America’s Own Political Prisoners

Oscar Lopez-River has been accused of seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of injustice. Now is the time for his immediate and unconditional release.” Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Nelson Mandela’s death has elicited a predictable outpouring of accolades. Glowing praise is now coming from American politicians as disparate as Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama. But this praise comes with the recasting, perhaps rebranding, of the amazing man that was Nelson Mandela. The selling of this image and the stripping of the substance are reminiscent of the whitewashing of Martin Luther King and Mahatmas Gandhi.  This selective representation of Mandela as a peace-loving saint erases the fact that Mandela was arrested in 1964 on charges of sabotage of South Africa’s electrical grid and attempting to overthrow the government. Also excised are references to his many important statements.

Here are a few, thanks to Common Dreams

“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

“If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.”

“The current world financial crisis also starkly reminds us that many of the concepts that guided our sense of how the world and its affairs are best ordered, have suddenly been shown to be wanting.”

“Gandhi rejects the Adam Smith notion of human nature as motivated by self-interest and brute needs and returns us to our spiritual dimension with its impulses for nonviolence, justice and equality. He exposes the fallacy of the claim that everyone can be rich and successful provided they work hard. He points to the millions who work themselves to the bone and still remain hungry.”

“There is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like.”

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

“No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”

“If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don’t ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers.”

“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

On Gandhi: “From his understanding of wealth and poverty came his understanding of labor and capital, which led him to the solution of trusteeship based on the belief that there is no private ownership of capital; it is given in trust for redistribution and equalization. Similarly, while recognizing differential aptitudes and talents, he holds that these are gifts from God to be used for the collective good.”

The praise-givers do not remind us that in 1988 the State Department referred to Mandela’s African National Conference as a terrorist organization, and in 1989 the ANC was officially placed on the Defense Department’s list of terrorist organizations with Mandela designated part of the leadership. Those who like to think of the U.S. as a trendsetting nation need to think again. Believe it or not, Mandela was not removed from that list until 2004, 14 years after he was elected President of South Africa.

By obfuscating the real history of South Africa and Mandela, the U.S. government takes no responsibility for prolonging Mandela’s imprisonment or for helping to sustain apartheid altogether, and therefore no responsibility for years of avoidable death and destruction– avoidable because apartheid would have collapsed many years earlier were it not for the backing of the U.S. government and allies such as Israel.


One reason this phenomenon is so significant is because the U.S. government constantly repeats the same egregious policies, continuing to be on the wrong side of history by refusing to acknowledge true patriots for who they really are. Instead our government continues to portray them as criminals, or even worse, as terrorists.

An essential case in point is Oscar Lopez-Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner who is imprisoned not in some far away country but right here on U.S. soil. Oscar has served  more than 32 years in prison. Incarcerated several years longer than Mandela, Oscar is among the world’s longest held political prisoners. What’s more, 12 of those years were at the infamous Marion penitentiary and then its successor the Administrative Maximum Unit (ADX) in Florence, Colorado where he was held in solitary confinement under conditions of severe sensory deprivation, conditions declared by Amnesty International to violate the U.N. Standard Rules for the Minimal Treatment of Prisoners.

Americans need to reject government attempts to demonize Oscar Lopez-Rivera as a terrorist and investigate who he actually is. The U.S. government was wrong about Mandela and they are wrong about Oscar.

Oscar was drafted into the U.S. army during the Vietnam war. Most Americans don’t know that as a result of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, Puerto Ricans on the island can not vote in U.S. national elections, are unrepresented in Congress but can serve as cannon fodder in the U.S. army. And Oscar did just that. He was drafted into the U.S. army, served during the Vietnam war and was awarded a Bronze Star.

He returned to a Chicago of substandard housing in communities riddled with drugs and police violence where children were pushed out of inferior, racist schools. Puerto Ricans  were treated as less than second class citizens, similar to African-Americans, with racist contempt and discrimination. In Puerto Rico there was mass poverty and unemployment, the exploitation of resources by American corporations, the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women, and the occupation of much of the land on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by the U.S. Navy. All this and no full American citizenship.

I should reveal that I am not objective when it comes to Oscar. I do have ties to Oscar’s community in Chicago. I am on the Board of an alternative Puerto Rican High school. It is a school that Oscar founded in 1972 with a handful of students and has now grown to 160 students. Oscar loved his community and was alarmed by the rate at which Chicago high school students were leaving the system. He saw young people being discarded without concern by the powers that be. They were treated like disposable material, throwaway children pushed out of the Chicago public schools. So he did something. He started a school where students would be treated like the precious human beings that they are, a school that would teach them respect for the rich and remarkable history and culture of the Puerto Rico nation that gave them life.

In the early 1980s Oscar was part of a group of Puerto Rican independentistas convicted of seditious conspiracy– conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force, by membership in the clandestine Fuerzas Armada de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), and of related charges of weapons possession and transporting stolen cars across state lines. All received disproportionately long sentences. According to attorney Jan Susler, “Government statistics evidence that those who commit non-political criminal offenses receive far lower sentences than do independence fighters. For example, in 1981, the year Oscar was sentenced to 55 years for seditious conspiracy, the average federal sentence for murder was 10.3 years. Though he was not accused or convicted of hurting or killing anyone, his sentence was more than five times the average sentence for murder.”

Most of Oscar’s co-defendants were granted their freedom by President Clinton in 1999. The fact that none of them had been convicted of hurting or killing anyone was a factor mentioned by the president. Oscar was offered his freedom in ten years time but rejected the offer because he did not wish to leave behind his two co-defendants who were not included in the offer. Since then all have been released. Had he accepted the deal, he would have been released in 2009. Since then, when Oscar came up for parole,  parole was denied.

Many of the ex-political prisoners, upon their release have become very active in their communities, contributing  to the forward motion of their people. They also work tirelessly for the freedom of Oscar. But it is not only the ex-political prisoners who are involved in the campaign to free Oscar.

While the U.S. government will not acknowledge that Oscar is a true patriot in the spirit of Mandela, the people of Puerto Rico have no problem understanding. Although it didn’t make the pages of the New York Times or even the Chicago Tribune (the city where Oscar spent most of his life before incarceration), this past November of 2013, 50,000 people poured out their hearts, marching in San Juan demanding freedom for Oscar. Across all political lines, people who disagree about how to resolve the status issue of Puerto Rico, nevertheless united behind the demand for president Obama to grant Oscar’s release. 50,000 people on an island that holds 3.7 million! There has never been a demonstration in the U.S. for ANYTHING with such a huge percentage of the population participating. It would be the equivalent of over 4 million Americans! Just imagine the reverberations of 4 million Americans demonstrating in DC.

In New York the lead singer of the very popular Grammy and Latin Grammy award-winning band, Calle 13, helped lead a march across the Williamsburg bridge, stating he was proud to be a part of the campaign and to join the Puerto Rican people in calling for justice for Oscar. Also in November the famous Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin called for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera during the telecast of the Latin Grammy Awards, joining a long list of other artists and personalities from Puerto Rico and around the world.

On 29 May 2013, on the 32nd anniversary of his continuous incarceration, high-ranking politicians, former prison personnel, singers, actors, Major League baseball players, and hundreds of other volunteers participated in mock prison cell events throughout Puerto Rico, calling for the release of López Rivera from the American prison system. A similar event took place in Chicago with a remarkable cross-section of community participation. On each of 32 days, one person spent 24 hours in a mock cell in solidarity with Oscar. Interviews with each of them can be found on You Tube.

Nobel peace laureates such as Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina and Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberto Manchu have also called for Oscar’s release. Most relevant at this moment, is Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a major voice in the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa, and one who has the history to recognize a freedom fighter when he sees one. He has stated that Oscar has been “accused of seditious  conspiracy, conspiring to free his people from the shackles of imperial injustice” and has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Oscar.

President Obama has great powers when it comes to granting pardons. He does not require the support of the Congress. It is one of his Presidential prerogatives. And yet he has been the non-pardon President, using the prerogative far less than even George W. Bush. We have to hold his feet to the fire and create a change. The people of Puerto Rico have spoken. The Nobel Laureates have spoken. Let’s join them.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there are many other political prisoners in the U.S. Indeed, Oscar himself has stated the following:

“The U.S. government categorically denies it has political prisoners in its gulags. It does it primarily to cover up the nefarious, barbaric and even criminal acts and  practices it carries out against us and other regular prisoners, and to do it with impunity. It uses the denial as its license to violate our most basic human rights             by subjecting us to isolation and sensory deprivation regimens that are nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment. It uses it to hoodwink its own citizens to believe that it doesn’t criminalize dissenters or opponents of its wars and other  imperialistic practices. It does it to perpetuate the lie that it is the ultimate             defender of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights in the world. And it uses it at times to further criminalize the political prisoners and/or our families  and to disconnect us from our families, communities, supporters and the just and noble causes we served and try to continue serving.”

-Oscar López Rivera, Statement to the American Studies Association conference in Puerto  Rico,October 29, 2012, in Puerto Rico.

President Obama has missed a great opportunity to honor Nelson Mandela by releasing political prisoners incarcerated in U.S. prisons. This is not the place to describe them all, but let me at least mention a few, although far from a complete list of names. The reader can independently explore their situations: Sundiata Acoli, Herman Bell, Bill Dunne, David Gilbert, Jeremy Hammond, Robert Seth Hayes, Gerardo Hernandez, Mumia Abu Jamal, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Manning, Marie Mason, Jalil Muntaqim, Sekou Odinga, Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur, Lynn Stewart, etc., etc., etc.

Yes, Virginia, there are political prisoners in the U.S.

Nancy Kurshan is the author of Out of Control. She can be reached at: