Saturday, April 16, 2005

Care of Cell 44

What is a political prisoner? Do we have political prisoners in the United States?

Activists, lawyers, rubberneckers like myself, and at least one former US political prisoner gathered today to discuss such questions at a minor campus of the state university system.

The conference—"U.S. Political Prisoners and Their Families"—was held in a small auditorium familiar to me from childhood. My earliest memory of the room has me sitting with a friend and his family and listening to an expert storyteller read scary stories during Halloween week of (I think) 1987. Of these stories I remember only "The Cask of Amontillado."

The parallels are obvious. Ray Luc Levasseur, a self-described (and probably genuine) former political prisoner who spoke this afternoon, read from his prison writings this description of solitary confinement in the Colorado "Supermax" prison:
Society reflects itself in the microcosm of prison. From a class-based, economically-driven, racially-motivated construct devolves life as a series of Chinese boxes—a set of boxes decreasing in size so that each box fits inside the next larger one. I am in the smallest box.

I am in Administrative Maximum (ADX) prison, the Federal government's latest boondoggle to contain prisoners' rebellion and dissent. I am in a "boxcar" cell. Picture a cage where top, bottom, sides, and back are concrete walls. The front is sliced by steel bars. Several feet beyond the bars is another wall. In this wall is a solid steel door. The term boxcar is derived from this configuration: a small, enclosed box that doesn't move.

I am confined to the boxcar cell 157 hours of each 168 hour week. Eleven hours each week I'm allowed into the barren area adjacent to this cell. Each morning begins with the noisy rumble of the steel door opening. A guard steps to the bars and slides food through a small slot. Feeding time. The guard steps back and the door slaps shut with a vengeance.

The purpose of a boxcar cell is to gouge the prisoners' senses by suppressing human sound, putting blinders about our eyes, and forbidding touch. Essential human needs are viewed with suspicion. Within the larger context of a control unit prison, the boxcar cell is designed to inflict physical and emotional isolation that wears down a prisoner's will to resist. When this regimen undermines a prisoner's health or distorts his/her personality, it's considered the cost of doing business.
Ray Luc Levasseur, a native of Sanford, Maine, spent twenty years in our worst prisons for charges related to the bombing of various corporate and government sites in the Northeast. (No one was killed.)

Though he has never admitted the particulars of his involvement, Levasseur defends the actions of the groups with which he was associated—the United Freedom Front and the Sam Melville/Jonathan Jackson Unit—which robbed banks and staged politically symbolic bombings in the late 70s and early 80s. Their targets were picked, Levasseur claims, to draw attention to US government/corporate support for South African apartheid, US actions in Central America, and other colonial/imperial crimes.

Levasseur was released last August, and he now lives in Portland. (I've run into him a couple times at the public library.) He continues his activism within the confines of his parole, and he has recently begun speaking about his experiences.

I'd rather not take a stand on Levasseur's claim to be a revolutionary hero—I don't know what to think about armed activism in general and the UFF in particular—but it is clear to anyone who's seen him speak that he is a heroic human being, and this is something. I won't attempt to tell his story myself, for he tells it so well.

I recommend these two pieces of political autobiography: Levasseur's trial statement and closing statement from his 1989 federal trial on sedition and racketeering charges. Levasseur had been in prison since 1984 on bombing charges, but this was a big-budget trial meant to showcase what the FBI had spent so much time and money pursuing. (Levasseur, who had been "underground" for several years, was on the FBI’s Top-Ten list.) The statements are this good: the jury acquitted Levasseur—who defended himself against federal prosecutors—of sedition; they came to no decision on the racketeering charges.

P.S.: I might note that TV and newspaper reports of Ray Luc Levasseur's release last August invariably stated that his group, the United Freedom Front, was "linked" to the May 1976 bombing of Central Maine Power's corporate headquarters in Augusta, Maine.

This was interesting to me in part because Central Maine Power is my father's place of employment (though he didn't start there till a decade later), and I had often heard about the bombing when I was growing up. It formed my early and somewhat European picture of what terrorism might be. When visiting my dad at work, I'd examine the building and imagine which sections might have been blown up. (I thought of the PBS children's program Powerhouse, in one unforgettable episode of which a bomb went off in the headquarters of the crimesolving kids. (If you watched PBS in the early 80s, and you want to explore the recesses of your memory, in every sense of "recesses," see if you recognize the rainbow logo at this site.)) I'd sign in with the guard at the front and wait for my dad to come down from his office. This procedure, like the laminated security photo my dad would unclip from his shirt each evening and set on his bureau, was part of the strict security system that had been implemented in response to the bombing.

None of the reports suggested what Levasseur's "link" to the CMP bombing might have been, and my casual on-line research has been equally unhelpful. The terror analyst Konrad Kellen has written that "a Fred Hampton Unit of the People's Forces [not to be confused with Col. Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit] claimed responsibility" for the action, but I haven't found any connection between that group and Levasseur's. But it is clear enough why the popular media would frame the story of Levasseur's release in terms of "domestic terrorism" and advertise him as a security risk for the citizens of Portland.

P.P.S.: Speaking of aquarium rescues.

According to Konrad Kellen—and I can’t help imagining that Konrad Kellen is shaved bald and wears expensive, silver suits—the Fred Hampton Unit demanded that CMP sever its connection to nuclear power.

Possibly they were thinking of Maine Yankee, Maine's only nuclear power plant, which had gone on line in 1972. A tax-boon to the coastal town of Wiscasset, Maine when it was in operation (evidence: the high school's band program had cymbals that were unbelievably good), Maine Yankee has been closed since 1997, though practical problems concerning the disposal of its spent fuel rods persist.

These fuel rods are easy for me to imagine, since, on a field trip to Maine Yankee in the fourth grade, my classmates and I were given black plastic pellets that represented them. A guide—and John could probably tell you more about this sort of thing—took us through a model of the facilities and into a simulated control room. (That night at the dinner table I mistakenly referred to this as a "stimulator.")

Thus, it was with great interest that in the course this evening's reading I found in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a narrative account of a visit to Maine Yankee.
"Be careful not to drop anything," Oddell reminds me as we walk to a railing at the other side of the platform. I press the radiation meter against my chest and peek over the railing. Here it is, the source of all the controversy: 1,434 spent nuclear fuel rods standing at the bottom of an enormous pool of crystal clear water.
P.P.P.S.: A different sort of aquarium rescue.

Ray Luc Levasseur is often asked whether the actions he undertook were "worth it," and he often responds with the story of the reef:
But the way that I look at anything I've done political through the course of my life, whether it was underground or in a community setting, I kinda look at it in terms of . . . the analogy that I like to use is with a coral reef. Coral reefs are such that they begin with something infinitesimal, called a coral. You can barely see it. It's no bigger than the head of a pin, and that coral by itself is relatively nothing, but what happens is, as each coral progresses, and goes through its entire life cycle, their contribution to that reef comes about through the course of that cycle, and as they die that miniscule limestone skeleton gets left behind. It drops to the bottom of the sea, followed by millions and millions of others. Gradually the base of the reef forms, and then from that base the reef develops. As you know, a reef is a living organism, and as the reef grows it sustains and nourishes all kinds of life, from fish to crustaceans to plant life. And it grows larger and larger, and it essentially develops its own ecosystem. One could say it is an affirmation of life, deep within the depths of the ocean. And when it gets to a certain size, like with the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, it has taken a form that has the power to change the course of the sea, which it does.


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