You Gotta Learn the History: an Interview with Michael “Safear” Ness

Michael “Safear” Ness is an imprisoned abolitionist organizer at SCI-Fayette in Pennsylvania. IA is an outside friend and comrade. 

IA: When and how did you become an abolitionist in your thinking? And in your practice?

Safear: I’ve been radical since before abolition was in my vocabulary. Meaning, I was always someone who wanted to understand things from their source. The status quo of white society never appealed to me. However, I wasn’t politicized until I came to prison.

In prison I was introduced to the teachings of Islam. Islam teaches the principles of establishing justice and forbidding all forms of oppression. So, Islam gave me the principles of justice. Abolition showed me different areas to apply them.

From the greatest principles of Islam is preventing harm. Prisons don’t prevent harm. They haven’t made our communities any safer, nor the world any better. No, they cause more harm. That’s why we need to abolish the Prison-Industrial Complex. 

IA: As you began learning about abolition, which ideas, readings, or lessons really hit you hardest?

S: You gotta learn the history. The real history. Not that bullshit you were taught in middle school. I’m talking Our History is the Future by Nick Estes, showing the true foundation of this country. And Rethinking the American Prison Movement [by Dan Berger & Toussaint Losier], showing the real history of prisons here. Reading about George Jackson and the prison rebellion years gave me motivation. Those comrades showed me it is possible to fight the best from within. Ruth Wilson Gilmore gave me the intellectual confidence. Of course George was an intellectual in his own right. But Gilmore’s current analysis of the Prison-Industrial Complex gives you the tools to converse from an academic standpoint. And Angela Davis gave me the spice. She is a wordsmith. I love adopting her the construction of her arguments because they are flawless.

IA: What are some traps or hangups you want to help others avoid?

S: Just because every person has the potential for redemption doesn’t mean that everyone has reached that level yet. Trust has to be earned. Your inner circle should only be people of integrity. Be mindful of who you disclose strategy to, and who you introduce to outside comrades. Make sure they are battle tested. Also, don’t get arrogant. Stay humble. Lower yourself to serve the people. When it rams the benefit flows to the valley. Don’t put yourself on a pedestal. The world will still spin when you’re gone,  try to make a difference while you’re here. 

IA: What makes a good abolitionist teacher?

S: I’m not impressed with eloquent speech alone! A good teacher acts upon the knowledge they’ve acquired. You’ll never know a person’s true intentions, but you can witness their actions. When you find a teacher leading by example, learn from them. You don’t know how long they’ll be around. 

IA: How comfortable were you, in the beginning, trying to have conversations about abolition with other people on your block?

S: First, this work requires stepping outside of your comfort zone. If you’re always comfortable, you’re not doing enough. My advice is, either speak with knowledge or remain silent. If you don’t know, just say “I don’t know, but I’ll do some research then I’ll get back to you.” If you do that, people will recognize your speech is precise. Then they’ll start to listen. 

Educational dialogue is an art, and like any art, it requires practice. 

You can’t give what you don’t have. You can only speak according to the information you’ve acquired. Knowledge can be gained by study or experience. Take the time to acquire it before you open your mouth with an opinion. 

IA: What advice can you give someone who wants to start an abolitionist study group from the ground up?

S: Build relationships first. This work is more than business, it’s personal. It’s creating a world where even the idea of sending someone to prison is far-fetched. Doing this requires changing the way we interact with each other. It’s removing this idea that other humans are disposable. This requires not only theory, but practical application.

Evaluate the condition of the people. Instead of entering a space thinking you have everything figured out, ask: What is needed? A scholar once said “Every field has its men, and a person speaks according to their level of knowledge.” Everyone has a part to play in community. People bring different skillsets to this work. Some may be teachers, some may be warriors, some may be both of these and more. Our job is to create space for each person to do what they’re good at. 

Speak to the people in the language they understand. Some folks are pacifists, some are George Jackson. Address each person accordingly.

Prisoners are trained to sniff out bullshit. We learn quick how to tell if someone is running game. Are you really living what you’re teaching? Is your handshake matching your smile?

Be mindful of the authorities. They don’t take kindly to organizing the captives in their dungeons. Try to stay under the radar as long as possible. Build up the comrades to be as self sufficient as possible.

Pick your battles. If you’re truly living abolition, conflict with authorities is inevitable. Don’t let this discourage you. If you’re not getting any resistance you’re not doing something right. 

IA: Why do you do this work, comrade?

S: We’re all gonna die sooner or later. We can’t control that, but we can control how we live. I want to die knowing I did my best to change the world. 

Author: Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition

> network of self-organized prison study groups at SCI-FAYETTE > consolidating networks of resistance across the PA DOC system