After spending nearly half a century in prison, leftist revolutionaries and political prisoners David Gilbert and Russell Maroon Shoatz (who also spent 22 years in solitary confinement) were released earlier this year. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, about the historic occasion of Gilbert and Shoatz’s release and the reasons for their imprisonment. Conway and Hopkins are both former Black Panthers and longtime political prisoners who engaged in radical organizing and education programs while locked up. While reflecting on the historical climate in which they, Gilbert, Shoatz, and a generation of radicals were killed or imprisoned in the 1960s and ‘70s, Hopkins and Conway also offer advice to today’s social justice activists on the imperatives of community organizing and the continuing threat posed by the draconian apparatus of state repression.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Recently, two political prisoners have been released: David Gilbert and Russell Maroon Shoatz have served decades in the American prison system. So joining me today to give us an update on their situation and who they were is Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, who also was a former political prisoner. Charles, thanks for joining me.
Mansa Musa: Thanks for having me, Ed.
Eddie Conway: Okay, Mansa, could you just talk a little bit about each one of those political prisoners first? You can start with whichever one you want.
Mansa Musa: Right. Thank you. First of all I want to acknowledge that this is a good and a great opportunity for us to finally see some political prisoners released alive and not have to write their obituary and attend their funeral. Even though in the case of Maroon, he was released, which I’ll start with. He was released, what they call compassion leave. But the concept of compassion leave coming out of prison is that you’re going to die. They’re not going to release you unless they emphatically know that you are going to die. I researched this for a guy when I was in my own prison system, on compassion leave and that’s what it said. It said that the diagnosis is that the person that’s being released is going to die.
Now, in the case of Maroon, Maroon was a former Black Panther and a member of the Black Liberation Army back in the 60s and 70s. And during that period he was involved with the party in Philadelphia, primarily, and on the East Coast. But during that period, we’re talking about Philadelphia, we’re talking about Rizzo, and we’re talking about an all-out assault on the Black community, bar none. We’re talking about a police force that literally looked like the gestapo during that time. And anybody that was poor, oppressed, and Black in particular, they were being preyed on, they were being killed, and Rizzo took pride in that.
Maroon had the mindset to become involved in the political activities that were going on in the Philadelphia community at that time and on the East Coast. By becoming involved with the Black Panther Party during that era it became apparent that he was going to be marked for death. And ultimately he wound up in prison because of, allegedly, an assault on the police station in Philadelphia.
So to say that somebody would attack the police station in Philadelphia is like saying somebody would attack the White House in the United States. But being that’s said, he was locked up and given a life sentence. And then given the life sentence, he served 50 years. But more importantly, he served the majority of that time in solitary confinement for only one reason and only reason, one reason only: because of his political consciousness. And the fact he was organizing the prison population throughout the Philadelphia to become more self sufficient in terms of advocating for just laws around life without parole, just laws in terms of what we see a lot of things going on now, just laws in terms of how they look at juveniles and the mindset of juveniles that commit crimes when they committed them. He was actively organizing and around these things when they had put him in solitary confinement in an attempt to silence his voice, which as we can see wasn’t successful. I’ll get into that a little later on.
Gilbert on other hand was involved with a group called The Weathermen, and it was really a multiethnic group. But back in the 60s most people associated it with being white radicals, but really it was a multiethnic group of radicals, of people that had a perspective that armed struggle was necessary in order to reverse some of the oppressive things that was taking place in America during that time. Mainly it was the police. Police during that time were like an occupying force. During that period, not only we had the Puerto Rican National, we had [inaudible]. They had taken over the capital, and they took it over in the manner to try to establish that they won independence for Puerto Rico. They didn’t go down there and march on under the orders of the president and attack it. They went down there with understanding, just to make a political statement that Puerto Rico should have their independence.
The Weathermen was also in that same regard, was making political statements and making armed struggle statements, or making impact statements, on assaulting industries and industrial complexes or industrial businesses to establish that capitalism and the fact that capitalism and imperialism was responsible for a lot of the oppression that was taking place in the poor and oppressed community. So both of them were released. Gilbert was involved in what they called a Revolutionary Task Force, and this was a group that got together to try raising monies to get political prisons out and/or to support any type of armed struggle that was taking place in the United States or anywhere in the world.
He was the driver in what had to be a foiled attempt on an armored car, and he was given an exorbitant sentence of 75 years, and Mayor Cuomo, Governor Cuomo, commuted his sentence, and the people were incensed at this. But the reality was that they didn’t do no more than what had been done to people throughout this history, in this country, as we well see. They didn’t storm the Capitol. They didn’t shoot Ronald Reagan with an infatuation with Jodi foster. They took and exercised their political right to armed struggle.
Eddie Conway: Okay. First place, I know you said Russell Shoatz was held for 50 years. How long was David Gilbert held for, and why were they held so long? Did they have support committees? Did they have community support? Why has all these decades then passed?
Mansa Musa: I think David, and you can correct me, I think David was held for like 48 year. He would be held for a significant, we looking at half a century in any case, we looking at half a century of both them being held. They had political support and they mobilized a political base in terms of educating the people about their case and the fact they were being held so long. But because of their political ideology and the threat that they represented in terms of their ideology in terms of what they were doing in the prison, when they were taking and educating other prisoners about the right to self determination, the right to equal justice, the right to equality of life. When they start educating other prisoners and helping those prisoners start looking at themselves in that same light and start saying, okay, yeah. I’m not here because I committed a crime. I’m here because a crime is being committed against me because I’m poor, I’m oppressed, and it’s by design. So therefore I’m here because of that, and now I have a right to challenge this.
When they started educating the population, and when they started getting the community involved in terms of the lawyers, radical lawyers, and have them become involved and start filing litigation and bringing to the attention of the criminal injustice system, of the injustices that were taking place. That’s why they were being held so long, because the impact they were having on changing the mindset of not only the prison, but society at large. And that’s really why they were ultimately released.
Shoatz has been released. As I said, this is criminal, because you knew that his health was being debilitated by virtue of him being in solitary confinement. You knew that this was premeditated. You knew that if you continue leave him in this state that he ultimately was going to die, just like they’re ultimately hoping that Mumia Abu-Jamal would die. Case the same thing, a misdiagnosis, or ignoring the medical conditions of a person to where it gets to the point where it becomes so fatal that all you can do then is just say, well, hey, give him some whatever to hold him off until he dies. In the case of Shoatz –
Eddie Conway: Okay, Mansa, tell me this then, that was like the ‘60s and the early ‘70s. Why do you think they chose to engage in armed warfare or armed struggle? What was going on in the world at that time?
Mansa Musa: Internationally we had a prairie fire of revolutionary activities taking place throughout the world. On an international level, we had all of Africa in an armed struggle from the north to the south. We had Vietnam, we had Vietnam that was taking place. We had it, in Latin America we had most countries in Latin America, in South America, were waging some form of armed struggle because of the growth of imperialism and the onslaught of imperialism and capitalism on these countries.
In America, because of the things that were taking place on an international level, the society or people at large started protesting the war in Vietnam. We had the Civil Rights Movement. That was here. We also had the protests against the war in Vietnam. And more importantly, we had the birth and the growth of the Black Panther Party that was taking and starting to educate people around the right to self defense. Because in order to contain the population in the United States from protesting against the war in Vietnam and the social, economic, and political condition that we found ourselves in, we had the police becoming more and more repressive in terms of responding to those things that they felt, or that the system felt, was necessary to suppress.
So that’s what we had during that time. During that period, with this kind of revolutionary upheaval, with this kind of international struggles taking place, we had an international perspective that was being developed in this country. We had African Liberation Day. So when you had African Liberation Day, people were being educated about Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Southwest Africa, our struggles that were taking place in there. We seen that Tanzania had gained their liberation. We had seen on the heels of Patrice Lumumba being assassinated. So we seen first hand that armed struggle was taking place worldwide, and the response from radicals and militants and revolutionaries in this country was to find their place in that movement.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And I would add too, since both you and I lived through this period, I would also add COINTELPRO and the repression that the American government, through the FBI program, unleashed on liberation movements, Black militant movements, and Black and white radical organizers. That led to the death of a number of people and the repression… And Fred Hampton obviously is certainly a great example of those extra-judicial murders that the United States government engaged in.
But there were so many other subtle kinds of things. They tried to get Stokely Carmichael assassinated. They made several attempts to assassinate all our key leaders, and they assassinated a lot of the civil right leaders, including Martin Luther King. So there was a sense, like you say, of massive police repression and a sense that there would need to be a fight back.
Well, tell me this. With this new round of protests after George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and whatnot, there’s been a number, hundreds of people have been locked up from these rebellions across the country. They are now getting time, they’re political prisoners. Is there something that organizers today can learn from the cases like David Gilbert and Russell Shoatz, and the amount of time they spent and how those cases were managed? Can the organizers today learn something from those cases? Do you have any idea on that?
Mansa Musa: Yeah. I think that what they really need to recognize, one, is that the threat is real and that this is a continuum of what you just espoused. And digressing that, we have, as you well know, in the party’s headquarters they had all the fallen pictures of all the fallen comrades they had killed and assassinated because of this onslaught of police. This is like repackaging the COINTELPRO. This is COINTELPRO 2021 in terms of identifying potential leaders, Black Lives Matter, co-opting them, identifying potential threats within these movements, and locking them up. So we need to do, and what we need to learn from, is that we know that if you protest, if you come out and protest against anything that’s going on in this country, that this is the result. Repression is going to be the result.
So therefore we have to be in a position to be educated on our response, and our response has to be there. We have to dial down terms of organizing in the community. We have to get the community more involved in terms of the activities that we’re involved in. It’s not a matter of going down to Black Lives Matter Boulevard and protesting. It’s a matter of going into Black Lives Matter communities and organizing the people to understand that they have certain rights. They have certain inalienable rights.
Organizing around those things so that we don’t have to worry about having to make a massive protest down Black Lives Matter Boulevard, we got community control. We got control over the community. We got control over the police. We got control over all those things, those resources that these so-called local governments are responsible for. Giving housing, adequate housing, education, and medical [care]. Because in the long and short of it, Eddie, it’s because of the social conditions that people are responding.
So we need to become more focused on and take a page out of the Black Panther Party in terms of creating programs, what we call survival programs, but creating programs that are directly related to educating the people about the need to become more involved in controlling their own destiny. And by that, I mean controlling what goes on in their community. I just read, and I’ll cut on this point, I just read they had seven shootings in D.C. last night. Two of them fatal. This is like a continuation of what’s going on throughout this country in the Black community, it’s internal violence that Francis [inaudible] spoke about.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. So you yourself was a political prisoner. You came into the jail, you were young, you joined a Black Panther Party affiliate chapter in the prison that we had set up. And of course you’ve been treated like a political prisoner for… How many years did you spend in prison and what was it like?
Mansa Musa: Well, I spent 48 years in prison and it was hell. I couldn’t describe it another kind of way. The only reason why I survived was because of the choice I made to join this revolutionary collective that you spoke of, the inter-communal survival collective, that you had helped organize. That was the only reason why I survived prison. Because once I got in prison – And prison at that time was just starting to take a shift in terms of younger people being locked up. So they had the onslaught on younger people in the community during that time, and drugs were prevalent during that time. So in order for me to survive, because I had a life sentence [inaudible] I had to change my way of thinking and this allowed me… When I joined this collective it gave me a dialectical method of thinking.
It gave me a way to look at conditions and analyze and understand, and how to understand with the understanding of how to influence and change them. So because of this, I was able to go forward in terms of raising prisoners’ consciousness. I did like Shoatz. I ain’t do as much time in solitary confinement as he did, but I did at the end of my prison sentence, I did four and a half years within what they call a supermax. So I recognize that mechanism that they use. But what it allowed me to do at the end, it allowed me to be able to have clarity of thought and be able to keep a focus on, maintain a certain attitude about, my role in the struggle, and my involvement, and the necessity to maintain some type of presence in the struggle for our people’s liberation.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So it’s good that we can celebrate the release of Russell Shoatz and the release of David Gilbert, but there’s Sundiata Acoli, there’s a ton, it’s still a dozen political prisoners or more. And now of course there’s a new round of political prisoners with these last protests. What can people do individually or collectively to help gain the freedom of these political prisoners or prisoners of war?
Mansa Musa: That’s a good point because I remember that after Martin Luther King back in the 70s, we had made a call to take the problem of prison to the United Nations and to put the United States on blast about the fact that they were using… that we are political prisoners, we’re prisoners of war. That they’re using our right to protest and criminalizing it in order to give us these long lengths of time. I think what we need to look at, and people need to look at in general, is that the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration, is something that’s being used to control and contain people. More importantly, it’s being used to prop up rural America. When you look at rural America, it’s where most of the prisons are, in there. So this is where you have your new plantation.
People need to recognize that they need to start getting organized around, on one level, on a political level, in terms of holding legislators responsible for the monies that they’re allocating to prop up these rural counties by putting these prisons in. We need to organize. People need to get organized around understanding that what we call political prison… They criminalizing, that’s why both Shoatz and Gilbert stayed locked up so long, was because they criminalized their activity as opposed to making it what it was, a political activity, and they have a right.
Case in point, Eddie, the guy, one of the people that stormed the Capitol in Washington, he was over at D.C. jail and he had got cancer. And he told the judge, he protested. When he protested, they responded to him. And as a result responded to him, the federal courts came in and sanctioned D.C. jail, moved all the federal prisoners that were being held in D.C. jail to Louisburg. They took the dude that protested, that was Trump’s ally, they took and sent him home on home detention.
So because he took a position and he had the support of a right wing group, he was able to get the full power of his rights. But everybody else was sent to Louisburg because of the abuse of the DC jail. So we need to really be able to take a position, or we need to take a position like that. We need to take a position and hold politicians and everybody accountable for people that they’re saying that are criminals, that are political. They committed a crime. They committed an act. They were charged with an act.
We know COINTELPRO had a lot to do with a lot of things going on with this. So we need to get people to recognize and get involved with contacting these networks that these groups, these people are involved with and supporting them even in the form of finance or feet on the ground.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. So thank you for that overview and I hope to see you again in future programs.
Mansa Musa: Yeah. Eddie, I was telling a person about Rattling The Bars and where it came from. I remember when we were locked up, we were on south ring, and to get the guard’s attention when somebody was sick, we would bang on the doors and rattle the bars to get their attention, and we were calling for people. This is what we need to do now. We need to rattle the bar. We need to shake these bars and get people to recognize that it’s a social injustice taking place in society, and you all need to get involved. We need to get your attention to get involved with our struggle.
Eddie Conway: And that’s actually the purpose of this program. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.