What Am I Doing with My Life? A Reflection on a “Left Forum” Event

Pam Africa

“I don’t care if you’re 100 people, or 50, or 10. If there’s just one of you going against these mother f_ _ kers, it’s enough. Together we can warm their asses up!”

Those were the words of 70 year old grandmother, Pam Africa. I heard her speak last weekend at the annual meeting of the Left Forum – an organization of progressive thought leaders and activists. The meeting took place at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York (CUNY). Its theme was “Rage, Rebellion, and Revolution: Organizing Our Power.”

Ms. Africa was talking about the necessity of organizing and taking to the streets in order to confront U.S. political, social and economic institutions she said were based on theft, murder, and perjury. The entire system, she added, has lost its legitimacy having become increasingly unresponsive to human need, and ever more violent in repressing those demanding their rights.

Pam Africa’s long experience gave her words credibility. She is the former Minister of Confrontation of the Move Organization, the Philadelphia African-American liberation community whose homes were bombed by Philadelphia Police Force back in 1985. Since that time, as the coordinator of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, she has been working for the release of Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners.

That was the theme of the panel discussion where Pam Africa was speaking – political prisoners.  It was the most inspiring of the events I attended, having chosen 6 of them from the more than 400 panels, workshops, and events that filled the Left Forum’s Events Directory.

There were 10 participants in the Political Prisoner presentation. About half of them were African American. Seven were women. Only 3 appeared younger than sixty. All but 1 had spent time in prison. And each and every one of them had dedicated their lives to the struggle for social justice. They’ve done so in the face of a Prison-Industrial Complex that reaps a fortune from the increasingly privatized criminal justice system currently incarcerating 2.3 million Americans – more prisoners per capita than any country in the world. The annual cost of doing so ranges from $24,000 to $47,000 per inmate.

Think of what could be done with that money, we were urged. What if it were it invested in housing, education, or mental healthcare rather than in prisons-for-profit?  Instead, those human warehouses have become a repressive government’s de facto programs for the homeless, poorly educated and mentally ill. Prison activist Anne Lamb described political prisoners there as “the most humble people you ever want to meet.”

How do so many prisoners end up behind bars?  Most of their cases do not go to trial, we were told. Instead plea bargains are struck. An arrestee is typically given the choice to plead guilty to one of a whole list of charges to avoid spending 15 rather than 5 years in prison. On the other hand, those who choose to go to trial get the book thrown at them. They end up doing 20 rather than 5 years and are held up as examples to potential plea bargainers. “You don’t want to end up like him, do you?” is the threat. The whole system saves (i.e. earns) the for-profit system millions.

Witnessing the intensity, commitment and sharp focus of participants in Pam Africa’s panel raised existential questions for me.

“What am I doing with my life?” I scrawled in my notebook. “Playing golf??”  I mean, I’m in my life’s final stage. And there is still work to do – especially around nuclear disarmament, climate change, and prison reform. As Pope Francis has pointed out, all of those issues are inter-related. Everything is! And the sad fact is that I’m largely avoiding the task.

Meanwhile, Pam Africa and the other panel discussants are out there in the streets. Once again, I’m not.

For me, the most logical response to the experience I’ve been describing here is to get involved in the Bard Prison Project. It’s a program for securing college degrees for prison inmates. Two years ago, Berea College (my former employer) was invited to join. I was asked to take part. I and other invitees did some preliminary work. Since then I haven’t heard anything.

It’s time to pursue that possibility.

As one of last weekend’s panelists put it, “We need to stand on the neck of the system and make it cough up justice.”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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