Revolution #221, January 9, 2011

L.A. Forum on Overturning the Ban on Revolution Newspaper

From readers in Los Angeles

On Sunday, December 12, a diverse audience gathered at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for a forum entitled, "Overturn the Ban of Revolution Newspaper! End Political Censorship in Prisons Nationwide." The program opened with a moving performance of "Letters from the Hellholes of Prison." Through the actors of Dramastage-Qumran, prisoner subscribers to Revolution described the transformations they are making through engaging with Revolution newspaper and the works of Bob Avakian. Their letters speak of forging ties with prisoners of other races, of beginning to understand and oppose the oppression of women, of delving into many topics in the newspaper's pages, of imagining a world where human beings live in mutual support and cooperation. Many letters speak movingly to how much Revolution newspaper means to the writers and thank the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF) for sending the paper every week.

Following the performance, Michael Slate, writer for Revolution and host of The Michael Slate Show on Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles, introduced the panel. Clyde Young, representing Revolution newspaper, spoke on the ban of the paper at Pelican Bay and other U.S. prisons. As a young man, Young spent many years in prison, where he became a revolutionary. "I turned my life around through learning about and getting with the revolutionary movements of the time," Young said. "Consequently, I got out of a life of crime and dedicated myself to radically transforming the world. Without the freedom to explore all kinds of ideas, this would not have been possible."

Speaking to the significance of the ban and the struggle to overturn it, Young told how prisoners were called on, as part of the campaign "The Revolution We Need… The Leadership We Have" launched by the RCP in 2009, to take an active role in winning people to revolution and to appreciating and recognizing the leadership we have in Bob Avakian, by writing to Revolution. Prisoners answered this call with a flourishing of letters, which had a profound effect on people from all sections of society who read and heard them.

Through the pages of Revolution newspaper, Young said, prisoners are learning about science and atheism, understanding why there are so many Blacks and Latinos imprisoned in this country, rejecting misogyny and porn, exploring radical, revolutionary, and communist solutions to the plight of the planet and the people, and transforming themselves from a life of crime into a backbone force of emancipators of humanity.

Young quoted from a prisoner asking for a copy of the recently published Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal): "…Please. Please. Send me a copy so me and the few others that believe and think how I do can start putting this in our lives…." The ban on Revolution newspaper cannot stand, Young said. Revolution must be spread geometrically behind prison walls and the voices of revolutionary-minded prisoners heard widely in society.

The next speaker was Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer, lecturer and writer who is Chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. Rohde is the author of American Words of Freedom, a book that explores the origins, history and meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and many articles and book reviews on civil liberties and Constitutional history.

Rohde spoke on "Prisoners and the First Amendment." He exposed the unconstitutional nature of the ban on Revolution in the prison system and gave the government no quarter on the issue of the First Amendment. He made a legal and political case that showed censorship of Revolution has ominous implications throughout the prison system in the U.S. and is an immediate and serious threat to freedom of speech and of the press in society at large. With regard to the rights of prisoners to explore a spectrum of ideas and to be free of "mind control" by the state, he surveyed Supreme Court opinions by Justices Stevens and Ginsberg. He explained the current complex juncture in the efforts to overturn the ban and said this battle is not yet won, and that it must be won.

Rohde said that censorship is habit-forming; once a precedent is set, it spreads throughout society. "Censoring the idea that government is repressive and tyrannical does not eliminate the idea that government is repressive and tyrannical," he said. "In fact, censoring the idea corroborates and documents that government is repressive and tyrannical."

To illustrate what is at stake in the fight to end the censorship of Revolution newspaper in California prisons, he quoted Pastor Martin Niemoller's well-known statement about Nazi Germany, "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a communist…."

Rohde pledged that the ACLU will see this fight through to the end, until the ban and continuing censorship are verifiably lifted and the official state documents which led to the censorship are revealed.

The last speaker was Laura Magnani, Interim Regional Director of the Pacific Mountain Region, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). She spoke on "Ending Torture and Racism in California Prisons." She is the author of "Buried Alive: Long Term Isolation in California's Youth and Adult Prisons," an AFSC report issued in 2008 in conjunction with AFSC's STOPMAX campaign to end long-term solitary confinement; and co-author of the book Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System, published in 2006.

Magnani said that, having worked on this issue for 20 years, she sometimes thinks she's seen it all until the state reaches a shocking new low in dehumanization, like the recent case of a prison stopping the water in prisoners' toilets and forcing prisoners to wear diapers with no opportunity to change them for long periods of time, for the sole purpose of humiliating the prisoners.

Magnani personally witnessed a prisoner, stripped to his underwear and barefoot, paraded across the snow-covered exercise yard at High Desert Prison near Susanville, Calif., where mentally disturbed prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for months. When solitary confinement has been exposed as torture, Magnani said, prison officials change the names of the units and continue the same practices. (For example, in California, the Behavior Modification Units are now termed Behavior Management Units to supposedly distinguish them from the former, where for decades officials subjected prisoners to sensory deprivation and pharmaceutical, electroshock and surgical experiments.)

Throughout her talk she exposed how the stereotype of "the worst of the worst" is used to justify and hide cruelty and racism towards prisoners as well as denial of their First Amendment rights. "Prisoners are human beings," Magnani said in closing, "No matter what they've done, I do not concede or consent to the state's right to treat prisoners as less than human."

The dramatic readings and panel provoked a range of questions and comments; from what it will take to definitively overturn the ban on Revolution, to what the letters reveal about the suppressed human potential behind prison walls, to issues of censorship in society at large. People left the program uplifted and inspired by the prisoners' letters and the trenchant arguments of the panelists.

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