Interview with Dr. Mutulu Shakur, 10.24.97 by Daniel Burton-Rose
Daniel Burton-Rose is a graduate student in the East Asian Studies Dept at Princeton University. He is also the author of Guerilla USA: The George Jackson Brigade and the Anticapitalist Underground of the 1970s, published by University of California Press.
Int: You’ve done a lot of organizing around African-American history and awareness since you entered prison. How has that played out?
Shakur: Let me say this. The situation that we’re talking about now is a part of a litigation. And the litigation has to do with First Amendment violations, false information which effects the liberty, interest, as well as a right to petition government for relief. A part of my political history, and commitment to the struggle of Black people, encompasses the struggle for human rights. When I was captured, tried, and was convicted, nothing in my personal life altered in my defense of myself. You follow me? And therefore when I became a. prisoner and was sent to federal prisons, I felt then an obligation to be conscious about what human rights activities as well as what responsibilities I had to a younger population of Black prisoners, Latin prisoners and the like, who made up the majority of federal prisoners. And so we began to try to connect the Black community-the larger community, the cultural community, the educational community–to the prisoners so that the changing atmosphere of the American population through the political machinery, against prisoners, against rehabilitation, in support of recidivism and the like, would run up against some kind of resistance.
And so we began to put forward culture as one of the means to bring together members of the Black community inside of the prisons, for prisoners who were involved in many fratricidal [contradictions], behavior modification that was detrimental not only to the prisoners, not only to the prisoners and their families, but also to the orderly running of an institution. And so we began to be about bringing culture, bringing educational structure, different but paralleling whatever was available within the federal Bureau of Prisons, and particularly in Lompoc, paralleling whatever educational structure they had set up.
The philosophy at that point when I began my sentence at Lompoc seemed to be ambivalent towards–I should say there was a different mindset than exists today, in terms of whether rehabilitation was an objective of the Bureau of Prisons [the BOP has since officially dropped rehabilitation as a goal]. And it was in the policy of the Bureau of Prisons that existed a guideline that governed the behavior and the inclusion of community participation in various programs that effect the culture, religion and education of prisoners. So in order to do these things we had to follow these guidelines.
And so we did that. And over the course of my five-year imprisonment at Lompoc, we were able to at least two to three times, sometimes four, bring in outside community representatives and various cultures, and very artistic presentations, as well as workshops and forums that we believe effected those prisoners and that community. We had the support of the 100 Black Men of Santa Barbara, we had the support of the Phi Delta Kappa, we had the support of the NAACP Image Award folks, we had the support of the New Afrikan People’s Organization, we had the support of various Muslim organizations, as well as the support of the various cultural groups around the area. As well as the academic area–we were able to enlist Black history instructors, and you know, get aids for the programs we were doing.
That process began under the Black Culture Workshop. And so we were quite successful in using that as a means begin to approach the various fratricidal groups inside the prisons, street organizations and the like, to begin to talk about Peace. To talk about thinking about what they had done to the community, how destructive their continued fighting within the community was. So we began to talk about the Peace, the Peace Treaty, and the peace within the prisons, and working together around community and prison issues that can effect our community internally and externally [to the prison].
The period that we were in Lompoc also was the Rodney King period. The Rodney King period had a tremendous impact on the world, obviously, but clearly on the west coast. And so the pre-trials and trials of the officers accused of brutally beating Rodney King, and then the end results, in the verdict in favor of the police, and then the subsequent riots or rebellions or belligerence that happened within the community of Los Angeles, that even moreso called for an understanding of what role these gangs and the prisons play, and the whole disproportionate amount of Black and Latin prisoners in these prisons.
And so in exercising our First Amendment right in terms of talking and speaking and trying to get. some understanding and putting these things into context within the prisons as well as within the political context. Obviously I’m a political animal, I have a political ideology, I have political goals and objectives. Now these political ideologies, goals and objectives are not alien to the Bureau of Prisons or to the Justice Department or for that matter to the judge who sentenced me. It’s a part of my nature. But we felt that it was important in making the analysis .that brutality is sanctioned by the Black community, and the Latin community, because of the view that the gangs’ violence against ourselves and our community gives support for the need of more repressive police laws and actions, you follow me? And so building off of that we were able we were able to get them to understand within that context their error, you follow? And so we were able to do a lot of good things.
In the midst of that we had an “angry white male backlash”–I guess that’s what the Republican Party called it. And in that period the angry white male backlash also lended its support to industrialized prison industry, creating laws in prisons that would just be about the development of labor of economic enrichment of Wall Street, on the one hand. On the other hand, they used Law and Order like they have used Law and Order from time on to get the angry white male elected. The way the campaigns were run–hard on crime, low on support of community resources, and high on new laws overturning the ability of criminals to have fair trials.
And so that impact brought forward in the legislation in the Congress these new crime bills, the mandatory sentences, RICO and the like. I think before I left Lompoc gangs had begun to be indicted under RICO, and so what was initially developed for high finance crime was initially was now at the very low rung of the ladder. And so this was becoming an educational tool.
Along with this came an attitude, long prevalent within the Bureau of Prisons, for the right, or the more anti-rehabilitation, the more fascist, the more arrogant and abuse-of-power element in the Bureau of Prisons and prison system in general in America, began to take. Swap amenities within the prison system. And so they would take one example out of a million non-examples as a basis to change laws, to alter how prisons were run. With those laws came more and more cutting away of the access of the community to the prisons and the prisoners. And also came along with that the limiting of the access to the legal law library, the legal access machinery to overturn convictions. Along with that came recreational changes, you know, weights and television, various sundry things.
And so the education process was becoming, you know, more and more intense. Because not only were you in an atmosphere moving from where you could teach and try to have some impact on these prisoners, the atmosphere changed so belligerent internally and so repressive that leaders-people who had positive influence, influence that did not violate any Bureau of Prison regulations–were taken and put in isolation, segregation and control units in order to isolate them from the population, whereby leaving a void in constructive leadership, leadership that could give some aid and assistance to a lost population, a lost element, who were being shipped in by the thousands under this new crack law, and who under the mandatory sentences weren’t receiving any type of initiatives for good behavior, you follow me. And so we began to be put in hole, began to be segregated from the population of federal prisons.
And so that’s my story. That’s where this litigation that I’m involved with comes into play. Along with the fact that I’m a political person. Along with the fact that my beliefs are adverse to the United States position on Black people, and in particular to the Bureau of Prisons’ strategy of how to maintain Black people in the docile position within these prison systems, where they will have no impact. You have any questions, `cause I can go on and on?
Int: Yeah. I’ve heard from several white political prisoners who’ve been in since the `70s that it’s tougher for them now than it used to be, that they aren’t afforded the same respect and given the same space the used to be. Are you feeling that as well? What’s it like being a political prisoner these days, especially in the Black prison community? Do you get much respect as an elder?
Shakur: Well, [laughs] it is true that the element of prisoners that are coming in are not necessarily criminals. They have committed criminal acts but they have not been worldly. They have no sense of their community, their nation, their role in it, the history of their struggle, you know, that gave them the rights that they had to commit whatever criminal act, or put them in a position to resist those criminal acts. And so you have what we consider a more apolitical element of prisoners coming in to the prison, so a political prisoner who does not continue to be about their values and principles and morals, concerning the struggle for human rights and dignity, would become isolated and lumped into a whole [group] of oldtime prisoners. [prisoners doing a lot of time]. And so you have to distinguish yourself by your principles and your morals, and by following through with what your commitment is. But outside of that I think that issue of political prisoners–or political persons for that matter, no matter where you are, inside the more restricted prison or outside in the broader community–the political person has not received their respect or credibility because it has been as a result of COINTELPRO, we have to say that it was quite effective, and that it has taken the sting out of political organizing and political mass movements. Now mass movements must be based on religious elements rather than purely political objectives.
And so we are going through a metamorphosis. .And at some point because the contradictions haven’t changed it will come back , I have no doubt on that. I see the signs of that everyday. We have a responsibility to–repression breeds resistance, or at least the need to understand what’s going on. I think a lot of that same element that is apolitical is also naive about what they had anticipated their rights to be within the context of their government and as citizens. And so that naive element will also be a motivating factor to determine why was it gotten from what they thought it was, to where it is today.
Int: Have you felt much support from outside, or from the hip-hop movement at all?
Shakur: I have to admit that my base is not purely political. It is political but my base is service oriented. I spent many years treating drug victims with acupuncture and healing people. That’s what I do, that’s what I do better than I do anything else. I spent many years organizing around housing and welfare rights and around prisoners’ rights and the like. I didn’t just fall from the sky. And so my base of support comes from many brothers and sisters–and others, white, Black, Green or whatever–who have had experience with me and understand my genuine commitment to human rights as well as my commitment to my political prisoners. And so I’m lucky in that way, for now, up until now. That my patients, my students-I’ve taught acupuncture for years I have many students across the country, in all classes–and my political comrades in terms of housing, and welfare rights, and international support for various countries that were under apartheid or alike. We’ve done a lot of work in those areas so people consistently demonstrate concern for us.
On the other hand we’ve also enjoyed the youth. Part of the mass-based work has been liberation schools and teaching children, camps for people. We have the New Africa People’s Organization, we have the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, we have the December 12th movement, the John Brown Anti-Klan movement, and a lot of student organizations, they know of our work they know of our consistency. I’m not no celeb, or that kind of thing [laughs], but on fundamental work and fundamental commitment I think that people genuinely understand that I’ve tried to be about that, with my errors and my mistakes and the like. But they have been based upon trying to do, as opposed to not do.
Int: Tell me a little more about how you came to be imprisoned.
…[text not legible]…involved in the expropriation of armored trucks, and the liberation of political prisoners.
Int: Involving Assata?
Shakur: Yes. And being responsible for [freed] political prisoners who were underground. And I was convicted of all of those charges, and I am serving 60 years on those charges. Me and my co-defendant Marilyn Buck. Who happens to be a white woman, anti-imperialist. And so that’s what my case is about. I can’t say that anybody gets a fair trial, but we are involved in overturning that conviction and re-establishing the political motives behind the frame-up.
Int: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Shakur: I would like to talk about the hip-hop nation. As you know my son was murdered, assassinated in Las Vegas, last year September 13th, 1996. And I think that I have an obligation to always speak about the impact that Tupac and the hip-hop nation have on the growing development of the youth. Everything has its positives and its negatives. I believe that the void of the independence movement or the political movement was created, the natural response would be for an aggressive, belligerent youth development. Without a political leadership, that youth development would go in various directions. I think that whatever you might say about my son and other rappers, there was never a loss for political analysis within the context of his music. There was never a loss for political understanding within the context of his movement.
There was also what we would call the street reality. But the fact that a lot of people are now awakened to a certain reality, can put it in a cultural context, is the reflection of most suppressed people’s first stage of awareness. That the culture speaks for the base of the people. And Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Paris, and other rappers–the Ghetto Boys and the like–speak to that.
What we’re hoping is that the street organizations become much more aware of what their actions have done to create an atmosphere of fascism, that is an excuse to repress the whole community. And as they mature from that stage to another, stage, that they keep their organizational capability and understand their responsibility to rectify the things that they have created. And that we love them and they are us. And we have a responsibility for the errors as well as for the victories. But we want unity, we want more study, we want more analysis in their music, and we want to dance and party too! `Cause ain’t no party like a thug-like party. [laughs.] From their perspective. And if we understand what the thuggery is, and the history of thuggery, as opposed to the United States [government's] analysis, we might understand what we’re talking about.
But as far as that is concerned, I feel more aligned with the energies of the youth than with the defeatism of the elders. I feel more a part of it because it was what I’m around. Seventy percent of the population in these prisons are under thirty. And so those who are over thirty and under forty have grown up inside these prisons. They have no perspective of adulthood. So I have an obligation, I have a lot of love and I have a lot of respect for what I’ve learned and what I’ve been able to share, and what I’ve been able to see manifest from those experiences. So we say aim high and go all out.
Int: re: getting threatened with isolation for activism.
Shakur: In litigation now.
Int: Because of [being sent to] ADX?
Shakur: Because of my speech.
Int: Was there a specific speech that got you sent to ADX?
Shakur: From Lompoc to Lewisburg, from Lewisburg to Marion, from Marion to Florence, and to here. And they all claimed that I have too much influence on the Black youth, blah blah blah, whatever.