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Black Women Political Prisoners of the Police State

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Rev. Joy Powell says she was “raped, railroaded and bamboozled” by police. Her crime? Being a poor black woman who faced off against the police—protesting their violent brutality against black people in Rochester, NY. Once she defied them, she was warned, then targeted and framed for serious crimes. A few weeks ago, Australian Julian Assange was forcibly dragged from his political asylum to face the American police state. His crime? Like Rev. Powell, he dared to tell the truth about the violence and brutality that defines the American state. Scottish political analyst Jon Wight, citing the treatment of American political prisoners Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, calls the US “justice” system the “most cruel and callous in the world.” That system does not tolerate the exposure of its war crimes and abuses of its police state quietly—it retaliates against those who expose its injustice by treating them to cruel and callous punishment.

Black women who have confronted the abuses of America’s white authority have suffered its punishment throughout our history. Anarchist Lucy Parsons, born in 1853, is one of the few black women mentioned in labor histories, usually as the wife of the martyred Albert Parsons, who was executed in the wake of Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of 1886. Parsons was a dedicated “revolutionist” for labor’s cause, leading rallies and making speeches in 43 states, advocating the use of explosives by tramps and their taking a “few rich people with them.” She was constantly arrested, roughly handled, and jailed: in 1913, at age 60, she was stripped and jailed in Chicago for “peddling literature without a license.” Another labor radical, Claudia Jones, who headed the Women’s Commission for the US Communist Party, was jailed in 1955. She fought the “madam-maid” relationship of white to black women, and felt socialism was the only hope for American blacks. Jones was deported to England where she continued to work for socialism.

Women who joined the struggle against American racism in the 1960s and 70s met particularly violent reprisals from their government. In the early 60s, 17-year-old Ruby Doris Smith, Spelman student and eventual SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) leader, picketed, protested, and did sit-ins, trying to integrate Atlanta. She suffered “the indignities of southern jails and numerous injuries.” As a freedom rider, she underwent the vicious white punishment at the Montgomery bus station and was arrested and jailed by Sheriff Bull Conner. SNCC’s Diane Nash was an important member of the first Nashville sit-ins in 1960. After her arrest, she refused to pay her fine. Six-months pregnant and facing a Jackson, Mississippi jailing, she vowed to “hasten the day when my child and all children will be free.” The women of the black liberation movement of the late 60s and 70s faced even harsher reprisals—from the federal government.

Black women liberation women political prisoners, included the Black Panther’s Assata Shakur and MOVE women Janine Phillips Africa, Debbie Sims Africa, Merle Austin Africa and Janet Holloway Africa. Janine and Janet Africa are still in prison. In March 2019 Jet Blue was forced to take down a black history month poster which included a tribute to a “convicted murderer,” Assata Shakur. President Trump railed against the “cop killer” and demanded Cuba return her. Shakur was able to escape from her jail, to political exile in Cuba, and that is unforgivable to the American police state. Assata Shakur was a major inspiration for me in writing my book Women Politicals in America: Jailed Dissenters from Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart, and because of that she appears on the cover of my book, shackled but defiant. As a member of the BP and Black Liberation Army, Shakur was an FBI target for a long time. As per usual with the FBI, she had been accused of a number of serious crimes, and convicted in the media of all of them and more, although she had committed none of them—including murdering police officer Werner Foerster. All the evidence points to the impossibility of her shooting him, after having been grievously shot herself. She was convicted and treated very harshly in prison, including 20 months in solitary in two men’s prisons under horrible conditions. Her comrades managed to get her out, after she concluded she would be killed in prison.

Women who joined the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in the early 70s also faced incredibly unfair and violent treatment. These followers of John Africa lived “naturally” in a community—very like other 70s communes–and believed in fighting the “system.” The black militancy of fighting the system had them on police radar and resulted in raids that turned violent, with people who ran out to escape fires the authorities set being shot, and in which Officer James Ramp was killed—the evidence indicating probably friendly fire. Four women were arrested: Debbie, Janine, Janet and Merle Africa. Merle died in prison (her family said mysteriously). Debbie was released in June 2018, but Janine Phillips and Janet Holloway Africa remain in prison, serving their 100-year sentences. They are periodically denied parole for not “showing remorse,” remorse for being innocent and harshly, unfairly jailed.

Joy Powell is also not remorseful for being “raped, railroaded and bamboozled,” and unfairly jailed, by police/government authorities. In the present-day police state, African-Americans are first in the line of fire, incarcerated in huge numbers, trapped on the bottom of the economic ladder, and prey to racist civilians and authorities alike. When black women like Joy Powell speak out against militarized police brutality against blacks—they go right into the belly of the beast. When in 2014, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the black community had had enough of assassinations and stood their ground: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Black activists were energized by Ferguson and interest in the new group Black Lives Matter intensified. Jasmine Richards was one young woman inspired by Ferguson. Once she “picked up a bullhorn” to organize in her hometown of Pasadena against police brutality, she became “a target.” While trying to protect a black woman crime victim in 2016, she was arrested, convicted and jailed. Richards was kept in solitary and roughly strip-searched. She said it’s “violent to be a woman in jail.” But she was undaunted, rallying her followers in court with “We have a duty to fight for freedom!” Illinois BLM activist Sandra Bland also believed that. When she was pulled over for a traffic violation in Texas in 2015, she was slammed to the ground and charged—of course—with assaulting the officers who had slammed her down. Two days later she was found dead in her cell. Her family suspects foul play. Ajamu Baraka called her death “political murder” of a “defiant black woman.” Black women defiant of the police will pay.

Joy Powell has paid dearly for fighting police brutality. She is in solitary at Bedford Hills, stalked and harassed by guards, and denied medical treatment for her asthma and diabetes. She wrote: “I never thought in my wildest dreams after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which supposedly freed slaves, that in 2007 we’re still in chains and shackles. This is far from the American dream.” Powell had a rough start in life; she was jailed for drug dealing from 1992 to 1995 at Albion Correctional Facility. She suffered what many women in jail suffer—she was raped by an officer. When the man continued to stalk her, she was put in “protective custody.” She says she developed “PTSD, anxiety and bi-polar” because of the attack. When she got out she said she wanted to “give back to the community” instead of the destruction she felt she did as a drug dealer. Powell became a Pentecostal pastor and a community organizer against violence, including police violence. She organized rallies against drugs and violence after a 15-year-old neighbor boy, and then her own 18-year-old son, were killed. She worked for 12 years, as she said, with only the weapon of “non-violence protest.” In 2002, six people died in Rochester PD custody. In 2005, a 13-year-old suicidal girl was shot several times by police. After Powell led protests about such events, she was charged with abusing her granddaughter (by an officer who had shot the 13-year-old girl). The police warned her she was a “target” and should be careful.

She was definitely a target. In October 2006 she was a victim of a violent crime—not investigated—instead, after complaining, she was charged with burglary and assault. Her accusers were the same people who had attacked her! She was found guilty by an all-white jury and got 16 years. As she said, “I was like so many activists before me, be killed or definitely set up.” In May 2011, things got worse. She was convicted of killing a man in Rochester in 1992. She was not guilty. “I am actually and factually innocent!” Her court-appointed lawyer ignored her pleas for meetings or for interviewing witnesses who could have proved her innocence. She got 25 years to life.

Rev. Joy Powell has stated: “The only thing I am guilty of is standing up for Equality and Justice for all. . . I never realized how much of a threat one individual could be unarmed, until I began to speak out against police brutality.” She also wrote that she is like so many poor black people in prison “rotting in cages with lengthy sentences for crimes they did not commit.” And that she had four strikes against her: “1. I am Black; 2. I am poor; 3. I am incarcerated; and 4. I am a woman.” Black women “politicals,” political prisoners who have stood up against white America’s racist injustice—Lucy Parsons, Claudia Jones, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Diane Nash, Assata Shakur, Sandra Bland, Jasmine Richards, the still jailed Janine and Janet Africa, and the woman still in solitary confinement, Rev. Joy Powell—are defiant female rebels against a state which will go to any lengths to punish women exposing its crimes.

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Linda Ford is a retired history professor, living in Madison NY.  She is the author of Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, and is currently finishing her new book, ‘Women Politicals’:  From Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart.

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