FALN Prisoner Release

What does it mean for POWDs?

By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor

Several drug war prisoners and others have expressed concern and disagreement with President Clinton's release of eleven Puerto Rican political prisoners on September l0, l999. It's not an easy matter for nonviolent POWDS to accept their President's amnesty for so-called terrorists when nonviolent prisoners like themselves still labor under unjust sentences.

Not all comments have been completely critical, however. Prisoner Fred Leyland suggests, "Since a precedent for clemency exists with the President's recent foray into forgiveness, we must engage in a dialogue that explores the conditions of clemency, and see if they are applicable to the debate concerning amnesty for nonviolent prisoners."

The "debate" over amnesty may prove inconclusive while attempting to reconcile the gnarly inconsistencies of judicial fairness and equity. Also, this debate can sidetrack due to inflammatory misinformation and cursory reflections on violence and nonviolence. So when we talk about violence, and is it justified, what do we really mean by that?

Using the inflammatory term "terrorist" to describe members of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional Puertorriquena) is typical of some negative comments received by Razor Wire editors. Let's begin dialogue with some background information about these so-called "terrorists."

"Who are these political prisoners? Why has their release generated fierce opposition? How did they win their freedom after two decades of imprisonment? What can all prisoners learn from this clemency struggle about our own struggles for human rights and freedom?" writes Linda Evans in Prison Legal News (December l999). Evans, along with co-columnist Marilyn Buck, are longtime activists still held captive after l5 years by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "All of them had been activists within the Chicago and New York Puerto Rican communities, or on the island itself, during the l960s and l970s. They had been teachers, social workers, artists, and media workers. They spent nearly 20 years in prison, and now most of them are in their 50's," wrote Evans.

These men and women dared call themselves POWs, combatants for Puerto Rican independence, soldiers in a century-old colonial struggle between the United States and the still-colonized island of Puerto Rico. When arrested in l980, each prisoner asserted the right to be tried by an international tribunal, and after denial, refused to participate in legal proceedings carried out in U.S. federal court.

The FALN defendants received sentences from 35 to 98 years for "seditious conspiracy", the same charge that kept Nelson Mandela in prison in South Africa for 27 years. Once labeled a "terrorist", Mandela is now a hero to millions of people who overthrew (nonviolently for the most part) a racist, apartheid government.

Likewise, captive FALN prisoners are heroes to l50,000 island residents who rallied in San Juan, Puerto Rico for their release in l996 when Clinton was first presented a l0,000-signature petition for amnesty. The imprisoned combatants will likely be honored and remembered as dedicated fighters for freedom from U.S. colonial domination of Puerto Rico, a bitter conflict still aflame over environmental, labor, and U.S. military abuses on the island. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in U.S. elections.

It is within this l00-year history of colonization, domination, resistance and continuous struggle that several U.S. citizens were killed or injured in connection with armed actions of FALN against military and political installations in the United States between l974 and l983. Could FALN motivations of anti-colonialism be the same as our own ancestors who fought the British? The prisoners released promised they would not act violently in the future.

In l979 President Carter granted amnesty to the previous generation of Puerto Rican freedom fighters­­members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who had been imprisoned for 25 years. I was acquainted with Nationalist Party member Rafael Miranda at U.S.P. Marion in l97l and uplifted daily by his always-ready smile and hearty greeting. He showed me newspapers from Puerto Rico featuring his wife speaking to huge rallies of people in Puerto Rico about "Ralph." Even while burdened with a long sentence, Rafael was known as a man of integrity, ready to risk it all for human rights' confrontations within the notorious Marion Supermax.

The clemency award from Clinton last September outraged media commentators and became a ready vehicle for party politicking accusations. Whether Bill did it for Hillary (or against her wishes) and the New York City Puerto Rican vote, or simply because he trusted his advisers, there is one fact that should not be ignored as we discuss political reasons why these prisoners were released.

For over 10 years there has developed an organized, international campaign involving thousands of people who worked hard and long to secure release of these particular prisoners. The features of this mass campaign should concern us here, as we try to draw lessons for other U.S. prisoners.

So what might other U.S. prisoners, including prisoners of the drug war, learn from this struggle for freedom? Are these the "conditions of clemency" needed for you? You may mutter we should go the low road, moan and groan, compare oneself unfavorably ("Why not me?") and nurture bitter, even racist, resentment. Don't we learn here that power only yields power to a demand? Isn't The November Coalition your own high-road vehicle, a society mover, for mobilizing a massive demand for your own, justifiable release?

We are working to convince enough of the millions of outraged, diverse American people to move their feet in concert at the prison gates and courthouses, demanding immediate release of nonviolent prisoners. It's not farfetched to say that the keys to your cell door are already in the hands of loved ones, friends and neighbors.

However, if you weren't a "hero" when you went in, what have you done, or will do, to become that person worth fighting for? Within the near future, as you and the rest of us learn you're an ordinary "people's hero" too, thousands of voices will know you and, accordingly, will demand your release or amnesty.

Much like the freed FALN POWs, all prisoners, POWDs included, need a voice, a vote, a constituency, community support, a cause, a place, something good and greater than self to commit to and be loyal to and to never harm. Can we have a big AMEN?