Family Histories where Black Power Met Police PowerRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, policing
Dan Berger is professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell and author of Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey.
What we now call mass incarceration stems from events of the 1960s. The meteoric rise in the numbers of people being imprisoned began in 1973. But it was made possible through persistent expansions of police authority and state surveillance that started earlier. At its core, mass incarceration is a repressive form of social control. Yet the growth of carceral power was neither inevitable nor easy. It was fought every step of the way by the people it impacted most deeply—including the Black Power activists it antagonized.
It was through my interest in such radical social movements that I first came to study incarceration. Particularly in the United States, where carceral power functions as a religion of statecraft, it is impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. Recognizing the intertwined histories of activism and incarceration, of repression and resistance, gives us a fuller trajectory of the organizations and strategies that anticipated contemporary decarceral movements. And when we listen to the individual movement participants, we can also see what it means to do this work—the subversive joy of a successful rebellion, the shock of recognition that comes with learning the layered extent of carceral authority.
That blend of joy, aggravation, discovery, and perseverance animates my book Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey. The book is a biography of longtime, little-known Black Power organizers Michael Simmons and Zoharah Simmons. Through them, it offers a window into the endurance needed in the pursuit of social justice. The pair met in the civil rights movement, married under the aegis of Black Power, and remained close comrades after they divorced but continued their organizing.
Stayed on Freedom is not a history of mass incarceration, and yet the history of Black Power is inseparable from the history of mass incarceration. Even before the carceral state metastasized to its current scale, policing and incarceration loomed large for Black Power activists—as ubiquitous foes, as stubborn opponents who could, nevertheless, at times be bested.
The following excerpt from Stayed on Freedom provides two snippets into contesting mass incarceration at the moment of its creation. The first offers a glimpse into the two-and-a-half years (1969–72) Michael spent in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. military. The second recounts how Zoharah joined a fledgling national effort to combat government surveillance in the mid-1970s, at a time when cities were becoming subject to increasing—and increasingly aggressive—policing. These braided stories illuminate the tenacity with which Black Power activists resisted state violence. Whatever the differences are to our current carceral landscape, I hope the creative sparks of the past may still offer light to those following the same north star toward freedom.
Mike was sent to prison in 1969 as a conscientious objector for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. In Allenwood federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania, which did not allow phone calls, Mike’s world seemed to be getting smaller. Mike wrote letters and received visits, but the men around him became his primary social life.
As he earned a reputation in the prison for his bravery, he sought to be heard for his morality. Don’t take my TV, he would advise people of their pre-prison antics. Go to the TV store and take all the TVs. As was true of the larger movement brewing among Black incarcerated people at the time, his was a message of solidarity, not legality. The pimps tried to maintain detachment, claiming they never harmed their own sisters. But it’s somebody’s sister, Mike replied.
During his first winter in prison, Mike wrote a play about Black history, which incorporated passages from notable figures such as Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois. In recent years, Black educators and students around the country had transformed an early twentieth-century idea of “Negro History Week” into something called Black History Month. It didn’t yet have official buy-in, but students were using it as an organizing opportunity. Inspired by the idea, Mike hoped his play could educate folks incarcerated in Allenwood about the Black radical tradition. He had never fancied himself a writer. But the prison was full of outcast autodidacts who had learned to play guitar, write poetry, file lawsuits, or carve wood. Why couldn’t he try his hand at being a playwright?