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The Beating Heart
The beating heart, it’s the basis of all, student and prisoner alike. They strip the one of dignity, and slough off the other with shoddy goods. Our library had five storeys of books, now it barely has one. Once we were a people’s university for the working boys and girls of Toledo, Ohio, – that was the stated hope in our founding – and then New Deal public works program built our buildings and office, with masonry meant to endure. But the books are going. Students are indebted. Humanities slashed. Administrators multiply and drive shiny black cars. Money for learning, down! Money for prison, up!
Siddique Abdullah Hasan began his hunger strike yesterday. His clear and strong voice was piped in from death row to our anniversary meeting at the University. It is the 20th anniversary of the Lucasville uprising, “disturbance” as Hasan said. No one knows who killed officer Vallandringham says a public prosecutor, yet four men are on death row for the crime. How much further can human devaluation go than this?
Staughton Lynd wrote the story of the uprising, he dramatized it, and totally lost confidence in the “justice system.” Next week in Columbus the uprising will be studied and revisited by folks who have begun the process of the valuation of human life. This is part of “Prison Awareness Week” here in Ohio. His comrade, Alice, gentle heart against the supermax will stands together with him.
Lucasville. Up the road from the plutonium plant. Maximum security penitentiary. For eleven days without electricity, eleven days thrust upon their own devices, eleven days awaiting massacre, but from this cauldron of horror was born “the convict race.” White and Black together, and in the aftermath Muslim, Gangster Disciple, and Ayran Brotherhood refused to snitch. Not all. But some. That’s all it takes. Human solidarity against the racial statute of the U.S.A. was enacted. They now must languish on death row.
Music and sport are the first to go in school after school, despite the fact that all wisdom tells us that truth, knowledge, reason, art begins with the beating heart. Hence, music. Hence, sport. Hence, play time. Take them away, and it’s a short distance to the dumbing down engineered by the “testing” system and the ceaseless augmentation of incarceration. Ishaq Alkhair and Abdush Shakur, veterans themselves of the cruel, dangerous B.S. of Lucasville spoke to us. Ishaq as a prisoner was a librarian. Abdush, a student of the Koran and of Tom Wicker’s great chronicle of the Attica Rebellion. They brought their knowledge, shared their experience: respect, dignity, men of heart, brothers.
And the Bastille? Behind walls more than a hundred feet high and thirty feet thick, the architectural monument of the ruling class fable that it can last forever, came down in a twinkling. The awful prison of centuries crumbled to dust under the people’s vengeance. A sempstress, Mme. Legros, was responsible, if glory for the liberation were to be awarded to a single individual. Well, so claims Michelet, the first archivist of the French Revolution. And then, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité. Where are these ideals now? Dumbed down. No longer taught.
But wait! Have we learned nothing from Franz Fanon, from Edward Said? Who measured the exact depths of European racial supremacy? We must revise the slogan and it must be Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and Hypocrisy. The key to this dungeon of absolute power was proudly taken by a prisoner and delivered to the Revolutionaries who in turn gave it to Tom Paine to carry across the ocean as a gift for George Washington in 1790. But that was the year of the opening of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, and with the birth of the U.S.A. comes the racialized slavery of the cotton plantation, war against the emerging confederation of Great Lakes native peoples, and in Europe the coal-fired steam powered machines of the factory. The system of expropriation and exploitation was laid in place, wall by wall – land enclosed, factory built, plantation enslaving, and penitentiary confining.
We are vigilant against the Hypocrisy of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Vigilant yes, but not neglectful. At least this was the view that came a year later in 1791 in Haiti when the first successful slave rebellion in world history commenced to the drumming one night on the plains of the north. The beating heart of freedom, now loud, now soft, is never absent. Those drums will lead to a struggle that is brief when seen against the rolling centuries, the millennia, of patriarchy, oppression, and empire. The struggle achieved a milestone in the 14th amendment – equal justice – which Hasan quoted for us.
It received another twenty years ago in Lucasville. We heard it from Hasan, Ishaq, Abdush, and from Professor Cynthia Ingham and the University Inside-Out Program, bringing together penitentiary and university for … For… what? An encounter, an encuentro. What will come of it? The tale has not been half told.
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org