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An American Radical : A Political Prisoner in My Own Country
On a November night in 1984, Susan Rosenberg sat in the passenger seat of a U-Haul as it swerved along the New Jersey Turnpike. At the wheel was a fellow political activist. In the back were 740 pounds of dynamite and assorted guns. That night I still believed with all my heart that what Che Guevara had said about revolutionaries being motivated by love was true. I also believed that our government ruled the world by force and that it was necessary to oppose it with force. Raised on New York City's Upper West Side, Rosenberg had been politically active since high school, involved in the black liberation movement and protesting repressive U.S. policies around the world and here at home. At twenty-nine, she was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. While unloading the U-Haul at a storage facility, Rosenberg was arrested and sentenced to an unprecedented 58 years for possession of weapons and explosives. I could not see the long distance I had traveled from my commitment to justice and equality to stockpiling guns and dynamite. Seeing that would take years.Rosenberg served sixteen years in some of the worst maximum-security prisons in the United States before being pardoned by President Clinton as he left office in 2001. Now, in a story that is both a powerful memoir and a profound indictment of the U.S. prison system, Rosenberg recounts her journey from the impassioned idealism of the 1960s to life as a political prisoner in her own country, subjected to dehumanizing treatment, yet touched by moments of grace and solidarity. Candid and eloquent, An American Radical reveals the woman behind the controversy--and reflects America's turbulent coming-of-age over the past half century.Since her release from prison in 2001, Susan Rosenberg has been a speaker, educator, and lecturer to young people, graduate students, and those concerned with the issues of women in prison, political prisoners, prison reform and social justice activism. She has lectured on these topics at Stanford Law School, Yale University Law School, Columbia University School of Human Rights, Rutgers University, Brown University Department of African American Studies, New York University Department of Women's and Legal Studies, University of Massachusetts Department of Legal Studies, University of Michigan, Georgia State University Law School, CUNY Graduate Center, and Washington University School of Law. In addition, she has participated in prison reform, women's studies and legal conferences around the country. Since 2004, Rosenberg has served as the director of communications at a faith-based human rights organization working to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world. Rosenberg received an M.A. in Writing from Antioch University while in prison, as well as taking graduate courses in creative and expository writing from the University of Iowa. She is an award-winning member of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) and a member of the PEN Prison Writing Committee. For the last three years she has been on panels at the PEN World Voices Festival with globally recognized authors. She lives in New York City with her family.
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February 22, 2011
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Excerpt from An American Radical by Susan Rosenberg
The massive protest movements and freedom struggles of the 1960s mobilized young people all over the world. Thousands were injured, arrested, jailed, and killed; thousands more watched, and millions of young people were inspired to act. Mass social movements surged during those days, marked by urban riots and insurrections, guerilla uprisings, and the scandalous murder of leaders such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Fred Hampton. Evening news broadcasts showed horrendous scenes of warfare in Vietnam, while thousands of young men were drafted to fight there. My conscience was seared when four young girls were murdered at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, girls who were part of the children's campaign of constant protest marches during 1963. It happened in Alabama, my home state, the year I started college. For Susan Rosenberg, who grew up in New York, watching the televised National Guard assault at the Attica prison in New York State, which left 29 prisoners and 10 hostages dead in 1971, had a life changing impact. The massacre happened during her junior year in high school.
The prison memoir had not attained recognition as literature when Susan Rosenberg entered Barnard College two years later, but the political prisoners taken during insurgent independence movements or revolutionary uprisings were making a profound impact on our generation's world view. The leaders of Third World national liberation movements had spent time in colonial prisons, and if not captured or killed, after independence was won some of them became the leaders of their countries. The startling rise of Pa- trice Lumumba to prime minister in the formerly Belgian Congo during 1960 set off waves of liberation struggles to end imperial white rule in Africa; that, combined with the revolutionary struggles we learned about in South Asia and South America, helped inspire our own brand of radicalism. In the United States, the most confrontational leaders of our black liberation struggle were being arrested, tried, and sent to prison--if not shot in the streets.
In 1967, at the height of antiwar protest, we saw world champion boxer Muhammad Ali ordered to prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam. UCLA professor Angela Davis was hunted and jailed on charges of assisting the escape of a prisoner, during which a judge was killed, from the Marin County Courthouse in 1970. Just as years later demands that ANC leader Nelson Mandela be free circled the world, young African American revolutionaries launched the "Free Huey" campaign and spread the Black Panther Party across the country. Both at home and at school, Rosenberg was sensitized to challenge fundamental wrongs, her consciousness nurtured in New York's liberal political culture during a decade when race, economic injustice, and the Vietnam War were polarizing the entire country.
I met Susan Rosenberg at a crowded welcome home party held in New York City in 2001. The event was at the Walden School on the Upper West Side, where Susan had graduated from high school. Before her time, Andrew Goodman, one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, had graduated from this progressive school. It was a damp winter evening, the gathering of many supporters and activists filled the hall in clumps and rows around small tables. I loved the festive air the bouquets of flowers gave to the room, and the feeling of joy that everyone radiated. The guests buzzed with the warmth of reunions, like families and old friends coming back together. I saw some faces from the political prisoner movements I'd worked with before, but most of the guests I did not recognize. After the formal part of the program ended, I had a chance to see Susan for the first time. I was excited--she looked more frail than I had imagined her--but we shared friends and comrades. The one I knew best was one of her codefendants, Marilyn Buck, who was still behind bars, which gave us a special bond. We hugged each other, spoke briefly, and agreed to meet later in the month.
The party was pulled together within weeks after President Bill Clinton commuted Rosenberg's sentence in January 2001, during those same last days when the rumored pardon for Leonard Peltier never materialized and the controversial pardon of Marc Rich generated frenzied news coverage. Outraged cries against Rosenberg's parole back then originated within the police and the FBI, but they never provoked a national controversy. In 1984, then-U.S. attorney in New York Rudolph Giuliani had withdrawn the indictment against her for participating in the Brink's robbery in Nyack, New York, but that legal fact never prevented the local press from vilifying her as a "cop killer" along with those who had been convicted, nor did it stop the fraternal organizations representing New York police from hounding her and her family for being a "terrorist." Thankfully, President Clinton had commuted her sentence months before the anti-terrorist political obsession gripped the city in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center that September.
Rosenberg's arrest in 1984 while driving a truck loaded with hundreds of pounds of explosives on the New Jersey Turnpike led to her conviction in a possession of weapons and explosives case in 1985. "I knew . . . I had a fifty-eight-year sentence and a minimum of twenty years. But it wasn't life," she wrote. "Though it seemed unlikely, I had an outside chance of parole. I couldn't allow myself to think of dying in jail." Her memoir details the sixteen years she spent in women's prisons as a political prisoner.
A deep tone of solidarity, commitment, and love that the revolutionary women prisoners shared vibrates through these lines, as Rosenberg tells about their fight to save their sanity and each other's lives. She writes from the shadowy underbelly of prison, those dungeons within federal prisons created for specified prisoner types. She and the other radical women were confined away from the rest of the prisoner population in places labeled "high-security unit," "control unit," and other euphemisms. They provided structured conditions of psychological deprivation and torture to force the prisoner to renounce her ideological convictions or political views. This treatment reserved for the revolutionary or "subversive" prisoner reads like some secularized version of the Inquisition. While Rosenberg was incarcerated in Kentucky at the federal prison in Lexington, a report the ACLU issued on its high- security unit stated that when the measures fail to produce in prisoners "the state of submission essential for ideological conversion," the unit's "next objective is to reduce them to a state of psychological incompetence sufficient to neutralize them." These facilities were designed and functioning before the current use of Guantanamo Bay as a prison for captives in the "War on Terror" for similar purposes.
A lawsuit against the conditions Rosenberg and other political prisoners were subjected to in Lexington eventually led to her transfer to the women's prison in Marianna, Florida. About Marianna, she wrote, "One of the deepest commitments I had made to myself was that I would not allow prison or repression to erode my soul, and I felt that my soul was more deeply threatened than at any time before. For the first time, I felt that my political will was not enough to give me the daily strength to survive." Susan's inner balance was shattered; she plunged into the deepest place of her creative being, and resurfaced with a new consciousness of herself.
The voice you hear in An American Radical did survive the barbaric cruelty of her maximum-security hell holes, and it is clear, fierce, and compassionate--a voice that continues in these pages to speak truth to power.
Kathleen Neal Cleaver, a senior lecturer at Yale University and at Emory Law School, has been involved in the human rights movement since high school. She quit college in 1966 to work full time in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and then joined the early Black Panther Party in California, where until 1971 she was the party's communications secretary. She has worked to free many imprisoned political activists, including Geronimo (Pratt) ji-Jaga, released after serving 27 years for a crime he did not commit, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, who remains on death row. Cleaver and George Katsiaficas co-edited Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party (2001), and she edited Target Zero: A Life in Writing (2006) by Eldridge Cleaver. She is currently completing a memoir entitled Memories of Love and War.