Sunday, 8 July 2012

A note from Staughton Lynd on complicity and joint enterprise (original post by Alan Gilbert)

Staughton Lynd is a fine historian of working class politics at the time of the American Revolution at Yale (after going on a trip to Hanoi to see the damage to and heroism of the Vietnamese people, he was denied tenure). He was also an organizer for SNCC - the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Freedom Summer in Mississippi. 

Staughton and Alice (his wife) have become lawyers fighting racism and capital punishment in Ohio, including defending members of the Lucasville Five. In addition, they supported steelworkers in Youngstown, and co-edited Rank and File: Personal Histories by Rank-and-File Organizers which highlights the actual experience of workers (see here).

About my posts on joint enterprise here and here, Staughton sent a note about “complicity,” less common I think in the US than in England, but not in Ohio:


There is an equivalent to 'joint enterprise' in American law. It is the law of 'complicity.'

In Ohio, a person present at the scene of a homicide or having any connection with it, can be sentenced to death. This is the situation of several of the Lucasville Five, the men I am seeking to defend who were sentenced to death after the Lucasville prison uprising of 1993.


The longest prison uprising in American history occurred at Lucasville "maximun-security" prison in Ohio in 1993. The prisoners were mainly black and urban; the guards white and from the rural South and Appalachia, a clash which led to unusual violence. That the state designed this as the setting shows either unusual social obtuseness or sadism...

Prisoners were allowed to make one five-minute phone call per year.

In the rebellion, blacks and whites, including members of the so-called Aryan Nations, joined together to fight back. They scrawled slogans on the wall "Convict Unity" and "Black White Unity." 9 prisoners, five of whom were thought to be snitches, and one guard were killed. 

The Lucasville five were singled out to be tried for murder. As Staughton says, little evidence except presence is needed in these proceedings, a situation acutely resembling joint enterprise.

Staughton has written subtly about how white workers often learn that racism is against their interests (see below). Here is his description of conditions at Lucasville, and how the prisoners came together around the Warden's abuse of Muslims:

"Prisoners also believe that Warden Tate may not have been averse to a small disturbance at this prison, because a few weeks before the uprising, he had asked the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) for permission to build more Supermax cells within Lucasville prison.

Another practice Warden Tate, like many other wardens, instituted was to encourage inmates to inform on one another. He even set up a special post office box for the convenience of prisoner informants who wanted to send him a message.

This, of course, led to tension, and not only between prisoners and correctional officers, but between prisoners and prisoners. Prisoners who performed jobs like `clerk' for a particular residential area that would give them some access to the personnel files of other prisoners were especially suspect.

That was more or less the underlying situation. One could go on and on about grievances. Prisoners at that prison at that time could make one five-minute telephone call per year. It was just a very tight place--the kind of place that was set to explode.

The triggering incident was that the warden decided to test for tuberculosis by injecting under the skin a substance that Muslim prisoners believed contained phenol, a form of alcohol. These prisoners said that their Sunni authorities in South Africa told them this wasn't permissible.

The prison countered by saying that they had talked to various Muslims in Ohio, who said this was okay. To which the African Muslim entity responded in a very dignified message, saying, `Look, among Christians, you have Baptists, Episcopalians, Jehovah's Witnesses, whatever--and you wouldn't permit any one denomination to say what was appropriate for another. Within the Muslim faith, as well, there are different religious tendencies, and what someone tells you in Ohio is not necessarily what we here in South Africa believe to be the correct interpretation of the Koran.'

There was a kind of summit meeting between the warden and some of his associates, and leaders of the Muslim prisoners, who said that at other Ohio prisons, the testing for TB had been done in other ways. A deputy warden actually called in from vacation to tell the warden he thought it was a very bad idea to threaten the prisoners with forced injection in their cells, because if it was done in that way, what a given prisoner decided would be visible to all his colleagues in the same residential area.

But the warden let it be known that on April 12, the prison would be locked down. Every prisoner would be in his own cell, people would have bagged lunches instead of going to the chow hall, and the SWAT team and doctor would go from cell to cell, and inject, forcibly or otherwise, people who had thus far refused the injection.

Rather than permit that to occur, the Muslims decided to take over a portion of the prison--L block, or perhaps one pod or residential area within that block. According to the testimony of a Muslim who became a prosecution witness, the idea was to create just enough of a disturbance that the authorities in Columbus would get wind of it and might be motivated to overrule the warden as to how the testing for TB should be done.

But within moments of prisoners laying hands on the first corrections officer, the situation got out of control. One has to understand that these were prisoners who had been very, very tightly regulated and restricted in what they could do. Suddenly, they were free, and they vented their feelings on the officers, several of whom were taken hostage, and on prisoners they thought to be snitches.

That's how it began." 

Though racism is, in some historical periods, widely influential (spread by elites as a form of divide and rule through "press, pulpit and comic paper" in Marx's phrase about the bigotry of English workers toward Irish immigrants), racism is not always widespread among poor whites. For instance, many white (and black) sailors before the American Revolution, seized by press-gangs for the British navy and fighting back with "riots"/rebellions, identified with the 20 or so slave insurrections in the Caribbean between 1750 and 1770. They brought the idea of abolition back to London – see J. Philmore’sTwo Dialogues concerning the Man-trade in 1760 - and James Otis’sThe Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved in Boston (1764) which insisted that every man, black as well as white, has natural rights. In taverns uniting poor people, these ideas were widely debated before the Revolution. I discuss both pamphlets and their impact in Black Patriots and Loyalists, ch. 2.

Differing with most of the Patriots' elite leadership, revolutionary crowds like the Boston Tea party tended to be made up of abolitionists.

Last week, Marc Steiner interviewed me on his wonderful radio program in Baltimore (see here – the show will be on later this week or next
). Marc has spent much of his life organizing among poor blacks and whites, including prisoners. He described to me how he had brought a gang calling itself the White Patriots from Chicago to Resurrection City in 1968 (this was the poor people’s encampment in Washington, initiated by Martin Luther King and brought to fruition by others after his murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis). 

The White Patriots like the Young Lords had quite a lot of radical self-awareness. As the name suggests, however, there was also quite a lot of trouble (does "white patriotism" signify poor people standing up to oppression or lynching?). Staughton’s argument below shows how people can overcome initial racism (and nationalism) through experience, and fight for freedom and democracy in many areas of life (i.e. in and beyond unions).

There is a broad tendency on the "left" to stigmatize white workers for their sometime collaboration or acquiescence in the worst of racism (see David Roediger's interesting Wages of Whiteness, for example). But this is a mistake. Black workers today sometimes fall prey to anti-Arab racism (and take part, in the army, in American aggressions); chicanos to anti-immigrant sentiment (Cesar Chavez organized to deport illegals, sadly advocating a common position with the Klan; there has been a years-long fight in the United Farm Workers movement about organizing in the fields, where, in California, roughly one-third of workers are immigrants...). Every ordinary person can (and needs to) learn that racism is, among other things, a form of divide and rule; that we are all in the struggle together, that we each have an interest in fighting explicitly against the worst forms of oppression which is also the right and human thing to do.

Here is a link to Straughton's fine description of the Lucasville revolt and the viciousness, against the Lucasville Five and others, of the authorities.