[Ppnews] Qwusu Yaki Yakubu (James Sayles) dances with the ancestors

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 18 10:55:10 EDT 2008

By Nancy Kurshan & Steve Whitman

Qwusu Yaki Yakubu (aka James Sayles) was an 
extraordinary human being and a committed 
revolutionary.  He was born on May 29, 1947 and 
went to dance with the ancestors on March 28, 
2008, at age 60.  He spent almost 40 years, on 
and off, in prison.  James Sayles went in as a 
brilliant but uneducated youth.  Yaki emerged in 
2004 as one of the leading revolutionary thinkers in the U.S.

When prisoners rebelled in 1978 against the 
barbaric conditions at Pontiac Prison in central 
Illinois, Yaki was in Stateville Prison.  About 
50 prisoners at Pontiac were indicted for 
participating in the rebellion and 17 of them, 
all Black, were charged with murder and thus 
faced the death penalty.  The case became one of 
the largest death penalty cases in the history of 
the U.S.  Yaki became the strategic leader of the 
effort to defend the Pontiac Brothers, working 
from inside his cell at Stateville prison.  The 
trial went on for years and became a cause that 
was picked up around the country and the 
world.  A major victory was achieved when the 
jury did not find even one of the Pontiac 
Brothers guilty of the death penalty 
charge.  After spending millions of dollars, the 
State could not get even one conviction.  The 
“not guilty” verdicts were stimulated in large 
part by the Black people on the jury.

Yaki was a C-number prisoner.  These are people 
who were convicted of crimes many, many years 
ago, at a time when there were draconian 
sentencing laws.  They grow old and die in prison 
regardless of their activities or behavior 
inside.  The only way for a C number prisoner to 
be released is to have his/her case presented to 
the parole board.  The parole board then decides 
whether or not to release that individual.  For 
years and years, almost no C number prisoners 
were released (about 1% a year) while others who 
had been convicted of the same crimes in later years were set free.

Yaki, along with David Saxner and others on the 
outside, launched a campaign to free all C number 
prisoners.   People persistently lobbied the 
Parole Board and traveled to their hearings to 
try to insure that the process was a transparent 
one.  Yaki was finally released on April 1, 2004.

Upon his release he continued to struggle to free 
all the other C number prisoners as part of the 
Committee to Free C Number Prisoners.  Indeed, 
the rate at which they were released did 
accelerate although there are still too many who 
remain incarcerated.  Yaki also held a full time 
position at the John Howard Association, a 
Chicago-based prison watch dog 
organization.  Additionally, he participated in 
the campaign to free Indiana death row political prisoner, Zolo Azania.

Yaki was even more than an activist 
revolutionary.  He was a deep political thinker, 
writer, and the founding editor of several 
journals: Vita Wa Watu: A New Afrikan Theoretical 
Journal; Crossroad­A New Afrikan Captured 
Combatants Newsletter; Notes from a New Afrikan 
POW Journal.  Often writing under the pen name 
Atiba Shanna, his articles were read throughout 
the US, both inside and outside of prison, and 
even crossed borders to other countries.  He 
frequently defined and clarified political issues 
for people concerned with freedom struggles.  He 
himself drew widely from international struggles, 
particularly those in Algeria, Vietnam, Latin 
America and most definitively Africa.  The 
journals reprinted many articles from these great revolutionary thinkers.

In particular, Yaki was influenced by the 
writings of the African revolutionary, Franz 
Fanon, which dealt with the colonial 
mentality.  Yaki wrote about the relevance of 
Fanon’s work to the New Afrikan freedom struggle. 
Yaki studied at great length the writings of many 
revolutionaries. He was fond of quoting Amilcar 
Cabral, the African revolutionary.  One of 
Cabral’s best-known quotes was “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.”

In that spirit it is important to remember Yaki 
as the passionate revolutionary that he was, a 
revolutionary in the clearest, most explicit way 
possible.  He believed that the freedom of Black 
people in the U.S. (New Afrikans) could only come 
about by a revolution.  He was not at all opposed 
to small steps that might be seen as only reforms 
but he believed that a revolution was needed to 
free Black people.  He hated the condition of 
Black people in the U.S.  One of Yaki’s favorite 
quotes was the one by Malcolm X: “Don’t be 
shocked when I say I was in prison.  You’re still 
in prison.  That’s what America means, 
prison.”  Yaki also believed that if violence was 
necessary to end the horror of the mass 
incarceration and destruction of Black people by the U.S., then so be it.

Yaki was a nationalist, in the spirit of Malcolm 
X.  He stated that “The stand of Malcolm, the 
stand that We must take up and creatively 
develop, is the stand of the nation for its 
independence, and of the working class for social 
revolution.”  Yaki believed that although many of 
the conditions that Malcolm faced in his time 
were quite different, “We know with certainty 
that Malcolm left a legacy of unselfish 
commitment to the struggle of Afrikans in the 
U.S. for the realization of our national and 
revolutionary interests.” (Crossroad, Vol. 3, Nos. 2&3, p.17)

Yaki was also an internationalist.  He felt 
connected to all oppressed peoples who struggled 
to control their own land and more equitably 
distribute their own resources.  A quick review 
of the journals he edited reveals articles 
reflecting the struggles in South Africa, 
Namibia, Cuba, Brazil, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, 
Haiti, Italy and more.  There were articles about 
the past as well as contemporary issues.  For 
Yaki believed that “the road to the future goes 
through the past”. (Crossroads, V. 1 No. 4, Jan 88 pg 13).

Yaki from within his prison cell, removed from 
the direct influences of women, struggled to 
understand the condition of women, and 
particularly Black women in the U.S.  The 
publications printed articles such as “Notes on 
the Link Between Oppression of New Afrikan Women 
and the New Afrikan National Liberation 
Revolution” and advertised Black women’s 
organizations around the US.  Yaki sought out and 
printed articles by Margaret Burroughs, Assata 
Shakur, Safiya Bukhari, Aminata Umoja and others. 
He did not want to repeat the practice of other 
movements where, “once in power, they failed to 
fulfill the promises made to women in the course 
of struggle.”  (Vita Wa Watu, Book 9, Pg 3) At a 
time when many nationalists were resistant to 
accepting gay liberation, Yaki understood that 
homophobia needed to be defeated as part of the struggle of the human family.

Yaki believed that what organization someone 
belonged to was not determining.  He was adamant 
that what mattered is ideology and practice, that 
leadership becomes apparent through theory and 
practical activity. The breadth of the journal 
articles reflect that non-sectarian 
attitude.  They also reflect both sides of the 
coin: Yaki’s belief that although ideological 
work is essential, practical activity is 
absolutely necessary as well.  The journals 
reflect a myriad of struggles that were taking 
place across the country around police brutality, 
control unit prisons, grand juries, police 
spying.   Often there were articles about the 
fight to free political prisoners, many of whom 
were given voice through the journals-- Sundiata 
Acoli, Assata Shakur, Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, 
Mutulu Shakur, and many others. The journal kept 
the plight of Ruchel Magee alive.  Yaki had the 
greatest respect for, and was chagrined by, the 
continued imprisonment of Marilyn Buck who has 
spent most of her life behind bars, punished by 
the government for her close association with the Black liberation movement.

Jazz was a passion of Yaki’s, and unbeknownst to 
many, he was an able conga drummer.  Yaki was 
very interested in culture in all forms, and the 
journals printed articles about Hip Hop, Paul 
Robeson, and explored the relationship between art, culture, and labor.

In Yaki’s final months he was lovingly cared for 
by his wife, Acreeba Mohammad.  A memorial 
service was held on April 4 and produced an 
outpouring of love, admiration and respect from a 
broad range of people who love Yaki.  Stepping up 
to the open mike were a number of ex-prisoners, 
some who came from faraway because Yaki had been 
so important to them.  Some described how their 
lives had been turned around by encountering Yaki 
in prison and participating in the study groups 
that Yaki initiated.  Others were Pontiac 
Brothers whose lives were saved through the 
effort to free the Pontiac Brothers.  Still 
others were C number prisoners who had gained 
their release from prison in no small part to the efforts of Yaki.

The church was filled with family members as 
well, many of whom spoke.  Yaki’s brother, Louis, 
related how Yaki had always pushed him to reach 
higher, to do more.  Acreeba said he was her 
knight in shining armor.  She described how when 
she was young and had difficulty herself with the 
law, Yaki took care of her kids, changed their 
diapers and fed them until she could be there again.

Among many others who spoke that day were 
representatives from the Puerto Rican 
Independence Movement, including Jose Lopez, from 
the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, who spoke about 
Yaki’s internationalism and reiterated that Yaki 
understood that nationalism and internationalism 
must go hand in hand.  Also present were 
ex-political prisoners Alicia Rodriguez and Luis Rosa.

As one speaker said towards the end: “We love 
you, Yaki.  We love you for being a husband, a 
father, a friend and a great human being with a 
smile that we saw far too rarely.  And we love 
you for being a revolutionary.”  As Arundhati Roy 
would say, his passing leaves a Yaki-sized hole in the universe.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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