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Freeing Seth Hayes

Former Weatherman activist Naomi Jaffe talks about prisoner Robert Seth Hayes, jailed for 37 years

There are currently more than two million inmates in US prisons, and New York State alone has more prisoners than Japan, Canada, France, and Germany. Within this vast prison system is a small subset of political prisoners, incarcerated because of their resistance and actions during the volatile struggles of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with groups like the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the North American Anti-Imperialist Movement, and La Raza Unida among others. Naomi Jaffe, longtime activist and member of the Albany Political Prisoners Support Committee, currently focuses her efforts on the six long-term prisoners from the era of the black liberation movements: Herman Bell, David Gilbert, Robert Seth Hayes, Abdul Majid, Jalil Muntaqim, and Sekou Odinga.

This Saturday, a benefit is being held for one of these prisoners, Robert Seth Hayes. Seth Hayes has been incarcerated for 37 years—convicted for the killing of a New York City police officer, a charge Hayes continues to deny—for his activity with the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, and is currently imprisoned at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden Despite a sterling prison record, Seth has been repeatedly denied parole, and remains one of the longest-held political prisoners in the US.

In an interview with Artvoice, Jaffe, who will be speaking at the event, talks about political prisoners in the US and New York State and the efforts by her and others to support their release.

AV: How did you become involved with advocating for New York State Political Prisoners?

Jaffe: I was involved with the militant activist movements of the sixties and seventies, including SDS and the Weather Underground. We saw that imprisonment was a major part of government repression of activist movements, and many of our own comrades and friends were imprisoned, people we supported and admired, including a number of people in movements of national liberation, like the Black Liberation Movement and Puerto Rican National Independence Movement. A lot of people in that era were imprisoned, and I became involved on a personal level because my own friends and colleagues were imprisoned, and also in a political way because I saw how important a part of government repression imprisoning people for their political actions was.

AV: What’s wrong with the criminal justice system in New York and the way it views activists and political prisoners?

Jaffe: I think mass imprisonment in general is a symptom of a society that’s oppressive. The US as a whole has more imprisonment than any other country in the world in both absolute numbers and as percentage of population, and that’s a sign of a repressive society. New York State’s system is not separate from a national culture of mass imprisonment. What’s wrong is slightly different for political prisoners, because political prisoners are imprisoned because they are resisting and protesting against a system of inequality, so the systems way of dealing with any people that are affected by injustice is to imprison them. You’ve got hugely disproportionate representation of people of color in prisons, both nationally and in New York State. That’s a symptom of a system of inequality that’s based on race.

AV: Do you get a sense that the system is favorable to change?

Jaffe: Any system of entrenched power and greed and inequality is not favorable to change, but I do think that people’s movements for change have made a difference and do make a difference. We really had an opportunity to see how much difference people’s movements for change made in our movements of the sixties and seventies, when there was massive resistance all over the world. We saw a tremendous outpouring of energy for social change and for more justice. Two opposite things happened in response to that. One thing that happened was that the system was forced to shift, and it did shift in certain ways. The other thing that happened is that it implemented more repression. We saw in my generation a shift to a concept of social justice that essentially includes racial justice, that there’s no such thing of social justice without focusing on racial justice. That happened because people of color communities became agents of their own liberation all over the world. We saw that there was a different kind of power in those days. We called it “people’s power.”

AV: Who are the political prisoners in New York that you currently support?

Jaffe: Of those movements of the sixties and seventies, a number of people are still incarcerated. There are political prisoners from all sorts of movements who are incarcerated today, but in particular that are six prisoners in New York State who were imprisoned for their activities in the era of Black Liberation struggles of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties. They have all been incarcerated from between 28 and 39 years—they are among the longest-held political prisoners in the world. During the time in which they were arrested and tried and sentenced, their perception was that their communities of color were under siege by the police and by the government. They were under siege economically, and they were under siege militarily. Police offers frequently shot and killed people in communities of color and were never held to account. The movements in from which these six men came, Robert Seth Hayes being one of them, were movements of self-defense and movements for building community and self-sustaining, mutually-supporting structures.

AV: Talk about Seth Hayes.

Jaffe: Robert Seth Hayes has been in prison 37 years. He was sentenced to 25 years to life. He was convicted of the shooting of a New York City transit police officer in 1973. When the police came looking for him as a suspect, the police stormed his apartment shooting, and he shot to defend himself, and so he was accused of attempted murder. He became eligible for parole in 1998, and has been “hit,” denied, every two years since 1998. It’s one of the parts of the New York criminal justice system that incarcerated people and the communities they come from find most unfair, that the parole board becomes a sentencing body. They keep resentencing you based on the nature of your original crime. Because of tremendous pressure from police officers and political scapegoating of people in prison, there’s come to be a culture that says people who committed violent crimes should never get out of prison, even though the law says that they should. Many of the parole commissioners on the parole board will not ever approve parole for someone who is incarcerated for murder, no matter what they’ve done in the 25, 35, or 45 years they’ve been in prison.

AV: Do you get a lot of input from those in prison?

Jaffe: I was part of organizing a New York State prisoner justice conference, on March 27 of this year, and we did some outreach to incarcerated people, to find out what people’s greatest source of grievance and resentment was. We also had a lot of input from families of formerly incarcerated people. People say that this creates a sense that this system is a system of enslavement. It means that nothing that you do in an entire lifetime can change ever the nature of that original crime. We have people in prison since they were teenagers but they are completely changed people.

AV: Why should people care about political prisoners of the 1960s and 1970s and how is it relevant today?

Jaffe: These prisoners who have fought for justice, in particular racial justice, have something to teach us. We need them more than they need us, and the reason we need them is that the kinds of changes for social justice that we want to implement are an enormous mountain to climb and we can’t climb it unless we stand on the shoulders of the people that went before us. We need to learn from them, understand the struggles of that period in order to be able to build on them. Sometimes people look at that period of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s with nostalgia—I know that young militant people today wish they were alive in that period because it was such a period of revolutionary energy. One of the reasons we need these political prisoners is to learn from them and from their stories how to see the revolutionary energy that’s present in our world today. We need to be able to see it because the powers that be cover it up. It’s still here, it still exists. We need to be able to recognize the strengths of our movements by learning the about the strengths of an earlier period.

The fundraiser for Seth Hayes is being held at the Adam Mickiewicz Library at 612 Fillmore from 7pm to 9pm. The event is organized by a small group of local friends and supporters of Hayes, and all funds raised by the event will go directly towards the legal effortsto secure his parole.

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