Some notes on people’s culture and the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners

Political Prisoner

Despite the grim reality of imprisonment, I have not, as of yet, been condemned to a total state of ignorance as far as current efforts of various committed art and cultural groups and alliances are concerned. Thanks largely to a good number of artists and writers who have generously been sparing their time to visit me ever since the very first weeks of my incarceration almost two years ago, I have quite auspiciously been kept updated, however generally, on the developments and direction of the struggle in the artistic and cultural front here as well as in other parts of the world.

Last year for example, in July, a delegate from the U.S. to the International Conference on Progressive Culture (ICPC) flew all the way here as soon as the successful launching of that conference formally ended in Manila. He related to me not only the rich showcase of works and performances that capped the said cultural gathering, but also the wealth of theoretical discussions and interface of experiences through which was achieved firm common resolve to unite around a general set of tasks. One among such tasks, in relation to responding to urgent people’s concerns, was to subscribe to the International League of People’s Struggles’ (ILPS) declaration in 2004 making every 3rd of December International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War. It is that day today and so from this tiny cell here at the Calbayog sub-provincial jail in Samar island, or from this penal colony more popularly known as the Philippines, I raise a clenched fist for solidarity.

Defending people’s culture

A visual artist from the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) apprised me a month ago on a major ICPC event in the works for early 2013, which I understand will be a 2-day global action carrying the theme “defend people’s culture.” Very good news no doubt which speaks much of how the ICPC, since its inception last year, has so far been able to effectively keep its momentum of active engagement.

The call “defend people’s culture,” furthermore, presupposes that amid the crisis of the world capitalist system, and side by side with the intensifying struggles of the people for their basic democratic rights and for national and social liberation, a formidable and dynamic movement of progressive artists, writers and cultural workers is indeed in resurgence in the world today. This palpable trend – arising from the people’s movements’ renewed recognition of the need to combat cultural imperialism, and of the immense value of art and culture as tools for progressive social change – we welcome with much eagerness. And with the vast consciousness-building, organizing and mobilizing possibilities opened up in social media – notwithstanding modern communication technology’s otherwise dominant function as global accelerator of finance capital and consumerism, and as nexus for pacifism, utopianism and anarchism, social alienation and degeneration – this new wave of people’s culture can certainly develop in a very profound, even unprecedented way.

Consequently, however, such advance, in the face of the escalating attacks by states against progressive artists and cultural workers, should entail a prompt consolidation of ranks in order to be defended. I have just been recently informed, for instance, of the killing of Argentine musician Facundo Cabral; other artists meanwhile like Kurdish singer Ferhat Tunc and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot have been sentenced to serve time merely because of the political contents of their performances. Defending progressive culture, in this light becomes in itself a legitimate urgent people’s concern.

In the Philippines, there are at present some 400 activists and revolutionaries who languish in various detention facilities as consequence of the state’s long-running, institutionalized policy of criminalizing political dissent and involvement in advocacies and movement for real and wide-ranging social reforms. Mostly affiliated with national democratic formations and coming from the toiling masses of workers and peasants, they are victims of illegal arrest and torture. In order to justify their continued detention and to hide the political context of their cases, they become victims as well of the patently bogus modus of being slapped with trumped-up charges of non-bailable heinous criminal offenses, even as court proceedings move in very slow dubiously erratic motion.

While imprisoned artists and writers comprise only a small portion of the current statistics, it is timely and important to note that art and culture, especially literature and songs, have long assumed a distinct part in the continuing struggle of political prisoners for justice and freedom. In the context of defending people’s culture, it appears that artists and writers who continue to create even under detention, as well as those political prisoners who may not have been active culturally before being imprisoned but who have now learned to produce works of art and literature, do not only belong necessarily to those who must be defended, but very interestingly are in fact at the same time among our most ardent defenders.

‘Prison makes us into poets’

“Prison makes us into poets,” says National Democratic Front (NDF) peace consultant Alan Jazmines in one of his poems written in the early ‘80s, during the period of his second imprisonment (he is now on his third since February of last year). Jazmines is here however referring to poets mainly in the figurative sense. Prisoners, he suggests, in many instances, apprehend prison life in much the same way as poets usually set out composing their pieces. In rising above the adversities of a bounded, compact existence, for example, prisoners are just like poets who try painstakingly to achieve poignancy of meaning in the barest minimum amount of verse. Political prisoners are all poets, he says:

Who struggle everyday
to break the dross confines
of image of life outside
compressed into a few such things
as the iron bars
you squeeze for thought.

Prison after all, is only
a frugal, compact version
of an outside world,
bereft of so much verbiage
and the prose of assumed life
with somewhat freer movement

And yet quite self-evidently on account of this brilliant poem alone, and taking exception of the the fact that Jazmines has had barely a literary background to speak of prior to prison, we are made convinced that prison does make poets in the most literal, practical and very important sense.

It is not simply out of tedium or for lack of anything else to do that political prisoners actually take to writing. For one thing, those who have been thrown in jail for the audacity of their written works are quite naturally expected, given their character, to employ nonetheless the very same methods of the pen as one of their more immediate, self-acting responses to defy imprisonment despite extremely difficult new challenges.

Accustomed to the general strain of a relatively busier “outside world,” writers may presumably have found forthwith in prison, and not without much irony, the prospect of freer time to devote to writing. But such in any case is just as quickly offset by the attendant weight of arbitrary restrictions, ill-treatments of various kinds, and the tense chaos that takes turns with the doldrums in defining the climate of misery behind bars. Far from being trivial, their frustrations over having been deprived of otherwise standard essential tools as a word processor or a dictionary or ready references to current events, are pretty intense and justified considering how much of their former competence or of the work process they have previously been inured to, is severely undermined.

Many times however, it is the emotional and psychological scars left by their abductors and torturers that prove to be the more daunting impediments. For some, it is the hounding dread from clear and present threats of murder by state agents – or what they call “accidents” around here – that makes it seem impossible to write altogether.

All these of course, in the viciously tiresome scheme it seems of things, are but stuffs themselves that beg to be written about in earnest. The urgency of writing under such circumscribed circumstances – of giving full account of the machinations of injustice no longer expounded from observation alone or from one’s sound grasp of theory, but as something that now grips one very tightly in the neck – is so compelling that the imprisoned writers on the whole, despite all deterrents, are able to will themselves to write.

Though they may usually have to start from a practical non-guarantee that what they write could immediately reach their audience beyond prison walls, they write perseveringly just the same knowing that their works, as documentation of a continuing real social, human experience, should be able, in one way of another, to hold their relevance and cogency over time. Temporarily in such cases, the general inmate population becomes their immediate audience; which should serve them just as well and not in the least significant way given the political prisoner’s task of organizing the imprisoned masses – themselves a collective embodiment of the extreme dehumanizing effects of social injustice – into politicized prisoners.

And always, the imprisoned writers are themselves are their own works’ necessary audience – they who at all times must be reminded of the true socio-political, even historic essence of their ordeal; they who continually must be strengthened in militancy, ideology and spirit. The urgency of writing in prison is such that even the previously non-writers among the political prisoners strive to learn to write and become people’s artists and writers in their own right. In the history of state political repression, prison transformed as veritable workshops not only for but of writers has built its own living legacy of militant literature and culture.

I am still quite uninformed as to how precisely this category of the imprisoned writer is operationalized by PEN International. I see no reason, however, how such could possibly differ in any basic way from the progressive or militant sectors’ own definition. Anyway, I am very much thankful to the PEN International and its Philippine Center for their continued support, especially those who just last November 15, led a successful forum in Manila on the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer – Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, Elmer Ordoñez, Jun Cruz Reyes and many others. I extend my gratitude as well to Katia Canciani of Canada, and Tom Eaton of South Africa who represented me in their respective PEN events on the said date.

Political prisoners and U.S. hegemony

One particular issue that a Filipino-American cultural worker brought up during his visit here in prison last year had something to do with the rather general difficulty of American artists and intellectuals (even those in fact in progressive circles) in imagining the phenomenon of the political prisoner. This notwithstanding, let’s say, Assata Shakur’s already legendary pre-eminence in the counter-cultural consciousness of some of hip-hop’s more relevant quarters, or the popular mainstream MTV and concert circuit advocacy for Nelson Mandela’s freedom in the ‘80s, or for Aung San Suu Kyi’s in the last couple of decades.

The national democratic movement in the Philippines could readily suggest as basic reference the documents of SELDA, a human rights group which focuses on cases of political prisoners in the country. There are of course international organizations like Amnesty International whose work on those who fall under their category of “prisoners of conscience” is more expansive and worldwide. But I think must be given stress here – especially if what is commonly invoked to explain the inability of U.S. artists and intellectuals to comprehend the discourse of the political prisoner is the assumption that such discourse in fact is absolutely alien to the general political landscape of purportedly advanced democratic societies like the U.S. – is this: that political prisoners in many so-called weak democracies like the Philippines or say, Colombia, are as much the political prisoners of the monopoly capitalist state of the United States as they are of their respective reactionary governments.

The politico-military dominance of the US through which the monopoly bourgeoisie and financial oligarchy are able to impose upon the starving peoples of the world the rapacious economic system of neoliberalism to rake in superprofits and accumulate capital, is the very same global hegemonic presence that allows, and in fact guides puppet states to design and implement with alarming impunity, repressive fascist policies against the organized resistance of their people.

President Benigno Aquino III’s Oplan Bayanihan (Operation Plan “Cooperation”) is one such U.S.-Pentagon instigated “counter-insurgency” (COIN) policy. Under Oplan Bayanihan, state force systematically carry out extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, abduction and illegal detention of activists, and forced evacuation of whole communities, all in the name of state and imperialist imperatives. Through Oplan Bayanihan, the U.S.-Aquino regime has already accomplished in just two years an awesome track record of flagrant human rights violations – most recent and gruesome of which is the massacre of anti-mining activists and families of indigenous peoples in Tampakan in Mindanao island.

Cultural fascism

Oplan Bayanihan moreover has its own cultural component. No longer content with corporate media or traditional state cultural and propaganda apparatuses dutifully performing their usual sabotage job of blacking-out information about military atrocities, the regime still very much consistent with the pervading COIN doctrine of the U.S. has directed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to reorganize and beef up its media and public relations (PR) machinery. The AFP, with more spin, savvy and persistence than in the past years, has now been able to establish closer and more constant working relations with practically the entire milieu of PR sectors and potentially PR-rich institutions – TV and radio network producers, publishers and corporate advertisers, the church and the academe, national agencies such as the Department of Tourism or even the Commission of Human Rights, local government units, and shady non-government organizations (NGOs) – all for the chief purpose of aggressively re-imaging the military establishment as far as possible from its actual savage practice.

While artists and cultural workers of the national democratic open mass movement are vilified and persecuted as “Leftist propagandists” and terrorists, the AFP’s civil-military commanders and other fascist publicists, impresarios and stylists are now vigorously trying to sustain a campaign of mobilizing directors, writers and actors for such ubiquitous media productions as Christmas network IDs, drama anthologies, short films or public service programs, to project the false idealization of the militaryman at once as humble everyman and as selfless patriot. An AFP website has commissioned poets (those of the mercenary type themselves) to calibratedly emulate militant peasant literature as a cunning but rather desperate ploy to gloss over the fact that the military itself is the single most powerful instrument of the big landlord class in crushing the aspirations of the peasant masses for genuine land reform. While no less than eight (8) battalions of the Philippine Army continue to sow fear and havoc in the towns and barrios of South Quezon, a platoon, for good measure as a sort of blocking force, is deployed to a noontime TV variety show to dance the Gangnam Style. And, as declared by the AFP in a high-profile event a few days ago, the most popular celebrity diva in Philippine show business today, is now also the official Oplan Bayanihan ambassadress.

The culture of impunity in the Philippines, as a state policy, is not only contingent on a juridical system that is by nature grossly complicit. It requires at the same time for a particular fascist contrivance of deception to permeate the general moribund feudal, bourgeois and colonial culture – a mode through which, as we’ve seen, certain segments of the art, culture and media professions, however unwittingly, are enlisted and implicated in state repression and terror.

Breaking the (stereotype) chains

But again, the growing strength of the organized art and culture sector that is determined to speak the more consequential truths in society and advance the course of freedom of expression along with the people’s struggle for liberation, democracy and social justice, is undeniable. This, despite the rather enduring inaccurate assumption that singles out the artists and writers as among the toughest, almost impossible to organize. Cultural organizers in the main are able to rectify the attitude of inordinately amplifying the tendency of artists and writers toward individualism, liberalism or careerism, as if these were, in the class context of the petty-bourgeoisie, qualities that are perpetually irreversible.

They are aware that the state and the monopoly capitalists are only too happy to get help from whomever in perpetuating this stereotype. It is in the interest of the ruling class to constantly prop up this myth in order to spoil the objective potential of artists and writers in participating in radical social movements and in truly serving the people. For imperialism, it is important for artists and writers to remain blind to this class potential amid the culture of consumerism, elitism, mysticism and decadence, and even as their talents, skills and labor themselves are exploited in the service of fascism and neoliberalism.

With social investigation and class analysis, appropriate methods and patience, and in working for the artists and writers’ particular democratic demands, the resurgent worldwide people’s cultural movement can organize cultural activists in great numbers. They must continuously be consolidated through an efficient system of political and theoretical education, collective work, and practical integration with the lives and struggles of the working classes. This should enable them not only to create more socially truthful and potent works of art and culture but also to effectively do battle with their own petty-bourgeois ideological fetters.

In prisons meanwhile around the world, people’s art and culture remains a viable ideological weapon of intense power. In Batangas in Southern Luzon, Philippines, Charity Diño, a peasant organizer and public school teacher, has just recently taught herself to write poetry behind bars. Impelled by the need to exorcise the demons of torture in hear head, to reaffirm herself the militant principles of service to the people, and to exhort those outside prison to fearlessly carry on the fight against fascism, social injustice and imperialism, she writes:

This heart heavy with grief vows
To melt away these iron bars
To ensure justice for those
Stripped of their rights

These tearful eyes vow
To tear down these walls
To ensure the meeting of fists
Out to forge freedom

…Shackled, out of breath
Threatened with death
I vow ever to be loyal to you, the toiling masses!

-Ericson Acosta
Calbayog sub-provincial jail
Western Samar, Philippines
December 3, 2012

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