We Don't Require Purity

Last Saturday’s RFC reception in Seattle, the second event in a series of 20 to celebrate our 20th anniversary, was a big success. Once again, we had a bigger crowd and raised more than we anticipated. Those who attended were very engaged. I was particularly impressed by the lively in-depth discussion we had after my talk. We ended by addressing the issue of the RFC’s definition of “political prisoner.”

First, I pointed out that the RFC project extends well beyond supporting the children of political prisoners in the United States. I reiterate this point because it is a common misconception among our supporters that we confine our support to the children of political prisoners. The RFC provides for the children of targeted activists. Targeted activists include political prisoners, but they also could be those who are harassed, fired, black-listed, injured or even killed because of their progressive activities. In fact, the children of political prisoners only account for approximately a quarter of our beneficiaries.

But what is our definition of political prisoner? We do not use Amnesty International’s definition because we feel it is too narrow. They use the phrase “prisoner of conscience.” These are people who are imprisoned for their beliefs or for engaging in legal acts of protest. I believe this is a very conservative definition. We don’t use the broadest definition of political prisoner either. Given the class and racial bias of our society, and the disproportionate number of poor and people of color in our prisons, you can make a strong argument that all prisoners in this country are political prisoners. However, if we used that definition we’d have millions of potential applicants with no fair way of choosing among them.

We steer a middle course and use the definition set forth in the book Can’t Jail the Spirit. “We define Political Prisoners as people who have made conscious political decisions, and acted on them, to oppose the Unites States government, and who have been incarcerated as a result of those actions. These actions are taken in response to economic, social and political conflicts with our society. …. Political prisoners may also be people who are incarcerated for nonpolitical reasons but who, once in prison, devote their lives to the struggle for social justice [and are targeted for their actions]”

Thus, under our definition of political prisoner someone could engage in illegal activity and their children might still be eligible for our aid. In fact, some members of the RFC community might disapprove of the parents’ action, but would still wish to help their children.

This resonates with me personally. While I am not sure exactly what my father did in the 1940’s, I have become convinced that he did provide non-atomic secret information to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis. I most fervently hope that the thousands whose aid helped me survive my childhood nightmare would not have abandoned me just because my father engaged in illegal activity.

This is something I find so impressive about our supporters. They understand that activists are imperfect human beings who in the process of working for a better world face difficult decisions that others among us might approach differently. Yet they recognize that these same activists and their families, with whom they may have strong disagreements, remain a part of what the civil rights movement referred to as our “beloved community.”

They realize that if we demand political purity from those we support, we’ll end up helping almost no one. If we insist on perfection from those we follow, our disillusionment and descent into cynicism are almost inevitable. But if we recognize both our own and others' fallibility, it is more likely that despite experiencing setbacks we will continue to engage the world, work for change and support others who do so as well.

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