“Put the State on Trial”: The New Afrikan Prisoner Organization and the Pontiac Prison Rebellion, 1977–82
These prisoners soon became known as the “Pontiac Brothers,” defendants in the largest death penalty case since the Scottsboro Boys. Arguing that the riot was the spontaneous reaction to deteriorating prison conditions, the Pontiac Brothers and a coalition of outside supporters successfully convinced a Cook County jury to find ten of the Pontiac Brothers not guilty of the most serious charges against them in 1981. Central to this legal victory was a vigorous defense campaign guided by the New Afrikan Prisoners Organization (NAPO), a group of revolutionary Black nationalists held in Pontiac and Stateville prisons. Working in partnership with church committees, family member groups, and white anti-imperialist allies, NAPO helped to shape the way in which this outside coalition waged a sophisticated anti-death penalty campaign. Examining this organization’s key role in the defense of the Pontiac Brothers sheds light not only on the emergence of mass incarceration prior to the Reagan administration’s war on Drugs, but also the ways in which revolutionary black nationalist sought to contest this developments by bridging the distance between the streets of Chicago and gang ways of downstate prisons.