuff, but I don't know how to struggle with people. But I knew I had to figure out how to "strain against the limits." Even though I didn't understand it so well, I had to try it. It spoke to something very real.
So I'd be like, "OK, how do I strain against these limits? How do I transform the situation to the greatest degree possible within these things, but always putting forth revolution?"
There were a lot of obstacles, but I was constantly struggling. I was trying to see how I could build a movement for revolution. I was always bringing communism into it and why we needed it. I would struggle over all the shit that's going on in the world. And sometimes I didn't know how to do it and I would try to just identify things that that particular person hated or something that was happening to that particular person or happening to us in prison to get them to want communism.
But then I realized that you can't do it that way. You have to make them think about larger things. You have to call their attention to all the horrors that are going on around the world, so people could really want a revolution. You can't be like, "We gotta have a revolution because they're validating1 too many people." It's gotta be more than that. [laughs] That would be enough if you think about mass incarceration, for people to want to make revolution, but it's gotta be larger than that. They gotta identify with all the oppressed people around the world, not just with prisoners.
I was trying to strain against the limits. I was trying to do that in relation to the hunger strikes, too. I was trying to bring people revolution, trying to get them to get into it, to wield it, as we're getting ready for the hunger strikes and going up against the state. In relation to the hunger strikes, more people started becoming open to it. In the midst of struggle, more people are asking questions about how we could go forward. "What else can we do? What else should we do?" And people start talking about tactics, but they're also more open to revolutionary ideas. Not a lot, but more than usual. You can see how it's all interrelated—Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution, and how we have to continually make it about that. So I saw those as opportunities to strain against the limits.
Revolution: Talk some about the hunger strikes. How did you feel about taking part in them?
X: I was inspired! Prison is becoming more and more repressive. Some of these prisoners in solitary confinement have been isolated for decades with no human contact. But also different prisoners supported it, because a lot of people go in and out of the SHUs. It's like a jail within a jail, but it's not like it's totally separated. It's a reality hanging over your head, that you could be in the SHU next—this could be you next. So prisoners on the mainline, we started taking this up, taking up the struggle.
I thought it was a significant thing for prisoners to resist and fight back, for them to come together. This coming together of different races, when it's such a fuckin' racist environment—it's so fuckin' racist in prison. But these different races came together. It was something that called attention to the fucked up conditions, but was also an example that no matter where you're at, there's things that you can do.
At the same time, we do have to recognize what we're up against and people have to raise their sights to see that the struggle they're waging could contribute to the larger struggle. I remember thinking about the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay and shouldn't we be uniting with their struggle? I would think about the significance that that would have. "Oh, shit, these prisoners in the United States are joining with the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay."
In the SHUs, people feel very isolated, totally separate. So we have to support them. We have to show our support for the people who are validated, for those who are stuck there. Not just because it could be us, but because it's right. Because what's happening to them is wrong. Again, at the same time, we have to make it about something larger. Whether you realize it or not, you're going up against the repressive forces of the capitalist class. You may not be very conscious of it, but that's what we're going up against. So I would just try to tell people, you gotta make it about something bigger if you're gonna understand what you're fighting against and recognize what it is.
Revolution: What role would you say... in talking to people who are reading this in prison now, what role do you think prisoners can and need to play in the revolution?
X: They need to take up revolution and communism. They need to take these goals up. And they have to figure out what they can do wherever they're at to fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution—and do whatever they can from within the confines of prison. Because they're not helpless. They can still contribute. They can get into BA and help get others into BA, to get people to wrangle with all these big questions.
Another way prisoners can make an important contribution is by writing letters to the PRLF [Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund] and Revolution newspaper.
While I was in prison, I opened up the paper one time and saw an excerpt from one of my letters on a sign that people were using on the street. I was like, "What the???" I started realizing that there's still contributions you could make just by writing. I was able to speak to a whole section of people through the pages of Revolution—not just my celly or the guy in the cell next to mine. That's very important because of the back and forth between outside and inside the prison walls. I was someone about whom the system would've said, "You can't teach this dumb-ass anything," or "You would have to water down the content for him to understand." But I did get a meaningful education in prison, because I was learning fundamental things about how the world works, why things are the way they are, and what we could do to change it. Then through writing in to Revolution, I was able to challenge others with what I had come to understand.
I was surprised to see one of my letters being taken out to challenge these youth who are caught up in the things that most of these prisoners were caught up in before they came to prison. A lot more of that needs to be done to reach out to those youth before they get caught up in this system's game and their life is snatched away from them by these pigs and the system they represent. Prisoners have a very important role to play and an obligation to speak to these youth—we know what they're going through and we know where they're heading. But if you've gotten into revolution, you also know their lives could be about something radically different—they could be the gravediggers of this system and emancipators of humanity.
In addition, if people from all walks of life see prisoners stepping forward, that could be very inspiring—if even prisoners with their very limited means are finding ways to contribute to this, then why can't I? It can change people's thinking—the people that this system is always telling you are monsters are actually capable of tremendous love for humanity. And it is this system that is monstrous.
There's another level, too, where prisoners should be raising their questions and differences—to share questions which others might have who don't write into Revolution, but which everyone can learn from. Also, raising their questions can provide real insights into significant contradictions they might be dealing with or thinking about that the movement for revolution may not be aware of. Or even if you're wrong about something that you raise and someone is writing back to you and answering your question, it makes the person answering have to work to further develop the line, and this can contribute to all kinds of breakthroughs. The deeper our understanding is, the better equipped we are to make revolution. So posing those questions is important, as they're wrangling with all this... and make those questions known so we can get to work on answering them and helping raise that level of consciousness for the movement as a whole.
If more prisoners recognize this and find ways to be writing and engaging the line, you could have a very positive impact.
Revolution: You've told me about how you waged sharp struggle with a lot of people about revolution. What would you say to people inside who are attracted to this but maybe aren't sure they could go up against feeling like nobody agrees with them? This is something people face outside of prison, too.
X: Well, if you're gonna proceed from "nobody wants to hear this," you're not gonna change anything. You have to understand the way that people could come to see things, like I said, in the midst of struggle, or by being confronted by the larger workings of the system and the role political and ideological struggle can play. Sometimes you might feel all alone. Cuz I felt all alone a lot of times. I couldn't find a single person to agree with me. But I also recognize that there's a basis to change people's thinking, cuz they're gonna confront different situations. It's not a stagnant reality. It's not just unchanging. Nothing is permanent. And they're gonna confront different situations, including the need to struggle. And you have a role to play in all that.
If you take this up, that's where you step in and raise people's sights. And you won't be the only one. There's other prisoners doing it. You gotta become part of that and take it up. The more people that are doing that, the better our chances are of really breaking through and creating a serious movement that becomes a strong material force to change the world. It's not unimportant for prisoners to take this up, but you have to step up. This shows, too, that if you can do it, someone who's in prison, why not other people who are not so limited in what they can do?
There's a responsibility. If you recognize all the horrors that this system causes, there's a responsibility to do everything you can to contribute to revolution.
Prisoners can set an example that people can change. If you can change, who else can change? I was talking about my circumstances and everything that I changed about myself, about my outlook and the way I live my life. That wasn't easy. That took struggle. There were times when I was considered the scum of the earth, an irredeemable monster—and there were times that even I believed it. But you could change. You could change all that by taking this up. BA says "Never underestimate the great importance of ideology."
I was talking with another revolutionary about the idea of being down. A lot of people talk about "I'm down, I'm down." You're down for what? What are you gonna be down for? What you need to be down for is revolution. If you're talking about being down is being courageous, what's more courageous then taking this up and being about revolution? Don't lower your sights. Don't keep your sights so low! Raise your sights. Raise your sights and become about something bigger. It involves sacrifices. It involves sacrifices. But if you're down, you're willing to make 'em.
Revolution: What were the biggest political and ideological questions you struggled around with people in prison?
X: The main thing I would get from prisoners when I talked to them was that you can't make revolution. They didn't see the possibility. "They'll kill you. You can't make a revolution in this country." There wasn't so much disagreement when you laid out what the fuck is wrong with the world and that there's a better way to rule society. There was disagreement, but not as much as you would think. The question was always more often than not, "You can't do that. They'll kill you. That's not possible. People are too fucked up. People don't care about that shit. People just care about making money and doing all this shit. It sounds good, but it won't ever work."
I would try to tell people that nothing stays the same forever. Like any little cursory look at history, you would see that. Nothing stays the same forever. And there have actually been revolutions that have went in that direction. They're always like, "Yeah, but not in the United States. Not here. You might see it in the Third World, but not here." I told them there's contradictions that the system can't resolve. Like they have to talk about peace, but they constantly gotta wage wars. They gotta talk about democracy, but they constantly gotta reveal what they're truly about in the form of repression. And there's no guarantee that they will always be able to do that—that they'll never face a situation that they can't get out of.
And I said, "And every time that there's struggle and people are willing to resist, that's the time for us to do this kind of work, to bring revolution to people, so they could know that there's a whole 'nother way. So that something could come out of that upheaval. And it's true in the society outside these prisons."
People have to know where the source of it is all coming from and you have to bring it to people for them to see it. Like BA says, it's not what people are thinking at any given time that is the key question, but what they will be forced to confront. And by not doing anything, you're almost guaranteeing that it will go in a fucked up route. So you have to be out there taking this up instead. These crises are inevitable under capitalism, one way or another, but what comes out of that crisis depends on you, on us, on what we do now and at that time.
Religion would always come up and we'd struggle about religion. I'd say, "If you look to an invisible man and start wondering why an invisible man is doing this or doing that, you're never gonna understand shit. You're not gonna know nothing about the truth. You gotta look at and understand the material world, not look for things unseen and start going off from there, like speculating about what would god want, what is god thinking, why would god do this. You're not gonna understand shit that way." I would reference Mao's Red Book where he says, "Idealism and metaphysics are the easiest things in the world, because people can talk as much nonsense as they like without basing it on objective reality or having it tested against reality. Materialism and dialectics, on the other hand, need effort." I would tell them that and reference BA as much as I could.
Also, on the ideological level, prisoners gotta come off that ego trip. There's a mentality like, "We don't get fucked with." But it's not true. That's on the street, too, where everybody's like, "I don't give a fuck, I'm a tough guy" and "Nobody comes around here and does this shit." But the pigs come in whenever the fuck they want—and it's the same in prison, too. They think that the pigs don't fuck with them, but they do. I used to tell prisoners "These pigs do whatever the fuck they want." They'd be like, "No, they don't." I'm like, "Yes, they do." I said, "Just to go out to the fuckin' yard, you gotta fuckin' strip butt naked, turn around and spread your cheeks."
Because they do that, just for you to go out to the yard. And it's a humiliating process. You are humiliated. But prisoners, they'll be in denial. "Naw, naw, that's just the way it is, just the way it is." That's the thing: they got you to accept that humiliation that's meant to keep you in your place, for you to accept this certain role where you're the one being ruled over and they're the ones on top dominating. And that's precisely what they want—for you to go through that motion without thinking. If you think about it, how more degrading could you get? Stand back and look at that. How could you not see that? And these pigs are doing it.
So it's not like we're these tough guys who don't let these pigs fuck with us. Look at what they do to us. Look at how they treat us on a daily basis. So you have to come together, you have to come together and see the need to fight back.
Revolution: And actually, that's where we find our strength. It is just the opposite of what people think in terms of the "Naw, we don't get fucked with, we don't get fucked with." Well you do. But actually, where do you find your strength—not just on an individual level, but collectively?
X: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Being objective, learning to recognize objective reality, it's not based on what people think. I had that argument with somebody on this particular issue. They said something ridiculous about the strip search. And I said, "No, this is why they're doing it." He got all mad. "Maybe for you, but not for me." I'm like "Naw, man. [laughs] Your opinion doesn't matter. That's objectively true that you have to get butt naked, you have to turn around and spread your ass cheeks to these fuckin' pigs just to go outside, and you do that on a daily basis. Every time you want to go outside you have to go through that."
And he's like, "Aw, that's just the way you wanna look at it." I'm like, "No it's not, that's actually happening." We all have to do that, we all have to learn how to recognize the objective truth that exists independently of what anybody thinks or how you want to see it. Like, "It depends on how you want to see it." Naw, [laughs] that might help you cope with it, but that's not gonna help you change it or challenge it. It's still gonna be happening to you.
Revolution: We spoke earlier about the hunger strikes, could you talk more about how you see the importance of the call to end hostilities among the different nationalities in prison?
X: That was a very important thing to come out. When you look at the history of all this violence between these groups going for decades—for this call to come out is very meaningful. When you've been in prison and you see all this shit, and then you see that they're saying, "OK, it's time to put an end to this infighting," it's such a significant thing. And I don't know if people really grasp it.
When you're facing the state, you have to throw all these encumbrances out the window. The more serious you become about the struggle and really overcoming all this shit, you're gonna have to face the necessity to do that. Any prisoner who starts to think about what we have to do to fight the outrages we're forced to suffer, they respond, "Aw yeah, but we're always fighting... Aw, yeah, if we could just get together, but that's never gonna happen. If we just stop fighting amongst each other then maybe, but not until then." We get that from a lot of prisoners.
But when prisoners actually act to change that, then you know it's something very significant. People might have felt, "We're never gonna change that," but they recognize the need for it. And then when that changes, you could see the possibility. What else could we do? What else are we capable of? When all these thousands of prisoners came together of all these different races and we were all united under one cause, it's a very significant thing. I know there's a lot of prisoners who thought they'd never see something like that in their lifetime.
And now, prisoners have to work to really hold onto this, because it's such a significant leap. And for it to fall apart, it would just be so fuckin' sad. And it would work in the interest of the pigs that they're up against. It would work in their interest, the pigs would love that, CDC would love that. So prisoners have to hold onto this.
Revolution: What do you think has to get deepened in people's understanding for them to hold onto this... both deepened in people's understanding but also in how the different nationalities relate for this to take more hold?
X: There's a lot that needs to be overcome. There's a lot of shit that shouldn't be tolerated. Anything that undermines unity shouldn't go unchallenged. Also, for real unity to take hold, you have to get rid of all these encumbrances that keep people from interacting with each other in a fuller sense. There's too much of that, "You can't do this with the Blacks, you can't play ball with the Blacks." For example, we can't eat after the Blacks. Like if somebody Black cooks something, we can't touch it.
All these things need to be identified and examined—does that undermine the unity that we're trying to create? If you're somebody Black and you're like, "This guy doesn't even want to eat after me," you'd be like, "Fuck him." It reinforces that division, it doesn't help overcome it. And there are prisoners who want to interact more with the different races but can't. You have to give people free rein to do political work with these different races. If prisoners of different nationalities want to come together in a study group or whatever, they should be able to do that. We're seeking to understand things on a better basis and it's not a Black thing to be revolutionary, or a Mexican thing, it's an internationalist thing.
Like there's all these prisoners who are more radical-minded who are very limited. Not by the pigs—and that's the irony, that's the contradiction—not by the pigs, but by the prisoners themselves that won't allow for all the political work that can be done among the prisoners. It would benefit the prisoners' movement as a whole if that was promoted—this political work across racial lines and national lines. If somebody takes up Christianity—they believe in some mythological fuckin' invisible man, they get exempt from the prison rules. But you won't be exempt from the rules if you take up revolution. Well, what the fuck are you talking about? That's something that needs to be overcome, something that would help the prisoners' movement as a whole, with everything they were trying to accomplish through these hunger strikes.
Revolution: There's also the question of people learning about each other's cultures. Latino people think Black people are loud and smelly and... whatever. And Black people think Latino people came and took their jobs away or whatever else they say. People got all this racist shit among each other, all these divisions among people. It's based on a lot of ignorance.
X: Yeah, all these divisions are promoted by the system, but people don't see this spontaneously. We have to struggle with that. That's why it's important to allow that interaction, so people learn about each other. But you also gotta read the history and you gotta study communist theory to see where it all comes from—where's the source, what role are you playing by reinforcing that, by promoting those racist views? Who are you helping? You sure as hell aren't helping yourself.
I would tell people, "You take up these views, but whose views are you taking up?"
I used to hear all these racist views. And I remember hearing this one Black guy talking about these Mexicans coming in, "All these places used to be Black and now they're all Mexicans, and now you see taco stands everywhere and all this shit." And then you see Mexican people talking about Blacks and they're just saying the same shit that you usually hear from white people. What ideology is that? You're taking up white supremacy. You're taking up white supremacy with all these racist views that you're taking up. Some people say "I hate white people, too." So I would ask people, "What are your criticisms of white people?" But they wouldn't be as developed. They'd have all these developed racist views about all these other races, except white people. Because they're taking up certain views that didn't just come out of thin air. They're taking them up from somewhere—from white supremacy.
I used to tell people when they would talk about their own culture, they'd be like, "Oh yeah, but we do this and we do that fucked up shit, and we can't do this or that good thing." And I'm like, Who can?" They'd be like, "Well, these white people, they do this and that." And I'd say, "You don't realize it, but you are a white supremacist." They'd be like, "Naw." "Yeah, you're a white supremacist." And they'd be like, "No, I'm not." I'd be like, "Man, if you believe the white race is superior, [laughs] then you're a white supremacist."
Things are this way because of a system. It's the way history has played out, not because you're biologically inferior. That's a lot of what people need to get over, is that inferiority complex. They've taken up this inferior role assigned to them: "This is just where we're at." And they're like, "White people are smart, they do this and they do that. That's why they have things." No. You have a system and they enslave people, that's why they have things. Some white people, not all white people, have things. [laughs]
And that's where it gets complicated, cuz some Black people are richer than some white people. Some Mexican people are richer than some white people. But they're in a class. There's this one Mexican guy who is richer than Bill Gates—Carlos Slim. And he's monopolized communications in Mexico. And you've got people in prison thinking that's good. They think WE Mexicans are doing good because we have this guy richer than Bill Gates, but that's nothing to be proud of. What the fuck you talking about? People still live in misery. Look at all the poverty. Just because some people get richer while the rest remain poor that's not a positive development. People are like,"Oh yeah, well, we're coming up and we're doing better or whatever." It goes back to that thing, we have a Black president, but what are the conditions of Black people? You still have mass incarceration. You have a Black president, but it reinforces that thought that anybody could make it, when it's not true. It reinforces the false idea that racism doesn't exist, because we have a Black president so there's no longer any racism. It's fuckin' bullshit.
Revolution: Why would you tell people, both in prison and also people broadly, why they should get into BAsics—the handbook for revolution?
X: Well, I would tell them to get into BA overall. But there's like decades, decades of work of the application of the scientific approach in this one book, BAsics. There's so much. And you could really wield it as an ideological weapon to get over all the hurdles that we need to get over. There's a lot of things that people come up against that you could find something to reference in BAsics, that you could battle it out and struggle with them and identify the problem. Things like nationalism and anywhere where sights are lowered. There's some basic questions that get answered thoroughly that are here.
You'll find it in another work of BA, but then there's something else you won't find in that work. But you'll find a whole lot in this one book from all these different works. Like where the kid says that "I agree with everything in there, if I invent something, I want to get more for it." You can't go walking around with a whole library of BA's work, but you could go around walking with BAsics and wield that. Like the book says, "You can't change the world if you don't know the BAsics." You should get into all of his works, but this is such a good point to start. You get a big head start if you take up this book and read it and wrangle with it.
Revolution: What would you say to the youth who have all that anger that you talked about at the beginning and all that life experience of just being fucked with and being degraded and being in a million different ways told you're not worth shit—and you have all that anger and have all that desire to rebel but are doing it on the terms of this system... what would you say to them in terms of what their life should be about?
X: I would tell them you have to make your life about revolution... you gotta get with revolution, cuz your life is gonna be about something or it's gonna be about nothin'. And under this system, your life ain't gonna be about shit. And you're gonna be walking around with a target on your back, with prison as a very likely choice for not doing shit. But you could make your life about changing all that, instead of making your life about getting more than somebody else. Somebody actually told me once that he wanted to be the best bottom feeder he could be, "Being on the lower section of society, but at least I have more than the people down here." Why the fuck would you wanna set your sights so low? Why the fuck would you allow yourself to get played? Stop getting played by the system. Stop killing each other over senseless shit. Get with revolution, become part of the emancipators of humanity. Answer the call in BAsics 3:16.2 It's not easy, there's sacrifices to be made, but your life could be about so much more than all this petty shit that you think makes you dangerous or makes you tough, but is not leading you to nothing good and you're just being played.
If these youth were to be brought forward into the revolution, it would be such a tremendous thing. It would be a nightmare for the people who run this system if these kids raise their sights above all this micro level dog-eat-dog competition. Right now they're being played. And they have all these fuckin' prisons where they just keep them housed. They just keep throwing 'em in there and these fuckin' imperialists are happy with the way things are. "OK, that's good. We've handled that situation. We're handling that situation." They pretty much think they've taken 'em out of the equation. "Anybody who'd be willing to resist, we'll lock 'em up. We have 'em locked up."
But if they were to make their lives about revolution, it would be a nightmare for the people who run this system and so meaningful for people throughout the world. These youth don't recognize that, they don't recognize their potential and what they could be and do if they come together to be a part of this.
We got to say to the youth caught up in all this bullshit, "Be down for something. If you're gonna be down, be down for something. Don't do what they want you to do. Don't risk you're life over stupid shit. You're willing to fight each other, you should fight for something that's really worthwhile. You're not happy with the way things are, obviously, or else you'd be following the rules. If you really want to be a rebel, be a real rebel, rebel against this system that has you in the mess, that put you in this mess in the first place. Don't rebel in a way that keeps this system intact and perpetuates what this system is doing to people all over the world.
1. Validating is when they label people gang members and put them in solitary confinement in the SHU (Security Housing Unit). [back]
2. An Appeal to Those the System Has Cast Off
Here I am speaking not only to prisoners but to those whose life is lived on the desperate edge, whether or not they find some work; to those without work or even homes; to all those the system and its enforcers treat as so much human waste material.
Raise your sights above the degradation and madness, the muck and demoralization, above the individual battle to survive and to “be somebody” on the terms of the imperialists—of fouler, more monstrous criminals than mythology has ever invented or jails ever held. Become a part of the human saviors of humanity: the gravediggers of this system and the bearers of the future communist society.
This is not just talk or an attempt to make poetry here: there are great tasks to be fulfilled, great struggles to be carried out, and yes great sacrifices to be made to accomplish all this. But there is a world to save—and to win—and in that process those the system has counted as nothing can count for a great deal. They represent a great reserve force that must become an active force for the proletarian revolution. [back]
This interview is posted in three segments. See also Part 1 (Breaking with the Gang Life Getting with the REAL Revolution) and Part 2 (Science, Revolutionary Theory, and Getting into Bob Avakian).
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