Resisting the Rule of the 1%: Thoughts on the Occupy Movement from Inside PrisonBy Herman Bell

May 27, 2012

"The American dream was never meant for everybody to realize."

It's easy to think this as I sit here in prison, in a visiting room, or in a mess hall, or as I stand in a prison "recreation" yard. Here, I see long columns of black and brown faces marching lock-step to their cells. I can't help but look at my fellow prisoners and see captured Afrikans in coffles being marched to the sea and into the holds of waiting slave ships.

You probably know that the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. Two-point-four million souls . . . and counting. U.S. prisons operate on punishment and retribution, not "rehabilitation." For the past 39 years, I have lived in a series of U.S. "correctional facilities" - warehouses that stockpile human beings. These warehouses serve the economic interests of other human beings in depressed rural communities, where industries have disappeared, and job security resides in maintaining a large prison population. We prisoners - the poor, the marginalized, the irrelevant - are products of an antiquated Jim Crow political agenda that exists to own and control people of color. Meanwhile, the 1% who own and control the "free" market continue to make a killing, and now, given the current trend toward privatization, it's even possible to buy stock in their prison system.

Yet from inside prison, I get the idea that the Occupy movement might finally begin to change all this. Occupy's genius is to see that we prisoners - and you outside prison - make up the 99%. That we have something in common. And by resisting the rule of the 1%, we might begin to create some actual justice.

From here, the Occupy movement looks and feels like a social tent that is big enough to accommodate a wide range of pressing social issues. It has the potential to be a political platform, to help the young as well as the old - anybody who is tired of being messed over by Wall Street, banks, corporations, and elected officials, to finally say, Enough. In giving voice to the passionate indignation, the anger, the pain, the frustration of hardworking, tax-paying, law-abiding people, you Occupy activists may finally be able to create a movement that will stop the 1% from destroying our lives, and the very life of this planet.

But activists not only educate and organize people around momentous social issues; they can also wind up in prison. By the early 1970s, many of us in Black Liberation movements had been taken off the streets. In making the fight for jobs, healthcare, education, and social justice our life's work, we made conscious choices that put us in harm's way. I, along with several comrades, were sent away to long years in prison with the words "to-life" at the end of our sentences. Yet we political prisoners - and all prisoners - have wives, children, grandchildren - loved ones left outside to suffer - and whose suffering exacerbates our own.

So be careful. If you get too good at all this Occupying, some of you young activists may wind up in a cell next to mine or next to some other political prisoners such as Albert Woodfox or Herman Wallace or Ed Poindexter, who, like me, were imprisoned long before most of you were born.

A social movement involves suffering and sacrifice. That's a fact, and a poignant reminder of what Frederick Douglass told us long ago: Power concedes nothing without a demand. All the more reason to resist rule of the 1%. The 1% don't want you to realize your dreams, "American" or otherwise, and we have to fight that.

We have to fight for our dreams.


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