[Ppnews] Robert King Wilkerson - Sweet freedom for man found innocent after 30 years
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Feb 12 11:19:34 EST 2007
Sweet freedom for man found innocent after 30 years
Robert King Wilkerson cooks up a new life as a candy maker
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Robert King Wilkerson eases out of bed. He pulls
on a black shirt, a watch cap and sandals, and
shuffles into the tiny kitchen of his East Austin duplex.
The shirt covers his tattoos, most self-inscribed
decades ago using pencil lead. A long dagger
extends down his left forearm; a spider rests on
his left hand. The tops of his fingers say
"L-O-V-E" and, below that, "H-A-T-E." The
initials of a long-ago girlfriend grace his right forearm.
While he was in prison, Robert King Wilkerson
made his pralines in cans over flaming circles of
toilet paper like this one. Making a single batch
took 30 of the doughnut-shaped toilet paper
rolls. Wilkerson was freed in 2001 after
promising not to sue for false imprisonment.
He assembles his ingredients: butter, milk,
sugar, baking soda, vanilla and salt. He pulls a pot off a high shelf.
"I was arrested in 1961 for armed robbery," he
begins. "Did I do it? Nah, not that one. But I
wasn't ready to pay no poetic justice. Gee whiz,
I was just a young man. I'd only been out of the reformatory for a year.
"I got sentenced to 10 years," he says. "That was the first time."
He moved to Austin last year after being chased
out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and some
friends here offered to help out.
The duplex is more studio than apartment.
Wilkerson makes the bed next to the dining room
table every morning. Paper clutter is placed into
tidy piles set at right angles.
The room is filled with panther statues. There is
a large wooden one on the floor, the old base of
a hip 1970s coffee table. Jungle cats stalk across the TV and a shelf.
Photographs, lined neatly on shelves or tables
and stuck to the refrigerator, depict Black Panthers of the human variety.
Here is Wilkerson next to Geronimo Pratt, a
Panther organizer who spent 27 years in prison.
Here is Wilkerson standing between two new
members of the party last year. Their faces are
fierce, masked by dark Malcolm X glasses. Their fists are raised.
Wilkerson is the one in the middle, smiling.
Pralines surpass their ingredients. Combine
sugar, butter and milk the wrong way, and you get
a sticky mess. But in skilled hands, they produce
a magical confection: buttery but not sickly
rich, and sweet with a whiff of burned sugar.
Without measuring, Wilkerson pours the assembled
ingredients into a soupy khaki-colored mixture.
He places the pot on the stove and begins to stir.
"I was 22 when I got out of prison," he says. "I got married, had a son."
He boxed. "My first fight, I came out looking
good. But after two rounds, he went to work on
me. My arms got tired; my legs got tired. He was
beatin' on somebody who wasn't fighting back."
He retired after a few more fights and took odd
jobs. In 1970, he was busted for armed robbery again.
"I didn't do it," he insists. "But I know who
did." The jury sentenced him to 35 years.
From his fifth-floor cell in the New Orleans
parish prison, Wilkerson could hear the guards' television set.
"One day I heard the announcer creep into a
program on the air," he says. "He said there was
a shootout downtown with what they called 'militants.' "
Among those involved was Donald Guyton, who'd
grown up with Wilkerson in the Algiers
neighborhood of New Orleans and had become
involved with the Panthers. Taken to the same
parish prison as Wilkerson, Guyton says, he
started introducing other prisoners to the
organization. They protested living conditions
and agitated against prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
"Our message was, just because you're
incarcerated doesn't mean you have to give up your humanity," he says.
For Wilkerson, the Panthers were as much a
translation service as anything: "I couldn't
articulate what I was feeling" a pressurized
mixture of anger and hopelessness. "It wasn't
until the Black Panthers stated it that I understood it."
After a short escape, he was sent to Angola
Prison, where he was placed in solitary
confinement. He still managed to carry the Black
Panthers' message, and while he was there, he was
active in helping file lawsuits and leading
political discussions for the Panthers' only prison chapter.
A year later, a prisoner was killed, and
Wilkerson and another man were blamed. During the
trial, both were shackled, and, after courtroom
outbursts by the other inmate, their mouths were duct-taped shut.
The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed that
conviction, based in part on the duct tape. In
the 1975 retrial, Wilkerson's co-defendant said
he alone stabbed the man, but it didn't matter.
Wilkerson was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
90 percent innovation
The mixture on the stove begins to froth, like a
giant cappuccino. Wilkerson stirs with a
long-handled wooden paddle, pulling it through
the pot in lazy circles. The praline thickens.
The trick is to let the liquid burn enough for
flavor but not too much, ruining the batch altogether.
"This candy's funny," he says. "It depends on the
weather. If it's sunshiny, it's nice. If it's too humid, it's not."
Wilkerson was raised in New Orleans by his
grandmother. Although he'd always had a sweet
tooth, he learned to make candy in prison. His
first time behind bars, he watched an inmate
conjure sweets out of milk from the prison's cows
and sugar from the cane cut by inmates working on the farm.
In solitary a decade later, Wilkerson began
experimenting in his cell. He collected butter
and sugar packets at breakfast; sometimes, other
inmates or even guards saved ingredients for him
in exchange for a future taste. At first he tried
using a "stinger," a homemade heating element
created from a piece of metal and wires.
Later, he learned that if he rolled toilet paper
into a coil and then tucked the edges back on
themselves into a tissue doughnut, he had a sort
of homemade Sterno that burned hot enough to
caramelize the sugar. He twisted a towel around
the can into a handle so he didn't burn his hand.
He stirred the mixture with a ruler he stripped of paint.
A single batch a couple of pounds burned
about 30 rolls of toilet paper. He cooked it on
the toilet seat because it was easy to clean and
because the entire operation could be swept into
the toilet if an unfriendly guard wandered by.
He figured out he could peel the top off a Coke
can to create a tiny pot. When that boiled over,
he stacked more cans on top, creating a tall cooking tube.
When the candy was ready, he poured the caramel
into a tray made from a manila folder covered in
onionskin paper. As that cooled, he poured
another layer on top and mixed them together with
pecans, sometimes sneaked in by the guards.
"You got to have cooperation from the people
who's working," he says. "It's the unity of
opposites. The officer, you know, he has rules he
has to go by. But he's got to work for 16 hours,
too, so he wants to make things easy. And the
brass walks the same road. So the officer allows
you to do your little thing, as long as it doesn't infringe on his job.
"I'd usually start on a Friday night and finish
on a Sunday," he says. "You got to have patience."
Slow and steady
The praline mixture has thickened. Wilkerson
scrapes the caramel residue off the bottom of the
pot. The smell of cooking sugar and heated milk pours from the stove.
He spreads pecans over a baking tray. Moving
fast, he pours the mixture on top of the pecans.
It spreads slowly, like cake batter.
How does a man pass 29 years in a 6-foot-by-9-foot concrete box?
"I was in prison," Wilkerson says, "but prison wasn't in me."
He did push-ups, jumping jacks, kick-outs, side
kicks and stomach crunches in the narrow spaces
of his cell. He paced. He read. He wrote. He
studied the law. Eventually, what he learned helped him gain a new trial.
"It was a little crack in the door I was trying to creep through," he says.
The witness who'd implicated Wilkerson in the
prison slaying recanted, saying he didn't see
Wilkerson stab anyone. The crack widened.
Courts batted his case back and forth, granting
him new trials and taking them away, declaring
him innocent and re-proclaiming his guilt.
Big-name lawyers took up his cause without pay,
eager to fight what appeared more and more to be a political imprisonment.
He and two other Panther inmates, Albert Woodfox
and Herman Wallace, who spent the 1970s, '80s and
'90s in a single room for 23 hours a day, came to
be known as the Angola Three.
"Even if he was guilty," says George Kendall, a
New York attorney who has sued Louisiana alleging
cruel and unusual punishment on Wilkerson's
behalf, "it doesn't justify" half a lifetime in solitary.
After much technical legal wrangling, prosecutors
offered a deal: If Wilkerson would not sue them
for a wrongful conviction, he could go free. He
walked out of Angola on Feb. 8, 2001.
"Why did it take so long?" he says. "Why did it
even happen? When they say the wheels of justice
turn slow, that's crap. I believe justice delayed
is justice denied. But I also believe justice
delayed is terrorism. If you're not dying
imminently, you're dying incrementally."
He pauses, takes a breath. "So, you ask me, 'Why did it take so long?' "
A slow smile. "I'd have to say, I guess the wheels of justice turn slow."
Just right, for now
"Some people, when they cook the candy, it'll
come out a little sugary," Wilkerson says. "But
to keep it creamy and less sugary, I do something different."
After pouring the now taffy-thick mixture over
the pecans, he begins pushing the edges toward
the middle, folding it back on itself, whipping
air into the praline before it hardens completely.
When it is the consistency of a soft wax, he
pulls a sharp paring knife across the surface,
cutting it into roughly square chunks. Not quite
caramel, not yet crunchy, it melts gently in the mouth, like maple sugar.
"When I was in prison making candy, guys would
say, 'You could make a lot of money out there
if you ever get out.' " In the past couple of
years, Wilkerson has sold his candies over the
Internet, calling them Freelines. At $3 a bag,
he's not challenging Hershey's. But most months,
the sales cover his living costs: $350 rent, a
few bucks more for food and utilities.
When he's not melting sugar, he speaks at
rallies. He addressed a Black Panther reunion.
He's traveled to more than a dozen countries to
speak against injustice. He tries to keep the
story of the Angola Three's two imprisoned members from fading away.
Sixty-four years old and free for the past five,
Wilkerson's only real asset is his story. "All I
do is talk," he says. "Just talk."
Ann Harkness, a local activist who has sponsored
Wilkerson at several events, says she sometimes
has to keep the question-and-answer sessions from
turning into a freak show, like midway crowds
staring at a man on a bed of nails: "You know,
'Come see the man who spent 30 years in solitary.' "
But Guyton, who is now known as Malik Rahim,
suspects that people are drawn to Wilkerson not
for what he endured but for how he emerged.
"For a person to go through 29 years in one of
the most brutal prisons in America and still
maintain his sanity and humanity, that's what
makes people want to listen to Robert."
Being known as an American political prisoner has
its perks. He is feted and toasted by the network
of radicals permanently outraged by the
Establishment. Here's a picture of him with
socialist historian and author Howard Zinn;
here's another with U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California.
"It's a circle I got introduced to I never
thought I would," he says. "Not that I wanted to."
In November, heiress and arts patron Ann Getty
invited him to her San Francisco mansion. A
living political art installation, he arrived
each morning at 8:30, made pralines in her
restaurant-size kitchen all day and left at 4. At
the end of the two weeks, she presented him with
a new industrial-size stove. It would take up
almost his entire living room/bedroom, though, so it has stayed in California.
"A lot of these white activists don't
understand," Harkness says. "He lives hand-to-mouth."
Walking out of Angola, Wilkerson says, "was like
getting out of a graveyard. It's white on the
outside and filled with rotting bones on the inside."
As a brush with death sharpens life, a lifetime
of confinement can broaden the vision, and
Wilkerson is reluctant to commit to anything.
"I started seeing the whole world as my stage,"
he says. "Not just New Orleans or Austin." Those
places, he adds, "are just points of embarkation."
The pralines, too: "If I had something else to
do, I'd probably do it." Someday, maybe, he'd like to open a restaurant.
But at the moment, he feels comfortable here. The
small rooms and the predictable pace are
familiar. The pralines, sweet and undemanding, are cooling on the counter.
"Maybe I did have a plan for when I got out," he says. "And maybe this is it."
edexheimer at statesman.com; 445-1774
The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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