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Former Black Panther "There Are Political Prisoners in America as Well"
What an Irish hunger striker and a former Black Panther can teach us about prisoner resistance.
By Emily Wilson
May 26, 2009
Prisons are, or can be, places to raise political consciousness, says Dennis O'Hearn, the author of Nothing But an Unfinished Song, a biography of Bobby Sands, the 27-year-old who died leading a hunger strike in Long Kesh, a prison in Northern Ireland. A new movie about Sands' final days, Hunger, recently won an award for first-time filmakers at the Cannes Film Festival.
Sands, who was serving a 14-year sentence for possessing firearms, demanded the right to be treated as a political prisoner, says O'Hearn, who appeared at an event about political prisoners in San Francisco with Andrej Grubacic, a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco and the co-author of Wobblies & Zapatistas: Conversations On Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History, and Robert Hillary King, one of the Angola 3. King spent more than 30 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in 2001, and he has written a new autobiography about his experiences, From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King.
King says he, like Sands, became an activist in response to the oppression in prison.
"Prison is another way to perpetuate slavery," King says. "They're connected. A lot of people think legality and morality are the same thing, but they're not. Prisons are immoral."
While in Angola, a Louisiana prison built on a former slave plantation, King joined the Black Panther Party, with the other two members that make up the Angola 3, Herbert Wallace and Albert Woodfox. King says they felt morally obligated to do something about the conditions in Angola, considered in the 70s the worst prison in the country.
"There were 72 of us in a space made for 40," King says. "There were rats, roaches and horrible food. There was a system of sexual slavery that was accepted. Just because you're in prison doesn't mean you're not a human being."
King says because he, Wallace and Woodfox tried to organize other prisoners, they were seen as threats to the administration and framed - he for the murder of a fellow inmate, and Wallace and Woodfox for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. They were kept in their 6 by 9 cells for 23 hours a day.
In spite being separated, King says they talked to one another from cell to cell and kept trying to educate themselves and others. He says their efforts led to changes in how prisoners were fed. Officials had been sliding the food under the door or leaving it outside in the hallway. King said this was dehumanizing and through hunger strikes got the prison officials to cut a hole in the bars to slide plates through. Also, King says, once they became politically conscious, they resisted the guards' standard anal searches. They filed a writ and the court ruled in their favor that these searches were unjustified.
"There are many parallels between Bobby Sands and Robert," O'Hearn said. "The strip searches and the inhumane conditions."
Like King, Sands and his fellow prisoners communicated with one another even though they were locked in separate cells. O'Hearn says they told stories, sang songs and learned the Irish language orally.
"It's so important the joy of the struggle, not just the hardship of struggle," O'Hearn said.
Grubacic, an anarchist from the Balkans, says he is interested in how people organize themselves in prison. From his co-author on Wobblies and Zapatistas, Staughton Lynd, Grubacic learned about the Lucasville 5, a group that took over a prison in Youngstown, Ohio, for 11 days. The group was made up of black militants and members of the Aryan Brotherhood, who spray painted slogans such as "Convict race" on the walls of the prison.
"Some of the most beautiful examples of American democracy are not found in and around the White House, but in Lucasville," Grubacic says. "Convicts developed a system of democracy to fight for a different world."
The discussion focused on political prisoners was part of a week of events discussing various revolutions throughout the world in 1968 and the legacy of those movements. O'Hearn, who along with the biography of Sands, wrote the introduction to Grubacic's book, said prison activists were part of the shift in perspective in the 60s.
"The old idea was wait till you overthrow the state and take power," he said. "But in the 60's social activists felt the important thing was to create kind of state they wanted."
Ramsey Kanaan founded PM Press, the publisher of King's book, From the Bottom of the Heap. He says King's experiences as a Black Panther are an important part of the struggles of the 60s.
"Talking about '68 is kind of a metaphor," he says. "Sixty-eight was part of a river that didn't appear out of nowhere and didn't disappear into nowhere. Prisoner struggles are part of that stream."
Kanaan points out that the prison population in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 60s.
Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, which advocates for prison reform, says prison is a way for the state to crack down on dissent.
"I think the reality is the U.S. has used prisons as a catchall response to social and economic problems," she says.
The way to change that is not just to talk to people with different points of view, but to listen as well, says Grubacic. Grubacic says he and others from the university in Belgrade, who opposed the former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, went to talk with factory workers in the south who supported Milosevic.
"We exchanged ideas, we exchanged skills and experience," he says. "Listening is a political tool. This is the way to build a movement."
Robert Hillary King: "There are political prisoners in America as well."
Robert Hillary King went into Louisiana’s Angola Prison in 1970, accused of armed robbery. He was sentenced to 35 years, and after escaping, eight more years were added on to his sentence. For most of his time at Angola, considered one of the worst prisons in the nation, he was in a 9 by 6 cell for 23 hours a day. While he was there, he, along with Herbert Wallace and Albert Woodfox, created a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. Known as the Angola 3, the men were all given life sentences: King for allegedly killing another inmate, while Woodfox and Wallace were accused of killing a prison guard. Woodfox had a hearing at the beginning of March to decide whether to uphold a federal judge’s ruling overturning his conviction. The court may take between four weeks and six months to release a ruling.
King was exonerated in 2001. After being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he now lives in Austin, TX, where he continues to work for Wallace and Woodfox’s release and travels widely to speak about prison conditions. He recently came out with a book about his experiences, From the Bottom of the Heap. Alternet’s Emily Wilson caught up with him when he was in San Francisco speaking on a panel about political prisoners.
Emily Wilson: How did you get a life sentence at Angola?
Robert Hillary King: They were locking up all the so-called black militants and in 1974, on the tier I lived on which was called B Tier, an inmate was killed in self-defense by another inmate and they indicted 11 people. It was a blanket indictment. A couple of weeks later it was down to two people and I was one of them. Without any corroborating evidence I was found guilty. They accepted the inconsistent testimony of an individual who made up his testimony, was given a gun, and issued a transfer to minimum status within the prison. They got him to say I participated. They also got another individual to say I participated, but his testimony was impeached within the first trial.
Both of them went home and subsequently returned to prison and they contacted me to say they wanted to set the record straight, and they had lied. The one who had impeached, the warden had prepared his testimony for him and, the other person just took advantage by implicating me because the warden wanted him to implicate me, and I was found guilty and given a life sentence.
EW: Why did you first join the Black Panther Party?
RHK: The Black Panther Party articulated things for me I really couldn’t at the time. I began to feel alienated from the system. I had taken it for granted like everybody else that there were civil rights in this country and I was protected by these rights and I was naively believing that despite the fact that I had witnessed racism and discrimination all of my life. I still had hope and belief and belief in the ideas of the system.
After coming into contact with the Black Panther Party and some of their ideology and not having been able to articulate some of what they were saying but feeling it, I felt kinship and it was easy to adopt some of their ideology, which I felt was pretty humanistic.
I was in prison when I first heard about it. I was in the New Orleans Parish, and I had just been given a 35-year sentence. I heard about them, but it wasn’t until I escaped and was recaptured that I came into contact with the Black Panther Party. I had heard about them, but I did not know they were in New Orleans. Some of them were arrested in a so called shootout and they came in and they placed a couple of them in the tier I was being kept on, so I began to find out more and more about the Black Panther Party. Of course there were people saying the same thing long before the Black Panthers, but I really didn’t hear it. You know, the protests, the Freedom Riders, people trying to acquire the right to vote, civil rights, all of these things eventually connected, but I was not able to connect the dots until I heard the Black Panther Party, so I was attracted.
EW: How could you organize and create a community in prison?
RHK: Herman and Albert were responsible for that; I give them all the credit along with some others in the Black Panther Party. They started political education classes and started passively protesting the work conditions, which were 17 hours a day. They tried to hold political discussion and political education classes that would instill hope in the prisoners. It was a passive protest. You know, work stoppage and food stoppage. Not eating any food or not serving food in the kitchen so that they could get the attention of the administration.
Herman and Albert were the ones who initiated going on the yard and holding political discussion with other inmates. When I came on, Herman and Albert were in the cells and we continued to teach political education classes from the cells and to educate ourselves and people on the tier.
We would talk from cell to cell or write thing up and make fliers. We had access to people who were in minimum custody so we would get on the good side of them and get them to bring fliers down the walk. We were not only able to communicate between ourselves on the tiers, but we were able to reach out to people in surrounding areas as well.
EW: What are some of the things you accomplished?
RHK: We were able to do some things like change the practice of how they fed us. We engaged in not eating; we staged a hunger strike. We had tried to negotiate with prison officials stating that the way they fed us was dehumanizing and unsanitary and we felt it should be upgraded, but we were told this was the way they did it and this was prison. We understood that but being political conscious and aware, we began to see things and recognize that just because we were in prison did not mean we were not human beings, so we took a different approach to how we were treated. We decided to go on a hunger strike and it took 18 months, but eventually they stopped feeding us in that manner.
What they were doing was throwing it under the door or sliding it under the door, and sometimes they would leave it outside the door. Flies and rats and roaches and everything else ran through it. They began to cut food slots in the bars for us, and actually now all over prison they cut food slots.
Another thing they were doing was engaging in dehumanizing body cavity searches that served no criminological purpose. We decided to change this practice, so we decided not to submit. In other words, we wouldn’t refuse a shake down. I would raise my hand, raise my feet, open my mouth and so forth, that is OK. But I was in the cell 23, 24 hours a day sometimes, and we did not come into contact with anybody, and we had to go through an anal search just out after being handcuffed. It was illogical. So we decided if they wanted a body cavity search, they had to force us.
But a writ was filed and the 19th District Court ruled in our favor that a routine anal search was unjustified and that was stopped. And as a result of people struggling and the Black Panther Party coming into the prison, there was a federal oversight of the prison for like 25 years. It was relinquished only about 1998 or 2000 by a federal jury. The prison was considered in 1972 one of the worst prisons in the nation.
We made some changes, but the idea was not to beautify or make prisons more livable. The ultimate goal was to get Herman and Albert and myself out of prison. The bar has always been raised to that degree.
EW: You say in your book prison is a continuation of slavery. Why do you say that?
RHK: I don’t think the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. It just made a transition from one form to another. It was considered legal to own slaves but even thought it was legal to own slaves it wasn’t till people began to see the moral repugnance of owning slaves, that things changed, till there was a moral outrage. I see the difference between legality and morality. Some people think if something is legal, it’s moral, but that’s not so. A lot of people can be legally guilty but morally innocent. People can be legally innocent of a crime and legally innocent and can go to their death.
With this mindset, legality seems to take precedence over morality. I began to make an assessment of the 13th amendment and the wording of it and it just seems to be poppycock. You know, “Slavery and involuntarily servitude shall not exist on these shores” and people say “Well, the 13th amendment abolished slavery.” Well, no, not so. You have to read the rest. It says unless of course, if you have been duly convicted of a crime.
EW: How did you keep going locked up for 23 hours a day? Were you confident you would get out some day?
RHK: I hoped that I would get out. Also I felt that I could die in prison. It went beyond hope. I did some things to activate my release. I got into the law and I kept my own case alive, and subsequently Herman and Albert’s. They were closing doors within the legal system, and even though I felt the legal system was hypocritical, I also knew there could be some legal loopholes, and so along with Herman and Albert we kept hammering at it. We looked at our cases, I read Albert’s transcript and my own transcript, and we got some people on board who had heard about the case as a result of Albert getting a new trial. Some activists got others involved, and it took a while, but Albert should be getting out of prison at some point because all the evidence against him has been undermined. And whatever happens in Albert’s case should happen in Herman’s as well because they are linked.
EW: What is it you are doing now for prison reform?
RHK: I’ve been to five different continents and over a dozen countries talking about the Angola 3 case and trying to make a connection that prison America is really slavery. There are political prisoners in America as well. I was in prison for 31 years for a crime I didn’t commit, 29 in solitary. I think it’s incumbent on me to try to do my best to try and expose the things I saw and witnessed. I kind of see the connection of not just Herman and Albert and our struggle, but I believe the struggle of people generally and the struggle of African people. I think there’s a connection. and the connection runs deep. In my book and in my lifestyle, I’m trying to show the connection runs much deeper than the eye can see. I hope people will get to see the system and how it really operates.
Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.