On May 15, 2021, after 37 years in captivity, Jaan Laaman walked out of McCreary Federal Prison. He carried a few clothes and personal items and a drawing of Breonna Taylor, 26-year-old Louisvillian, murdered by LMPD on March 13, 2020.
The first stop Jaan wanted to make, was not for food or anything like that, but to send a message to family and friends who had been supporting him all these long years. We stood on the side of the road, video rolling and Jaan shared some thanks and other thoughts, ending with his fist raised and the words—“Black Lives Mattered then (37-years-ago) and Black Lives Matter NOW”
Jaan also reflected on his beloved comrades Tom Manning and Richard Williams who had died in captivity. “Richard and Tom never got to take these first steps of Freedom.” Jaan shared that he had always planned to leave prison and go stay with his son Ricky, it was something they had spoken of during visits, from the time Ricky was a child, but Ricky died in October of 2011, while Jaan was inside.
As Jaan stood there in the grass, still wearing his drab prison garb, relatively free (still on parole.) I remembered over 37-years-ago when my comrades and I heard about one of the biggest manhunts in U.S. history that ended in the capture of a group of white working-class men and women suspected of being part of an armed underground movement, the United Freedom Front.
At that time, we lived in a collective of anti-racist activists and were members of the John Brown anti-Klan committee as well as the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence and Socialism. These organizations regularly received copies of communiques from the underground, in the mail, about actions within U.S. borders targeting racist police brutality and murders, representatives of South African Apartheid, and Death squad governments such as El Salvador and companies supporting repressive and murderous policies. Activists helped disseminate those communiques to the wider public so that people would understand why these attacks (in which no human beings were targeted or injured) were happening.
These were the actions of the United Freedom Front, which was the organization that the Ohio 7 were being charged with having been part of.
The Ohio 7 trials were some of the most militarized court room situations. In a New York City courtroom, Members of the Ohio 7 stood and denounced the injustices of the U.S. government and its support of Apartheid in South Africa, the colonization of Puerto Rico and support for death squad governments in power in Central America.
In March of 1985, I stood in the courtroom and watched as Marshalls stun gunned and beat them for refusing to be silent, all the while other Marshalls had their guns trained on us, the supporters. Needless to say, neither that beating, nor others, ever silenced this group of passionate and committed revolutionaries.
Jaan Karl Laaman is an Estonian, born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1948 and emigrated to the United States with his family. The family of mostly women and children were fleeing converging armies—they knew that regardless of the flags of the armies, they would be targets. In 1951, Jaan’s family moved to Roxbury, the heart of the Black community in Boston, Massachusetts.
In letters and visits, Jaan shared that living in Roxbury with Black friends and school mates, he developed a sense of solidarity with Black people in the community, and even at a young age he felt a connection in terms of economics, as a working class, immigrant family. Some years later when his family moved into a predominately white neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, he witnessed white supremacy and racism for the first time. These were some of his earliest influences in his understanding of life in America.
In 1966, Jaan was first locked up on a non-political robbery charge and his twenty months in prison helped radicalize him. In 1968, Jaan was released and went to Cornell and the University of New Hampshire, was an SDS activist and anti-war activist, worked in support of the Black Liberation Movement and the Black Panther Party.
In 1971, he was charged with a parole violation for speaking at an anti-war rally and was sent to Attica Prison. Jaan was there in the months leading up to the Attica Uprising. While there, he met and became friends and comrades with Sam Melville, one of the early armed underground leaders of the 1960s.
The Attica uprising, one of the most impactful prisoner uprisings of all time, happened in September of 1971. Sam had been a key participant and there was testimony that he had been shot down execution style when the prison was attacked and retaken by State Police and Prison Guards. Knowing Sam, and the way he died, had a deep impact on Jaan.
“Attica was a bright light, a searing beacon showing that even the most oppressed in the tightest of conditions can rise up. It was also a blood-drenched reminder that the American government will fight against Peoples' quests for justice and freedom and is willing to commit unspeakable atrocities to hold onto its power. It’s as simple as this: if We the People aren’t pushing them, they immediately begin pushing us back—all the way back to servitude and slavery, and that’s regardless of race or nationality if you are a prisoner.”
In 1972, Jaan was arrested and charged with bombing a Richard Nixon reelection headquarters building and a police station in New Hampshire and was sentenced to 20-years. He was released in 1978 after winning an appeal and having his sentence reduced.
Jaan immediately jumped back into anti-racist organizing and in 1979, he and Kazi Toure helped to organize the Amandla Festival of Unity. This concert, featuring Bob Marley, focused on fighting racism and police brutality in Boston, where it was held, and raised money to support the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. This, along with the anti-racist and community security work Jaan was doing led to increased police and Klan harassment, so Jaan, once again, went underground and became part of the armed clandestine movement.
On February 7, 1982, Jaan Laaman and his comrade Kazi Toure were charged with being in a shoot-out with police. Kazi was captured, convicted and imprisoned for over ten years.
On November 4, 1984, five members of the group alleged to be part of the United Freedom Front, including Jaan Laaman, were arrested. Nearly six months later, two other members were arrested, and they became known as the Ohio 7.
While originally charged with seditious conspiracy, Laaman was found guilty of five bombings, one attempted bombing, and criminal conspiracy, and was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
As a young activist who began visiting political prisoners in the 80s, I soon came to understand that their activism did not end with their capture, it simply took different forms. With Jaan, it was writing and engaging in political movements through the written word including founding and editing 4StruggleMag.org and through interviews, sharing perspectives and always centering anti-racism and a revolutionary anti-capitalist vision.
More than once, there were reprisals, such as when he recorded a statement over the phone for the brilliant Lawyer, Lynne Stewart’s memorial.
Jaan also organized political study groups and political consciousness raising groups among the prison population.
In the prison visiting room we often talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Palestine, LGBTQ—all of it—because Jaan is about all oppressed people getting free.
Jaan also worked diligently with his brothers in prison, teaching meditation classes and yoga for many years. In addition, Jaan developed a yoga class specifically for people with disabilities, limited mobility and people in wheelchairs. Jaan’s yoga class was, for many of the men, a small taste of freedom within the confines of captivity.
In 2020, after Breonna Taylor was murdered by Louisville Police in a no-knock raid, I shared with Jaan about the Say Her Name Bike Ride, founded by Erica Nicole Williams. The ride was about fighting for Justice for Breonna and other victims of Police brutality as well as taking care of the folks involved in the movement.
By the next time I talked to Jaan, he had not only begun riding in honor of Breonna but had inspired others to do the same, inside. Though they had only one or two stationary bikes, they took turns. It became a regular movement inside the walls. When he walked out of prison on May 15th, one of his most prized belongings was a portrait of Breonna Taylor, drawn by a brother named Dion Holmes aka Brother Farooq.
That is who Jaan K Laaman is—he organizes and inspires others by example and by his fierce commitment to justice on all levels.