Radical organizer Charlene Mitchell calls for a coalition to fight political repression in a 1973 article published in the journal Triple Jeopardy.
Political repression demands a populist defense. That is perhaps the major takeaway from Charlene Mitchell’s 1973 essay “We Can Defeat Repression,” published in 1973 in the Third World Women’s Alliance journal, Triple Jeopardy: Racism, Imperialism, Sexism. Mitchell, more than anyone, would know. Born in Cincinnati in 1930, she joined the Commmunist Party at age sixteen, remaining a member until she and many others left to form the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism in the early nineties. In between, Mitchell was the first Black woman to run for President of the United States, representing the CPUSA in 1968. She spearheaded the successful Free Angela Davis campaigns and she was the founding executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR), which held its inaugural conference in Chicago in May, 1973.
In her contribution to Triple Jeopardy, Mitchell articulates many of the themes that would animate the organization of the NAARPR, including the need for broad-based coalitions across race and class, a critique of the prison as a site of racist terror, and, fundamentally, the necessity to organize against state violence and political repression. Critically, Mitchell understood then – as the right-wing understands now – the role of mobilizing a legal defense as part of the campaign against state repression. Yet, as she is quick to point out, a legal strategy is nothing without a popular movement. That was the key to the success of the Free Angela Davis campaigns (and, we might add, the International Labor Defense’s campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys a generation earlier). And it will certainly be key to fighting the new wave of political repression looming on the horizon. Mitchell’s essay is reprinted below.
We Can Defeat Repression
Repression as a tool to keep the people’s movements in check is not new in our country. We only have to look at the history of the black liberation movement or the Communist Party or other left wing organizations. Historically there have been united movements to fight these forces of repression. Yet today, we find ourselves without a united organization. We don’t have a movement that is organized. With a good defense in the courtroom and a massive political defense outside of the courtroom, we could be victorious in many more cases.
Early in 1969 Kingman Brewster of Yale University stated that it is impossible for black militants to get a fair trial in the United States. We need only look to realize that what Kingman Brewster said has been turned around. The press says that they have received fair trials.
What becomes clear is that during the frame-up trials, every level of government was involved in an attempt to get rid of, first the Black Panther Party and all other parties and movements that would tend to turn back the tide of reaction. More correctly stated, the federal government, the President, especially the FBI, the state and local police, and the courts across the nation have involved themselves in a conspiracy against the people’s movement.
In almost every case, the attacks were made with the intent to crush these forces. The current aim of the conspiracy by government is to act as a preventive to mass organizations. To accomplish this aim the conspirators have become more sophisticated. They have determined to use all the old tools in a new way.
BLACK FACE/CRIMINAL FACE
If Nixon can [succeed] in his plan to make the face of black people a criminal face, he can, on the basis of fighting crime, initiate a law to jail anyone that does not adhere to his policies for the country. It is in this context that we can see very clearly how it covers a whole arena: the shops, the universities, the military, the communities, especially those of Black, Puerto Rican and other oppressed peoples.
Although we have not yet been able to bring together a national defense organization, we have not been inactive. Many of us have been involved in some aspect of the fight against repression and the fight for the defense of political prisoners; e.g. the Bronx victory of Carlos Feliciano, the Angela Davis case, the Panther cases, Soledad Brothers, Billy Dean Smith and Harrisburg.
In every such victory, it must be understood and remembered that in addition to the courtroom defense, (in each case brilliant legal work) a mass defense was organized. –A mass movement that brought the cases before the public, that exposed their frame-up character, that made it possible for thousands to see the political nature of the trial, that brought out the racist content of the court and penal state. Without such a mass movement, it is highly unlikely that these sisters and brothers would be free today.
Through these struggles we learned many lessons. We learned the necessity to organize. Legal defense and mass defense are inseparable. To expose a political frame-up when the charges are criminal, it is necessary for the lawyers to make a political fight in the courtroom, to clarify for the jurors the political nature of the trial. If a case is in its essence political, it is almost impossible to think of winning such a case by sheer knowledge and practice of criminal law.
However, it is impossible for the legal counsel to take the case of the defendant to the public without an organized campaign that takes place outside the courtroom. A campaign that continues to expose the real issues behind the trial, to show why the frame-up takes place. To expose the racism in the judicial system and to counteract the access that prosecutors have to the media and consequently to the public.
While most political activists would say that this is obviously apparent - we can all agree that our bent, all too often, is to rely on the spontaneous reaction on the part of honest people. Even when there is some spontaneous response, we must see the necessity to organize that response. When the mass defense and the legal defense work together, the job of organizing is made far easier.
NEED MORE THAN ACTIVISTS
Mass defense requires the mobilization and organization of every single person and organization who, in any way will voice or demonstrate support to the campaign. While it may be less difficult to get support from activists, activists alone cannot free a political prisoner. What is required is the attention and response of masses who are organized in unions, churches, students and community organizations.
There are literally millions in this country who believe that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Those millions can be moved to understand that for any number of reasons, a particular defendant is not receiving a fair trial: right to bail, jury of peers and so on.
Many people are beginning to understand the whole frame-up, political nature of the trial. It is in this sense we will deal with the need for a United Defense organization against racism and repression. Much of the discussion that has taken place around political prisoners has dealt with such a definition with some additional concepts: a political prisoner is one who, because of his or her political activities, is arrested and tried whether on direct action (demonstrations, picket lines, draft resistance, etc.) or trumped-up charges; refusing to carry out genocide; or deserters, for the same reasons are arrested and tried.
There are other political prisoners. There are those who are directly tried on open political charges as were the Communists under the famous Smith Act. There are those who may be in prison not as a result of any political act, but who become politically conscious and active inside the prison not as a result of any political act, but who become politically conscious and active inside the prison resulting in prolonged imprisonment, denial of early parole dates and subjected to continuous solitary confinement. Then there are those who are victims of the racist nature of the police and court and penal systems: Black, Chicano and Puerto Rican men and women are sentenced for long periods of time for crimes for which whites are given suspended or much shorter sentences. It is not possible for a defense organization to overlook the plight of these victims of racism in this country.
While it is not possible to give equal attention at every juncture to all facets of repression - it is imperative that we give serious attention to the increased role of the prison as an institution of repression. The number of prison rebellions alone speak to the horrid conditions of the prisons in this country. The racism inside the walls is even more stifling, more blatantly cruel than outside. The slave labor conditions that exist challenge feudal prisons in this country. Certainly, even the most politically naive can see that there is something basically wrong with the penal system in our country. For us - those engaged in a movement against repression - a political assault on the prison system, as it presently functions, is mandatory.
Many of us come from several different organizations with various political programs. One thing we all have in common, that which unites us is our determination to defeat the repressive drive with which we are threatened. Our business of organizing is long overdue. We can defeat the advance of repression if we begin to be united.
Charlene Mitchell, “We Can Defeat Repression,”originally published in Triple Jeopardy: Racism, Imperialism, Sexism (March-April, 1973).