Seeing Jalil: The Hopeless Optimist
Jared A. Ball
There can be few places more unlikely than Attica state penitentiary to hear someone say they are a “hopeless optimist.” But there i was sitting in front of Jalil Muntaqim as he shot that big sincere smile as he said it. He was assuring me that we will figure out the problems facing us – broadly speaking, the endless shifts imperialism makes to sustain itself – organize around that clarity and make the world livable for everyone. “I may not see it in my lifetime,” he said, “though i once thought i would. But we will win.” It may indeed need more than his lifetime but no one can say he hasn’t spent that lifetime trying to make it happen. And paying a heavy price for it.
Jalil is a veteran of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. He has been incarcerated since 1971 for his radical engagement politically against the state. He is a poet, author, historian, educator and deep-thinking political analyst. His physical removal from the community and political struggle serves the state by individually punishing him while using that punishment as a deterrent against others taking up similar action. Such imprisonment is also an attempt to divorce his ideas or analyses of our situation from those seeking solutions. For the sake of commemorating Black August or simply finding ways to survive the crisis of capitalism and Whiteness we have to continue to forge greater ties with our political prisoners like Jalil.
“Bottom!” “Bottom!” I had to hear it twice because even after writing the name on the visitation form I still cannot initially register Jalil Muntaqim by his government name, Anthony Bottom. I am also not used to being addressed by the name of someone I intend to visit. I had heard of course of Attica prison, its infamy being attached to what for me is an inspirational event; the 1971 uprising that shook the country in (at least partial) response to the assassination of George Jackson. It is also an event where the state so viciously showed itself, not only in the initial treatment of the imprisoned or the brutal repression of the uprising in response to those conditions, but in the state’s statement to guards held hostage, that their pay would only reflect hours during which they could be expected to be awake, even while in captivity.
I thought about that during the 6 hour drive from my home in Maryland. The ride has its own particular method of displaying – in a particularly stark contrast – the contradictions of this (any) society. I had never been up the Susquehanna river, seen it or the beauty of its surroundings in Pennsylvania and New York. The natural scenery is truly breathtaking. As is the poverty. Its the kind of violent visual discord that i usually associate with the so-called “developing world” which I’ve seen more of than “my own country.” There are a lot of poor white folks in this country. Too bad, though not surprising, that so many of them love the confederacy and Donald Trump (as if either solves their problem) and let it be known through an almost ubiquitous use of their symbols. Malcolm X was right in saying the real Mason-Dixon line is the “Canadian border.” The next Black face i saw was in the Attica prison visitation waiting room, actually filled with poor Black, Brown and white folks waiting to see one or more of the 2500 or so people held there.
“What is your relationship to him?” asked the short, round, pale-faced and ponytailed guard. She was frowning, “you wrote student. You are his student?” “Its the most appropriate description i could think to write.” “Thats not an option. ‘Friend.’” “Ok.” Jalil cracked up when i told him about it. But “friend” i told him is too familiar. And i have been learning from him for decades. I didn’t want to say “comrade” which i thought would only confuse them or cause trouble for him. “They mess with me all the time” he laughed. I smiled but kept thinking how he could find this funny. I kept it to myself how irritated i was by the length of time i had to wait, the attitude of the guards – which were actually relatively really good overall – but still. And then the rules i had to follow, and the anxiety it caused me just to get myself in there. But how could i sit there and complain about that (or anything) to him. He is, of course, “used to” it.
i did share that last point, the anxiety i get at even the thought of approaching a prison. i shared it as part of an answer to his question about my too few visits to him – this was my first – or other political prisoners (i have only ever visited one other). Its no excuse but i thought he deserved an honest response. But all Jalil did was smile and seek to alleviate my guilt by sharing his own story; the one where he once passed on a chance to visit George Jackson in 1971 because of his own anxiety about entering a prison, connected to his premonition that he would himself spend a great deal of time in one. And he has. 45 years to be precise.
We spent only 2.5 hours talking. By the time i got processed in and they brought him to the visitation room more than 2 hours had passed. He came in, checked with the guards who told him at which table he would find me, coolly waked over and we dapped/hugged. Jalil is strong, seems in good health and amazing spirit considering. He has regained a desire to teach and is active again doing so with classes on Black History. He is still reading and keeping up as best he can with events out here which have inspired him. But, once again, his most recent bid for parole was denied and in what seems to be a most amazing fashion. Muntaqim was denied parole only due the charge for which he was initially convicted and imprisoned in 1971 and not for any infraction or other reason since his imprisonment. In other words, the state is saying parole is not really an option, especially not for a man who – with clarity of politics and soundness of mind – took up arms against it. The political nature of his continued imprisonment is blatant, as is at least several purposes related to its continuation.
Most of our time was spent discussing his (and to a lesser extent my own) relationship to Black Lives Matter (#BLM) or the Movement for Black Life (M4BL). Jalil is clear that they and related efforts are essential and positive signs of increasing resistance to persistent oppression. He is also clear that there must be more. He cites as reasons for his return to teaching a desire to supplement the growing movement outside the walls but also to address as best he can what he feels is a low point in terms of the politics of the young men coming in. He said one goal is to encourage a positive, politically clear and radical engagement with these movements by the men who eventually will leave Attica. He talked some about the links, imposed by capitalism, between the upsurge in resistance and the worsening conditions resulting also in the persistent numbers of Black women and men flowing throughout the entirety of the carceral system. And he lit up at the potential in this moment for increased levels of movement building with deeper and more militant attempts at political organization.
Specifically, Jalil is calling for broad support for Krystal Rountree, Chairperson of the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights Organizing Committee / iamWE Prison Advocacy Network and her attempt to organize a mass march against imprisonment (political or otherwise) in August of 2017. The idea is that a focus on this kind of rally might serve to galvanize the disparate groups and individuals currently working on related issues. We also talked of his previous criticism of #BLM and how those who spoke openly of his being wrong for offering it never reached out to him. Jalil may indeed have fears but they do not include principled criticism or the exchange of ideas about how to get us free. He wants to engage activists of today. We need that exchange to occur. And those against which all this struggle is occurring need it not to.
Jalil has not yet seen the new platform produced by M4BL but was very happy to hear of its inclusion of a concern for political prisoners. But where we did agree was in our concern over the methods being developed to achieve the goals of the platform. i don’t feel a need to attempt to recreate his argument or critiques of these movements here, nor do i think i am qualified to. i only reference the existence of that criticism to acknowledge its existence and to encourage those interested in serious movement building to see his previous critique and then to contact and/or involve him and his work in discussions, educational programs, the planning of actions and the development of ideological approaches to our problems.
Jalil also, of course, requests help petitioning for his release. He asked that i write about our visit and encourage others to write him, visit him and publicly support his parole using social media and, in particular, the hashtag #CuomoClemencyForJalilMutanqim (or something similar) to challenge New York governor Andrew Cuomo to say enough already, time is more than served.
As we approach the end of Black August, our annual reminder of the militant traditions of our struggle and their incompleteness, lets not forget our political prisoners or their still-necessary analyses.
To write Jalil:
Anthony J. Bottom #77A4283
P.O. Box 149
Attica, NY 14011-0149