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The concept of underground political activism in the United States is currently a remote fantasy. I say that without making a judgement one way or the other about the morality or political efficacy of such activism. Despite the efforts of the FBI and other government agencies aligned with the Department of Homeland Security to entrap unsuspecting (or emotionally unstable) citizens to perform armed acts against the corporate state, the fact is there really is no organized left-leaning underground political movement of any substance in today’s United States. Even if one considers the entrapment, trial and convictions of a couple groups of young men charged with conspiracies to blow up bridges and the like earlier this century (the five young anarchists arrested for conspiracy and NATO 3 come to mind), those cases do not represent a movement. The same can be said for the sporadic cases involving young people who have converted to Islam, are opposed to US military intervention in predominantly Muslim nations and are then set up by federal agencies.
This was not the case in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Black Liberation Army, Puerto Rican independentistas, the Weather Underground, SLA, and other similar groups not only made headlines with their actions, they also enjoyed some popular support. Indeed, as something of an indication of their numbers, dozens of their former members are in prison around the nation. Most of these political prisoners will never get out of prison, especially in today’s political climate where virtually all extralegal (and a fair amount of legal) political activity from the left is considered terrorism by the powers that be.
This is the context of Diana Block’s new novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History. Block, who spent over a dozen years underground because of activities related to her political activity in the Puerto Rican independence movement and was also a member of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee—a group which began as an aboveground support organization for the Weather Underground, has written an emotionally taut and politically discursive tale. Centered around the lives of three generations of women whose lives are entangled in a web of love, politics, work and children, Clandestine Occupations takes the reader on a journey over four decades, at several cities, and numerous political groups. Over the course of this journey, the reader is exposed to a thought process where people of all races, genders and ages put ideals of social justice and liberation ahead of their own individual desires and goals.
Not only is this book informed by Block’s political life and her involvement with the Puerto Rican independentista movement of the 1980s, it also plucks events and individuals from today’s news. The case of her character Rahim, a Black Panther once known as Clarence Jackson, reminded this reader not only of the political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, but also of the recently acquitted defendants in the case known as the San Francisco Eight. Additionally, by setting some of the book in the antiwar protests of 2003 and the Oakland Occupy encampment of 2011, Block simultaneously reminds the reader of the omnipresence of political protest, its similarities and differences, and the never ending determination of the powerful to neutralize those who oppose their designs.
Working with a subversively restrained prose that evokes powerful emotions, Diana Block tells a heartrending and intellectually appealing story of a group of modern women interconnected through politics, family and love. Multi-generational, the women’s stories weave in and out of a loom created by forces often beyond their control. Intellectually and spiritually informed by a woman’s perspective, Clandestine Occupations is reminiscent of the best work of writers like Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy—who have also tread the path of fictionalizing revolutionary struggle in the belly of the modern Empire. By the same token, it is more than women’s literature. Indeed, it is revolutionary literature of a very high order.