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Moments of almost total rebellion

Pedro Oliver of KEM-MOC (the Basque CO Movement) evaluates the prison experience of insumisos as a political tool.

From the very beginning, in 1989, MOC and other anti-militarist groups have endeavoured to make their total resistance campaign ("Insumisión") its own best antidote against state repression. From the outset training sessions were organised so that the experience of imprisonment could be transformed and realise two objectives: firstly, prison itself should become a tool in the struggle against militarism; secondly, the experience should be a positive one for those undergoing it - the insumiso, his family and friends.

Generally speaking, both objectives have been attained with flying colours. It soon became quite clear that even a closed disciplinary and alienating institution like prison could not dampen the spirit or alter the personality of prisoners of con-science. On countless occasions the trial and imprisonment of just one total resister, even for only a few months, has led to protests whose reverberations were felt well beyond the local area.

The anti-militarist movement has made significant progress. The number of COs - including total resisters - has continued to rise.. this year alone over 110,000 men have requested CO status. Several medium-sized cities have enjoyed their largest demonstrations of recent years - as was the case in Pamplona, whose ancient jail housed hundreds of insumisos, either in closed (2nd grade) or open (3rd grade) conditions.

All this has made opposition to compulsory military service a popular issue. But the campaign's methods and its focus on demilitarisation have allowed participants to deal with other aspects of social reality less directly related to the anti militarist struggle.

Insumisión behind bars

One such reality is prison itself. Once put behind bars, how could insumisión become more than mere resistance to the brutality of prison? How could prison be used to beat the drum of anti-militarism?

Even though prisoners of con science inhabit a gloomy and confined space, their thoughts, words and ideas become amplified and broadcast widely by the very fact of confinement - even more so if they are connected to an active social movement. Prisoners of conscience are able to transform prison bars into tools for breaking down the isolation caused by prison walls.

Despite serious fears - real and imagined - imprisoned insumisos have engaged in opposition and disobedience towards the human rights abuses and senseless, quasi-militaristic discipline rife within prison walls.

Pamplona' s experience

From 1994 onwards, groups of four, 10 or even 40 insumisos - held in the jails of Pamplona, Zaragoza, Asturias, Bilbao, Guipuzcoa and other such places, have held meetings to see how they could oppose the oppressive nature and practice of prison. Another function of these meetings was to reach an emotional consensus which would enable them to both recognise their fears and accept them.

In an institution that is a microcosm of a dictatorship, employing a certain "democratic radicalism" was a very effective way of questioning the legitimacy of the prison system itself - the contradiction between the prison system and the "democratic" laws and values it allegedly defends was made increasingly apparent.

Insumisos launched a wide range of initiatives - all inspired by the methods of nonviolent protest they had learned and used "on the outside". Many actions were planned even before the objectors reached the prisons. Tactics included hunger strikes, the publishing of communiqués, etc.

Against armies and prisons

In addition to anti-militarist actions, total resisters also orchestrated anti-prison actions. Many "ordinary" prisoners gave their support, but few took part openly - they were well aware that the authorities would punish them first and more harshly than the insumisos, who were somewhat cushioned against repression thanks to the enormous social support and media interest they enjoyed from outside the prison walls.

Legal avenues were some-times used, as a way of engaging in dialogue over prison conditions and specific injustices. There was also a growing use of non-co-operation and disobedience: refusing to carry out certain chores and punishments, rebelling against strip searches after "unscreened" visits, subverting ridiculous schedules and so on.

Total resisters also worked with other prisoners to encourage mutual co-operation and support protesting against prisoners being transferred away from their home areas, passing on legal and administrative information to inmates with limited personal resources.

Another very effective tool has boon the use of the press and of prisoners' rights groups to counter the official propaganda and to denounce injustice and arbitrary behaviour within the prison. A magazine was produced from hand-written articles smuggled out of all - and this was even used in the Human Rights Commission of the Spanish Parliament.

Finally. high profile, collective protests were held on several occasions: mass refusal to carry out orders, silent sit downs, demonstrations with cell made placards and banners There were moments of almost total rebellion.

Prison authorities respond

The prison administration soon realised that they would have to curb the spread of anti-authoritarianism In Pamplona, they first decided to "neutralise" some insumisos by transferring them to other, more distant jails. but this did not stop the unrest. Protest almost became the norm and the administration had to intervene again and again They usually did not opt for direct and harsh repression - a few minor reforms were even made over health, hygiene and food but some total resisters did see their jail terms prolonged as a result of their activism behind bars.

Outside prison, however, a majority of society -- and even some institutions -- protested against the transfer of prisoners. Prison, which had been so avoidable, so invisible, more transparent than ever before.

Incomplete assessment

This is not to say that no errors were made. It was sometimes difficult to prevent the protest nourishing the defensive corporatism of the prison wardens. There was also a great deal of improvisation. bordering on amateurism. But probably the biggest problem was the miscommunication that occurred at times between imprisoned insumisos and the activists outside - the latter fearing that the fight for prisoners rights might take too much attention away from the political struggle against militarism The total resistance movement has still not fully assessed the impact of the work done in prison by prisoners of conscience, but our experiences. developments and discussions are relevant to any movement intending to use imprisonment as part of a civil disobedience campaign.

Pedro Oliver has been a MOC member for 17 years. He has spent over two years in jail for insumisión. Being one of the main "agitators" within the Pamplona pnson, he was later transferred to Madrid.
In May 1996 the Spanish authorities introduced a new punisnment for insumisos, the imposition of "civil death" - withdrawing access to public funds (eg student grants) and denying them public administration jobs. In response, insumisos are developing the new tactic of "resistance in the barracks" - actually joining up and resisting from within the military, thereby placing thernseves under military rather than CMI jurisdicton, and being sent to miltary prisons but avoiding "civil death".
Contact (in the Basque Country): KEM-MOC, Iturribide 12-1o D, 48006 Bilbao, Euskadi, state of Spain (+34 4 4153772; fax 415 0826; email betxea@lander.es); In Catalonia: MOC-Catalunya, c/De La Cera 1 bis, 08001 Barcelona, Catalunya, state of Spain (+34 3 3290643; fax 3290858: http://www.pangea.org/mocbcn); In Cantabria: MOC-Cantabria, Casa Santa Ana, 39697 Soto-lruz, Cantabria, state of Spain (+3442 596245).