… came across the 4 loose pages that comprise Jaan’s piece entitled “Reflections On The Freedom Struggle” tucked inside a copy of “Can’t Jail The Spirit: Political Prisoners in the U.S – A Collection Of Biographies.” Originally published in a zine called “Trans-Action” which came out in 1991. 450 copies were printed, out of Chicago, and it also included a couple of pieces by Ray Luc Levasseur as well as bios of the Ohio 7 … first up is a bio Jaan wrote in 1991 that was published in the Sedition Committee newsletter and last but not least is an interview with Jaan, conducted by Betty and Herman Liveright, that ran in The Guardian…
from Sedition Committee Newsletter
Hi, sitting here in Leavenworth Penitentiary, on my 41st birthday (3/21), with Spring just beginning, a fresh breath of new life and hope … is an appropriate time to put down some biographical thoughts.
Captured combatant / political prisoner since 1984, community, labour and student activist since the 1960s, underground work from 1971. Father of a wonderful 7 yr. old son and two fine daughters, 15 and 13, who I share with my comrade-wife Barbara.
From a close knit blue collar family, thankful to have my parents still alive and having 3 brothers, 2 sisters, most married and joyful, I am an uncle to an increasing number of little ones.
I am Estonian, having immigrated to the usa with my family when I was 3. My grandfather was part of the anti-czarist Bolshevik struggle, but sadly I never knew him. My parents were not socialist or politically active.
We lived in the Roxbury section of Boston until I was 10. I feel fortunate in having first learned something about racism and working class survival as a kid in a black community. We then moved to the west side of Buffalo, a predominately. Italian neighborhood. School was always easy but my teen years I was more interested in girls, streets and cars than anything else. At 16 getting a car and money was more important than school so I quit. I went to work in car lots and eventually made it to the steel mill.
This was during the mid-60’s and the Vietnam war was heating. up. Many of my friends got drafted and some returned in body bags. Meanwhile, jobs at major industries were suddenly available as war production went up and young workers were drafted. While at Bethlehem Steel I was part of a wild cat strike led by younger black and white guys from our local. Fighting the company, cops and union bureaucrats taught me a lot about the power of unity of workers.
Police and trouble were constant features in my neighborhood. In 1966 I was convicted of assault, given a 5 year sentence and spent the next 21 months in Elmira and Wallkill prisons. Thrown into a brutal prison at 18 , I had to learn quickly how to survive, but I also began thinking of what was happening and why. I finished high school and took some college courses and began some serious reading.
I left prison in early 1968 and went to Cornell Univ. where I ran into and joined SDS protesting against the war and racism. For the next 2 years I attended the U. of New Hampshire. I was very active in the anti- war movement, did draft counseling, co-founded a SDS chapter and did some regional organizing. I worked with marxist groups
and came to consider myself a maoist. We supported National Liberation and labor struggles and, in particular, the Black Liberation Movement in this country, especially the Black Panther Party. From the Vietnamese I learned that revolution was a protracted effort and in order to be successful, it had to be multi-leveled, utilising all methods of resistance.
After the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent and Jackson State, the U. of New Hampshire went on strike. Soon after, I lost my scholarship and returned to Buffalo. I began doing anti-racist work with youth gangs. Soon my parole was violated and I was sent to Attica. There I had the privilege of working with dedicated revolutionaries like Sam Mellville.
I got out of Attica in the Spring of ’71. I did some public speaking about the struggle in prisons and soon became a target of police surveillance. unwilling to go back to prison on some trumped up charge or to give up my revolutionary work, I went underground.
In Feb. of ’72, I was injured and captured and charged with bombing Nixon’s re-election headquarters and the police station in Manchester, N.H.. I was convicted and sentenced to 20 years.
I spent the next 7 years in captivity: 5 years in N.H. state prison and 2 years in Lewisburg and Atlanta. I helped prisoners fight for HUMAN RIGHTS, FILED LAWSUITS AGAINST BARBARIC CONDITIONS, MET AND WORKED WITH SOME OF THE MOST DEDICATED FREEDOM FIGHTERS I’VE EVER KNOWN – PEOPLE FROM THE BLACK LIBERATION ARMY REPUBLIC OF NEW AFRICA, PUERTO RICAN INDEPENDENISTAS AND WHITE REVOLUTIONARIES. In ’78, I won an appeal, had my sentence cut to 10 years and was released.
I moved to Boston and became active in anti-racist, community security and South African support work. Shortly after arriving, I met my soon to be close comrade, Barbara Curzi and her two wonderful daughters. Before the year was up we moved together as a family.
In ’79, I was active as an organizer and a martial arts instructor for the Amandla Festival of Unity. The idea was to fight racism in Boston while building support for Southern Africa. After the concert, Amandla People’s Security continued offering Tae Kwon Do training and doing security at cultural events, rallies and at people’s homes when they were under racist attack. As a teacher and organizer in this, I drew surveillance and threats from the cops and reactionaries. By ’81, with two young girls and Barbara pregnant with our son and in order for me to continue to do revolutionary work, we went underground.
We were captured in Cleveland, Ohio on 11/4/84. Since then I have been convicted in Massachusetts of being in a shoot out with State Police and received a 39 to 45 year sentence. Then I was convicted and sentenced to an additional 53 years in the Ohio-7 trial in Brooklyn federal court. We were charged with the actions of the United Freedom Front, including bombings of the South African government facilities and u.s. military and corporate sites. In August of ’88, my comrade Tom Manning and myself had all charges dropped against us in the on-going Ohio-7 Sedition Trial in Springfield, Massachusetts.
I have never denied nor admitted any of these charges.
I am guilty of no crimes.
But, I am proud to say I am a revolutionary and fully support National liberation struggles and socialist revolution!
FREEDOM IS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE!!
Reflections On The Freedom Struggle
from Trans-Action, 1991
Revolution, Liberation and Freedom Struggle is a large and long undertaking. This is probably clear to most folks, especially those of us who are already part of the effort. Yet too often still, it seems that a lot of people limit their views on what it takes to succeed or even what it means to build and engage in a Freedom Struggle. This a broad subject so what will be discussed here will focus on legal and ‘extra’ legal methods and ideas on how to define what resistance is and should be.
We as individuals, organizations and movements across the progressive spectrum (national liberation, anti-intervention, anti-imperialist, Women’s, Peace, Labour, Gay, etc.) can not allow the government / opposition / enemy to define what our methods of resistance can and should be. Whether from a reform approach and most certainly from a more thorough going revolutionary perspective, to allow your opponents to set the terms of your efforts, bluntly put, guarantees the failure of those efforts.
This raises the question of the legitimacy of the government and what obligation or duty an individual living in this country has to the usa government. At the very least, for those who feel they hold some obligation to this government and see it as having some legitimate morally justifiable authority to make and enforce its rules and policies, these people should be ready to oppose at least those laws and policies that are morally repugnant or illegal under international law. This opposition would include civil disobedience, waiting to be arrested or not waiting, symbolic protests and actions, etc. What it can’t mean is allowing a rule or law to stop you from taking action and making known your opposition to unjust and reactionary actions of the u.s. government and system.
As for those of us with a revolutionary class or nationalist understanding, the government in Washington has to be seen as having NO legitimate authority – morally or legally. What it does have is military and financial might and it thus imposes its policies on us here and other peoples and nations worldwide. Therefore it is not only correct, but necessary to oppose u.s. government policies. In fact it needs to be argued that there is no good reason to conform to any law of the u.s.a. other than tactical considerations. Morally and legally oppressed nations have no requirement to submit to their colonial oppressors. Similarly, exploited and oppressed classes and specifically the working class, should not and must not accept the “legitimacy” of the ruling class or any of its institutions (government bodies, armed enforcers – police and army, “legal” edicts, etc.)
Realistically, we do often have to accept their rules, but again, it should only be tactical and temporary and we should always keep the right and need of our Freedom Struggle in the forefront.
Looking at the world, and our own history, it really is time to conclude that we need, must have, a multi-leveled opposition struggle. This has been true in EVERY revolutionary effort anywhere and especially in modern times. Certainly, every country and struggle has unique and specific realities that have to be understood and made part of that struggle, but beyond this concept, there is nothing somehow different or exceptional about the u.s.a. and our Freedom Struggle here. It would be just as wrong (and futile) to use some other country’s blueprint for freedom here, as it would be to put forth that we don’t need or shouldn’t employ certain types and methods of resistance here.
We need and to have a public opposition movement (which just recently saw millions take to the streets against Bush’s Gulf war). Building it and involving more and more of our people is key to any serious attempt at fundamental change – no question about this. The public sector has the right and in fact does operate both within and outside the proscriptions of u.s. government law. There are many considerations in determining whether the oppressor’s laws should be observed in any specific public activity and it is up to the people and groups involved to do this.
Complimenting the above ground movement, there is and needs to be, a clandestine effort. An underground is more than just a bunch of guerrillas though. History, including American history, is replete with the work and significance of clandestine struggle. John Brown’s organizing and raids. Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad, the Central American sanctuary movement of the past decade are only some examples.
The general categories of underground resistance include passive and active work and defensive and offensive struggle. Broadly viewed this means at least some of the following: passive – networking and creating secure communications, transportation and residences; active – gathering information and exposes of government and corporate activities; defensive – developing and providing defense and protection for leaders, teachers, institutions and the people in general and teaching people and groups how to do this themselves; offensive – and yes, it also includes offensive actions using forceful means of clear revolutionary resistance.
The American Declaration of Independence aside, u.s. laws, including the Constitution, have always criminalized people’s attempts to make revolution. The American government has never hesitated to punish, repress, crush and kill those people and groups who have tried to bring fundamental progressive change to this country. Usually the system covers its repressive acts under the mantle of “laws,” but examples of cold blooded set-ups, trumped-up charges and murder go back to the earliest days of the u.s. government’s existence.
The question of force being used in popular struggle is really moot. The government and the system have always used force to maintain and expand itself. The u.s.a. was founded on the forceful theft of the land from Native Americans, on the stolen forced labor of Africans, on the forced and exploited labor of poor and indentured Europeans and it continues in like manner to the present. The question more honestly needs to be posed is: when, in what ways and as part of what overall strategy will most of the progressive movement begin to deal with and oppose this government violence with revolutionary force.
Not all progressive and revolutionary organizations and individuals will agree with or support forceful or perhaps even clandestine methods of struggle. None the less, it is important for us (all) to listen and consider other progressive groups ideas and criticisms. But the historical and practical justification for and need to further develop and engage in a multi-levelled resistance movement is a pressing issue now. Specifically the need to build and rebuild a working underground – this means a political opposition that is beyond the immediate reach of the u.s. government and its armed bodies and this is capable of force itself.
Underground formations carry a deep responsibility to listen to and stay linked with the popular movements, even while practical necessities mandate that no overt links be visible with any public organizations or individuals.
Theoretical arguments abound, including from many sincere left groups, about how and why it is not possible or right to develop underground and military capable revolutionary organization(s) yet, but the fact is, there is no magic “correct” time to begin this type of work. History teaches us that at certain times (in various countries) greater levels of agreement were achieved for armed and clandestine struggle, but there has always been at least some opposition to it as well. The challenge and responsibility for taking the step into underground work is directly linked to the potential for breaking new ground, developing new political and practical unity and taking the struggle on to a sharper and more advanced level.
There should be no illusions of quick victories or of easy roads. Romanticism and subjective analysis will only lead us to defeats and set backs. Concrete analysis of concrete situations is only way we can actually understand reality and revolution can only be made based on the objective realities of the society in question. Yet a multi-levelled struggle is just one such necessary part of objective reality that is called for and needed to actually challenge and ultimately defeat u.s. imperialism.
Revolution is only possible during a period of deep crisis and even then there is no guarantee that it will succeed. Of course, significant masses of people must be directly involved in the struggle. Yet again, in order to move forward and take advantage of upcoming crises, we need now to build our multi-levelled resistance – our public legal and extra-legal organizations, our clandestine defensive and offensive formations. We can’t put off any of this work for some future ‘correct’ time.
Much study, preparation and imagination needs to go into building clandestine groups. But we have had and have, both positive and negative direct experience here in the u.s. (as well as internationally) in our recent past – 25 years or so – of underground struggle and while security precludes spelling everything out, things can always be figured out and done. We must never underestimate the enemy, but neither should we be over-awed and paralyzed with fear of the u.s. government. Successful long term clandestine struggle is possible (this is a proven fact, with organizations being active for 10 or 15 years in spite of the u.s. governments most desperate attempts to capture and suppress them).
Recent world events have shown how seemingly well entrenched governments have been rapidly rocked and overthrown. Things turning into their opposites is a fundamental reality of nature and of society and the u.s.a. system is just as subject to crack and fall as any empire in history. We need to begin both chiseling away at it now and preparing our capabilities to help seize the moment and lead large numbers of angry and fed up people when the monster of u.s imperialism does seriously stumble and crack.
Be realistic, but fear nothing, all power to the imagination and be down for the whole thing. Freedom is a constant struggle!
Don’t Judge Armed Struggle
The Guardian, May 15, 1991
“A dangerous terrorist.” That’s how the Bureau of Prisons characterizes Jaan Laaman, one of the Ohio 7. He was the first of the political prisoners we were scheduled to meet at the U.S. penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., during our prison trip last summer.
Estonian-born Jaan Laaman came to the United States with his working-class parents when he was three, and grew up first in one of Boston’s poorest Black neighborhoods and then in a largely Italian and Puerto Rican blue-collar section of Buffalo, He was a rebellious kid with lots of street smarts, with a deeply resentful but politically unfocused awareness of the racial and class inequalities surrounding him and a marked propensity for getting into trouble with the authorities. At 18 he wound up in jail, serving a youth sentence for assault.
That was a jolt. A pivotal point in Laaman’s life. The brutalities of prison, in addition to shocking reports of neighborhood buddies coming home from Vietnam in body bags, put his life on a new course as a passionate crusader for radical social change. He completed high school in jail and after being paroled won scholarships enabling him to trade jail for college—first Cornell, then the University of New Hampshire. Those years for him were crammed with furious political activity: leadership in student peace strikes, organizing Students for a Democratic Society, mobilizing white support for the Black Panther movement – activities-that lost him his scholarships and earned him a short stay in Attica for violating parole.
Early in 1972, Lawman was captured and charged with complicity in the bombing of President Nixon’s re-election headquarters in Manchester, N.H. For that he did a stretch in a New Hampshire prison. Since then, in prison and out, in the community and underground, he has unswervingly dedicated his life to the cause of “socialism and revolution, – dedication that did not preclude his falling in love with and marrying his “dearest comrade,” Barbara Curzi. Working with a group of revolutionaries committed to opposing atrocities of U.S. imperialism, Laaman was now under intense government surveillance and in 1981 felt compelled to go underground. Three years later, culminating in what has been described as one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history, Laaman, Barbara Curzi-Laaman and three of their comrades were captured in Cleveland. Two other comrades were taken in Virginia; the group came to be known as the Ohio 7. The seven were charged and tried for bombing U.S, military recruiting. centers, a. South African consular office and buildings of corporations dealing with repressive regimes in South Africa and Central America, as well as conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government. Laaman was found guilty and given a 53-year sentence.
Toward the end of our day’s drive to Leavenworth, we reached Lawrence, Kansas. We crossed the placid, willow-lined Ossawatomie River on whose banks John Brown and his contingent of abolitionists had encamped and from which they launched a furious counter-attack against pro-slavery forces who had assaulted Lawrence.
This chance evocation of John Brown brought us back to a question that repeatedly had been thrust at us, even by left political activists, and which we had been wrestling with recurrently on our journey from upstate New York to California and, now, into Kansas, How can concern about the treatment of U.S. political prisoners be expected to embrace prisoners whose methods of struggle include the use of violence—so alien to a majority of progressives in this country? We had decided this would be the first subject we would discuss with Laaman.
Laaman seemed so unlike the stereotyped image of a “terrorist conspirator” that meeting him in in the prison’s visiting room was a shock, Laaman struck us as a cordial, ceremoniously polite and reserved person with a scholarly air. He responded with instant enthusiasm to the chance of offering his views on the use of force. As it turned out, that subject took up most of our time with him.
“On the one hand,” Laaman explained, “we saw the huge outpouring of support, admiration, respect and love for Mandela when he toured this country—literally millions of people were moved and inspired by Mandela, a revolutionary who spent 27 years in dungeons and until very recently the American government called a ‘terrorist’ and who to this day upholds the right of people to use arms in seeking freedom. “And yet, when this issue in respect to political prisoners is presented to most people and organizations in this country there’s a wholly different attitude. It seems to me that for the past 25 years we’ve supported struggles in other parts of the world without being moved and motivated by issues right herein this country. This is much less true, of course,” he went on, “for Black people, Indian people and Puerto Ricans, but,” he shook his head and trailed off, “white North Americans.”
“Well, sometimes it’s a little tough,” he went on after a pause.’ “People say, ‘I have a tactical or a strategic difference with you, or with your actions—at least the actions which the government attributes to you. So I can’t support you.'” He spread his hands and smiled wanly. His next words came with deliberation: “And so the government becomes the definer of what are acceptable and unacceptable methods of resistance.” “That’s why. I think, it’s a big mistake,” Laaman continued, “for parts of the left to take a hands-off approach on political prisoners even if they don’t happen to agree with some, or even most, of the activities .which led to their captivity.”
Then, like a persuasive teacher summarizing an important lecture, Laaman sounded authoritative. “We’ll never reach any ultimate victory in this country,” he said, “if we allow the government to define what we can and what we can’t do in opposing it.”
“Isn’t it possible,” we suggested, “that at a certain stage in the struggle for a decent society, violent acts front a clandestine base could alienate so many potential supporters that, on balance, such acts could prove to be detrimental, rather than …”
“I agree! I agree!” he, interrupted explosively and explained that throughout the Ohio 7’s period of clandestine action, he and his comrades hurdled innumerable logistical obstacles in order to debate in meticulous detail the appropriateness of a proposed “assault.” (The matter-of-fact use of that word by this gentle, studious man was startling).
REVOLUTIONARY TACTICS NEEDED
“Forceful means, ‘armed means’ – those terms cover a broad spectrum, you know. The sanctity of human life to me, as a father, a man, a revolutionary, is extremely high. The right to harm somebody else’s life, perhaps that’s especially accepted to me because of what the government has done to my life. So I don’t advocate terrorism, the concept of using the innocent public to enforce any kind of political principle or position. But I can support in certain circumstances the use of force.”
“I believe,” Laaman stated, “that in order to build the kind of movement—a serious professional movement—required to bring about basic change in this country, (here has to be a multilevel effort in which all avenues of struggle wire utilized.” Revolutionary tactics today, he suggested, must respond to the tactics our government has developed in recent years in its repression of political dissidents, “everyday government. actions which would have been incredible twenty years ago.” He offered some examples: indiscriminate road blocks; fingerprinting of children, “on the pretext,” Jaan said bitterly, “that you might be able to identify the body of a murdered child; the reinstitution of the death penalty in many states; the continuation of Cointelpro-type programs under other acronyms. “They chip away at our rights, piece by piece,” Jaan said. “We have to learn from our experiences of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s—the infiltrations, agents provocateurs, individual leaders set up and put in jail or murdered. We have to learn how to build and protect our organizations more effectively. We’ve got to develop structures and methods of work that are not se vulnerable to government penetration. Our movement needs a structure for underground activity which can secure and protect itself when and if the time comes.
“If you object” Laaman summarized, “to waiting until you’ve created a revolutionary militia, or until a general strike happens, or 11,0,000 people are massed in the streets of Washington for three or four months the way the people were in East Germany in 1989, well, I say these things don’t happen spontaneously. That’s why I’m convinced of the need for an underground movement–in conjunction with a primary public, aboveground effort.”
When the guard came and stood near Laaman to signal that our time was up, we snapped off the tape machine, too docilely, perhaps. But Laaman, raising a hand in. friendly enough recognition of the security officer, kept on talking for a minute. The last thing he said before his warm farewell, was a repetition of the injunction he had delivered before: “We simply cannot let the government define for us what are acceptable and unacceptable methods of resistance.”
On the next lap of our journey we stopped in Lawrence at a little camera shop to buy film. We told the alert and amiable young salesperson about our just-completed mission at Leavenworth, and he seemed surprised that there were inmates there whom we called political prisoners. We shifted to the topic of .John Brown, Asking if he knew of any memorials or special sources of information in Lawrence relating to the famous abolitionist. He grinned sheepishly, “Guess all I know,” he said, “is there’s a barber named John Brown has .a shop a couple of blocks from here.”
Betty and Herman Liveright, former co-directors of the Berkshire Forum, are engaged in a project, “Their Chance to Speak,” to increase public response to the inhumane and unconstitutional oppression of U.S. political prisoners in federal, state and county institutions.