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Interview With Dan Berger: Prison As ‘Grievous Institution’ And AIDS Activism By Prisoners

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Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing In the Civil Rights Era, is our guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast this week. He joins the show to talk about his contribution to Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work Of Grief that relates to efforts to de-carcerate society. It is the second interview in a current series on grief and loss in organizing.

Berger describes prison as a “grievous institution” and talks about the AIDS organizing that went on in prisons in the 1980s. It was revolutionary and saved countless lives and contains many lessons for a political moment in which grief and loss seems to surround us all to a greater extent every day.

To listen to the interview, click the player at the top of the post or go here.

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Below is a partial transcript of the interview.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Why shouldn’t grief be kept private?

DAN BERGER: I think grief surrounds us all, and sadly, it seems to surround us with increasing intensity and increasing pain, as we confront everything from climate catastrophe to incipient fascism to so much else. So I think the best organizing, the most kind of humane and radical politics is one that is able to account for our full selves.

Given the centrality of mourning and loss and grief and the ability of mourning, loss, and grief to actually generate new forms of solidarity and sociality and communion, I think we have both a responsibility to acknowledge it as well as a kind of opportunity, which is to say working and thinking and operating, where our lives are most whole is the most powerful work we can do.

GOSZTOLA: You exchanged letters with David Gilbert. I’ll let you introduce him. He really was a way to get into how people were mobilizing grief into action around AIDS organizing.

BERGER: Yeah, so David is someone who has been a friend and a mentor of mine for almost 20 years. And so when Cindy [Milstein] first approached me about the book and contributing to it, particularly with an eye toward thinking about how grief haunts organizing in prison and organizing against prison, writing with David, doing this interview with David was what immediately came to mind.

For people who are listening who might not know who he is, David was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-war and civil rights and youth power organization in the 1960s. He later joined the Weather Underground organization in the 1970s, spent most of the ‘70s underground in sort of anti-racist solidarity work. After the Weather Underground fell apart in the late ‘70s, he resumed public life for a time and then went back underground to try and continue operating in solidarity with other anti-racist militant groups, including the Black Liberation Army.

He was arrested in October of 1981, when a unit of the Black Liberation Army with other supporters attempted to rob a Brinks truck, and the robbery went terribly wrong and resulted in two police officers and a security guard being killed. And then, later, one member of the BLA was killed, and several people were arrested throughout the 1980s in connection with that event. So David was one of those people and was sentenced to serve between 75 years and life in prison.

In New York, they have what is erroneously called “truth in sentencing” laws. So that means 75 years is 75 years. There’s no shortcut. There’s no earned good time or anything like that. So in effect he’s serving what comrades in Pennsylvania have called “death by incarceration.” It’s not a death sentence. Literally to have 75 years in prison is a death sentence.

David has been really remarkable, as has a number of other political prisoners in that generation, in remaining committed his values and principles of anti-racism, of solidarity, of social justice. And so when he saw the kind of devastation that the AIDS virus was reeking on the prison population, as well as black communities and queer communities on the streets, he was really motivated to act.

I think in particular, as he talks about in his interview, it was the death of his co-defendant Kuwasi Balagoon, who was a former member of the Black Panther Party and later a member of the Black Liberation Army. Kuwasi died in 1986 of AIDS-related illness, and it was the kind of tremendous outpouring among other men in prison that really sparked something in David.

So working together with someone named Mujahid Farid and “Papo” Nieves, David founded this group called the Prisoner Education Project on AIDS, which was modeled on the peer education efforts that were happening in queer communities in the streets and really saved an untold number of lives throughout the New York state prison system in the 1980s and 1990s, and for their life-saving efforts, David, Farid, and “Papo” were transferred to different prisons across the state and were harassed and subject to other kind of efforts to try and stop their work.

GOSZTOLA: Let’s get into the peer education program and what that sort of entailed, what kind of a program it was, and perhaps, what made it revolutionary in that time for David and others to be putting together such a program.

BERGER: We have to remember at that time the government’s response to HIV and AIDS, both at the federal government as well as at the smaller scale of the government of the prison (the warden and other state officials), was one of explicit, criminal malicious negligence; denying it was a problem and denying to dedicate funds to research; promoting and participating in all manner of racist and homophobic stigmas of people with AIDS or people with HIV.

There was serious talk in the country as a whole about quarantining people, who were HIV positive, forcing them to get tattooed that they were HIV positive, or wear badges that they were HIV positive. These were things that were and that now might be represented in dystopian fiction like “The Handmaid’s Tale” but things that really had a lot in common with how the Nazi regime and other genocidal regimes have sort of targeted their enemies and produced their own racial scapegoats. So this was a really deadly time.

Part of what people were doing everywhere around the country was trying to promote the kind of best practices to avoid transmission of HIV, trying to encourage more support for research, trying to get life-saving medicine in the hands of people who needed it, and also countering the kinds of racism and homophobia and other stigma that the government and other reactionary entities were putting out.

So part of the idea for doing peer education was the recognition that even as people were pressing on the government to not quarantine people, to put out true information that things like holding hands or sharing drinks or things like that—That HIV was not spread through that sort of casual transmission. But it was also the idea that people in prison were not going to trust the administration, had no reason to trust the administration, as the administration actively promoted their death.

Part of what made peer education radical was it was prisoners achieving some measure of their own power and recognizing that people in prison had reason to trust each other and were more likely to trust each other than they would trust the administration. And so part of what David describes in our interview is all of the challenges that people had to confront in organizing those peer education models.

The kinds of homophobia at the administration or the kinds of stigma around drug use were also being circulated within prison so part of what they had to confront as peer educators was the ways that people themselves imbibe some of that deliberate misinformation. David wrote a really powerful essay at the time called “AIDS Conspiracy Theories” because there was a white supremacist, William Douglass, who was promoting the idea that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and was really arguing against what were known things to reduce the threat of transmission. And he was sending that into prison and really targeting black prisoners.

These are the kinds of things that they had to confront, and they realized that peer education and working together as prisoners, working together across the kind of racial and religious barriers that prison promotes and thrives upon, was the way to do it. So David worked in particular with Mujahid Farid, who I mentioned, but also Albert “Nuh” Washington, who was a former member of the Black Panther Party, who was an imam and widely respected cleric within the prison, to really counter this kind of misinformation and conspiracy theories that were spreading the epidemic throughout New York state prisons.

For the rest of the interview, click on the above player or go here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."