Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 17, 2013

Two confessions

Filed under: prison,repression — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

Private First Class Bradley Manning:

First your Honor. I want to start off with an apology. I am sorry. I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States. At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues– issues that are ongoing and they are continuing to affect me.

Although they have caused me considerable difficulty in my life, these issues are not an excuse for my actions. I understood what I was doing and the decisions I made. However, I did not truly appreciate the broader effects of my actions. Those effects are clearer to me now through both self-reflection during my confinement in its various forms and through the merits and sentencing testimony that I have seen here.

I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was gonna help people, not hurt people. The last few years have been a learning experience. I look back at my decisions and wonder, ‘How on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?’

full: http://news.rapgenius.com/Pfc-bradley-manning-unsworn-statement-during-sentencing-trial-lyrics

* * * *

Personal Confession of N. Bukharin (Translated by Grover Furr)

In the present confession I wish to give the historical development of the counterrevolutionary organization of the Rights, beginning with its embryonic forms and including in the analysis its intellectual (ideinye) and organizational sources and premises

1 My general theoretical anti-Leninist views

I first of all wish to concentrate on my own theoretical anti-Leninist and anti-Marxist errors, in order to give a clear, general theoretical basis for the following exposition and in order not to repeat myself in my consideration of individual questions.

1. Lack of understanding of dialectics and substitution of Marxist dialects with the so- called theory of equilibrium. It is well known that Lenin’s “Testament” points out that I did not understand dialectics and had not studied it seriously. This was completely true. I the purely philosophical area I proceeded from the study of so-called “latest positivism” and was under the influence of A. BOGDANOV, whom I wished to interpret only in a materialist way, which unavoidably led to a peculiar eclecticism, simply put, theoretical confusion, where mechanical materialism united with empty schemas and abstractions. Abstract schematism pursues “final generalizations”, wrenching them from the multi-formedness of rapidly-flowing life, and in this dead approach to the processes of history and of historical life lies the root of my immense political errors, which grew under definite conditions into political crimes.

full: http://clogic.eserver.org/2007/furr_bobrov.pdf


May 5, 2013

Take an indefinite vacation

Filed under: Obama,prison,repression — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Brian McFadden in today’s NY Times.

April 19, 2013

Herman’s House

Filed under: Film,prison — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Opening today at New York’s Cinema Village, “Herman’s House” evokes the relationship between West Memphis Three prisoner Damien Nichols and the New York architect who after joining his defense campaign became his wife. In “Herman’s House”, the relationship is more about a young woman bonding with a father figure but is just as moving.

The 40-year-old artist Jackie Sumell was one of those young people who inexplicably became radicalized in the 1990s. Her first foray into synthesizing art and politics was the 2001 project challenging Bush’s attacks on reproductive freedom. A Salon article from back then shows what conceptual art is capable of once it puts aside the cheap sensationalism of a Damian Hirst:

Jackie Sumell’s art project, she says, is less about art than about social intervention. An MFA student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Sumell has put out the call to female friends and acquaintances: Shave your pubic hair, put it in a little plastic bag and send it to her in the mail (anonymously, please). Her rallying cry? “No Bush! — It’s not yours, it’s mine.”

Like many kids who got involved with the Vietnam anti-war movement, there was little in her background to suggest that she would eventually end up as a kind of Dadaist revolutionary. In high school she was a star athlete and even ended up on an all-tackle football team.

Not long after this project was finished, she learned about Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3 who had been in solitary confinement for 40 years. He was convicted of bank robbery in 1967 but was handed down a life sentence after being charged with the murder of a prison guard. Even though a bloody fingerprint on the guard did not match his, the sentence was not reversed.

Sumell conceived of a two-tiered conceptual art project, the first part of which would be a replication of Herman’s cell in a gallery. The next part, done cooperatively with Wallace, would consist of raising funds to build a house that corresponded to his dreams. She guessed correctly that having conversations with him about the layout, etc. would keep his spirits up.

The film was the first time I had thought about the Angola 3 in a very long time. Back in the early 70s the Militant newspaper used to cover their case in the same way that the leftwing of the Internet covers Mumia. Wallace and two other men formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party behind bars in 1971. This put them on a collision course with the authorities who found the murder of the guard convenient to their aims.

You never see Wallace throughout the film but overhear his conversations with Sumell throughout the film. Given what he has been through, he is amazingly serene and broadminded. We meet a young white ex-convict who was in solitary confinement with Wallace and learned how to read and write through Wallace’s guidance.

The film points out that architects back in the 18th century designed prisons with the intention of isolating prisoners from each other. They wanted to emulate a monastery where monks would commune with God and be inspired to repent for their crimes. Wallace states that the analogy is with a dog pound where the animals are kept apart. Did you ever walk into a dog pound, he asks. The animals are driven mad by their conditions.

Try and imagine what is like to be along in a 6X9 cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week. This is not punishment. It is torture.

“Herman’s House” is tough going but essential cinema.

July 3, 2011

Crime after Crime

Filed under: Film,prison,racism — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

For the first few minutes of “Crime after Crime”, I began to lose interest because the documentary lacked the kind of flair found in better-funded works directed by veteran filmmakers like Michael Moore or Charles Ferguson. To describe it as prosaic would be the understatement of the year.

Eventually I learned that the director Yoav Potash’s first experience in movie making was as the legal videographer for a couple of pro bono lawyers who were trying to secure the release of Deborah Peagler, an African-American woman sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder of her husband, a pimp who used to beat her with a bullwhip. They were trying to reopen the case since the original trial had not taken domestic violence into account.

In 2002, the law had been changed to provide for such extenuating circumstances and Peagler was just one of many cases that public defenders had been assigned to. Potash’s role was simply one of recording the interviews so his role was more or less the same as a passport photographer. To draw an analogy, the net effect of seeing Peagler’s story on film is like looking at what amounted to one of Dorothea Lange’s greatest photographs but one taken by a complete amateur.

Potash’s footage eventually became the foundation for “Crime after Crime”, a film that will leave you emotionally drained despite its modest means, a victory of substance over style. In an epoch of Hollywood fiction film degeneration, we are reminded that in all great art—including documentary film—character is essential. By making this a story about Deborah Peagler, a Jean Valjean of our time, and her tireless attorneys, Potash demonstrates once again that documentary succeeds when it takes on a subject that all people of conscience would care about. As opposed to the miserable escapism of the latest multimillion-dollar garbage heap out of Hollywood, this is a great story of good and evil. As symbols of evil, it would be difficult to find more loathsome examples than the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, foremost among them District Attorney Steve Cooley and Assistant DA Lael Rubin, infamous for her role in the McMartin daycare “repressed memory” miscarriage of justice.

Deborah Peagler was 15 years old when she met Oliver Wilson, a handsome and charismatic 23 year old that made his living as a pimp and drug dealer. After consummating his relationship with her, Wilson took her to the front of a donut shop in L.A. and ordered her to start selling her body. Like all pimps, he used a combination of violence and paternalism to keep Deborah in line. After the violence grew to much for her to bear (one relative interviewed in the film says that Wilson would beat her like he would a man), she appealed to her mother for help. Her mother lined up a couple of Crips gang members who ambushed Wilson and strangled him to death.

The DA offered her a deal. If she pleads guilty to murder, she would get a 25 year to life sentence otherwise she faced the death penalty if found guilty.

Peagler’s pro bono attorneys were Joshua Safran, an observant Orthodox Jew and Nadia Costa, an ultra-marathon runner, a perfect preparation for a legal battle that took years.

Without giving away too much on this utterly transformational documentary, it is a searing indictment of the American legal system. The monstrous refusal of the DA’s office to allow an African-American female prisoner to go free after more than 20 years, even after acknowledging her status as a battered wife is enough to make you scream.

Fortunately, there are better ways to express your outrage. The film’s website has a Get Involved page that lists a number of ways to help battered women. The film’s closing credits mentions that 80 percent of the women behind bars have been battered so clearly we are dealing with a social problem of widespread dimensions.

The film opened Friday at the IFC Center in New York and will make appearances around the country in major cities (screening information is here).


March 7, 2009

Lockdown, USA

Filed under: african-american,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

This week a DVD screener for the documentary “Lockdown, USA” arrived in my mailbox at the same time as the news that the horrible Rockefeller Drug Laws were on the verge of being repealed in New York State. Directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Michael Skolnik, the movie describes the struggle by activists against this draconian law and the impact it had one family.

The two primary actors in the struggle featured in the movie are hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Randy Credico, a former stand-up comedian who became a full-time activist in 1997. Holed up at the time in a Florida motel trying to kick a cocaine habit, he happened on a television news report about people victimized by the drug laws and realized that it could have been him serving a fifteen year sentence. (Although I recommend this documentary without hesitation, its main flaw is not providing some background information on the principals.)

I have very fond memories of Randy Credico from the 1980s when he was a frequent guest on WBAI radio shows skewering the Reagan administration’s war on Central America. A peerless impressionist, he got the wretched gipper nailed down better than anybody on the comedy circuit, so much so that he was a guest on the Johnny Carson show, a sure sign that you had “made it”. He was never invited back after taking the opportunity to lambaste American foreign policy, just as Harvey Pekar became persona non grata on the David Letterman show after denouncing General Electric for high crimes against society. These are my kinds of people, needless to say.

In contrast to Credico’s rumpled, wisecracking demeanor, Russell Simmons is the consummate power-broker and deal-maker. Throughout the film, he is seen in a leather chair that looks like it costs as much as Credico’s annual salary with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Although Simmons is not averse to mounting a rally against the drug laws, his main activity seems to be talking on the phone with Governor George Pataki or other powerful officials.

Eventually, Pataki sponsors a “reform” bill that neither eliminates mandatory minimum sentences nor allows the vast majority of the 14,000 victims languishing in New York prisons to be resentenced. This provokes Randy Credico into telling the film makers and anybody who will listen that you cannot reform such a law, it can only be repealed. Likening the Rockefeller Drug Laws to slavery, he says that the only honorable demand is for its abolition.

The movie documents the suffering and the fighting spirit of Darryl Best, a father of five who received a 15 year sentence as a first time nonviolent drug offender after signing for a Fed Ex package containing under a pound of cocaine. His wife Wanda and their children are seen consulting with Credico and Simmons as they wage their struggle in their various ways.

Although the movie has an obvious orientation to the overwhelmingly African-American victims of the drug laws (crack violations, which predominate in the Black community, get much harsher sentences than those for typically middle-class powdered cocaine violations), the law sometimes drags the unlikely victim into its net like my cousin Joel Proyect.

The New York Times
July 12, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story


By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.

He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.

After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.

It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.

He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”

Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.

You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.

Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.

No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”

“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”

Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.

Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”

He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.

He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”

This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.

My cousin ended up spending more than four years behind bars and was forced to repurchase the house that he had built with his own hands and that had been seized by the government. I visited him at “minimum security” prisons in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and you can take my word for it that these places are no country clubs.

“Lockdown, USA” should be available from Netflix before long, but you can order it directly from the producers here.

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