Still Can’t Jail the Spirit
by members of the Portland Victory Gardens Project
On Friday September 1st, “Can’t Jail the Spirit: Art by Political Prisoner Tom Manning and others” opened at the Portland Campus of the University of Southern Maine (USM). Over thirty of Tom Manning’s’ paintings of political prisoners, freedom fighters, the earth and people struggling, were on display alongside a collage of radical history that Tom was a part of and student sculptures on free speech and censorship. The exhibit was organized by the Portland Victory Gardens Project in collaboration wtih USM. One week later the forces of censorship and control took Tom’s paintings off the university walls.
The day before the show opened the Police and State Troopers campaign to shut it down began. They started calling the office of the president, the gallery curator, other university faculty and the university’s corporate funders. By the middle of the first week, the news broke on Fox News and quickly spread to every newspaper, radio and television station in the area as they proclaimed that the “Police object to Cop Killer’s exhibit.”
Late Friday afternoon September 8th, the University of Southern Maine censored “Can’t Jail the Spirit: Art by Political Prisoner Tom Manning and others” when university President Richard Pattenaude declared that Tom’s paintings would be taken down from the walls of the gallery at Woodbury Campus Center. This act of censorship alarmed USM students and faculty, the organizers, other community members and supporters of free speech and political prisoners through the Northeast. The show was canceled without due process or notice to exhibit organizers or the USM community.
Only 2 days prior to President Pattenaude’s announcement about the closing of the exhibit, the University stated that “Can’t Jail the Spirit” presented a unique opportunity for public dialogue and debate – in keeping with USM’s mission as a “comprehensive public university…for the benefit of the citizens of Maine and society in general.” But in his September 8th press statement, Pattenaude said that the show was canceled because “any reasoned discussion of ideas has been overshadowed completely by Mr. Manning’s and Mr. Levasseur’s (Ray Luc Levasseur, Tom’s former co-defendent and now a former political prisoner) criminal acts, and the pain and suffering they caused.” These two statements are clearly contradictory: by censoring the art show, Pattenaude is limiting campus discussion on the definition of the term political prisoner—a complete reversal from the art exhibit’s original intention! How can a true discussion on political prisoners take place while the opinions of the prisoners and their supporters are being suppressed?
USM’s Woodbury Campus Center regularly hosts U.S. military recruiters and features advertisements for multi-national corporations like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Yet President Pattenaude is not condemning the deadly, violent acts consistently perpetrated by the U.S. military. Nor is he scrutinizing America’s police forces, which kill hundreds of people every year. Nor, is he putting up disclaimers next to Coke machines detailing the human rights and ecological abuses of the corporate world. It is clear to us that Pattenaude’s decision to remove the “Can’t Jail the Spirit” exhibit from USM’s campus is motivated by a political bias (also held by the U.S. government and most major American institutions) which views some violence as legal, acceptable, and even patriotic, while condemning other violent acts as “criminal”.
We believe that the power of the police—through pressure on the University and its funders—has been used in this instance to limit free speech and opinions that the government does not approve of. We see this action as yet another attempt by police forces to control ideas and opinions being discussed on a public university campus.
It is true that Tom Manning was convicted for the felony murder of a New Jersey state trooper; Tom says he shot back in self-defense because the police shot at him first. Most of the controversy surrounding the art show has centered around this fact, but lost in the discussion is the fact that Tom Manning is a political prisoner because he took revolutionary action against the racist, U.S.-backed apartheid regime in South Africa, and U.S.-backed death squads and dictatorships in Central America. It is for these reasons that Portland Victory Gardens Project and many others around the world recognize Tom Manning as a political prisoner.
Controversy over the exhibit has also overshadowed the many positive contributions made by Tom Manning and Ray Luc Levasseur for the causes of freedom and justice in Portland and beyond, through such organizations as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Portland Victory Gardens Project, SCAR, and the United Freedom Front. SCAR, an anti-prison and anti-racist group begun by former prisoners in Maine in the 1970s; helped to found a radical bookstore called Red Star North; developed community programs such as self defense classes and a community bail fund; opened a drop-in center for people coming out of prison; worked against torture and abuse in the Maine prison system; and published a newspaper “Scar’d Times.” “Can’t Jail the Spirit” documents the work of Tom, Ray and the Ohio 7 by telling about their time underground, their capture, trials and imprisonment.
On Friday September 15th, we demonstrated that the government and police still “Can’t Jail the Spirit”, with a walking art show by Tom Manning and others. The art show began at the Woodbury Campus Center on USM’s campus and traveled on foot to Congress Square in downtown Portland. Over 100 prints of Tom’s paintings were distributed and carried by people and many people wore a new t-shirt with a print of Tom Manning’s painting of Assata Shakur titled “Teach Sister, Teach” on the march during rush hour traffic. At Congress Square there was a speakout with Maine author Carolyn Chute, Lynne Williams from the National Lawyers Guild, Paulette D’Auteuil from Jericho NYC reading a statement by Ray Luc Levasseur (who was warned by federal agents against attending due to his parole conditions), members of Presente performed spoken word and music and an open mic. The Portland Victory Gardens Project, Winter Cache and the People’s Free Space provided plentiful food. While the police wanted to silence Tom Manning’s paintings, we brought them from the gallery walls directly to the people.
There is a power and humanity that flow through Tom Manning’s paintings that transcends the confinement of prison walls and barbed wire. His paintings provide a voice for the voiceless: indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico struggling against colonization of their homeland; political exile and former political prisoner Assata Shakur; to a 3 year old girl who was shot to death by the Los Angeles Police Department. “Still Can’t Jail the Spirit: Art by Political Prisoner Tom Manning” is re-opening at Ubu Studio on Congress St. in Portland on October 6th and will run until October 21st. Alongside the opening of this new show is the launching of new website focused on art and writing by and about political prisoners called cantjailthespirit.org. This website will grow into an online gallery of art, writing, music, spoken word and video where the voices of political prisoners is not censored but celebrated. We want “Can’t Jail the Spirit” to travel to other cities (with Boston and New York being organized already), if you’re interested contact the Portland Victory Gardens Project.
There is a power to art and a power to the truth in the struggles of political prisoners. Tom Manning is a part of the larger struggle against imperialism, oppression, colonization and capitalism. He used bombs before and now he uses the brush and the palette to voice his dissent and opposition to this genocidal system. The police, the government, the military and the corporations want to suppress this voice and this power, but through all this controversy and censorship we are showing that they Can’t Jail the Spirit!
For more information about Tom Manning you can visit:
Write to Tom Manning at:
Tom Manning #10373 016
USP Hazelton, P.O. Box 2000
Bruceton Mills, WV 26525
For more information about U.S. Political Prisoners:
www.thejerichomovement.com or www.ecoprisoners.org
For more information about the Portland Victory Gardens Project and
Can’t Jail the Spirit: