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Woodfox was a member of the Angola 3, a group of men wrongfully accused of murder. Now he marks the fifth anniversary of his freedom by Ed Pilkington [Mirrored from the Guardian]Fri 19 Feb 2021

Every morning for almost 44 years, Albert Woodfox would awake in his 6ft by 9ft concrete cell and brace himself for the day ahead. He was America’s longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner, and each day stretched before him identical to the one before.

Did he have the strength, he would ask himself, to endure the torture of his prolonged isolation? Or might this be the day when he would finally lose his mind and, like so many others on the tier, suddenly start screaming and never stop?

On Friday, Woodfox will wake up in a much better place. He will find himself in his three-bedroom home in New Orleans, the city of his birth. There will be colourful pictures on the wall, books to read, not an inch of brutal concrete in sight. It will be soothingly quiet – no cries and howls bouncing off the walls, no metal doors clanging. Once up, he can step outside and look up at the open sky, a pleasure withheld from him for almost half a century.

It will be a good day. Today he will celebrate his 74th birthday. Today he will mark the fifth anniversary of his freedom.

•••

On 19 February 2016, on his 69th birthday, Woodfox walked free from prison after more than 43 years inside. Almost all that time he spent in solitary confinement, on a life sentence for a murder which he did not commit.

His experiences as a former Black Panther in Angola, Louisiana’s notorious state penitentiary and the largest maximum-security prison in the US, tested his mental fortitude to the limit and beyond. It made him dig deep into reserves of compassion and resilience he never knew he had, and forced him to learn how to live in the absence of human touch.

Five years on from his release, he might chuckle a little to himself at the irony of today. This may be his birthday and the anniversary of his freedom, but he will spend the day in physical isolation along with most Americans who, courtesy of Covid, have spent the past year getting a tiny taste of what life in solitary really means.

“Who would have thought that all those years in solitary would have prepared me for living through this pandemic?” Woodfox said when we meet on Zoom. “People always want to know what it’s like. I used to tell them, ‘Why don’t you spend 24 hours in your bathroom and find out for yourself.’ Well, that’s no longer necessary – this pandemic has forced everyone to isolate and they are freaking out!”

A handout image provided by Squire Patton Boggs and taken by Billy Sothern, the attorney of Albert Woodfox, shows Woodfox, right, being accompanied by his brother Michel Mable, left, as he walks out of the West Feliciana Parish detention center on 19 February 2016.
A handout image shows Woodfox, right, being accompanied by his brother Michel Mable, left, as he walks out of the West Feliciana parish detention center on 19 February 2016.
Photograph: Billy Sothern (Attorney for Albert Woodfox)/EPA


•••

One of Woodfox’s techniques for surviving years alone in a 6ft by 9ft cell was to compose a list of what he would do were he to be set free. Most of the list’s items were strikingly mundane: he would have dinner with his family, drive a car, go to the store, have a holiday, eat some good old home-cooking.

Other desires were more substantive. He would get to know his daughter Brenda, whom he’d had when he was 16 but hardly knew. He would go to the grave of his mama, Ruby Edwards Mable, who died while he was behind bars. And he would visit Yosemite national park in California, which he had fallen in love with watching National Geographic on his cell TV.

Over the past five years, he has ticked every single item on his list. A day after he walked free in 2016, he went to Ruby’s grave and told her: “I’m free now. I love you.” He has forged a strong bond with his daughter and her children. His brother Michael, a master chef by trade, comes regularly to his house to cook him stuffed crab, hot sausage or his favourite, smothered potatoes. He’s even adopted a stray dog he came across out by Lake Pontchartrain. He named him Hobo.

Not all of it has been easy. In the early days of his release, Woodfox had to retrain his body to do things it hadn’t done for decades, like walking up and down stairs or sitting without shackles and leg irons. There have been a lot of first-time experiences that were both exciting and scary: first flight on a plane, first visit to a university to speak about solitary confinement, and the one we all share – first time on Zoom.

He was anxious for quite a while about how he would fare in the outside world. He had been separated so long from his family, and he was apprehensive too about his childhood neighborhood of Tremé, which as a teenager he had plagued with acts of petty crime and fighting. “I went into prison as a kid and emerged almost 70, this patriarchal figure. So how do you fit in? When I left society, my daughter was a baby; now she’s a grown woman with three kids and four grandkids and great-grandkids beneath. And the community. When I left Tremé I was a predator on my own people. How could I make amends?”

I went into prison as a kid and emerged almost 70, this patriarchal figure. So how do you fit in?

To his relief, both sides have worked out fine. He is a present and much-loved grandfather and great-grandfather, pandemic notwithstanding. Through childhood friends, he attended meetings with community groups and apologized for what he had done back in the 1960s, asking for forgiveness. “They gave me a second chance, and since that time I’ve been working hard to earn the trust they put in me,” he said.

Some of the hardest things have been the least expected. He has felt a disturbing disconnect between the world as he knew it from his prison cell – all mediated for him through TV, books and magazines that he fought hard for years to be allowed access to – and the actual physical world that now accosts him in all its raw, unfiltered splendour.

He did make that longed-for trip to Yosemite, and almost wished he hadn’t.

“It was far rougher than I thought it would be. We went to this waterfall way up the side of the mountain. It was quite a task getting there, going up, up and up. The waterfall was so high there’s a massive spray where the water hits the rocks, and as I turned into it, it was like someone had thrown a bucket of ice-cold water on me. It was a wonderful experience, in hindsight, but in the moment, I was, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ In the cell it looked so magnificent, but when I got there I realized, you know, this is real.”

•••

Numerous scientific studies have found that when human beings are cooped up in isolation, the experience can cause psychological damage that can be irreversible or even fatal. It can induce panic, depression, hallucinations, self-harming and suicide and should not extend under international rules set by the UN beyond 15 days.

Woodfox endured not 15, but 15,000 days in solitary.

He was held on the tier known as “closed cell restricted”, or CCR, where prisoners were locked up alone for at least 23 hours a day. He went into CCR in April 1972, aged 25, and remained in it almost without pause until his release aged 69 in 2016.

Ostensibly, the punishment was meted out to Woodfox and his fellow member of a group of solitary prisoners who became known as the Angola 3, Herman Wallace, after they were accused and convicted of murdering a prison guard, Brent Miller. A mass of documentation gathered over years by his tireless defense lawyers points to them having been framed.

A handout image shows Albert Woodfox, left, and Herman Wallace, right, both members of the so-called ‘Angola 3’ incarcerated at the Louisiana state penitentiary in connection with the killing of a guard at the prison in 1972.
A handout image shows Woodfox, left, and Herman Wallace, right, both members of the so-called ‘Angola 3’ incarcerated at the Louisiana state penitentiary in connection with the killing of a guard at the prison in 1972.
Photograph: angola3.org/EPA

There was ample forensic evidence at the scene of the murder, including a bloody fingerprint, yet none of it implicated Woodfox and Wallace. Both men, who were serving separate sentences for robbery at the time, had alibis. It emerged after the trial that the main state witness against them, a fellow prisoner, had been paid for his testimony in cigarettes and promises of a reduced sentence.

Despite all that, and many other discrepancies, all-white juries took less than an hour to convict both men in separate trials.

There is also an abundance of evidence that supports the real reason why the pair – later joined by the third member of the Angola 3, Robert King – were held for so long in the harshest form of captivity. Three years before they were framed for Miller’s death, Woodfox and Wallace set up an Angola prison branch of the Black Panther party.

They saw it as a way to fight for racial justice in an environment in which none existed. Angola was built on the site of an old cotton plantation where slaves were bred and put to work in the fields. The location was named after the African country that supplied most of the slaves.

In 1971, when Woodfox formed the Panther chapter, the prison continued to operate a system of slave labour in all but name. Black prisoners, segregated from white inmates, were sent out into the baking sun to pick cotton for two cents an hour.

When Miller was stabbed to death and culprits needed to be rounded up swiftly, the Black Panther troublemakers were a convenient target. They were thrown into solitary where they remained, year after year, decade after decade, long after the Black Panther party itself had ceased to exist. Many years into their time in CCR, the warden of Angola admitted under oath in legal depositions that they were being held in CCR because of their “Pantherism”.

If the Angola authorities thought that they could break Woodfox on the rack of solitary confinement, they hadn’t counted on his powers of resistance. And they hadn’t factored in the principles and values instilled within him by the Black Panther movement, which he says literally saved his life.

“The Panthers gave me a sense of self-worth, that I did have something to offer to humanity,” he said. “More than anything, it made me realise that the person I had become was not determined by me, but by the institutional racism of this country. My life had been set in survival mode.”

Woodfox came to believe that he could change his own destiny by simple force of willpower. “Everything solitary does to you, we managed to survive it. Not just to survive, but prosper as human beings. I wasn’t sure whether I would ever be physically free, but I knew that I could become mentally and emotionally free.”

I wasn’t sure whether I would ever be physically free, but I knew that I could become mentally and emotionally free

In his 2019 book Solitary, a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, Woodfox describes how he managed to stay sane. He immersed himself in prison library books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey. He studied law for his appeals. He organised maths tests and spelling bees, played chess and checkers, shouting quiz questions and board moves through the bars of his cell to fellow solitary prisoners down the tier.

His proudest achievement was teaching another inmate to read.

“Our cells were meant to be death chambers but we turned them into schools, into debate halls,” Woodfox told me. “We used the time to develop the tools that we needed to survive, to be part of society and humanity rather than becoming bitter and angry and consumed by a thirst for revenge.”

The evident pride in his voice about how he had refused to be broken prompted me to ask a perverse question. Did he miss anything about Angola?

He replied without hesitation. “Yeah. I miss the time that I had. One day it dawned on me: I just don’t have the time that I used to in prison. In solitary, I had 24/7 to do what I wanted. I had structure, a program. In society there are so many more distractions, so many more demands made on you. In Angola, in the cell, I didn’t have a choice.”

The Louisiana state penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the ‘Alcatraz of the South’ and ‘The Farm’, is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana.The Louisiana state penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the ‘Alcatraz of the South’ and ‘The Farm’, is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

•••

Albert Woodfox may have survived 43 years in solitary, but it came at a price. Over the past five years, he has observed in himself the long-term damage inflicted by conditions that the UN has denounced as psychological torture.

“Sometimes I wake up and I’m not aware where I’m at. I’m confused for seconds or minutes. I’m used to waking up seeing concrete and bars, not pictures on the wall, and for a moment it’s like, ‘Where the hell am I?’”

Claustrophobia was something he wrestled with throughout his four decades in solitary. At times, he would sleep sitting up to try to fend off the sensation of the cell walls bearing down on him.

He still has claustrophobic attacks every few months or so. Once he was in the bleachers at a sports stadium watching his great-niece and nephew compete when he started having telltale signs. “We were sitting there and all of a sudden I felt I was being smothered, like the atmosphere closing in, pushing down on me. I went outside and just walked and walked. That was a surprise – I didn’t know you could be in a stadium with a couple of thousand people and it happen to you.”

His awareness of the scars he still keeps him eager to fight for change, as he has throughout the past five years. He helped found a non-profit, Louisiana Stop Solitary, to press for reform in Angola and other state prisons. It’s a long struggle. Last year Louisiana banned the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women, the first reform in the state’s use of the practice in more than a century. But the state continues to rank No 1 in the solitary league table, with rates that are four times the national average.

Woodfox has taken his message around the globe, traveling extensively across North America and Europe with King by his side (Herman Wallace died of cancer in 2013, two days after the authorities begrudgingly let him out). Woodfox uses the power of his story to press for an end to solitary confinement, which nationally still holds 80,000 US prisoners in its brutal grip.

Last October, he became a central character in 12 Questions, the album by Fraser T Smith in which the super-producer enlists artists and activists to help him explore critical issues of our time.

Smith asked Woodfox a simple question: “What’s the cost of freedom?” The resulting conversation, according to Smith, was “life-changing”.

Smith told the Guardian he came away from the encounter with the overwhelming sense that “Albert did become free in that 6ft by 9ft cell. To hear someone who has actually lived it tell you that no matter horrendous your external situation, you can be free in your mind – that was mind-blowing for me.”

•••

In his book, Woodfox writes that he “had the wisdom to know that bitterness and anger are destructive. I was dedicated to building things, not tearing them down.”

And now that he’s out, what does he make of the political turmoil engulfing the US?

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been. I’m 74, so I’ve seen a lot of upheaval in this country, and the Capitol insurrection was a defining moment in American society. It’s made people realise that democracy is fragile, it can be destroyed, that it’s only as strong as those who believe in it.”

When Woodfox first emerged from captivity five years ago, he was amazed by the number of Confederate flags he saw stuck on windows or on car license plates. It took him about three weeks, he said, to appreciate that the apparent improvements in America’s approach to race since he had been in prison were purely cosmetic.

I guess you could say racism had put on a suit and tie. But it was still there

“I came to see that America was still a very racist country. It had become coded – I guess you could say racism had put on a suit and tie. But it was still there. Donald Trump was making it safe to be a racist.”

So where does all that optimism come from? It comes in part, he explained, from the Black Panthers’ manifesto. The party may not exist any more, but Woodfox still holds tight to its values: “We want an immediate end to police brutality”, “We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings”, “We want education that teaches our role in present-day society”.

There is an unmistakable echo with Black Lives Matter, the second source of Woodfox’s optimism. “The sacrifice of so many black men and women and young kids in this country has made Black Lives Matter a rallying cry throughout the world,” he said.

In the end, Woodfox’s meditations on isolation, resilience and the cost of freedom always bring him back to something more personal. Or someone: his mother Ruby. She may not have been able to read or write, but over the years he has come to know her as his “true hero”.

The closest he ever came to cracking in solitary, to starting to scream and never stopping, was when the Angola prison authorities refused to let him attend her funeral in 1994. As he looks back today on his five years as a free man, and the 43 years in a concrete cell that preceded them, he finds himself thinking more and more about her.

“You start remembering things, things she said, how she said them. My mom was functionally illiterate, but I never saw them break her, I never saw a look of defeat in her face no matter how hard things got. I grew into my mother’s wisdom. I carry it within me.”


Inside prison, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was a jazz musician, writing music and organizing in-prison shows in addition to his work helping fellow prisoners access quality education.

A review of ‘Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row’ by Tiyo Attallah Salah-El

by David Gilbert

David Gilbert is in Shawangunk Correctional Facility in his 41st year of a life sentence. A thoughtful movement elder, he is the author of several books, including Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond, No Surrender: Writings From An Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner, and Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically. You can write to him at David Gilbert, 83A6158, Shawangunk CF, P.O. Box 700, Wallkill, NY 12589.

This article is mirrored from https://sfbayview.com/2021/02/letters-of-life-from-slow-death-row/.

This inspiring book consists of a selection of 92 of the 568 letters prisoner Tiyo Attallah Salah-El sent out to Paul Alan Smith over the course of 14 years – just one of Tiyo’s richly engaging correspondences. From this book, one can learn a lot about the realities of prison and see a stellar example of a wonderfully productive life despite all kinds of obstacles and feel the passion for social justice.

Tiyo was incarcerated in 1975 in Pennsylvania, where 60 percent of prisoners are Black or Latinx. “Pen Pal” is not about his case. We only learn in passing that it involved drugs, guns and murder and that he is ashamed of the person he was.

Tiyo was sent to SCI Dallas, a prison built to house 950 but holds 2,480. He was placed on “slow death row,” the unit for 453 lifers, with little or no chance at all for parole. Pennsylvania holds 5,370 such people. Tiyo remained there until he died in 2018 at the age of 85.

On slow death row, Tiyo formed deep friendships with Phil and Delbert Africa of the revolutionary Black liberation and environmental MOVE organization. Mike Africa Jr., the son of two other MOVE activists who each did four decades in prison, wrote the touching preface to this book.

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was an activist, scholar and humanitarian, working hard from behind bars to expose the ugly realities of life in prison. Through his correspondence with historian and activist Howard Zinn, Tiyo met the Hollywood agent Paul Alan Smith, with whom he began a 14-year correspondence memorialized in “Pen Pal.”

While “Pen Pal” is not at all an effort to provide a detailed picture of prison life, Tiyo’s various passing references give readers a better sense of the realities than I’ve been able to do even with direct descriptions. We feel life in a 5-by-8-foot cell, where you never sleep next to a loved one, where you feel the cold before the heat gets turned on Nov. 1 and the high 90 degrees when the block bakes in July.

There’s the censorship, whereby Tiyo couldn’t even receive a book on prison abolition that included one of his essays. There’re the frequent lockdowns when you are in your cell for the duration, eating peanut butter sandwiches and hoping that the SWAT team doesn’t trash your cell too badly.

Perhaps the hardest part of prison is not being there for loved ones during trauma or death. Here, this is most vividly told in the story of Tiyo’s older sister, Bette, who had always been his champion. When she suffers a debilitating stroke, he has no way to even talk with her on the phone, let alone care for her and hold her hand from her illness to her death. 

Tiyo could expect the worst, as he was listed as a “political, educated troublemaker.” One time, the guards searching his cell called him “a smart nigger!” We read about Tiyo stopping a rape, advocating for gay rights and sitting with a dying prisoner in hospice.

We also get glimpses of the overall brutalities of beatings, suicides and medical neglect. In April 2005, Tiyo wrote of 14 deaths during the preceding two months.

Perhaps the hardest part of prison is not being there for loved ones during trauma or death. Here, this is most vividly told in the story of Tiyo’s older sister, Bette, who had always been his champion. When she suffers a debilitating stroke, he has no way to even talk with her on the phone, let alone care for her and hold her hand from her illness to her death.

Overall – this is not at all a grim book. The letters are laced with a jaunty sense of humor and affection for Paul Alan Smith. Emotional support, as we see a number of times, does not have to be a one-way street: The prisoner can have something to give as well. We see this most poignantly when Tiyo writes Paul, “I am hurting deep within the marrow of my bones because I know you are hurting due to the passing away of your father.”

Tiyo’s accomplishments from inside that 5-by-8-foot cell, despite all the lockdowns, prison violence and his increasingly severe health issues, are nothing short of spectacular. He earned a B.A. and then a master’s, was a jazz musician playing the sax, wrote music and organized in-prison shows, did effective work as a jailhouse lawyer, had several essays published – he also wrote an autobiography for friends to read, not for publication –and was a founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons.

“I choose to go in the direction of my dreams and help bring about revolutionary change in the world.”

The talent and determination that went into those accomplishments is dazzling, but from these letters we can see that what meant the most to Tiyo was his superb work in prison education.

Only 8 percent of the prisoners at Dallas SCI (State Correctional Institution) had a high school degree or its equivalent. Tiyo set up a tutorial program, first with four prisoners. When that was a striking success, he got over 100 new requests – this in a program with no official sanction or help, where his outside correspondents provided the funds for school supplies.

Tiyo was always conscious of the need to develop new leadership. Once those seeking help surpassed 100, he trained and developed previous graduates to become tutors, putting them in teams of two to lead four or five groups of 20 to 25 students each.

Over the course of four years, 280 men entered the program and 242 got their GEDs. Tiyo later wrote a GED handbook to help those at other prisons to set up similar programs. Some of his graduates went on to college.

Tiyo also saw a remarkable change similar to what I noticed in the men I trained to become AIDS educators in the 1980s and ‘90s: People feel a lot better about themselves when they find a way to do something worthwhile with and for other people. The negative ways of proving oneself go way down and the enthusiasm for contributing to the community goes way up.


Following Tiyo Attallah Salah-El’s passing in 2018, his book, “Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row,” was published. It’s a collection of 92 of the 568 letters prisoner Tiyo Attallah Salah-El sent out to Paul Alan Smith over the course of 14 years during Tiyo’s life sentence caged in SCI Dallas in Pennsylvania.

While the in-prison tutoring program and the outside CAP organization – I would have liked to see an appendix that described its work – may seem to be two very different realms, they’re really two halves of the same whole. When we call for abolition, it’s because we need to replace the terribly destructive punishment paradigm with resources and programs that allow the best in people to flourish and move in the direction of community development, control and self-determination for the oppressed.

The last words of this review will be Tiyo’s, a very brief excerpt from his autobiography appended to these letters.

“Unless major cultural and political changes are made not only in regard to the prison-industrial complex and criminal justice system but also the reconstruction of the social, economic and political policies for the benefit of all races, genders, sexual preferences and workers of all kind … the United States is headed towards catastrophe and tragedy.”

That 2006 warning is not written in the spirit of defeatism but very much from someone who also says, “I choose to go in the direction of my dreams and help bring about revolutionary change in the world.”

David Gilbert is in Shawangunk Correctional Facility in his 41st year of a life sentence. Send our brother some love and light: David Gilbert, 83A6158, Shawangunk CF, P.O. Box 700, Wallkill, NY 12589.


March 2020: Charlotte and Pete O’Neal at their home in the Arusha region of northern Tanzania. (Photograph by Jaclynn Ashly)
This article is mirrored from https://www.newframe.com/part-one-a-black-panther-love-story/.

Part one

Charlotte and Pete O’Neal fled the United States when he was targeted as a member of the Black Panther Party. Part one of their extraordinary story tells of their origins.

By Jaclynn Ashly
16 Feb 2021

Charlotte Hill O’Neal is known by several names. Residents of the Arusha region of northern Tanzania, where she has lived for decades, call her Mama C as Charlotte is difficult for Tanzanians to pronounce. Others call her Mama Africa because of the scarification on her cheeks and the ring piercing her nose, and because she encourages the local youth to be proud of their culture and heritage. Her Orisha spiritual name is Osotunde Fasuyi. She was initiated several years ago as a priestess in the Yoruba belief system, which originated about 10 000 years ago in present-day Nigeria. Enslaved Africans brought it to the Americas and the Caribbean, where it syncretised with other belief systems and is now practised throughout these areas.Charlotte is bedecked in jewellery and beads. Some items represent Orisha deities and others are traditional Maasai beadwork.

She is a former member of the Black Panther Party, who fled the United States with her husband Pete O’Neal half a century ago.

Undated: A portrait of a young Charlotte and Pete O’Neal taken some time in the 1960s. (Photograph supplied) 

Charlotte speaks Swahili with a Midwest drawl and her skin is decorated with tattoos: a black panther on her left shoulder and Sankofa, a symbol the Akan people of Ghana use to represent the importance of gaining knowledge and wisdom from the past, on her arm. African instruments, including the stringed nyatiti traditionally played by the Luo of present-day Kenya, replace the gun once strapped across her body.

Charlotte, 69, and Pete, 80, have lived in Tanzania since 1972, when local authorities targeted Pete because of his activities as chairperson of the Kansas City chapter of the Panthers. They run the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) in Imbaseni village outside Arusha city, where murals of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, along with other icons of the black power and civil rights movement, are splashed on to the walls.

Charlotte and Pete’s story intertwines with the revolutionary spirit of thousands of young African-American men and women who attempted to stand up to injustice and change the world, but were met with prison sentences, assassinations and government repression.

A confusing, beautiful time

While their relationship is a testament to decades of love and support, “I just really didn’t like her,” Pete says, laughing as he relaxes in their bedroom. Pete joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 after having an “epiphany” during a visit to Oakland, California, where the Black Panthers were founded in 1966. “I was not a very good person,” says Pete, who was incarcerated as a teenager in California. “I was a crook and a thief. My life mirrored so many young Black men and women growing up in the ghetto and who were attracted to the street life.

“My friends had convinced me to go with them to Oakland to see this new organisation, but I had no interest in trying to do anything to participate in the uplifting of our people or community. I thought maybe I’d go out there and do some hustles and make some money.”

February 1969: Pete O’Neal talks about the formation of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party. (Photograph supplied) 

Like many young Black Americans, it was the Panthers’ focus on police violence that initially attracted Pete to the party. He met co-founder Bobby Seale and high-ranking party member David Hilliard in Oakland and told them: “I’d be willing to do anything to get even with them [the police].”

“They stopped for a minute,” says Pete. “And they said, ‘Brother, that’s really not what we’re all about. We’re not about getting even. We’re trying to change the world.’”

Pete stayed in Oakland for several weeks and participated in the Panthers’ political education sessions, learning about revolutionaries from Che Guevara in Cuba to Mao Zedong in China.

“I suddenly just had an epiphany,” he says. “I would imagine that this is what happens to born-again Christians when they see the light. Well, I saw the light. They talked to me about the suffering and the sacrifices that were made, and the beauty of stepping outside of your own desires and aspirations and embracing something larger than yourself.

“It was a confusing, yet beautiful time. It was like my mind was expanding and I could see things that I had not been able to see before. When I left there, I was a former street hustler imbued with the desire to bring about revolutionary change. Not just for Black people, but people of the world.”

Pete, who was 28 at the time, returned to Kansas City. “I severed ties to the people who were involved with me in my former life. I tried to take some of the people from my former life with me on this new path. But they thought I had lost my damn mind.”

He founded the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party in the state of Missouri.

Far from love

Charlotte, meanwhile, was finishing high school in Kansas City, just kilometres from the city of the same name in neighbouring Missouri. “I was always raised to be very proud of who I am and my Africanness,” she says, the clinking of her jewellery as she gestures adding percussion to her speech.

“This was during the civil rights movement. Then I saw people like Malcolm X and then later with Stokely Carmichael, and then I started hearing about the Black Panther Party. It was amazing for me to see these young brothers and sisters with their black leather and shades, and their berets and all this marching,” she says.

When Charlotte was a senior, she started seeing Pete in the newspapers and would cut out these pictures of him and paste them on her bedroom walls. “But I never thought I would actually meet him.”

Charlotte would soon meet Pete, though, and it would be far from love at first sight.

Charlotte was a successful student, but she often bunked school and crossed over to Missouri to attend political education courses at the Kansas City chapter. About two months after graduating, Charlotte officially joined the Black Panther Party. Pete was on a speaking tour and helping other branches, so he wasn’t there when Charlotte joined.

Charlotte was 18 and began living in a “panther pad”, where young Black Panther members would live in a communal environment and set an example of the revolutionary socialist society they hoped to build. “We cooked and cleaned together, and we would go out into the fields and have weaponry training,” Charlotte explains.

11 Feb 2019: Charlotte O’Neal at her home in Tanzania. A Black Panther tattoo adorns her left shoulder. (Photograph by Jaclynn Ashly)

Strict code of conduct

The Black Panther Party had a strict code of conduct and warned its members against using or possessing narcotics, marijuana or alcohol while doing work for the organisation. “You’re not supposed to do hard drugs or anything when you’re on duty,” Charlotte says. “You were supposed to be very alert because the police were on us all the time. We weren’t supposed to give them any kind of excuse or reason to bother us, because they would harass us and arrest people just so they could deplete our finances by making it so we were constantly bailing people out.”

Signs around the panther pads and chapter offices warned members against being “non-functional”, Charlotte says. “But we were teenagers and this was the 1960s, right?” She tilts her head back, chuckling mischievously.

5 August 1969: A member of the Black Panthers peeks around the bullet-pocked door that police blasted with gunfire during a pre-dawn raid in Chicago. (Photograph by Getty Images) 

She and the other young Panthers decided to drop pills called Red Devils, the street name for secobarbital, a sedative-hypnotic pill used to treat insomnia and epilepsy that was used for recreational purposes in the US throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

“So we dropped them and we were out of it,” Charlotte says. “We were having a good time. Everybody’s smoking, doing this and that. We were thoroughly non-functional.”

Talking back

The young Panthers were unaware that Pete was scheduled to return to Kansas City that day. He said: “I walked into the house, and I could get the aroma of illicit substances wafting through the air. I said, ‘What the hell?’ You could smell weed everywhere. And they were just partying on the porch with the music turned up loud. This is a political organisation. And they were just having a good time and I came up on them unexpectedly.

“Bear in mind,” Pete adds. “I was a father figure. Most of them were in their teens and, quite frankly, a lot of them were scared of me. So I came in and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And their mouths fell open and they were just staring at me and everyone was silent.”

Charlotte was finally meeting the man whose image had adorned her bedroom walls. “I was so out of it,” she says. “I could hardly talk and I remember him being so mad.”

Pete, furious with the young Panthers, looked to his right and saw a young woman he did not recognise, a “skinny little girl with a big fat head”. He glanced at her and asked angrily, “And who the hell is this?”

The skinny girl with the fat head replied in a nervous stutter: “I-I-I’m Ch-ch-arlotte Hill. I-I-I’m from K-K-Kansas City. And I-I joined the B-B-Black Panther Party.”

“Who the hell let her join the party?” Pete responded furiously. He turned to Charlotte and said, “Shut up and don’t say another word.” But Charlotte retorted: “You can’t tell me not to talk. My daddy told me that I always have the right to talk.” The other young Panther members let out a collective gasp, Pete recalls. “They were thinking, ‘Oh Lord, she’s dead now.’”

“He was real mad at that,” Charlotte says, smiling from ear to ear and slowly shaking her head as she remembers being introduced to the man who would become her lifelong partner. “Brother Pete ran a real strict ship and here I was talking back to him.”

1969: Pete O’Neal chats with children eating a free breakfast provided by the Black Panthers. (Photograph supplied) 

“I remember thinking that I can’t stand this girl,” Pete recalls. “I thought this girl was definitely going to be a disruptive force in the party. I didn’t like her.” As punishment, Pete made the young Panthers run, carrying each other on their backs, and then locked them in a storage cabinet. “I can’t remember if I left them there for a few hours or I left them there all night. I really can’t tell you,” Pete says, grinning. Charlotte, meanwhile, says she passed out soon after being locked inside.

But Pete and Charlotte were living together a few weeks later and soon after that, they married. “How did that happen? I really don’t know,” Pete said. “But what I do know is that she has been the love of my life, my greatest inspiration and my best friend.”

Part two of the O’Neals’ extraordinary story tells of their escape from the US and how they ended up in Tanzania.

Part two | A Black Panther love story

Charlotte and Pete O’Neal fled the United States when he was targeted as a member of the Black Panther Party. Part two of their extraordinary story tells of their escape and long life in Tanzania.

By Jaclynn Ashly
17 Feb 2021


Undated: Charlotte and Pete O’Neal fled the United States when he was targeted as a member of the Black Panther Party. (Photograph supplied)
 

More than half a century before a police officer would kill George Floyd, sparking mass protests, Black Panther Party co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale understood that police brutality was the most immediate and pertinent concern for the Black community.

Their organisation was envisaged and established in the back room of the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center, where Seale was employed in 1966. Charlotte and Pete O’Neal’s relationship was birthed and nurtured by the Black Panther’s evolution, from its moments of triumph to its downfalls.

“Newton and Seale understood police brutality as an issue of dignity and disempowerment experienced by individuals,” writes Robyn Spencer in The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland. “For Blacks, hostile and violent interactions with the police were part of the fabric of daily life, and negative experiences with the police linked people across age, gender, and class.”

Panther members came from the military, gangs or had learned to use firearms to hunt, says Spencer. “In many ways, the panthers’ connection to armed self-defence was visceral … But if you came because of the guns, you also had to learn political education, and if you came for political education, you still had to learn how to use a gun.”

Soon after founding the group, Newton and Seale launched patrols to monitor police activity in Oakland and Newton learned the intricacies of the city’s open-carry gun laws.

The two would observe the police while they made arrests and intervene with cameras, tape recorders, legal books and licenced firearms. “The sight of two young black men, carrying guns, loudly asserting their rights to bear arms and warning the police not to be aggressors repeatedly drew crowds,” Spencer says.

“The idea of picking up a gun was very central because in a sense the gun was something that can be used for self-defence and it was something that had been racialised,” Spencer explains. “They saw the rights of gun ownership and the rights of self-defence as things that were historically denied to people of African descent. Those laws were made for white people and the Panthers took those same laws and repurposed them for a revolutionary end.”

Emory Douglas, who acted as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, often designed caricatures of police officers as pigs in his drawings printed in the Black Panther newspaper, once again flipping the power dynamic between Black communities and the police.

“The Panthers replaced fear with action,” says Spencer. “The Panthers took police officers, which were these all-powerful authority figures, and transformed them into an image of a pig. Even in the way they used language, like ‘off with the pigs’, and how Emory Douglas and other Panther artists drew the police as pigs against a united community standing up and conquering the fear and moving into collective action, they were telling a story in a way that the people could understand that they actually had the power.”

When Californian authorities – in response to the Panthers’ armed patrols of police activity – tried to ban them from carrying loaded firearms, dozens of mostly armed members barged into the capitol in Sacramento in protest. This audacious stunt and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr caused membership to swell.

Black Panther chapters opened across the US to address the needs of communities. The Panthers established education programmes and the Breakfast for Children Program, and set up free medical clinics with volunteer doctors and nurses. They saw their movement as part of a global class struggle and partnered with other organisations, including on the white Left.

Undated: From left, Black Panther Party co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton at the party’s headquarters in San Francisco, California, in the United States. (Photograph by Ted Streshinsky/ Corbis) 

One of the first programmes Pete O’Neal implemented in Kansas City gave free breakfast to children. At one point, they were feeding 700 children a day, says Pete.

The Kansas City chapter set up clothing and food distribution programmes and free health clinics with registered nurses. “The news media focused on one thing: ‘A Black man has a gun!’ But they didn’t want to talk about the beauty of our community [upliftment] programmes,” Pete says. “I was very proud of all of this and it was something I had never participated in in my life, something as grand and altruistic as this.”

‘Down for doubles’ 

The FBI created a counterintelligence programme in 1967 dubbed Cointelpro, which targeted Black nationalist organisations. Then director J Edgar Hoover said in 1969 that the “Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”.

The FBI flooded the organisation with informants and forged letters, correspondence and even cartoons to create or build on existing tensions between Panther members and their allies. Panther leaders, including Pete, had their phones and homes wiretapped illegally.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested Pete on 30 October 1969 for allegedly transporting a gun across state lines. About two weeks earlier, Pete and other Panther members had stormed a Senate hearing in Washington DC after receiving information about the Kansas City police confiscating guns and giving them to right-wing organisations such as the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the Minutemen.

While he was already on the Kansas City police’s radar, after his arrest Pete began to fear for his life. “When I would go to court, the police would laugh while they were searching me. They would tell me, ‘When you go to jail, you’ll be on our turf and you’re coming out in a box,’” says Pete.

A Black officer warned Pete that the police were planning to kill him. “I knew he was telling the truth. I made my mind up in that moment that I was getting out and dodging.”

11 April 1969: Black Panther Party members demonstrating outside the New York County Criminal Court during the Panther 21 trial of members accused of shooting at police stations and a bombing. All were acquitted. (Photograph by David Fenton/ Getty Images) 

But Pete went to his trial and was sentenced to four years in prison. Despite already having a record, which included an escape from prison, the judge allowed him to stay out on his current bail agreement during the appeal process. “That was unheard of,” Pete says. “I think he knew I had a record of escape and thought it would be better if I just got out of their hair … I spoke out very strongly and continuously against police brutality. They didn’t want to make me, or anyone, a martyr and give us more power.”

Hoover had issued a directive under Cointelpro to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement”.

University of Florida professor and Black Panther in Exile: The Pete O’Neal Story author Paul Magnarella says there was “no justice” in Pete’s 1970 trial. It was riddled with “constitutional defects” that ensured the trial was “neither fair nor just”.

Pete knew he had to, but did not want to leave the US. “Charlotte was enchanted by the concept. But the idea of leaving the States sounded horrible to me,” he says. “But it was the best thing that ever happened to me … It’s funny how life works sometimes.”

The Left had what Spencer calls a “modern-day underground railroad”, people who could smuggle activists wanted by the authorities out of the US.

The couple began planning their escape to Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent leader in the Black Panther Party, had launched the international section of the party after being charged with attempted murder and fleeing the United States in 1968. At the time, newly independent Algeria was a hub for anti-colonial movements around the world.

Charlotte and Pete could not tell their families about their plans. Charlotte remembers visiting her father at the station where he worked as a firefighter. “I was trying so hard not to cry. But we didn’t think we would be gone for long. Maybe two years.”

There was 24-hour police surveillance on their home, according to Charlotte, and they had to sneak out the back wearing disguises. Charlotte wore a wig, “looking all bourgeois”, she says, and Pete straightened his hair. The couple hid in the boot of a car until those helping them escape had crossed state lines.

They ended up in Long Island, New York, where “rich white communists” set up their documents and a lawyer drove them to the airport. Pete took Charlotte aside. “I told her that she didn’t have to go. She had gotten a full scholarship to go to medical school in Texas … You don’t have to do this,” Pete remembers.

Still a teenager, Charlotte’s response was confident: “No, brother chairman. I’m down for doubles. I’m with you all the way.”

January 1969: Pete O’Neal points a finger at Barney Myers, the administrative assistant to mayor Ilus Davis, in the anteroom of the mayor’s office. (Photograph supplied)

A life of exile

The O’Neals spent several months with activists in Sweden before flying to Majorca, Spain, and from there to Algiers in Algeria. “When we got off the plane, we stayed in a bug-infested hotel,” Pete says. Not having an international contact, he took a leap of faith and asked the hotel owner for a number for the Black Panthers.

Pete spoke to Cleaver, but he was “very suspicious of me”. A bitter split had formed in the Black Panthers between Newton in Oakland and Cleaver in Algiers over the trajectory of the party. Newton said it should focus on community programmes, while Cleaver wanted to focus on the militant aspects and creating connections with international revolutionary movements. Newton eventually expelled Cleaver and the entire international section from the party, which led to spats of deadly violence between the Panthers and its dissidents.

These tensions were compounded by the FBI, which was wary of Cleaver developing international alliances hostile to the US, according to Spencer.

“I was worried about this split,” says Pete. “A lot of people died in the Black Panther Party because of this split. I gave Charlotte all the money that I had and told her, ‘If I don’t come back, get out of here and go back to Kansas City.’”

Undated: Charlotte O’Neal on one of the traditional instruments she learnt to play in Tanzania. (Photograph supplied by Charlotte O’Neal) 

But when Pete arrived at the Black Panther Party’s office, he was greeted with open arms. “I felt like I had finally come home.” The Algiers office was a place where Panthers could meet and socialise with revolutionaries from around the world, from Vietnamese communists to Palestinian anti-Zionist fighters.

But relations between the party and the Algerian government began to disintegrate, exacerbated by two plane hijackings to provide the Panthers with hefty ransoms. The Algerian government intercepted both ransom payments and returned the funds to the US.

The Panthers, increasingly low on funds, publicly denounced the Algerian government, which cut the Panthers’ lines of communication and placed them under house arrest for six days. This, along with Algeria’s softening diplomatic stance on the US, was the beginning of the end of the international section of the Black Panther Party.

‘Pole by pole’

“When things began to fall apart in Algeria, I wanted to go back to Sweden,” Pete says. It was Charlotte who convinced him to consider Tanzania. Hundreds of African Americans were living there, including former members from the Kansas City chapter. “I took her advice and it’s the best advice I’ve ever been given.”

In 1972, the couple went from Algeria to Libya and then Egypt, where they were detained for not having a cholera vaccination card. Charlotte forged their yellow fever documentation to read cholera and the Egyptian authorities released them the next day.

“We had our honeymoon at a really nice hotel next to the Nile River,” Pete remembers, until they received their visas. The Tanzanian government welcomed them as “freedom fighters and political refugees”, says Charlotte.

“That was the last commercial plane I ever got on,” Pete says.

Charlotte was “overjoyed by the beauty” of Tanzania, he says. She “was excited and was looking at the colours and cloth. But it took a while for me to adjust. I grew up my whole life in the city and coming here, I saw the rusting tin roofs and I thought this was going to be hard. But slowly I got used to it. Now you couldn’t drag me out of here. I will be buried here.”

The couple lived in former capital Dar es Salaam for about a year. But the hot and humid coastal environment had adverse effects on Pete’s health, so they migrated inland and rented a home in Ngaramtoni village in the northern Arusha region.

Charlotte and Pete learned how to farm and became self-sufficient. They soon obtained four acres of land in Imbaseni, a quiet village about 25km from Arusha, where they live today.

They recycled everything and Pete learned how to build windmills to provide electricity to the area. They raised chickens, milked cows, hunted and began farming beans and making sausages, which they sold for 15 years.

The O’Neals built a centre for children and teachers would congregate to offer classes. But Charlotte says its popularity soon rendered it too small and the daily trips to and from the city became a hassle. Pete and Charlotte decided to build a centre at their home.

“The first classroom was to teach computers,” says Charlotte. “We didn’t have the internet and it was those big giant computers with tiny little screens. And then the elders asked us to teach English and so we built another building for that. And it just kept growing after that.”

The couple founded the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) in 1991. The centre offers free classes in art, sewing, jewellery, yoga, ecology, hip-hop, music, photography and video production and editing.

Pete has not been able to return to the US, but Charlotte does speaking tours there each year to help raise funds for the centre.

March 2020: Pete O’Neal at his home in Tanzania. (Photograph by Jaclynn Ashly) 

One donor, former Black Panther Party member Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt, gave Pete and Charlotte $10 000 to help access water. He won a $4.5 million settlement for a wrongful murder conviction. Often referred to as “Papa Rage”, he lived in Tanzania for about 10 years with his wife and child before dying there in 2011.

“This drill company came here and … when they struck water, we had this big celebration,” Charlotte says. “The first thing we did was install a water tap so people wouldn’t have to walk for miles to get water. Later, we ended up helping to dig and erect 36 electricity poles. Now everybody [in the area] has access to electricity.”

Other former Panther members who have visited and contributed to the centre include Douglas, who gave art classes to the students.

A homebody and a grandfather

Pete and Charlotte established the Leaders of Tomorrow Children’s Home in 2008, which gives 28 disadvantaged children a home at the couple’s house, education and healthcare. These children have become part of their family. Malcolm and Ann Wood, the O’Neals’ children, are now in their 40s.

“I did not particularly believe in romantic love,” says Pete. “I was well travelled and well schooled in the university of life. I brought her [Charlotte] on her first plane ride. She was a child compared to me, but now it’s almost as if the roles have reversed. I stay home and take care of the children.” Charlotte has become the energetic one, making videos, movies and music with the youth in the area, while Pete has become the homebody. “I never thought I had a grandfather bone in my body. Now they hang out with me all day. At night, I have 20 children crowded in my bedroom … and I love it. This is what my exile has become.”

Undated: Pete O’Neal with some of the children at the centre he and Charlotte set up in Tanzania. (Photograph supplied by Charlotte O’Neal)

But decades later, Pete continues to experience post-traumatic stress from the police brutality he faced in the US. “If the police stop me on the road, they all know me. They wave and say, ‘Mzee [elder in Swahili], how you doing?’ But I still can’t help but feel nervous.”

The Black Panther Party finally crumbled in the 1980s. Relentless targeting by local authorities and the FBI led Newton to become increasingly paranoid and suspicious. He created an authoritarian atmosphere in the party and allegations of corruption and Newton’s drug abuse began piling up. In 1989, he was shot and killed on one of the same street corners of Oakland he had attempted to revolutionise. But Newton remains one of the most brilliant and well-respected minds of the black power movement.

Charlotte and Pete say they have continued the legacy of the Black Panther Party in Tanzania. “I’m a deeply flawed person,” says Pete. “I was then and I remain that way today. But my goal and aspiration is to try and be just a little bit better today than I was yesterday.

“I don’t always succeed. I backslide. But I hold on to this thought, philosophy and intellectual liberation I discovered back in 1968, and I continue to hold on to it dearly. And I think that will be my salvation. I’m not a religious person. But if I’m wrong and heaven exists, I’m going to get in there.”

Here’s the latest compilation of every other week updates: https://nycabc.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/updates-23-feb-2021.pdf

NYC ABC, along with several other individuals and prisoner support crews, now send hard copies to all political prisoners and prisoners of war we support.

If you consistently mail the latest updates to a specific prisoner, please let us know so we can insure there’s no overlap. The goal is to have copies sent to all of the prisoners we list.

We’ve also been told that some prisoners are not receiving the copies sent in, yet we aren’t getting rejection notices. If you are in steady contact with a prisoner, please ask them whether or not they are receiving the updates and let us know.

Free ’em all,

NYC ABC

One part of NYC ABC‘s every-other-week Political Prisoner Letter-Writing event is presenting updates and announcements. These typically relate to or are written by PPs and/or POWs. Since February 2011, they’ve been printing and mailing hard copies of the updates and announcements to about a dozen imprisoned comrades.

In April 2013, along with other collectives and individuals, they expanded printing and mailing to include all U.S. held political prisoners and prisoners of war. As of September, 2014, that work has diffused over several support crews, collectives, and individuals.

Please download and mail the current edition to prisoners with whom you correspond and share links with those who might be interested in doing the same.

NYC ABC is an anarchist collective focused on supporting US-held political prisoners and prisoners of war and opposing state repression against revolutionary social justice movements. NYC ABC is a Support Group of the Anarchist Black Cross Federation. More information available at https://nycabc.wordpress.com

— NYC ABC Post Office Box 110034 Brooklyn, New York 11211 nycabc[at]riseup[dot]nethttps://nycabc.wordpress.comhttps://www.facebook.com/nycabchttps://twitter.com/nycabchttps://www.instagram.com/nycabchttps://www.paypal.me/nycabchttp://www.abcf.net/nycFree all Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War! For the Abolition of State Repression and Domination!

available from leftwingbooks.net

Mirrored from https://spectrejournal.com/why-tronti-why-now/

The philosopher and politician Mario Tronti remains one of the most important Marxists and political theorists in postwar Italy, yet until now, no critical edition of his work has appeared in English. This is why Andrew Anastasi‘s edited volume The Weapon of Organization is so crucial: it presents Tronti in his own words, bringing together 17 original translations of work composed over the course of the tumultuous 1960s. These essays, letters, and speeches are accompanied by editorial introductions and notes written for a contemporary audience. Tronti argued that revolutionaries ought to conceptualize politics not on the basis of intellectual reflection but in solidarity with the ongoing rhythms of working-class struggle. This anthology aims to provide today’s activists, organizers, students, and theorists with materials that document Tronti’s innovative approach to Marxism with the hope of shining light on new paths of revolutionary thought and action. Steve Wright, author of the definitive English-language history of Italian autonomism (recently released in its second edition), interviewed Anastasi about the new volume and the relevance of Tronti’s thought for the current moment for Spectre.

Andrew Anastasi is the editor and translator of The Weapon of Organization: Mario Tronti’s Political Revolution in Marxism (Common Notions, 2020). He is a member of the Viewpoint Magazine editorial collective and a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the City University of New York.

Why Tronti? Why now? And why these particular texts?

My first encounter with Tronti was an intense experience. His fifty-year-old writings resonated in a surprising way, and they offered new tools for thinking through problems that I was facing in my own workplace and organizing. Putting together this book has been an experiment, to see if that kind of effect could be multiplied by translating his ideas not only into a new language, but across time and space for new readers. To be sure, Tronti has been a reference point for activists and writers beyond Italy for decades, and his influence on Michael Hardt and Antonio NegriSilvia FedericiStefano Harney and Fred Moten, and so many others has long been acknowledged.

For my part, I was interested in presenting more of Tronti’s own writing – not to pretend to furnish unmediated access to some authentic or true font of knowledge, but to encourage an appreciation of the unique rhythm of his thought. As I dug deeper, beyond the canonical texts, I began to appreciate how he responded to shifting relations not only between workers and capital – although, of course, these remain central – but also between and among grassroots militants, party leaders, capitalist fractions, and state managers.

This book is framed as much for contemporary activists and militants as it is for students of Marxist theory and Italian political history. We should always keep in mind that at the time when Tronti was composing the texts subsequently collected in Workers and Capital – now, at last, available in full English translation – he was engaged in a series of collective political experiments with different groups and publications. The Weapon of Organization tries to illuminate those concrete organizational activities which fuelled the development of operaismo.

These activities included kinds of political work that will be familiar to contemporary organizers and activists: producing and circulating newspapers and flyers, consolidating perspectives among comrades, producing new theory in relation fast-developing movements, reckoning with existing institutions while experimenting with new organizational forms, and more.

The collection draws from the essential work of Giuseppe Trotta and Fabio Milana, whose L’operaismo degli anni sessanta (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2008) excavated a treasure trove of primary documents from the 1960s. I found myself drawn to texts by Tronti that speak to contemporary debates – on organization and the party-form, on the relationship between social democracy and communism – and I was also intrigued by work that was less polished, including private letters and talks given to comrades, because these forms can sometimes provide points of entry that are less intimidating for new readers. When paired with Workers and Capital, they also shed light on the practical dimensions (and ambitions) of Italian workerism.

So what kind of light do the documents in The Weapon of Organization cast on Workers and Capital, and on Tronti’s work more generally? Can readers expect any surprises?

For the most part, the organizational initiatives and experiments of the operaisti go unmentioned in Workers and Capital, even if the latter certainly bears their imprint. Take its table of contents: after an introduction, Workers and Capital lays out “hypotheses,” proceeds with an “experiment,” and thereafter presents a set of provisional “theses” (followed, in the second edition, by a postscript).

A new reader might be curious to know more about the “new type of political experiment” to which the middle part of the book refers. That experiment was key: it involved a leap from investigating how workers were struggling (and being quite impressed!) to trying to intervene within those struggles to foster their revolutionary growth. Many of the texts in The Weapon of Organization are commentaries on that political experiment itself – how it was going, what needed to change, what activists might try next, etc.

In the early 1960s, Tronti, Romano AlquatiRaniero Panzieri, and others laid out a series of provocative hypotheses in the pages of Quaderni Rossi which concerned forms of “invisible organization” in wildcat strikes, mechanisms of neo-capitalist development in postwar Italy, and state initiatives in “democratic planning.” A rather impatient group around Tronti, Alquati, and Negri wanted to dive into the project of building a network of militants who could carry this theory into the burgeoning working-class struggle and help to orient it. This meant writing not only in journals but experimenting with slogans, binding groups around their political perspective, and distributing leaflets, flyers, and newspapers to workers outside factory gates each morning and night.

Some of this history can be gleaned by reading Workers and Capital, and to be sure, the theoretical formulations found in that book are generally sharper and more concise. But the texts collected in The Weapon of Organization allow for a richer understanding of the period, and, like all B-sides, they bring to the fore otherwise obscure themes.

Reading them all together convinced me, for instance, that the capitalist state was more central to Tronti’s thinking during this period than is generally acknowledged. Already in the early 1960s, years before the flourishing of Marxist debates about the capitalist state, Tronti was paying close attention to competing fractions of the capitalist class, their uneven relations to different strata of state managers, and how working-class struggle frustrated the smooth implementation of reforms that might otherwise secure the longevity of capitalist society. In short, he developed a Marxist perspective in which the unity of the state and the capitalist class could not be taken as given.

That last point is intriguing, because even if in a rather different way, the likes of Negri – who after all would break with Tronti by the late 1960s – likewise came to see the question of how “to deal with” the state as more and more central to their thinking. This also already seems a long way from the argument in Workers and Capital that the state needs to be smashed within the process of production itself, a sentiment that henceforth was embraced perhaps only by those workerists most skeptical of Leninist approaches to politics.

No question, the factory was absolutely central to Tronti’s thinking and practice throughout this period. One of his criticisms of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was how far removed it had become from class struggle inside the workplace, opting instead to pursue socialism via the parliamentary road. In his eyes the movement to smash the state must start out from workers organized at the point of production. But this did not lead to syndicalism. Continuing and expanding this movement required the production of a new, concrete unity, a re-articulation of the party to the class.

At the same time, looking toward “the party” did not mean abandoning workplace struggles for elections. On the contrary, Tronti’s project was crystallized in the slogan of “the party in the factory.” This phrase does not, to my knowledge, appear in Workers and Capital, but it was explored in an April 1965 speech and subsequent Classe Operaia editorial. “The party in the factory” did not signal bureaucrats coming in to dictate the terms of factory struggles – Tronti emphasized the need for a “workers’ control over the party” – instead it highlighted the need to develop an organ inside the factory that could “produce, accumulate, and reproduce” working-class strength on an extended scale.

By the time Tronti was making these arguments in the spring of 1965, he had determined that capitalists and the state had in fact recovered their own unity (which earlier in the decade had not been certain), and that the workers’ immediate struggles no longer had the capacity to put the state apparatus into crisis. His argument was that, if by 1965 the state was again functioning properly as the mediating institution of capitalist society, then the working class, however antagonistic, was bound to serve as the motor of capitalist planning and reform. To break free, it needed its own political organization, which for Tronti meant that the link between the PCI and the working class would need to be reconstituted. He envisioned the comrades of Classe Operaia – and this, ultimately, led to the group’s dissolution – carrying out that everyday labor, of reconnecting the virulent struggle against the boss with one toward, or into, the party.

What does the collection tell us about Tronti’s understanding of class composition? One surprise was that there was more and earlier discussion (if still often brief) not only of recomposition, but also of decomposition – more than I remembered of his work in this period.

Certainly Alquati remains the early operaista who did the most to advance the concept of class composition. But I agree, it is interesting to see it here, too, in Tronti’s writings of the early 1960s. In “The Strike at FIAT,” written in the summer of 1962 for Lelio Basso’s journal Problemi del socialismo, he pinpoints how capital reorganizes the production process in an attempt to decompose the unity achieved by workers, only for this same reorganization of production to also provide new opportunities for workers to recompose themselves into an even stronger political force – a class, understood in political terms. If Tronti was harshly critical of spontaneism, he was no more a fan of sociologism.

For all the many differences amongst the workerists about political organization, most of them nonetheless placed great emphasis upon the key role in the process of class recomposition of militants and cadre (which for some workerists are the same thing, but not for others). More recently, Max Elbaum has asserted that “Every political project has cadre … The term just refers to people for whom moving the political project forward is a central feature of their life … they learn the special skills of politics and how to use them. You can’t move a political project without people who are prepared to take it up that way … Without developing a layer of people who are in the movement for the long haul, no radical project can succeed. Of course, the idea that they then make all the decisions in the organization and aren’t accountable – absolutely not. But you need cadre to move the project.” How does Tronti address this question in the book?

I think Tronti’s perspective during this period gels well with Elbaum’s. Take “The Copernican Revolution,” a speech which previews “Lenin in England” – although, as you have carefully illuminated in your own forthcoming work, the two also diverge in language and tone. There he argued that the “total refusal” of the workers:

“can happen only when indeed this working class is not only a social mass, but a politically organized social mass, in other words, one that is politically functional to the point of actually expressing political organization in new forms, in forms that basically we do not yet know, that we still must discover.”

There are several interesting elements in this passage. We can see Tronti’s openness to new forms of organization and his simultaneous insistence that this organization must be “political,” not only “social.” This resonates with his political conception of class as a form forged through struggle rather than resulting from sociological stratification, an insight which allows us to put his project into conversation with the likes of Nicos PoulantzasDaniel BensaïdAlain Badiou, and others. (By the way, in terms of Tronti’s relevance to wider debates among Marxists, this same speech argues that “a bourgeois revolution as such has never existed,” tackling a problem explored more recently by Neil DavidsonHeide GerstenbergerCharlie Post, and other writers with whom the readers of Spectre will be familiar.)

Returning to the political v. the social, it may not be immediately clear what politics, or political organization, means. How does politics happen, and what constitutes political organization? For Tronti politics cannot be a spontaneous expression of the workers’ objective social location, nor can it be a function of existing institutions like unions or parties. Instead, politics consists in experimental collective intervention into sites of ongoing struggle.

As he would write in “Marx, Labour-Power, Working Class,” the centerpiece of Workers & Capital: “the important thing is to be Marxists in a single, rough sense, namely as revolutionary militants on the working-class side.” Experiments need Marxist militants to carry them out, and these militants were to be partisans of the workerists’ viewpoint. It should be emphasized that this point of view was not plucked out of thin air but rooted in a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, in the research program and the workers’ inquiries of Quaderni Rossi.

So who were these Marxists in a “rough” [rozzo] sense? Who were these militants? In Tronti’s “Report at Piombino” from May of 1964, a few months into the Classe Operaia experiment, he reflected on this question:

“To help advance the kind of active politics that we are proposing here means to apply oneself to the building up of a new type of political militant, one who explodes the traditional concept of the political organization in the party sense, the bureaucratic organization—one who reintroduces the question, in the most correct form possible, of a political organization that is indeed of a new type, completely different from those traditions.”

This militant of a new type breaks from the dead weight of calcified tradition, in part, by taking guidance from the proposals Classe Operaia was making for a revolutionary movement, centered in the factories but extending to the state, where working-class strength is found in every moment of capitalist development, in fierce opposition to reformism of all stripes.

Classe Operaia was conceived of as a newspaper rather than a journal. In this the operaisti were well within the Leninist tradition – Lenin often spoke of how the newspaper provided a nascent form of organization for militants, who had to meet deadlines, figure out the newspaper’s production, coordinate its distribution, convince people to read it, etc.

For Tronti the newspaper was also special because it could mediate between Marxist theory and the workers on the shopfloor. At one point he refers to three “moments”:

  1. theory at a high level of abstraction;
  2. concrete political lines developed in the newspaper; and
  3. factory interventions, launched by networks of cadres, who were guided by and committed to the newspaper’s perspective.

Holding these three moments together as a concrete unity, not an immediate or reflective identity, but a unity that needs to be painstakingly built and continually maintained by Marxists – this for me is one of Tronti’s great contributions to political thought.

The texts in The Weapon of Organization chart this process, too, of producing and reproducing a concrete unity through newspaper work. Frequent publication could afford a tighter relationship between writing and movements on the ground, and operaisti worked on pamphlets, slogans, and rallying cries with and for workers. But completing the circuit was a challenge. Tronti was disappointed after the first year of the newspaper, thinking it had remained too abstractly theoretical, and too focused on history to the exclusion of providing “political tools for intervention into individual situations and opportunities.”

It still remained to build a network of cadres capable of translating the political line from the newspaper to the daily goings-on in the factory, and vice versa. Tronti was relentless in his self-critique: however elegant or correct their theoretical framework may be, it would not automatically manifest successful intervention into specific struggles.

Putting stock in developing a layer of political actors, a stratum of militants, the people who would show up to meetings, assiduously distribute leaflets, win over comrades to their point of view: emphasizing all of this did not mean valorizing charismatic leadership or bureaucracy, even if Tronti would later flirt with Weber’s writings. It was about committed work on behalf of the workers’ particular interest.

Ultimately this network was not built, at least not under the auspices of Classe Operaia, nor at the scale Tronti had in mind. Classe Operaia remained a formidable but ultimately small operation, which partly explained why Tronti refocused his efforts on the PCI, an institution which meanwhile had its own traditions of militancy (documented by Alquati as well as Danilo Montaldi, whose work remains untranslated). But Classe Operaia’s project was not merely aspirational. By April of 1964, for instance, they had circulated 4800 flyers to workers at Alfa Romeo and Pirelli, and 600 copies of the first two issues in Milan’s factories. According to a report given by Mauro Gobbini, workers were eagerly taking it up across departments, reading and debating the arguments inside.

At one point during the Classe Operaia experience – or does this come only many years later? – Tronti will say that the point of “the party in the factory” is to replace the leadership of the current labor movement with a new layer grounded in the workplace. Having argued that labor-power is within, and so can become against capital, here we have the class within and against the existing party and union, and the party within and against the state. Does a Tronti-inspired “within and against” have any relevance today?

Before the first issue of Classe Operaia appeared, we have notes attesting to Tronti’s interest in replacing the leadership of the workers’ movement with a new layer of working-class organizers. In “Noi operaisti,” the longer Italian edition of a 2008 essay edited and translated as “Our Operaismo,” Tronti wrote that he had always hoped Classe Operaia’s immersion in struggles would produce a group that could contest the leadership of the official workers’ movement. Through sustained political activity, he hoped to constitute a counter-leadership that could achieve some degree of hegemony among those on the Left who were not convinced by the PCI’s existing program. This stratum of leaders – built from initiatives within the factory, participating directly in struggles over work rather than in elections – would, he hoped, eventually take over the leadership of a thoroughly reorganized PCI.

By 1967 Tronti was stating this clearly. After the closure of Classe Operaia, he gave a talk later published under the title “Within and Against.” He had deployed this couplet before: since 1962 he had been writing of the need to root “the general struggle against the social system within the social relation of production” (my italics). In 1966 he spoke of seeing the working class “one time within capital, another time against capital,” with the unification of production and refusal providing the premise for a serious revolutionary rupture.

But only in 1967, when he begins to focus more closely on problems of political mediation, does he bring this logic to problems of the party and the state. At that point, he writes, “As the class is within and against capital, and as the party is within and against the state, so must one be within and against the party, such as it is,” broaching even the need to work “within and against” a social-democratic transformation of the workers’ movement.

We should keep in mind that this stance required collective commitment. In other words, to be in and against the reformist movement, the calcified political party, or the capitalist state was not a personal ethics of responsibility. Nor was it a matter of adjusting oneself to the sluggish pace of a long march through the institutions. In 1966 he had argued strenuously for work within the PCI precisely in order to prevent its rightward drift into coalition with the Socialist and Social-Democratic parties. Contesting the looming social-democratic solution to the problem of long-term capitalist stability was, in his eyes, a way of doing political justice to workers going on strike and the “massification” of their struggles.

So “within and against” was about establishing an autonomous political force, rooted in existing struggles at the point of production – where the working class is within and against capital – and working to achieve political dominance. What complicated the formula was that, while Tronti asserted the need “to make [the party] explode” and “smash the state machine,” he also wagered that a new organized political force could make use of the infrastructure, historic legacy, and mass purchase of the PCI. This was a political decision with consequences.

The Party certainly didn’t have a good name among all militants of the Left, and Tronti lost many comrades going this way. But he gained some, too. Party membership – not just votes for the PCI, but enrollment in the organization – grew by about 20% between 1968-1977 (after falling off a cliff post-1956). This is not to say these new conscripts adhered to his line. But it’s worth noting, whether this decision was right or wrong in the long term, that Tronti was not alone in finding this kind of work promising in the late 1960s.

We still hear “within and against” reverberating today. Labour Transformed in the UK has adopted “in and against” as their position toward the party, the state, and the trade unions. Working in and against the U.S. Democratic Party has been floated in discussions around the Democratic Socialists of America. Of course, entryism into a capitalist party like that of the Democrats in the United States, or a social-democratic party like Labour, requires a different set of considerations from those animating Tronti’s work around the Italian Communist Party of the 1960s. That project had been predicated on the PCI’s exclusion from government – it had only been part of the majority during the immediate postwar period of 1944–47. The U.S. Democrats and Labour, by contrast, have headed numerous governments, not to mention their role in defending and maintaining imperialism. The Democrats, if we want to focus on the U.S., are fundamentally a party of capital.

This is not to say the slogan cannot travel. But creatively stretching “within and against” to pertain to such different fields of play requires more than common-sense agreement that it seems generically reasonable to do what one can with the hand one is dealt. Certainly, many organizations and groups of militants interested in “within and against” politics are leaping beyond this.

I would just add that, if it is a question of maintaining fidelity to Tronti’s wager in 1967, a collective political subject might also rediscover the “strategy of refusal” animating working-class struggle in the 21st century, and it might articulate tactical work “within and against” a party or state to that larger revolutionary project. In the U.S. context, this could involve various kinds of extraparliamentary work, co-research among grassroots militants today, and a series of focused investigations: to account for autonomous, anti-state, anti-capitalist initiatives; to chart their political subsumption by strata of state managers over the past 50 or 100 years; to ascertain the role of various levels of the Democratic Party and of different capitalist strata in those projects; to unearth processes of anti-state, anti-capitalist subjectivation that may have emerged in relation to activities within the state; to look for antagonism percolating among state workers, whose ranks after all far outnumber elected officials; and so on.

To conclude, what does Tronti’s framework offer to analyses of other types of struggles, those that take place outside the factory? His “operai” were, after all, factory workers, were they not?

Because Tronti’s conception of class is political, because his framework starts from the actuality of struggles, I think it remains provocative and useful for those seeking to understand and expand tenant struggles, working-class initiatives around health and education, and street rebellions. It’s plain to see that anti-racist struggles are a cauldron of working-class recomposition today.

Perhaps less explored have been the resonances between operaismo and abolitionist frameworks. Tronti’s analysis of how the state channels workers’ struggles to fuel capitalist development seems potentially compatible with the recognition that police and prison reforms have stimulated the growth of the repressive state apparatus, and thinking through these modes of revolutionary thought together, their resonances and their contradictions, could be quite fruitful.

If FIAT was a “nerve center” of Italian capitalism in the 1960s, it was not only because workers there manufactured automobiles, those most classic of Fordist commodities. It was also, crucially, because FIAT workers were “proud and menacing” – antagonistic toward their bosses and confidently going on the offensive. The same impetus today brings us to healthcare and education workers, to eviction defenders, to those engaged in direct actions against courts, ICE detention centers, and fossil fuel pipelines – and to the question of how organization may help these all add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

 

 

STEVE WRIGHT

Steve Wright is the author of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto, 2nd ed., 2017), and The Weight of the Printed Word: Text, Context and Militancy in Operaismo (Brill, in press). He is a former member of the IWW.

 

Mirrored from https://spectrejournal.com/why-tronti-why-now/

Weapon of Organization is available from leftwingbooks.net

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