As many people are now hearing, a rebellion has started in Holman Prison in Alabama after the stabbing of one guard and the warden on Saturday morning. The rebellion, which began as a response to the intolerable conditions of the prison and the brutality of the guards, succeeded in securing the whole facility for a brief time before being recaptured by the pigs. However what many are calling a “riot” would be more adequately described as a rebellion, an act of organized resistance against the powers that be with the intention of challenging the conditions faced by prisoners. Labeling these rebellions “riots” can only serve to delegitimize and obscure their organized nature. The rebelling inmates managed to organize themselves to set fire to the guard towers and begin constructing barricades to block the incoming pigs.¹ This is, if nothing else, a demonstration of the capacity of the imprisoned to incite themselves to confrontation with the pigs, something which has been well known for many years. Rebellion against genocide—which is the only thing one can call the phenomenon of black incarceration in Alabama, wherein blacks, who are between 13-14% of the u.s. population, are incarcerated at rates four times as high as whites—is always justified.²
However it would appear that this is just one explosion in a series of rebellious acts by the inmates of Holman, who have a known history for their resistance to the conditions of prison life in amerikkka. Apparently in 2015, there were many similar acts undertaken, including the stabbing of two guards by a prisoner and a small rebellion by those in the “segregation unit” after the warden reduced their meals to only one peanut butter sandwich and a cheese sandwich. This was followed by the successful escape (and unfortunate apprehension) of a prisoner in March of 2015.³ This is only a few of the actions that have been undertaken at a single prison by inmates in response to their conditions, which many label as simply “criminal” without trying to understand the foundation for their acts of rebellion. Though this trend varies wildly all over the united states, with hunger strikes, work strikes, and more uprisings being documented in prisons all over the country. The discontent is most certainly there, as it always has been, among the lumpenproletariat as they struggle against the oppressive circumstances of their existence.
The Nature of Rebellion and Revolution
Comrade George Jackson once described himself as having always been in rebellion, just never knowing it. This is the truth of conditions faced by the lumpenproletariat, their very way of life is a rebellion against the state in that it is perpetually in disservice to the laws of the empire. This understanding of opposition to authority coincides with the petty-bourgeois individualism of the lumpenproletariat, which can and must be overcome to achieve proletarian consciousness. They are in rebellion because their way of life demands it, they must confront the pigs in order to survive, whether it be through theft, illegal sex work or any other means which the powers that be find unacceptable. This normality associated with rebellion is not inherently revolutionary, as comrade Atiba Shanna (aka James Yaki Sayles) has taught us, however this position can be taken past the limitations of a petty-bourgeois mentality into a truly proletarian consciousness.
We can rebel against something, without necessarily “rebelling” or making revolution for something. A rebellion is generally an “attack” upon those who rule—but it is an “attack” which is spontaneous, short-lived, and without the purpose of replacing those who rule.
Rebellions bring into question the methods of those who rule, but stop short of actually calling into question their very right to rule, without calling into question the entire authority and the foundation upon which that authority or “legitimacy” rests.
We rebel as a means of exposing intolerable conditions and treatment, but We seek to have someone other than ourselves change these conditions, and to change the treatment, rather than to assume responsibility ourselves for our whole lives. A rebellion essentially wants to “end bad housing,” have “full employment” and “end police brutality and change in prison conditions,” etc.—to reform the system, and leave the power to make these reforms in the hands of the massa.⁴
It is by no accident that much of the lumpenproletariat comes from the oppressed nations buried within the so-called “united states” and that the transcendence from rebel to revolutionary is, in this way, achieved through nationalist lines. This is perhaps one of the greatest focuses of comrade Atiba Shanna in his work, in which he discusses the potential for the lumpenproletariat to become the revolutionary fighters for New Afrikan liberation in this country. However we should not stop here. We understand this to be the case in all of the colonized peoples trapped within the prison-house of nations which is amerikkka. The most valuable thing that he has to tell us about rebellion is that the lacking component is the confidence of the oppressed people in their ability to lead, and to actually take control of their own lives and the lives of others. This vital component is what the revolutionaries must give to the oppressed—or assist them in locating it in themselves. Without this, he assures that many will resign themselves to martyrdom in the hope that they can inspire more capable individuals, not realizing that they themselves are capable.⁵
The Victory of Incarcerated Nations
The only path from the situation in which the colonized people find themselves locked in, is obviously revolution, it is clear that despite the recurring nature of insurrection and rebellion it will never incite the moral initiative of the authorities to change. That is not to deny the dynamism of the enemy, who has demonstrated time and again their ability to adapt when forced into a situation where co-option is more effective than force. The principle difference between revolutionary and rebellious acts is that a revolutionary act ensures that the powers that be can no longer rule as they have before, whereas a rebellion is a demonstration of anguish and resistance from a people who ultimately require revolution. From this perspective we realize that rebellions can occur over and over, as they most certainly have, with little to no effect on the conditions of the subjugated people. This is most certainly true of the glorified concentration camps that the united states calls “correctional facilities” in the wake of rebellions by prisoners whose conditions are yet to fundamentally change.
These total institutions serve as a place of exclusion for entire nations and have isolated the colonized people from the mounds of wealth robbed by the imperialists from nations all over the world. This is role of mass incarceration in the 21st century, it is the institution of isolation and extermination of a people who are “in the way” of a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the colonizer nation. The role of the prison, in this way, is to ensure that the spoils of imperialist gain across the world are shared to the smallest degree possible with colonized people, even though they are shared. The role of the so-called “justice system” is to ensure a lack of employment and increasing idleness among the lower sections of the colonized people, and to keep the jobs in the hands of the white “working class.” The war on the colonial lumpenproletariat is a conflict which is rooted in the desire to make more-exclusive the spoils of war shared among the amerikkkan population to one degree or another.
From this perspective, there is no imperative to keep the inmates in a state of relative productivity, but rather simply to isolate them by all means necessary from the outside world. This is doubly true for the radicals and revolutionaries who pass through their gates, who are filed into the “Special Housing Units” and other methods of solitary confinement to keep their revolutionary messages from reaching the greater population. This was the fate of comrades such as Sanyika Shakur and Atiba Shanna, who were singled out for their revolutionary ideologies and attacked with particular vehemence. Sanyika Shakur describes the SHU as the “Socialist Housing Unit” for the overwhelming amount of radicals who were locked up within it, isolated for decades at a time to prevent their messages from uniting a disunited prison population into open revolt. One such act of rebellion on their behalf was the Pelican Bay hunger strike for an end to the brutal conditions of the prison.⁶
Though this rebellion did not have the capacity to be a revolution on its own, it was the root of a hope for progression of the revolutionary prison movement, inspiring many similar rebellions across the west coast and solidarity actions from those on the outside. This was imperative to the growth of a revolutionary movement against imperialism and amerikkkan internal-colonialism. These explosive antagonisms are vital to the struggle against imperialism in the core. If we do not have solidarity with the movement of incarcerated people then neither we nor they can hope to achieve revolution. Our sensitivity to the conditions which produce these rebellions is vital to turning over the mentality of the oppressed people from one of basic reflex, to a commitment to revolutionary struggle.
In conclusion, it is not enough to admire the will of the inmates who carry out these rebellions, but to understand where it is they come from, and how we can transform ourselves and others into agents of real revolutionary change. They require the solidarity of the whole revolutionary movement, and it is our duty to provide it. Let us not underestimate the power of the lumpenproletariat to create revolution and instead bring their struggles to the forefront of our movement against imperialism. Without this vital understanding we cannot hope to achieve real revolution, and without real revolution there can be no hope for liberation among the oppressed masses of the world.
- Riot Breaks Out in Alabama Prison, Inmates Armed with Swords
- The Sentencing Project (US Prison Demographics)
- Anarchist prisoner Michael Kimble on solidarity hunger strike
- James Yaki Sayles, Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, (Montreal, Kersplebedeb 2010) pg. 65
- Ibid. pg. 66
- Sanyika Shakur, Stand Up Struggle Forward, (Montreal, Kersplebedeb 2013) pg. 45 (pdf version, actual page number may vary for print)