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Le Confinement Solitaire:

Un Traitemente Décrié
By Éric Clément
La Presse
 
Selon la direction de la prison d'Angola, il n'y a pas de confinement solitaire en Louisiane. « Il s'agit d'un vieux terme désuet », nous a dit la directrice-adjointe de la prison, Cathy Fontenot, qui maintient que, même maintenus en isolement, les prisonniers « peuvent se rencontrer et ont accès chaque jour au personnel, aux cadres de la prison et aux bénévoles ».

Robert King, qui a passé 29 ans dans ce qu'il considère comme du confinement solitaire, rétorque qu'un juge fédéral a déjà statué que ce type d'isolement était « cruel ».Amnisty International a condamné la pratique de confinement solitaire car elle est contraire aux droits de l'Homme et aux traités internationaux selon lesquels le confinement solitaire prolongé peut être comparé à de la torture et à un traitement inhumain et dégradant.

Terry A. Kupers, psychiatre reconnu aux États-Unis, a étudié les effets psychologiques du confinement solitaire. Il estime que cette pratique cause une « douleur sévère, des souffrances et des dommages psychologiques » pouvant mener au suicide.

« Quand la violence et les taux de suicide ont augmenté de façon vertigineuse dans les prisons à sécurité maximum à la fin des années 80, les autorités auraient dû reconnaître leur erreur en arrêtant la croissance de la population dans les prisons, avec une réforme de la durée des sentences et des programmes communautaires pour traiter les cas de drogues plutôt que d'incarcérer, dit M. Kupers. On aurait pu rétablir les programmes de réhabilitation dont les fonds ont été coupés parce que des politiciens ont peur d'être perçus comme dorlotant les détenus. À la place, les autorités ont sottement créé des unités d'isolement et, depuis, on constate une épidémie de dépressions nerveuses et de suicides découlant d'inactivité à long terme et d'isolement. »

À la suggestion de Mme Cathy Fontenot, directrice adjointe de la prison d'Angola, La Presse a tenté en vain d'avoir des commentaires du Procureur général de la Louisiane, Buddy Caldwell, au sujet du confinement solitaire et des Black Panthers emprisonnés. Mme Fontenot a toutefois tenu à dire que les autorités d'Angola croient plus que tout « en la réhabilitation morale » des prisonniers, « parce que nous avons vu des hommes changer à Angola et que nous supervisons la prison sans oppression et avec justice », dit-elle.

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From the Bottom of the Heap in Political Media Review

By Ernesto Aguilar
Political Media Review

Presenting one’s memoir consciously as that of a former Black Panther Party member, even as simply a factual statement, is bound to bring any such book into some heady company. Think Assata Shakur’s Assata, George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time and nearly a dozen other autobiographies and biographies. And though From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography Of Black Panther Robert Hillary King (nee Robert King Wilkerson) is no Soul On Ice (Eldridge Cleaver’s bubbling personal manifesto), King’s words percolate with the urgency and determination that made the Panthers once one of North America’s most revolutionary units.

King is best known, along with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, as one of the Angola Three, leaders of a Black Panther Party chapter in Louisiana’s Angola Prison who served extensive portions (in the case of Wallace and Woodfox, 36 years) of their sentences in solitary confinement. Since his release, King has campaigned endlessly in support of the release of Wallace and Woodfox. He has also spoken out about the flaws in the criminal justice system, the reality of Southern racism that enjoys official support, and the disparities affecting people of African descent which in turn predicated his Black Panther Party membership. In revealing the details of his life, King employs an arresting writing style and welcomes you in to a world to which few have access. 

Heap tells King’s story from his youth growing up in the racially stratified Deep South to incarceration, political engagement and quest for freedom. His prose in plain-spoken yet vulnerable, with accounts of a life lived with much forthrightness and few regrets, though seemingly myriad pains. Yarns like King boxing with a rival named Pugnose as a means of resolving a youth jail code’s double standard affecting boys and girls dating are symbolic of King’s way of storytelling. While his estimations are spot-on, King seems to prefer stepping back and letting the situation speak for itself. Going this course makes for teaching moments on how different society is from King’s teenage years and, in other ways, how the world has barely changed, if at all.

Those expecting harrowing prison tales will not find them so much in this book as there are accounts of the everyday life of a young man dealing with the criminal justice system, social inequality and his own hopes for himself. The delicate negotiations of prison life are plumbed certainly. The conditions the Angola Three dealt with and their decision to resist brutality, as well as the facility’s response to their demands for basic human rights, are frequently sorrowful. King’s courage is nothing short of extraordinary. But really Heap is about much more than politics, survival and adversity. Though Louisiana has yet to atone for the wasted years given by the trio of Black Panther organizers, Heap is one man’s shot at making sure a history and a struggle are not lost now or to future generations.

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Angola 3 in La Presse

Angola 3: des Black Panthers demandent justice
by Éric Clément
La Presse

«À partir de quand une sentence de confinement solitaire en prison devient-elle inhumaine en regard de la faute ?»

C'est la question que se pose encore Robert King, sept ans après avoir été libéré de la prison d'Angola où il a passé 31 années de sa vie, dont 29 en isolement total dans une cellule individuelle de 2,70 par 1,80 m, sans fenêtre, avec un lit en ciment et une petite table, une cage dont il ne sortait qu'une heure par jour pour se doucher, dit-il. Et, ajoute-t-il, pour un crime que la justice a fini par admettre qu'il n'avait pas commis.Aujourd'hui âgé de 66 ans, le Black Panther vit à Austin, au Texas, où La Presse l'a rencontré. Il a dû quitter sa maison de La Nouvelle-Orléans, submergée par la crue de l'ouragan Katrina, en 2005.

Robert King fait partie avec Herman Wallace et Albert Woodfox, deux autres Black Panthers encore détenus à Angola, des «Angola 3», un trio bien connu en Louisiane pour prétendre depuis des années avoir été victime d'une énorme injustice.

En introduction de la biographie qu'il a publié cet hiver, From the Bottom of the Heap, Robert King pose la question : «Je suis né aux États-Unis, je suis né Noir, je suis né pauvre. Est-il donc étonnant que j'aie passé la plus grande partie de ma vie en prison ?»

Il affirme en effet que les Noirs de la Louisiane endurent des injustices depuis des décennies. Issu d'une famille pauvre et décomposée de La Nouvelle-Orléans, il a connu la misère très tôt. Il raconte avoir mangé du rat dans sa jeunesse alors qu'il devait compter sur l'habileté d'un chien qui chassait les lapins, les écureuils, les tortues et les serpents pour se nourrir.

Sa grand-mère, qui l'a élevé avec une ribambelle d'autres enfants, se tuait chaque jour à couper de la canne à sucre dans une plantation. Robert King n'a vu son père pour la première fois qu'à 13 ans. Il a connu la rue, ses lois, l'errance et les petits larcins pour survivre. Il dit aujourd'hui que la violence de la rue était liée au fait que les Noirs, même libérés de l'esclavage, ne recevaient aucun signe d'humanité.

«Ils étaient privés de culture et de responsabilités, ce qui a entraîné une autodestruction à laquelle s'est ajoutée le racisme et l'oppression», dit-il.

Dès qu'il a mis le doigt dans l'engrenage judiciaire, il a eu, dit-il, une belle tête de coupable permanent. En 1970, il est condamné par un jury à 35 ans de travaux forcés pour un vol, « même si celui qui a commis le crime m'a disculpé pendant le procès, en disant au juge qu'il avait été victime de brutalité policière pour le forcer à m'accuser «.

«C'est alors que j'ai su ce que voulait dire être un «ami de la cour»», dit-il.

Choqué par cette condamnation qu'il ne digère pas et par le fait qu'il trouvait que les Noirs étaient injustement traités «par le système», il se joint en 1971 au chapitre louisianais des Black Panthers, qui défendent alors la cause des Noirs depuis cinq ans. En prison, il fait la connaissance d'Herman Wallace et d'Albert Woodfox, deux autres Panthères noires.

Avec d'autres prisonniers, ils exigent des autorités carcérales des améliorations de leurs conditions de vie, en faisant des grèves de la faim. Leur cause franchit les grilles de la prison. Mais leur activisme embarrasse les autorités.

«On était contre le statu quo, donc on devenait une cible pour l'administration», dit M. King. Du coup, selon leur version, Wallace et Woodfox sont accusés à tort de l'assassinat, en avril 1972, de Brent Miller, un gardien de prison tué de 38 coups de couteau. Robert King est, quant à lui, envoyé en isolement, même s'il était absent ce jour-là, dit-il. Selon eux, leur accusation est directement liée à leur engagement politique et à la lutte que le FBI livre alors aux Black Panthers.

Le média américain NPR affirmait en octobre dernier que des détenus qui étaient à Angola en avril 1972 se rappellent aujourd'hui que ce fut «un mauvais mois pour les Noirs» dans la prison et que la direction n'a jamais interrogé un seul prisonnier blanc après ce meurtre.

Un an plus tard, Robert King est à son tour accusé du meurtre d'un autre homme dans la prison. Bâillonné et les mains attachées derrière le dos durant son procès, il est condamné à la prison à vie et au confinement solitaire.

«Le confinement solitaire, c'est une forme d'esclavage qui te donne le droit moral de t'échapper car être ainsi incarcéré est immoral, dit-il. Être tenu responsable d'un crime qu'on n'a pas commis, malgré les preuves de ton innocence, c'est un acte de terrorisme.»

Il décide de lutter en s'instruisant, en lisant beaucoup. « La loi était incohérente, je me suis mis, non pas à étudier le droit, mais à en faire la critique. « Des encouragements lui viennent de l'extérieur. Des élus américains mais aussi la fondatrice des magasins Body Shop, l'activiste Anita Roddick, se portent à la défense des Angola 3.

Un témoin à charge disculpe Robert King en 1987. Il lance une procédure d'appel. Une campagne nationale appelle à sa libération. Il obtient des jugements en sa faveur qu'il perd ensuite en appel. Son avocat réclame la clémence de l'État en 1996. Le bureau du pardon juge qu'il n'a pas fait assez de temps en prison (26 ans).

En 1998, un juge évoque dans son jugement le fait qu'il soit «probablement innocent». Après une requête en habeas corpus, Robert King est libéré le 8 février 2001.

Mais Wallace et Woodfox sont encore à Angola. Après 36 ans d'isolement. Selon l'avocat d'Herman Wallace, Nick Trenticosta, il n'existe pas aux États-Unis de prisonniers qui soient restés aussi longtemps enfermés en prison.

Accusés comme le Black Panther Elmer Geronimo Pratt, qui a fait 25 ans de prison pour un meurtre qu'il n'avait pas commis (il a été libéré en 1997), Wallace et Woodfox ont des chances de retrouver la liberté. Des juges ont récemment pris en compte le fait que l'arme du crime n'a jamais été attribuée à l'un ou à l'autre. De plus, les empreintes digitales et les traces de sang retrouvées sur la scène du crime ne leur sont pas reliées.

Même la veuve du gardien de prison assassiné a affirmé qu'ils devraient avoir droit à un autre procès. L'été dernier, un juge a proclamé que le procès initial de Woodfox a été «injuste» à cause d'une représentation juridique insuffisante et de la suppression de preuves disculpantes. Ce n'est en effet qu'après son procès qu'il a su qu'un témoin à charge (un prisonnier) avait eu des faveurs de la prison en échange de son témoignage, notamment une promesse de libération anticipée, ce qu'il a obtenu 13 ans plus tard.

Même si le système d'appel américain est long et complexe, Robert King est optimiste et pense que ses deux amis seront bientôt libres. «Pas parce qu'il y a une justice mais parce que la population fait des pressions», dit-il. En décembre dernier, un juge a ordonné à la Louisiane de «préparer ses arguments» dans le dossier d'Albert Woodfox. Une audience doit déterminer dans quelques jours s'il aura droit à un nouveau procès.

Qui étaient les Black Panthers?

Le mouvement Black Panther Party for Self Defense fut créé en 1966 en Californie par Bobby Seale et Huey P. Newton, des Noirs de la gauche américaine. La panthère noire avait été choisie comme emblème parce que c'est un animal noir « qui n'attaque pas mais se défend férocement «. Le mouvement révolutionnaire s'était doté d'un programme en dix points, notamment un droit au logement décent, une éducation appropriée tenant compte de l'histoire des Noirs, « la fin de la brutalité policière, la justice, la liberté et la paix «. Le BPP, dont une des fonctions était de fournir des services communautaires aux plus démunis, a essaimé dans plusieurs villes américaines avant d'être infiltré et combattu par le FBI et son programme COINTELPRO. Le leader du BPP, Fred Hampton, a été assassiné par le FBI dans son lit à Chicago le 4 décembre 1969. La police tuera un grand nombre de militants du BPP et créera un tel chaos que le mouvement, grevé par la dissidence, disparaîtra peu à peu. Âgé de 72 ans, Bobby Seale est toujours impliqué socialement : il implante des programmes d'éducation pour les jeunes.

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From the Bottom of the Heap in SF Bay View

The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King
By Wanda Sabir
San Francisco Bay View

In a march outside Angola State Prison, “Last Slave Plantation” is painted on the asphalt near the initials LSP for Louisiana State Penitentiary. Prison guards block the road, as signs wave demanding the release of the Angola 3: Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King Wilkerson. In February 2001, Robert King walks out a free man, all charges dropped.

Who would have known, who could have predicted this man’s life was destined to take the turns it did - not for any particular misdeed; rather, his captivity was based solely on prejudicial perceptions that labeled him and other Black, poor boys and men, then and now, unworthy, criminal.

Freedom was a notion many in his community claimed but few knew because of the politically racist policies of the Deep South. Yet, despite all this, the child, Robert Hillary King, found a home and a grandmother and a community where not only was he welcomed, he was loved too.

Sheltered from the travesties of Jim Crow - segregation and deprivation - he took the lean days in stride with the fat. Even when accused, picked up and booked, not once, but three times, the first while just a child for crimes he hadn’t committed, King retained his optimism and belief in the human race. One would think, later on, after 29 years in solitary confinement with charges which were all eventually dropped, he might carry some bitterness, righteous anger for irretrievable time lost - 31 years - but he doesn’t. If anything, his anger is at a system, what he calls a post-colonial system which sanctions the disenfranchisement of certain people - 500 years after the first Africans disembarked on American shores.

Robert Hillary King a.k.a. Robert King Wilkerson takes us on a lyrical journey “From the Bottom of the Heap” to the depths of a darkness so dense flashlights can’t pierce the intangible conscience or sensibility of a nation or a people who would subject another citizen to what King describes in his autobiography as a normal state of affairs for Black men pre-Civil Rights Act, pre-March on Washington, pre-Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Told in a straightforward manner, this gripping tale has humor and all the innocence of a child’s voice, a more mature young man’s, evolving finally into the voice of an adult trying to plant his flag in ripe soil to claim a piece of the planet for himself and his kin. Unlike Ralph Ellison’s protagonist, King doesn’t evaporate or melt into the darkness. He fights, he yells, he refuses to take the beatings, whether ideologically or physically. He never gives up hope.

It’s amazing that King actually believed in the judicial system; he believed in it up to the third time he was thrown into the Parish Prison and was looking at 35 years to life. It was at this time, when he realized that the court was just interested in closing cases, not in justice, that he “felt psychologically whole.” King felt that if he didn’t act on this “new consciousness” it would be a betrayal of his sanity, so he and 60 other “brothers in jail who also felt this need to appeal to no one but themselves, where freedom was concerned,” planned an escape (156-157).

King stayed at large for a couple of weeks and though he was returned to the New Orleans Parish Prison with eight additional years added to his 35-year sentence, he no longer masked his reality with religion or other opiates. He says, “In studying and learning of my enemy, I also learned of myself, my place in history. In learning of my place in history, I rediscovered my long lost humanity. Individuality was replaced with the need for unity.

“I saw that all are expendable at the system’s whim. I saw how my mother, her mother and her mother’s mother before her suffered. I saw past generations of my forefathers stripped from their homeland, brought by force, to these shores in chains” (169). It is here King recognizes his piece on the game board and steps off the table - refusing to play anymore.

He’d heard about the shooting on Desire Street in New Orleans between the police and the Black Panther Party - several members also jailed at New Orleans Parish Prison - both men and women. During this time he is introduced to the BPP and sees in it the answers to so many questions he’d had before. He says, “Certainty replaced uncertainty” and despite the tragic loss of his 5-year-old son, Robert Jr., due to medical malpractice and the loss of his physical freedom, King seems to have gained a lot more than he lost.

King is shipped briefly to Angola again, returned to Parish Prison in 1971, and then shipped back to Angola for good in 1972, where he was charged with investigation into the death of a prison guard, a death that happened before he arrived back at Angola. Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Gilbert Montegut were also tried. Woodfox has been cleared of the charges brought in 1972 and is presently awaiting release. Wallace’s case is on appeal to the Louisiana State Supreme Court.

“From the Bottom of the Heap” is the story of one man, yet it could be the story of a nation - from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, the strategic targeting of Black youth, the criminalizing of persons based solely on the color of their skin, the content of their wallets and the address of their parents. This story is the answer leaders today need to hear - it is a voice no one is listening too.

The same economic circumstances which made it impossible to feed one’s family 50, 60 years ago exist today. The public education system is just as inadequate now as it was then in preparing future generations for occupations that will support their families. In fact, the situation today might be worse.

The end of the book shifts and changes tone: There are letters, a poem, a chronology of the Angola 3, more thanks, a family tree and an ad for Freelines - King’s sweet confection first made in prison. When one thinks of a second coming, Robert Hillary King comes to mind - he says he was reborn Feb. 8, 2001. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, after so much loss, so much death, the ashes serve as fertilizer for a brighter today and tomorrow.

King hasn’t walked on water yet, but I’m sure he could if he wanted to. If ever a child was born without a chance, it was this bright light - Robert King, on May 30, 1942 - this child born of descendents of former slaves in Gonzales, Louisiana. Yet, as long as he had lungs, this boy, later man, was not going down without a noise. And it is this noise, this shaking at the gates of justice, rattling the consciences of fellow Americans, that earned him his freedom and will earn his comrades Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox theirs too.

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Black Panther Robert Hillary King Tells His Story

By Tom Keyser
Albany Times Union
April 9, 2009


Robert Hillary King spent nearly three decades in solitary confinement at the notorious Angola state prison in Louisiana. As a member of the Black Panther Party, he and two party members became nationally known as the Angola 3 — political prisoners who spent decades in solitary confinement for, they contend, organizing prisoners to improve conditions.

King, 66, will speak Friday at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy in support of his book, From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King (PM Press, 224 pages, $24.95).

After becoming a Black Panther in prison and organizing inmates, according to the book's dust jacket, "prison authorities beat him, starved him and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a 6-by-9-foot cell for 29 years as one of the Angola 3. In 2001, the state grudgingly acknowledged his innocence and set him free."

Born poor in Louisiana and abandoned by both parents, King was stealing and fighting on the street by the time he was 11 and serving time in reform school at 15. In and out of local and state prison, he ended up at Angola in 1971 for a robbery he claims he did not commit. There, he says, he was framed for the stabbing death of another inmate.

"Solitary confinement is terrifying, especially if you are innocent of the charges that put you there," King writes. "My soul still cries from all that I witnessed and endured. ... So let's call prisons exactly what they are: an extension of slavery."

King recently spoke to the Times Union by phone from his home in Austin.

Q: You write that while in solitary you were allowed out of your cell one hour per day to shower and, sometimes, to go outside into the yard. How did you maintain your sanity?

A: When people ask me that, I tell them, laughing: 'I didn't tell you I wasn't crazy.' It's kind of hard to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking.

But I go on to say that I was in prison; prison wasn't in me. I kind of insulated myself against prison. My political awareness shielded me. Becoming politically aware in the early '70s, I saw America as being one big prison. All they'd done was take me from minimum custody and put me in maximum security.

But there is some luxury to going insane. I can understand that. Very few things I'm afraid of, but I was scared to go crazy, because I was scared of what they would do to me. I saw them do horrible things to people who, quote, lose their mind or regress into insanity. They were given medications, hosed down with 40-pound, 50-pound pressure hoses. ... And it wasn't just the administration. Inmates took part in the victimization of their own fellow prisoners. You see a lot of things. I couldn't describe all the things.

Q: Who are the Angola 3?

A: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and myself became collectively known as the Angola 3 after spending decades in solitary confinement. Herman and Albert, both members of the Black Panther Party, were placed there for a crime they allegedly committed, participating in the death of a correction officer back in 1972. It's since come out that Herman and Albert were framed.

When our story got out in the public, I was subsequently released in 2001 when the courts overturned my conviction of participating in the death of an inmate. Herman and Albert are still in prison. (After 36 years in solitary, reportedly the longest of any inmates ever in the U.S., they were transferred last year to maximum security. When the correction officer was killed, Wallace and Woodfox were serving 50-year sentences, Wallace for bank robbery, Woodfox for armed robbery.) We have a strong legal case, but the state seems to be hanging on for dear life. Albert's case is in the federal courts, and Herman's is in the state Supreme Court. We have a civil suit as well.

Q: Are you consumed by anger and bitterness?

A: I don't know how anybody can go through what I went through and not be bitter, angry and a little crazy. But I can compartmentalize these things that took place in my life. I can dissect them and make an assessment of them.

Prison gave me a focus. The focus is to do my best to make sure that nobody else undergoes the type of thing that I underwent.

Q: What are you doing these days? How are you making a living?

A: When I got released from Angola, I got $10 from the state. That's all. I went on a few speaking engagements. I was putting out the word for the Angola 3. In some cases, people gave me a little money for doing it. I couldn't get a job, because when I got out, I was nearly 60 years old. And I had a record.

I got into making candy, something I learned in prison — King's Freelines, my twist on "pralines". That's how I'm able to sustain myself. And I have the book. I have spoken at colleges. Sometimes I've received compensation for that. But it's never much. By no stretch of the imagination am I rich. But I'm not homeless.

Q: What's the message you'd like readers to take from your book?

A: In the final analysis, America may be heaven for some. But in heaven, there's some people catching hell. I just happened to be of that segment that caught hell. There's still people catching hell.

But I guess the main message is one of benevolence. I think we have much more in common than we have differences. I guess that's the final message.

Tom Keyser can be reached at 454-5448 or by e-mail at tkeyser@timesunion.com.

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The Angola 3 in Political Media Review

Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation
By William T. Armaline (Ph.D.) and Damian Bramlett
Political Media Review

It is no secret that the United States does not hesitate to incarcerate. While the US only represents 5% of the global population, it cages nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners-approximately 2.3 million people. Of these 2.3 million people, approximately half are African American (13% of US population). Of course, the vastly disproportionate caging and state coercion of African Americans in the US has a long and brutal history. This bloody legacy is made manifest in prisons like Angola, named for the country from which many southern plantation slaves were abducted. The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation details the history of not only Angola prison, but the broader struggle between the US police state and organizations like the Black Panthers over the rights and quality of life of African Americans in the US.

The legacy of slavery is ever present in Angola prison. Before the American Civil War, Angola was a plantation owned by slave trader Isaac Franklin. The prison first opened during the Civil War Reconstruction period and its first warden was a Confederate officer. Vagrancy laws were originally used to imprison freed slaves and ensure their free labor through state coercion. Today, Angola still holds an almost exclusively African American population (over 80%), and operates as a plantation where inmates are forced to conduct backbreaking field labor for the state of Louisiana and its corporate partners. As scholars such as Angela Davis (2003) note of prisons like Angola, the white overseer has been replaced by the prison guard on horseback, the slave replaced by the incarcerated “black criminal.” Indeed, Angola prison reminds us that many things have not changed in a country whose wealth and power was built on the backs of various populations of color-namely African Americans.

In the film, director Jimmy O’Halligan documents the lives of three Angola prisoners and their quest for freedom from incarceration. Herman Wallace, Robert King (AKA Robert King Wilkerson), and Albert Woodfox are the men known as the “Angola 3.” All three were convicted on separate charges during the late 1960’s. King, Wallace and Woodfox would also gain notoriety for starting the only Black Panthers Party prison chapter in 1971. Their connection with the Black Panthers would ultimately lead to their continued incarceration long after their original release dates as political prisoners of the US government.

The viewer is lead through harrowing accounts of how the Angola Black Panthers were the first to challenge prisoner conditions within a severely corrupt penitentiary. Party members would form anti-rape squads, fight for inmates to receive adequate work equipment, and attempt to quell the rampant racism within the prison itself. It is interesting to note that one of the goals of the Angola Panthers was to desegregate inmate populations such that prison officials couldn’t use racism and race baiting to stifle prisoner solidarity and organization. It is now common practice for prisons to segregate inmates by both race and “gang affiliation,” under the guise of “keeping the peace” in the prison general pop. However, as the history of the Angola 3 might demonstrate, such practices are masked attempts to ensure violence and conflict between prisoners in order to prevent any mass resistance movement by inmates against their captors. As it is today, racism was utilized within Angola’s walls as a means of controlling the inmate population. It was this blatant racism that would lead to the extended, and nearly indefinite incarceration of the Angola 3.

King, Wallace, and Woodfox provide their own accounts as to why they were found guilty of crimes they did not commit while in prison. King was “investigated” over a period of 30 years for a murder that took place before he even step foot in Angola. Wallace and Woodfox were both convicted for the murder of a prison guard despite numerous inconsistencies with case evidence. Both men were convicted based on the “eyewitness” account of a (literally) blind informant.

As a result of their convictions, the Angola 3 have spent more time in solitary confinement than any other known person in the U.S. King spent a total of 29 years in solitary, and was eventually released in 2001 after his original sentence was overturned and he plead guilty to a lesser charge. Woodfox and Wallace spent a total of 36 years in solitary until 2008, when they were finally moved to a maximum-security block. The fight for Wallace and Woodfox’s release from Angola continues to this day.

At the same time, O’Halligan should be praised for going beyond the individual struggles of the Angola 3 in the film, where he offers an extended conversation on the broader oppression of social justice activists by the US federal government. Specifically, the film dedicates significant coverage to the covert, insidious operations of CONTELPRO over the last 50 years. It would be impossible to understand the struggles of activists in the 1960’s and 70’s without explaining the lengths to which the state will go to crush internal resistance. This aspect of the film serves as an important lesson to contemporary activists about the roles and tools of the state in the face of great challenge, and is worth noting here.

Jimmy O’Halligan provides a grim and stark view of life on the inside one of the last slave plantations in America. The accounts of radicals and revolutionaries such as Geronimo Pratt, Malik Rahim, Yuri Kochiyama and the narration of Mumia Abu-Jamal add depth and grounded voice to the film. While the pace of the documentary is a bit on the slow side (interview clips are very long), it is full of rich historical accounts. The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation would be an excellent source for those studying systemic racism, prison reform or abolition, and contemporary social justice movements.

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Teaching Rebellion in PMR

Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca
By Duygun Gokturk
Political Media Review

Teaching Rebellion; Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca reflects the spirit of the historical teachers’ struggle in Oaxaca, Mexico in the spring of 2006, which is rooted in the principal of radical (direct) democracy and social justice. The narratives assembled in this book are the voices of political implications of theory drawn from the experimental frameworks within this community struggle for “living wage, infrastructure repair, free school books and social services for poor students” (p.25). As the authors state, this book “is not a definitive assessment of the movement that took shape in Oaxaca in 2006, nor is it a comprehensive collection of the stories that people lived and carry with them…it is an effort to represent a cross-section of Oaxacan society, to reflect both the diversity of actors and the diversity of their experiences…”(p.21). This grassroots mobilization characterizes the movement active in challenging societal structures first started by the National Union of Educational Workers in Oaxaca. After a short while, unification of various citizens’ mobilization has evolved into one of the largest and most tactfully organized community struggles in the country, and at least a million people have taken to the streets to demand social justice. Within Teaching Rebellion the centrality of praxis activates capacities, ideals and solidarities capable of challenging and reformulating societal structures. As one indigenous community radio activist stated, “once you learn to speak, you do not want to be quiet anymore”.

Throughout the book, we are witnessing new forms of organized struggle as a result of the policies applied by eighty years of single party rule of Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and its hegemony which “compress critical space and stifles critical thought” (Hill, 2003, p.1) within the social and political spheres. Under the control of PRI, the concrete realities within the city of Oaxaca inform us that “corporate-led development projects have targeted communal lands rich with natural resources and biodiversity, dismantling indigenous people’s rights to self-determination and ravaging their means of economic sustainability” and as a result the majority of the population is “disproportionately burdened with poverty” (p.27-8). PRI’s economic policies serve to perpetuate the interest of neo-liberal policies in the interest of dominant hegemony and situate itself involving in the neoliberal model of education. The widespread poverty and marginalization as a result of state powered neoliberal policies concludes periodic waves of social revolts that have the capability of being constant foe of the government. In the first place, the street protest of teachers starts and evolves into one of the largest struggles in the country. Throughout the struggle the sites of resistance organize under the name of The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a community organization that is rooted in dialogical communication through an involvement of its members in policy making processes. The movement develops an integration with media in order to promote alternative ways of communication and through media networks has the chance of speaking for itself. Radio Universidad becomes the voice of the movement and offers a medium to transmit their struggles.

At one of her speeches, Arundhati Roy said, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (Jaramillo, 2005, p.xxx). In this book the preferably unheard and deliberately silenced voices insist upon recreating their own struggle in its own image and language which is a way from stripping its own agency based on the movement’s principles of social justice, radical democracy and humanist values. Each voice within the book “denaturalizes the mythic status of oppression” and the light surges from the new pedagogy entries into oppression’s closed rooms (Jaramillo & McLaren, 2009, p.3).

The collection of diverse voices show us how struggle is lodged within and with the praxis, and at this point some of their words are worth quoting at length.

Eleuterio (as a primary school teacher): “A whole movement began to promote authentic indigenous education…but the general current in the government says that everything indigenous is backwards. If we keep being ‘Indians’, the nation won’t progress” (p.45).

Marcos (as one of the founder of APPO): “It is not enough to know that we want change; we have to know what kind of change we want and how to bring about that change” (p.83).

Genoveva (as a member of Oaxacan Women’s Coordinating Body): “for a long time women did not have a voice or a vote in the communities; the men decided everything. But today’ spaces are opening up for women little by little” (p.126).

Silvia (as a defender of Radio Universidad): “On the streets, we learned to be more human” (p.205).

Adan (as an elementary school principal): “Social movements can sometimes be short-sighted. We’re looking for ways to move into the future” (p.325).

Each of these voices prove to us that the movement created its own definition of the good life which is “beyond development”, “beyond economy”, “beyond individual”, “beyond the nation-state” (p.332), and do not accept globalization that has “two attractive masks: as a political mask ‘democracy’, and as an ethical mask, ‘human rights’” (p.333). The movement has its own definitions for “democracy” and “human rights” that allow a space for each human being below, above and within them.

As final words, the book reminds us the poem of Nazim Hikmet, Optimism, (Blasing & Konuk, 2002, p.204) which says;

The world’s no run by governments or money
But people rule
A hundred years from now
Maybe
But it will be for sure…

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References

Denham, D. and C.A.S.A Collective. (2008). Teaching Rebellion. CA: PM Press.

Hill, D. (2003).Global Neo-Liberalism, the Deformation of Education and Resistance. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Volume 1, Number 1.

Hikmet, N. (2002). Optimism. In R. Blasing and M. Konuk (Ed.), Poems of Nazim Hikmet. New York: Persea Books.

Jaramillo, N.E. (2005). Preface. In Peter McLaren (Ed.), Red seminars: Radical excursions into educational theory, cultural politics, and pedagogy. New Jersey: Hampton Press Inc.

Jaramillo, N. and McLaren, P. (2009). Borderlines: bell hooks and the Pedagogy of Revolutionary Change, book chapter in Critical Perspectives on bell hooks, edited by Lupe Davidson and George Yancy, Routledge: New York.




The Angry Brigade Reviewed in PMR

The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Britain's First Urban Guerilla Group
By Sarat Colling
Political Media Review

This BBC film by Gordon Carr, released in 1973 and republished in 2008, documents the events surrounding Britain’s longest ever conspiracy trial, in which eight young anarchists were charged with conspiring to commit 25 bomb attacks as members of the Angry Brigade.

The Angry Brigade was a militant British libertarian group active during the politically intense period of the late 60s and early 70s. Inspired by Spanish anarchism and the Situationists, they opposed repressive regimes and materialist society by taking symbolic militant actions against property. The group was in some respects a manifestation of the frustration many people were feeling at the time. In England, the conservative government was facing widespread opposition to a highly controversial platform, including their Industrial Relations Bill, and internment was introduced in Northern Ireland.

The Angry Brigade’s targets included police stations, banks, army bases, Cabinet minister’s homes, and embassies of repressive regimes. Their concerns were diverse. Once, coinciding with a women’s lib demonstration, they bombed a BBC van at a Miss World Contest.

It is nice to see such a balanced, even sympathetic, portrait from the BBC of such a radical group. Carr did extensive research amongst police and anarchists and the interviews are intriguing. Those interviewed include Octavio Alberola, a prominant Spanish militant who fought the Franco reqime and helped bring revolution to Europe, Stuart Christie, who spent years in jail for his attempt to assassinate Franco, John Barker who was indicted at the trial, as well as the head investigator on the case. Also fascinating is the film’s historical footage. It records inside communes, massive demonstrations and other revolutionary events of the time.

A bonus of the recently released version is the 20-minute documentary on the “Persons Unknown” trial which took place during a time of heightened security due to the IRA. In years following the trial of the Angry Brigade, members of the Anarchist Black Cross were charged for “conspiring with persons unknown, at places unknown” to overthrow society. In a successful outcome for the defendants, all were acquitted and one jury member even became an anarchist.

Although they were short lived, the Angry Brigade made an impact. Some of their communiqués were a thousand words long, and, as Carr says, “Well argued…closely reasoned, forcing others to redefine ideas of violence.” Not only did they make the mainstream consider their actions, the group impacted other activists. Notably, Ronnie Lee, an Animal Liberation Front (ALF) founder said he was influenced by their direct action. The ALF formed in London soon after the Angry Brigade trial, with similar guidelines of not harming any person, and twenty years later is still active around the world.

The emergence of the Angry Brigade marked an important turning point in the 20th century when the hippie era was transforming into a new urban guerilla movement. I highly recommend this film to anyone interested in social movement history, anarchism, European social change, political prisoners, and political trials. It is a great resource for college students, high school students, graduate students, activist organizations, and the general public wanting to know a part of history that goes untold in most history books.

For those seeking further insight about the Angry Brigade, the straightforward documentary approach of Carr’s film is well supplemented with publications such as Granny Made me an Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me, a memoir by Stuart Christie, and Anarchy In The UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague, an illustrated book which includes police and court documents and draws upon their communiqués.

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Venezuela: Revolution From the Inside Out in PMR

By Damian Bramlett and William Armaline (Ph.D.), San Jose State University
Political Media Review


In the US mainstream, Hugo Chavez is generally seen as a “communist” (a la North Korea, Cuba, or China), tyrant, or both-often vilified by US news media and politicians. Further, the Chavez administration is often painted as illegitimate, particularly in comparison to those elected in dominant Western “democratic” models-such as the US or much of the EU. However, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out provides a more nuanced perspective on Venezuela and a thorough investigation of modern socialism as now manifested in Central and South America.

California poet Clifton Ross, who is both writer and director of this modest film, provides an outsider’s perspective on Venezuelans in the 21st century and their struggle to change their way of life. Ross splits the film into three parts, with each providing interviews of both native Venezuelans and international scholars. Part one tells the story of Venezuela’s tumultuous past, with a large focus on Chavez’ rise to power. The second part of the film is dedicated to the emergent Venezuelan educational model, based largely on expanding literacy and civic education to all Venezuelan communities. The final act focuses on cooperatives (”lanceros”) and the struggle (of some) for a decentralized socialist political economy and political apparatus.

The dominant historical narrative, newly constructed under the Chavez administration(s) has striking similarities to that of the US: They fought for and won their independence from colonizers; Venezuela was largely shaped by “founding fathers” whose contributions form the “tree of three roots”-now studied in civic educational curriculum; and they experienced civil war that also threatened complete rupture in the 19th century. Contrary to popular belief, current Venezuelan affairs are similar to the US as well: drug wars raging along their borders, indigenous peoples being displaced from their homes via “development”, and a problematic dependency on oil as a finite and ultimately unsustainable resource. However, the Chavez administration and the modern socialist movement more broadly appear in stark contrast to the contemporary US. Recently models of “change” in the US in the face of economic recession and potential collapse have included the bailing out of capitalists, the rescuing of modern finance capitalism from itself, and the election of an African American president. In Venezuela, such change has included a real challenge and alternative to unbridled corporate tyranny (exemplified in the nationalization of Venezuela’s major natural resource industries), and the overwhelmingly democratic-populist election(s) of socialists to positions of high state authority.

Ross does an excellent job at giving outsiders an inside view as to how contemporary Latin American socialism operates and is perceived by its own constituents. He takes to the streets, back alleys, and urban cafes to conduct interviews with those from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and employment sectors. Ross’ passion for the voices of common working people in Venezuela is apparent in every frame-this is possibly the greatest strength of the film. Although Ross showcases many of the current successes of the “revolucion bonita” in the first two sections of the film, he does not hesitate to explore the problems with establishing a markedly state socialist system in the third. For this reason, the third section is likely the most interesting in terms of the modern socialist project. As has been the case for previous experiments in state socialism, one question for Venezuela is whether or not they can avoid the devolution into bureaucratic dictatorship, and establish political economic models of decentralized community control over resources and decision making.

Where Ross makes some attempt at this critical approach in the third section, at times, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out almost feels like a Hugo Chavez bio-doc rather than a film about democratic social change from below. The filmmakers come off as somewhat (and understandably) enamored with Hugo Chavez–as made apparent in their letter to Chavez–that they fail to fully present some of the potential problems with state socialist models, or the various critiques often levied at the Chavez administration from international sources representing the right or left. This seems like an opportunity lost in an otherwise very thorough presentation of contemporary Venezuelan social and political movements.

In sum, this film is very useful for audiences in the US, particularly with regard to debunking the fallacious assumptions we initially mentioned. Though somewhat uncritical of the Chavez administration, the filmmakers do an excellent job employing the narratives of common working people to describe the history and contemporary form of Venezuelan socialism. This is not simply a good point of methodological practice, but a way of communicating the potential collective movements for vast social change from below in (and potentially against) modern nation-states.

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Venezuela: Revolution From the Inside Out in DVD Talk

VenezuelaBy Chris Neilson
DVD Talk

Democracy is alive and well in Venezuela, or so it seems from Clifton Ross's intriguing feature-length documentary Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out. Ross explores Hugo Chávez's rise to power, and the subsequent experiment in 21st century Bolivarian Revolution through interviews with American and Venezuelan academics, and Venezuelan government officials, community activists and educators, and co-op farmers and merchants.

The first third of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out consists of historical background on Chávez's rise to power. This introduction is elementary enough that it can be followed by viewers with no prior knowledge, but lively enough that it can sustain the interest of viewers already knowledgeable about this material. Through archival footage and interviews, Ross lays the groundwork for the more interesting subject of the Bolivarian Revolution following Chávez's rise to power which occupies the later two-thirds of the documentary.

In February 1992, Chávez, a senior Venezuelan military officer, launched a coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Though popularly elected in 1989, American-back Pérez was generally reviled by poor Venezuelans by 1992 following a prolonged period of economic decline. The coup failed, but Chávez negotiated a surrender that included a televised address to his troops and the Venezuelan people explaining that he'd acted in the interests of the poor, and he promised to continue to struggle on their behalf.

Chávez was jailed, only to be pardoned as a fulfillment of a campaign promise by the next Venezuelan President, Rafael Caldera, in 1994. Following his release, Chávez began laying the groundwork for a political victory. In 1998, he successfully ran for President, receiving 56% of the vote.

As President, Chávez launched a broad reorganization of the Venezuelan economy that included a massive public works program, universal social security, free health care and university education, land reform, vigorous corporate tax enforcement, and the nationalization of the oil, mining and heavy manufacturing sectors of the economy. Unhappy with the massive redistribution of wealth, a coup from the right seized power and arrested Chávez on April 11, 2002, but two days later he was freed and restored to power by a popular countercoup. The failure of the reactionary coup, Ross's interviewees tell us, delegitimized the opposition, and propelled the Bolivarian Revolution ahead twenty years.

The remaining two-thirds of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out examines the Bolivarian Revolution in practice. It is here that the documentary really gets good. Ross roams around Caracas and the countryside doing interviews and visiting cooperatives and state enterprises. Ross visits a rural savings and loan, a community kitchen, a subsidized community store where the food labels include informational blurbs about the finer points of the national Constitution, and various businesses, farms, and even urban utilities operated as cooperatives by poor slum dwellers.

Ross interviews a manager of a state-owned bookstore who also happens to be a poet and poetry teacher who is enthusiastic about the educational opportunities now available. Ross also interviews another educator who explains that the existing universities are still resistant to reform, and that parallel "Bolivarian universities" have sprung up to train community development organizers. All the interviewees seem generally supportive of Chávez, but what makes these interviews interesting is that the interviewees all express some degree of dissatisfaction with Chávez but in wildly divergent ways.

Views diverge most widely on the Bolivarian Revolution tenant of seeking societal change through immediate economic empowerment rather than gradual economic adjustment. More specifically, the divergence of opinion concerns the practice of providing government loans directly to cooperatives without ensuring that the cooperatives have a viable business plan and capable membership first. A member of a longstanding co-op is critical of this practice because it puts the established cooperatives at a competitive disadvantage. A junior government official complains that only social benefits should be distributed by the government not cash payments to co-ops since most fail without repaying the loans. On the other hand, new co-op members and those seeking to form cooperatives complain that funding has been delivered more slowly than promised, and that loans are not keeping up with needs.

Ross is even allowed to document a poorly performing cooperative business over an 18 month period. When Ross first interviews the all-female membership of a cooperative restaurant, a power struggle is underway between two factions. By the time of Ross's last interview, most of the original members have been forced out, and the handful remaining are hiring and firing temporary workers on a regular basis to avoid giving them a share in the co-op. This is not how the government envisioned the cooperatives would operate. Worse yet, this is one of the few mildly successful co-ops: 80% fail within two years of opening without paying back the government loans. Despite this poor record, the government officials interviewed do not try to hide any of it, professing only that even the failures are acceptable and expected formative steps in the economic transformation.

Despite the diversity of opinion captured by Ross, the glaring omission is anyone squarely opposed to Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Ross interviews no one who has had land appropriated by the State, no one whose wealth has dissipated under heavy taxation, and no one in the universities resistant to the educational reformation initiatives.

The Video:
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There is aliasing and macroblocking of the image, but the overall look is acceptable, and in keeping with the handheld shooting style.

The Audio:
The 2.0 audio suffers from minor dropouts and distortion. The forced subtitles are overly small and badly colored, with the yellow text often lost against light colored backgrounds. However, the subtitles, in English when the audio is in Spanish, and Spanish when the audio is in English, do appear to provide excellent translations.

The Extras:
Extras consists of two short documentary features by Clifton Ross. Both are far more polemical than the main feature. The first, Messages to the North American People (12 min.) consists of statements by the Venezuelan interviewees from the main feature, addressed to viewers in the United States. Likely these were originally to be included in the main feature, but were cut because of their overt political posturing. These statements all express disbelief that George Bush was reelected President in 2004 after the perceived debacle of his first term. Some are angry, but most are simply bewildered or sympathetic to an American people out of touch with reality. The best of the bunch was this statement seemingly formulated on the spur of the moment by a man in late middle-age:

I don't know how you're going to escape the fiction the media has you in so you'll at last see reality and understand that your lifestyle isn't yours, but rather was stolen from us in the Third World. We're willing to share it. We can live in harmony. But the fantasy the media has sold you isn't real. We're not terrorists. We don't want to kill you. We want to live with you, but in equality, if you please. You've been partying for a long time. The car you have is half mine. Now give me my half.

The second short, entitled Meeting Chavez (10 min.), is a rant by Ross against the Bush Administration's lack of response to Katrina and underfunding of primary public schooling. Ross documents a friend who is a teacher in a struggling public elementary school in California. The teacher buys school supplies out of her own pocket. Ross writes a letter to Chávez on behalf of the school asking for funding for the library, athletics program, and school supplies. Chávez reads the letter on Venezuelan television, and follows up with an undisclosed amount of to the school.

Final Thoughts:
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is an intriguing look into the Venezuelan socialist economic experiment known as the Bolivarian Revolution. Thanks largely to oil revenues and wealth redistribution, President Hugo Chávez's Administration has injected enormous amounts of capital into the bottom rungs of the economy. Whether this vast economic experiment will be successful in relieving poverty and producing a sustainable, just, egalitarian, democratic society, remains to be seen.

Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out, and the shorts Messages to the North American People, and Meeting Chavez, have been made freely available for download by Clifton Ross under a Copyleft limited license. They are lawfully available as BitTorrent files on numerous sites.

Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is highly recommended.

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Collectives in the Spanish Revolution

Lago de Sangre: Un libro de misterio sobre Filomena Buscarsela