For years I felt that jail and prison support were of peripheral importance at best, and often a sluggy substitute for actually doing resistance. I've changed.
This past year I've been a bit involved in doing support for Bonnie Urfer, Cory Bartholomew and John LaForge while they've spent some deep dish time in jail for resistance to ELF here in Wisconsin. Their acts of resistance actually did little to impress me; hundreds have been over the fence at ELF and it's fun, I know.
Rather, it was the actual time in jail that finally did me in, that broke down my own resistance to civilly disobedient disarmament activism. Bonnie and Cory went in to jail last King Day (January 16, 1995) and got out in mid-July. LaForge went in just when spring hit the woods here last May and won't get out until January of 1996. [LaForge was released on January 4. - eds.]
We visited Bonnie and Cory several times and were a part of their party when they got out. We had a good old time down at Copper Falls and watched as Cory managed to lose his prison pallor in just a couple of hours.
Seeing them behind bars two or three times a month was hard. Watching the seasons come and go and knowing they were inside the walls for resistance that we all ought to be doing was even harder.
They have reassembled the resister in me with their challenge. My God, I can at least give some small answer to that bold, faithful witness, freely but painfully given by friends.
In short, support for such fine folks has inspired at least one who needed a sort of exhortation by example. Now my ambition is to organize my life so I can also prod others by my own acts. I had no idea merely supporting another might affect me so acutely. It went from the vaguely political to the clearly personal.
Historically, prison and jail support has itself been a political act and has
massive enough to even change both public and penal policy. The World War I era saw the confluence of global political awareness and a resurgence of spiritual strength. That resulted in movements as diverse as the beginnings of Third World revolt against colonialism and the antiwar movement. It provides us with numerous examples of prison support as a political force and organizing focus.
In April of 1917 war was declared by the U.S., and those who had come here to the U.S. to avoid compulsory military service were once again at odds with their nation-state. These included the Molokans, Russians who fled from the conscription of the Czar and who were religiously unable even to perform prison labor.
When other draft resisters from the U.S. saw the conditions in which these Molokans were forced to live - including wall chains for many hours a day and frequent beatings for no apparent reason - they smuggled word of the conditions and treatment out to supporters.
The objectors' supporters issued vehement protest before the government
and Department of War. These efforts resulted in a Department of War
memorandum dated December 6, 1918, which abolished forever the military policy of
acling defiant prisoners in solitary confinement to the walls of their cells. Shortly thereafter, all of the Molokans and protesting objectors were released from solitary confinement. (Lynd 124)
Some prisoners haven't wanted support of that kind. Helen Woodson, for example, was quite angry with me when, in 1985, I urged Amnesty International to adopt her as a political prisoner and they began to look into it. That taught me to ask before acting to 'help' someone.
At times the support seems harder than the time in jail, but, as one who has done both, I'd have to argue with supporters who seriously make that comparison. Even taking care of unusually rigorous demands of life on the outside beats being behind bars, period, in my opinion.
In fact, the more one loves freedom, ironically, the greater is the effect of an up-close jail experience upon the supporter. I think it's because a life of gratitude and wonder is so precious and that anyone should give that up for the common good is painful.
When Gandhi's campaigns were at their height, there were over 100,000 folks
in jails and prisons. Now, that is filling them up and that is effective mass
nonviolent action. Squads of supporters made sure everyone was taken care of,
nobody starved, that obligations were met as thoroughly as possible. Prison support took the form of societal acceptance and forbearance.
Nowadays, with prison and jail conditions far better and virtually all of us living lives of relative opulence, nonviolent resistance to the greatest threat ever assembled - nuclear weapons - is at a low.
So now each member of this society of greed and possession who actually gives it up to go serve time is quite rare. In an environment of decadence, an act of conscience becomes maladaptive, I suppose. The nonviolent resister then becomes the philosophical endangered species, ecologically.
They deserve our support. Who can gauge what good it might inspire?
Lynd, Staughton and Alice Lynd. Nonviolence in America: a documentary history. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995.
From: The Nuclear Resister no. 104, March 1996. PO Box 43383, Tucson AZ 857333383. Ph. (520) 323 8697