Monday, March 19th, 2018

Setting the facts straight on Tom Manning and “Can’t Jail the Spirit”

Posted on March 10, 2008 in Perspectives
By Daniel Chard

I am writing in response to Dustin Gilbert’s “From the Right” column in the March 3, issue of The Free Press, entitled, “Manning gave up his freedom.” Gilbert’s rant is but the latest in a long and tiring series of simplistic and uninformed right-wing written attacks on political prisoner Tom Manning, his supporters, and the organizers of his art exhibit, “Can’t Jail the Spirit.”

The exhibit, which also featured artwork by USM students and Portland community members, as well as information about Manning’s activist history, was taken down from the walls of the Woodbury Campus Center under the orders of former USM president Richard Pattenaude in September 2006.

Pattenaude made his decision to censor the show amid an atmosphere of intense outside pressure on the university from various police agencies and right-wing activists, who objected principally to the characterization of Manning as a “political prisoner” in the exhibit’s early promotional material.

My experience with the art show and the events surrounding its closure has deeply affected my career at USM. During the fall 2006 semester, I wrote a research paper on the Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform (SCAR), the prison reform organization that Manning worked with in Portland during the early 1970s.

I am now in the process of researching USM’s cancellation of “Can’t Jail the Spirit,” and the implications of this act of censorship on academic freedom at USM and beyond.

In his column, Gilbert applauds USM’s decision to cancel “Can’t Jail the Spirit.”

According to this self-described “compassionate conservative,” Manning is a “killer” and a “criminal” who does not deserve to enjoy “any freedom whatsoever.” Gilbert clearly views Manning’s involvement in the killing of a police officer as a black-and-white moral issue which should be fervently condemned, rather than examined in a broader political and historical context.

The problem with his position is that it’s incredibly simplistic-and simplistic explanations rarely allow observers to gain truthful understanding of complex situations and events.

Tom Manning is considered a political prisoner by many because the actions that led to his arrest, conviction, and sentencing were blatantly political in nature.

After working with Portland’s SCAR as a social justice activist and witnessing police attacks on members of this group and other social justice movements throughout the country, Manning concluded that a militant response from the left was needed to end police and military attacks on poor and working-class people around the globe.

Manning and seven others associated with a domestic guerilla organization known as the United Freedom Front (UFF) were later convicted for their involvement in a series of bombings of corporate and military buildings carried out in protest of U.S. support for South Africa’s racist Apartheid regime and right-wing dictatorships as well as paramilitary death squads in Central America.

Bank robberies were also carried out by this group for the purpose of funding its revolutionary activities.

Manning was also convicted for the killing of a New Jersey State Trooper who Manning claims to have shot in self-defense after the officer pulled him over on the New Jersey Turnpike at a time when the FBI was pursuing him as one of the country’s most wanted fugitives.

In 1986, Manning and six of his co-defendants were charged in Federal Court with sedition-possibly the most political charge that a government can lodge against one of its citizens.

Though these charges against Manning were dropped, his comrades Ray Luc Levasseaur, Pat Levasseur, and Richard Williams defended themselves by citing the Nuremburg trials, when an international court sentenced Nazi officials to death for their complicity in Nazi war crimes.

A jury of their peers could not come to an agreement and the charges were dropped after a mis-trial in 1989.

The aspects of the story surrounding the unfortunate death of Trooper Philip Lamonaco have been virtually lost for the past 20 years in a deluge of shallow rhetoric repeated by police, right-wing activists, and the corporate media. Lamonaco’s death was indeed tragic-as are the deaths of the millions who have been killed as a result of U.S. foreign policy.

Despite what Gilbert and other rightists may suggest, however, the emotional sensitivity surrounding a subject such as political prisoners is not grounds for relegating it as off-limits to intellectual and artistic inquiry.

The purpose of “Can’t Jail the Spirit” was not to “glorify” Manning or his activities. In fact, following initial police complaints, USM posted disclaimers around the exhibit and invited police groups to participate in recounting their side of the story-an invitation which the cops refused.

The organizers of the exhibit were not trying to persuade attendees to adopt any particular ideology: the exhibit’s aim was to offer the USM community an opportunity for deeper, critical reflection on the history of Manning and the groups and movements with which he was involved.

That opportunity was taken from us when President Pattenaude decided to cave to the intimidating pressure from non-USM private interest groups.

The controversy surrounding Tom Manning is not over – nor are the controversies surrounding political prisoners, U.S. imperialism, and academic freedom.

I encourage Dustin Gilbert so do more research before he writes for a public audience, and to also avoid sensational rhetoric. I additionally encourage Gilbert and anyone else interested to get involved with events taking place on campus this semester as part of the Gloria Duclos Convocation on Academic Freedom.

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