Felix Shafer : Mourning for Marilyn Buck, Part II

Mourning for activist, poet, and political prisoner Marilyn Buck, shown at three stages of her life.

The blue afterwards:
Mourning for Marilyn, Part II

By Felix Shafer / The Rag Blog / January 13, 2011

Part two of three

[On December 13, Marilyn Buck, U.S. anti-imperialist political prisoner, acclaimed poet, former Austinite, and former original Ragstaffer, would have been 63 years of age. Scheduled for parole last August after nearly 30 years in federal prisons, Marilyn planned to live and work in New York. She looked forward to trying her hand at photography again, taking salsa lessons, and simply being able to walk in the park and visit freely with friends.

Instead, after 20 days of freedom, Marilyn died of a virulent cancer.

In the first part of this essay, Felix Shafer wrote about the pain of losing his friend and artistic collaborator, Marilyn Buck, to cancer, and his determination to mourn her in some way appropriate to her life, accepting and experiencing grief as fully as great friendship demands.

He evoked the heady, seemingly revolutionary days of the late 1960s, and Marilyn’s simultaneous coming of age with a generation that wanted to change the world for the better and instead found itself criminalized in the councils of government and power. Buck’s experiences, and her fundamental identification with people over profits, led her increasingly to seek effective ways to oppose injustice, and, inevitably, brought her under official scrutiny.

But the 1960s proved to be a pre-revolutionary decade, and, along with others who refused to read the repressive writing on the wall, Marilyn Buck became an “internal exile”: a political prisoner of the State.

Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog]

keywords: revolutionary. enemy of the state. Alive !

After the terms revolution, liberation, resistance, freedom were thoroughly drained of signifying power by the predatory, vampire-like cartels in advertising and Hollywood, they could be banished to the merely unfashionable passé. It’s not solely a question of who “speaks” like this anymore but where in our society are these goals even considered to have meaning?

Today, enemy of the state probably sounds more like a dark shiny movie title or an album download than something serious and politically contentful. Its most likely association is to enemy combatant — people whom U.S. state power locks up and can torture in lawless offshore dead zones like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. After 9-11 they stripped a huge layer of constitutional protection off.

Yet throughout history, empires and their regimes have singled out for attack and removal all who stood up for the disempowered to challenge the obscene “order of things.” It remains a point of historical fact that Marilyn Buck was an enemy of empire and an enemy of the state. The national security state (laws, courts, prisons, police, FBI, military intelligence, and other armed/security bodies) has long treated her, and the other political prisoners, as people to be buried alive.

To get a sense of this it’s instructive to look at a very abbreviated account of what the government charged and convicted her of:

1 In 1973 Marilyn was convicted in San Francisco of two counts of buying two boxes of legal ammunition while using a false ID. At that time, her sentence of 10 years in federal prison was the longest — by far — for this offense in U.S. history. Many people believe that this disproportionate sentence came because the government was well aware of her close support for the freedom struggle of black people in this country, particularly the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. During the early 1970’s, the Black Panthers were under military, political, and media attack by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, as of course was Marilyn.

Marilyn was particularly hated because she was a young radical white woman from the South who crossed the line against racial privilege and white supremacy. She was unwilling to stand on the sidelines while good people were being hunted down and destroyed by our government. She was explicitly seen as a race traitor, a “n—-r lover” by the FBI/police, and the state moved to make an example of her to frighten others, especially radicalized white women, from following this path.

It was during this time that the FBI began to characterize Marilyn as the “sole white member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA).” And, in typical J. Edgar Hoover character assassination style, the bureau began saying that she had a “Joan of Arc complex.”

Inside the Alderson, West Virginia, federal prison, Marilyn met the great Puerto Rican political prisoner and national (s)hero Lolita Lebron — who along with her comrades would be pardoned in 1979 by President Carter after they’d served 25 years. (1)

Marilyn integrated herself into the community of women prisoners who did their best to support each other. She worked at staying attuned to outside events, from Watergate to the persistence of radical movements and the U.S. withdrawal in defeat from Vietnam. After serving four years of her sentence, Marilyn received a furlough in 1977 and did not return to prison. Between 1977 and 1985 we must assume that she lived and worked underground.

2 Recaptured in 1985, at the height of the Reagan era, Marilyn underwent a total of four trials, including two prosecutions for conspiracy, based on charges from the clandestine years. As a member of the “Resistance Conspiracy” case she, along with Linda Evans, Laura Whitehorn, Susan Rosenberg, Tim Blunk, and Alan Berkman, were accused of taking actions to

influence, change and protest policies and practices of the United States Government concerning various international and domestic matters through the use of violent and illegal means.

Among the alleged actions (in which no one was injured) were bombings of: the U.S. Capitol building to protest the illegal invasion of Grenada; three military installations in the D.C. area to protest U.S. backing of the Central American death squads; the apartheid-era South African consulate; the Israeli Aircraft Industries building; and the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (to protest police murders of people of color).

While underground, Marilyn was also charged with conspiracy in the successful 1979 liberation of political prisoner Assata Shakur (2) and the 1981 expropriation of a Brinks armored car in which two police officers and a security guard were killed. The government contended that the conspiracy brought together black and white North American radicals, under black leadership.

To my knowledge, this was the first time since the pre-Civil War era of John Brown that blacks and whites stood accused of joining together to conduct guerrilla activities. In this case, Marilyn was convicted of conspiracy; however, neither she nor her co-defendant Dr.Mutulu Shakur (stepfather of slain musician and actor Tupac Shakur) was convicted of any murders. Dr. Shakur was an original member of the Republic of New Afrika and a founder of the Lincoln Detox center in New York, which pioneered the use of acupuncture to help break drug addiction in the black and brown communities.

I feel a certain defensive avoidance about commenting, in shorthand, on this era’s underground movements of the left, which, after all, came to their historical end many years ago. This is an essay of mourning and homage to Marilyn Buck who lived this struggle for many years; it’s not an assessment of politics and strategy. Her clandestine years are held in protective secrecy by those who shared them. For her to have kept a journal would have been to put collective security in unacceptable jeopardy.

Nonetheless, at minimum, it seems to me, we ought to recognize more about these contributions than a basic recitation of her charges and convictions. But the post 9-11 “war on terror” has had a chilling effect on such conversations, despite the fact that these organizations had absolutely zero in common with Al- Q’aeda or similar terror killers.

During Marilyn’s powerful memorial celebration in Oakland, California, on November 7, 2010, it was revealing to hear members of the Black Panther Party tell how her underground skills helped them survive the onslaught of COINTELPRO. Marilyn’s tribute in New York was held a week later at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center (formerly the Audubon Ballroom) in Harlem. As nearly 500 people jammed the room where Malcolm was assassinated, a moving message was read from political prisoner/POW and freedom fighter Sekou Odinga — who was also convicted for the liberation of Assata:

She was someone who would give you her last without any thought about her own welfare. I remember one time when she shared her last few dollars with a comrade of ours, and later I was in her kitchen and opened her refrigerator to find nothing in it and almost no food in the house. I told her she had to let comrades know when she was in need, and stop giving when she didn’t have it to give. But she never stopped because that’s just who she was.

There have been very few actions to liberate PP/POW’s and Marilyn was involved with more than one. The roles she played were critical in not only liberation of POWs, but also in making sure they remained free, never thinking about the great threat and danger to herself.

For the most part, what remains of the left today dismisses these efforts as worthless adventurism or ignores them altogether. While there’s much of real value and importance in some of these critiques, the fact that empire rests on its capacity to inflict unlimited violence with impunity is rarely mentioned as something to organize against.

Isn’t it frankly obscene that ex-President Bush and high officials — obvious war criminals — who illegally invaded Iraq under a web of lies, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, can walk free and add to their fortunes? Or that the top CIA executives who destroyed more than 90 hours of videotape (an illegal act in itself) showing their torture of suspects in contravention of International Law, won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department.

Isn’t it beyond acceptable that central components of the permanent government, the CIA and Pentagon, stand exposed before the entire world as conducting an illegal, organized program of torture against prisoners, deemed “enemy combatants,” yet for which no one is brought to trial? Marilyn thought so. In her last year and a half she began writing a novella, partially set in Guantanamo, about torture and imprisonment.

The many-sided crisis of global capitalism, run-away environmental damage, and the decline of the U.S. empire, makes it likely that we are entering a new age of rivalry and upheaval. Not only is the U.S. deeply at war(s) in the Muslim and Arab world, conducting or backing counterinsurgency campaigns in many more regions, but the rise of both Blackwater style mercenaries and a mass gun-glorifying, fascistically-inclined Tea Party movement means that real violent momentum is on the right.

On an immediate note, as I write this in late 2010, the news comes in that Johannes Mehserle, the white terroristic cop, whose murder of Oscar Grant, an unarmed prone and handcuffed African-American, at an Oakland BART Station on New Years 2009 was captured on video, has been sentenced to only two years in jail. Counting the 140 days he already did before making bail, he is expected to serve in the neighborhood of just six months. In contrast, the African-American football star, Michael Vick, got four years for the violent crime of organizing brutal dogfights. This isn’t a post-racial society. Once more the obvious: it’s open season on black and brown people.

Although I’m not aware of any formal written self-evaluation of her underground political strategy, I do know that Marilyn engaged in ongoing reflection and complex dialogues with trusted comrades about this. When possible she tried to convey lessons to today’s new movements facing infiltration, grand juries, and conspiracy trials as a result of their militancy. Marilyn didn’t romanticize the underground struggle and counseled activists strongly against militarist and adventurist approaches. She changed as times changed AND she stuck to her principles.

Marilyn Buck at Dublin FCI, 1994. Photo by Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog.

keywords: Midlife- art and cutting through

By the end of the 1980’s, while many of Marilyn’s contemporaries were going through midlife crises, occasioned by our fortieth birthdays, she faced the ugly, cramped, totalitarian, arbitrary, cruel, violent, life-sucking, and repetitive regime of prison life. After all the court trials, she would be sentenced to 80 years.

What she had hoped was the bright glow of a revolutionary dawn would turn out to be the brief, fiery sunset of the passing era which had launched her.

Marilyn Buck was becoming a member of that extraordinary global minority: people who are imprisoned by the state for their political actions and beliefs. She sustained and was, in turn, sustained by this community of comrades and their strong webs of outside supporters and friends.

In the Bay Area her diverse circle grew wide, warm, and deep. The group Friends of Marilyn Buck was formed over a decade ago and is going strong today. Members of her family reconnected with her. While her physical range was totally restricted, the world came to her through amazing visitors from many continents and people’s movements.

She loved and mentored the children of activists, some of whom grew up visiting her. She helped raise her godchildren, Salim, Tanya, and Gemma. Day in day out, Marilyn participated with, learned from, mentored, and hung out, suffered, and stood with women — social prisoners and politicals — in every prison where she lived for the past quarter century. And she is being mourned behind those walls by people who knew her and those who knew of her.(3)

When she was captured and imprisoned in 1985, I was a member of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and spent time in Washington, DC, working as a paralegal on the Resistance Conspiracy case. Around this time, I began to bring my three year old daughter Gemma on social visits with Marilyn. Over the next 25 years, the tender alchemy of love between them grew into a strong family relation of their own.

I imagine that many people spoke with Marilyn about what, along with political solidarity, might help sustain her over the long haul. Prisons are soul-murdering places and it is a testament to human creativity and spirit that many, many prisoners refuse to give in.

From early on we shared poetry and she sent me this poem, beloved by political prisoners the world over. Written in 1949, it’s by the Turkish revolutionary poet Nazim Hikmet. In its entirety:

Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison

If instead of being hanged by the neck
you’re thrown inside
for not giving up hope
in the world, your country, your people,
if you do ten or fifteen years
apart from the time you have left,
you won’t say,
“Better I had swung from the end of a rope
like a flag” —
You’ll put your foot down and live.
It may not be a pleasure exactly,
but it’s your solemn duty
to live one more day
to spite the enemy.
Part of you may live alone inside,
like a tone at the bottom of a well.
But the other part
must be so caught up
in the flurry of the world
that you shiver there inside
when outside, at forty days’ distance, a leaf moves.
To wait for letters inside,
to sing sad songs,
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
is sweet but dangerous.
Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice
and for spring nights,
and always remember
to eat every last piece of bread–
also, don’t forget to laugh heartily.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
to the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.

I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
ten or fifteen years inside
and more —
you can,
as long as the jewel
on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose it’s luster!

Marilyn Buck read poetry and wrote hundreds of poems in her lifetime. She’s beloved by poets both within and beyond the borders of this country.

keywords: transformation is her talent for living

The high tide movements in this country and worldwide, which so moved Marilyn to transform herself, had definitively ebbed. Not only had the political maps changed but also the rate of change accelerated. She kept abreast by reading voraciously, talking with visitors, and conducting a far ranging correspondence.

While by no means a traditional Soviet-style leftist, she watched the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 and then the consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Reagan-Daddy Bush era death squads and counterrevolutionary wars, from Central America to Angola, had bathed regions in blood to blunt popular revolutionary initiatives and, with the Chinese government and party’s embrace of greed, the “socialist alternative” all but disappeared. Revolutionary forces laid down their arms. Marilyn loved Cuba and followed events on this brave, unrepentant island closely. The bombs of the first Iraq war rained down.

Even from behind the wire there were bright moments. On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison and shortly thereafter was resoundingly elected president of his country. I remember visiting Marilyn in 1990 at the Marianna, Florida, maximum-security prison with my young daughters, Ona and Gemma, and cheering his release.(4) As we slowly walked from the visiting room that day, they said, as they had many times before and would into the future, “We want her to come home with us.”

By 1993, she was transferred to FCI Dublin in Pleasanton, California — in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area — where she would live until the last months of her life. Over the years in Dublin she was incarcerated with many political prisoners.(5) As the 21st century got under her skin, Marilyn grew increasingly into a woman of many voices, passions, and fundamental, lifelong commitments. She somehow bore bitter setbacks and crushing disappointments to the limit, with deliberation.

Tendencies towards dogmatism and rigidity softened and this, I believe, made her stronger. She had the capacity to actively turn from spells of frank despair — which could go on for a period of time — towards renewal, creative experimentation, and her practical stance of being of use to others. This capacity to make a small and decisive inner turn away from the soul-murdering, isolating regime of prison towards a freedom of mutuality and care was, I believe, one of her great talents..

At her New York memorial tribute former political prisoner Linda Evans spoke about Marilyn’s AIDS educational work among women inside. She also told us about how Marilyn organized a benefit in the prison chapel to raise funds for black churches in the South which were being burned to the ground. This was her practice many times over.

Linked to this was her breadth of interest and penetration of thought. She read widely in natural sciences and literature. People who visited and corresponded with her know how engaged she was in thinking through the decline of revolutionary ideologies and movements over the past quarter-century and how well she knew answers for the future would not come easy.

Fluent in Spanish, she followed with great enthusiasm the new heterogeneous radicalism that has emerged in Latin America — Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay — over the past decade or so. When I sent her some photos taken by a friend who documented the FMLN electoral victory in March 2009, she wrote back expressing her joy. In recent times as part of her ongoing effort to grasp how the world was changing beyond prison walls, she studied political economy with a group of women on the outside who were close supporters.

Earlier, somewhere around the late 1990’s, I helped Marilyn reenter college. Returning to school in midlife had been good for me and I hoped it could assist her growth in unforeseeable and surprising ways. She enrolled in New College of California where she went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her Master of Fine Arts Degree in Poetics with an emphasis on translation.

One of her teachers, Tom Parsons — who coordinated her distance learning process, which involved sending tapes of classes to her so she could hear and do course work — told me she was the most gifted student he’d seen. Two of her other teachers — the poet David Meltzer and Latin American literature professor Graciela Trevisan — spoke at her Bay Memorial Celebration and have played important roles in the publication of her work.

Marilyn’s interest in women and feminism, poetics, literature, science, psychology, and cultural studies began to flourish, allowing new bridges to unfold across the last 10 years of her life. Those of us fortunate enough to visit and correspond with her found ourselves growing along with her in surprising ways. Marilyn, locked down in the totally controlled penitentiary space was, paradoxically, our breath of fresh air.

More to come

[Felix Shafer became an anti-imperialist/human rights activist while in high school during the late 1960’s and has worked around prisons and political prisoners for over 30 years. He is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and can be reached at felixir999@gmail.com.]


(1)Lolita Lebron, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Irvin Flores and Rafael Cancel Miranda assaulted the U.S. Congress in 1954 to bring attention to the colonial plight and harsh repression of Puerto Rico. Along with Oscar Collazo, imprisoned for an earlier attack on the residence of president Truman in 1950, they were released after serving more than 25 years in prison. Lolita Lebron died at 90 years of age on August 1, 2010 — two days before Marilyn.

(2)Assata Shakur was freed from prison by an armed clandestine action in which no one was harmed. Granted political refugee status, she lives in Cuba. Her autobiography, Assata, is available for people who want to learn about her life in the time prior to her liberation from prison. The website assatashakur.org contains valuable information. On the day before she died, Marilyn received a tender, personal audio message from Assata deeply thanking her for her life and contributions.

(3)In the soon-to-be published (March 1, 2011) book, An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, Susan Rosenberg, Marilyn’s co-defendant, writes about daily life in the remarkable communities created by women in prison.

(4)Marilyn was imprisoned in Marianna FL with North American anti-imperialist political prisoners Laura Whitehorn, Susan Rosenberg, and Silvia Baraldini.

(5)Some of the women political prisoners she did time with in Dublin: Ida Luz Rodríguez and Alicia Rodríguez, Carmen Valentín, Dylcia Pagán, Ida Robinson McCray, Linda Evans, Laura Whitehorn, Donna Willmott, and women from the Ploughshares and environmental movements.

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1 Response to Felix Shafer : Mourning for Marilyn Buck, Part II

  1. Mariann says:

    For many who loved Marilyn, and for those who never knew her, an important assessment of her life.

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