An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country

Overview

On a November night in 1984, Susan Rosenberg sat in the passenger seat of a U-Haul as it swerved along the New Jersey Turnpike. At the wheel was a fellow political activist. In the back were 740 pounds of dynamite and assorted guns. That night I still believed with all my heart that what Che Guevara had said about revolutionaries being motivated by love was true. I also believed that our government ruled the world by force and that it was necessary to oppose it with force. Raised on New York City's Upper West ...
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An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country

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Overview

On a November night in 1984, Susan Rosenberg sat in the passenger seat of a U-Haul as it swerved along the New Jersey Turnpike. At the wheel was a fellow political activist. In the back were 740 pounds of dynamite and assorted guns. That night I still believed with all my heart that what Che Guevara had said about revolutionaries being motivated by love was true. I also believed that our government ruled the world by force and that it was necessary to oppose it with force. Raised on New York City's Upper West Side, Rosenberg had been politically active since high school, involved in the black liberation movement and protesting repressive U.S. policies around the world and here at home. At twenty-nine, she was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. While unloading the U-Haul at a storage facility, Rosenberg was arrested and sentenced to an unprecedented 58 years for possession of weapons and explosives. I could not see the long distance I had traveled from my commitment to justice and equality to stockpiling guns and dynamite. Seeing that would take years. Rosenberg served sixteen years in some of the worst maximum-security prisons in the United States before being pardoned by President Clinton as he left office in 2001. Now, in a story that is both a powerful memoir and a profound indictment of the U.S. prison system, Rosenberg recounts her journey from the impassioned idealism of the 1960s to life as a political prisoner in her own country, subjected to dehumanizing treatment, yet touched by moments of grace and solidarity. Candid and eloquent, An American Radical reveals the woman behind the controversy--and reflects America's turbulent coming-of-age over the past half century.
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  • Susan Rosenberg
    Susan Rosenberg  

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

A political activist from the '60s through the early '80s recounts her arduous journey from the FBI's most-wanted list through a 16-year incarceration in maximum-security prisons.

Rosenberg was radicalized during the antiwar and black-power movements, and eventually went underground in the early '80s after the FBI indicted her in a robbery-conspiracy case that resulted in the death of several officers. While unloading a vast cache of explosives in a U-haul van to a storage place in New Jersey in 1984, she was arrested and sentenced to 58 years in federal prison. Rosenberg and her partner maintained that they "were part of an organized illegal resistance movement [and] acting out of conscience." Subsequently, they were treated as terrorists and subjected to the most stringent lock-up conditions in maximum-security prisons across the country. High-profile female political prisoners were unusual in government facilities at the time, and the correctional institution in Tucson, Ariz., housed more than 1,000 men and four women. The women were stuck in segregation with little natural light and few visits from lawyers, and a good part of the memoir discusses the appalling conditions, vindictive officers and clueless bureaucracy. From Tucson, Rosenberg was moved to facilities in Lexington, Ky.; Washington, D.C., where she was indicted on new charges of trying to bomb the U.S. Capitol; Mariana, Fla.; and Danbury, Conn. Her period of incarceration coincided with the burgeoning crack and AIDS epidemic, and Rosenberg became a vociferous advocate and health counselor. She writes movingly of her reconciliation with her parents and last visit to her dying father, as well as relationships made with other women prisoners. While denied parole, she was eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton in 2001.

Articulate and clear-eyed, Rosenberg's memoir memorably records the struggles of a woman determined to be the agent of her own life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806533049
  • Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,003,591
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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Read an Excerpt

An American Radical

Political Prisoner in My Own Country
By Susan Rosenberg

CITADEL PRESS BOOKS

Copyright © 2011 Susan Rosenberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8065-3304-9


Chapter One

Explosives

DANGER, HIGH WINDS. The signs on the New Jersey Turnpike were flashing red-and-yellow directions to all the motorists. It was cold and getting dark and the road was filled with post-Thanksgiving traffic. Cars swerved from one lane to the other and then crawled past us as the speed limit got lower and lower. I was frightened. Our twenty-foot U-Haul truck, filled with guns and dynamite, was swaying back and forth in the wind. I looked at Tim as he gripped the wheel and he didn't look like his usual calm and collected self. While the brush of his crew cut was gleaming and his suit and tie were perfect, there was sweat glistening on his upper lip, wetting his small brown mustache. As I scrutinized him, he was almost unrecognizable in his "Officer Bill" disguise, as he had jokingly nicknamed himself after recoiling from a look in the mirror. "What are we doing here?"—the question kept whirling around in my head. What we were doing was driving hundreds of pounds of dynamite, fourteen guns, and hundreds of pieces of false identification to a storage space in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

"Bill, shouldn't we get off the highway?" I asked. I was calling him "Bill" because that was his illegal name. The name he used in the underground. It seemed silly, because he was indelibly Tim to me, but for security purposes I complied. "Jo," he answered back, "I think we should stay on this road until we have to get off, even if we have to drive slowly. I think that the back roads will be worse and filled with lots more people." "Okay, but the space will be closed. We're pretty late," I answered. "You have the storage combination, right?" Tim asked. I nodded yes.

"This is awful. I wish we could go back," I whispered. But we could not go back; there was no place to go back to. We had been driving for twelve hours and had crossed state lines. We had to make it to the storage place and get all the stuff put away. We could not keep driving around with it. If we got hit by another vehicle, in the windy weather, well, it wasn't just us who would be killed. It was impossible to think about that.

After another forty minutes and fifteen miles, Tim said, "Maybe we should get off. Look at all these troopers; maybe there will be fewer off the highway." My scalp was itching under my wig and I envied Tim's short hair. I thought of Tim five years earlier when we had first met and he had had long blond hair and a quiet beauty about him. He looked his age then, twenty-two. Before all the weight training and iron pumping, he had a lithe dancer's body. Now he looked older than his years. He had been a progressive social activist and a student leader at a college in the northeast valley in Massachusetts. I had gone there to organize a public meeting against the Ku Klux Klan. He was part of the group of students who wanted help organizing a national movement. I was a member of a small group called the John Brown anti-Klan committee, which had developed to stop the KKK from organizing guards in the New York state prisons. Our very first conversation had been about Latin American literature. I liked him from the moment we met. His smile was glorious and his sense of humor alternated between high sarcasm and whimsy. We had flirted a lot, but we ended up being friends with bonds that deepened over time. This dangerous mission made them even deeper. The U-Haul lurched again in the wind. We looked at each other and without speaking, Tim moved us toward the exit ramp.

It was 1984. Anyone who was black or a political activist knew that the New Jersey State Troopers had the highest arrest rates of black drivers in the nation. It was a bad road to be on. I had been underground for two years. I was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most wanted list. In 1982, I had been indicted in a federal conspiracy case, charged with participation in the prison break of Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard) and the Brink's robbery. I was accused of being part of a group of white radicals who aided and abetted a group of black revolutionaries in their attempt to build a revolutionary organization. The Brink's robbery had been a devastating blow to the Rockland community, where two local police officers, Edward O'Grady and Waverly Brown, died along with a Brink's guard, Peter Paige. The subsequent investigation into this robbery and multiple deaths led to several prosecutions, grand juries, indictments, trials, and convictions. Many people who were both remotely and closely connected to the events were targeted and I was one of them. The government was looking for me. And the FBI orders for all of us were "considered dangerous, shoot to kill." I had been a political activist for fifteen years, from the time I was a teenager in the late 1960s. I had been in the anti–Vietnam War movement as I believed that, as an American, I was responsible for the acts of my government and that voting for politicians who were against the war had not been enough to stop the war. I did not accept the U.S. claim that what was happening in Vietnam was a civil war between the North and South. I thought that the Vietnamese people were fighting a just war of national liberation. Seeing the B52s dropped from planes, watching the burning of civilians with napalm and Agent Orange, reading about the incarceration of Vietnamese militants in cages only big enough for tigers made me furious. In watching the terrible violence of the war against Vietnam and hearing Vietnamese people talk about the war, my consciousness and understanding of the way to end the war led me to believe that opposing the war simply by demanding U.S. troop withdrawal would not by itself be enough to end the war. I believed that one had to try to stop the machinery of war. There had been a call stemming from the earlier student movement that I had agreed with: "You've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

Later, I worked with some of the most radical people in the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and the Weathermen. I had been a part of the political and social movement that developed throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It was a worldwide revolutionary movement for peace, equality, and liberation. Everywhere one looked in those years, there were counters and alternatives to the predominant culture. People were challenging the draft, the war, their social relations, gender roles, and all the norms of society. There were popular movements in almost every country. Revolutions that had begun in the developing world in the 1950s actually succeeded in the next decade. Countries were throwing off colonialism and building independence. All over Western Europe, students and workers were taking over universities and factories. It actually seemed possible to challenge the power of the rulers and the governments and bring about a different and better world. The civil rights movement showed us, showed me, that we lived in a segregated society, in a divided country where black people were still slaves and millions of poor people were unemployed and went to bed hungry. The power of the black struggle woke up my generation to look around and see the divisions and the injustice. Sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and demonstrations were responded to with water hoses, jailings, and killings by racists with direct ties to the police. In turn, revelations of the true conditions in the Southern United States exposed the myth of the country's rhetoric about democracy. It moved a whole generation to act. I considered myself an ardent supporter of revolution and was under the influence of people like Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist, revolutionary, and one of the twentieth century's most important theorists of the African struggle for independence, and George Jackson, an American revolutionary who had become a member of the Black Panther Party while in prison, where he had spent the last eleven years of his life. Jackson was one of the founders of the U.S. prisoners' rights movement. His books, Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye, were read around the world.

As a result of the investigation by the FBI, I was indicted in 1982, and rather then stand trial, I fled and disappeared into the underground. My indictment pushed me in a direction I had been going in for several years—embracing the illegality of a revolutionary movement. The repression by the FBI and Joint Terrorist Taskforce (a newly formed law enforcement group) was tearing apart the aboveground movement. They had deemed whole segments of the radical left to be "terrorists," and they were surveiling, phone tapping, infiltrating, and harassing people who were carrying on legal work, such as community organizing. There was enmity by law enforcement officials against all of us in the left who had exposed them for their own violations of our constitutional rights and who had organized against them. The COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) program was in full force. I decided that rather than go to what I presumed would be a rigged trial, I would follow my revolutionary heart and risk all.

The underground, becoming a fugitive, being on the run, however one describes it, is both a physical and mental state of being. The underground, not unlike the French resistance movement during World War II, consisted of a network of people who thought enough like you to risk opening their lives and homes to fugitives in order to protect them from capture by the authorities. In the language of criminal law, their help is defined as "harboring." In wartime, it would be called "aiding the enemy."

By the time I fled, however, whatever underground had existed as a result of the anti-war movement, the anti-draft movement, and the movement to give illegal immigrants sanctuary had all but disappeared. There was nothing romantic or fun about it. The lack of a vital and thriving network of committed radicals willing to sacrifice their careers and possessions should have been enough of a warning to me that I was incorrectly reading the mood of the country. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 by an overwhelming majority should have been further proof that our view of American society was deeply skewed. But I saw only what I wanted to see. I was blinded by my own dedication and extremism. Life underground was lonely and isolating, and this should have been another signal to me that something was wrong with the path I was treading. But, because I had lived through the rise of a mass movement and had felt the power of collective action once before, I still believed it could happen again. And so all the signs that I was moving in the wrong direction didn't stop me.

As the country moved to the right, some of us in the radical left went further afield and were increasingly polarized and far from the mainstream. I had been in various projects and organizations over the course of my life, including student groups at Barnard College and later at the City University of New York, as well as solidarity organizations that supported Puerto Rican independence and African liberation both in South Africa and in the United States. The overlapping core of people who built these organizations and many others grew increasingly frustrated with the inability to organize and grow or effect change in U.S. policies.

It was this core of radical activists that I joined to build the ranks of the underground. We hoped that our actions would help galvanize a militant mass protest against repressive U.S. policies in Central America, in Africa, and at home. We thought that by taking armed actions against government property (including bombing unoccupied government buildings), we would show that despite the power of the state, it was possible to oppose it.

In order to build an underground, we had to retreat further and further away from our public lives and psychologically further into our own political thinking and commitment than any of us had before. Although living in obscurity was difficult and tedious, there was a feeling of power that came from invisibility. Anonymity was often invigorating and chilling at the same time. For so many years in the left we had been trying to be different, to present an alternative to the norms of regular society. We were in the broadest sense part of the counterculture. This meant that we looked different, acted different, and were different from the accepted models of behavior. So, by our own definition we attracted attention. Going underground demanded a completely different discipline and relationship to our public appearance. Here the goal was to look exactly like everyone else around you so that nothing stood out, so that nothing would be a visual cue to anyone to remember anything about you. Leave no trace, we said to ourselves, blend in and glide along. We dyed our hair and straightened the curls, bought dresses and skirts and suits and ties and applied makeup and playacted that we were straight, in all senses of the word. For some of us this was easier to do than for others. But all of us found it was a difficult life and dramatically different from how we had formed our identities. We had been organizers, we had been in the public movement, and we had been speechmakers and workers. We had been living our lives for the purpose of helping people and ending society's inequities. Once underground, we could no longer talk to people or engage in any social work. Suddenly our lives had become the very antithesis of our beliefs, the embodiment of the social alienation that we had been trying to redress. And so, we made jokes to cope with the loneliness and pain. We laughed when the first time we dyed our hair it turned orange, a long-honored tradition of underground participants around the world. The color was called "underground orange" because it would take several attempts to get the color right. While we laughed, nothing about our lives was funny. We were trying to create lives and structures that were in no way connected to the world. We were trying to build identities that could coexist while there was a manhunt in progress for all of us. We were trying to create a look that would never be remembered and with it a capacity to appear anywhere. We were erasing our own identities in an attempt to be invisible.

When the mother of one of our members died, we had a big debate about whether or not she should attend the funeral. We all had seen the movies where the FBI was crouching behind tombstones waiting for a fugitive to show up. Several years earlier when I had been aboveground, I had attended the funeral of a member of the Black Panthers who had been in a terrible gun battle with the NYPD. FBI agents in helicopters surveilling the people followed the funeral procession to the cemetery in attendance. We had worked so hard to create a clandestine space with a network of apartments, cars, and contacts that we were loath to take the risk. But in the end, she went. It was the right decision, it was the humane decision. Her father was very glad that she came. And she was not put in jeopardy. There were no police or FBI at the funeral, no overt or covert surveillance of any kind.

It was hard to let down the wall that we had constructed between our past and present lives. I missed my parents and wanted to see them. Through an elaborate maze of procedures that included lipstick scrawled on a hotel mirror, indicating that it was safe to go, we contacted my parents and invited them into the underground. They came for a weekend. My mother said that all the precautions were right out of a John Le Carré novel. We shared our world over two days, talking inside an upscale motel. My parents were worried for my safety. They were afraid that someone would get hurt. They vehemently disagreed with the choices that I had made, and they urged me to leave the country. They had been visited by the FBI and threatened with jail themselves if they failed to turn me in. And yet, they risked themselves for their love of me.

I did not leave the country. Instead, I kept going. On that awful and cold day in November when I was on the New Jersey Turnpike with Tim, there was no immediate, specific plan to use the explosives. We were moving them into storage for an unspecified future time and purpose. We were stockpiling arms for the distant revolution that we all had convinced ourselves would come soon.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from An American Radical by Susan Rosenberg Copyright © 2011 by Susan Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission of CITADEL PRESS BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Foreword by Kathleen Cleaver....................xv
Acknowledgments....................xxi
Chapter 1. Explosives....................3
Chapter 2. Arrested....................13
Chapter 3. Detention....................20
Chapter 4. Conviction....................26
Chapter 5. Transport....................41
Chapter 6. Tucson Federal Prison....................51
Chapter 7. Lexington High Security Unit....................73
Chapter 8. Litigation....................103
Chapter 9. D.C. County Jail....................131
Chapter 10. AIDS Epidemic....................153
Chapter 11. Cancer....................164
Chapter 12. Mariana Maximum Security....................177
Chapter 13. Breaking Rank....................198
Chapter 14. My Father....................213
Chapter 15. Danbury General Population....................245
Chapter 16. AIDS Epidemic....................266
Chapter 17. Parole....................286
Chapter 18. Political Prisoners....................311
Chapter 19. Cancer....................337
Chapter 20. The Hill....................353
Afterword....................365
Notes....................369
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