… a radio interview with Tom Manning (member of the armed clandestine movement in the U.S. / United Freedom Front / Ohio 7 ) conducted by a member of the Toronto Anarchist Black back in October 1991. I can’t remember the name of the radio show, but we did interview various PPs / POWs over the years on the show … this interview was then published in Arm The Spirit # 7 …
… interestingly, Tom was denied this issue of ATS as it was deemed by the New Jersey States Prison to contain “material of such a nature as to threaten the domestic tranquility, security and orderly running of this institution.”
… Tom responded to the Superintendent of the prison, in part, as follows: “The notice from you concerning the seizure of an issue/copy of Arm The Spirt arrived tonight. I’m assuming you seized it because it contains an interview of me. If that is the case, it only confirms my words in the interview about ideas, as opposed to acts, being the reason many people are kept in MCU indefinitely. And your act of seizing my words is a violation of your First Amendment and I appeal your decision.” …
Tom’s current address:
Tom Manning #10373-016
FCI Butner Medium II
Post Office Box 1500
Butner, North Carolina 27509
Boston born and raised in a large, Irish working class family-never enough $ – though my
father worked day and night-with sleep in between- his only days off were when he was hurt or some crisis in the family-a longshoreman and a postal clerk- he worked himself to death- trying to get one end to meet the other- he never did make ends meet- that would be a cycle & capitalism is not made that way- he always got the worst end.
As kids we tried to help where we could- I shined shoes & sold newspapers in the subways and the bars, otherwise I spent my time like most kids in the neighborhood – roaming the docks and freight yards looking for anything that could be converted into cash, bartered, or used in some way. also playing stickball & raising pigeons. As I grew older, I worked as a stockboy, then construction laborer until joining the military in ’63. Cuba in ’64, Viet Nam in ’65-66.
Back on the streets for a minute, then state prison for 5 years, armed robbery and assault & battery. Given the area where I grew up and being a ‘Nam vet, prison was par for the course. I ran into a lot of boyhood friends and veterans inside. I became somewhat politicized in prison, taking part in food and work strikes, being around people willing to teach and organize at great personal risk. I spent my last 14 months in Walpole’s 10 Block, where I first read Che, and where all the prisoners- black, brown, and white- were united out of necessity. In contrast to general population in the prison and in the city of Boston.
I completed my sentence in May of ’71-took one quick tour of the old streets, and headed for the country, the woods, and small towns of Northern New England, where I met Carol, married, and had a child, the first of three. Jeremy, Tamara, and Jonathan. The second two came during our ten years underground. In Portland, Maine we became active in an organization named SCAR, whose work was done by and for prisoners, ex prisoners, and their loved ones.
The work was rapidly expanding into all areas of the community, finding jobs and housing for people coming out, trying to stay out, support & welfare advocacy transportation to the prisons for visiting , childcare, organizing young people, a bail fund, a book store.
With this work and the study it required, it became increasingly clear who got the best end, at whose expense, and what was needed also became clear- socialism- a system where ends meet. The bosses oppose this system with a vengeance. They attack it with their armies and police. The People must fight for their own system in all ways- one of these being armed clandestine struggle. We have a long way to go, but we are getting there.
I was captured in 1985, sentenced to 58 years in federal prison for a series of bombings carried out as armed propaganda against apartheid in South Africa, U.S. imperialism in Latin and Central America, including a concerted campaign against Mobil Oil and U.S. military targets in solidarity with the FALN’s campaign for the release of the five Nationalist prisoners. And against racist, genocidal capitalism here in the belly of the beast. I’m also sentenced to 80 years- (two 25 to life, plus 20 for armed robbery, plus 10 for escape) in New Jersey for the self-defense killing of a state trooper.
At present I am at the U.S penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. where I am classified as a high max prisoner restricted to a high accountability status (orange card) that requires me to be checked in every two hours during the daytime and evening hours. I am forced to work in the prison print shop, which has a higher security than any other job shop. And if I refuse or get fired from this job, I ‘ll be returned to the hole. [editor: As of August 1999, Thomas Manning has been moved to Springfield, MO for hip surgery]
This is the first prison I’ve been held in where I can walk around un-handcuffed and un-shackled. The prison authorities , because of my political beliefs and affiliations, have declared me a “threat to the secure and orderly running” of their prison system. As a result, I have spent the last 12 years in continual lockdown, from the control unit in New Jersey to U.S.P. Marion in Illinois, and ADX Super -max in Florence, Colorado.
I stand accused of being a part of the Sam Melville/Jonathan Jackson unit in the 1970’s and the United Freedom Front in the 1980’s. I am proud of the association and all that it implies…
An interview with Tom Manning
April 12th and 19th, 1991.
“YOU’VE GOT TO STRUGGLE ON ALL LEVELS, WITH WEAPONS
OR WITH LEAFLETS, AND WITH IDEAS….”
Could you trace your own development at a revolutionary – the development of your own political consciousness – and particularly what motivated your decision to move from above-ground community organizing and political activity to clandestine activity?
The need for revolution is obvious depending on where you’re from. If you’re sitting in a suburban house with a two car garage and a birdbath in the back, with your 25″ TV telling you that you’re OK and the world’s OK, that’s one thing.
Myself I came up from the projects. I grew up in the housing projects in the city. With the lack of things we needed in the family and in the community it was always obvious that something was wrong. But with the conditioning you get from the system, it’s hard to make an analysis at that time why you’re inside that kinds of situation. When I got out into the world, basically joining the service, just being around people from all around the country, it was almost like, at first, that I was dropped from the moon into the middle of this population that had no idea what or where I came from, or vice versa. It was because of that conditioning, of growing up in the inner-city in the projects, always basically on the edge.. it was an on-the-edge existence.
As the time passed in the service I started meeting other people from different cities, inner-city situations – New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Oakland – and I started to make the realization that there are two cultures within the one, the haves and the have-nots. That’s how we used to identify. We used to associate together along those lines in the service.
Once I got to Vietnam, being really aware of the different backgrounds in people, when I got to Vietnam the contrasts were so clear of america and what america expected, what it claimed and what was actually happening over in Vietnam. So all of that added up.
Coming back to the States after Vietnam it wasn’t long before I ended up in state prison. It’s a place where a lot of Vietnam veterans ended up at that time. That’s when I first started putting all this in some kind of perspective, and also seeing what was going on on the outside. I was in prison during the late ’60s, from ’66 on, when all the demonstrations were happening, basically around the war but there was still something of the civil rights movement going on then.
Then came 1968, with Martin Luther King being executed and the uprisings in the cities, stuff got really militant inside. We took part in a lot of work strikes and hunger strikes and things like that, and all the beatings and ship-outs and everything that goes along with that kind of stuff. That’s when I started making a decision on where I was going to
be, on what side of the struggles that were going on. At the same time there were a lot of racial problems inside, white prisoners fighting against Black prisoners, etc., and basically I made some choices then, with the reading I was doing and the people that I was getting locked up with in segregation, that there was a need for revolutionaries out there and if and when I got out of the joint, that’s what I was going to do. Take it to the streets, basically.
After getting out in ’71 … I started looking for people to hook up with to do some kind of political work, not knowing for sure what exactly I wanted to do. I was attracted to the very militant stance of the Panthers and the things that the Weather Underground were doing. I wasn’t really clear on what the Weather Underground was about but I like that way, clandestine resistance. It took me a couple of years to find people who had the same affinity for those kinds of activities, but eventually we did hook up.
Part of the pattern of armed resistance which we’ve seen over the past 20 years, specifically by white anti-imperialists, are actions done in solidarity with or in support of anti-colonial struggles and liberation struggles in the ‘Third World’ (Latin America, Southeast Asian, etc). What is the relationship between armed resistance in North America and the revolutionary struggles around the world?
Let me speak just from my own experience. I started struggling from a self need, from the experiences of what I grew up in and what I knew and felt those needs were, not in solidarity with anybody else. It’s not as though I started from some kind of intellectual abstraction. I knew where I came from and I knew the people I was working with.
When I was doing above-ground work, was going down to the welfare office and jumping on the desks for families who needed heating oil to get through the winter, those kinds of things. We were doing a lot of prison support work, fighting for prisoners’ rights inside and fighting for support for the families outside. Most families outside are poor people, working and poor people. So that’s the basis of where I come from.
It’s more from an inside out kind of perspective than outside in – an in support or in sympathy kind of perspective.
It was basically a realization that my struggle and the struggles of where I’m coming from are similar to the struggles of people in places like El Salvador. They don’t want to take over the world or anything like that, they just want to improve their lot to the point where it’s livable and has some kinds of hope and some kinds of future to it. That’s all we
were fighting for in the communities. It’s just a matter of realizing that your community is the same as their community, and that makes both of these communities our community.
You and your comrades, the Ohio 7, are among the more than 200 Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War currently held in U.S prisons. Do you feel that their is an increasing awareness of the existence of PPs/POWs in the U.S.?
There is an increasing awareness of political prisoners and why there are political prisoners, but not as much as we would like to think. We tend to have a lot of contacts with each other, and with people who have been involved for a long time newly coming together to organize around PP/POW’s, so it gives us the feeling that we’re reaching out and we’re really getting somewhere. But then I have contact with other people around the country and they don’t even know there are political prisoners.
It amazes me when I’m in touch with someone doing political work somewhere, like down in Kentucky or somewhere. All of a sudden I find this new connection and here’s someone who’s been doing community work for fifteen years and they’ve never heard of any of the political prisoners except the ones who’ve been on “60 Minutes”. It amazes me with all the energy I see going into this political prisoner support work and awareness work, it amazes me that it hasn’t really gotten out into the community, into the wider community. You have the movement community and then you have the rest of the world, and it seems like we’re not getting out there.
During the past few years, we’ve seen increasing attempts by the U.S. government to criminalize resistance. The state has been using things like anti-racketeering (RICO) laws, originally designed to fight organized crime, and seditious conspiracy laws to prosecute clandestine activists. We certainly saw this in the case of you and your comrades. It’s also been used extensively against Puerto Rican independentistas. What do you see at the state’s agenda in using these laws and do you think they pose a threat to above-ground organizing as well?
First of all, I think the use of RICO against the Puerto Ricans and then against us is basically an attempt to deny the fact that there are political prisoners, and ultimately that there is a need for political struggle in this country or in those areas with this country tries to dominate. The first aspect of criminalization is denying the justness of the struggle.
The use of RICO against us, and originally against the Puerto Rican comrades, is a test. They used it successfully against the Puerto Ricans. They got convictions. They got big time. The next step, once you’ve used it successfully against people of colour, is to see if you can use it against white people. Basically, I think that’s what their progression was.
If they can successfully use it against us, this small group of white people being the OHIO 7, the next step would be to use it against people in above-ground work. They can tailor it. All they’ve got to do is find two acts that have some kinds of aspect to them that they can classify as “criminal”. If they can find those two acts, then they can make a conspiracy out of any kind of organizing that you can imagine. Anywhere where you’re putting out a message and an agenda, if they can attach two acts together that they can justify as “criminal” they they’ve got a RICO conspiracy.
Do you think that the left as a whole in the U.S. is aware of this threat and are taking it seriously?
Not the left as a whole, but I don’t think the left as a whole in this country has ever come to any kind of consensus on anything. There are people who are taking it seriously, and that’s why we got as much support as we did around the trial. We didn’t get as wide a range of support as would have liked to have had. One of the things with the OHIO 7 is that we’ve always tried to reach out and be as inclusive as possible in everything we did or said, even while we were underground, in our communiques and stuff. But the support we did get around the trial was people who understood what they were struggling against. They weren’t supporting personalities or anything like that. They understood the seriousness and the potential enormity of what was coming down there in Springfield.
It seemed like in both the OHIO 7 Seditious Conspiracy trial, and also the recent Resistance Conspiracy Case, there was, in many ways, a successful attempt by the government to isolate the clandestine activists from the above ground activists by throwing around accusations of “terrorism”, trying to intimidate people and stop them from doing support work.
I think a lot of the isolation was done while were still underground. I think they accomplished that to a good degree, between their propaganda and their terrorizing of the community. Once we had been captured – we were totally isolated when we were first captured – any breakthroughs we made at all were major victories. It was a constantly progressing thing, and it still is, that we are getting out of that isolation and we are reaching out. What we were about when we were active in the field and what we are still about, even though we can only work in a limited fashion now. It’s constant. Anybody who takes the time to listen to it and who takes the time to make all the connections that we’ve always made understands where we’re coming from. If they’re not geared for that mode of operation, then at least they can support it and understand it. Armed struggle against the same enemy, no matter what your geographic or geopolitical borders are, has the same needs.
A lot of people are probably not aware of control units or what types of prisoners are held within control units. To start off, could you tell us what a control unit is, what the conditions are, and what kind of prisoners are held within them?
This particular control unit, like most, is a 24-hour a day lockdown. They say 23 hours a day, but the fact is that you’re locked down 24 hours a day. When you do get to go out to the yard your movements are so controlled and it’s with so few prisoners at a time that you can’t really say it’s not locked down.
The kind of people they keep in control units are the people who they feel will have some influence on the general population. It’s mainly ideas that they’re trying to lock up here rather than individuals. There are few people locked up here for actually acting out anything that they call a “disciplinary problem”. It’s the people who have the ideas that they’re afraid of.
During the last year or so in Trenton State Prison, we’ve seen a series of provocations by the prison administration which they’re using not only to increase the tensions within the prison, but also to serve as a justification for the expansion of the MCU (Management Control Unit, the control unit at Trenton), and to then obviously confine more people within it. Could you give us a brief history of these provocations to establish the context for what’s going on now?
You have to understand that this is part of a national move. The same shakedowns and moves and other stuff that they’re doing here are also happening at Marion right now. I hear from Ray (Levasseur) that they’re moving people every thirty days confiscating property and stuff, and that’s also what they’re doing here. They are trying to create provocations to justify their long-term goals.
Eventually they want to turn the whole of Trenton State Prison into a lockdown unit for this state, and with each move they’re doing that deeper and deeper. More blocks are being turned into control unit blocks. What is left of the general population is getting cut down to basically a service corps of prisoners that serve all the other prisoners that are locked up, doing the cleaning up in the corridors and stuff like that. As a matter of fact, nobody gets to use the corridors these days except the crews that clean up, and basically that’s what you see in places like Marion where the whole prison is locked down. The only movement is those prisoners who are in trustee status out there buffing the floors and stuff, that that’s what it’s coming to here.
No programs, nothing to occupy yourself with except being locked up. Midnight moves, all night shakedown, physical frontal assaults in full combat gear every time they move you for a medical move or anything like that, they come dressed up in riot gear with their clubs. It’s a series of moves. Nothing’s coincidental. It’s all brought about to provoke and intimidate.
What do you think is the Bureau of Prison’s agenda in trying to lock down this huge number of prisoners, as you say, not only within the state of New Jersey, but increasingly around the country as a whole?
You know about the rate that they’re building new prisons. Just since George Bush has been president, the feds have built forty new prisons. To control that number of prisoners they have to have a large percentage of them locked down at all times, not just so that they can control them but also so that they can use that massive control unit as a psychological threat to control the ones who aren’t in control units. That’s what they’re doing here in New Jersey. At one time they used the control unit within Trenton to scare all the prisoners in the state, almost 30,000 now just in the state prisons, that they’re using the whole idea of Trenton State Prison as a threat over all the other prisoners in prisons around the state. They’re using it to say to the prisoners, “If you mess up here you’re going to Trenton.” To accomplish that you’ve got to make the threat of Trenton a reality and that’s what they’re doing now. This is not a fun place to be right now.
Could you tell us about the struggles that are going on right now with you and the other prisoners within the control unit at Trenton, particularly around this new cage, which the prison orwellianly terms their ‘activity module,’ where all MCU prisoners are now required to be held when allowed outside of their cells for things like medical visits and haircuts.
Well basically what they did is built this small tiger cage, a 14′ by 14′ tiger cage out in the middle of the floor. You have to remember that they have very few programs here. One thing that they do to threaten people is to tell them that if they don’t cooperate in the behaviour modification programs, which means basically going out and talking to a psychologist every 90 days, if you don’t do that then you’ll never get out of MCU. Getting out is very arbitrary anyway, because before they had this cage program they would tell you that if you don’t talk to them you were never getting out of MCU, but when they need an empty cell they’ll find somebody to move out so they can put someone else in here.
Because there are no other programs, they are basically using the cage as a very physical, very visual thing to demonstrate that you’re giving in to them. When you step into that cage, you take all your clothes off and step into the cage and this fat white man sits outside the cage and asks you a few questions while you stand in this cage. That’s a very visual sign to them that you’re ready to dance to whatever tune they want you to dance to. So there are very few prisoners doing it. They’re saying it’s for security and
making it look that way but all these other moves like the midnight moves and the all night shakedowns were coming anyway, they’re just using this cage as the central point for new and deeper repression here.
Has there been strong solidarity among the prisoners in the MCU against the cage? I know that many of you have been refusing to leave your cells at all rather than be forced to be put into the tiger cage …
There’s probably less than 5% of the prisoners that are using those cages, and even then under very limited circumstances — guys that are told that they have to do a psychological review before they see a parole board or before they are considered for a transfer out of MCU. Like I said, there are less than 5% of prisoners doing that. There’s no other activities going on in the cage. Those guys who do break and go into the cage have to make a whole lot of justifications within themselves before they take that step. It’s a
constant everyday thing, having this thing sitting out in front of your cell looking at you. It’s a very visual thing to focus on when you’re focusing on your resistance.
As you say, prisoners in MCU come up for review every 90 days to determine whether they can be moved out of the control unit and back into the general population. Most of the prisoners in the control units across the United States are there because of their political consciousness or because of their abilities to educate or organize other prisoners politically. You are engaged in a lawsuit at the moment in which you are trying to expose the political nature of your confinement in MCU. Could you tell us about that?
If you look at my suit, the purpose is not so much to have me moved out of the control unit as it is to challenge the concept of the control unit itself. I don’t ask for any kind of program to be laid out for me to follow so I can get out of MCU. I challenge the whole concept of putting me in here in the first place, I don’t participate in anything here any more, the hearings are anything like that. I’m going to challenge it in the suit or try to agitate in here to cause enough resistance to break it.
And, the times you participated in the hearings, the prison has stated implicitly that the reason you are in MCU is because of your political beliefs and affiliations …
Well, you’ve seen a copy of the suit. We’re going to use this suit as a central point in the trial that’s coming up here this winter that comes out of the uprisings here in August 1990. The suit demonstrates clearly the fact that I’m treated differently because of my politics, because I’m identified as political. That will be one of the things that I will be testifying to at the trial of those people who are being tried for the uprising. They have been put in the situation that they’re in because of their politics: singled out, pressured,
harassed. That’s what brought about that uprising. It’s the same thing that’s going on now.
Just to wrap up, given the ever-increasing state of repression in North America, what do you see as the role of clandestine revolutionary organizations in the U.S and Canada during the coming years?
They’re coming to take this phone right now, so I’ll be real quick. Basically, the role of armed struggle anywhere is conditioned by time and place. At some point, in places like El Salvador, it becomes the main thrust. Right now, armed struggle in the country is basically armed propaganda, a demonstration tool. For people as a whole, armed struggle gives them another option to fight the system with.
You’ve got to struggle on all levels, with weapons or with leaflets, and with ideas …
Transcribed from a radio interview on CKLN in Toronto, October 18/91.