[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 Louisianas 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 judges 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 Woodfoxs 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. Alternets 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 couldnt 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 wasnt 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
didnt 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 wouldnt 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 dont 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
wasnt 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, its moral,
but thats 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 Alberts. 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
Alberts 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
Alberts case should happen in Hermans as well because they are linked.
EW: What is it you are doing now for prison reform?
RHK: Ive 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 didnt commit, 29 in
solitary. I think its 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 theres a
connection. and the connection runs deep. In my
book and in my lifestyle, Im 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/
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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