Tag Archives: robert king

Resistance Behind Bars

How do you organise around ideals and fight back in a system designed to control and repress any and all dissent? It is an important question for all of us, but how much more so for those actually trapped behind prison walls?

On the 9th at Birkbeck we held a small workshop with Robert King of the Angola 3 and Denise McNeil of the Yarl’s Wood 3, sponsored by the law college and holding maybe 30 people or so. We took the opportunity to do it, with the help of the marvelous Sarah Lamble and Isabelle Fremeaux of Birkbeck, given Robert King is back in London!


It’s always such a pleasure to have him here, though I confess I have been dead sick this go round. But the antibiotics have kicked in and I am finally getting round to the blog!

The goal was to get into an in depth discussion of the parallels between two countries increasingly turning to prisons to control their populations. The stats on the US are familiar enough, two and half million in prison, over 8 million within the system through probation, 1 in 9 black males under 25 in jail. The UK seems to stretching itself to join it: prison populations have hit record highs, and as a proportion of the population, blacks are incarcerated at an even higher rate. Only this month, Met officers were asked to explain why blacks were the victims of tasering at such a higher rate (50% of recorded taserings, though about 2% of the population).

Denise was getting her son ready for school when the police and immigration burst into the block of flats looking for the man living upstairs. They searched her flat looking for him, and arrested her violently in front of her son for the small amount of cannabis in her bag. Violence has been at the forefront of her encounters with the system. She served her six months, and was then immediately transferred to another prison to await deportation. She was there a year and a half, and only just recently released on bail after long struggle in the courts. Two other women, Sheree Wilson and Aminata Camara, remain in prison.

Her stay in immigration prison was both indefinite and abusive, and she joined other women in a five week hunger strike. She was there when the guards locked the striking women into a corridor for hours with no toilet facilities, food or water. She was beaten by guards and placed into solitary confinement for four weeks. You can read Denise’s statement on the hunger strike as given to the Guardian two weeks into it here.

In Yarl’s Wood the women worked to overcome barriers of language and race to come together and strike to improve their conditions; those perceived as the leaders were thrown into solitary. Angola the same, with the duration of solitary being the primary difference. As King said, however, solitary always changes you, traumatizes you, no matter how long or short a time you stay there. He has known men to be broken in only a day, it is in itself an inhuman thing to do to another human being and should be abolished.

So how did they organize? Talking to each other, the way you do on the outside. In some UK prisons you are allowed mobiles, which clearly facilitates things a great deal. But you can always pass messages. King remembers from solitary, men who were so skilled they could bank rolled up balls of newspaper off of a wall and into any cell they chose. You bribe orderlies and guards with cigarettes. You use fraying threads from your shirt to create strings to pass or collect notes. The ingenuity of human beings is incredible, and where there is a will to organise and improve conditions, there seems to be a way to do it.

This is just a very small taste of Wednesday’s inspiration of course, I’d definitely encourage you to listen to the podcast here, and please do look at the campaign pages for the Angola 3 and the Yarl’s Wood 3 to see what you can do.

There have been a whole round other events for King of course. We started it all off on Monday 7th March at UCL, screening In the Land of the Free to over 300 people in the Cruciform Theatre, followed by a discussion with King and director Vadim Jean. We also heard poignant statements from the other two of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, sent to us from their cells where they continue to be held unjustly:

Similar events were held at Birkbeck, Centerprise, the George Padmore Institute, the Karibu Centre and Rio Cinema in Hackney. A great tour all round, and still a few more private events to go…

So if you missed the events, buy a book or dvd, I promise you will not regret it, and your money will go to Robert or the Angola 3 campaign. No better cause I could think of.

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Robert King in L.A. and San Diego

I had the honor to drive Robert King around Southern California this past weekend to a handful of events centered on the Angola 3 campaign and his new book From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of ex Black Panther Robert Hillary King.

It’s an incredible story of what it means to be Black in this country; beautifully written and deep and it made me cry at two different points. And never fear, it has an inspiring ending.

I learned that I actually eat more than King, I wake up MUCH later, and that      there were possibly a few too many things edited out of the book (which I take responsibility for, though all complaints should be sent to my colleague ramsey). And a lot of really great stories that should have been in there but somehow never made it. Like the exact plan of how he escaped from Angola, and climbed walls using rope made out of the ticking from the mattresses and stepped on someone’s face and heard one of the women yell hey Tarzan, take me, it’s Jane…Which is why you have to hear him speak. But we were there to educate, not just tell stories, so I’ll be serious for a moment.

Slavery has continued in this country under the guise of prisons. There are now approximately 2.3 million people in prison, another 5 to 6 million people are on some kind of parole or probation, and 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 21 and 29 are incarcerated…

And there is a vast amount of money to be made on prisoners. The prisons get money for housing and feeding prisoners, and money for transporting them. They get money for the work that prisoners do while in prison. Prisons form the entire economic base and are the principal employer in many a small town. In Angola, Louisiana the 5,000 prisoners are counted in the town census as citizens allowing the town to receive additional federal benefits. Angola is 18,000 acres that went from plantation to prison with no break in between, even maintaining the sugar cane and cotton fields. Prisoners are guaranteed no rights in the constitution that supposedly abolished slavery. Here is a view of the place from the book:

So Robert Hillary King. He joined the Black Panther party in a Louisiana prison and worked to organize prisoners to protest the terror of the conditions they lived in. He, along with compañeros Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were actually succeeding in some things, like getting holes cut in the cell bars so that their food no longer had to scrape along the bottom of their doors when it was shoved underneath. They held classes in literacy and political education. They protested and worked to end the physical and mental abuse of prisoners, the constant invasive strip searches, and the prevalence of rape. They were reaching out to white prisoners. And so they were stopped.

King was framed in the murder of another inmate on his tier, found guilty though the man who had killed testified it had been in self-defense and that he had acted alone. Albert and Herman were framed in the murder of a prison guard (based on the testimony of seven eye witnesses – each of whom claimed they were the only ones at the scene besides the murderers! One of whom was shortly released on furlough due to his blindness. All of whom received incredible treatment from that day on, in spite of testimony that was hopelessly contradictory). King, although he was not in Angola at the time, was put under investigation as an accomplice, and was held in solitary for 29 years on that ground.

King fought his case over the years, and walked free in 2001. He said that he might be free of Angola, but Angola would never be free of him. He has kept that promise. Herman and Albert continue in prison, though Albert’s conviction has been overturned. The State has appealed the decision, and are resorting to character assassination in their attempt to ensure that both Herman and Albert remain safe and sound behind bars until they die.

So we started with an event sponsored by the Southern California Library at the L.A. Grand Theatre, a showing of the documentary on the Angola 3 (could use a bit more editing but is really a great documentary) with King speaking after. We had dinner with Gary Phillips and Gilda Haas (both future PM authors), then drove down to Whittier to stay with the Cambrons. It was a weekend of brilliant people and great hospitality I have to say! Then on Saturday we drove down to San Diego, where we stayed with Dennis Childs and his wife Saranella, both of them beautiful in every sense of the word. That day’s event was at the Malcolm X library, and the following day at UCSD.  Here he is at the Library:

And here are King and Dennis at UCSD:

And of course, we were traveling in style in the rented red mustang, here are King, Saranella and I, it has been extraordinarily hot here as you can see:

A brilliantly intense weekend, though I’ll admit my thoughts had a certain tendency to stretch somewhere rather different in a smiley day-dreamy sort of way. And it was an exhausting though rewarding trip, so happy reverie came as some relief in the rare downtime. I don’t think that’s why I did my best to make King miss his flight up to the Bay by jumping on the 605 North rather than South in rush hour traffic after a last lovely night in Whittier, it’s the fact I’ve yet to try my bike on the freeways I believe! Or that I don’t know Whittier. Or that I forgot to clarify the direction with Arturo before leaving. But everything worked out all right in the end…

There is much to be done on the campaign to free the remaining two of the Angola three. For more information on how to get involved, go to http://www.angola3grassroots.org, and for the book or dvd, click on the images above or go to http://www.pmpress.org.

The Black Panther, Red Mustang, and I

This is a pre-blog really, and the title says it all. For the next three days I shall be touring  Robert King, ex Black Panther and one of the Angola 3, around Southern California in a cherry red mustang. It’s rented, they had nothing else left. So look for us on LA and San Diego streets near you…hopefully you won’t see us chatting to any cops.

Press Take Some Interest in the Angola 3

When NBC asked Robert King Wilkerson what it was like to spend 29 years in solitary confinement, he didn’t know what to say. How can you sum up the horror of 29 years in solitary in one of the worst most infamous prisons in the nation? They asked him to do it in a few words, and “it was hell” made it into the edited version. In a nutshell.

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox continue in solitary. They have been there for over 35 years. NBC’s nightly news picked it up as the cases of Wallace and Woodfox are set to come before federal court. The question NBC asked is can too much time in solitary confinement become cruel and unusual punishment? It’s a good question to ask, but then look how many questions we’ve asked about waterboarding and other forms of torture and it doesn’t seem to get us very far. I imagine that most would agree that days or weeks in solitary is incredibly cruel, much less decades. I don’t think there’s any way for us to even comprehend what that might be like. Wallace and Woodfox have been in soitary confinement longer then I have been alive…how can such a thing be possible?

The more vindictive among us will ask, hey, what did they do? Maybe they’re imagining Hannibal Lecter. I’m afraid it’s nothing like that. Horrifying conditions brought Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox together while in Angola to form a chapter of the Black Panther Party. They helped organize hunger strikes and worked to expose the conditions in the prison which included the open sale of prisoners into sexual slavery, a 96 hour work week for 2 cents an hour, segregated living quarters, inadequate food and medical care…their actions were enough to start some investgation and a series of hearings about the prison. Their actions were actually getting some heat put on prison officials and change was in the air.

I didn’t take long for Robert King Wilkerson to be convicted with another inmate in the death of a fellow prisoner. He served 29 years in solitary confinement. The courts released him in 2001 after overturning his conviction; 29 years in solitary for an innocent man. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted at almost the same time for the murder of a prison guard. NBC outlined the evidence showing their innocence, a commisioner has requested the courts to investigate the case, the guard’s widow is asking who really killed her husband. Angola prison seems to be a clear beneficiary, having cast aspersions on the three men’s characters and thereby their cause, and effectively isolated and silenced three voices for change.

NBC doesn’t go into that of course, does not mention the Angola 3 or the Black Panthers or the conditions that the three men were protesting in Angola, itself a former slave plantation…I suppose as always you have to find the real news in looking deeper into what they don’t tell you.

more info at http://www.angola3.org/

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2,widget=blogs&page=2&filter=popular