“Many people around the world look to the USA and have the naïve belief that it really is the land of liberty, freedom, and equality. They simply have no idea about the injustices and inequalities that exist in the US or how the justice system really operates – the structural racism and deep political bias that pervades the system”
By Tony Burke, former Assistant General Secretary at Unite the Union.
Unite has a long and proud history of standing shoulder to shoulder with those that are the victims of oppression and injustice, and we take our international solidarity work very seriously – especially around political prisoners.
Comrades many people around the world look to the USA and have the naïve belief that it really is the land of liberty, freedom, and equality. They simply have no idea about the injustices and inequalities that exist in the US or how the justice system really operates – the structural racism and deep political bias that pervades the system.
But frankly that’s also no different to the naïve impression that many people around the world have about the UK, where just as many structural inequalities and injustices exist, and where my country’s record of political incarcerations runs long and deep.
Unite has always understood that states built on exploitation and injustice will always lock up or attempt to silence those who really stand up and challenge the system at its core. That’s why we stand with you today in your call for the liberation of political prisoners in the US and around the world.
That’s why back in 2015 when there were real fears about the health of Mumia, Unite joined the international demands for immediate medical attention and for his immediate release.
We re-iterate that call today and we join you in the call for the liberation of all prisoners that are being held on political grounds, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, the remaining prisoners of the Move group imprisoned now for over 40 years, and the remaining Black Panthers who still sit in jail decades after being imprisoned.
And I think it’s important to also remember that it’s not just American citizens that are locked up indefinitely by the American state.
My union had a huge campaign demanding the liberation of the Cuban 5 when they were locked up here in the US after doing nothing other than trying to expose and prevent the terrorism of Cuban exiles against the island of Cuba.
We also continue to call for the freedom of Simon Trinidad, the Colombian political prisoner who should have been liberated with the other former combatants when the peace agreement was signed in 2016, but who still sits in an American jail in total and indefinite isolation.
And as committed internationalists we are under no illusions about the inherently racist nature of the American justice system and how it punishes those who dare to question how America works or behaves – whether that’s from people inside the US or outside.
But on top of recognising that the US imprisons people from both within and without on a political basis, as committed internationalists it’s also vitally important we understand that the struggles in our own countries are inherently linked to the same struggles to free political prisoners around the world including Julian Assange, held in a British jail at the behest of the U.S. government, for telling the truth about the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And you can be proud that on May Day 2008 the Longshormen’s union shutdown all West Coast ports in America to oppose that war!
It’s why for two decades we have campaigned for the release of so many of the Colombian political prisoners who were held under trumped up charges of terrorism – mostly for simply having the audacity to try and stand up for their rights against the murderous Colombian state and – a state that was shamefully supported by the US and the UK.
It’s why we currently have a big campaign – that I personally have been heavily involved with – demanding the liberation of the jailed Kurdish political leader Abdullah Ocalan who has been locked up for over 20 years and held in total isolation with no access to lawyers or his family.
It’s why our solidarity work with the people of Palestine includes the demand to release the Palestinian political prisoners who are locked up in appalling conditions, again for simply daring to challenge the Israeli oppression and to demand an end to the apartheid regime that is being installed there.
Last year dockworkers supported picket lines of Palestinian supporters against the ZIM Lines ship Volans, protesting at the slaughter of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Comrades that’s what international labour solidarity looks like.
And it’s why, of course, we, like so many others around the world, stood at the centre of the demands to Free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid in South Africa – at a time when Margaret Thatcher and right wing UK politicians was still referring to Mandela as a terrorist for challenging apartheid and white supremacy.
So, I close with this.
Comrades, your struggle to free your political prisoners is the same struggle that is going on in the UK and many, many other countries in the world and we stand with you in that fight.
Just as you’ve seen the rise of Trump and a Far-Right racist movement that has become ever more powerful and ever more dangerous, so too we’ve had the Brexit, anti-immigrant movement of Boris Johnson and the right wing of the Tory party.
Just as you have witnessed waves of renewed police brutality and moves to remove the right of death row prisoners to even be able to appeal their cases, so we see in the UK moves to further limit our right to take actions like boycotts and divestment, and new legislation to limit the right to protest.
Just as you witness a dominant right wing media feeding lies and propaganda to fan the flames of hatred and divisions, so too we face the same problems in the UK.
But there’s also a growing international movement that’s more and more aware that the struggles they have in their own countries are just a part of the wider struggle for global justice and equality.
And that’s why it’s our duty to continue to stand together and demand freedom for political prisoners in the US and around the world.
It’s why we must urgently redouble our efforts to build the campaigns and the pressure that we need to get them free.
Unite has been with you in the past and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in our joint struggles – fighting for international solidarity and freedom for all US political prisoners!
- Tony Burke is the former Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union. You can follow him on twitter here.
- This article is the published version of a speech given by Tony at the “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and All Anti-Racist and Anti-Imperialist Freedom Fighters” webinar on February 2nd.