[Ppnews] Robert Hillary King - There Are Political Prisoners in America as Well

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 26 12:43:32 EDT 2009


Former Black Panther: "There Are Political Prisoners in America as Well"

By Emily Wilson, AlterNet
Posted on May 26, 2009, Printed on May 26, 2009

Prisons are, or can be, places to raise political 
consciousness, says Dennis O'Hearn, the author of 
Nothing But an Unfinished Song, a biography of 
Bobby Sands, the 27-year-old who died leading a 
hunger strike in Long Kesh, a prison in Northern 
Ireland. A new movie about Sands' final days, 
Hunger, recently won an award for first-time 
filmakers at the Cannes Film Festival.

Sands, who was serving a 14-year sentence for 
possessing firearms, demanded the right to be 
treated as a political prisoner, says O'Hearn, 
who appeared at an event about political 
prisoners in San Francisco with Andrej Grubacic, 
a professor of sociology at the University of San 
Francisco and the co-author of Wobblies & 
Zapatistas: Conversations On Anarchism, Marxism, 
and Radical History, and Robert Hillary King, one 
of the Angola 3. King spent more than 30 years in 
prison before his conviction was overturned in 
2001, and he has written a new autobiography 
about his experiences, From the Bottom of the 
Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King.

King says he, like Sands, became an activist in 
response to the oppression in prison.

"Prison is another way to perpetuate slavery," 
King says. "They're connected. A lot of people 
think legality and morality are the same thing, 
but they're not. Prisons are immoral."

While in Angola, a Louisiana prison built on a 
former slave plantation, King joined the Black 
Panther Party, with the other two members that 
make up the Angola 3, Herbert Wallace and Albert 
Woodfox. King says they felt morally obligated to 
do something about the conditions in Angola, 
considered in the 70s the worst prison in the country.

"There were 72 of us in a space made for 40," 
King says. "There were rats, roaches and horrible 
food. There was a system of sexual slavery that 
was accepted. Just because you're in prison 
doesn't mean you're not a human being."

King says because he, Wallace and Woodfox tried 
to organize other prisoners, they were seen as 
threats to the administration and framed - he for 
the murder of a fellow inmate, and Wallace and 
Woodfox for the murder of prison guard Brent 
Miller. They were kept in their 6 by 9 cells for 23 hours a day.

In spite being separated, King says they talked 
to one another from cell to cell and kept trying 
to educate themselves and others. He says their 
efforts led to changes in how prisoners were fed. 
Officials had been sliding the food under the 
door or leaving it outside in the hallway. King 
said this was dehumanizing and through hunger 
strikes got the prison officials to cut a hole in 
the bars to slide plates through. Also, King 
says, once they became politically conscious, 
they resisted the guards' standard anal searches. 
They filed a writ and the court ruled in their 
favor that these searches were unjustified.

"There are many parallels between Bobby Sands and 
Robert," O'Hearn said. "The strip searches and the inhumane conditions."

Like King, Sands and his fellow prisoners 
communicated with one another even though they 
were locked in separate cells. O'Hearn says they 
told stories, sang songs and learned the Irish language orally.

"It's so important the joy of the struggle, not 
just the hardship of struggle," O'Hearn said.

Grubacic, an anarchist from the Balkans, says he 
is interested in how people organize themselves 
in prison. From his co-author on Wobblies and 
Zapatistas, Staughton Lynd, Grubacic learned 
about the Lucasville 5, a group that took over a 
prison in Youngstown, Ohio, for 11 days. The 
group was made up of black militants and members 
of the Aryan Brotherhood, who spray painted 
slogans such as "Convict race" on the walls of the prison.

"Some of the most beautiful examples of American 
democracy are not found in and around the White 
House, but in Lucasville," Grubacic says. 
"Convicts developed a system of democracy to fight for a different world."

The discussion focused on political prisoners was 
part of a week of events discussing various 
revolutions throughout the world in 1968 and the 
legacy of those movements. O'Hearn, who along 
with the biography of Sands, wrote the 
introduction to Grubacic's book, said prison 
activists were part of the shift in perspective in the 60s.

"The old idea was wait till you overthrow the 
state and take power," he said. "But in the 60's 
social activists felt the important thing was to 
create kind of state they wanted."

Ramsey Kanaan founded PM Press, the publisher of 
King's book, From the Bottom of the Heap. He says 
King's experiences as a Black Panther are an 
important part of the struggles of the 60s.

"Talking about '68 is kind of a metaphor," he 
says. "Sixty-eight was part of a river that 
didn't appear out of nowhere and didn't disappear 
into nowhere. Prisoner struggles are part of that stream."

Kanaan points out that the prison population in 
the U.S. has more than tripled since the 60s.

Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, which 
advocates for prison reform, says prison is a way 
for the state to crack down on dissent.

"I think the reality is the U.S. has used prisons 
as a catchall response to social and economic problems," she says.

The way to change that is not just to talk to 
people with different points of view, but to 
listen as well, says Grubacic. Grubacic says he 
and others from the university in Belgrade, who 
opposed the former president of Yugoslavia, 
Slobodan Milosevic, went to talk with factory 
workers in the south who supported Milosevic.

"We exchanged ideas, we exchanged skills and 
experience," he says. "Listening is a political 
tool. This is the way to build a movement."

Robert Hillary King: "There are political prisoners in America as well."

Robert Hillary King went into Louisiana’s Angola 
Prison in 1970, accused of armed robbery. He was 
sentenced to 35 years, and after escaping, eight 
more years were added on to his sentence. For 
most of his time at Angola, considered one of the 
worst prisons in the nation, he was in a 9 by 6 
cell for 23 hours a day. While he was there, he, 
along with Herbert Wallace and Albert Woodfox, 
created a prison chapter of the Black Panther 
Party. Known as the Angola 3, the men were all 
given life sentences: King for allegedly killing 
another inmate, while Woodfox and Wallace were 
accused of killing a prison guard. Woodfox had a 
hearing at the beginning of March to decide 
whether to uphold a federal judge’s ruling 
overturning his conviction. The court may take 
between four weeks and six months to release a ruling.

King was exonerated in 2001. After being 
displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he now lives in 
Austin, TX, where he continues to work for 
Wallace and Woodfox’s release and travels widely 
to speak about prison conditions. He recently 
came out with a book about his experiences, From 
the Bottom of the Heap. Alternet’s Emily Wilson 
caught up with him when he was in San Francisco 
speaking on a panel about political prisoners.

Emily Wilson: How did you get a life sentence at Angola?

Robert Hillary King: They were locking up all the 
so-called black militants and in 1974, on the 
tier I lived on which was called B Tier, an 
inmate was killed in self-defense by another 
inmate and they indicted 11 people. It was a 
blanket indictment. A couple of weeks later it 
was down to two people and I was one of them. 
Without any corroborating evidence I was found 
guilty. They accepted the inconsistent testimony 
of an individual who made up his testimony, was 
given a gun, and issued a transfer to minimum 
status within the prison. They got him to say I 
participated. They also got another individual to 
say I participated, but his testimony was impeached within the first trial.

Both of them went home and subsequently returned 
to prison and they contacted me to say they 
wanted to set the record straight, and they had 
lied. The one who had impeached, the warden had 
prepared his testimony for him and, the other 
person just took advantage by implicating me 
because the warden wanted him to implicate me, 
and I was found guilty and given a life sentence.

EW: Why did you first join the Black Panther Party?

RHK: The Black Panther Party articulated things 
for me I really couldn’t at the time. I began to 
feel alienated from the system. I had taken it 
for granted like everybody else that there were 
civil rights in this country and I was protected 
by these rights and I was naively believing that 
despite the fact that I had witnessed racism and 
discrimination all of my life. I still had hope 
and belief and belief in the ideas of the system.

After coming into contact with the Black Panther 
Party and some of their ideology and not having 
been able to articulate some of what they were 
saying but feeling it, I felt kinship and it was 
easy to adopt some of their ideology, which I felt was pretty humanistic.

I was in prison when I first heard about it. I 
was in the New Orleans Parish, and I had just 
been given a 35-year sentence. I heard about 
them, but it wasn’t until I escaped and was 
recaptured that I came into contact with the 
Black Panther Party. I had heard about them, but 
I did not know they were in New Orleans. Some of 
them were arrested in a so called shootout and 
they came in and they placed a couple of them in 
the tier I was being kept on, so I began to find 
out more and more about the Black Panther Party. 
Of course there were people saying the same thing 
long before the Black Panthers, but I really 
didn’t hear it. You know, the protests, the 
Freedom Riders, people trying to acquire the 
right to vote, civil rights, all of these things 
eventually connected, but I was not able to 
connect the dots until I heard the Black Panther Party, so I was attracted.

EW: How could you organize and create a community in prison?

RHK: Herman and Albert were responsible for that; 
I give them all the credit along with some others 
in the Black Panther Party. They started 
political education classes and started passively 
protesting the work conditions, which were 17 
hours a day. They tried to hold political 
discussion and political education classes that 
would instill hope in the prisoners. It was a 
passive protest. You know, work stoppage and food 
stoppage. Not eating any food or not serving food 
in the kitchen so that they could get the attention of the administration.

Herman and Albert were the ones who initiated 
going on the yard and holding political 
discussion with other inmates. When I came on, 
Herman and Albert were in the cells and we 
continued to teach political education classes 
from the cells and to educate ourselves and people on the tier.

We would talk from cell to cell or write thing up 
and make fliers. We had access to people who were 
in minimum custody so we would get on the good 
side of them and get them to bring fliers down 
the walk. We were not only able to communicate 
between ourselves on the tiers, but we were able 
to reach out to people in surrounding areas as well.

EW: What are some of the things you accomplished?

RHK: We were able to do some things like change 
the practice of how they fed us. We engaged in 
not eating; we staged a hunger strike. We had 
tried to negotiate with prison officials stating 
that the way they fed us was dehumanizing and 
unsanitary and we felt it should be upgraded, but 
we were told this was the way they did it and 
this was prison. We understood that but being 
political conscious and aware,  we began to see 
things and recognize that just because we were in 
prison did not mean we were not human beings, so 
we took a different approach to how we were 
treated. We decided to go on a hunger strike and 
it took 18 months, but eventually they stopped feeding us in that manner.

What they were doing was throwing it under the 
door or sliding it under the door, and sometimes 
they would leave it outside the door. Flies and 
rats and roaches and everything else ran through 
it. They began to cut food slots in the bars for 
us, and actually now all over prison they cut food slots.

Another thing they were doing was engaging in 
dehumanizing body cavity searches that served no 
criminological purpose. We decided to change this 
practice, so we decided not to submit. In other 
words, we wouldn’t refuse a shake down. I would 
raise my hand, raise my feet, open my mouth and 
so forth, that is OK. But I was in the cell 23, 
24 hours a day sometimes, and we did not come 
into contact with anybody, and we had to go 
through an anal search just out after being 
handcuffed. It was illogical. So we decided if 
they wanted a body cavity search, they had to force us.

But a writ was filed and the 19th District Court 
ruled in our favor that a routine anal search was 
unjustified and that was stopped. And as a result 
of people struggling and the Black Panther Party 
coming into the prison, there was a federal 
oversight of the prison for like 25 years. It was 
relinquished only about 1998 or 2000 by a federal 
jury. The prison was considered in 1972 one of 
the worst prisons in the nation.

We made some changes, but the idea was not to 
beautify or make prisons more livable. The 
ultimate goal was to get Herman and Albert and 
myself out of prison. The bar has always been raised to that degree.

EW: You say in your book prison is a continuation 
of slavery. Why do you say that?

RHK: I don’t think the 13th Amendment abolished 
slavery. It just made a transition from one form 
to another. It was considered legal to own slaves 
but even thought it was legal to own slaves it 
wasn’t till people began to see the moral 
repugnance of owning slaves, that things changed, 
till there was a moral outrage. I see the 
difference between legality and morality. Some 
people think if something is legal, it’s moral, 
but that’s not so. A lot of people can be legally 
guilty but morally innocent. People can be 
legally innocent of a crime and legally innocent and can go to their death.

With this mindset, legality seems to take 
precedence over morality. I began to make an 
assessment of the 13th amendment and the wording 
of it and it just seems to be poppycock. You 
know, “Slavery and involuntarily servitude shall 
not exist on these shores” and people say “Well, 
the 13th amendment abolished slavery.” Well, no, 
not so. You have to read the rest. It says unless 
of course, if you have been duly convicted of a crime.

EW: How did you keep going locked up for 23 hours 
a day? Were you confident you would get out some day?

RHK: I hoped that I would get out. Also I felt 
that I could die in prison. It went beyond hope. 
I did some things to activate my release. I got 
into the law and I kept my own case alive, and 
subsequently Herman and Albert’s. They were 
closing doors within the legal system, and even 
though I felt the legal system was hypocritical, 
I also knew there could be some legal loopholes, 
and so along with Herman and Albert we kept 
hammering at it. We looked at our cases, I read 
Albert’s transcript and my own transcript, and we 
got some people on board who had heard about the 
case as a result of Albert getting a new trial. 
Some activists got others involved, and it took a 
while, but Albert should be getting out of prison 
at some point because all the evidence against 
him has been undermined. And whatever happens in 
Albert’s case should happen in Herman’s as well because they are linked.

EW: What is it you are doing now for prison reform?

RHK: I’ve been to five different continents and 
over a dozen countries talking about the Angola 3 
case and trying to make a connection that prison 
America is really slavery. There are political 
prisoners in America as well. I was in prison for 
31 years for a crime I didn’t commit, 29 in 
solitary. I think it’s incumbent on me to try to 
do my best to try and expose the things I saw and 
witnessed. I kind of see the connection of not 
just Herman and Albert and our struggle, but I 
believe the struggle of people generally and the 
struggle of African people. I think there’s a 
connection. and the connection runs deep. In my 
book and in my lifestyle, I’m trying to show the 
connection runs much deeper than the eye can see. 
I hope people will get to see the system and how it really operates.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches 
basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/140242/

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