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The Explosion Of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance And Social Revolution In San Francisco, 1965 —1975: A Review

By Nick Kuzmack
Nixbeat
February 7th, 2017


The Explosion Of Deferred Dreams is an essential book that explores the powerful relationship between music and politics. Author Mat Callahan highlights the struggles that defined the 1960s and although it is a subject well covered, he shows that this era was fresh with sounds that made one move, and groove in a way that was totally revolutionary. This culturally and revolutionary period was far from perfect and could not be boiled down to the popular idea of simply having flowers in one’s hair. In his study, Callahan uses the San Francisco as his model to understand a deep political history that coincides with the cultural renaissance of the 60’s. To do this, Callahan explores a history of the civil rights, labor struggles and the emergence of feminism.

To understand the complex relationship between music and politics, Callahan first shows that the sounds that came out of the era defied traditional modes of authority because it was a form of expression that was beyond the ability to control. Music was and still is an expression of feeling. Callahan shows this by highlighting the power of performance as a way to channel revolutionary sentiment and even action. Callahan does not shy away from this medium’s controversial pitfalls or its limitations. For example, Callahan explores the capitalist motivations of people who worked behind the scenes and the fans/ musicians flirtations with the intoxicating effects of substances for inspiration. This being said, The Explosion Of Deferred Dreams is very much about the relationship that music plays with politics, for good or bad.
This is fascinating particularly because of the raw nature of sounds that came from folk, rock n’ roll or soul to evoke feeling—a notion not truly understood then by the powers that be.

However, as Callahan cites this as an impressive and powerful feat, this revolution did not last. The raw feeling that largely defined the revolutionary aspects of the sounds that came out of the ‘60s were eventually co-opted and filtered into family friendly or acceptable means. Although this resulted in a certain potency being lost, Callahan does show that was to a large degree regained by the punk movement in the late ‘70s.

While Callahan’s look at music as ungovernable medium is above all fascinating, his explorations of topics like feminism, labor struggles and civil rights are intriguing and are important to understand the times. Callahan’s explorations of feminism are of particular note as a philosophy of brutal honesty. As a movement it challenged all things from the fundamentals of the revolutionary movements to societal relationships. Not only that, but Callahan shows that women’s part to play in musical growth is fundamental it’s evolution. Although, he does take care to point out women’s exclusion from the machinations of the music industry.

The Explosion Of Deferred Dreams
is an important read to understand the power that music has in the realms of political change. The feelings invoked by rock n roll, soul, folk or other forms were exciting and raw—and arguably they still are. To couple music with forms of resistance was not a new idea, but for the turbulence of the ‘60s, it was truly revolutionary and considered a plausible threat to the establishment. No doubt music still plays a key role in expression, both politically and recreationally. Given the uncertainty of modern times and arguably our collective future, The Explosion Of Deferred Dreams may not only be an interesting read, but an essential one to explore what made music a definitive power of resistance and what were the shortcomings of it.


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What Life Was Like Before Roe v. Wade in 7 Books

In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided in Roe v. Wade that a woman’s right to privacy was “broad enough to encompass the right to terminate her pregnancy.”

On February 10, Tom Price was confirmed as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price, an orthopedic doctor, is virulently anti-choice. In his years as a Congressman, he has twice co-sponsored bills that would give zygotes full human rights from the moment of conception, which would not only prevent abortions, but would also prevent several methods of contraceptives that are thought to interfere with the implantation of fertilized eggs. In addition, Price believes that women should pay for their own birth control and that insurance companies should not be required to cover contraceptive pills and devices. Price’s belief is based on his not having met a woman who can’t afford her birth control.

With an anti-choice president having selected an anti-choice HHS Secretary, and with the possibility of Roe being overturned by SCOTUS, Signature found a handful of books that talk about life in America in the decades just prior to the legalization of abortion. While many people immediately envision the dystopian hellscape of The Handmaid’s Tale, the more accurate picture is contained in these books. In 1965, without access to legal abortion, seventeen percent of all deaths linked to pregnancy and childbirth were caused by botched abortions.

Here are novels and nonfiction accounts of some of the stories from that time.

  • The cover of the book Braided Lives

    Braided Lives

    Marge Piercy

    One of the first novels I ever read as an adult about female friendship; for me, this book inspired the same resonance that some women feel about “Sex and the City” or “Girls.” Piercy’s novel is set in the 1950s, and weaves together the stories of a group of female friends who support each other through college studies, love affairs, nascent careers, and the consequences of failed birth control in the days before the Pill. When it was written in 1982, it offended the New York Times reviewer, who confessed that he only liked one of the female characters, Jill, because she “was attractive.”

    Buy

     
  • The cover of the book The Story of Jane

    The Story of Jane

    Laura Kaplan

    For four years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, 100 women ran an underground service that aided 11,000 women in ending their pregnancies. Theirs was an outlaw service, and here, Kaplan has interviewed the volunteers who created and ran Jane while risking jail for their activities. “Jane” was the code name they gave to their collective, the “Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation,” and Kaplan chronicles the years that volunteers directed clients to a constantly changing list of doctors who were willing to provide abortion services that were affordable, safe, and dependable. These anonymous women often found themselves at odds with the physicians who were drawn from a medical field that was still heavily dominated by men in the early 1970s.

     
  • The cover of the book Florynce “Flo” Kennedy

    Florynce “Flo” Kennedy

    Sherie M. Randolph

    Flo Kennedy was one of the prime movers and shakers of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. After her graduation from Columbia Law School, she brought with her many of the concerns and lessons of Black Power to the predominantly white feminist movement, helping to bring two movements together. Famous for her lightning-quick mind and her quips, it was Kennedy who gave the pro-choice movement one of its most memorable slogans: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

     
  • The cover of the book Revolutionary Road

    Revolutionary Road

    Richard Yates

    The post-WWII dream of a house with a white picket fence in a white suburb is explored in shattering prose by Yates, who wrote the novel in 1961. Frank commutes into work each day and leaves his wife, April, behind. April is bright and talented and, like many educated women of her generation, bored and depressed at home. The tensions in the marriage lead to an irrevocable decision, which makes this novel timely for this list, and timeless in the literature of American suburbia and marriage.

     
  • The cover of the book Forgetting to Be Afraid

    Forgetting to Be Afraid

    A Memoir

    Wendy Davis

    Wendy Davis came to national prominence when she stood for eleven hours against Governor Rick Perry’s anti-abortion bill. Her filibuster was inspired by her own experiences: the daughter of a single mother, she attended Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School while a single mother herself. In her memoir, she shares her hope for women’s futures, and her belief that the American dream belongs to all. Receiving thousands of messages while she was standing on the floor of the Texas Senate, letters in which women told her their stories of having their reproductive rights taken away, inspired Davis to share her own story in this memoir.  “Giving voice to the truths of so many women made me see that I needed to give voice to my own truths, the truths that had made me who I am and had brought me to stand there that day, and not yield until my job was done.”

     
  • The cover of the book The Girls Who Went Away

    The Girls Who Went Away

    The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

    Ann Fessler

    For many years, young, unmarried women who got pregnant while still living at home would be pulled out of school and “sent away.” Neighbors were often told that the girls had gone off to boarding school for a year, or that they had gone to live with a relative, but the truth was that these young women had been sent somewhere else to have their babies in shame and secrecy. Fessler brings together the stories of over a hundred of these women, who tell her their stories of being forced to give up their babies for adoption because their families did not want the stigma of having a “bastard” child in the house. Fessler is one of those babies who was put up for adoption and, just prior to the book’s publication, had made contact with her birth mother.

     
  • The cover of the book Killing the Black Body

    Killing the Black Body

    Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

    Dorothy Roberts

    The black female body has been the locus of governmental control from the beginning of America. Enslaved women were raped and forcibly impregnated. And, in the 20th century, thousands of women of color were sterilized without their consent in government eugenics programs. Roberts calls for a recognition of the connections between reproductive freedom and racial equality and for an acknowledgment that the fight for white women’s reproductive rights has sometimes led to painful repercussions for women of color.




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Rad Coloring Book Busts Gender Stereotypes With Awesome Images

By Talor Pittman
Huffington Post
January 31st, 2017

These aren’t your average coloring pages.


This coloring book is a creative mix of fun and social commentary.

Girls Are Not Chicks, from Jacinta Bunnell and Julie Novak, aims to teach kids to think past boys’ toys and girls’ toys and to be bold. From a girl who loves to farm to a princess who rescues herself to little Miss Muffet who refuses to get off her tuffet, the characters in the coloring book celebrate feminism, boldness and the beauty of being yourself.

Girls Are Not Chicks is a coloring book dedicated to teaching kids to look past gender stereotypes and be themselves.

Bunnell, a former community health educator for Planned Parenthood, began writing children’s books that defied stereotypes after seeing the messages kids received from other books and television shows.

“When I left Planned Parenthood to start my own childcare business, I observed children playing unbiased and non-gendered games everyday, and yet the toys, movies and clothes all around them were sending clear messages: there is a certain way to be a girl in this culture; there is a very narrow way to be a boy; there is nothing in between,” she told The Huffington Post. “And no, you cannot see same-sex couples in any media made for children!”

Her first coloring book, a joint effort from Irit Reinheimer titled Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls, took down traditional gender roles. She then teamed up with her friend Julie Novak, a graphic designer, for Girls Are Not Chicks. They first self-published the coloring book in 2004 before reformatting it with PM Press in 2009. It’s available on Amazon as well as Reach and Teach, a “peace and social justice learning company.” Though the book has been around for a while, its message still resonates with parents who want their kids to defy the typical pink and blue standards of gender stereotypes.

Jacinta Bunnell, one of the creators of the coloring book, wants her characters to exhibit “cleverness, courage, adventure, intelligence and boldness.”

With Girls Are Not Chicks, Bunnell wanted to show kids that there is more to being a woman than the characters in most fairy tales. 

“There is so much more to womanhood than that,” she said. “There is cleverness, courage, adventure, intelligence and boldness. These are all inherently human characteristics, no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum. I want to bring characters like this to children.”

Bunnell’s other children’s book titles include The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book and Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon. She also started a new project where people can celebrate what Planned Parenthood has done for them in the form of hand-painted signs and share them with the hashtag #iluvplannedparenthood. One day, she’d also like to create a queer, feminist children’s TV show. 

“It would be feminist, queer, radical, fun and zany,” she told HuffPost. “Kids can handle all this stuff. They are the ones pushing us forward to think about gender, identity, ethnicity and sexuality in new ways.”

Whatever her next project might be, Bunnell vows to help all kids see themselves in media of every sort as a way to normalize how they feel. Most importantly, she wants kids to appreciate who they are despite what other books might tell them.

“I want to provide media examples of something other than the hyper-masculinity, hyper-femininity and compulsory heterosexuality that the media bombards us with,” she said. “I want people to be proud of themselves.”

See more pages from the “Girls Are Not Chicks” coloring book below and learn more about it at Reach and Teach.


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Buy The Big Gay Alphabet | Buy the e-Book

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Maine’s Elizabeth Hand shares her fascination with apocalypse

by Michael Berry
Portland Press Herald
January 29th, 2017

Oakland, California’s PM Press is noted for its line of slim-but-substantial “Outspoken Authors” paperbacks. Coastal Maine writer Elizabeth Hand certainly fits the bill, as proved by “Fire.,” a collection of stories, essays and an interview.

Hand, the author of the Cass Neary series of punk-influenced crime novels and a winner of the World Fantasy Award and science fiction’s Nebula, doesn’t shy away from addressing life’s dangers, tragedies and absurdities in her fiction. Her reviews and literary criticism for The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy and other publications are similarly sharp-eyed.


Apocalypse, dystopia and natural disaster have always loomed large in Hand’s imagination, fueling, for example, her novels “Glimmering” and “Waking the Moon.” The selections in this latest collection reflect that tendency.

In “The Saffron Gatherers,” a woman travels to San Francisco to meet with her lover, only to be captivated by an ancient fresco prophetic in ways she cannot guess. Time, cause, effect and missed connections collide in the moving and mind-bending “Kronia.”

Written especially for this collection and based on her work as a participant in a climate change think tank, “Fire.” envisions one stand-up comic’s reaction to a conflagration of global proportions.

In her essay “Beyond Belief: On Becoming a Writer,” Hand traces her commitment to storytelling, starting with seeing the George Pal film production of “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” when she was 5 years old. From there, it was on to “The Hobbit,” the rest of Tolkien and other, more obscure fantasists. She began writing her own stories and pursuing an interest in theater at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Things turned dark for a while; “Bad Stuff,” as she puts it, happened, including underemployment, serious illness and a kidnapping and rape. But Hand was able to persevere in her journey to becoming a writer with a singular vision.

She writes, “Despite living in a real world that increasingly resembles that of one of my early dystopian novels, I consider myself a very lucky person.”

“Flying Squirrels in the Attic,” the Q&A between Hand and series editor Terry Bisson, is wide-ranging, touching upon her experiences as a teacher of writing, living in Maine, writing “Star Wars” juvenile novelizations about bounty hunter Boba Fett, and reading the fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett.

It’s a fun and freewheeling conversation, and Hand reveals herself as both self-effacing and confident in her talents.

Two insightful profiles of supremely talented but darkly fated authors round out the book.

“The Woman Men Didn’t See” focuses on Alice Sheldon, the CIA analyst who wrote groundbreaking, feminist science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr.
“Tom Disch” remembers the author of “Camp Concentration” and “The Genocides” in the aftermath of his suicide. Hand illuminates their life stories with compassion and grace.

Other writers in PM’s “Outspoken Authors” series include Hugo and Nebula award winner Kim Stanley Robinson, Man Booker Prize finalist Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula K. Le Guin, recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Elizabeth Hand is a welcome addition to the roster, and this slender volume is an easy introduction to, or quick reminder of, her special brand of narrative magic.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:
mikeberry@mindspring.com

Buy Fire. now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Elizabeth Hand's page




Revolutionaries Lived in San Francisco but Wore No Flowers in Their Hair

by Peter Cole
Beyond Chron
January 31st, 2017


As the fiftieth anniversary of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” begins, Mat Callahan wants us to question its myths. Young denizens of the city weren’t wearing “flowers in their hair,” weren’t that “gentle,” and didn’t all live in Haight-Ashbury. In fact, he contends, “there was no ‘Summer of Love’.” Rather, as Callahan quips, it “was a media creation that passed into popular usage the same way Tampax became the generic name for a sanitary napkin.”

Instead, Callahan seeks to return the revolutionary ethos of music and SF, joined by legions of young people also desirous of radical change. They fought on multiple fronts in social movements—most obviously, in support of the civil rights movement and against the US war in Vietnam. Indeed, social movements of a shocking variety, populated mostly if not exclusively by young people, emerged to challenge “the system,” and they were led by and danced to the music. They sought to remake race relations, culture and society, really their entire world.

Written well before the election of Donald Trump, Brexit vote, growing authoritarianism in Turkey, and the rise of fascist parties from Austria to Denmark to France, this book sure seems prescient. Its publication was timed for release in 2017 to take advantage of what, no doubt, will be immense heat if not light during this year’s commemorations of the Human Be-In, Monterey Pop Festival, and “Summer of Love,” all connected to San Francisco.

Yet as annoying as the author finds stereotypes of 1960s counterculture, he agrees with Scott McKenzie (writer of the eponymous song) that they saw themselves as revolutionaries. The conglomeration of activists, artists, and allies in San Francisco made it one of the most important cities in the nation, even world, in the Sixties. They launched themselves against cultural, economic, musical, political, and social barricades. Callahan—a native son, musician, and activist—wants people to think deeply about the revolutionary impact of music on the politics of the Sixties. Callahan celebrates this artistic and political spirit that raised consciousness and promoted human liberation. Understanding what happened then and there just might allow us to win the revolution the next time conditions are ripe.

Readers beware: this book is not for those wishing for another day-glo daydream of the Merry Pranksters, Grateful Dead, and LSD. Instead, it is a deep, philosophical-historical meditation about the revolutionary potential of music in San Francisco. Parts of the book feel like a slog and it could have been cut by a quarter. Those who stay the course will be rewarded for Callahan knows of what he speaks.



Callahan was a SF-born “red-diaper baby.” His father participated in the peace movement and ran with Paul Robeson. His mother, inspired by the revolutionary dance theoretician Isadora Duncan, joined the Communist Party and danced professionally. His stepfather worked on the SF waterfront and belonged to Local 10, the Bay Area branch of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), one of the most powerful, leftwing unions in 20th century America.

In 1964, Callahan came of age. Before dawn, one day that year, his stepfather awoke Callahan and his brother to drive across the Bay Bridge to the University of California in Berkeley. His dad wanted his boys to see hundreds of student activists in the Free Speech Movement be hauled off to jail.

Even more impactful, that same year a revolution occurred in rock ‘n’ roll music. The Beatles’ appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show launched Callahan onto a new trajectory—as a guitarist. Though not discussed, he later became a professional musician in several popular Bay Area bands. One that he fronted, the Looters, opened for the Grateful Dead at its New Year’s Eve show, in 1987, in Oakland. Given his radical upbringing and music resume, Callahan’s bonafides are undeniable.



Callahan’s book thoughtfully, at times brilliantly, weaves together three threads—music, politics, and San Francisco—that served as harbingers of global revolution between 1965 and 1975.

While art is a crucial aspect of humanity, Callahan convincingly argues that music became the premier art form of the generation that came of age in The Sixties. The creating, listening, and performing of music (not just the lyrics that too many fixate upon), inspired millions of young people to reject American-style capitalism and politics.

The new music that emerged in San Francisco in the mid 1960s offered liberation from the gerbil’s treadmill of suburban materialism as well as the authoritarian nature of Soviet-style communism.

The best parts of the book focus upon the incredible flowering of music in this particular time and place and why this was, indeed, revolutionary. The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sly and the Family Stone, Big Brother & The Holding Company (Janis Jopin’s band), Tower of Power, Santana, Taj Mahal, and Credence Clearwater Revival all receive quite thoughtful analysis. So do lesser-known but important local bands including the Charlatans, Sons of Champlin, Malo, and Great! Society.

These artists directly challenged the industry that controlled music. For millennia, peoples around the world have created music. However in the early 20th century, Callahan contends, for-profit corporations hijacked music and turned it into homogeneous, commercialized, apolitical pop. In SF in the Sixties, though, a new generation refused to let producers and engineers dictate their sound. They refused to accept orders from corporate executives that their songs be no more than three minutes long. They played for the liberatory joy of creating and sharing art rather than to get rich.

SF musicians and those who danced to this music saw themselves building a new society. Bands like the Airplane and the Dead regularly played in public parks for free. Importantly, they played countless benefit concerts in allegiance with the incredible range of social movements exploding in the Bay Area and across the land: The Southern civil rights movement and Bay Area variants, opposition to the war in Vietnam and draft, solidarity with the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), and dozens of other social justice causes all received mighty support from Bay Area musicians and listeners.

Though the author fixates on the Bay Area, he appreciates that many other artists, such as the Chambers Brothers in their epic “Time Has Come Today,” embodied the new spirit and values. He has a historian’s grasp and musician’s appreciation for many of the antecedents of Sixties rock so discusses everyone from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Pete Seeger. He understands that young people in New York, Paris, Mexico City, Prague, and countless other communities also built this struggle.



His knowledge of San Francisco is deep and wide, earned from many decades of a life lived there. Thus, he can wax eloquently upon: the Beats and longshoremen of North Beach; the Chinese, Filipinos, and other Asians who fought to prevent gentrification in the International Hotel struggle; Carlos and brother Jorge Santana who formed bands in the Mission District, as well as; the influence of China Books, the only official bookstore of communist China in the United States.

He discusses the centrality of the civil rights movement and Black Panther Party in Oakland and various SF neighborhoods including the Fillmore and Hunters Point. He fully appreciates that race is the central paradox of US History, a nation committed to equality that systematically denies millions equal treatment.

So, too, the SF Mime Troupe, which pioneered much of the spirit of this new politics. Teatro Campesino, which applied the Troupe’s radical politics and methods to aiding Chicano farmworkers, and the Diggers (creator of the Free Stores) with their anti-capitalist ethic and use of spectacle all receive attention.

He writes of the emerging radicalism of young people in SF high schools and at San Francisco State, which non-locals might be less familiar with (compared to Berkeley and nearby Stanford). SFS students planned and carried out not one but two occupations of Alcatraz Island, populated the Haight and other neighborhoods, and pulled off the longest student strike in US history.

These revolutionaries were working class and of every color and creed. African Americans taking their centuries-long protest of racism to new heights. American Indians invoking the resistance of their 19th century ancestors. Asian Americans in what was then, at least, their unofficial American capital. Chicanos, Cubanos, and Central Americans. Working class whites. Women. Homosexuals and sex radicals. Environmentalists. It can be easy to forget the breadth and depth of the social movements that erupted in the 1960s and carried well into the 1970s.
And he repeatedly and convincingly hammers home how much local people drove the musical and political innovations, later picked up by those who moved to SF or built their own scenes in their own places.

Thus, despite his dislike of the 1967 hit “San Francisco,” Callahan cannot deny the song got a few things right. After all: “There’s a whole generation/With a new explanation
People in motion.” Yet Callahan takes exception that it was a “love-in.” Instead, young people in this city, nation, and world tossed their agendas into a seething cauldron with the desire to overthrow “the system” and “change the world.” They believed themselves revolutionaries and helped lead a struggle that exploded—globally—in 1968.



This book is periodically fascinating, sometimes fun, and often educational but hardly “light.” How could it be when the catalog of philosophers discussed includes: W.E.B. Du Bois, Kenneth Rexroth, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Michael Denning, Mao Zedong, and Ngugi wa Thiongo’o. Callahan deserves a commendation for thinking deeply about the philosophy of music and revolutions though some readers may get lost trying to follow him down his long and winding philosophical roads.

In this endeavor, he builds upon his last book The Trouble With Music (AK Press, 2005), a scathing look at the “music industry.” The industry, of course, is profit-driven and Callahan believes that capitalism destroys music, the people who make music, and the people who listen to it.


Callahan’s dislike of Bill Graham, in particular, bleeds through the pages. A man with great business and marketing skills enriched himself while co-opting the revolutionary potential of the music. By contrast, Callahan celebrates those who make music, emerging organically in communities like his home city. He showcases the Family Dog—the anti-commercial, anti-Graham, music producers of legendary Bay Area shows, including the 3-day Trips Festival at the ILWU Longshoremen’s Hall in 1966.


At times, Callahan’s diatribes can become tiresome even if one shares his views. He apparently has an entire shedful of axes to grind. He devotes two pages, for instance, to explaining why the “Summer of Love” did not exist despite timing his book for its fiftieth anniversary. The book’s first appendix devotes itself to an “Inventory of Falsehoods.”

Nevertheless, this essay shall close, as does the book, hopefully. Callahan writes, “Humanity’s liberation is the not yet explored so deeply by philosopher Ernest Bloch. The not yet is the wellspring of art.”

Local musicians like Callahan helped turned San Francisco into a seething hotbed of revolutionary potential that rocked the world. They sought to destroy hidebound traditions and replace them with radical, egalitarian values. Although “the system” managed to reassert control, obviously the struggle continues. People in every city and country retain the potential to break our collective chains. The music and musicians of San Francisco, Callahan asserts, show us the way forward.

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and at work on Dockworker Power: Race, Technology, and Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on the history of labor unions, port cities, race matters, radicalism, and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole

To leave feedback, go to feedback@beyondchron.org

Buy Explosion of Deferred Dreams now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Mat Callahan's page




How Albert Woodfox Survived Solitary

As one of the Angola 3, he was in isolation longer than any other American. Then he came home to face his future.“What does it feel like to be free?” Woodfox asked. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?”

By Rachel Aviv
The New Yorker
January 16th, 2017

“What does it feel like to be free?” Woodfox asked. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?”Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker

Last summer, five months after being released from prison, Albert Woodfox went to Harlem. It was there, in 1969, during his last week of freedom, that he met members of the Black Panther Party for the first time. He had been mesmerized by the way they talked and moved. “I had always sensed, even among the most confident black people, that their fear was right there at the top, ready to overwhelm them,” he told me. “It was the first time I’d ever seen black folk who were not afraid.”

Woodfox had intended to go to a meeting of the New York chapter of the Party that week, but he was arrested for a robbery before he could. Instead, he founded a chapter of the Party at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola, where he was held in solitary confinement for more than forty years—longer than any prisoner in American history. He and two other Black Panthers, who were in solitary confinement for a total of more than a hundred years, became known as the Angola 3.

Woodfox, who is sixty-nine, strolled along Malcolm X Boulevard with three former Panthers: his best friend, Robert King, one of the Angola 3, as well as Atno Smith and B. J. Johnson, members of local chapters of the Party. He had never met Smith or Johnson before, and the conversation was halting and restrained; they spoke of gentrification, Jackie Wilson, and the type of diabetes they had. Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”

They reached the Apollo Theatre, and Johnson told the others to stand under the marquee for a photograph. They all looked soberly at the camera and raised their arms in a black-power salute. There were pouches under Woodfox’s eyes, and a thick crease between his eyebrows. His Afro was straggly and gray.

On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, they browsed souvenirs, T-shirts, and jewelry arrayed on tables along the sidewalk. “Black Lives Matter!” one vender shouted. “We got the shirts—ten dollars!”

Woodfox walked by, paused, then turned around. “Give me one of those,” he said. He handed the man a ten-dollar bill. “I’ll wear it tomorrow,” he told the others.

Suddenly, the men’s mood became lighter. Now they all wanted to buy something. Johnson sampled musks and decided on a three-dollar glassine of “Bleue Nile,” while King and Smith contemplated buying their own “Black Lives Matter” shirts.

Then Johnson led the men four blocks south, to the original headquarters of the New York City chapter of the Party, now a bodega called Jenny’s Food Corp. Several elderly men sat smoking at a card table in front of the shop.

“We’ve got original Panthers here,” Johnson told the men at the card table.

“Originals?” one man said, putting out his cigarette and standing up.

“All right, all right,” Woodfox said, deflecting attention.

“Can I take a picture?” another man asked.

The four Panthers posed in front of the store, next to a sandwich board advertising hot oatmeal. Woodfox held his new T-shirt in a plastic bag and raised his other fist. The men from the card table stood behind him, clenching their fists.

“This is Brother Albert Woodfox,” Johnson said. “Longest man in solitary confinement in the history of America!”

One of the men said that he’d been in solitary, too. “I thought I was in the box a long time,” he said. “But I’ll just put my troubles in my pocket.”

“Look, one day in the box is enough,” King said.

When Woodfox was a child in New Orleans, he made money by stealing flowers from gravestones and selling them to mourners. The oldest of six siblings, he grew up in the Tremé, one of the first neighborhoods in the South to house freed slaves. He remembers standing at a bus stop with his mother when he was twelve and trying to figure out why, when a police car passed, she pulled him behind her, as if to hide him. “She was so scared of white folks,” he said. “We all knew they had absolute power over us.”

In 1962, when Woodfox was fifteen, he was arrested for a car-parking scheme: he and his friends charged drivers to protect their cars. Two years later, he went to jail for riding in a stolen car. That year, he got his girlfriend pregnant. He paid little attention to his newborn daughter, Brenda. He took pride in being a good crook. “They used to call me Fox,” he said. “You didn’t mess with Fox.”

When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison. After the sentencing, he overpowered two sheriff’s deputies in the basement of the courthouse and fled to Manhattan. He had been in the city for only a few days—he had just met Panthers in Harlem, and was angling to date some of the female Party members, who seemed more self-possessed than any women he’d ever met—when a bookie accused him of trying to rob him. “I remember thinking, What’s wrong with you—you can’t stay out of jail,” he said. “I thought it was just me, that something was wrong with me.”

Woodfox said that his tattoo was done by Charles Neville, of the Neville Brothers, while he was being held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Houston, Texas; October, 2016. Woodfox said that his tattoo was done by Charles Neville, of the Neville Brothers, while he was being held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Houston, Texas; October, 2016. Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker

He was extradited to New Orleans and placed on the Panther Tier at the Orleans Parish Prison. Eighteen members of the Black Panther Party, waiting to be tried for shoot-outs with the police, held classes on politics, economics, sociology, and the history of slavery. Steel plates had been affixed to their windows so that they couldn’t communicate with prisoners on other tiers. Malik Rahim, the defense minister of the New Orleans chapter of the Party, told me, “They thought they were separating us, but everywhere we went that infectious disease called organizing was taking hold.” They ripped apart Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” and divided it into sections, so that each inmate could study a chapter and teach the others what he’d learned.

Formed a year after the assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party was disillusioned by the incremental approach of the civil-rights movement. Huey Newton, the Party’s co-founder, said that black people were tired of singing “We Shall Overcome.” He said, “The only way you’re going to overcome is to apply righteous power.” The Panthers saw a direct link between the country’s armed interventions abroad—in Vietnam, Latin America, and Africa—and what Eldridge Cleaver, a Party leader, called the “bondage of the Negro at home.” Black people, he said, lived in a “colony in the mother country,” shunted into inferior housing, jobs, and schools. The Panthers followed the police, whom they saw as occupying troops, through the ghetto. If an officer questioned a black person, the Panthers got out of their car and monitored the encounter, drawing loaded guns.

J. Edgar Hoover called the group “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and, as part of his COINTELPRO program, ordered the F.B.I. to disrupt and discredit its activities. But much of the Party’s work was focussed on providing community services in neighborhoods that had been neglected by the government. Under the slogan “Survival Pending Revolution,” the Panthers established screening centers for sickle-cell anemia, provided pest control and trash disposal, and gave free breakfasts to children, who ate while learning black history. The first goal on the Panthers’ ten-point program was: “We want the power to determine the destiny of our black community.”

Woodfox said that the Party “helped bring out who I really was.” He felt giddy when he used the language that the Panthers taught him for articulating his discontent. He realized that he’d been part of the lumpenproletariat, a term that Marx coined to describe “thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society.”

By the time of Woodfox’s trial, in 1971, he believed that it had been his moral right to flee. On the morning of his trial, he and three other Panthers who had been placed in a holding pen under the courthouse sang, “Pick up the gun / put the pigs on the run / there aren’t enough pigs / in this whole wide world / to stop the Black Panther Party!” Officers beat them and sprayed them with mace. When Woodfox was called into the courtroom, his face was bruised and burning. His ankles and wrists were chained to a steel belt around his waist. He turned toward the spectators in the courtroom and shook his chains. “I want all of you to see what these racist, fascist pigs have done to me,” he said.

Woodfox was sent to Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country. The penitentiary, situated on eighteen thousand acres of farmland and bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, is a former cotton plantation and slave-breeding business. It was named for the African country, the source of its slaves. After the Civil War, a former Confederate general acquired the plantation and leased state convicts—most of them black, including children as young as seven—to work at Angola, easing the labor shortage brought by Emancipation. The state purchased the plantation in 1901, but convicts still slept in former slave cabins and worked seven days a week, cultivating sugarcane and cotton.

When Woodfox arrived, black and white inmates lived separately, in cinder-block compounds, and the cafeteria was divided by a wooden partition, to keep the races apart. Every guard at Angola was white. Woodfox and two other inmates he’d met at the Orleans Parish Prison requested permission from the Panthers’ Central Committee, in Oakland, to establish a chapter of the Party at Angola—the only recognized chapter founded on prison grounds. The new Panthers encouraged the other prisoners, who cut crops for two cents an hour, to work more slowly. Woodfox said, “It was this macho thing where the guys would deliberately work at a fast pace to show off how masculine they were, and we’d explain to them that all they’re going to do is take you to another field.”

A few times a week, a group of nearly fifty men pretended to play football while discussing how to conduct themselves as revolutionaries. Woodfox, who now described himself as a “dialectical materialist,” summarized what he’d learned from the Party’s list of some thirty required books, by writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Harrington, and Marcus Garvey. Prisoners who knew Woodfox from New Orleans, where he’d earned a reputation as a hustler, at first thought that he was operating some sort of scam.

Angola was known as the most dangerous prison in the South. According to the editor of the prison’s newspaper, the Angolite, a quarter of the inmates lived in “bondage”: raped, sold, and traded, they generated income for their owners as well as for prison guards, who were paid to look the other way. The Panthers organized an Anti-Rape Squad, which escorted new prisoners to their dorms. “We would let them know who we were and that we were there to protect them,” Ronald Ailsworth, a member of the squad, told me. They armed themselves with bats and knives, which they fashioned out of farm equipment, and used mail-order catalogues and dinner trays as shields.

Woodfox was inspired by the 1971 uprising at Attica, and felt connected to a movement of prisoners, many of them Panthers, calling for reform. The McKay Commission, which investigated the situation at Attica, reported that “many inmates came to believe they were ‘political prisoners,’ even though they had been convicted of crimes having no political motive or significance. They claimed that responsibility for their actions belonged not to them but to society, which had failed to provide adequate housing, equal educational opportunities, and equal opportunities in American life.”

For years Woodfox had imagined that the Panthers existed on an otherworldly plane, free of fears and flaws, and he was surprised to see that they could pass as ordinary human beings. “I’m realizing how normal they are,” he said. “Made extraordinary by circumstances.” Houston, Texas; October, 2016. For years Woodfox had imagined that the Panthers existed on an otherworldly plane, free of fears and flaws, and he was surprised to see that they could pass as ordinary human beings. “I’m realizing how normal they are,” he said. “Made extraordinary by circumstances.” Houston, Texas; October, 2016. Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker

Woodfox took a similar view. In an interview with the Angolite, he said, “I’ve always considered myself a political prisoner. Not in the sense that I’m here for a political crime, but in the sense that I’m here because of a political system that has failed me terribly as an individual and citizen in this country.”

On April 17, 1972, Brent Miller, a twenty-three-year-old guard at Angola who had just been married, was stabbed thirty-two times in a black dorm. He and his bride, Teenie, had grown up on the grounds of the prison, in a settlement for three hundred families who worked at Angola. Miller’s father supervised the hog farm; his brother guarded the front gate; and his father-in-law ran the sugar mill. C. Murray Henderson, the warden, described the Millers as “one of my favorite families on Angola; they were a close-knit family, the boys made music together, they had a good band and played for dances.”

Friends of the Millers came to the prison armed with shotguns and baseball bats, to assist with the investigation. Woodfox was the first prisoner to be interrogated. Warden Henderson, who described Woodfox as a “hard-core Black Panther racist,” assumed that the murder was a political act. “You had a group of Black Panthers inside who felt that they had to do something to get attention, and they decided to kill a white person,” he said later. Woodfox said that the sheriff of St. Francisville, the town closest to Angola, pointed a gun at his forehead and told him, “You Black Panthers need to bring y’all ass down to St. Francisville. We’ll show you something.”

Miller’s body had been found near the bed of Hezekiah Brown, a black inmate who had been sentenced to death for rape. Brown initially said that he knew nothing about the murder. Four days later, Warden Henderson promised Brown a pardon if he would “crack the case.” Brown named four prison activists from New Orleans: Woodfox, Herman Wallace—a charismatic and scholarly thirty-year-old who had co-founded the New Orleans chapter of the Party—Chester Jackson, and Gilbert Montague. Brown said that he had been drinking coffee with Miller when the four Panthers ran into the dorm, pulled Miller onto Brown’s bed, and stabbed him. (The prison’s chief security officer later confided to the warden’s wife that Brown was “one you could put words in his mouth.”)

The four suspects and some twenty other black men, all known as militants, were transferred by van to Angola’s extended lockdown unit, called Closed Cell Restricted. According to the Black Panther, the Party newspaper, the men were dragged into the hallway at night and two rows of guards attacked them with baseball bats, pick handles, and iron pipes. An inmate told the paper that those “who weren’t beaten nearly to death were made to sit while 2, 3, or 4 pigs cut their hair in all directions.”

Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.

In preparation for trial, the New Orleans chapter of the Panthers formed a support group, the Angola Brothers Committee. The treasurer was an F.B.I. informant, Jill Schafer, who, along with her husband, Harry, received nine thousand dollars a year to infiltrate radical organizations, as part of the COINTELPRO project. By instigating rifts among members, Schafer sabotaged the committee’s efforts to raise money for a defense lawyer.

At Woodfox’s trial, all the jurors were white. The prosecutor, John Sinquefield, referred to them as “common, ordinary everyday folk like us.” Although two inmates had testified that they were eating breakfast with Woodfox at the time of the crime, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding him guilty. A year later, Wallace was also convicted by an all-white jury. (Jackson became a witness for the prosecution, and Montague was acquitted, because prison records showed that he was in the infirmary at the time of the murder.) After the trials, the warden secured Hezekiah Brown’s pardon and release, using prison funds to pay for his campaign for clemency.

Woodfox and Wallace, sentenced to life without parole, were returned to Closed Cell Restricted and placed in six-by-nine-foot cells. For more than five years, they never went outside.

Woodfox allowed himself to cry only when everyone else on the tier was asleep. His youngest brother, Michael, who visited the prison every month, said that Woodfox no longer permitted himself the pleasure of reminiscing about their childhood. Handcuffed and shackled, he spoke through a heavy wire-mesh screen. “He can’t allow the pain to be expressed,” Michael told me. “He feels he has to be a conqueror, a leader, a demonstration for other men. He doesn’t want people to know he has weaknesses.”

Woodfox and Wallace soon became close with another Panther, Robert King, who was also in C.C.R. and had been convicted of killing an inmate. They believed that he, too, had been framed because of his connection to the Party. The three men had all been raised by single women in New Orleans; had met their fathers only a few times, or not at all; had dropped out of school, because they didn’t see the point of it; had been arrested for petty crimes—both Wallace and Woodfox were picked up for violations of Jim Crow laws, like standing too close to a building without the owner’s permission—and had been sent to Angola for robberies. They were all introduced to the Party in jail and saw its teachings as a revelation. Until then, King said, “I had the attitude that life had nothing more to offer me, nor could life get anything from me, for I had nothing. I felt I had done it all and, should I perish the next morning, so be it.” Woodfox said, “Our instincts and thoughts were so closely aligned it was frightening.”

In C.C.R., they were permitted to leave their cells for an hour a day to walk along the tier alone. During their free hour, Woodfox, King, and Wallace held classes for the other inmates, passing out carbon-copied math and grammar lessons. Woodfox gave them twenty-four hours to study lists of words—“capitalism,” “imperialism,” “feudalism,” “totalitarianism,” “bourgeoisie”—and the following day he quizzed them.

Gary Tyler, an African-American inmate in C.C.R., said that the teachings made him consider himself a political prisoner. At seventeen, Tyler was sentenced to death, after a jury convicted him of shooting a white classmate who had been protesting the desegregation of his school. (A federal judge called his 1975 trial “fundamentally unfair”; all the eyewitnesses eventually recanted.) Woodfox, Wallace, and King gave Tyler reading lessons and lent him radical newspapers, like Fight Back! Newspaper of the Revolutionary Brigade, and Final Call, founded by Louis Farrakhan. “These guys were able to break down the politics surrounding my situation—the educational structure of the schools, why the black schools were poorly financed,” Tyler told me. “I used to get mad at them sometimes, because they acted like they were my dads. They left me no room to be a risk-taker.”

Kenny Whitmore, another inmate in C.C.R., said that Woodfox “should have been a professor.” Woodfox told Whitmore to stop reading his “trash-ass pimp books,” urban crime novels that degraded black women, and to try “Native Son,” by Richard Wright. Whitmore told me, “Man, I kept on reading and reading. Then I looked in the mirror and saw Bigger Thomas. I was coming to terms with who I was as a person, with my blackness, with being at the bottom of the world.”

After reading a history of chattel slavery, Woodfox told the inmates in C.C.R. that Southern plantation owners used to inspect the rectums of the slaves they intended to buy at auction. Woodfox said that the process resembled what they endured whenever they left the cell block: they were forced to strip, raise their genitals while lifting each foot, and bend over and spread their buttocks while coughing. Woodfox, Wallace, and King circulated a letter to all the inmates on one tier, describing a plan for resistance. On the chosen day, nearly all the inmates began refusing the strip search. A few were beaten so badly by guards that they had to be hospitalized.

The three men worked to curtail their desires. None of them drank coffee or tea or smoked. “If I feel a habit is developing, or even a disorder of any kind, I counsel myself in spirit,” Wallace told a psychologist. “The more food you eat, the more your body craves food,” he wrote to a friend. “It’s the same for sleep—most of it is mental.” He didn’t like being dependent on security guards to turn the light on every morning, so he kept it on all the time and covered it with a legal pad when he slept, which he did for fewer than three hours each night.

In 1978, when the prison opened a small outdoor exercise cage in C.C.R.—inmates could go outside for a few hours a week—the three men ran barefoot outside, even when frost covered the ground. “We had to make ourselves think that ordinary things didn’t apply to us,” Woodfox told me. “We wanted the security people to think that they were dealing with superhumans.” It was also a coping strategy. “Before I let them take something from me, I deny it from myself,” he said.

Woodfox spent several hours a day writing letters to pen pals, many of whom were also known as political prisoners, like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. He said he was “positive that the people—our brothers and sisters outside—would rise up and organize for us.” But the Party had splintered—Huey Newton envisaged a party devoted to community service, while Eldridge Cleaver advocated urban guerrilla warfare. By 1982, the Party had collapsed. The plight of the Angola 3 was forgotten.

Yet the three men, who communicated with one another by sending written and oral messages, passed from one cell to the next, continued identifying as Panthers. Wallace described the principles of the Party as “indelible mental protection,” the “key to the mental stability of every one of us.” The men were repeatedly singled out as important enough to take revenge on, a fact that helped them preserve their self-esteem. A security officer acknowledged in an interview with Warden Henderson’s wife, Anne Butler, who wrote books on regional folklore, that at one point he gathered a “good crowd” of officers at C.C.R., armed with pistols and a gas-grenade launcher. He said, “Everybody’d done went to arguing about who was gonna get Woodfox and Wallace.”

For twenty years, Woodfox had no lawyer. He, Wallace, and King taught themselves criminal and civil law. In 1991, King wrote a brief for Woodfox, arguing that he had been unconstitutionally indicted, because his grand jury, like every grand jury in the history of St. Francisville, excluded women. A judge agreed, and overturned Woodfox’s conviction. Before he could be released, however, the state indicted him again. One of the grand jurors was Anne Butler. She had devoted part of a book to the case, describing how the Angola Panthers left “their own bloody mark on history.” She said that she asked to be excused from the jury but that the D.A. insisted she serve. (Later, after an argument, the warden shot her five times, almost killing her, and was sentenced to fifty years in prison.)

The trial was held in Amite City, a town where many Angola guards lived. Woodfox’s lawyer, a public defender who drank heavily during lunch breaks, did not ask the state to test the bloody fingerprint, and he didn’t discover Hezekiah Brown’s special treatment. Instead, the focus of the trial was Woodfox’s militance, though his views had softened. When the prosecutor, Julie Cullen, asked Woodfox if he still felt that he had the right to escape from the courthouse, he said no. “I was afraid,” he said. “I was a young man. I was afraid.”

Cullen asserted that Woodfox’s political views were “diametrically opposed” to Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s nonviolent approach.

“No, they were not,” Woodfox said. 

“All of this talking about revolution and bloodshed, death, sacrifices,” she said, referring to a letter he’d written in 1973. “You’re not an advocate of any of that? You’re a victim of all of that?”

“Well, I think I was a victim of racism in this country,” he said. “Yes—from the day I was born.”

When Cullen asked Woodfox if he was still politically active, he said that he tried to teach inmates on his tier to have “pride, self-respect, a sense of self-worth, and to see that the way to change things is to first change themselves.”

“Is that a yes or a no?” Cullen interrupted.

“That is a yes,” Woodfox said.

He was convicted and again sentenced to life without parole. “Some may view that victory as a sign to end my existence,” he wrote to a friend.

During his trial and the two years leading up to it, Woodfox was in the general population at a county jail in Amite City, where he was never disciplined for breaking a rule. When he returned to Angola, a social worker noted that there were “no indications of behavioral problems about this inmate reported by security.” Nevertheless, he was placed in solitary confinement.

Social workers, who occasionally circulated on the tier, described Woodfox as “respectful,” “positive,” “coöperative,” and “neat.” King was characterized as “friendly,” “calm,” and “polite.” When Wallace complained that he had been in solitary confinement for nearly three decades, a social worker noted that he “did not appear depressed” and that his attitude was “appropriate to situation.”

Every ninety days, a Lockdown Review Board set up a table at the end of the hallway on Woodfox’s tier. Shackled and handcuffed, he stood at the table for a brief conference with two board members. They had his disciplinary record, but they rarely looked at it. He often informed the officers that he hadn’t had a rule violation for years. Once, a sympathetic board member told him, “Hey, this comes from higher up. We can’t release you, and you know that.”

Prisoners in C.C.R. who had killed inmates or tried to escape—one had kidnapped the warden at knifepoint—were eventually released. But Woodfox, Wallace, and King remained. The Lockdown Review Summaries for the three men always provided the same explanation for their confinement: “Nature of Original Reason for Lockdown.”

Burl Cain, who was the warden from 1995 until last year, acknowledged in a deposition that Woodfox appeared to be a “model prisoner.” But, Cain said, “I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism.” He didn’t like that Woodfox “hung with the past,” he said. An assistant warden, Cathy Fontenot, said that the three men had to be kept in lockdown because “they have tremendous influence with the inmate population.”

Gary Tyler, who was eventually released from C.C.R. and placed in Angola’s general population, told me, “As time went on, it became utterly impossible for me to even reach these guys. The warden kind of built a wall around them. They were considered the pariahs of the prison.”

Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial—prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family—but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”

In 2000, the three men filed a lawsuit, arguing that twenty-eight years of solitary confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The groundwork for the case was done by a law student, Scott Fleming, who began studying the court records in 1999, after receiving a letter from Wallace, who wrote to any lawyer or activist whose address he could find. Fleming knew the neighbor of the daughter of Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, and after learning of the case Roddick visited Woodfox in prison. She decided to pay for lawyers for the three men.

George Kendall, one of their new lawyers, said he thought that “part of this case is going to be figuring out how to hold these guys together mentally.” But their resilience became as much an object of psychological scrutiny as their suffering. Stuart Grassian, a psychologist hired for the lawsuits who studies the effects of solitary confinement, wrote, “I have never encountered any situation nearly as profound or extreme as that of the three plaintiffs in this case.”

Even the state’s psychologist, Joel Dvoskin, seemed impressed by the men’s endurance. He wrote that Woodfox “maintains a demeanor of quiet dignity, he asserts his rights in a similarly dignified way.” When Dvoskin asked Woodfox if he would ever take medication for his anxiety, Woodfox replied that he would control the problem through “concentration and will power.”

He told another psychologist, Craig Haney, that he was afraid of how well he’d been “adapting to the painfulness.” “There is a part of me that is gone,” he said. “I had to sacrifice that part in order to survive.”

Woodfox felt that his strength was his ability to hide “what’s going on deep inside of me,” and the conversations with the psychologists left him unhinged. At the end of the interview with Grassian, he said, “When you leave, I have just minutes to erect all these layers, put all these defenses back. It is the most painful, agonizing thing I could imagine.”

He steadied himself with a rigid routine that required at least two hours of daily reading. He decided, after a romantic relationship in the nineties that developed through letters, not to become involved with another woman as long as he was in prison. “From my reading, I knew that revolutionaries had to purge themselves of being chauvinistic,” he said. Rebecca Hensley, a professor of sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University, who corresponded with Woodfox for many years, said that when she expressed romantic feelings for him he gently declined. He told her to read a book called “The Prisoner’s Wife,” about the pain of prison relationships.

In 2001, King’s conviction was overturned, after the state’s two witnesses admitted that they had lied, and recanted their testimony. King was told that if he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge he would be released immediately. “King was real reluctant to leave us,” Woodfox told me. “It was the comradeship, the love between us. He felt he would leave us shorthanded.”

A sinewy fifty-nine-year-old, King walked from C.C.R. into Angola’s parking lot. He moved into a small apartment in New Orleans with a former Panther, Marion Brown, and rarely left. He couldn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time. Brown said that King was “filled with fear, suspicion, conspiracy.” If she moved a piece of furniture, he assumed that someone had broken in.

Prisoners from Angola often called King collect, and, though he had no income, he never refused the charges. Grassian, who met King when he was free, observed that he “somehow seems to feel that neither he nor Marion can lead any semblance of a normal life until he gains his friends’ release. He devotes almost all his concentration and energy to talking about, or thinking about, his two friends who remain at Angola.”

Not long after he was freed, King returned to Angola to visit Roy Hollingsworth, an inmate in C.C.R. who credits the Angola 3 for his moral awakening. Hollingsworth said that, years before, he was about to rape a young inmate and smash his head when King called out from another cell and asked him to reflect on what he was about to do. When King got to C.C.R., five security officers approached him and terminated the visit. He was told never to return.

In a deposition, Warden Cain said he expected that King would resume his “revolutionary stuff” if Woodfox and Wallace were ever released. “He is only waiting, in my opinion, for them to get out so they can reunite,” he said. “So they can pick up where they left off.”

In 2008, John Conyers, the chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, and Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana state representative, learned about Woodfox and Wallace’s decades of confinement and visited them at C.C.R. After the meeting, Richmond told the press that a “massive amount of evidence” showed that Woodfox and Wallace were innocent. Brent Miller’s widow, Teenie Rogers, had also begun to question the state’s evidence, after a young investigator on the case, Billie Mizell, befriended her and made charts mapping inconsistencies in the state’s testimony. Rogers wrote Richmond a letter saying that she was “shocked to find out that no real attempt was made to find out who the fingerprint did belong to, which should have been a very simple thing to do.”

The state met doubts about the case with unusual vigor. After the case received national media attention, on NPR and in Mother Jones, the public-information office for the Louisiana Department of Corrections set up a Google Alert and notified Angola’s administration when the men were in the news. Louisiana’s attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, who was elected in 2008, said of Woodfox, “I oppose letting him out with every fibre of my being.” He had been friends since first grade with the original prosecutor in the case, John Sinquefield, whom he promoted to the second-highest position in his office.

Caldwell requested the recordings of nearly seven hundred phone calls made by Wallace and Woodfox, including conversations with their lawyers. Warden Cain said in a deposition, “We were kind of curious to see just how far they would go . . . to see what rules they would break.”

Investigators listened to all the calls, and found that, in an interview with a project called Prison Radio, Woodfox had stated that he continued to live by the principles of the Black Panther Party. As punishment, Woodfox was prevented from going outside. Soon afterward, Warden Cain decided that he no longer wanted Woodfox and Wallace at his prison. “I got tired of the Angola 3,” he said. The men were transferred to new prisons, at opposite ends of the state. They remained in solitary confinement. Woodfox wrote to a friend, “I would go insane if I for a second allowed an emotional connection to take place with what is my reality!”

When the psychologist Craig Haney visited the two men at their new prisons, he was shocked to see how much they had aged. “The separation was devastating,” Haney told me. “They had a powerful connection to each other that had sustained them.” Woodfox told Haney that he had “lost interest in everything.” He was again subject to strip searches up to six times a day. The men in the cells on either side of him were mentally ill and screamed for much of the day. He felt overwhelmed by the sour smell of their breath.

At Angola, Woodfox and Wallace had seen themselves as “village elders,” but at the new prisons the other inmates treated them like ordinary criminals. Wallace told Haney that he felt as if he were reaching his “end point.” His voice cracked, and he seemed hesitant and slow. He thought that there was something wrong with his heart. Crying, he said, “I can’t stand up to it.”

Wallace lost fifty pounds. He complained of stomach pain, which the prison doctors diagnosed as a fungus. “No palpable masses—exam limited by prison room chair,” one doctor wrote in June, 2013. Five days later, a doctor hired by Wallace’s lawyers found an eight-centimetre bulge in his abdomen. He received a diagnosis of liver cancer. Wallace told Haney, “The majority of my life I have been treated like an animal, so I guess I will die like an animal.”

The cancer swiftly spread to his bones and his brain. In letters, Wallace referred to himself as a “soldier” and drew ornate pictures of panthers. He liked to use the term “W.W.T.P.D.”—What would the Panthers do? A friend, Angela Allen-Bell, didn’t understand his devotion. “You have given your whole life to the Party,” she told him. “Why aren’t they here for you now when you are sick and need help?” She said that he told her, “I didn’t join the people—I joined the Party. The Party transformed my mind, and that’s all it owes to me.” Another friend, Jackie Sumell, said that Wallace’s and Woodfox’s commitment to the Party reminded her of the “Japanese fighter pilots that they found on some of the Philippine Islands thirty years after the war, still fighting.”

In September, 2013, Wallace gave a deposition in his civil suit from a bed in the prison’s infirmary. He hadn’t eaten for several days, and was being given heavy doses of the opiate fentanyl. The state’s lawyer requested that the deposition be adjourned, because Wallace was vomiting, but Wallace told him, “Come on. Come on with your questions.” He was capable of saying only a few words at a time. He said that being in solitary confinement for forty-one years had reduced him to a “state of being where I can barely collect my own thoughts.” He pursed his lips and appeared to be holding back tears. “It’s like a killing machine,” he said.

“You’re on your deathbed, is that your understanding?” one of his lawyers asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Are you able to say with a clean conscience, as you prepare to meet your maker, that you did not murder Brent Miller?”

“Yes.”

Five days later, a federal judge responded to Wallace’s habeas petition, which had been lingering in the courts for years. The judge overturned his conviction, ordering that he be released.

At dusk, Wallace was loaded into an ambulance and taken to New Orleans, to stay with a friend who lived half a block from where he’d been raised. Family and friends, some of whom he hadn’t seen for forty years, gathered around his bed. One friend read him the last chapter of Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.” Another held flowers to his nose.

On Wallace’s second day of freedom, the state impanelled a grand jury, which reindicted him for Miller’s murder. Wallace was never told. He died the next day. He asked that his funeral program begin with a quote by Frantz Fanon: “If death is the realm of freedom, then through death I escape to freedom.”

Woodfox couldn’t accept that Wallace, whom he described as “the other part of my heart,” had become an “ancestor,” the term Panthers used to describe the dead. “We always believed that we would survive anything,” he said. He could no longer avoid the thought that a similar fate awaited him. He said, “All these years and years of study and discipline and carrying myself a certain way, in order to die in prison.”

A year after Wallace’s death, Woodfox’s conviction was overturned again, because of racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury. The state issued a new arrest warrant and, in February, 2015, convened a grand jury to indict Woodfox for the third time. Deidre Howard, a sixty-one-year-old dental hygienist from St. Francisville, was the forewoman. She said that the prosecutor explained that the case had to be “run back through” because of a technicality. “They told us we just needed to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s,” she said.

The coroner in the case had been Howard’s doctor; the district attorney worked down the street from her and had lent her a tent for her outdoor Bible meetings. Warden Henderson had been her neighbor. Howard felt that she owed it to the Miller family, who owned a restaurant where she sometimes ate, to keep Woodfox locked up. According to Howard, the prosecutor emphasized to the jury that the Black Panther Party was devoted to “raping and robbing.” She signed the indictment. “There really wasn’t anything to deliberate,” she told me.

As she lay in bed that night, Howard realized that she had determined a man’s life with less consideration than she devoted to buying a new refrigerator. She could barely remember his name. The day after the indictment, Woodfox was transferred to West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, which is three blocks from Howard’s house. One evening, as she was getting ready for bed, she heard the siren of an ambulance. From her bedroom window, she saw the ambulance heading toward the jail. She had read in the newspaper that Woodfox had renal problems, diabetes, hepatitis C, and cardiovascular disease. Still wearing her pajamas, she got into her car and followed the ambulance to the hospital. She tried to see if the man being unloaded from the gurney was Woodfox, but she couldn’t get a view of his face.

Three months later, she sent a letter to a judge who had presided over previous hearings. “I have made a terrible mistake,” she wrote. She also wrote to the judge who had overseen her grand jury, telling him that after researching the case she understood that crucial facts had been withheld from her. “I feel violated and taken advantage of,” she said. In another letter, she begged Buddy Caldwell to stop the prosecution. When she received no replies, she mailed a letter to the governor, Bobby Jindal, whom she had voted for. “This is the worst human tragedy I have ever seen,” she wrote.

In April, 2015, she and her twin sister, Donna, drove to a prayer vigil for Woodfox at a church in Baton Rouge, to mark his fortieth year in solitary confinement. They remained in their car, and, as Woodfox’s brother and other supporters arrived, they leaned down, so that no one would see their faces. 

In late 2015, Buddy Caldwell was voted out of office, and Deidre Howard sent the new attorney general, Jeff Landry, more than a hundred pages of letters that she had written to attorneys and judges involved in the case. “Jury service has been a devastating experience,” she wrote. Although people had been protesting the case for years, it was the first time that anyone from St. Francisville had seemed bothered.

Landry offered to end the prosecution if Woodfox pleaded no-contest to manslaughter. For years, Woodfox had fantasized about walking out of court after being acquitted by a jury, but his lawyers urged him to avoid a trial. Despite requests that the location be changed, the case would be heard in West Feliciana, a parish in which the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, during a Senate bid in 1990, had received seventy-five per cent of the white vote.

As Woodfox was contemplating the offer, Woodfox’s fifty-two-year-old daughter, Brenda, ran into one of Woodfox’s childhood friends in New Orleans. Woodfox hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years. The friend took a photograph of Brenda and sent it to Woodfox, to confirm that the woman was his daughter. Then Brenda visited him at the jail, bringing her son and her two grandchildren. “Up until that point, there was this constant internal battle going on,” Woodfox told me. “I’ve always preached to other men, ‘You have to be willing to sacrifice everything, even your life.’ If I took the plea deal, would I be a hypocrite?”

Woodfox’s brother Michael told him about a conversation he’d had with Brenda. “She was crying and said she didn’t have a daddy,” Woodfox said. “I can’t tell you the depths of pain I experienced from hearing that.” He decided that a plea deal could be justified.

Woodfox had a week to prepare for his release. For years he had created imaginary budgets, determining how much he could pay for food, given the rent and his monthly utilities. He had spent four decades, he said, living “in the abstract.” He told himself, “I can handle this—I just need to see it coming.” He revisited lists that he’d made, edited over the course of decades, of what to do when he was free: visit his mother’s and his sister’s gravesites, learn how to drive again, go to Yosemite National Park, “be patient.”

On February 19, 2016, his sixty-ninth birthday, Woodfox packed his belongings into garbage bags and put about a hundred letters in a cardboard box. He put on black slacks and a black bomber jacket that a freed Angola prisoner had sent him.

Not until he was outside did he believe that he was actually going to be freed. It was a warm, clear, sunny day. He squinted and held the hem of his jacket. When he reached the front gate, he raised his fist and gave a closed-lip smile to a small crowd of supporters.

Michael led him to his car, a blue Corvette. Woodfox shuffled when he walked, as if shackles still connected his feet. Biting his lip and crying, Michael helped his brother into the passenger seat and showed him how to fasten the seat belt.

That night, Woodfox and Robert King went to a party in Woodfox’s honor at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, in New Orleans. People kept tapping Woodfox’s shoulder, an experience he found frightening. He was used to guarding the front of his cell without having to worry about “the damage someone can do from behind,” he said. King sensed Woodfox’s discomfort and moved closer to him, guiding him through the room. Woodfox kept his eyes on the floor. His expression seemed frozen in an apologetic smile.

At the party were people he hadn’t seen for forty years. He thought that they would still see him as a “petty criminal who victimized my own neighborhood,” he said. Most of his supporters in recent years had been white, and he worried that the black community would find him inauthentic. Toward the end of the evening, an old friend invited him onto a stage and handed him a microphone. Woodfox pulled up his pants, which were too loose, and held the zipper of his jacket. “I’m kind of new at this,” he said. “I hope you understand that I have been through a terrible ordeal. I need a little time to get my footing so I won’t make a fool of myself.”

The friend handed the microphone to Robert King, who shrugged. He has a leisurely, meandering way of speaking. “Anyway,” he said. “What can I say?” He pointed to Woodfox. “This is your night, bro.”

“Whatever is my night is your night,” Woodfox said quietly, looking at his sneakers.

The d.j. played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for Woodfox, who nodded and gave the black-power salute.

Woodfox had intended to spend a month camping in the woods, gazing at the sky—a cleansing ritual. After years of being forced to listen to men talking to themselves, he was desperate to be alone on his own terms. Once he was released, though, he felt that this would be an indulgence. He spent his first month at the house of a friend in New Orleans, hosting visitors. Most nights, he sat in a pink armchair wearing his prison-issue gray sweatpants and a pair of Crocs that his brother had bought for him. He found it a “strain to stay within the social dialogue,” he said. He often warned new acquaintances, “I’m not good at, as they say, ‘chitchat.’ ”

He worried that his family would feel that he had abandoned them, but his daughter, Brenda, became a regular visitor. She exuded an aura of patient competence, seeming content to sit silently on the couch, observing her father with others. She often brought her boisterous grandchildren. Her ten-year-old granddaughter, Michaela, liked to dance to pop songs on Woodfox’s new iPhone, a gift from a detective who worked on his case. Woodfox nodded to the beat and occasionally said, “Hehe.” “Your great-grandpa is a quiet soul,” Brenda told Michaela. “Quiet but deadly. Don’t mistake his quietness for weakness.”

Woodfox discovered that a typical day in the house—moving from the kitchen to the bathroom to the living room—entailed more steps than his entire exercise regimen in prison. He felt overwhelmed by options. “I have to submit to the process of developing a new technique to fill the hours,” he told me, three weeks after he was released. “I’m trying to strike the right balance with being free.”

He walked slowly, with such intense concentration that he didn’t notice when someone called his name. His footing was unsure. “He seemed very nervous, very insecure,” his friend Allen-Bell told me. “I’d never seen that Albert before.” Theresa Shoatz, the daughter of Russell (Maroon) Shoatz, a Black Panther who was in solitary confinement for twenty-eight years in Pennsylvania, said that Woodfox appeared “docile and withdrawn. He didn’t look you in the eye. He just held his head down and said, ‘Thanks for your support.’ I didn’t see much happiness on his face.”

Years before, Woodfox had said that if he was ever released he would “unleash the little man inside of me and let it jump up and down.” But he didn’t feel that sense of abandon. He felt ashamed that he’d pleaded guilty to anything. “I’ve learned to live with it, but I still haven’t come to terms with it,” he told me. “I still regret it. I don’t care how you look at it: I was not standing for what I believed in. I truly feel that.”

After a month in New Orleans, Woodfox moved into a spare bedroom in Michael’s home, in Houston. Above his bed, he taped a picture of Wallace and him at Angola, and placed a few Panther buttons on the dresser. “I don’t like an over-cluttered room,” he said.

Michael said that sometimes he’d pass Woodfox’s bedroom and see him lying in bed awake, his arms folded across his chest. Michael urged Woodfox, “You have to tell your mind, ‘I am free. I don’t have to just sit there.’ ”

Woodfox discovered that he felt more comfortable in social settings if King was by his side. At a family reunion in a suburb of New Orleans, his relatives congregated in his cousin’s kitchen while he and King sat at a card table in the garage. Woodfox kept his back against the garage door and picked at a small bowl of egg salad. He almost never finished a meal. He sometimes went all day without eating before realizing that there was a reason he felt so depleted.

King assured Woodfox that he was also a sensitive eater. “I gotta eat in increments,” he said. “If I eat a whole plate, I lose my appetite.”

“Yeah, I’m a nibbler,” Woodfox said.

Woodfox’s cousin had invited several supporters—Woodfox and King called them their “Angola 3 family”—including Deidre Howard. She and her twin sister, Donna, sat in the garage with him and King. They were dressed identically: black platform sandals, ruffled collared shirts, gold pendant earrings, and their hair in a French ponytail with the same type of barrette.

Woodfox asked Deidre if people in St. Francisville still thought that he was guilty. She swiftly changed the subject. “I did not have the heart to tell him that our community still sees him as a murderer,” she said later.

Two months after Woodfox’s release, he and King settled their civil suit with the state. The agreement requires that Louisiana’s Department of Corrections review its system for placing inmates in solitary confinement, and consider the status of segregated prisoners in a more meaningful way.

With a modest sum from the settlement, Woodfox and King, who had moved to Austin after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, decided to buy houses in New Orleans. Woodfox looked at ten houses before choosing one in East New Orleans, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, for less than seventy thousand dollars. He wasn’t entirely sure why he liked the house—the interior was dark, and he wished it had a larger back yard.

Allen-Bell researched the frequency of 911 calls in the neighborhood and tried to dissuade him. “It’s not a place where you are going to feel comfortable walking on the street,” she told him on the phone.

“I don’t care if there are nine hundred 911 calls,” he said. “I’m buying the house.”

“Why?” she asked him.

“Why?” he said. “Because I want it, that’s why.”

She told him that the 911 calls were for serious matters: armed robbery, kidnapping, rape.

“So?” Woodfox said.

A few days after the phone call, Woodfox finalized the purchase. Brenda drove him to the real-estate agent’s office, in a high-rise, to sign the paperwork. She had begun taking him to all his appointments. He liked to tell people, “I’m a dad now.”

They were two hours late for their appointment with the agent, a chirpy blond woman. “We got caught up in traffic,” Woodfox told her casually. The process required two witnesses, and the agent asked me to be the first one. Although Brenda was sitting beside me, the agent asked another white woman who was working behind the desk to be the second. Woodfox signed the papers, and then we did, too.

Later, I asked Woodfox if he thought it was strange that the agent had ignored Brenda. He said that he figured it was a mistake, and not worth dwelling on. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking for racism,” he told me. “Look, if it really manifests, then I will give the person a tongue-lashing. I think I’ve developed a pretty good vocabulary to do that, a pretty good philosophy.”

A few weeks earlier, a cabdriver had demanded that he and King pay for their ride before they reached their destination. Insulted, Woodfox said that his first instinct was to get out of the car; instead, he and King handed over the cash and at the end of the ride gave the driver a large tip—“guilt money,” they called it.

Woodfox didn’t have the keys to his house yet, but he wanted to show it to Brenda. We parked in front of the house, a brick ranch with bars on the front windows, a screened-in patio, and a lawn with six squat palm trees and some spindly shrubs. A chain-link fence surrounded the property. Woodfox mentioned a few things that he appreciated about the neighborhood—most of the lawns were mowed—but he admitted that none of that really mattered. “To be honest,” he said, “I just wanted a house close to my family.”

Brenda realized that chocolate had melted over her car’s center console. She and Woodfox spent the next ten minutes wiping it up with tissues, at which point they were ready to leave.

“Bye-bye house,” Woodfox said.

By summer, Woodfox felt that he was getting his “street legs,” as he called them. A sly sense of humor surfaced. But he was also increasingly exhausted. He spoke at panels about prisoners’ rights in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Baton Rouge. “I feel an obligation, because when I was in the position of the guys in prison I used to wonder why nobody spoke for us,” he told me. His friend Kenny Whitmore, who is still at Angola, told me that when Woodfox was freed “he took a part of me with him.” Whitmore said, “That old man is going full speed ahead.”

In early August, Woodfox flew to New York City to receive an award from the National Lawyers Guild, an association of progressive lawyers and activists, at the organization’s annual conference. He wore a gray blazer over a T-shirt that said “I Am Herman Wallace.” At the podium, he announced that he wanted to honor “my comrade and good friend.” He extended his palm toward King, who was in the third row of the auditorium, but became too choked up to say his name. Woodfox pressed his lips together and paused, regaining his composure. “I hope that my being here tonight is a testament to the strength and determination of the human spirit,” he said.

After the speech, Woodfox and King headed to a lounge on the second floor of the law school, where people were selling buttons, T-shirts, and posters that said “Free All the Angola 3.” Woodfox signed a dozen posters, writing in steady, capital letters, “I AM FREE! ALBERT WOODFOX.” People kept approaching him to ask if they could take selfies. “It’s amazing to be in the room with you,” one person told him. “Talk about moving and inspiring!” another said. “O.K.,” Woodfox said in response to most compliments.

A woman who had recently been released from prison tried to commiserate. “It’s scary getting out,” she told Woodfox. She wore anti-embolism stockings and carried a plastic bag containing dozens of tubes of toothpaste. “I just bought a house in New Orleans,” he told her. Then he seemed to feel guilty for making it sound too easy. “I’m trying not to get too frustrated,” he added. He pointed to King: “Fortunately, I have him as an example.”

Although he’d been too nervous to sleep the night before, Woodfox stayed out until 2 A.M., going to bars with lawyers and activists. He had a workmanlike approach to socializing. He didn’t drink, and he never seemed to judge people. The most skeptical thing I’d ever heard him say was that someone was “quirky.” He had a hard time saying no to anyone. Although he hoped to eventually have a romantic relationship, he didn’t feel that he could devote time to it. “I mean, I’m open to a relationship,” he told me, “but right now that’s not my primary thing. I know the interest in me and what I went through is going to die, so I’m trying to get as much done while people are still interested enough.”

Two days after the speech, Woodfox, King, and I had breakfast at their hotel, in Greenwich Village. At the conference, Woodfox had felt himself being turned into a mythological figure, a process that he found uncomfortable. “All these people who have been involved in social struggle for so long want to shake my hand,” he told me. “I don’t have an emotional connection as to what the big deal is. Sometimes I just don’t think that, you know, surviving solitary confinement for forty-one years is a big deal.” I asked if that was a coping mechanism, and he said, “Pretty much everything I did for the last forty-four years was some sort of coping mechanism.”

He said that, in the early two-thousands, inmates at Angola began telling him, “Thanks for not letting them break you.” It was the first time he grasped that, by staying sane, he had done something unusual.

King, who was eating a piece of toast with jelly, recalled one of the first protests in C.C.R., when the Panthers persuaded inmates to refuse the strip search. After a few days, King had realized that inmates were being beaten so badly that they could die, and he wrote a letter to Woodfox recommending that they end the protest. “It is the man who creates the principles,” he wrote. “The principles shouldn’t kill the man.”

King took a bite of his toast. He seemed to be contemplating the decision for the first time in many years. “In the final analysis, I think we made the right decision,” he said.

“It was the right decision,” Woodfox said.

“I mean, I could have given my life and been beaten to death,” King said. “The legacy I would have left is that no one would know why I was killed.” He leaned back in his chair, smiling. “I’m so glad that decision was made. I’m so glad that decision was made.”

In October, eight months after his release, Woodfox passed the Louisiana driver’s test, scoring ninety per cent. He bought a Dodge Charger and drove for the first time in forty-seven years. “I just whipped out the old phone, gave the G.P.S. system my brother’s address, and ten minutes later I was pulling up to his house,” he told me.

A few days after getting his license, Woodfox flew to Oakland for the fiftieth reunion of the Black Panther Party. The Panther Post, a newspaper printed by the Panther alumni association, announced on its front page, “With much joy we welcome our comrade, Albert Woodfox, back to the community that he was ripped away from.”

Some two hundred original Party members had gathered at the Oakland Museum of California for panels and discussions. At night, many of them went to a jazz club called Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, in downtown Oakland. Tins of macaroni and cheese, fried fish, and collard greens drew a long line of men and women that stretched across the dance floor. Their bellies had become soft, and their pants rose a little high. They wore Velcro shoes or Tevas with socks. A few used walkers or canes. “I’m not trying to sound conceited,” Woodfox told me, “but I seem to be more animated than some of these guys.” He ordered orange juice from the bar and sat in a booth, watching the crowd. Eventually, he and King migrated to the dance floor. Woodfox had danced only a few times since he’d been released: his style was slow, deliberate, and somehow gentle. There was no excess movement.

Conversations drifted toward police shootings. “The more things remain the same, the more things remain the same,” Woodfox said after someone described a shooting. When a young reporter from a black-news Web site asked him for a five-minute interview, Woodfox quickly got to his point. “We have to protect Black Lives Matter like we didn’t protect the Black Panther Party,” he said. Later, he told me, “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.” The greatest disappointment of freedom, he said, was realizing how little had changed. “It’s the same old America.”

People often introduced themselves to Woodfox by claiming a central role in the Party. “Oakland, born and raised, 1967, four months after the Party started,” one man announced. “I’m the only original Panther besides Huey Newton named Huey,” he said, though later he acknowledged that Huey was his middle name. A former Panther who sells historical artifacts—slave shackles, Ku Klux Klan robes, abolitionist newspapers—told Woodfox that he had been one of the founders of the Party, which he said originated in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Woodfox listened silently and looked at him slightly askance. Then he excused himself.

“I’ll tell you—that’s the fifteenth story I’ve heard that the Party started in some other city,” he told me.

For years Woodfox had imagined that the Panthers existed on an otherworldly plane, free of fears and flaws, and he was surprised to see that they could pass as ordinary human beings. “I’m realizing how normal they are,” he said. “Made extraordinary by circumstances.” His friend B. J. Jennings, one of Huey Newton’s former aides, told me that Woodfox had been able to survive because “you stand on the principles of the Black Panther Party, and, baby, you are empowered. It’s like how people read the Bible, take that word for word, and stand on that mentality to get free.”

When Woodfox was released, he told me that he wanted to write a book that would ask the question “Why the Party?” By the time of the reunion, he had given up on formulating a complex theory. “From the Party I learned that I had worth as a human being,” he said. “How do you explain something that’s in your heart and your mind and your soul?”

Woodfox and King had been talking about “the fiftieth,” as they called it, for months, but when I asked Woodfox if he enjoyed events of this kind he shook his head and grunted. “I enjoy being alone,” he said. Nevertheless, he kept inviting people to stay at his new house in New Orleans, telling them about the things he had purchased: a washer and dryer; a refrigerator with an ice dispenser and an electric stove; a leather sectional sofa; two bedroom sets with dressers and mirrors. His daughter was furnishing his house, and he was delighted by her ability to take charge and find a good bargain. “I’m just kind of holding on by the fingernails,” he told me.

He planned to move into the house shortly after his seventieth birthday, in February, and then he hoped to cut back on travelling. “I have to,” he told me. “I can’t keep doing this. I mean, I can—but I choose not to.” He was sleeping only a few hours a night. He sometimes jolted awake, overcome by the sensation that the atmosphere was pressing down on him. All four walls appeared to be inches from his face. He felt so constricted that he removed all his clothes. He calmed himself by pacing—four steps forward, four steps back—a technique he’d been using for decades. After four or five minutes, the walls of the room would snap back into place. “The only thing I can do is walk it off,” he said. “It happens. And I move on.” 

 

 

 

Rachel Aviv is a staff writer. She won the 2016 Scripps Howard Award for “Your Son Is Deceased,” her story on police shootings, which appeared in the magazine last year.

 

 

This article appears in other versions of the January 16, 2017, issue, with the headline “Surviving Solitary.”

 

 

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The Human Front: A Review

By Luther Blissett
Medium.com
January 7th, 2017

Reading The Human Front made me want to read more MacLeod. I went and picked up MacLeod’s The Execution Channel; read it in two days, but that’s another review. So glad I discovered MacLeod. Thanks Terry Bisson and PM Press! Incredible writing, and he has a vision that is delightful. Accessible tone.

“The Human Front” is a young revolutionary’s tale and description of waging a left-driven guerrilla war in Scotland. Battling dystopian governance—honestly, though, what kind of governance is not dystopian?—MacLeod explores potential impacts on family, life choices, and friends. Not really a short story—more a novella at right around seventy pages—this is a pleasurable and engaging read.

After you complete that tale comes “Other Deviations: The Human Front Exposed” which provides background on the writing of “The Human Front.” Incredibly useful, especially if you just finished the longer story.

Perhaps the best part of the entire book is where MacLeod writes, when explaining the text:

“By following the track of my own life—born on the Isle of Lewis, moving to Greenock at the age of ten—and reversing and distorting various circumstances within and beyond it, I could depict the background and backstory without having to explain it in tedious alt-historical detail” (81).

As a reader, this helps me understand how he did his job so well. As someone who dabbles in writing and struggles to figure out proper balance of personal versus created settings, this opened incredible potentials. Also, this seems pretty akin to what Rudy Rucker describes as Transreal in his essay, “Surfing the Gnarl,” [put out by PM Press, too, in a book titled Surfing the Gnarl]. Whether or not you write, this provides plenty of fertile ground for play, exploration, and thinking.

This idea is explored, in part, through the next piece: “The Future Will Happen Here, Too.” Probably the most important part of the book — at least for people who write, create, and want to work and think locally about their material.

Interview is interesting: lablit, Trotskyists, and observations about SF.
Easily worth the money.

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New Taboos: A Review

By Luther Blissett
Medium.com
January 7th, 2017

Opening piece, “A State of Imprisonment,” sticks with you. Brutal without unnecessary graphic details. Kind of like a strong female lead in a politicized, short version of “Prison Break.”

Powerful narrative covers potential problems of privatized prisons. Storyline: female investigative reporter encounters a private corporate prison that comprises 80% of the State of Arizona. Engaging. Exquisitely written.

Title piece is non-fiction essay written several years ago where Shirley suggests new sets of taboos against social transgressions. Given Trump’s election, Shirley’s tone seems somewhat moderate. Would love to know what Shirley would write today. Short. Powerful. Worth reading.

“Why We Need Forty Years of Hell” continues Shirley’s critique on the rich and powerful. Has Shirley written a class war novel yet? He takes on the singularity, importance of shelter, pharmaceuticals in the ocean, and Greece’s economic collapse. With “New Taboos,” it’s like a more literary-referencing short form Jon Stewart taking it to the bureaucrats and oligarchs. Shirley slashes and burns without sounding like an out of tune three chord juvenile rage. While I love juvenile rage, we need more authors exploring—smartly—the grounds between punk rock and Gore Vidal. We need more writing like this.

Terry Bisson’s closing interview with Shirley is, as ever, interesting. Music, movies, writing professionally.

Most thought provoking piece that sticks with you, and could easily be made into a movie or an Amazon series, is “A State of Imprisonment.” Think aesthetics of “Mr. Robot” with the conspiracies of “Lost.”

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The Left Left Behind: A Review

By Luther Blissett
Medium.com
January 7th, 2017

Title piece: Visualize all the authoritarian assholes and oligarchs in the world. Poof! They’re gone!

Oh yes, if only it could be true, right? Well, Terry Bisson offers some suggestions about what life might be like if all those folks were Raptured up, up, and away out of our lives.

Need more of this kind of alt-history (Ken MacLeod’s The Human Front is another good example). Too many Nazis/Old South win stories; not enough radical leftists or anarchists smashing the state—or ruling classes just disappearing. Bisson’s lead character is a sleazy TV reporter. He’s joined by a young rebel woman. Honestly wasn’t sure how this would work, but it works well. The Rupture!

“Special Relativity”: one act play with Einstein, Robeson, and Hoover in the context of youth preparing to protest post-9/11. At some points, it reads a bit stilted. Perhaps it’s my lack of culture embodied in a general dislike for drama. The framing, content, and meaning, though, are playful and pretty on target. Best part of Bisson’s play is his ability to envision such events, combine fascinating characters, and pull the story off. While I may not dig this specific example, it drove me to learn more about Robeson. It impressed me to the point of wanting to read Bisson’s novel, Fire on the Mountain. Left me asking: “Who is this guy, and what are his politics and imagination?!” When I later read Rudy Rucker’s essay, “Surfing the Gnarl,” Rucker’s placement of Bisson in the surreal category made complete sense (Surfing the Gnarl, 58).

Interview is terribly interesting. As Bisson is the series editor, it’s not clear if he interviewed himself or if someone else did. Either way, there’s plenty of fascinating information. On a similar note, the interview inspired me to read and research the life of John Brown—a man I had pretty much forgot about for nearly three decades.

Bisson is explicit: you can’t separate his politics from his writing (101). As a reader, Bisson’s writing sparks curiosity and interest so that, frankly, you’ll want to explore the people and ideas he’s presenting or referencing, often in different contexts. If you like authors that open up new vistas and connections, Terry Bisson is for you.

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The First Socialist Schism: A Review

by Marcin Anglart
Syndikalisten. Medlemstidning för SAC - Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation, Stockholm, no. 6,
December 2016

THE FIRST SOCIALIST SCHISM chronicles the conflicts in the International Working Men’s Association (the First International, 1864–1876/77), which represents an important milestone in the history of political ideas and socialist theory.

In defending their autonomy, federations in the International became aware of what separated them from the social democratic movement that relied on the establishment of national labor parties and the conquest of political power. The split that followed, between centralist party politics and the federalist grassroots movement, was a decisive moment in the history of political ideas. The separate movements in the International — which later developed into social democracy, communism, and anarchism — found their greatest advocates in Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx. But the significance of this alleged clash of titans is largely a modern invention. It was not the rivalry between two arch-enemies or a personal vendetta based on mutual resentment that made the conflict between Bakunin and Marx so important but rather the schism between parliamentary party politics aiming to conquer political power and social-revolutionary concepts.

Instead of focusing exclusively on what Marx and Bakunin said, many other contributions to this debate are examined, making this the first reconstruction of a dispute that gripped the entire organization. This book also sets new standards when it comes to source material, taking into account documents from numerous archives and libraries that have previously gone unnoticed or were completely unknown.

 It may seem tedious to return once again to the 1800s for a study of the personalities, feuds and organizational experiments that shaped the young labor movement. But when a book like Wolfgang Eckhardt’s The First Socialist Schism appears, the historian in us awakes inevitably.
The book is not only an extremely thorough description of the infamous years of the First International, but also an important reminder of the heated debates around organizational principles. Despite the subtitle, it outlines a broad movement beyond the big names; a movement that, with much energy and autonomy, took on the task of organizing a resistance against both state repression and increasing capitalist exploitation.
Eckhardt delivers a book packed with excerpts from congressional records, mail correspondence and newspaper articles – of the book’s roughly 600 pages, the bibliography and the footnotes make up almost 200.

Besides providing all these details, the author also manages to visualize the drama and political games surrounding the International in a gripping way, making it difficult to put the book down.
Somewhat roughly hewn, there are two tendencies butting against each other, the authoritarian fraction of Marx and Engels on the one hand, and the libertarian fraction with high-profile figures like Bakunin and Guillaume. The former aims to centralize more power in the London-based General Council and advocates mandatory participation in parliamentary elections, while the latter advocates a more autonomous and federalist orientation with emphasis on self-organized unions instead of parliamentary politics – a position that can be named the embryo of what would soon be known as revolutionary syndicalism.
The personal undertones of the conflict are indeed disappointing, but they were not as central as often believed. Insofar as they had real effects on the International, it was primarily in the form of Marx’ and Engels’ increasingly paranoid attitude toward Bakunin, who was considered to be behind everything that did not go the way of the General Council. In their increasingly frenetic smear attempts they alienated themselves not only completely from southern European federations, but finally even lost the support of more neutral groupings, which – not least thanks to the exemplary mediation by James Guillaume – joined the libertarian wing.
When the International practically split during the dire and burlesque Congress of the Hague in 1872, it basically led to an implosion of the General Council, where some disinterested German Social Democrats and small groups from various other countries had more delegates combined than the federations representing the libertarian current.
All in all, this is a book which is crowded with facts and which not only gives an insight into an infected and partly personal conflict, but also says a lot about the different movements, about organizational principles and views on autonomy. At the same time it is heartwarming to soak up some of the energy, solidarity and optimism that pervaded the labor movement’s pioneers.
In conclusion, the words uttered by Rafael Farga Pellicer during the Spanish Federation’s founding congress exemplify the prevailing spirit well: »We want justice and therefore we want that the rule of capital, the church and the state cease to exist in order to build upon their ruins the government of all – anarchy, the free federation of free associations of workers.

Translated from the Swedish original: Syndikalisten. Medlemstidning för SAC - Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation, Stockholm, no. 6, December 2016, p. 14

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