COLUMN FIFTY-FIVE, JANUARY 1, 20001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
STOP THE PRESSES! I WANT
TO GET OFF
WEBS, WASPS AND WHIPLASH WHILE CRUISING THE O-ZONE
PART 7: GODLESS COUNTRY NOT THE WORST COUNTRY
when conversations turn to prisons and prisoners I listen.
learned long ago that the moment the conversation turns serious, eyes (and
minds) begin to glaze over in less time than it takes a Texas Ranger to kidney
punch a homeless drunk. When the conversation gets around to Cuba and Castro, I
remind people of writer Dorothy Day's trip to Cuba after the Cuban revolution.
She had gone down to see for herself if life was as oppressive for churchgoing
Catholics in Cuba as the U.S. government was reporting. In one of the columns
she wrote for the Catholic Worker she said, "Better a Godless
country that takes care of its poor than a Christian country that doesn't."
me, talking to the average citizen about injustice is like walking into a white
Southern Baptist church in Danville, Virginia---the last headquarters of the
Confederacy---and asking for donations to the Black Panther Legal Defense Fund
or the American Civil Liberties Union. Anyone
present who knew what you were talking about would think you were completely
mad. Those who didn't would think you were an affront to their very selective,
lily white God and attempt to do to you what the Romans did to the good
carpenter. Not pretty.
I began getting phone messages in the summer of 1989 that someone
links to my PDI past show themselves unexpectedly. I'll notice someone
staring at me. Usually I walk over and introduce myself. Not
flashbacks," as the person says. "I remember the Sunday church service
in Atlanta," or "The Terre Haute tour was a gas---whatever happened to
John?" or "I was at Oklahoma Women's Penitentiary."
it's a writer, someone with a clear enough understanding of what gets into print
in these United States to know that to be well informed a person has to set
aside $250 a year to subscribe to In These Times, The Progressive, The
Nation, Mother Jones, Z Magazine, Utne Reader, Catholic Worker, Washington
Monthly, Workers World, Dollars and Cents, and EXTRA and be a member
of The DataCenter 1 publications and organizations with staffs who understand
the insidious Rain Barrel Theory of Politics, the theory that best describes
politics in the United States---the scum rises to the top. Two People whose
names are anathema to the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, Nixon, Kissinger,
Reagan, Bush---all organizations and individuals whose existence is proof of the
rain barrel theory's validity.
most recent contact was different. Ken Wachsberger not only knew
20 years later, he asked if I'd like to look back at those PDI years and
share some thoughts. Thoughts on the PDI, the times, and the people. I
had doubts about whether or not I was the best person to do so. For many years,
friends who were witness to those three traumatic years have urged me to tell
the story. I always assumed that someone else would. The PDI had staff
members who were far better writers than I. But Ken wanted me to write the
history because I was the founder. I agreed.
what about the PDI years? I should include a few stories about prison
experiences and observations that convinced me that the PDI was
desperately needed; I should also include information on why I thought it would
succeed and how---with the help of an unusually diverse group of people---we
forced it to succeed.
PDI came into existence in 1970 during politically painful times. We had
caught the tail end of the Vietnam War both in and out of the can. Our
detractors called us radical. We probably initiated as many lawsuits against
agencies of the federal and state governments as any newspaper in history. The
list of our reporters, sales agents, and prison representatives read like a
Who's Who of jailhouse lawyers. Many were serving life terms with no hope for
parole for committing acts that ranged from political crimes against the state
to crimes for profit, revenge, you name it. In prison, they had turned to
education and law as a means of self-fulfillment. They were our newspaper's
strongest supporters and most committed advocates. They never gave up. They had
nothing to lose. They were afraid of no one. They could be threatened, but they
over three years, with a staff that started with two and grew to 25, the PDI
operated out of a three-story house at 505 South Lucas in Iowa City, Iowa. 505
became synonymous with PDI. I bought the house at 505---with the help of
sympathetic realtors and a no-down-payment GI loan---so the PDI and the
staff would have a place to live. For three years, using a variety of means, I
fed, clothed, and sheltered the staff, their friends, drifters, runaways, wanted
men, women, and children, and paid the bills. Well...most of the bills.
little over four years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, I walked
away from the PDI with exactly what I'd walked away from the slam.
Nothing. I wasn't totally without resources, however. I owned a home in
Georgeville, Minnesota, in the west central part of the state that had been home
to Hundred Flowers, the underground newspaper edited by Eddie Felien, the
Marxist scholar from the University of Minnesota who ended up on the Minneapolis
city council. My home there didn't have running water or electricity, but what
do you expect for $400? I also had a 1963 one-ton International pickup that
looked like it had been abandoned in Watts during the riots. The pickup had been
part of the junk pile out back of the $400 house. It needed tires, a battery,
and six weeks worth of hard work to get it running. Along with everything else,
I considered it a gift. Hell, the PDI was a gift that for a long time
nourished prisoners and their families. And why
years were lean, hungry years. Tough years. In many respects they were violent
years. By that I mean we were witnesses to violence. Violence against men,
women, and children who were prisoners. Violence against the families of
prisoners. And finally, violence against the primary staff members of the PDI
by the federal, state, and local police that culminated in murder---a murder
that was committed by a man who was pushed over the "edge" by an
undercover cop who sealed all of our futures by giving the man a gun and urging
him to use it. Staff members were arrested for possessing drugs that were
stashed by ex-prisoners who had been released from prison for the express
purpose of destroying the PDI and the Church of the New Song. The
seemingly unlimited power and resources of those three levels of government were
more than a handful of unpaid, hungry men, women, and children could live with.
Most took off trying to find a place to rest and restore themselves.
Consequently, the PDI and a number of staff members were destroyed.
the PDI's voice stilled, the prisoners lost their voice. Today the
conditions in prisons are more repressive. Extreme overcrowding exists mainly
because of the longer prison sentences that are handed out today, so frequently
for victimless crimes. Increasing numbers of prisoners are being locked up for
minor drug offenses---many are denied the opportunity to earn a parole. With
more of the poor, uneducated members of society ending up in prison, the need
for educational and vocational programs is greater than it has ever been. Yet,
cutbacks in correctional department budgets mean that fewer of these programs
the PDI" Today it is a mass of notes, letters, papers, and subscription
lists that are safely stashed in boxes in the State Historical Society of Iowa.
And, of course, there are memories.
look back, see the victories, and I'm reminded of a line Barry Hannah wrote,
"Not only does absence make the heart grow fonder, it makes history your
own beautiful lie." It's not going to be easy making sure that this doesn't
become my beautiful lie, but I'll try.
brief can I be? Just the experiences inside the walls that generated the energy
for the PDI deserve much more than I can give them here. The people, the
prisoners, living and dead, deserve more. We'll just have to see where this
leads us. ##
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