AN American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country
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On a November night in 1984, Susan Rosenberg sat in the passenger seat of a U-Haul as it swerved along the New Jersey Turnpike. At the wheel was a fellow political activist. In the back were 740 pounds of dynamite and assorted guns. That night I still believed with all my heart that what Che Guevara had said about revolutionaries being motivated by love was true. I also believed that our government ruled the world by force and that it was necessary to oppose it with force. Raised on New York City's Upper West Side, Rosenberg had been politically active since high school, involved in the black liberation movement and protesting repressive U.S. policies around the world and here at home. At twenty-nine, she was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. While unloading the U-Haul at a storage facility, Rosenberg was arrested and sentenced to an unprecedented 58 years for possession of weapons and explosives. I could not see the long distance I had traveled from my commitment to justice and equality to stockpiling guns and dynamite. Seeing that would take years. Rosenberg served sixteen years in some of the worst maximum-security prisons in the United States before being pardoned by President Clinton as he left office in 2001. Now, in a story that is both a powerful memoir and a profound indictment of the U.S. prison system, Rosenberg recounts her journey from the impassioned idealism of the 1960s to life as a political prisoner in her own country, subjected to dehumanizing treatment, yet touched by moments of grace and solidarity. Candid and eloquent, An American Radical reveals the woman behind the controversy--and reflects America's turbulent coming-of-age over the past half century.
driving for twelve hours and had crossed state lines. We had to make it to the storage place and get all the stuff put away. We could not keep driving around with it. If we got hit by another vehicle, in the windy weather, well, it wasn’t just us who would be killed. It was impossible to think about that. After another forty minutes and fifteen miles, Tim said, “Maybe we should get off. Look at all these troopers; maybe there will be fewer off the highway.” My scalp was itching under my wig and
The stress, the anger, the constant waiting to go on trial, the uncertainty of whether he would get another forty years added to his sentence, and the denial of parole after he was already eligible all combined into what felt like a fait accompli. Everyone was sick. Marilyn had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Laura was sick with migraines, Linda had developed asthma, and Tim repeatedly had pneumonia. But Alan’s cancer was life threatening. We tried to joke—we called it a “war of attrition”
being aware of such consequences beforehand would have functioned as a deterrent for me. I like to think it would have, and yet in this strange and unpredictable dialectic, the bonds of love and responsibility I felt would not have been as strong without the suffering and the separation I had experienced. At the same time, my health, and that of my friends, was deteriorating. Medical care at Marianna was nonexistent and we suffered. Marilyn had a bum knee from a poorly healed kneecap and a
shooter and those who participate in any way. All those indicted are considered equally culpable.) I asked Pam, “How do you deal with that? With four life sentences?” She answered, “I don’t lay claim to them, I don’t claim them.” Her words gave me chills. In truth, Pam would soon die from AIDS, rendering the concept of “life sentence” almost absurd and irrelevant. The scourge of AIDS was on my mind when I walked into the prison gym one day and saw seven young black women sitting in the
choice. The choir began the program by singing “Amazing Grace.” The choir was an all-black Baptist gospel choir. If the soloist was good and everyone clicked, then they could tear the roof off. But if the soloist was off, then the whole choir could sound terrible. That day, I have to admit, they rocked the gym. The soloist, a high soprano, a young woman named Janelle whose voice was a marvelous mix of clarity and depth, not to mention perfect pitch, led them beautifully. She led them and they